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Go Solo without Starving : Trial – Small Office Practice by Spencer Aronfeld

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Spencer Aronfeld

Attorney Spencer AronfeldThe first ground rule for launching a Career as a sole practitioner is that you must love the law. You must be thrilled at the thought of handling cases, conducting re search, working long hours. and dealing with clients, lawyers, and judges. Whether you have practiced in a large firm or small firm or you have never practiced before, as a sole practitioner you will have all of the stress of being a lawyer, plus the responsibility of running your own business.

If you are not excited by this opportunity, practicing alone will be miserable. Going solo is not for everyone. But if you are curious, try it. The worst that could hap pen is that you close your firm. The best is that you gain a sense of accomplishment from creating your own firm. So, go for it. Just remember to be patient. There will be good weeks and bad weeks, good months and bad months, good years and bad years.

I believe that lawyers who focus on one area of law eventually exceed those who are general practitioners. It is expensive in the short run to say “no” to cases, but it is hard to be a jack- or jill-of-all-trades and well versed in many areas of the law.

You might pick a niche that “big-time” lawyers tend to avoid, such as first-party insurance claims in automobile cases. Many lawyers would not accept a first-party insurance case. a landlord-tenant claim, or a traffic ticket case. But handling these cases is a fantastic way to gain both experience and contacts.

A few years ago. I decided to say ‘no” to billing clients. Previously, if I were given

the choice of billing immediately and get ting paid or working on a contingent file and hoping to win, I preferred immediate payment. I’ve since reversed that course of action and now work solely on contingent personal injury files. My reasoning is this: If I had clients who were paying by the hour and clients whose cases were being handled on a contingent fee basis, I would inevitably work on the cases I was billing hourly. But my contingency cases might not get the attention they needed. I handle only a few kinds of cases and hope that can refer those I decide not to take to other lawyers who will return the favor one day.

There are several ways to build your net-work and let other lawyers know you welcome referrals. First, you can invite other lawyers to breakfast (which is less expensive than lunch) and explain that you have recently started practicing on your own. If they have any small suits that they don’t have time for (they all do), tell them you would like to help by taking those cases for them, and offer a referral fee. (Check your state bar for rules regulating these fees.)

Do a great job on whatever case others give you. Treat it like a federal case, and pay that referral fee the minute you get the case. You will lose money at first, but referring lawyers will not forget you the next time they have a case to refer. An added bonus is you may get a referral from the client as well.

Making rain

When you first start out, do not hesitate to take small cases, especially if you have little or no experience. These cases do not pay much and require lots of leg work, but satisfied clients will refer their friends, family, and others to you.

If you are prepared and work hard, everyone you meet along the way is a potential client or referral source. Hand your business card to the parking lot attendant, the courthouse cleric, the bailiff, the court reporter; and the defense lawyer. I have had a number of cases referred to me by defense attorneys.

Advertising is a great idea, but it can be expensive. Get your name out there by speaking at churches, schools, law schools, and ATLA events.

You can place an ad in a local flyer or the yellow pages, but it may be costly. If you have the resources, go for it. I suggest you wait a few months to a year before you advertise so you have time to set up your office and decide how you want to focus your practice. Then you can tailor your advertising to your market.

Figure out how you can target a specific group. For example, women can market to women in a way men cannot, just as minorities and those who speak a foreign language can reach a particular community in ways others cannot.

Setting up shop

You can start out using just a cellular telephone, a laptop, and a modem. You do not need a fancy office. You can use a court reporter’s office for depositions. Meet clients at their homes, record information on your laptop, and carry your office with you. I used the Wendy’s fast food restaurant across the street from my apartment for the first six months of my practice. No one ever questioned meeting me there.

When deciding on an office location, go where the clients are, not where the law years are. It might be good for your ego to be in a high-rise office in a fancy building, but who is going to find you there? Other lawyers? For personal injury lawyers, I suggest a storefront location. Depending on which area you want to practice in, it may be best to go to a lower-income area since those clients may be more likely to come to you rather than take four buses and a train to get to a lawyer’s office downtown. Besides, rent is cheaper farther from the downtown area. Subleasing space from an up-and-running law firm is another option. This will allow you to share resources
—photocopiers, fax machines, and other equipment—at little or no expense.

Once you find a location for your office, think about your staffing needs. Remember, you are only as good as the people you hire. If you are leaving another firm, try to take your support staff with you (assuming you are happy with them) since it can be daunting to find others who understand how you work. If you live in a bilingual area, you will need a bilingual receptionist.

In the beginning, you should be able to handle most of your own word processing, but when you have sufficient work, it is time to get help. Consider getting part time help from local high school, junior college, paralegal, or nursing students. I have found nurses and nursing students to be helpful in my personal injury practice. Besides having the patience and understanding to deal with personal injury clients, they understand medicine. Re member, high-priced help does not always equal good help.

Still, it is worth the sacrifice in money to keep your office running smoothly. Do not try to save a few dollars by hiring un qualified people. They can cost you your license by misfiling, making scheduling errors, or embezzling from you.

One last word about staff: If you can re member that no one will ever care as much about your office, clients, and reputation as you do, then you will not be disappoint ed. However, if you expect your employees to burn the midnight oil, meet clients on the weekends, or return every telephone call by day’s end, you will be let down.

When it comes to keeping books, I have found that Quicken 99 does everything I need. This program easily categorizes all my expenses by type and client. I recommend QuickBooks 99 for those who need billing software.

Credit cards and lines of credit are important for the lawyer who has to advance costs in a case. Unless you have a war chest of money, you will need to borrow funds from a bank. Try to find a bank that under stands the needs of a trial lawyer and can assist in trust accounts, lines of credit, and last-minute transfers over the telephone.

A great relationship with your banker is key. I have found that small banks provide better service than large ones. If your banker does not recognize your voice over the telephone, he or she does not know you well enough, and it is time to invite the banker to breakfast.

Seeking advice

Even for experienced lawyers, having a mentor is important. For inexperienced sole practitioners, it is essential to have someone to listen to your ideas. Try to find a mentor who cares enough to take the time to give you the right advice, not just off-the-cuff answers.

Unless your mentor is a saint, he or she will eventually want something back from you. Early in my career, I paid lawyers for their advice. I would give a percentage on a case just to learn how to handle it, and then I would apply the mentor’s advice again in the next similar case.

When you strike off on your own, you need patience, persistence, and more patience. Success will not happen overnight. Once you succeed at one level, you may find you want even more—more cases, more contacts, a better office, a better reputation.

There is no shortcut to success and no magic pill, just long hours and an enormous amount of stress and sweat. As long as you value independence in how you work, where you work, and for whom you work, you will be successful and happy as a sole practitioner.