Tips for New Solo Attorneys

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In this legal economy, more and more attorneys are going solo. Some are recent graduates who are forced into hanging their own shingle. Others have ten years of legal experience at a big firm but need a change.

Regardless of your legal experience, here are some basic business tips to get things rolling.

Invest in your website

Recent studies have indicated that the consumers are increasingly likely to search for goods and services online. The good news is that creating a nice website is not as daunting as you think. If you have some tech-savvy, designing and maintaining your own site is very doable. If you elect to build your own, be sure to follow this checklist for creating your own website.

If you are willing to invest some money into your site, hiring a professional to design and maintain your site can be worth it. The upside is that you can have a really spiffy site fast. The downside is that it costs more and you may incur regular maintenance and upkeep fees.

A nice alternative is using an online service that can build an appealing site for less than a professional designer. Design experience and budget are important considerations, but make sure your site looks good.

Whatever route you choose, once your site is up and running, spend some time viewing your website through a multi-browser lens to make sure everything looks correct—not every potential client uses Chrome or Safari.

Find a support network

Ideally, share office space with experienced attorneys who work in a similar practice area. If you cannot find attorneys with similar practices, then find attorneys who you think can help mentor you. Even if you already have ten years of legal experience, you probably do not have ten years of business experience. Being able to walk across the hall and ask questions is invaluable—whether you are asking about accounting issues or procedural concerns.

As noted above, the ideal space will allow you to work around attorneys in the same (or similar) practice area. But you should also strive to find attorneys that you get along with and will feel comfortable around. If you do not feel comfortable enough to ask your office mate a question, you might as well work in solitude.

In this economy, you should be able to shop around for a space and find one that is best suited for what you want.

Network, network, network

For most attorneys, a large portion of their business is referrals from other attorneys. When you first start out, spending $40 on lunch might seem like a a tough expense to swallow. But compare that to time spend on other types of marketing—blogging and social media. Even though those efforts do not literally take money out of your pocket, that is time you could spend on something else. In other words, other types of marketing are not free.

If you needed an excuse to reconnect with old classmates and professors, this is it. Many times they will refer you to someone else who works in a similar area—someone who can potentially refer cases down the road.

If your pocketbook is completely pinched, then suggest having coffee or grabbing a drink during a cheap happy hour. The point is to spread the word and get the buzz going. It might take some time, but it will pay off.

Whoever you talk to, be sure to tell them what types of cases you want—which makes it even easier for them to refer the right cases.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/geminder/201932351/)

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  • Jay

    Thanks for the tips. I often consider going solo, but the unknowns of what I can really expect revenue wise keeps me from doing so. Any resources that give a good indication of first year + revenues for a 7-8 year attorney starting a solo?

  • http://bunkerlawgroup.com/the-las-vegas-nevada-small-business-blog/ Ben Bunker

    While this is obvious, it bears repeating: keep your overhead low. I’m using a virtual office to keep my monthly costs below $400. Any advertising or other costs are up to me and what I can afford for the month. This makes it a little less stressful each month as I don’t have to scrounge up that many clients to cover my rent. On top of that I was able to get a very good address in town that adds credibility to my practice. It was a lot cheaper than dropping $2k a month on an office. I work from home most of the time.

    Start-up costs are a whole different story. In order to reduce that pain, I’ve been slowly purchasing the items I would need to go solo over time (laptop, printer, scanner, books, etc.). I also have gone paperless, thereby reducing costs. Once I felt everything was in place, I struck out on my own. I haven’t been out on my own long, but I’m encouraged thus far.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/randallryder/ Randall Ryder

      If there is one thing every solo attorney says it is “keep your overhead low.” Sounds like you have done an awesome job of that.

  • Jay

    Okay, how do you keep monthly costs at $400? Do you not have health insurance, malpractice insurance, bar dues, marketing costs (even if just networking lunches), paper and supplies, ink, etc?

    I definitely appreciate the Lawyerist for tips on saving on costs and practice management. Does anyone have a good, realistic, budget? I’m drafted my own, but its hard to understand how realistic it is. Also, I’m still not sure on revenue. If I bill just 20 hours per week, and collect 80% of that, I’d be doing great. Seems very attainable, but somehow it seems like I’m missing something.

    • http://ethicsmaven.com/ Eric Cooperstein

      There’s nothing wrong with your math. The problem for most solos who don’t succeed is getting enough clients to consistently generate 20 hours per week of work. Of those who do get the clients but don’t succeed, insisting on being paid is often the problem.

      It’s impossible to say how quickly you could get up to speed without knowing a lot about your practice area, how many clients might follow you if you left your firm, whether you have the personality to develop a referral network, etc. Consider taking some solos you know to lunch and ask lots of questions about how they got started, where their clients come from, etc.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      $400 per month is ambitious, but not entirely unreasonable. A while back, I wrote about starting a law firm for $3,000. That didn’t include rent or insurance, but it’s doable.

      Malpractice insurance is less than you think. Bar dues are what they are, of course. Marketing depends on how you decide to do it. And if you go paperless, you should be able to minimize supplies.

    • http://bunkerlawgroup.com/the-las-vegas-nevada-small-business-blog/ Ben Bunker

      Jay,

      In answer to your questions: currently no health insurance; don’t need malpractice insurance (don’t have any assets and I don’t do litigation); marketing costs may vary $200 a month, it’s up to me what I spend; don’t really use paper and supplies, ink as I’m paperless; bar dues would be an annual cost, not monthly; I did my own website and that draws most of my clients right now as opposed to networking/referrals (I hope that changes with time).

      Don’t confuse start-up costs with monthly costs. I had to sink a lot of money into a computer, printer, laptop, books, etc. As I explained prior, that was done over time. I also do only flat-fee and subscription billing, so I’m paid upfront. I’m not using a billable hour/retainer model, so that immediate payment helps.

      My $375 a month covers my virtual office, which includes: live receptionist, mail and package receipt, 16 hours a month of conference room use, local phone number, real address (it has good cache, as I’m located where many other prestigious law firms are), and a few other minor details (http://www.businessuites.com/center/?id=13). I work from home and meet with clients at the office. I don’t have any employees to pay for and do almost all my correspondence is via email or phone. At $375 a month I can keep my doors open and continue meeting with clients/potential clients. Granted, I can’t eat or pay any other bills, but coming up with $375 a month is fairly doable to keep my business open.

  • Jay

    Thanks for the comments. 20 / week seems like nothing; a third of my billings now; but I think I’m underestimating the difference in perception of a solo vs a mid-sized firm. Actually meeting with a long time solo tomorrow. Need to build up the confidence to pull the trigger.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Of course, as a solo, you’ll spend about a third of your time on administrative tasks, and potentially another third on marketing. If you can get in 20 hours per week of actual work, you’re doing pretty well. Of course, if you bill by the hour, you’ll never do any better, either.

      • http://lawyerist.com/author/kevinhouchin/ Kevin Houchin

        Agreed. I think it’s smarter to plan on averaging about 3 hours of “billable” (if you’re on that model) a day. Sometimes between life, family, marketing, admin, and sanity, you’ll be lucky to get in 90 minutes for the things that absolutely must happen that day, and that 90 minutes will come after you put the kids to bed.

  • Jay

    Thanks Sam. That’s step 2. I currently need to figure out step 1: freeing myself from the chains, but in a way I can support my family.

  • Steve Miller

    In addition to the relatively new Clio, Rocket Matters and Advologix cloud-based systems, the mega legal service providers have also acknowledged the needs of the solo/very small legal practice. LexisNexis has announced its new product “Firm Manager”, a cloud-based SAAS, which provides many of the functions found in its flagship practice management product Time Matters®,for only $59 per month per user. This is much less than the entry cost for Time Matters of $950/$550. You can read more about Firm Manager here: http://www.myfirmmanager.com/ . [The writer is a Time Matters Certified Independent Consultant.]

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Given the low quality of LexisNexis’s other software products (Time Matters in particular), I’m not particularly optimistic for Firm Manager. The fact that LexisNexis doesn’t even post screenshots on its website suggests that it doesn’t think very highly of Firm Manager, either.

  • http://www.lawinkc.com Carrie Sue Doxsee

    I have had my own shingle for 4 years now. The first 3 years I was office sharing and now have my own space. I watched other attorneys start their own offices or partnerships but they were out within a year. Here are my words of wisdom—control your costs and talk to tech guys before you make a move.
    1. Setting up a phone system may take 60 days. If you are office sharing, I would still establish your own number because you can always forward it to the shared receptionist. This way you have your own identity. You would only need one number and you can use an online service like Vonage which is pretty cheap. VOPI numbers are great but you really need to make sure that the company is going to work for you. Some of these companies will tell you their lines will work for a fax but for the large faxes we get…do no assume they are correct. My company’s own tech people advised me that it would not work for me. Let me tell you, having phone problems will be a nightmare. However, if you start off with a good tech guy who knows phones and computers it will be the best money you spend.
    2. Spending money on a website. Be careful. I used two options simultaneous to try to get my own website up and performing in that first 6 months to be out of the sandbox. I paid one of the companies that specializes in legal websites (won’t mention names). The company who creates it might own the content and then you are kind of held hostage a little bit to do something else. If you use a firm to set up the website it might look great but if the back links are not there, you will not perform well. Right now I am trying some SEO and can update anyone on that progress.
    3. Advertising. There are so many options out there. I have used Total Attorneys and a few others. You have to understand that on the pay per lead that the leads are cold call leads. You may pay $1K for the month and only get one or two clients out of it. For some of us that is one client who will pay for the monthly cost. You just have to look at it from a business perspective which does not always come easy for attorneys. This was the best advice I received from my husband who is the king of sales. Make sure that you put in the time for follow up. Some of the services provide easier email options to batch out your follow up. You often have someone who was interested 6-9 months before resurface.

    I feel like I could go on for an hour of all the mistakes I made. What a learning experience. However, my office is still open. It may not have expanded as fast as I had hoped but I am pretty much on target with my 3 and 5 year goals. I was able to add a secretary and then to afford someone with some experience. Being able to go to my kids many sporting events is well worth it. There is no way I would have made it without a couple of great tech friends who helped me– thanks John and Dan. Plus having some attorneys to keep encouraging me was a HUGE gift.

    One other quick tip…there are some options for remote access that is not a full blown server. This is a MUST since you will be working from home to keep up. The cost is well worth it and not as expensive as you might think. I use hamachii.

    Good luck!!! Remember that it can be done and you can do it. Don’t go crazy on the expenses and you will be fine.

  • http://jakubowitzchuang.com/ William Chuang

    When you’re networking, don’t forget that referring cases to other lawyers may be a good way to get experience and also some referral fees. It’s a two-way street. If you refer cases to another lawyer, he’ll have an incentive to pay you back.

    As far as websites, keep your costs low. I have heard of beginning solo attorneys spending $1,000 a month for professional websites and maintenance and online advertising. I just can’t imagine that that’s a good idea. Spend some time with WordPress and you can make a decent looking website that you can keep updated without paying someone—you can always update your phone number or picture.

    Google Apps Premier is definitely worth the fifty dollars a year. You get a great bundle of services including a calendar and reliable mail that gets pushed to your mobile device. Google Cloud Connect was just released, and this lets you store your documents on Google servers in Word.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/randallryder/ Randall Ryder

      For attorneys who are not comfortable using WordPress, I think it makes sense to pay a reasonable amount for a website. If you can get a friend to help you create a website for a couple hundred bucks, that can be more cost-effective than spending four hours a day on your site (and still have it look bad).

      Google Apps Premier is an excellent service—and I have an upcoming post on Google Cloud Connect.

      • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

        I’m ashamed to say this is the first I’ve heard of Cloud Connect. And now I’m fired up to learn more!

    • http://ethicsmaven.com/ Eric Cooperstein

      @william In many jurisdictions, pure referral fees are prohibited. Lawyers have to either work on the case or assume joint liability for it.

      @Ben Regarding expenses, you wrote “don’t need malpractice insurance (don’t have any assets and I don’t do litigation).” This is very short-sighted. Transactional matters are a huge source of malpractice claims and may result in greater liability than litigation cases, which may be harder to prove. You may have no assets now, but do you still plan to have no assets in 10 years when the plaintiff renews its judgment against you? How will you afford the expense of hiring an attorney to defend you, even if the claim is frivolous? I suppose you could do it yourself but its a bad idea, particularly if you don’t do litigation.

      Also, if someone is doing a budget, annual costs should be divided by 12 and included. I think bare minimum monthly costs for a new law practice must include, in addition to attorney registration fees and malpractice insurance, funds for a cell phone, postage and copies, CLE courses, and computer-related expenses (web hosting, e-fax service, document backup).

      I have a fairly stream-lined practice. Excluding personal choices such as my downtown office rent, the two out-of-town conferences I typically attend each year, non-critical computer equipment and furniture purchases, an expensive treatise I subscribe to, and business lunches, my monthly expenses are around $600 / month. $200 / mo of that is bar dues, license fees, and malpractice insurance.

  • http://blog.ceb.com/ Julie Brook

    We just posted Ten Ways To Make Your Law Practice Successful on our blog. http://blog.ceb.com/2011/02/23/ten-ways-to-make-your-law-practice-successful/

    Most of the tips are relevant to solo practitioners. Hope this is helpful!

    Julie

  • http://ceb.com/ Julie Brook

    For more tips on setting up a successful solo practice, check out Continuing Education of the Bar’s complimentary program Suddenly Solo—Are you Ready?, available On Demand — and Califonia attorneys will even get 1.25 MCLE credit in ethics!

    http://www.ceb.com/CEBSite/product.asp?calling_page=CLEProgramsDisplay.asp&catalog_name=CEB&menu_category=CLE+Courses&main_category=CLE+Program&sub_category=CLE+Programs+Practice+Skills&category_name=&product_id=MI54814&Page=1

    • JDSlacker

      Unfortunately that link is password protected for California bar members only :-/

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/kevinhouchin/ Kevin Houchin

    Shameless self-promotion alert!!!!

    And get a copy of Kevin Houchin’s book: http://tinyurl.com/y6yrduh

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/kevinhouchin/ Kevin Houchin

    Now, for the non-promotional input:

    Don’t pay for advertising unless your practice is a “retail” practice – bankruptcy, PI, disability, etc where the first lawyer to get the call usually gets the case.

    If you can, avoid getting caught in the hourly billing trap. Try to price projects at what they’re worth, or if you serve small businesses like I do, then try to implement a year-long flat-monthly “Membership” services program. You can download my client agreement and learn a bit more about that process at http://www.spacebetweencenter.org

    Finally: find where your target audiences gather and go give a presentation. Write blog posts and articles that establish your expertise. If you do that, then the right clients will find you and call you first.

    Of course, then you need to motivate yourself to do the actual work, which for me is never as fun as the writing, speaking, & networking as evidenced by the fact that I’m posting here instead of drafting the contracts on my to-do list. So, I’d better get to that.

  • Jay

    Wow, thanks for all the great comments. I’m a business lawyer for small to mid-sized businesses. I do bill on flat fees, but I’d really like to learn how you setup the year-long, monthly services programs. I have considered forms of earned retainers, but you need alternative price points with different levels of services depending on the needs / budget of the client base.

    • http://bunkerlawgroup.com/the-las-vegas-nevada-small-business-blog/ Ben Bunker

      Jay,

      Get in touch with Kevin Houchin. He’s got some great resources on alternative billing. He was instrumental in getting me going (thanks again, Kevin!).

      If you want any more information, feel free to email me. I have a spreadsheet of my business expenses I can send you, too.

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/kevinhouchin/ Kevin Houchin

    Join the lawyerist lab. We had a webinar scheduled yesterday (didn’t pan out due to an understandable mistake in time conversions between Colorado and New Zealand…) for me to give out the details of how I implemented the flat fee membership model for solos serving small business clients. We’re working to reschedule that for sometime soon. It’s a benefit of Lab membership.

  • http://www.alpharettapersonalinjuryfirm.com Amy

    My PI attorney husband started up in November 2010 with little to no resources and yes, I can attest that the start up expenses were not cheap. Because we are “retail,” we did invest in a professionally-done website with SEO @$1000/month (we are not tech savvy enough yet). We also made the determination that most people are online and thus we have no print ads anywhere. I have to disagree that a decent looking website is all one needs- not in the highly competitive PI world! If a potential client can’t find your website, what good is it?

    The way we keep overhead down is: he works at home (he loves it, actually), we use a Google Voice # right now for the firm and as a non-practicing PI attorney myself, I can help answer the phone, talk to clients the few times he’s not available, and take care of marketing/advertising/PR, as well as do research for the blog. The firm “rents” an address and use of a conference room informally through a colleague, and for much less than one of those office companies. He pays a small amount to another colleague to use LexisNexis. We print our own letterhead and envelopes and used an online company for inexpensive yet nice-enough business cards.

    What I’m finding is that advertising and marketing costs can get out of hand if you let them. When clients don’t start rushing the door, it’s tempting to go to print advertising, or try to sponsor every local sponsorship there is. However, we’ve decided to do a 3-month Adwords campaign to find some new clients while our website starts appearing consistently in organic searches. We’re hoping a smart adwords campaign will pay for itself, that’s the gamble.

    If I could change anything right now, I’d try to find an affordable way to have our firm calls answered 100% of the time – we miss a call or two here and there with our current Google voice “system.” I haven’t found a satisfactory service or solution yet that meets my requirements.

    We’re learning on the fly, had to form the firm on the fly (when a partnership dissolved) so this is all a work in progress.

  • http://www.reachlocal.com/ Brad Cooper

    Thank you, Randall. These are good tips and agree that an attorney’s website is an important component to have right away.

    Also, I realize your recommendation on Flavors.me was from last year, but we also have a free web site builder specially designed for new solo attorneys:

    http://info.realpractice.com/myrp-custom-free-websites/
    http://my.realpractice.com/

    New solos can use it to get a website in minutes for free — it also helps them to get, manage and bill their clients with marketing and matter management built right in.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I think using pre-made templates like these is a terrible idea.

      Although, I suppose if your website is in bad shape, it’s probably better than nothing (or what you have).

      • http://www.reachlocal.com/ Brad Cooper

        Hi, Sam. Thanks for commenting.

        Your author for this article (and attorney at your firm, I think?), recommended the template option as a nice alternative to expensive (my word) custom made sites. So I’m just agreeing with him and letting folks know we have something similar to his flavors.me recommendation, but one that is designed specifically for law firms.

        How does a potential client know or care that a lawyer is using a template for their site vs. one that is “custom made”? It is pretty simple, they don’t.

        The more terrible idea is when firms spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to hire someone to build a “custom” website, but then zero investment (outside of hoping for SEO) to actually get potential clients to *visit* the site. Even more terrible is spending thousands on a website to make it look pretty, only to have it not be optimized for conversion (i.e. to get potential clients to reach out to the firm to hire them).

        Would you prefer a nice, template-based website with $5,000 invested in marketing? Or would you prefer a $5,000 website with no money invested in marketing? =)

        Best regards,
        Brad

  • Jay

    Revisiting this topic. I can get my monthly budget, including pro-rated monthly share of annual expenses, and including Health, Business, Life/Disb, Malpractice insurance, down around $3,000 per month ($3500 counting loan interest if I add a LOC). $400 seems quite aggressive (read quite risky for lack of insurance). Unless I’m really over budgeting for insurance costs, which I have yet to obtain quotes on, but I’m basing it off what my firm pays for me now. I must say that I’m quite impressed that you all can keep the budget so low.

  • Bob

    My advice is if you don’t have enough money to do it right, don’t do it at all. You don’t want to give off an unprofessional vibe. As a new lawyer with no experience clients will already be weary of hiring you. Even more so if you are young and just out of law school. If you have a legit office and marketing you can make it work. But if you are going to meet them at Starbucks or your spare bedroom or at some virtual office, don’t even bother. You will just give off a bad vibe to potential clients and other lawyers

  • Andrew Matthew

    @Bob
    Been making it work (right out of law school) meeting clients in their homes and a virtual office for the last four years. If you’re out there, you’ll find a TON of people are fed up with paying for what they consider the trappings of corporate America, which includes those large firms. I do absolutely zero marketing outside of my website, relying strictly on clients’ word of mouth. I almost never finish a matter without the client asking for business cards to pass along to friends. The key is be yourself, enjoy yourself, be honest with clients, and EDUCATE your clients while you’ve got them in front of you. Clients love being let in on the secret – they understand exactly what I’m doing for them and appreciate my fees for what they are, because my overhead only includes things that actually benefit them. They aren’t paying for partner lunches or cherry furniture, rather just the costs of doing their business and the profit of the man sitting with them during the whole process.