Some people think of solo practitioners as the lawyers who could not make it in the big firms, the renegade lawyer who will not conform, or the lawyer who is not serious about practicing law. These perceptions could not be more wrong. Solo and small firm lawyers are not losers who could not cut it in the “big law” sand box.
The reality of solo and small firm practitioners is that more of these practitioners are opening firms at an accelerated rate. Studies have shown that entrepreneurial lawyers are opting to go out on their own, narrowing the scope of their practice to one or two areas of specialty that complement each other. Some even take the plunge right out of law school because the competition for attorney positions is tough. The salaries being offered by some firms “straight across the board” of $40k to $50k per annum for recent law school graduates is not a living wage, especially when there is massive student loan debt.
The job market being what it is today, and the needs, and almost more importantly, the demands of clients today are that they have a one on one relationship with their attorney and that their case not be passed around a big firm from one lawyer to the next.
Solo practitioners often practice in one or two specific areas, but they can offer their clients a wide range of legal services by establishing a referral network with other solo practitioners or hiring a contract lawyer when the need arises.
There are many moving parts to establishing a small firm, and a strategic business plan is the road map to where you want to take your practice. In writing your strategic business plan, here are the ways that will keep your overhead low at the same time making your firm efficient and productive:
1. Technology. There are numerous software programs available that can facilitate work including email, case management, CRM, docketing, billing, accounting and the like. Be sure to ask colleagues or others for referrals because sales people will tell you anything just to get you to buy their program.
2. Staffing. With remote access and virtual assistance available, it is not necessary to expend large monies on payroll, benefits, parking, etc. Often an in office legal assistant is all you need for on-staff help. Any administrative or timekeeper functions including administrators and paralegals can be outsourced less expensively than in-house staff.
3. Office space. Solo and small firm practitioners can reduce their rent overhead by leasing professional offices together. In this way each lawyer gets a professional office and can share common areas with other attorneys and split the rent. In terms of client referrals, if possible it would be a good idea to rent space with other lawyers who practice in different areas.
4. Virtual offices are more common today than ever. With remote capabilities, fax, skype, facetime and email, lawyers can effectively work from home. You can rent an executive room or conference room space on a per-hour, or per half-day basis where you can meet clients when necessary.
When you go out on your own, you don’t work for your firm – you ARE the firm!! You are the firm whether you are at the office, at home in the evenings, spending time with your family or on vacation. Work/life balance is important for everyone. As a solo practitioner it can be tricky to achieve that balance because you don’t want to miss a telephone call that may be a potential new client and you don’t want to wait too long to answer that email. You can be an efficient, productive, cost-conscious (profitable) solo or small firm practitioner and as a result, successful and happy with your law career.