Setting Up Your Solo & Small Firm
Congratulations on the decision to start your own law firm!
By Adrienne B. Haynes, Esq.
Managing Partner, SEED Law
Running a law practice can be rewarding on personal and professional level. To do it well, it will require knowledge of the law, a business plan, documented processes, financial management, client and partner relationships, and an entrepreneurial attorney.
Merriam Webster defines an entrepreneur as “one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.” While it does mention the risk and liability of entrepreneurship, it doesn’t describe the necessary qualities of the “entrepreneurial spirit”. For the shingle to stay up, the law firm has to operate with intention. As a managing partner, this is going to require grit, persistence, and stick-to-itiveness. It’s important to acknowledge this responsibility at the onset and take time to develop the skills required of a CEO.
This year, SEED Law celebrates five years in business, and it’s been a learning journey since the first day. We approach this milestone humbly and with work still to be done. I’ve been fortunate to share what I’ve learned with other attorneys through continuing education presentations hosted by the University of Missouri- Kansas City School of Law and the Missouri Bar through the Solo and Small Firm Conference. I also coach lawyers who want to start a profitable practice through my consultancy, SEED Collective.
From our experience, here are a few best practices to consider in setting up your solo or small firm that can encourage high quality lawyering, solid business practices, and long-term client relationships.
Setting Up Your Practice
Start with what we know: research. If you’ve never started a business before, there are plenty of checklists and resources available from industry and business associations. Take time to consider why you want to start a firm, your ideal client, and what you’ll need in order to be supported on the journey. This includes initial questions like:
- Why do I want to start a law firm?
- What work do I enjoying doing? What work is totally uninspiring for me?
- In what role would I be most productive at my firm?
- What type of entity should I create?
- Who else is working in this space?
- How will this firm distinguish itself from others, both in and out of market?
- What support, research or training do I need in order to deepen my expertise?
- Who are my ideal clients? What do they need?
- What team members will I need in order to support my clients?
Once you’ve considered the foundational questions, I encourage you to develop a more substantive business plan. This will be helpful guide in outlining choice of entity, the operational plan, team needs, and financial projections, and more. This is a helpful internal strategic planning document and may be requested by external partners such as banks or investors. We also recommend that our clients develop a mission and vision statement early on that can also be referred to in decision making and client development. A mission statement is the declaration of an organization’s core purpose and focus that normally remains unchanged over time. A vision statement is what the world/community/region looks like if you’ve “achieved” your mission.
At SEED Law, our mission is to partner with entrepreneurs and businesses provide legal solutions that contribute to sustainable business practices. We refer to this when determining the type of work or client to engage, how and why we do this work, our pro bono volunteer commitments, and ongoing business strategy. Being intentional about being on mission will help keep the firm focused and legally compliant.
Standard of Professional Compliance
Running a law firm requires a strict standard for compliance in professional obligations. I encourage attorneys who want to start their firm to next review the rules of professional conduct. As a solo or small firm practitioner, you may serve as a supervising attorney for your team members or want to develop an advertising campaign. Our professional obligations require certain standards and notices to be in place, and running afoul of these professional rules can result in more than loss of business.
The good news is you’re not the only attorney in town (and if you are, get LinkedIn!). Being an attorney and starting a business does not mean you have it all to together or know everything, but it does have to mean you have to know where to look and be willing to learn anything. No good lawyering is done in a vacuum, and only fools despise wisdom and instruction. Having a professional network can help ensure you have a trusted source for a compliance support, as well as an occasional second opinion, client or vendor referral, or venting session.
To this end, you may also consider increased engagement in the Bar through local, regional and national bar associations or special interest groups. These associations offer networking opportunities, compliance reminders and training, and practice area specific continuing education events. If deadlines are a challenge, technology tools can be used to calendar and reminder you of compliance deadlines like attorney enrollment, annual registration reports depending on your entity type, CLE deadlines, statutes of limitations, or any practice area specific timings. In addition to local networks, there are online communities of attorneys that can help grow your network and sound off on compliance questions. I am the president of the Black Female Attorneys Network, a nonprofit organization, and I am a member of a Facebook group for women managing partners from across the United States. Both groups serve as a refreshing source of lawyering support, laughs, console, and feedback on areas personal and professional.
Develop & Document Processes
When we’re working with other attorneys on process development for their solo and small firm, we use this guideline: each time you repeat a task, take one step towards automating it. In the practice, there are a whole host of tasks to be completed as a lead transitions to a client, from the intake to closing matters checklist. Think about what you’ll need in the course of your workflows when convert leads to clients, tracking your time, billing and collecting from clients, tracking communications and matters, sharing files, signing documents, etc.
Many of these tasks will need to be repeated and developing standards for your most common tasks helps deliver a consistent client experience, train team members, and help the overall firm to stay on strategy.
Having a paperless firm is more important now than ever, and we joke at SEED Law that we’ve perfected the art of working from anywhere. When discussing this with attorney Michael Rapp of Stecklein & Rapp, a consumer protection firm, he advised that attorneys should “[k]now what you are good at and be honest with yourself at what you are not. Find technology to supplement your weaknesses. For example, I use document assembly software to build forms and checklists so that I minimize errors in pleadings and discovery and to help structure my thinking of a case to help keep from missing steps. Rather than just keeping notes in that file on new ideas learned from each case, it also allows me to immediately incorporate what I have learned in this case to apply it for future cases by augmenting my forms and lists.” Having this institutional and legal knowledge documented will allow you to better understand the depth of your practice area and be better prepared to handle a wider variety of cases.
Processes should be reviewed and updated regularly. If you find a technology system no longer suits the way you do business, take the time to research and discuss with your professional network.
Cultivate Long Term Client Relationships
As we celebrate five years, I’m grateful for the clients who have grown with us and trusted us along their journey. When we start a client relationship, we want to be prepared to fully support the leadership team as outside general counsel for the duration of their business and for the ones after that if need be. Developing processes and using technology supports the development of such relationships because they reinforce consistent treatment, documented communication, and timely counsel.
Depending on your practice area, there are several ways to help develop client relationships. This includes hosting initial consultations, transparent pricing models, a clear engagement letter, and regular check ins and case summaries. Gathering client feedback is also helpful for testimonials, areas of improvement or additional training, and in practice area recommendations.
We coach our law firm clients with the “each one, teach one” model, encouraging volunteerism and non-fee based engagement with your intended client base. SEED Law was built on generosity and education. We hosted complementary community office hours for almost three years in partnership with entrepreneurial resource partners. If that is cost prohibitive, consider other ways to offer presentations or blogs to serve as a trusted source of guidance.
Take care of yourself, Counselor.
The practice of law is mentally stimulating, demanding, and can be taxing. In order to start a firm and keep your sleep, friends, and sense of self, there has to be balance. If you’re not well, it’s much harder to be a zealous advocate. Know how you decompress and identify healthy options for self-care and self-soothing.
For me, it means setting boundaries about when I work and developing procedures and team members that enable us to provide consistent service without having my hand in each process. It also means taking a break away from the desk and spending time on personal and professional development and training.
If you need help, it’s ok to ask. Tough mistakes may happen. Cases or transactions may not always go the way you want. The team or client relationship may have some barriers that need to be worked through. They overly warned us in law school about vices for a reason. But, you’re not in it alone. You’re a part of a legal community and a entrepreneurial community, and help is available.