I am the sole owner of a five-attorney litigation firm in Mesa, Arizona. I started the firm twelve years ago after leaving a large firm where I worked for a very large national firm in Phoenix. I was an income partner in that firm. For a few years I operated as a solo with a legal assistant. Then I began adding associates and staff. Now we have me and four associates, a office manager/bookkeeper, two paralegals, and two legal assistants. Our annual gross fee revenues are around 1.2 million, the overhead is high, my net income is not all that much more than what I was making as a solo. My associates aren’t willing to put in the time to generate the billable hours that we need and then there is the time and stress of managing all of this. Is growth a good thing?
Not always – depends upon your goals and your area of practice. If your area of practice is a low billable rate ($150-$175 per hour) practice area such as insurance defense or municipal law, it will be difficult to reach a desirable personal income level without associate attorney leverage. However, if you are in a practice area with bill rates of $300 to $500 per hour you may be able to attain the personal income levels that you desire without associate leverage and growth. It all depends upon your personal income goals, your ability to support and handle the work that you have, and your ability and desire to manage a group of attorneys.
Growth requires that you manage others as well as yourself. More office space is required – more overhead to support the additional people. Growth puts a strain on cash flow and requires additional working capital. A new set of skill sets (people skills) is now required.
Some Lawyers Never Develop the Skills Needed or Desire to Go to This Level and Firm Growth is Restricted as a Result.
I refer to this phase as Sole Owner Phase. I have client law firms in this phase than consist of an attorney owner, a handful of employed associates, paralegals, and staff. These firms may have 3 to 4 people or ten or more. I have sole owner law firms with over 100 employed attorneys and staff. I work with other sole owners that choose to remain solo (without other attorneys) and are quite successful. It all comes down to what you are comfortable with.
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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
I am a relatively new attorney. I graduated three years ago from John Marshall Law School in Chicago. After law school I started with a small firm in the northern suburbs. Now with three years under my belt I am considering starting my own firm. I would appreciate your suggestions on how to get started.
Owning your own practice will be much different that working for someone else. You will have to handle the nuts and bolts of running and operating a practice. You will not have people to do everything for you like you did in your last firm. You will need to learn how to be an entrepreneur and think like a businessperson.
First, I suggest that you give some thought as to whether you have what it takes to operate your own firm and plan out your business. Read my article on Starting, Building, and Managing a Law Firm. Click here for the article
Then write your business plan. Click here for the article
After your have developed your plan begin developing your business identity, firm name, tag line, website domain name, and related graphic package.
For ideas download a copy of our best practices guide
Consider legal structure for the firm. Register with appropriate governmental and tax authorities.
Determine where you will practice, how you will staff your practice, and technology needs. Keep as much of your overhead as variable and low as possible. Consider virtual employees. At first do as much work yourself as you can. Add staffing resources as your firm grows. Don't skimp on technology.
Implement a first class website on day one.
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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC