It’s the most wonderful time of the year! As you wrap up your year, cram four days into 1 to make your annual billing numbers, survey the partnership track results, and noodle at your bonus, you find yourself wondering…. Am I getting enough work? Am I growing in my career? Is this firm the right fit for me? Then it hits you, you wonder if you are ready to take the great step. Am I ready to open my own practice? Is it finally time? Can I do it? Do I want to?
You are not alone.
Opening your own practice feels overwhelming, but the result is so rewarding.
You want to open your own practice but it feels overwhelming. There’s business licensing, there’s tax considerations, there’s physical office space, technology considerations. There’s reputation — yours and the that of your current firm — and how your relationship with your clients will change. There’s fiscal roller coasters. There’s client development and getting the right team together. You’ll be a business manager, and HR manager, IT, accounting, administration, office manager, paralegal, and attorney, all rolled into one. There’s malpractice insurance and privacy considerations. So many hats. So. Many. Considerations. But so so rewarding.
Are You Ready?
Contrary to what you might hear from some lawyers, a virtual solo practice is not only smart, but cutting edge. If you’re already considering the solo step, consider going virtual from the get go. You’re already accustomed to working mobile, and quite probably to having case management paralegals and assistants in another office. You already know that the courts efile. Going virtual isn’t a huge stretch. A 2017 article from the American Bar Association offers seven tips for opening your virtual practice, and ICLE offers a solo practice checklist to help guide your launch your practice. Bring them together and mold your practice into your best life.
Know your legal requirements and determine your structure.
Know your licensing requirements, home office restrictions, and other basic regulations surrounding your services. There may be state, county and locality licenses required and there may be zoning restrictions on what business can be conducted in a residential area. You’ll also need to determine what type of business entity you want to form.
If you are opening a virtual law office (VLO) or eLawyering it’s important to remember that various state bar associations have established rules for practicing in this manner and have incorporated concerns that come with a virtual practice into their ethics rules. Issues such as confidentiality, unauthorized practice of law, and face time with the client must be part of your plan.
Establish a great working environment
Make sure the work environment you have dedicated to your work enables you to practice law. Outfit your office space, make it conducive to your practice and minimize distractions. Even a virtual practice requires a place for you to work; remember to include a good space for video conferences — you will need electronic facetime with your clients, and you want to show them the best side of you and your space in the background.
What are you practicing?
While at your law firm you may have been able to practice all kinds of different law. You had lots of attorneys to bounce ideas off of and to talk over the nuances of different practice areas. If this made your day, you’ll want to take that into consideration. If you found an area that particularly appealed to you, ask yourself if you are ready to practice alone. Transactional practice areas are a lot more straightforward as a virtual practice, but you can be a great solo litigator if you are prepared for it. Think about your business plan and get one drafted, including a marketing plan. Lots of states require a business plan to register your practice and it’s an effective way to insure you haven’t missed anything important. Revisit it frequently to check in with yourself and make changes as you evolve.
Staffing is the key to your sanity and your productivity
Really think about your staffing sooner rather than later; don’t ignore it. Look at how you work, what you’ll be doing, and where you need to place your attention. You should be focused on your legal practice, and outsource the rest. Consider keeping the number of core staff small to make communication easier and reduce the potential difficulties of coordinating large groups via cloud applications. Utilize virtual receptionists and virtual legal assistants to build a solid team. A virtual legal assistant can take on the administrative and low level legal work so you can focus on the high level tasks. Add additional staffing on demand to meet unusual case requirements for niche skills. As you grow you can reevaluate your team needs and add more staff. Have a set of office practices in place, including privacy and document retention policies, for you and your staff to follow.
Utilize virtual talent to build the perfect team.
Be realistic about costs
Office rent is cheaper: you don’t have any and there’s often a home office deduction to discuss with your CPA. For regular and virtual practices, you can always rent conference room space for those necessary face to face meetings with clients and opposing counsel and a post office box for necessary deliveries. You’ll also need to invest in some level of practice management technology including some sort of docketing system. Even if that system is as basic as a good laptop with reliable and secure office software license and firewall, and a printer and scanner. A more robust system may include law firm management software that handles client onboarding, billing, time management, docketing, and document management. You’ll need to get bank accounts and accounting software in order, establish your trust account and set up your malpractice insurance. Licenses for these systems are all available on a monthly basis, but really take a look at the options to find the best one for you and your practice.
Be honest about how you manage your time
Be honest about it. Be careful about how you schedule it. Everyone wants less of a commute, but utilizing your time effectively may take some experimentation. The demands on your schedule will not decrease, and now that you are not heading to an office for certain hours of the day, you are able to decide what works best for you. Make sure you are clear with your clients about when they can reach you, how long it will take you to respond, and when you will be out.
Does your personality lend itself to a solo practice?
Are you suited to the rather solitary day that sol practice creates? How about a virtual office? Working from home creates opportunities in our lives for incorporating more of the passions that enable us to thrive, and it certainly requires personal discipline on how we utilize our time, but if you prefer knowing that you always get up and go to work in your office and you prefer the interactions that take place there, even if those interactions are limited to your part time in person secretary, a virtual office may not be the right course for you. A virtual practice still requires personal interactions but they tend to be limited to email, telephone, and video conference.
Are you ready?
You’ve come this far, and I hope you asked this question of yourself first, but it’s an important consideration, so ask it again: Are You Ready? Once you’ve asked yourself all these things and you still say yes to going solo, it is a great time. Everything starts in the new year right? Accounting, calendars, all the software package sales… why not start fresh?
Opening your own firm is not without its challenges, but it is rewarding.
Alison Pacuska is the president of Pacuska Professional Services, a boutique consulting firm focused on top-tier administrative and legal assistant services with a focus in Intellectual Property and Solo Practitioners. Ask her how she can help you make order from chaos.