Starting your own firm
If working in a law firm sounds like a siren’s call, consider flying solo.
The economy may have largely recovered from the economic recession of the last decade, but the repercussions continue for lawyers. In addition to an ongoing shortage of jobs, even those who get work are faced with a lack of job security due to law firm restructurings and closures.
According to Susan Liebel, founder of Solo Practice University, an increasing number of lawyers will choose to open their own business — it’s estimated that within five years 68 per cent of lawyers will be self-employed.
Does being your own boss appeal to you? Whether you have been recently called to the Bar, are a law student or are already practising, here are some tips for successfully striking out on your own.
Long before you start picking out letterhead and looking at real estate, it is important to identify your objectives and lay out a roadmap to achieve them — in other words, you need a clear and precise personal business plan. According to Julie K. Fowler, a Washington-based lawyer, the plan should include:
1. An outline of our expected business operations — including the services you will offer, your office location, etc.
2. Your marketing strategy — How do you expect to introduce yourself to potential clients? How will you market yourself and your practice?
3. A review of your financial structure — how much money you’ll need to start up, capital requirements and income goals, insurance and equipment costs etc.
The business plan should also help you identify the competition, and note which provincial business licensing rules apply to your venture as well as your accounting and reporting obligations.
If you’re striking out on your own, you’ll need to have at least a basic knowledge of technology, says lawyer Stephanie Kimbro. Not only do you need to know the security risks associated with the use of technology to manage your practice, but also how to minimize these risks. “This means you have to be up-to-date on the technology you decide to use or have someone who can help you stay up-to-date to protect your clients’ information.”
Will you be a sole proprietor, or do you plan to form a partnership? The choice between the two will have an impact on a number of other factors, including the kind of office space you’ll need, and what kind of bank accounts you’ll need to set up. Both options have their pros and cons, says Omar Ha-Redeye, a lawyer based in Toronto.
“Most people starting out go with a sole proprietorship. You can decide to open a new bank account or use your personal account, except when trust funds are involved. If you use your personal account, the Bar will have access to it during verifications,” says Ha-Redeye. “Partnerships have their own advantages, such as shared risks and expenses. However, this might entail a certain loss of flexibility. Partnership agreements vary considerably, and it is important to have a well-drafted document.”
A growing number of lawyers are choosing to work outside of traditional wood-panelled suites of offices in downtown business towers. Your choice of office space will depend on factors including how much you have to spend on rent, and the kind of work environment that best suits you, where you are most productive. You can opt for a shared office, a co-working space, home office or even a virtual office.
The virtual office lets you use technology to provide legal services online without a physical office space. “Different variations of virtual law firms exist depending on the lawyer’s field of practice, his technology comfort level, the administrative rules governing the online practice of law as well as the legal services he wants to deliver,” says Kimbro.
“It is important to determine if your area of practice is appropriate for a virtual office. For example, practising elder law remotely might not work because the clientele may not be comfortable communicating online.”
You must develop a marketing strategy to attract clients. Do your due diligence — know your target market, identify the people it will be worthwhile to know and then introduce yourself to them, making sure that they’re aware of the services you can offer. But don’t limit yourself — Fowler says it is important to network with people in complementary professions such as accountants, real estate agents or engineers because at one time or another they will ask you questions about their clients’ needs.
According to Kimbro, the key to successful marketing is to create a consistent and solid corporate image for the firm. Don’t ignore social media, because it makes it easier to engage with other professionals and the public. You can also join professional networks set up by specialized online marketing companies and take advantage of their tools.
When you have clients, be sure to establish relationships with them. Fowler, whose practice focuses on family law and conjugal violence cases, says her relationships with clients are based on trust and shared values. Her objective is to build her clients’ self-esteem and to ensure their well-being. In her opinion, it is also important to be frank with the client, which tends to help build the relationship. Clients will also remember if you refer them to other professionals when you can’t really help them, and will often refer friends and family to your firm. “A reference is as precious as providing the service directly,” she says.
Mentoring and networking
According to Omar Ha-Redeye, the essential elements of any success are finding a good mentor and forging solid connections with experienced members of the Bar. “Professional associations like the Canadian Bar Association offer excellent opportunities to develop these relationships. In my experience, most lawyers who join volunteer organizations do so because they are concerned about the future of the legal profession. As a result, they are more likely to help young practitioners.”
Advice from the experts
Jean-François L'Archevêque Montpetit, JFLM, Montreal
“Keep your head high and a good reputation, because your reputation can work for or against you. Seize the right opportunities at the right time.”
Julie K. Fowler, family lawyer at the Law Office of Julie K. Fowler, Washington
“It is important to have an experienced practitioner to whom you can ask questions. Don’t let pride keep you from seeking help.”
Omar Ha-Redeye, a lawyer specializing in health law and reputation management at Fleet Street Law, Toronto
“The practice of law is in a constant state of flux. The collapse of law firms such as Heenan Blaikie proves that the traditional way of practising is no longer the sole option. It is time to embrace change and adapt innovatively.”
Stephanie Kimbro, co-director of the Center for Law Practice Technologie (Florida Coastal Law School) and founder of Curo Legal, North Carolina
“Selling your services online is not without ethical risks — exercise due diligence when choosing the technology you use and you won’t have any trouble complying with the Bar requirements.”