Top 10 Things to Know Before Starting a Law Firm
The Cases You Don’t Take Can Be More Important That the Ones You Do
As a lawyer – especially a new one – your time is an extremely valuable asset. Time is a finite resource and all of us only have a fixed amount of time and energy to devote to our practice every day. As a result, discipline can be the difference between failure and success in any business, but in the practice of law in particular. In order to be a successful advocate, you need to be able to put your entire focus and effort behind a cause you are passionate about. In order to effectively do this, you have to resist the temptation to act out of impulse or desperation – as hard as that can be. Early in a practice, lawyers frequently have a habit of taking whatever comes in the door out of sheer necessity. However, it’s vital that you consider the possibility that the case you take today may preclude you from taking the bigger opportunity tomorrow. This is especially true in any practice area that demands years of attention – such as litigation. Understanding the scope of what you are signing up for can be very difficult without experience and context, as cases can take on a life of their own and carry on for years and years to come. In simple terms, the no’s are more important than the yes’.
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Pay Extra Mind to IOLTA Accounts
As lawyers, we are held to a higher standard of ethics in a wide range of respects. Among the most important of these is trust accounting. Lawyers need to take great pains to ensure that money held in trust is being managed ethically and is accounted for properly. Even the smallest discrepancies can result in serious professional problems. Additionally, lawyers – especially new lawyers – need to ensure that they do not fall victim to trust account scams. The common trust account scam involved a company – usually overseas – asking that a lawyer refund trust funds you hold, only to find out later that the original check or deposit was rejected or dishonored. You can avoid falling into this trap by ensuring that you are fully and completely vetting potential clients before accepting any engagement. As the old saying goes, if it seems too good to be true, it usually is.
There’s no such things as hands off referrals
In most states, when you refer a case to another lawyer, there are only two ways you can split fees with that lawyer. Either by taking on joint representation for the case or commensurate with the time you spend on the case. With most personal injury cases, referring attorneys fall into the former category and are jointly responsible. That means you should be extra careful to only refer cases to firms that you trust will not make some kind of mistake that could put you in hot water. You’re responsible for every case you refer so make sure you don’t take a hands off approach even if you are merely referring counsel.
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Authenticity is the best marketing
Consumers, especially in the modern social media era, have a heightened sensitivity to disingenuous or fake content. Often times, the simplest and most straightforward approach is the most effective. Being yourself never goes out of style, so it’s important that your marketing and branding fairly portrays a sense of your true personality and values. If you are a straight to the point, no-nonsense type of lawyer – don’t try to overcomplicate your marketing message with detailed, technical content. Stay true to yourself and consumers will be magnetized to your personality far more than any trivial attempt to sell them something. Many times, the best marketing doesn’t look like marketing at all. It might instead look like a frank and honest conversation, or a look into your day to day life.
Learn to wear multiple hats
This is true for any small business owner. You have to learn to wear multiple hats, especially at the beginning of your practice. Some of the skills that go a long way are accounting or bookkeeping, website development, internet market, social media and communication skills. Having these skills will help make sure you can get started with your business and save some money early on by doubling as a web designer for example. As you grow, you can start adding on other people to your team to take on these critical areas of any business and focus on what you do best – practice law.
Establish Banking Relationships
Any business needs capital, and this is especially true for some types of legal practices. Establishing solid banking relationships can help you to access these resources when the need arises. Even if you are self funding your startup practice, every law practice needs checking and IOLTA accounts. It’s important to establish banking relationships early so that you don’t need to start from square one when you need help with something. While there are pros and cons of both local and national banking institutions, we advise start up firms to focus on building relationships with local bank employees and managers.
Involve yourself in the legal community
Local legal communities are small and usually fairly tight knit. While the practice of law can be an adversarial profession, chances are you will have a working relationship with colleagues where its clear when the courtroom ends and the professional network begins. You really need to make sure you understand the difference and can maintain a professional relationship with the legal community: judges, opposing counsel, clerks, etc. Being able to seamlessly turn from courtroom adversary to colleague at will is a vital skill to gain early. Other lawyers in your community will become valuable resources, mentors and referral sources if you demonstrate consistency, ability and fairness. Remember that when a lawyer is looking to refer a case, they are often putting them in the shoes of their client.
Build a specialized practice as soon as possible
There’s an enormous universe of practices that a lawyer is able to focus on. While starting out broad is a fairly decent strategy, specializing early is a smart move. Find one thing you love that not many others do and focus on just being the best lawyer in that area you can. This will likely result in less competition, easier marketing and easier practice management since you will become so experienced that most cases will be something you’ve dealt with before. This confidence in your ability only makes practicing law easier, more efficient and overall more successful.
Don’t lose focus on client satisfaction
In the modern digital world, perhaps more than ever, your reputation is your currency. Data consistently shows that more than 50 percent of consumers read more than 4 reviews before deciding to make a purchase decision. As a start up, you will likely lack the resources to gain online unbituity overnight. Therefore, it’s vital to your ability to compete that your clients share their experience with you and your firm online. That positive comment or 5 star review may make the difference between you getting the case you are looking for or losing it to your more seasoned and established competitors.
Mentorship is key to longevity
You can certainly learn the tricks of the trade on your own but a much faster approach is to foster a mentorship with an experienced lawyer. They can point your attention to those important lessons before you have to go through the hardship of learning them yourself. It’s more like a cheat code where your mentor can get you way further ahead in your practice than if you had to learn everything yourself. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Find and foster a mentorship with a lawyer that’s open and willing to help new lawyers get ahead in their early practice. This can also be a great referral source for those cases that you feel require co-counsel.
Dennis P. Sawan
Licensed in Ohio and Georgia
Christopher A. Sawan
Licensed in Ohio and Michigan
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