(Our last couple of posts about law school and recent graduates were a bit negative, focusing on those who are entering the profession for the wrong reasons. But what about those who are doing it for all the right reasons? They are in the majority, after all. Well, this one’s for them.)
There’s plenty of talk around the blawgosphere these days of fresh young law graduates looking to start their own practices. Some are hanging out their own shingle because they couldn’t find the right kind of job out of law school. Some are doing it because that’s what they always wanted to do in the first place. Either way, it’s a decision that takes a certain kind of entrepreneurial mindset. Most lawyers we know would rather not own their own practice, because at least working for someone else you’re making steady reliable money with which to pay for such things as rent and debt. When hearing of someone starting their own practice, they often say nice things like “how brave” or “that took some guts,” to which the new solo typically responds (in his head) “really?” The kind of person likely to go solo isn’t the kind of person who thinks it’s a brave thing to do; they do it because it feels right for them. Maybe they’re happier being their own boss. Maybe they’re risk-takers by nature. Whatever the reason, it’s what they’re comfortable doing.
So if you’re one of the newly-minted JDs thinking of going solo, hats off to you.
That said, however, there are some things you probably ought to be aware of. There’s been a fair amount of foofaraw online about the ethical and disciplinary pitfalls out there. All the warnings are true. Read them and take heed. These warnings are not threats. They are not the crazed jabber of old farts trying to keep you out of their territory. Ignore those who say otherwise; they are displaying poor judgment.
Lawyer ethics is not a trap for the unwary. It is not a minefield of hidden dangers. It’s pretty much common sense for anyone who has a sense of the law as a profession, rather than a business. The rules are very simple:
- The client comes first.
- Know what you’re talking about before you open your mouth.
- Only take on a case if you can actually handle it competently.
- Never misrepresent anything to anybody, ever. This includes what you say or imply about yourself online.
It’s not hard. If you think these are scary rules, or that they’re designed to make it harder for you to make a buck, then please do not practice law — you have missed the whole point. If you understand that your role as a lawyer is to protect the interests of your clients, who have entrusted to you matters that are of great importance in their lives, then these rules should elicit nothing more than a “duh, of course” from you. You should wonder why such rules even need to be mentioned. They are obvious and self-evident.
So enough of the rules. We’ll presume that you have the necessary mindset to go it alone, and practice ethically. What more do you need to know?
Although the practice of law has changed a bit over the past 15 years or so — with the rise of the internet, email, computerized research and all that — you don’t care about any of those changes because you’re just starting out. The last thing you need is someone telling you how things work in the digital age.
What you probably don’t know, however, are some of the nuts and bolts of building a successful law practice. So here are a few things to get you started:
First, make sure you can afford to live while you’re starting up. If you do things right, you’ll probably get a handful of clients during your first year. Unless you are incredibly lucky, their fees won’t be enough to pay your bills. Treat every dollar you earn in the first year as found money, the result of luck only. Don’t plan on that money coming in. That means you’re going to have to be able to support yourself some other way during that first year. Maybe that means living off savings, or a working spouse, or taking a part-time job that’s flexible enough that you can drop it when client needs demand it.
Part of making sure you can afford it is to keep your costs to a minimum. This is not hard to do — a computer, a smart phone, a printer, and a decent suit are all you really need. [EDIT: And business cards. They’re cheap.] It’s not as if you’ll be stocking inventory. Professional insurance is cheap when you’re starting out, because you don’t have a past to be concerned with. Don’t buy office supplies unless an actual client’s case demands it. It’s amazing how much money you’ll save if you just stay out of Staples. But don’t be penny-wise-pound-foolish — there are some expenses that are necessary. Office space is one of them. Don’t work out of your house. It turns off potential clients, and it kills one of the greatest sources of new clients: interaction with other lawyers. So rent a desk in a suite of other lawyers — don’t work out of your house. Not only will you look more professional and attract more clients, you’ll have access to actual lawyers who might let you help out with a case or two, who might even refer cases to you. That is a necessary expense.
Other lawyers are going to be your biggest source of clients. You may get a client here and there from your website, but don’t count on it. In many practices, lawyer referrals can remain your most important source of clients for the rest of your career. So spend as much time hanging out with other lawyers as you can. Get a desk in a suite. Go to bar association functions that you’re interested in. Join lawyer groups that you’re interested in. Note the phrase “that you’re interested in” — like any networking, if you’re just there to promote yourself, it’ll be obvious and nobody will bother; but if you’re there because you’re genuinely interested, then you’ll be hanging out with people who share similar interests, and that’s how relationships are born. So get out of the house, and go enjoy the company of other lawyers.
Presumably, you have a website. Websites are not there to attract clients. They are there to reassure existing clients and referring lawyers that they’ve picked the right guy. Your website can be a simple cookie-cutter WordPress site, there’s nothing wrong with that, but please please please do not hire someone else to write the text for you. It’s become a common phrase that outsourcing your marketing means outsourcing your ethics. Services that write your website for you can really suck, especially when they use boilerplate language that makes inaccurate representations about you. Don’t call yourself experienced when you aren’t. It’s better to not say anything about you, than to puff up your credentials. A simple listing of your true practice areas, a cheap photo, and your contact information are all that’s necessary. But if there are things about you that set you apart from the pack, by all means say so.
If you want to draw traffic to your site, however, you’re going to have to put some content on there. Don’t fill it with stupid SEO nonsense like “for your Nebraska DUI needs, be sure to call Nebraska DUI defense attorney Joe Smith, knowledgeable in all aspects of Nebraska DUI law.” That just pisses people off and sends potential clients looking elsewhere. You can maximize your SEO without being such a doofus. Just write your own ideas. If you have a lot of ideas, write a blog. Write about your practice area. Write as well as you can. Make it readable. Because your subject matter is your practice area, you’re not going to have to worry about keywords and search terms. They’ll be in there. And the less you focus on you, and the more you focus on the practice area itself, the more other sites will link to you, and the more people will find you online. But don’t count on getting too many clients online.
More important than the internet is going to be the lawyer-referral service of your local bar association. Note we did not say one of the pay-to-play lawyer referral businesses that are popping up all over the place. If you have to pay for quality “leads,” they aren’t. Expect to get an insane amount of emails and phone calls from people claiming to have a spot open for one more attorney in your area to get a mess of pre-screened clients. Expect to politely hang up and delete them all. The referral services that count are already there, operated by your local bar association. Some operate like a rotating roster, giving clients the name of whomever is next on the list. Others are picky, with standards and qualifications for each practice area, so they can match up clients with the right lawyers. However your county does it, get on the list.
Now what kinds of clients should you accept? This may sound like an absurd question for someone just starting out. You want every client you can get, right? Wrong. Some clients are more trouble than they’re worth to a new lawyer, whether because their demands exceed your availability, or because they’re unwilling to pay enough to compensate you adequately for the work you’ll wind up doing on their case. Either way, if you can’t afford to represent a client, you should not agree to represent him. Also avoid any potential client who seems like they’re trying to get something for nothing. You are not free. Your services have value, and you should expect to be compensated for them.
Another important kind of client to avoid is one with a crappy case, if you’re doing civil work. Politely decline any case that doesn’t have much merit. Also decline any contingency matter that isn’t a slam dunk, and research representative settlements to find out if your end is likely to compensate you for all the time you’ll be spending on it over the next few years.
If you’re doing criminal work, for some of your clients you should expect that your first check is going to be your last check. There are plenty of judges who won’t let you out of the case as trial approaches just because your client can’t afford you any more. (With other clients, you can just charge a starter amount up front to cover the first bit of work, then bill monthly after that. You should be able to tell who is who.)
How you bill is entirely up to you. You can bill hourly for the time spent actually working on the case, or charge a flat fee for the value of the service, or some kind of hybrid approach. Just make sure it’s spelled out in your (always written) agreement, and comports with your state’s rules.
How much you bill is something you’re going to need to ask other lawyers in your area. Billing rates vary dramatically from practice area to practice area, and from region to region. Within each practice area and region, there’s a range from the entry-level rate to the superstar rate. You are not a superstar. Don’t charge $1000 an hour if the going rate for novices is $100. But don’t undercut yourself — remember, your services have value, and you should reflect that. If it’s free, the client’s not going to value it as much. And you also create a precedent you might not have wanted. It’s okay to give discounted rates to friends and family when starting out, but be sure that it’s reflected on the invoice as a discount from the standard rate.
If you do civil litigation or criminal defense, don’t ever promise an outcome. You’re lying if you do. The only promise you can give is that you will defend the client as best you can. And then keep that promise.
To keep clients, and keep them coming back, all you have to do is be good at it. Know what you’re talking about. Do a good job. Return their calls and emails. These are the things that make clients happy. Do them, and they’ll refer others to you.
There’s tons more advice you’ll want, and this post is already too long. You should definitely ask lawyers around you for advice whenever you can. Never think you know it all, because you don’t. But if you do these few things — if you do a good job, if you serve your clients well, and if you stay involved with the bar — your practice is probably going to grow. And you’ll be happy.