In December, I had the privilege to shake the hand of over 1,100 new members of the Maryland Bar. All new admittees receive eight months of free membership in the Maryland State Bar Association, and many of these new admittees are thinking of starting their own practices whether because they have been unable to find work in a firm or other legal environment or because they are entrepreneurial and want their own business.
This issue of the Bar Bulletin will be the first that these new members receive, and I want to give some tips on those considering starting a new practice. Also at this time of year, many experienced practitioners think about leaving their current situation and start their own practice, and many of these tips will be helpful as well.
I am going to start by answering some of the questions I have been asked most often during my 20 years at the MSBA.
- Can I do this (be a solo practitioner) part-time? My answer is an unqualified and resounding no. Practicing law is a full time endeavor. No client wants or deserves a part-time lawyer. You can limit the number of clients you take, but once you have a client, whether for a fee or pro bono, you are that client’s full-time lawyer.
There are many reasons that a lawyer may want to limit his/her practice and that is fine but you should never think of or present yourself as a “part-time” lawyer.
- Can I work from home? When I first started in 1993, my answer was no but technology has changed the answer to it depends. Some practice areas are more emotional than others, so I would not recommend you working strictly from home. Technology and changing attitudes have made it much more easy and acceptable to work not just from home but from almost anywhere you have a mobile device.
Here are some very important issues to consider if you practice from home or other remote location.
- Client confidentiality is still important regardless of where you practice. Your computer/laptop/smartphone/iPad all need to be password protected. You should not allow your “office” computer to be used by others.
- You should have a separate phone line or number which is strictly for your practice.
- Depending upon your practice area, you may want access to a conference room, shared office space or other location where you can meet clients, if necessary.
- How much do I need to start a solo practice? I have always said that the two more important questions are: How long can you live without a salary and how much do you need at a minimum each month to cover your expenses?
These questions are more important for new lawyers who may not have any clients than for lawyers who are leaving larger firms and have a client base.
Here is a link to a post by a really good site called “Attorney at Work” where it asked practitioners from all over the country on how much is needed to start a solo practice. www.attorneyatwork.com/how-much-seed-money-to-go-solo/
- Create two budgets. One should be the absolute fixed expenses that must be paid each month. The other should start to include future expenses such as marketing, dues, subscriptions, office space.
- Online presence. Get a domain name before having your business cards printed and get a website even if it is just a template to start. Make the domain name simple to remember. Your name is best because as a solo practitioner, you are your firm. Go to GoDaddy.com to see what names are available.
The MSBA has a member benefit for discounts on websites with ESQSites123. More details are available at www.msba.org/departments/membership/benefit.asp.This is a quick way to get a site.
- Management. It is just as easy to develop good habits as bad habits and that includes procedures for managing your practice. Treat your new solo practice as if it were a thriving and busy practice because that is your goal. If you have the procedures in place for billing, collections, new client forms, etc. you will not have to scramble to create them when your client workload increases. At that point it will be too late and it is a blueprint for disaster.
- Insurance. Although malpractice insurance is not mandatory in Maryland, you should get it before you take your first client. Unlike car insurance, the newer you are the less expensive it will be because you do not have any clients who can sue you. Another MSBA endorsed vendor is Minnesota Mutual. You can get a quick quote at www.mlmins.com.
- Community. Become active in bar associations both local and the MSBA. There is no better way to learn how to practice and build your practice than meeting other lawyers. If you are a December 2012 admittee, you have the opportunity to join three sections for free. Take advantage of that. You will need to complete the form you received or complete it online at www.msba.org/departments/membership/newadmits.asp.
Regardless of when you were sworn in or how long you have been in practice, joining the Solo and Small Firm Practice Section will be invaluable. The e-discussion group is extremely helpful for new solo practitioners. In addition, the other 26 legal specific sections can help with information from experienced and helpful practitioners. Here is a list of all sections www.msba.org/sec_comm/
- Records. Learn to record all of your time. Knowing how you use your time will help you determine how profitable your practice is and if you are charging the right amount for your work, which can be difficult for new practitioners to determine. This is true whether you do fixed fee work, contingency work or billable hour work. It is not just how much is charged at the end of the matter but how profitable that matter was. Remember that recording your time is not the same as billing your time.
- Software. Get practice management software at the beginning of your practice and use it. There are many packages available for solo and small firm practitioners. Again, the MSBA offers discounts for two cloud-based packages, Rocket Matter and Clio.
For information on comparing software packages, the ABA has a good site at www.americanbar.org/groups/departments_offices/legal_technology_resources.html . This site is great resource for legal technology.
- Hanging Out A Shingle. Finally, there are many more tips and details on starting a solo practice at the MSBA Hanging Out A Shingle Program on Saturday, February 16, 2013 at the Sheppard Pratt Conference Center in Baltimore. More details can be found at www.msba.org. (See more in the ad on page 14.)
Please feel to contact me about this or any issue at 410-685-7878 or 800-492-1964, ext 3039. Happy New Year.