Solo/Small

How To Start a Law Firm Without a Plan or Budget: You Are Ill-Prepared

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Welcome to Day 2!

I told you yesterday that you are especially qualified to build a law firm, that you are incredibly smart and that you can do this. I 100% believe that.

But today, let’s start with a reality check:

They didn’t train you for this.

Wherever you went to law school, your professors prepared you well to be an awesome lawyer. But they likely didn’t do much to prepare you to own a law firm. How could that be?

The first problem is that law schools don’t know what they do. The New York Times hosted a fantastic conversation about this problem in their Room for Debate feature back in 2011. I suggest you read it.

The comment that most fascinated me came from Professor Kevin Noble Maillard of Syracuse University: “Law school is not a trade school.”

Ignoring for a second the question of whether a law school should be a trade school — Is it moral to charge that much for a program that won’t even try to train you to earn it back? — we can at least acknowledge that law schools don’t see themselves trade schools. Very few law programs make any effort to show you how to succeed as a practicing lawyer.

But law school got me ready for a bar exam prep course which got me ready for the bar exam which got me a law license. So I’m good, right?

Wrong. You can’t assume that a law license will lead to success. You own a business. You’re not just a practitioner, you own a practice.

Practitioner Versus Practice Owner

That distinction comes from the book The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber. The myth of the entrepreneur is that being a good practitioner means you’ll be a good practice-owner. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Thinking and acting like a business-owner means more risk, more creativity, and more Hail Mary passes than lawyers are accustomed to. But that’s your reality, and you need a reality check.

The need to think differently has never driven the legal market like it has over the last decade, not to mention the next. Legal innovation is more than just a buzzword. Thinking like an owner may prove an existential requirement.

So, forget law school. Don’t blame your professors or your career services office or your clinical advisors.

The real reason you’re not prepared for the current legal market? It has never existed before.,,

[Mental Exercise of the Day]:

When I hired any employee I asked them to write down what gaps they have in their experience and training against what the job description asks for. No hire will ever check all the boxes on your job description. The goal is to create a process for filling those gaps.

That’s no less true for you.

Do you feel you lack substantive knowledge in a practice area you like? Do you lack technology skills? Do you lack management or marketing experience?

Imagine everything a firm owner does (and certainly ask a mentor to help you flesh this out) and write up a job description. Then identify where you face the highest hurdles. Knowing these challenges will help you design a plan to overcome them.

(This is similar to David C Baker’s “Getting to Know” process that we talked about here. Just add skills you feel you lack as a business owner as well.)

Don’t flail mindlessly against your challenges; write them down. That’s how you overcome them. We’ll talk more about how another day. For today, just put the gaps to paper. Name and own them.

[Big Little Step of the Day]:

You have a virtual address, now you need a real one.

Finding an office is easily the most personal decision of your first 14 days. A domain name and phone number won’t change your life, but setting yourself up in an environment that keeps you unproductive will break you down. Especially if you do a really dumb thing and get into a long-term lease (yes, I did that).

My advice: call around to attorneys who practice in an area that interests you and ask if they have a room you can use. Or a corner. A tiny corner with a tiny desk and space enough for a tiny laptop. And a conference room.

The office helps, but being around another attorney will shape how you work. If you become office buddies with a jerk, you’ll know what not to do; if you’re spending your days down the hall from a ninja, knowledge will trickle down. Rent a room and get an education. It’s a good deal.

The best way to do this is to take as many lawyers to lunch as you can in your first weeks and let them know that you’re looking for space. I promise they’ll know somebody. Or you’ll be asked to office with someone you just spent a lunch with—another fine result.

If a tight budget constrains you, go to the local UPS store and ask for a P.O. box. They have a service that will give you an actual address with a suite number, rather than a P.O. box number.

I worked out of a virtual office for my first two years of practice. I paid $30 a month for the address and by the hour for the conference room. That worked okay, but my family life made that arrangement tough. A lawyer with four kids at home probably needs an office.

Your personal situation will define this decision. And it should. The choice should not focus on price, but on productivity. How will you generate the best results for your clients? Do that.

Whatever you resolve to do, do it today. If you don’t have a better solution by the end of the day, just go with the UPS option and keep looking. You need an address for things like court-appointment lists and malpractice insurance, so get one. You can always change it later.

Up Next…

(Coming Soon) Go on to the next chapter: The Path to Mastery

Or, go back to the Table of Contents

Mike Whelan, Jr. is Managing Editor at Casetext. He spends most of his day advocating for and training solo and small firm attorneys in topics as varied as writing, marketing, design, and collaboration. He was a solo attorney himself for several years after graduating from the University of Texas School of Law. He lives in the Kansas City area with his lovely wife and four rambunctious children.