Start a Law Firm in Law School

law-office

“The Hessian could be a restaurant, a start-up, a clothing brand or more.”
—Designer Ben Pieratt

Pieratt has created what I’m calling a “brand in a box.”

It’s a complete brand identity, as Tim Nudd writes for AdWeek, a business Pieratt named the Hessian. For a cool $18,000, you get pretty much everything you need (at least as far as branding is concerned), all before you’ve even got a product or service to sell.

It sounds quite foolhardy. It’s a lot like putting the cart before the horse.

But this Hessian brand-in-a-box business got me thinking. Why couldn’t you, an aspiring law student turned lawyer-entrepreneur, start a law firm before you’ve even graduated from law school?

3 Assumptions for the Ultimate Gunner

In order for this to work, we’ve got to make a few assumptions:

  1. You’re not risk-averse. Think about it: You don’t have a J.D. You might not pass the bar. But if there’s any time in your future lawyer’s life when you’re least risk-averse, it’s now, in law school.
  2. You’ve got to know why you went to law school in the first place. Read Tucker Max’s entertaining diatribe (why you should not go to law school). You’ve got to know in your gut that you want to be a lawyer and that you want to run your own firm.
  3. You’ll follow the rules. Do not actively market your legal services and engage in the unauthorized practice of law. Graduate from law school first. Get your J.D. Pass the bar in your jurisdiction and get your license.

Assuming these three things, what’s to stop you from “starting” a firm?

This is also known as getting your ducks in a row.

How to Get Your Ducks in a Row

The Hessian is your brand served on a silver platter.

According to Nudd’s AdWeek post, it includes:

  • Name
  • URL
  • Twitter account
  • Tumblr account
  • 20+ logo and other designs
  • 10+ T-shirt designs
  • 8 repeating patterns
  • 1 website theme
  • 1 app user interface theme
  • 5 app icons
  • Brand book w/ guiding principles
  • 30 hours custom design time

You’ve got to pay for that silver platter, but already you’ve got more than a lot of practicing lawyers, and you’re just a law student.

Of course, marketing and branding is not everything. You won’t need 10-plus T-shirt designs, but you will need a decent computer, a scanner like the Fujitsu ScanSnap to cut down on clutter and keep yourself organized, and plenty of moxie.

Check out Sam’s popular post on how to start a law firm for under $3,000.

Is this Doable?

I say yes.

Get everything—your name, your brand, website, blog, computer, scanner—ready for the launch date, i.e. the day your license to practice law arrives in the mail.

What’s to stop you?

If you want to be a lawyer-entrepreneur, start now. Start in law school.

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/netphotography/8471197539/)

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  • Craig

    Alright, I’ll bite. I need more information on this. I’m almost done with my 1L, but I’ve already had people asking me for services and advice (Which I have appropriately declined to offer). The only reason I went to college was so that I could go to law school. I want to run my own law office. I think I could do this for less than $18k.

    • Chris Bradley

      I think you can, too, in terms of startup costs. Once you’re really going, it’ll take a certain amount in monthly overhead, but that’s down the road. Startup-wise, you don’t need to do the Hessian $18K route. You can personally source all the things that Hessian offers: URL, logos, website, etc., and go from there. It will take you more time, but that’s not really an issue if you know why you went to law school in the first place, which you do.

  • http://www.juniperlawfirm.com/ Ben Pollock

    This post isn’t as theoretical as you might think. It’s exactly what I did this last year. I spent a year or more of nights and weekends during law school learning how to run a business and what’s needed to start a firm; I started to blog on legal topics about a year before; and I had a website ready to go live the day I was sworn in. I opened The Juniper Law Firm, PLLC on October 16, 2012, the same afternoon I was sworn in. I didn’t advertise my firm, but close friends and family were aware, and as a result I already had a couple clients the day I opened.

    • Craig

      Ben, since you have done this, I have two questions. First, how is your practice fairing at this point? Second, assuming that it’s doing well, what tips could you offer?

      • http://www.juniperlawfirm.com/ Ben @ Juniper Law

        Craig, it is actually going better than expected. Now, that’s not to say that I have a booming practice or that clients are beating down my door, but for a fresh grad I have had a decent amount of business. And because of my research on best practices for setting up an office on a tight budget, I was able to break even on my start-up costs in the first several months.

        I would give two pieces of advice: 1) stay lien – spend as little money as possible up front; you don’t need all the fancy tools that make your practice more efficient when you only have a few clients and you have a lot of time on your hands. And 2) pick a target community of clients for your practice area(s) and get involved. This has been the best source of clients so far – members of my target community who use me and refer my services because they feel like I “get them” and am dedicated to serving businesses like theirs because I get out and meet them and am active in their community.

  • static

    This is such a great idea, except I feel like something is missing. Something big. Something important. I wish I could think of what it could be.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/chrisbradley/ Chris Bradley

      Money?

      • static

        Money? Hmmm. No, that’s not it. It’s something else. Something more, you know, lawyerly. What could it be?

        • http://lawyerist.com/author/chrisbradley/ Chris Bradley

          Well, I suppose, static, that you’re referring to knowledge. That, my friend, can only be gained through time and experience—but a motivated law student could definitely get a jump start on knowledge during law school by working as a law clerk.

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

            Actually, I think he’s referring to the fact that law students are not lawyers, and cannot start a law firm. They can create business plans, network, and buy equipment, but they cannot sign retainer agreements, form business entities, or build websites for their future law firm. In fact, any contact a law student has with future potential clients is probably going to be misleading.

            I do think it’s a good idea to start working on a law firm before graduation, if that’s what you know you want to do. There are clinics for this purpose, in fact. But I think it is dangerous to do so without a fairly involved and experienced mentor.

            • http://lawyerist.com/author/chrisbradley/ Chris Bradley

              I disagree about the website part. Couldn’t you build a website and a blog, start working on content, and wait to publish it until it’s OK to do so? The website part is also time and labor intensive, so doing that during law school would be a good idea.

              • http://www.juniperlawfirm.com/ Ben @ Juniper Law

                Chris, I agree with you about the website. But based on my conversations with ethics experts while I was in law school about my blog, I don’t think there is anything wrong with blogging about legal topics even while in law school. And of course you would just have to be careful not to give “legal advice.” But even licensed attorneys would be wise not to give “legal advice” via a blog.

            • http://www.juniperlawfirm.com/ Ben @ Juniper Law

              I don’t think this post is talking about literally starting a law firm while in law school. I think he is referring to what I did. There is nothing wrong with having a web site built that isn’t actually launched. There is nothing wrong with hiring a graphic designer to design a logo for a future business that is not running yet. And as far as forming business entities: the time between when you get your bar results and you are sworn in is the perfect time to form a business entity. At that point there is no longer a doubt as to whether the business will open or whether you will be licensed; it’s just a waiting period.

              You can get all these things ready so that when you get your license you can “flip the switch” so to speak and make it all accessible to the public. But you are right, Sam, to note that these contacts with vendors could potentially be misleading. That is why I was sure to let them all know that I was not yet a lawyer (but once I knew I passed the bar I didn’t hesitate to tell them when I would get my license either).

              • static

                Well, of course there’s nothing wrong with getting s graphic designer to design the logo. After, you can’t start law practice without one. And really, once you’ve got a logo, you’re off the races.

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

                The time between getting bar results and getting your license is not just a waiting period. You aren’t a lawyer, yet. You cannot form a law firm or hold yourself out to the public as a lawyer (business filings are public, after all). You cannot agree to represent anyone or publish a website or blog that suggests you are a lawyer or that you are qualified to do legal work.

                • http://www.juniperlawfirm.com/ Ben @ Juniper Law

                  Sam, I don’t think we’re disagreeing here. A blog is a blog. It’s not a law firm. Disclaimers on every post and on the about page can tell people you are not a lawyer. Even licensed attorneys tell you their posts are not legal advice. If they were, they’d potentially have a client for every reader. And non-lawyers are allowed to give non-legal advice and even talk about the law. And, the time between getting the bar results IS just a waiting period. What else would it be? Of course you’re not a lawyer yet, that is what your are WAITING for. But there is nothing wrong with telling people during that time that you WILL be licensed (but aren’t yet) in two months after the bar is done shuffling paper around. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t know about too many people looking for attorneys via the Dept of State’s directory of businesses. And even if someone did find my business the week before I was licensed via that listing, they wouldn’t know how to contact me except via snail mail to the registered agent who would just tell them to come back in a week. You haven’t taken on any clients, so who is going to sue you for practicing without a license? Remember there is no website yet, no listing in the yellow pages, etc. The firm is not public yet, with the only exception being the business registration.

            • http://lawyerist.com/author/gyitsakalakis/ Gyi Tsakalakis

              So static is male?

              • static

                Sam will have to buy me dinner first to find out.

  • http://a-georgialawyer.com ageorgialawyer

    My comments:

    First, the ‘missing’ ingredient is passing the bar. In some places, just passing can be a 50-50% proposition. (CA, for example).

    Link to bar results:
    http://huslbarrister.com/1l-survival/the-bar/the-bar/passage-rates-by-state/

    It’s a good idea IMHO to already have your name .com, a twitter account, and a blog reserved. Get a ringcentral account now with a vanity #.

    Candidly, you won’t be found just on your name. Twitter won’t help you get clients. A blog could always be content as a law student, and then you add to it as an ESQ.

    The lawyer in a box might work in any of the umpteen specialties out there. I will tell you this – if you’re trying out litigation (as opposed to collection work) you will be eaten alive in motion practice, advocacy, and bill collection for your time. No law school prepares you for that. Same for PI.

    Having hired associates, you are better served not spending $15K you don’t have and consider this:

    As a 2L and 3L intern for a judge or law firm- for free. They get to know you, and you get experience. I interned for a USDCT Judge, and guess what? I was hired by another USDCT Judge.

    While waiting for bar results, offer to handle any task (including records review) for $25 an hour. Remember, it’s the experience you will need. And you will have a resume line.

    If no one, and I mean no one will take a chance on you, and you have truly beaten the bushes, and you won’t work in a restaurant, etc, do this as a last resort.

    Spend that $18K by:
    1)joining the local bar association
    2)Join a business group or 3
    3) spend some $$ on decent biz cards
    4)Go to yearly CLE’s – the FL bar for example has a yearly meeting with hundreds of lawyers across the state- spend the $$ on CLE. Law school won’t teach you “jury trial from start to finish” or the like in the way a practicing lawyer will.
    5)Read the legal papers for space sharing.

    Good luck. you will need it.

  • http://consumerlawyer.mn/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi Randall Ryder

    I know very few solo attorneys that started a firm directly after law school, so I think it’s a pretty dicey proposition.

    I think a better use of that time would be to find a solo attorney as a mentor. It’s not quite as easy as “I’m starting my law firm – yay!” Of course, that’s putting aside all the other potential pitfalls.

    • static

      I bet that’s exactly what Joseph Rakofsky said when he started his own firm.

    • Chris Bradley

      Most founders end up failing. It’s part of entrepreneurship. Which makes the story even better for lawyers, who start up and close down and partner up and switch firms all the time.

      That said, “starting” a firm during law school is not something that would fit most law students. Most law students are still thinking they’re gonna go to BigLaw after the OCI. Might as well get after it while you’ve got the opportunity. Very least, you know a lot more about a particular area of law—and some of what it takes to start a business—rather than spend three years in the library all the time gunning after the elusive OCI and BigLaw.

      • http://consumerlawyer.mn/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi Randall Ryder

        I think it’s an interesting idea—in theory. I certainly think you can develop some experience in a niche of the law and even start a blog. But a blog is not a law firm.

        Without experiencing the daily grind of client intake, current cases, marketing, accounting, computer issues, etc., I think it’s awfully tough to even know what it takes to start a firm.

  • Mary Street

    The first thing I thought too was what a waste of time and money if you fail the bar. In Michigan it was a 50/50 chance. And you are wasting time that you could be doing something else. I mean, how disappointing it would be if you failed the bar and then you also wasted all your time and money on setting up a business. I don’t think my ego could take it but I can see how some people would be fine with that risk.

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

      90% of small businesses fail within 5 years. Solo practices and small firms probably don’t fare much better. If 50-50 odds are enough to scare you away, starting a firm probably is not for you.

  • Audrey Brown

    Like Ben, I “started” my law firm before I was sworn in as a lawyer as well. I did not get a jump start while I was still in law school simply because I did not commit to the idea of hanging out my own shingle until after I had graduated and taken the Bar (and was waiting for the results), but if I had it to do over again I absolute would have started preparing earlier.

    The things I did to get “started” were:
    (1) Research and decide whether I was going to be a solo practitioner or an LLC
    (2) Once I had decided on an LLC, incorporated the LLC as soon as I received notice I had passed the Bar (but before I was actually sworn in as an attorney)
    (3) Chose my website domain name, registered in, and signed up with a webhosting service
    (4) Designed my website, so that it was ready to go live as soon as I was sworn in
    (5) Bartered with a graphic design friend to have a logo designed (sure, I didn’t need a logo, but it didn’t cost me anything, and I feel more professional for having it)
    (6) Bartered with a photographer friend to have professional headshots done (again, unnecessary, but they sure look nice on my website)
    (7) Identified startup technology and furniture that I already had (my laptop, with Adobe Pro and MS Office, laser printer, filing cabinet, a bookcase, etc.)
    (8) Kept an eye out for other office furniture, technology, etc. that I might need (so that when I moved into my dedicated office I had only spent about $300 for my desk, chairs, floor lamp, sideboard, and decorations)
    (9) Let everyone I knew know that I *would* be opening a firm as soon as I was licensed. I had one person that ended up finding a pro bono attorney, but prior to that was waiting to hear if I had passed the Bar because (s)he was going to hire me if I had. I had another person that as soon as I announced I had passed the Bar did hire me to handle a small matter.
    (10) Opened a post office box in the LLC’s name to have a dedicated address until I was able to lease an office
    (11) Used the post office box to put on business cards and ordered them to have on hand to pass out as soon as I was sworn in
    (12) Researched my banking options so that when I was sworn in I already knew which bank I was going to use for my operating and trust accounts
    (13) Got quotes on malpractice insurance and decided who I would be getting insured through; as soon as I heard I had passed the Bar I called my agent and he set me up so that my insurance went into effect the day I was sworn in
    (14) Networked, networked, networked!!!

    The day that I was sworn in, I handed out some business cards, and came home and published my website. Within a week I had opened my bank accounts, and created a facebook page and twitter account.

    Despite all this, things were a bit slow to get started. I was sworn in 11/13/12, and really didn’t have any clients in November or December. I started getting calls in January though. Right now, just over four months in, I have 4 active clients, a 5th potential, and a 6th potential that just called to tell me they’re running a bit late for our appointment.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/chrisbradley/ Chris Bradley

      Now this is a pretty darn good list. Thanks for sharing.

      • Audrey Brown

        It actually wasn’t even a complete list. I realized after I posted it that I forgot to mention:
        (15) Signed up for a google voice phone number. It’s 100% free
        (16) Signed up for a ringcentral.com fax number. That’s $9.99/month. I didn’t sign up for that super early, I think maybe in October, but I did sign up for it before I knew if I had passed the Bar so that I could put a fax number on my business cards. No contract, so I could have canceled the number if I hadn’t passed with only $10 or $20 lost.

        All told, I think Iaid out maybe $300-$400 before I actually knew if I had passed the Bar. $110 to incorporate the LLC, $60ish for my domain name and one year of webhosting, $9.99/month for 1-2 months of a fax service, $40ish for 500 business cards, $60ish for a po box for 6 months, maybe $100 in office furnishings.

        If you are still in school, think about whether you can see your way to spring for a new laptop (if the laptop you already have isn’t likely to survive much beyond a year or two more), and install Adobe Pro and Microsoft Office on it. They’re cheap for students, not so much for professionals.

        The really important parts for me though were figuring out what is involved in running a business, and networking, both of which can be free or at least very inexpensive.

        Find out if you can join your county’s bar association as a student member, *and attend their meetings/events*. If your law school has an event that will have local attorneys at it, GO. Participate in pro bono legal events as a student volunteer. If the court will let you, go observe hearings, and introduce yourself to the attorneys (and the judges, if you can).

        Tell everyone you know that you hope to open your own practice. Think about the activities you participate in. Do you go to church? Play a sport? Participate in a community theater or choir? All those people are potential networking opportunities, shamelessly let them know of your plans.

        Ask your school’s career services office what resources they offer or can recommend for a solo practitioner. Find out if your local public library has a business center, and/or ever sponsors classes or seminars on ownership. If you are female, there may be resources or programs in your area specifically for women entrepreneurs, look into it.

  • Craig

    I’ve been kicking this idea around a bit more, and this is a great list. I think I’m going to do it, but I’m probably going to try to partner with some other students from my school. We might be able to hire a secretary or a paralegal sooner that way and keep costs lower. I like the idea of using flat rates, but I don’t want to be stuck doing just flat rates. So, how do I figure out how much to charge/hour?