|We've all had those days while working at a law firm. The senior partner
is yelling at you, a co-worker screwed up, the library book you need for your case is
missing. The inevitable impulse is to quit and start a new practice where you are in
It's a scary leap, however, from wanting to start anew and actually leaving your
firm. Before jumping, there are many questions you will need to answer. This article
provides initial tips to give you a taste of some of the complex issues you will face.
To successfully start a practice, you must have adequate answers to some important
questions. There are no right answers to these questions. Each owner of a new law office
answers these questions in slightly different ways. Lawyers who start a practice, however,
without having any of these answers increase their chances of failure.
Where do I get clients?
Getting existing clients to switch.
You can effectively start a practice by convincing current clients to move with you. If
this is your strategy, carefully consider the ethics and legality of your actions. In
California, ethical rules exist that govern what types of solicitation are proper. If you
need to aggressively solicit your current firm's existing clients, investigate thoroughly
the legality of your actions before deciding to leave your current practice. Also,
California has enacted the Uniform Trade Secrets Act and client lists and similar
client-related information may qualify as trade secrets of your current firm. You must
make sure that your strategy for informing clients does not involve misappropriation of
these trade secrets.
Establishing marketing strategy.
Numerous marketing strategies can attract potential new clients. These marketing
strategies, however, require some time before producing results. If you implement your
marketing strategies properly, you can start to attract new clients before you actually
leave your current firm. It is important to be wary of prolonged "moonlighting"
type situations. For instance, your moonlighting efforts may attract a client who has a
serious conflict of interest with your current firm. Scenarios exist where you would be
ethically obligated to disclose to your firm the conflict, hence destroying any potential
advantage you hope to gain by beginning your practice before leaving your current
employer. You should also carefully review any employment agreements to make sure your
marketing efforts do not violate your obligations to your employer.
Subcontract with old firm.
start practices with business from their former firm. Such arrangements can provide the
best of both worlds for your old firm and yourself. Your old firm benefits from having an
outside attorney who understands the client's business and the way in which the firm likes
to provide legal services. The firm is also given more flexibility should overall workload
decrease. In addition, the firm avoids having to battle with the departing attorney to
keep the client's business. For the departing attorney, this arrangement provides a
reliable source of clients, although at a lower hourly rate. However, the departing
attorney has the benefit of being his or her own boss, rather than continuing to conform
with the firm's rules.
Where do I locate my practice?
The wired office.
As communication technology continues to evolve, maintaining the high overhead
necessary with a standard office space has diminished. Today, an attorney can handle the
affairs of a client for years without ever meeting face-to-face. In place of these
personal meetings, lawyers communicate by phone, fax and e-mail. More than fine leather
upholstery or awe-inspiring art collections, telephones can significantly enhance the
professional nature of your new law firm. With services such as remote call-forwarding,
paging and voicemail, a well-implemented telephone system can often substitute for a
receptionist, secretary and switchboard.
With telephones and technology, many solos start their practice in a spare bedroom. Not
only do you save overhead, you can also maintain the ultimate casual work environment. You
can work in your house slippers, avoid commutes further than the grocery store and still
maintain a prestigious image through the use of appropriate technology and other
One cost-effective option is to locate a new practice in an "executive
suite," where the services of receptionists and support staff are shared with other
attorneys and executives. The cost for executive suites vary widely.
Some limit themselves to legal services and provide enhanced benefits to their attorney
customers, such as maintenance of a law library and qualified legal staff. Other executive
suites cater to a wider business spectrum. Executive suites typically have common areas,
including conference rooms, which can be reserved and used by the suite's tenants.
Additionally, many suites offer other services such as receipt of mail and telephone
reception services, even if you do not actually rent space. For instance, your practice
can be started out of your home with all calls to your "office" routed through
the receptionist at the executive suite. The receptionist places the caller on hold, then
calls you at home to inquire whether or not you would like to take the call.
If you do not wish to take the call, the client receives your own personalized
voicemail or otherwise leaves a message.
If you do wish to take the call, the receptionist can patch the call through, creating
the impression to the client that you are at the same location as the receptionist.
Don't share confidences.
When considering any form of shared space, carefully protect the confidentiality of
your client's records. Most errors and omissions insurance carriers carefully examine any
shared space arrangements, particularly when the names of attorneys in separate practices
are listed together on signs, letterhead or other marketing efforts. To assure absolute
confidentiality to your clients and malpractice carrier, don't share support staff, filing
cabinets or networked computers.
The location of your office can help you attract new clients. For example, sharing
space with other attorneys who have unique specialties different from yours can result in
a source of referrals. Similarly, sharing space with other professionals can widen your
circle of acquaintances, increasing the likelihood of receiving referrals from these
Do I need to hire support staff?
One huge difference between a law firm and going solo is a support staff. Law firm
support staffs handle countless mundane but critical tasks. When starting a practice, you
are responsible for performing such functions as document preparation, docketing of
deadlines, maintaining your appointments calendar, tracking time and billing clients. One
option to minimize overhead and maximize simplicity is to hire a "virtual
secretary," or use technology as a replacement for support staff. Case management
systems can handle calendaring, docketing, appointments and deadlines. Innovations such as
speech recognition software (which can now be obtained from various vendors for a few
hundred dollars) can simplify document preparation for those of you who are not used to
typing your own documents.
Allocate detail time.
For those of you who are blessed with a highly qualified support staff, don't
underestimate the amount of time needed to handle these basic functions. Don't expect
anything near your current level of productivity in your new practice. Add time to
deadlines for printing, proofing, folding, signing, stamping, weighing and placing your
correspondence in the mailbox.
Many new practices benefit from sharing staff with other attorneys. This can be
especially effective when utilizing shared space with other attorneys. As long as client
confidentiality issues are properly addressed, sharing staff with other attorneys can give
you the right amount of support at the right price.
Hire a top paralegal.
Instead of a large support staff, consider hiring a top-flight paralegal to help you
perform research, handle documents, prepare pleadings and become your right-hand person.
Bear in mind that there are significant expenses related to hiring a full-time person,
such as providing a benefits package that will be attractive enough to lure a paralegal
away from an established law firm. Don't give up. Sometimes the lifestyle benefits of
working in a new practice are sufficient to entice a quality paralegal to consider a
reduction in pay and benefits.
Can you handle day-to-day details?
Make time for administrative work.
In a well-run law firm, most associates spend less than 25 percent of their time on
management-related activities and the remainder of their time billing clients. In a new
practice, plan on a reversal of such percentages. When the practice is first being set up
and systems are being established, a significant amount of time will be spent in such
Create an administrative framework.
In starting a practice, you must address all administrative details. The following
lists some of the administrative items you need to handle:
Client trust account
Accounting and billing system
Office space leases
Office equipment (e.g., telephones, computers,
furniture, copier, fax machines, etc.)
Maintenance and support contacts
Library and other legal research resources
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is: Know thyself.
Some attorneys are somewhat burned out in the practice of law and look at starting a
practice as an opportunity to spend a greater percentage of their day doing things other
Other attorneys have known nothing other than the legal side of their current firm and
have little or no aptitude or interest in the management side.
While most attorneys can handle the weighing of an envelope and the licking of a stamp,
ask yourself whether you enjoy such administrative, non-legal activities. In starting a
practice, a majority of your time will be spent in such activities. This is especially
true if you choose to forego support staff initially.
A new beginning?
A new law practice requires confidence. The greatest source of uncertainty in opening a
practice often comes from fear.
With that in mind, prepare for all contingencies. If you carefully plan, you can
develop a tolerable fallback plan and eliminate paralyzing uncertainty. For instance, you
may decide that should you fail, you will go to work for your uncle Freddy's law firm
where he has agreed that he will have a job waiting for you. You can then start your
practice confident that failure will not result in bankruptcy, or worse, the need to beg
for your job back with your old firm.
Bradley Heisler is the founder and principal
of Heisler & Associates, an intellectual property law firm in Roseville and is a
member of the State Bar's Law Practice Manage-ment and Technology Section executive