I am, like many people who have chosen to enter into the legal profession, by nature an arrogant person. I have lived for years with an over-inflated sense of my own abilities and intelligence. While law school did a marvelous job of tempering my ego, nothing truly terrified me until I started my own practice straight out of law school.
There are countless reasons for starting a law firm right out of law school, and while most of my friends and family may not believe it, hubris was not my main reason; though it has helped me to meet the challenges in the first year in business. Simply put, I started my law firm because of two factors: 1) an ability to find clients, and 2) an inability to get responses to the hundreds of resumes and applications I sent out. I have always known I would have my own firm one day… I just assumed that day would come after about 5 to 10 years learning the practice of law in a nice medium sized firm. Instead, I am now learning all the practical skills needed as a lawyer and as a small business owner. Starting a law firm has been both terrifying and rewarding.
The rewards of starting a law firm are mostly the clichés that people talk about when they are fantasizing about starting their own small business. The most obvious reward is that I work for myself. I have only one partner, and we eat what we kill. There are no minimum billable hours to worry about, no senior partner to impress, and no worry about the impact on my ability to make partner if I decide to take a day off to take my daughter to the zoo. Owning my own firm has allowed me the time to be a part of my daughter’s life, and to have a life other than my career.
Additionally I have yet to take a client who I did not want to work with. I will never have a partner dump a difficult or annoying client on my desk, nor will I have to suffer through a few years of doing research on inane areas of the law which I have no interest in ever practicing. I am able to limit the scope of my practice, and choose my clients so that much of my work revolves around issues I am personally concerned with. The ability to modify my hourly rates, and my ability to maintain a statewide practice allowed me the ability to represent non-profit groups I support, and individuals working on projects I care about.
And finally, there is really nothing quite as wonderfully ego stroking as having your own name on the letterhead, company logo, website, and business cards. Every junior associate and new lawyer will spend their career creating a name for themselves. I am spending the same time developing my own brand.
Of course, the first and most terrifying aspect of starting a law firm is the fact that IT IS MY NAME ON THE LETTERHEAD! There is no “go to” partner who can fix my youthful mistakes or to temper my ignorance. My reputation as a lawyer is on the line with
everything that goes out of the door with my letterhead on it. Mistakes on a brief, or a filing are all mine: there is no one reviewing my work. Competency is my ethical requirement, so I spend hours which I can’t bill out to my clients if I have any hope of keeping my fees “reasonable,” researching legal issues and obsessing over documents to squeeze out as many errors as possible.
As a lawyer in a small firm there are limited opportunities to bounce ideas off of other attorneys. Thankfully I live and work in a legal community which makes itself available to answer questions and give guidance to young lawyers. Finding a mentor, or a group of experienced lawyers willing to help you over the shoals of the transition from law student to lawyer is vital for anyone thinking of starting a law firm right out of law school.
Any new law firm is a business, and the first time you lose track of that fact is the first time you will feel the financial repercussions. The first month I paid my nanny more than what I was able to bill my clients was the second terrifying aspect of my new firm. The benefits of no minimum billable hours requirement, and the ability to take time off are only illusions. As any small business owner can tell you, there is NO such thing as time off. If I am not working, there is no money coming in the door. If I don’t spend part of my time in any given month, focusing on the basic business issues—marketing, accounting, office management, networking—then I am going to spend the next month with nothing to do but spend my time marketing. I’ve heard it only takes 90 days for cash flow to dry up at an established law firm. Try ignoring marketing in a first year law firm and the time it takes cash flow to dry up is closer to two weeks. Start a small business and it will be the most selfish and jealous mistress you will ever know.
As a small business owner I get all of the credit and all of the stress. Truthfully, you will need to have the entrepreneurial spirit to succeed in starting a law firm just out of school. Few people know how to run a successful small business, and no one coming out of law school has all of the refined skills gained through years of trial and error in the practice of law. You need overweening confidence and a healthy ability to ignore stress brought on by early struggles.
Terror, the pure terror of starting a law firm, is the perfect motivation for success. Those of you who have gone to law school and studied for a bar exam, know the motivational power that terror of failing something so instrumental to your life that it is all consuming can have. To-do lists, daily goals, and pictures of my beloved family never motivate me as much as the student loan bill that comes in the mail.
The grim truth of the matter is that most small business fail within the first few years. If you don’t like feeling the cool breeze on your ass you had better find a position with a firm that will cover your tukkis. If you like the breeze… drop trou and hang your shingle.
Todd Williams practices energy and regulatory law at the firm Williams & Moser in Toledo, Ohio.