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Jan 10, 2012

Starting a Law Practice: Challenges and Tips – Phase I


I am an associate in a 6 attorney firm in Cleveland, Ohio. I have been a practicing attorney for four years and have been with my present firm since law school. I am considering starting my own firm. What is your advice for someone like me starting up a practice on a shoestring?


I receive at least ten calls a week from attorneys that are in solo practice or are the sole owner of a small law firm with similar concerns and frustrations. However, there tends to be different needs and challenges depending which phase of development the firm is in. Here are a few survival tips for the first phase:
Phase I – Solo Startup

In this phase it is all about you. More than likely initially you will not have office staff. If you are a new attorney right out of law school you must learn your trade and develop competencies in lawyering and client service. Your first priority will be to supplement your law school education with nuts and bolts practice skills – and you will have to do it quickly. Since you won’t have a senior partner in your firm to mentor and train you – you will have to reach out to resources outside of your firm. You will not have an accountability partner in your firm. Your second priority will be getting clients. You will have to actively marketing and promote yourself and your practice. Funds may be limited so your largest marketing investment will be your non-billable time devoted to marketing and client development activities. Finally, your third priority will be getting paid by your clients. Self discipline and exceptional time management and time keeping skills are critical success factors.
Phase I Survival Tips
1. Create a business plan (strategic plan)

Create a plan before even starting the practice even if it is a one page plan. This will serve as a roadmap for your practice. See Helen Gunnarsson’s article in November 2011 Illinois Bar Journal.

2. Setup your practice and office
This includes everything from the selecting a suitable name and legal form for your practice; setting up your office whether it be a home or virtual office, a space share arrangement, or lease office space; acquisition of office systems, etc. (I have a start-up checklist available. E-mail me if you would like a copy.)
3. Develop competencies in law and business
a. Find an experience attorney to serve as a mentor. The ISBA Mentor Center has mentor program available for members.
b. Consider a business coach
c. Take all the CLE you can
4. Getting Clients
Time must be developed to business development. To be successful in private practice attorneys must be finders (originate new business), minders (manage client matters and relationships) and grinders (worker bees that work on client matters, provide services, and generate fees). You must manage and balance your time in a way that you cover all three of these bases.
5. Client Development/Marketing
a. Actively network with the general public, other attorneys, and other potential referral sources
b. Ask for referrals
c. Implement a first class website that demonstrates expertise
d. Implement a contact database
e. Develop a personal marketing plan (contact plan)
6. Getting Paid
a. Use engagement letters and fee agreements
b. Ask for retainers and replenish
c. Accept credit cards
d. Establish client selection criteria
7. Financial Management – Work the Books
Learn key metrics and “red flags” for your practice area, set goals, and measure your performance against these goals. Take corrective course actions as needed. Actively manage your cash flow. Remember – profit as reflected on the income statement and cash flow are not the same.
8. Manage Your Self – Self Discipline and Accountability
9. Partner with Other Solos

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC


Posted at 10:32 PM in New Firm Startup, Strategy
Tags: Starting a Law Practice

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