Law School Discussion

Solo Practice Advice

Solo Practice Advice
« on: June 16, 2012, 12:11:54 AM »
Are there any attorneys who have real experience with the development and management of a solo/small firm and would like to share their experiences, common pitfalls, etc.?

If you're currently a law school student, no disrespect intended, but I'd prefer not to hear from you unless you can add more to the discussion than run-of-the-mill biglaw versus sh*tlaw comparisons.

Re: Solo Practice Advice
« Reply #1 on: June 16, 2012, 01:22:21 PM »
I have not started a solo practice, but I worked at a small firm during college. When I started the firm was just a year old and comprised of two lawyers, both about three years out of law school. They had both obtained experience in civil litigation with mid/big firms before striking out on their own. Within another year they grew to five lawyers, and focused on entertainment.

The biggest hurdle (not surprisingly) was getting clients. They wanted to do entertainment law and had some great contacts in the industry, but still took in cases ranging from business disputes to divorce. I remember that they spent at least as much time drumming up business as they did billing hours. It was tough, and they worked very, very long hours. When you don't have much of reputation it can be difficult to obtain referrals, so they were constantly working to make contacts at local bar meetings, civic organizations, you name it. They kept costs down by doing most of the secretarial/paralegal work themselves.

All of the attorneys at that office knew that the needed to build up a good rep, and they went the extra mile to provide truly excellent service. By the time I left the referrals were starting to come in and they firm was growing.

Re: Solo Practice Advice
« Reply #2 on: June 18, 2012, 02:01:10 PM »
I'll start with the caveat that I'm not an attorney (yet!), BUT I come from a family of attorneys and have watched the evolution of their practices.  So, FWIW, here are two thoughts:

1.  Once you figure out how to get clients (which is the hardest part, although turning out quality work is the foundation), don't get bogged down in the small details.  As soon as your practice has legs, consider purchasing some basic software that can help you keep all the balls in the air.  That way, you can spend more time on client pitches and delivering great work product as opposed to figuring out invoices (of course, invoices are also a part of a business, but a part that eventually shouldn't need as much focus).   Here are some software resources:

2.  Consider office-sharing arrangements so you can keep your overhead low until your practice is established.  My brother shared office space, legal secretaries, and even research associates with other solos.  I'm in SV, so maybe more "technologically progressive" on the start-up front but can be good for small administrative tasks. 

3.  Don't try to be everything to everyone.  If your practice includes (for example) intellectual property litigation and divorces, would-be clients would likely question your competency at either.  Thus, a carefully-edited website is part of the "credibility calculus"  (although, you can always tell clients in person that although your practice is focused on "Area X" you also work on "Area Y" in consultation with other colleagues--that way you're telling them that you can still service them in Area Y without making them think "Yeah, right."  They appreciate the sincerity...)

Hope that's somewhat helpful.  Good luck!

Re: Solo Practice Advice
« Reply #3 on: June 18, 2012, 03:59:40 PM »
Thanks to Roald and GlenRPierre for your comments.

I'm not planning to start a jack-of-all-trades practice. I plan to add to my expertise in a specialized area of real estate law. I worked as a paralegal in this type of practice before attending law school. In fact, I did most of the work (preparing and filing the complaints, motions, etc.) and the attorneys just signed my work product and attended the rare hearing, if need be. I was personally billing well over $30,000 a month for the firm. I, of course, only received a small portion of that sum for my salary. To top it off, I only worked about 30-32 hours a week.

The business model is low-cost, high-volume. Most attorneys kind of fall into this practice rather than pursuing it while in law school. Thus, they tend to already have a cumbersome and expensive infrastructure and payrolls when they finally realize the fullness of the opportunity.  To compete with these established firms, I plan to keep my overhead bare bones, so I can undercut the pricing of every firm in the city doing this type of work. Also, clients already know that the paralegals at these firms do the lion's share of the work, but are still paying hourly "attorney" rates for the work done. Many are bitter, of course. So my pitch will be, "yeah, I'm a freshly-minted attorney, but who would rather have working your case, a new attorney or a paralegal? And besides that, my fees are 1/3 of what you're paying now to have a paralegal work your case."

I knew I wanted to attend law school before working at this firm, but decided to work as a paralegal first to sort of "kick the tires." What is so particularly appealing about this type of law is that it doesn't require a lot of office overhead or an enormous advertising budget to get clients in the door. Because most clients seldom come to the office to meet with attorneys (daily business is generally handled by phone or email), I can get by with a small office or even a virtual office space at first. And I expect the advertising costs will be next to nothing.

I've been researching law management software and I really like Rocketmatter--especially with the addition of the new document assembly function. And it's dirt cheap. I think it's about $60 per month.

I also tested Clio. I didn't like it quite as much as Rocketmatter. It seemed less user-friendly, but I'm not all that "tech" savvy either.

I think one of my largest monthly costs will be malpractice insurance. Does anyone know the ballpark cost of malpractice insurance for solos? I think it largely depends on practice area. From what I've found it can range from $600-$1,500 a month.