There comes a time in the career of every law-firm lawyer when she realizes that her bosses are acting like idiots, that “they’re doing it wrong,” and that she could do a better job if she were running her own law firm. Most of the time, that idea goes no further: the lawyer rattles off a few choice curse words, ignores the partners’ shortcomings, gets the work done the way they want it, and lives to fight another day.
But for a small minority, this outburst becomes an epiphany, and then turns into a dream (kind of like Inception, but in reverse), then an obsession, then finally a reality. Others, like me, always knew that they they were going to start their own law firms, and it didn’t take frustration with partners for that idea to form.
So when’s the perfect time to start your own firm? The answer is the same as for the question of when’s the perfect time to start having kids:
But forget the “perfect” time. When’s the best time to start your own firm?
Just as with having kids, it’s never the perfect time to start your firm because there are always a ton of other things going on in your professional and personal life that get in the way of hanging your shingle. If you wait around for the perfect time, you’re going to grow old childless and law-firmless.
That said, there are times that are better than others. One of the most common questions I get in informational interviews from law students is whether they should start their own firm right after passing the bar. My answer is invariably no. Here’s why:
Law school does not teach you how to be a lawyer. I believe that you can only really learn how to practice law by actually practing law under the supervision of experienced lawyers. Obviously, many people have jumped straight from law school into their own law firms, and some have even had great success. But I think you’d be making a hard task much harder by doing it that way. You have enough to worry about in starting your own law firm. Learning how to practice law shouldn’t be one of them.
So when is the best time to start your own firm? It depends on your practice area. My advice is that you should only hang your shingle after you’ve developed enough experience and expertise in your chosen field to be comfortable fielding any call from a prospective client. I’m not saying that you need to be a complete expert, or know all the answers off the top of your head. What I am saying is that you need to be at a point where you have a facility with your area of law that allows you to speak intelligently to the inquiring prospect, spot some of the main issues, and then be able to go off and research the answer to the question.
I was lucky. Because I went to work in a small employment-law boutique, I was able to get to that point after four years. I’ve often said that employment law is not rocket science. What’s nice about it is that it’s a fairly finite subject matter. After about eighteen months of practice, I had reached a comfort level with the practice area where I was able to field calls without the panic of not knowing the answer. I certainly didn’t know everything by then, but I knew where to find the answers. More importantly, I could speak comfortably with the client or prospect and make him feel like he was in capable hands:
“Because we’re talking about wage issues, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act is going to come into play, Bob. The funny thing about the FLSA is that there are the basic exemptions, then there are exceptions to the exemptions, and then there are more exceptions. Let me look into how the current regulations will apply to your specific situation and then I can call you back with a definitive answer this afternoon.” Even if I had no idea what the answer to Bob’s wage question was, I was able to make him feel like he called the right place.
After four years of practicing employment law at a small firm, I had been exposed to pretty much every type of issue. While it would still be years before I could be considered an expert in the field, I knew that I wouldn’t have to worry about my command of the substantive law when I started my practice. A few months before my fourth anniversary at that boutique, I quit and started my own firm.
During the 13 years since, I have never had a moment where I felt like I was out of my depth in terms of my employment-law knowledge. Sometimes I would get calls that were beyond the scope of my particular practice area (like ERISA or immigration issues), but I would happily refer those away. Inside the main body of employment and labor law, though, I never once felt like I didn’t know what I was doing or where to find the answers.
Other practice areas are different. I can imagine that obtaining a similar level of expertise in secured transactions or international tax law or mergers and acquisitions might take longer than a few years.
It also depends on where you work. In most cases, newer lawyers at a small firm will get broader and deeper experience than their counterparts at Biglaw. All the junior lawyers who have worked for me took two or three years to develop enough expertise where they would have been able to start their own firms had they been so inclined. Their peers at large firms would have been at sea on their own.
When you start your own firm, you’re going to have more than enough to worry about: How do I get clients? How do I pay my bills? How should I market? Should I hire other lawyers? Should I have partners? Should I have nonlegal staff? Should I sublet or rent my own space? Those are the things that will keep you up at night when you hang your own shingle. But if you follow my advice and wait until you’ve developed a facility with your practice area, at least you’ll never have to worry about that.
Jay runs Prefix, LLC, a firm that helps lawyers learn how to value and price legal services. Jay Shepherd also spent 13 years running the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.