Starting your own solo law practice? When it comes to starting a small business, a law practice is one of the least-expensive options. A computer and a clear space on the kitchen table are about all you need. Well, almost. There are a few other things. In this article, I will lay out what you need to start up a solo law practice, plus a few nice-to-have extras. This is not a bare minimum, but I have left out things like registering an LLC or corporation ($160 in Minnesota), liability insurance (mine was $599 for my first year), and business cards and stationery (I don’t use stationery, but I buy my business cards from VistaPrint for $29.99/500).

This post proved to be quite controversial, and has generated over 100 comments. To get a more realistic picture of what it costs to start a law firm, read How Much it Really Costs to Start a Law Firm.

$3,000 too rich for your budget? Bitter Lawyer has a much-more-reasonable prescription for a $20 law practice!

Starting a Law Firm for Under $3,000

The following purchases will get you through your first year of solo law practice, at least, but the hardware should last far longer. If you shop wisely, your hardware should last at least 5 years, if not longer.

Assuming you do not already have a computer, printer and internet connection, your startup costs would be just under $3,000, leaving some room for miscellaneous supplies. If you do already have a computer and printer, you can convert them to business use and save $1,248.99 or more.

Even better, your second year overhead will drop to $837.60, since you will already have all the hardware you will need.

Computer

Obviously, you can’t do much without a computer. If you already have one, use that and save yourself about $1,000 in startup costs. If you do not already have one, get one. For the solo practitioner, a laptop is infinitely more useful than a desktop, particularly if you plan to have a paperless law office for greater efficiency and lower overhead.

For most people, a Mac just makes more sense. They last longer, are more secure, are easier to use, and have a variety of features that make them ideal for going from home to office to the courthouse. Sure, they are a bit more expensive, but if you outfit a PC with comparable components, you often pay more.

The Apple MacBook starts at $1,099.00. If you get a PC, don’t consider anything but a Lenovo. The other brands just don’t measure up, especially when it comes to durability and customer service. The ThinkPad T61 starts at $873.00 with an upgrade to Windows XP Pro or Vista Business (do not get the “home” versions, but feel free to upgrade to Ubuntu Linux). Equipped comparably to the MacBook, a T61 will cost $914.25.

Software

So you have a computer. Now you need a way to generate documents, keep track of contacts, tasks, and your calendar, and manage your accounting and billing.

To manage contacts, your calendar, and e-mail, you can use Outlook (Windows) or Entourage (Mac), but those cost money. Mozilla Thunderbird with Lightning is free and works just as well for most users. If you got a MacBook, the built in software is perfectly serviceable. Or if you installed Ubuntu, Evolution is a full Outlook replacement. Don’t spend money if you don’t need to.

The same goes for your document processing software. Openoffice.org (NeoOffice for Mac) is just as good as Microsoft Office, and free, to boot.

For accounting, I prefer GnuCash, which is free and available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, to the proprietary options like QuickBooks. GnuCash also has basic billing, but let’s assume you want something better. FreshBooks offers timekeeping and billing for $14/month, or $168/year. You could also opt for QuickBooks, at $169, which does accounting, rudimentary timekeeping, and billing. But QuickBooks wants to be upgraded every year, as well, so it is down to personal preference.

Backup

If you have a computer, you need a place to backup your files. Mozy gives you 2GB of online backup for free, and is a great option while you get going, since your business files probably will not take up anywhere near that much space.

If you are going paperless, you will want a local backup option, as well. Any external hard drive will do. I recommend one about five time the size of the files you need to back up. For most people this will not be very large, but something like the 500GB Western Digital MyBook is perfect at $142.99. It will last for years and hold your music, as well.

Copying, scanning, printing, and faxing

Stop right there. You thought I was going to recommend an all-in-one copier/printer/scanner/fax thingy. I’m not. They suck.

Get a scanner, printer, and fax service. You don’t need a copier, because a copier is more work than a scanner and printer. (With a copier, you have to make a copy every time you want one. If you scan the document the first time, you just print it out from there on.)

For a scanner, you cannot do better than the Fujitsu ScanSnap s1500, available for Windows and Mac (it works with Linux, as well, but other scanners may work better). For $429 (Windows) or $425 (Mac), you get a small, fast, duplexing document scanner and Adobe Acrobat Standard, which would run you $299 by itself.

Any laser printer will do, but I like the Lexmark E120n, which is a bargain at $149.99.

Save the money you would spend on an extra fax line, and instead just get an online fax service. There are free options, but to get a local number, you will have to pay. GreenFax is $12.95/month for inbound faxes and outbound faxes at $.07/minute. A $25 buy-in will last about two years for most people. That all adds up to about $180.40 for a year of service. A dedicated fax line, by contrast, would add up to about $672 for a year, not counting the fax machine and supplies.

Phone service

You could go with a regular land line, but at $56+/month, it is hardly a deal. Plus, it ties you to one location. A better location for mobile solo practitioners is Skype. While Skype is free, calling phones and getting calls from regular phones is not. A year of SkypePro and SkypeIn is only $43.20 when you buy SkypePro first. You will need a handset, headset, or standalone phone, as well. The Philips VOIP321 at $79.99 is nice, because you don’t need to connect through your computer.

You need an internet connection, of course. Let’s estimate that at $53.15/month, which is what I pay ComCast for cable internet. That adds up to $639/year.

Adding it all up: the $3,000 solo law office

This all adds up to less than $3,000 to start your own solo law practice:

$1,099 Computer
$169 FreshBooks or Quickbooks
$142.99 External drive
$429 Scanner
$149.99 Printer
$180.40 Fax service
$43.20 Skype
$79.99 Skype phone
$639 Internet

$2,932.57 TOTAL

Year 2

Keep in mind that a lot of these expenses do not continue from year to year. Assuming you don’t throw your computer out the window in frustration at some point, your continuing expenses are only for your fax service (minus $25, since you should have plenty of sending time left over), phone service, and internet, for about $837.60. Not bad.

(Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rmgimages/4881843809/)