Going Solo: Getting started in your law practice

By Micah Buchdahl, Esq.

As seen in Lawyers Weekly

Bad news for those of you that have their J.D. in hand, and recently been admitted to the bar—three to four years of law school, galling finals, the bar exam—was the easy part. Now, you actually have to practice law, and for some the most rewarding method is to hang a shingle, and go it solo.

Most of my colleagues are in agreement that the best advice for your first years of practice is to get some substantial grounding in the field of your choice. It might be in the high-pay, glamorous large firm, where the money is great, the hours stink and you can best be found in the library for a couple of years. The small firm provides less pay and even less glamour, but gives you a chance to actually do things like meet clients, go to court, and actively learn each needed component of being a practitioner. However, many build successful law practices right out of the gate!

Before you get started

Never underestimate the value in doing proper market research and planning before spending a dime. First, determine the areas of law you wish to practice. Second, figure out your client base. These two factors will lead to office location. Do you need to be easily accessible to public transportation? To the courthouse? Does location matter?

“I located my office near a state line, where I am in the middle of Maryland, DC and Virginia. This gives me a greater possible client base, and allows for more referral business between attorneys,” said attorney A. Burman Berger, who went solo after spending eight years with a small firm. “For many starting out, it is wise to get office space near the courthouse you will spend time in, just to access the library.”

Just as we always urge people to “consult an attorney” before moving forward with legal issues, attorneys should always “consult an accountant” to figure out the best way to set up your business—sole proprietorship, c-corp, etc.—for your best tax options.

Business essentials to get rolling

The last thing you want is to encounter any problems with the State Bar in your early years. Be sure to have adequate malpractice insurance. A $500,000 limit policy will get you started in many jurisdictions. Open those two bank accounts—one for your business and one for client funds. Commingling is one of those areas where some lawyers get themselves in hot water. Make sure you figure out the health insurance issue. If a spouse can cover you, it makes like a little easier. You are almost ready to start.

In finding office space, Berger suggests subletting. You can expect to move at least once in your early career, as you figure out needs for space and location for your clientele.

“The last thing you want is a long-term lease. Your Bar Association will have lists of attorneys looking to sublet space to colleagues. This not only cuts down on overhead, but those other attorneys are often a source of referral business. They have fax machines and copiers and resources you would not have early on,” said Berger.

Most solos starting out do not immediately obtain support staff, but keep the possibility in mind when selecting office space. Also, spend little (even rent or borrow) furnishings.

Where you should never skimp is on a high-powered computer. In this day and age, technology allows small firms to do things not conceivable just a few years ago. Berger says his desktop, loaded with word processing, PCLaw Jr. for accounting and bookkeeping, and Amicus Attorney for contact and calendar management are lifesavers. Make sure your software “talks” to one another. The computer is your lifeline.

Sole Practitioner Michael Large suggests looking for chances to “cut your teeth” by involving yourself in projects such as Homeless Advocacy and indigent representation. He also advises getting to know the court clerks that may be able to provide prisoners’ rights cases and assist with court-appointed work. It is the best place to hone your craft.

While Large mentioned not being able to live without his state practice books (encyclopedias of knowledge he did not yet possess), and Berger advises using the court libraries, I suggest that high-speed Internet access and a web browser will provide both free and paid research options without having to buy many books, software or research subscriptions.

Marketing your practice

When launching the practice, the place NOT to save money is on professional business cards, letterhead and an announcement. Be sure that the announcement is sent to everybody you know. Family, friends and colleagues will initially provide your first clients.

In marketing yourself, get involved in as many appropriate organizations as possible. Alumni networks, state and local bars, community and charitable entities are key places to develop referral business. Good PR, through speaking engagements, publishing articles and donating some pro bono time are not only cost-effective, but usually more effective.

Early on, you may hesitate to sink large amounts into general and yellow pages advertising. Some firms swear by it. Others find it wasteful. It really depends on your practice and client types. The best investment is a solid online marketing plan, that includes buying a proper domain name (for your web site and professional e-mail address), getting a site up and running, looking for some cost-effective directories and search engines for traffic, and making sure your Internet presence is in the running for surfers.

Large used the term “working without a net,” when describing his solo start-up experiences. Berger said it is the process of “trial and error.” Everyone agrees that there is no greater feeling in the world than building your own business and being your own boss. In the end, be sure to follow your state's ethical considerations, especially in regard to lawyer advertising. And remember that good lawyering, client service response, and competence will be the true keys to getting off to a great start. Good luck!