For the past 15 years, the Law Office Management Assistance Department (LOMA) has put on a How to Start a Solo Practice Program at the end of January and June to coincide with the swearing in of new lawyers. When we first started this program in 1994, many of those new attorneys were looking to go into solo practice because they could not find jobs. While that is still true for some, much has changed with the new attorneys graduating from law school. Many new law school graduates actually want to start a solo practice right from the start because they are so entrepreneurial and techno-saavy. Many new graduates are also in their second careers and not the traditional “young” lawyer. (NOTE: The Hanging Out a Shingle Program is being held this year on Saturday, February 21, 2009, at the Columbia Hilton. More details are available online at www.msba.org/events/hos/default.asp.)
Since this is the first issue of the Bar Bulletin that the new admittees will be receiving, I wanted to address some issues related to starting a solo practice. However, whether you are newly admitted to practice or are moving from a large firm or government agency, there are items to consider are the same.
Some “Duh!” Tips
- Develop the right habits from the start; it will save you time and money later. Being a solo practitioner is no excuse for bad management.
- If you are in a personal relationship, make certain that your partner understands the time it takes to start a solo practice.
- Being a solo practitioner can be an isolating experience, especially if you practice from your home (more on that later). You will need to have a network of other practitioners for support and information. If you are new to the practice of law or new to the area, you need to decide early how to develop these relationships. The best place to start is with a bar association.
- Services you will need before starting your own practice:
- Good childcare (even if you are working out of your home)
- Good housekeeper
- Good CPA
- Good tech support (do not spend a lot of time doing it yourself).
The following are items you must have, at a minimum, to start:
- Phone (you should get a phone number as soon as possible, and have at least two lines)
- Cell phone
- Personal digital assistant (Blackberry or Treo)
- Computer (you may want to consider a laptop if you plan to be mobile)
- Laser printer
- Fax machine (yes, people still fax)
- Copier (If you are starting from your home on a temporary basis, you can get a scanner that will allow you to scan documents and then print them. However, this is only for short-term use.)
- Software (bare minimum):
- Time and billing
- Case management
- Research software (If you are not certain exactly what practice areas you will need, you might want to wait to make certain you buy only what you need.) Keep in mind that the MSBA offers Fastcase free to its members.
- Adobe Acrobat (for sending and sharing documents)
- E-mail Program (most use Outlook)
What type of law you practice could determine where you practice. Consider your proximity to the following:
- Courts, government agencies, law libraries (May allow you
to postpone buying some publications), public transportation (very
important for certain types of practice), banks, accessibility for
elderly and disabled, “networking”
opportunities, meeting space
- Look for “office” space. There are a number of options:
- Home (not the best and not for all practice areas, but more acceptable than in the past.) It must be a separate area to which other family members do not have access because of confidentiality issues. All rules of confidentiality apply, even in home offices.
- Shared space. Many attorneys have office space available for rent. You cannot give your clients the impression that you are part of any firm. Your name must be listed separately as J. Jones, Attorney at Law. If reception service is offered, your phone must be answered separately with your name or simply “law offices”.
- Executive Suites. These facilities rent small offices, and there is a separate charge for other services.
If renting empty office space, be frugal with the furnishings. Do not spend money you do not have. Many spaces come furnished with a desk and chair but you may have to provide filing cabinets.
- Special issues when practicing from home:
- If you plan to practice from home, you MUST have a separate phone line. No one but you should answer the phone. You should have a separate computer that is not your home computer, as there are confidentiality issues. No one but you should use this computer. If you would not allow someone else to use your computer in an office, it should be no different if your home is your office.
- When recording your voicemail message at a number that you have given to professional associates, make certain you have your name on your message.
Understand budgeting issues:
- Determine current fixed expenses. List all of your fixed personal and professional monthly expenses to determine your needs.
- How long can you live without an income?
- Do not buy more than you need to start. Use other resources until you are certain of your needs.
- Set up your chart of accounts so that you can immediately begin tracking where your money is going.
- Do not start to accept money from clients until you have set up a trust account, which most Maryland banks can provide. Choose one of the MLSC/MSBA Honor Roll Banks. Find the list at www.mlsc.org/honor_roll.htm.
- You need both an operating account and a trust account. They should have “operating account” and “trust (or escrow) account” on the respective checks, and should be in different colors to avoid confusion.
Administration and Marketing
- Change your address and information with the MSBA and Client Protection Fund. You can change your information securely online at the MSBA at https://www.msba.org/directory/update/index.cfm. Since the public has the ability to search for members by practice area and location, please make certain that you include your practice areas.
- If you are currently in practice, make certain you have a mailing list of all current clients, prospects, referrals and business associates. Send notices with your new address and contact information. Determine how e-mail to an old address will be forwarded to you. This is especially critical if you have been with a firm or agency.
- Get business cards. Do not spend a lot if you are taking only temporary space.
- Get a domain name before you begin to give out your e-mail address. Go to www.nameboy.com or www.domaintools.com to determine what names are available.
- As a solo practitioner, your name is your firm. Do not hesitate to use your name as your domain name. Besides, most of the really clever names are taken.
- Determine how you are going to cost-effectively let people know you are now “J. Jones, Attorney at Law”.
- If you are leaving a firm, there are rules about when you may and may not inform clients. Make certain you know those rules when telling clients.
- Send announcements to all small local newspapers.
- Join state, local or specialty bar associations. If you are a new admittee, you can join three MSBA Sections for free. Make certain that you join the Solo and Small Firm Practice Section because their Email List will be invaluable. More details for new admittees can be found at www.msba.org/departments/membership/newadmits.asp.
- Explore what civic, social or professional associations/organizations will have potential clients and/or referral sources. Join and participate in those organizations.
- If you are leaving a firm and bringing a secretary or assistant, make certain you set up a payroll account or use a payroll service.
- Determine your billing and collection policy as soon as possible. If you are a new practitioner, this is a great opportunity to teach your clients from the start how you manage your practice. (More information on billing and collection can be found at www.msba.org/departments/loma/articles/articles.htm.)
For additional information on these topics, please e-mail Pat Yevics at email@example.com. Include what information you are requesting, your name and mailing address. Additional information is also available at the MSBA website:
- Law Office Management (LOMA) Articles (www.msba.org/departments/loma/articles/articles.htm)
- Ethics Opinions (www.msba.org/members/default.asp)
- List of Mentors (www.msba.org/sec_comm/mentor/index.htm)
- Information packets on topics (www.msba.org/departments/loma/infopacks.htm)
To receive a copy of LOMA’s “How to Start a Solo Practice”, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, and include your name and mailing address.
And finally, if you would like to talk about these or other issues, please contact Pat Yevics at (410) 685-7878 or (800) 492-1964, ext. 3039, to schedule a time to have your questions answered.