There is a long list of things to do to set up a solo law practice. But for those who desire the flexibility of creating and running their businesses, the effort is well worth it. "Solo practice is amazing," says Monique Shebbeare, who practises wills & estates and fertility law in Vancouver. "You have so much ability to shape things the way you want."
Shebbeare previously practised at a national firm, then switched to a small law office before starting her own firm. With complete control over running her practice, she was able to choose how many hours she worked and how much she earned. The first years were lean, she says, but business improved by the third year.
Plan before you act
With the courts closed and many potential clients self-isolating due to the coronavirus pandemic, this is not an ideal time to open a solo practice. But it is a great time to plan for it, says Adam Baker, a solo general practitioner in Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador. There will be some upheaval, but "it might create opportunities," he adds. "We're more recession-resistant than other industries."
A good starting point is visualizing the practice in advance.
"Look at the market, figure out if there's room in the market for that practice, and then work backwards," advises Baker. "You need to know what type of law you're going to do before you figure out what infrastructure you need."
He adds that six to eight weeks is all that's needed to set up a practice. "Pick a date and aim for it. You'll find that helps focus your attention."
Baker, who started his practice four years ago after working as an associate at a mid-sized general practice firm, says one of his first considerations was branding. "What's your image? What are the values that you want people to associate with your brand?"
Home or office?
Knowing that he wanted to do litigation and transactional work, Baker dismissed the idea of a home office since he needed space to meet clients and witnesses, do examinations for discovery and document production. He chose a storefront location because many clients would want to meet him in person. [FY1]
His general business plan involved estimating monthly expenses, including rent, utilities, software subscriptions, insurance and staff. Fortunately, a solo law firm doesn't need a huge capital investment, says Baker—his highest costs were furniture and electronics. Once the lease is signed, he says, "you hang your shingle, so to speak, and away you go."
He looked at how his firm would function. "I needed at least six things in a physical space: a reception area, a work area for at least one assistant, a good-sized boardroom for meetings, a document production area, a file storage area and I needed a private office for me to sit in. That meant I needed about 800 to 1,000 square feet."
An alternative option is to rent a packaged office, typically a floor in a building operated by someone who provides a receptionist, furniture and office equipment and rents out individual offices to businesspeople. "It looks professional, but it's much more flexible because they're usually month-by-month leases," says Shebbeare, who started her solo practice this way. All she needed was her computer set-up.
Around the time she started her practice, she was fortunate to have met two financial advisors who were looking for someone to send clients to for wills. She also got work from other lawyers, since "a lot of firms, especially bigger firms, don't do estate planning."
Other first steps
- Choose a firm name. Also, getting an internet domain, website, phone number, email address and business cards. Inform the law society about the name of the firm and decide whether to incorporate.
- Call Canada Revenue Agency. You’ll need a business number, then set up a bank account and order cheques. "Just be careful when you're setting up the bank account because banks don't often understand trust accounts very well," Baker advises.
- Set up a credit card service. Baker's practice management software is partnered with LawPay, which offers credit card services for lawyers. Shebbeare uses a point-of-sale machine for credit card payments but, since the pandemic began, she's not getting clients in person, so she suggests creating an online portal. She advises lawyers to be very careful about how the credit card information is set up, "so that if it's retainer funds, it's going into your trust account."
- Identify accounting and insurance people early on. It's essential to have a good bookkeeper who will ensure that the practice is onside all law society rules. Once Baker knew he would be setting up his practice, he immediately started looking for an assistant and hired someone with both bookkeeping and IT skills. "I can't overstate how important that was to me starting off, having a very competent employee who could sort things out herself. She didn't need a lot of micromanagement," he says.
After starting out with expensive legal software, Baker moved to the cloud-based practice management application, PracticePanther, which can be accessed externally and doesn't need a lot of hardware infrastructure. "It doesn't require any locally downloaded software on your computer, so if a computer breaks, you don't need to try and fix it."
Marketing is a vital piece of the business and tends to be word of mouth when you're a small practitioner, says Baker. "Once I knew I was making the move, and it was public knowledge, I started calling people."
He also reached out to other local lawyers to let them know his plans and says people were very welcoming and collegial. He now is part of a network of lawyers who send referral work back and forth. Most of his work now comes from word of mouth and referrals from other lawyers.
Baker also focused on the Law Society's Rules of Conduct, reading them "a lot more closely and I paid really close attention to the accounting rules. The last thing you want to do is get on the wrong side of the Law Society."
Shebbeare says the set-up process doesn't have to be too daunting. "Like anything we do, you just do one thing, check that off, do the next thing, check that off. And then you discover over time, just by doing those small, step-by-step pieces, all of a sudden you've got this fully running practice."
Solo start-up checklist
☐ Is solo practice for me? Am I prepared to own and run my own business?
☐ What practice areas will work best for me and is there a demand for what I do?
☐ How much will the start up cost be (start-up budget)?
☐ Ongoing budget
☐ Where will I get work, especially at the beginning?
☐ How will I fund the start-up? Survive until I make real profit? (savings, partner’s income, live with family, other work)
☐ What is my competitive advantage?
General & firm identity
☐ Business plan (or at least a clear sense of a plan)
☐ Inform Law Society
☐ Incorporation (optional)
☐ Business licence (if needed)
Premises, files, technology
☐ Premises (home office, packaged office, share with other lawyers, full office)
☐ Furniture (included in packaged office)
☐ Phone number
☐ Web domain
☐ Fax (optional)
☐ Paper files or electronic file system—consider cloud computing
☐ Conflicts and BF systems
☐ Computer, printer, scanner and basic office set-up
☐ Practice management software
☐ Software (MS Office, Adobe Acrobat, etc.)
☐ Copier, postage meter (if needed)
☐ Office supplies
☐ Accountant (get advice)
☐ Bank accounts and cheques
☐ Accounting software or service (PCLaw, ESILAW, Clio, etc.)
☐ CRA payroll accounts if needed
☐ Budget (Initial set-up and ongoing monthly and annual)
☐ Merchant services for credit cards—consider online portal
☐ Insurance—medical/dental benefits, disability/critical illness
☐ Telephone answering or voicemail
☐ Secretarial (may be available in a packaged office, contractors, employee—a lot of do-it-yourself at first)
☐ Paralegal (remote contractors, employee)
☐ Set up a professional support group of other lawyers to discuss issues
☐ Hire a coach
Practice tools & services
☐ Dye & Durham, Juricert, etc. (depending on practice area)
☐ Library (books, online services)
☐ Marketing plan (or at least some starting tasks)
☐ Call all your personal and business contacts, including other lawyers, and ask for business
☐ Work on your elevator speech
☐ Email business contacts
☐ Business cards
☐ LinkedIn update
☐ Web directories update (Google your name to see what to update)
☐ Letterhead (electronic or paper)
☐ Get professional photos taken for marketing materials
☐ Attend meet and greets at local Bar functions
☐ Learn about Search Engine Optimization
Administrative & Planning
☐ Firm manual (bit by bit, as you go along)
☐ Read Law Society rules very carefully
☐ Disaster succession planning
Check out LSBC “Getting Started: Opening your Law Office” by Felicia Folk. There’s also plenty of online information on starting a practice, including the Law Society of B.C. and the Ontario Law Society