Starting a law firm is not for the faint of heart. Doing it right out of law school is downright insane (at least that’s what the naysayers would have you believe).
But I did it in a difficult economy with a difficult fee structure (contingency) and my practice is thriving. If you want to start your own firm, you can do it — and I’m going to tell you how.
Here is a list of the essential things you must do to succeed in starting your own law firm right out of school:
1. Ignore the People Who Say You Can’t
The reason why this is number one is that 98% of your law school classmates, lawyers, and professors honestly believe you can’t. Ignore them. Many attorneys are pessimists by nature and love to tell people what they can’t do. They never tried it so they don’t know. If you believe them, there is zero chance you’ll succeed. I’ve done it, and I know you can do it, too.
2. Plan Ahead
I spent the majority of law school obsessing about how to start a firm right out of school. I wrote a detailed business and marketing plan. Then I had lawyers who have started their own firm critique it. This was sobering, but extremely helpful. Now, just to be clear, I didn’t cut corners on the planning stage. I had full-blown financials, market analysis, mission statement, competitive advantages, etc. I knew how much it would cost to start a firm in my area of law (plaintiff’s employment law), and I knew how much money I needed to earn in my first year to break even.
You also need to save up a small nest egg. Depending on the area of law you choose (see below), it may be 4-6 months before you start seeing any revenues. Find out how long you can work without making a penny before you go broke. That should give you an idea of how quickly you need to make things happen.
3. Pick Only One Area of Law
This is critical. Don’t even try to start a “whatever comes in the door” law firm. Those days are long gone. Pick one or two (max) areas of law and focus your practice exclusively on those select areas. If you try to do everything you won’t get good at anything. You’ll also look like a competitor to everyone, making it extremely difficult to build a referral network (see below). It also goes without saying that you should try to get some experience in that area of law. I clerked in employment law at two different firms before I graduated. This is how I got exposure to the key employment statutes and case law. This gave me a huge amount of confidence before I took the plunge.
4. Pick the Right Area of Law
Some areas are harder than others to break into. For example, it is difficult to start a solo practice firm and immediately get a Fortune 500 corporate client. To get those clients, you usually have to have a prior history of success, a lot of grey hairs, and great relationship with in-house attorneys. On the other hand, the clientele in plaintiff’s personal injury, criminal defence, bankruptcy, employment law, and family law (to name a few), are, for the most part, individuals who have never worked with a lawyer. They are not extremely picky. They are simply looking for someone who cares, who is competent, and who believes in their case. The moral of this story is that you need to know what your strengths and weaknesses are and whether or not the clients in your chosen area of law will identify with them. If so, they will want to hire you.
5. Build a Referral Network
Tell everyone you meet that you plan to start your own firm and what area of law you’ll practice. Take practicing lawyers in that area out to lunch (BTW — they will usually pay for lunch because they feel sorry for law students) and ask them where and how they get their cases. Once you’ve met with some of these people a few times, and you’ve developed a real relationship with them, ask them to send you work when you get started. Most of them will be happy to do so.
You also need to network with people who don’t practice in your chosen area of law. This is where most of your referrals will come from. For example, if you do criminal defence you need to get to know a few personal injury lawyers. Good PI lawyers don’t do criminal law, but a small fraction of their clients have criminal legal issues. PI attorneys want to send that work to someone they know and trust. You want that person to be you. Also, if your jurisdiction permits it, pay a fair and reasonable referral fee to incentivise people to send work your way. Referral fees vary depending on the area of law so try to find out what is standard. Make sure you comply with the State Bar’s ethics rules regarding referral fees.
6. Build a Website Immediately
Prospective clients judge you if you don’t have a website. People looking for a lawyer don’t use phonebooks, they use Google. Here is my employment website. I built the entire thing using WordPress (free) and pay about $US70 a year to host it. That’s it. This is powerful because it is my largest lead generation tool by far and costs about as much as a steak dinner. My good friend, Ian Silverthorne, who also graduated from Chapman and started his own law firm right out of school. He hired a guy who built his personal injury website. Hiring a competent web designer is key if you simply don’t have the time or motivation to learn how to do the web stuff yourself.
7. Join Organisations and Listservs
When I settled on employment law as my chosen area, I found out about a fantastic organisation called the California Employment Lawyers Association. This group of lawyers exclusively represents employees in workplace disputes. They have a listserv, which is basically an email address that you can email and every single member immediately gets your email. Personal injury lawyers have a similar organisation, the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles, that also has a listserv. I’m sure all areas of law have this type of organisation. This is powerful because sometimes you need a question answered and don’t have a mentor who can answer it. The community almost always has an answer.
It’s important to note that these organisations are not just about the listserv — they connect you with individuals you can co-counsel with. When you are fresh out of law school, it is good to work a case with an experienced lawyer whom you respect. The relationship is beneficial because you split the fee with the experienced lawyer, but you also get to learn from their experience. It’s a win-win.
8. Remember That Clients Don’t Care About Your GPA, Law Review, or Age
This should give you confidence. No potential client has ever asked me what my GPA was in law school. Nobody has ever asked me if I was on Law Review. Nobody has ever asked me what my class rank was. Nobody cares how old I am. (I’m 20-nine years old and I have plenty of clients more than double my age.) No one cares about that stuff except for other lawyers. None of that matters once you actually begin practicing. The only thing that matters is your work product. So work on that and everything else will figure itself out.
I have about five hundred other essential tips that I could share with you. But brevity is good in the practice of law, so I’ll leave it at this: You can do it. You can do it even if you have mountains of debt, a growing family, a low GPA, or a dwindling bank account. Trust me, you can do it.
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