Planning to Start Your Law Firm
The Bencher—September/October 2017
By Dirk Jordan, Esquire
Are you looking for a change? You may be in a large firm and tired of dealing with large-firm bureaucracy or losing clients to conflicts. Or you have always had a desire to start your own business. Perhaps you cannot find a good job in an existing law firm. If you are in one of these positions, you may want to consider starting your own firm. Below are some issues to consider and decisions to make before launching your new venture. Remember, this has been done before: 70 percent of all lawyers in the United States practice in firms of five or fewer.
Key take-away point: It is not what you make, it is what you keep. Keep your overhead low.
Questions to Ask Yourself
- Are you self-sufficient? Can you do tasks without help or direction?
- What is your risk tolerance?
- Are you a self-starter? Are you disciplined? Can you manage your time and get things done without someone watching over you?
- If you have a significant other in your life, are they supportive of your proposed venture?
- Do you have enough money saved so you can make it for several months before cash flow rises to a comfortable level? Do you have debt? Can you get a line of credit from your bank?
- Do you have a business plan? Do you have goals and a road map on how you will get there? How are you going to get clients in the door? What is your position in the market? How much competition do you have in your space?
- Do you need employees? Why?
Decisions to Make
You can choose to form a PLLC, an LLP, a PC, or act as a sole practitioner. The choice of entity is driven by whether you are practicing with someone else, tax considerations, and the desire for simplicity.
Partners and colleagues
I practice on my own. If you choose to practice with others, realize that friendships can be ruined when you start a business together. You may have different work styles, goals, and ability to bring in business. These differences can lead to conflict and disillusionment. I have witnessed several law firm divorces, and they can be ugly. Discuss your expectations and goals with your prospective partners and determine if you are on the same page or can work together in spite of your different strengths. You may choose to remain friends rather than business partners.
Make sure you get your partnership/membership agreement in writing. Plan for the end from the beginning. Get your prenup done now while you still like each other.
Where will you practice? Many lawyers (25 percent) practice out of their homes to keep the overhead low. This makes sense for some practices, but if you practice in criminal defense or family law, you may want to think twice about this option.
Office sharing is common with lawyers and other professionals renting space in the same house/building. You may be a sole practitioner, but you have other lawyers available for advice and referrals.
Traditional Class A space in tall buildings is expensive, but your target clientele may expect it.
On a more global scale, do you want to be in a small town or large city? Do you want to be downtown or in a suburb? This depends on who your target clients are and what they expect their lawyer’s office to look like.
Get a tax ID for your business. It takes five minutes on irs.gov and is needed to open bank accounts.
You need three bank accounts. One firm operating account, one firm Interest on Lawyers Trust Account, and at least one personal account. Keep the funds separate from each other. The money in the IOLTA account is not yours until it is earned.
Consider a line of credit at your bank. Hopefully you have a relationship and a track record with a bank that knows you and will extend an unsecured line of credit.
Learn how to use accounting software, or use one of the many cloud-based practice management options that are available.
Learn to track your time on your computer.
Send your bills out the first of every month. Be consistent with this practice.
Consider taking credit cards. Make it easy for clients to pay for your services.
Get malpractice insurance. You need to have insurance to protect your assets. It is worth the peace of mind.
Other insurance. Health and business insurance. Think about your options. Take the time to shop your business to various vendors.
- Mac v. PC. I use Macs exclusively.
- Desktop v. laptop. A desktop is your basic workhorse and is cheaper than laptops. Laptops are mobile (of course). I have both.
Printer. Even with a paperless office you need a printer. I recommend a laser printer.
Scanner. You need one if you are going to go paperless, plus it is necessary for e-filing. I use the Fujitsu ScanSnap ix500, which works on PC or Mac.
Extra monitor. They are inexpensive and will give you lots of screen real estate.
External hard drive. Back up your computer. Use redundant systems backup systems, including cloud-based back-ups such as Backblaze and Crashplan. I have had a hard drive crash with all of my data, and I did not have it backed up. Imagine the distress.
Tablet. Good for reviewing deposition transcripts and marking on documents, but not a necessity.
Microsoft Office. Word is the most commonly used word processor out there, and Outlook, Excel, and PowerPoint are included.
Adobe Acrobat Professional. Acrobat is the gold standard. It helps you manage PDFs when you scan documents into your computer.
Timekeeping software. You can use cloud-based firm management software or buy a program for $50 once. I use OfficeTime.
Office management software. Options include Clio and Rocket Matter, which are good and getting better. They are overkill for a solo practitioner.
Calendar. There are many good calendars available that sync between all of your computers and devices. I recommend Fantastical 2.
To-do list. Again, many good ones out there. Get one that syncs between devices and computers so you only have to make one entry.
Accounting. I use QuickBooks, but there are others.
Email. Whatever you do, do not use Gmail as your primary office email client. Your Gmail is read by Google. They have said so. They have stated that you have no expectation of privacy if you use Gmail. I use Apple Mail and Outlook.
Cloud storage. Dropbox, Box, and others. It makes mobile lawyering possible. You may want to use encryption software as well.
Keep a regular schedule. Be at your desk by 8:30 am and available during working hours for clients to contact you.
Respond to all calls and emails within 24 hours. Even if you cannot give a response, let the sender know that you received their call/email and will get back to them. No one likes to be ignored.
Be courteous and professional with everyone. It will enhance your reputation.
Keep a healthy balance (whatever that means to you) between work and life. Work can swallow up your life as an entrepreneur. Spend time exercising and maintaining your health.
Be conversant with how to use technology. It is now an ethical duty to do so, and it will make you more efficient.
Dirk Jordan, Esquire has been a solo practitioner for 16 years, and serves on the American Inns of Court Board of Trustees. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Texas School of Law where he teaches classes on the business aspects of the legal practice. He is a member of the Lloyd Lochridge AIC in Austin, Texas.
© 2017 Dirk Jordan, Esq. This article was originally published in the September/October 2017 issue of The Bencher,
a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article,
in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored
electronically in any form without the express written consent of the American Inns of Court.