A little over a year ago, I moved to Highland Park, an up-and-coming neighborhood just outside of downtown Los Angeles. Other than one friend, I knew nobody in the area. I wanted to set up a local practice to reduce my commuting time in L.A. traffic. I also wanted to get in on the ground floor in a neighborhood undergoing change. Of course, setting up a new practice is not as simple as it seems. But here are a few things you can do to familiarize yourself with your new neighborhood and get your practice started.
Learn about the Community and Its Legal Issues
It helps to learn about the history of the community where you are living and the issues it faces today. This can give you ideas as to the legal needs of the area and whether your practice can meet those needs.
For many years, Highland Park had been a working class community with a large Latino population. But over the last few years, due to the housing scarcity in Los Angeles, professionals began to move into the area. In response, real estate investors bought existing properties, renovated them and resold them at a profit. Also, new small businesses have opened in the commercial part of the neighborhood. As a result, real estate values in Highland Park have skyrocketed.
But this has also resulted in higher rent prices for existing residents and businesses. The older businesses will have to charge higher prices. If their customer base cannot afford to pay the higher prices, then these businesses will have to close shop. Also, longtime residential renters who typically live on fixed income will have to make some tough choices. They have to pay more for rent, find a cheaper place to live, or make sure that their landlords obey rent control laws.
In the short run, real estate lawyers will be in demand, and they should make an effort to make themselves known in the area. Owners of rental properties will want to know how to legally get around rent control laws and break leases with existing tenants. Conversely, longtime renters will want to know how to protect themselves from arbitrary rent increases.
In the long run, if Highland Park changes to a middle-class suburb, there will be a need for local attorneys. Residents will need general legal services such has estate planning, business planning, and litigation.
Figure out if Your Practice Will Fit in (and Have a Backup Plan if It Won’t)
I am a tax lawyer, and Highland Park has many tax return preparation businesses which can be a great source of referrals. After speaking with a few of them, I learned that most of their clients are Spanish speakers, are W-2 employees, and few are business owners or independent contractors. Based on my experience, few will have serious tax problems, and for those that do, most cannot afford expensive legal fees.
I have also considered expanding my practice to meet the current needs of the community. Perhaps I can focus less on tax controversy work and more on providing basic tax planning advice through consultations. Or I could consider expanding my practice to include real estate work.
And, in case things do not work out, I could also target larger cities nearby such as Glendale or Pasadena. But just like many large cities, there are more attorneys and thus more competition for local clients.
Get to Know People, Particularly the Connectors
The next step is to start marketing your practice by announcing your presence. In my case, I began by meeting the owners of local businesses, tax preparers, and other attorneys in the area. Then, I looked for local business networking groups, such as the chamber of commerce. I attended some of the meetings, went to some of their social events, and talked to the board members and event coordinators. After speaking with them, I was able to get more information about the neighborhood trends. I got inside information regarding available office space and who to speak with to get deals.
While a lot of this involved going door-to-door during a hot L.A. summer, I was able to visit many up-and-coming bars and restaurants. I also checked local groups on Facebook and Yelp and participated in some of the discussions to help solve simple problems, discuss sports scores and to get my name out there. While it may take some time before I get to know everyone, it’s a start.
Should You Set up a Local Office?
At some point, you will have to meet with clients in your new city. There are several options. First, you can continue to use your current office address but offer to meet potential clients in the new location at their home or place of business. And some clients appreciate the house call. Until you build a local book of business, this can be the better choice to save costs if you are not relocating your practice too far away. The only drawback in my case is that I had to drive 40 miles to the office to pick up mail.
You can also set up a virtual office. You can use that office address to receive mail and use the conference room to meet clients. For solo practitioners with no employees who work primarily from home, this can be the ideal setup due to cheaper rent. Another option is to rent a traditional suite. While this will be more expensive, this might be the only option if you have employees or work more efficiently outside the house.
Consider Advertising Locally and Cheaply
Once the office decision has been made, the final step is to advertise your practice more broadly.
Try to get as much free advertising as possible. This is usually done by offering free seminars to community groups and short consultations to local businesses. Also, be sure to contact local newspapers and offer to write content for free. Most local newspapers are distributed for free. However, this means that they rely solely on advertising revenue and so may be reluctant to accept free content.
If you must pay for advertising, try to negotiate a reasonable, long-term price. When negotiating, keep in mind that advertising does not guarantee that clients will call or pay.
Did It All Pay off for Me?
During my one-year stay in Highland Park, I did my best to get to know the community, and advertise my services with the hopes of getting local clients. It did not result in an immediate flurry of phone calls or emails requesting a consult or representation and it will take some time before I establish myself in the community. There are many things beyond my control that will determine whether I will have a sustainable practice in the area, but at least I planted the seeds for future calls and referrals.