When I started my law firm twenty years ago, there were just five things that I knew.
I knew I didn’t have any clients. I knew that my husband and I could scarcely afford the loss of my paycheck, let alone come up capital for me to invest in my practice. I knew that I was way too mortified at having been laid off from my former firm to share the real reason for starting my own firm. I knew that when I finally opened for business, in truth, I was just putting on a game face every day, biding my time until something else came along or until I got pregnant and could, like some of my other law school classmates, gracefully exit the law. But I also knew, somewhere deep down, that I had it in me to be a good lawyer.
Those five things are all that I knew for sure when I started my law firm. Clearly I had a lot to learn. And while there was plenty of information on the black-letter, nuts-and-bolts aspects of starting a firm, the kind of advice that I really wanted to know to jump-start my practice — specifically, whether the solo option was actually feasible — was in short supply. Moreover, as an attorney with a traditionally big-firm practice (energy regulatory law and litigation), I was even worse off because attorneys familiar with my field and doing what I hoped to were particularly rare.
So to spare those of you starting out from what I went through, here are five things that I wish someone would have told me when I started out:
1. I wish someone would have told me that malpractice insurance is really affordable.
Starting out, many of the solos I met never mentioned malpractice insurance or complained about the high cost. Others said that their cases were so low-value that malpractice insurance didn’t make sense. So following their lead, I practiced bare during my first few years of practice, heart pounding every time a deadline rolled around, fearing that I might miss it and lose my house. Finally, when a client threatened that she might call the bar about me (I couldn’t secure the result I’d promised because of his failure to disclose key facts), I contacted a couple of carriers and discovered that the premiums amounted to under $200 a month — far less than I’d anticipated.
2. I wish someone would have told me that while it’s important to keep overhead low, spending a little bit to solve big problems makes sense.
After a few weeks of working out of my cold, damp basement (which was where our family computer was set up back in the day when one-computer households were the norm), I began to dread working at all in such a dank and dismal spot. After three months of complaining about the situation to my husband, I stumbled over a box on my commute to my dungeon. Looking down, I saw a laptop computer that my husband had purchased for me as a surprise. At $1600 (in 1994 dollars), a laptop seemed like a crazy extravagance. But within days, the laptop proved its worth by enabling me to leave the house and work at area libraries, a far less depressing location than the basement. Mobility also made networking easier, because by working in D.C., I could meet a colleague for lunch and return to a nearby library instead of having a lunch consume half a day with the 45-minute commute to and from from my home in the suburbs.
That laptop nearly singlehandedly turned my practice around — but everyone has a different tipping point. Some lawyers may not be able to work productively without an office, others may find that an iPad enhances productively many times more than the cost of the device, still others may need to invest a few hundred dollars a month on lunch dates with referral sources. Low overhead makes sense, but new firms shouldn’t go so low that you hinder your firm’s future success.
3. I wish someone had told me that some lawyers are just jerks.
Starting out, I didn’t expect anyone to send work my way. But I thought that, at the very least, some colleagues might be willing to spare a few minutes for a cup of coffee or for me to stop by their offices to introduce myself and drop off a business card. To be fair, many lawyers accepted my invitation. But others bluntly told me they thought that a visit would be waste of their time, while others told me that I was wasting my time on a venture where I couldn’t possibly make money. One group of lawyers pulled a bait and switch, placing an ad offering free rent in exchange for twenty hours of work per month. But when I showed up, they told me instead that I’d be expected to pay $700 a month in order for the firm to provide work that I would be expected to handle at a reduced fee. Another lawyer, feigning helpfulness, actually referred me a Nigerian spam client.
But here’s the thing. Initially, I thought I was doing something wrong — perhaps I didn’t behave deferentially enough, or I was too aggressive, or I wasn’t aggressive enough — in my approach. And though I refined my pitch that I used to ask for a meeting, I also realized that in many cases, the slammed doors or rude remarks had little to do with me but rather with some lawyers just being jerks.
4. I wish someone told me to skate where the puck is going, not where it’s been.
That said, many lawyers were incredibly generous with their time and advice when I started my firm. They shared war stories and lessons and treated me like a colleague, rather than a brainless newbie. Still, much as I appreciated and benefited from colleagues’ collective wisdom, I wish that someone had suggested I try to cut my own path, instead of following their example. I wish that someone had identified new practice areas I might explore and told me to always have an eye on the future instead of a foot in the past.
5. I wish someone told me that I might just succeed.
Most of all, when I started my practice, I wish that someone (other than my spouse and parents) told me that I could do this — that I just might succeed. Of the dozens of lawyers I met when I started out, no one looked me in the eye and said, “You know, you can do this. It might take some time but you’ll have clients before you know it. You can make this work.” Telling new solos that they can succeed is such a small thing – and at the end of the day, probably doesn’t matter much one way or another (at least, it didn’t for me). But it can make an enormous difference in the beginning.
So if you take one thing away from this post, let it be this. If you have a friend or a colleague who’s starting a firm, don’t bother emailing them a note of congratulations or sending over a bottle of wine. Don’t promise to send referrals that you don’t have or that you’ll get together for lunch when you know you never will. Instead, pick up the phone to wish them luck. Tell them that you’re thrilled to hear about their new practice and excited for them as they embark on this new adventure. And most of all, let them know that they can succeed, that you believe in them even if they don’t quite yet believe in themselves. Trust me — it’s the best gift you can give.
Carolyn Elefant has been blogging about solo and small firm practice at MyShingle.com since 2002 and operated her firm, the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant PLLC, even longer than that. She’s also authored a bunch of books on topics like starting a law practice, social media, and 21st century lawyer representation agreements (affiliate links). If you’re really that interested in learning more about Carolyn, just Google her. The Internet never lies, right? You can contact Carolyn by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @carolynelefant.