What Law School Omits to Teach You About Opening Your Own Practice

We began our respective legal practices within a year after finishing our articles; we both wanted to be able to express our personal ethics and practice law our way. We had to develop new skills, ranging from file organization to client management, grapple with unforeseen stressors, and learn to congratulate ourselves for victories big and small. Our biggest surprise was that neither law school nor former employers had ever taught us the things we needed most to run our business. So to that end, and in honour of Law Student Week at slaw, here are ten facts you may also find to be true, if you decide to go small or solo yourself:

The freedom and elation that you will feel upon hanging out your own shingle cannot be described.

When you work for yourself, you can represent yourself, your work, and your values to the outside community.  Unlike the constraints of practicing in a firm, you can define the range of your work with a freedom that usually is only afforded to senior practitioners.  You have the liberty to choose the clients you want, the work you need, the networks you enjoy participating in, and the very nature of your practice. Our choice was to identify as feminist practitioners, which has led us to attract clients who are interested in working with feminists practitioners on legal issues that engage feminist issues. We make up the only explicitly feminist legal practice in Canada. Where do you want to find your home? Does it exist? If not, why don’t you make it for yourself?

You will hear, multiple times from prospective clients, “I cannot believe you answer your phone.”

As a sole practitioner, you will be cultivating personal relationships with clients and community members, much more so than you would in a firm. Unless you start your business with administrative support, the likelihood is that you will be answering your own phone, doing intake meetings with clients, and assessing whether you want to take files on or not. You will be surprised to see your clients enjoy and appreciate this. In an age of automated responses, there is real value to hearing a human voice. This also means that you will have to work at identifying your own boundaries. When you are the only person at your business, you have to decide what is truly an urgent phone call, when to check and return work emails, and when to put in billable hours during your off-time. Again, if you communicate your boundaries well, your clients will understand and appreciate your work style. It is possible to request empathy from your clients about your own needs, particularly when you are able to demonstrate empathy for theirs from the very beginning.

You must develop an entirely different relationship with money, part 1 – do not underestimate the value of your own work.

People will advise you to put together a business plan before opening your own business. It’s a laborious exercise, and for junior lawyers, a bit of a guessing game as you have yet to figure out your own productivity. But you need know what you must bring in each month to cover your overhead, to pay yourself, and to put money away for contingencies. That is your business’ bottom line. If you do not bring in those billable files, your business will not survive. Communicate to your clients, to your friends, and to yourself that you deserve to be paid. Be intentional about taking on free work. Remember that free time – non-work time – has its own value. If you have a slow week, leave the office early; go hiking, go swimming, read trashy magazines in the tub. Do the work that you need, in order to meet your bottom line, and take care of your mental health outside of that time.

You must develop an entirely different relationship with money, part 2 – surprise, you are now a small business owner! 

You will suddenly become very conscious of that bottom line you’ve identified for your business. You may find yourself scrutinising your monthly business statements, or you might be lucky enough to have a bookkeeper who can explain it to you. You will also develop a keen interest in discussing efficiencies and cost-saving measures with other small business owners. Don’t be afraid to be honest about running a small business. People will want to support you, in the same way that you want to support that small coffee shop in your neighbourhood, or the independently-owned clothing store that just opened down the street. And of course, the gospel truth – keep your overhead low.

You must develop an entirely different relationship with money, part 3 – you will flirt with banks; they might not flirt back.

Depending on what kind of practice you want to have, and your personal circumstances, you will probably need access to credit to fund your practice. If you want to work with low-income clients who cannot pay your full fees, if you want to do personal injury law and take files on contingency, if you want to practice civil litigation that involves significant disbursements, you will need to fund your practice and pay yourself. Be choosy when you approach banking institutions, and make sure they tell you what they can do for you. Be honest with yourself about what you need to pay yourself, and make sure that you cover all the worst-case contingencies that could arise in your practice.

You need a network of mentors, because nothing feels better than having an urgent question answered by someone with more experience.

We attribute the longevity of our practice to the generosity and wisdom of our mentors. They offer invaluable support to small and sole practitioners, especially if they’ve walked the same path as you. Cultivate a stable of mentors for all of the different practice areas you want to develop, for multiple aspects of your business, and for referrals to and from your office. If you are contemplating sole or small practice, now is a good time to identify mentors whose practices you admire. Study their work; try to understand how they have made a living off their practices. Once created, allow your mentorships to turn into friendships. Similarly, consider mentoring younger women. Recognise the worth of personal relationships, because there is nothing better than connecting with someone who understands you, and who wants you to succeed.

You will turn into a dinosaur before you know it.

You may not be very tech-savvy when you start your practice; after all, you went to law school, not computer school. You certainly won’t become any more tech-savvy as your practice progresses. When you run your own practice, your priorities are comprised of: billable work, client development, accounts receivable, and personal time. Oh, and business efficiency; did that fall off our list? Some lawyers are naturally inclined to consider technology, and how it can increase their work productivity. Others may have to work harder on integrating technology into their practices, particularly because there’s no longer a reliable Information Technology colleague down the hall to upgrade your systems or program your iPhone. Also, if your printer breaks, there goes your afternoon. You will compromise on polish sometimes. And you will learn to take it all in stride.

It is okay to market yourself; in fact, marketing yourself is fun.

Marketing in the conventional sense means putting together a professional website, slick business cards, and advertising yourself in print and online media. We have not found that conventional forms of advertising work for us; our preference is to get involved in community organizing and community events in order to create authentic relationships with people who might be interested in working with us. Some small practitioners give free seminars as a means of building trust in their expertise. We have a twitter account, and we author a regular blog post on Slaw. Our marketing strategy has gone from attracting individual clients, to building our brand and our expertise, and more recently, as a means of dialoguing with other feminist practitioners. A good marketing strategy is not only about attracting clients, but about ensuring the community knows and understands the meaning of your work. We now view marketing as a way of integrating our work into the community, and we really enjoy it.

You will be happiest in small practice if you re-define success for yourself.

If you are a small or sole practitioner, the likelihood is that you do very specialized, front-line work. You will not get the big news-making cases (definitely not early in your career). You won’t have the ability to take big files on anyways, because of the potential risk that they will consume your practice and restrict your capacity to take on anything else. Is your definition of success about big-name files and precedents? If so, you may want to stay in firm practice. Is your definition of success about controlling your workload, about having authentic and direct relationships with your clients, about valuing other kinds of productivity above and beyond billable hours, about bringing team members on board who share your vision, and about being responsible to no one but yourself in the context of your work? Then sole or small practice is for you.

Practice humility about yourself and your work.

You will learn so much about yourself in small and sole practice. You will learn about how you react to stress, how you celebrate achievement, and how you reward yourself with time off. You will also learn how you draw boundaries with clients, or not; you will see how you react to difficult counsel. And there certainly will be difficult counsel, if you are young. Your clients will challenge you and your perspective on their file. Remember you have a set of skills to contribute, but that your clients understand the interpersonal dynamics of their conflict much better than you. Trust your intuition, and when appropriate, trust your client’s intuition as well. It goes without saying that you cannot tune out of sole or small practice. This can be tough on the days that you are tired. Also applies to days you are distracted by personal issues, feeling unwell, or in the thralls of a new crush. You must be able to perform every day at work. But despite this, the variety and challenges of your practice are what get you to work and it’s what makes your small or sole practice so satisfying. Every day is different. Embrace it.

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Comments

  1. This is great advice. I would add that a lot of junior associates practices at firms could take this advice as well.

  2. Jonathan Fernandes

    Great article – forwarded by my Career Director. Advice like this makes the profession of law seem even more exciting then the day I recieved my acceptance letter.

  3. Excellent article.

    Some years ago there was a book called the “E-Myth” written by David Gerber. The title stood for the phrase the “entrepreneurial myth”. His basic premise is, that just because someone is great as a plumber does not mean they are capable of running a plumbing company. Similarly, just because someone is a great lawyer (whatever that may mean) does not mean they are capable of running a law firm. The skills required, and the desire to perform them, are totally different.

    For lawyers in particular, the trap of being a know it all, and able to do a task better than someone else can be acute.

    I found brutally honest self-appraisal and a willingness to delegate tasks were vital. In particular was the willingness to delegate when I knew beyond a doubt I could do the task better and faster. I had to realize the obvious, that delegation was the key between simply working own my own versus running a real business.