Letters to a New Lawyer: Laying the groundwork for private practice

January 19, 2011
Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
Letters to a New Lawyer

Editor’s Note: This is the second in an occasional series of advice-oriented letters to young lawyers. If you are interested in sharing your wisdom on practicing law, e-mail Kelly Lucas at

LetYoungLaw-DoxseeWhile I have worked for the government as a deputy attorney general (then one of the biggest law offices in the state), most of my practice has been as a solo attorney in association with other attorneys. I do not recommend opening your practice alone. At the very least you should find some space with another experienced attorney or, if you cannot, at least find a mentor who you can call on for advice. What you learned in law school is not enough to make you ready for the practice of law.

The sole practice requires a special kind of temperament. It requires you to be a self motivator. There will be no senior partner or office manager telling you what to do or when to do it. You will have to be aware of your client appointment calendar, court hearings, due dates for filings and court hearings.

You need an independent spirit with confidence in being your own boss. This also means that you are dependent on yourself for income. There will be no regular paycheck. Your income comes when the client pays or you collect a judgment. Some clients are slow pay (or may not pay at all) and some cases do not pay until the matter is concluded. When I entered the practice it was said that you should have three months of savings to get over the slow spots, today six months would be better.

The sole practice requires some management skills to deal with clients and staff, if you have staff. You will also need some accounting skills or least the ability to keep up on who owes you money, keeping your bills paid and keeping records for your taxes. You can get a bad reputation by being a slow bill payer and if you do not collect your fees, you cannot pay your bills. Taxes are another matter and as a sole practitioner you will have to pay quarterly estimated income taxes. A good accountant or accounting program can help you in setting up and keeping up your accounting books.

You must keep the client informed. When taking on a client, you should make sure the client understands the terms of employment. Either have the client sign a fee agreement or send a confirming letter with the terms of employment spelled out. Be sure the client understands the costs and what you are going to do. Once you have the client, keep the client informed of what is going on. This can be done with copies of letters you send to opposing counsel and copies of filed pleading or other documents you have prepared. I am always formal in my correspondence to other attorneys. Copies are often sent to the clients by me and by opposing counsel. I have found that clients tend to be suspicious of attorneys who are too friendly in their correspondence to other attorneys and worry that, being so friendly, the attorney will compromise the client’s interest. Finally, be sure to return telephone calls.

One of the most frequent disciplinary complaints is that of not communicating with the client. Of course, there are client’s that telephone you too much. Many attorneys make it clear to their client that they charge for telephone calls. I do not charge for calls that merely advise on status. However, my billing program has a column for time spent with the client at no charge so they are aware of my service.

You need a time-accounting program, both to keep a record of how much time you spend on each matter, but charging a client by the hour. I use a very simple computer database program in which I enter each day the time I spend on each client’s file. I also keep time on non-client matters. This helps me to be more efficient in the use of my time. When I charge by the hour, the client gets a time log and I want them to know when I perform services for which I have not charged. There are also available commercial time-keeping and billing programs for those who like the more detailed programs.

You may wish to specialize or specialize by exclusion. When I started out in the practice, it was easier to be a solo practitioner and have a general practice. I took in just about every case that came through my door. Today, that may not be wise. Some areas of the law have become too complicated for the generalist.

In later years I have specialized by exclusion. I no longer do criminal law (although it was favorite area of law), personal injury, bankruptcy, and securities law. Later letters will cover some of the special practice areas.

One of the early things you need to do is to find the courthouse. Do not be afraid to introduce yourself and find out what each office does and what records they keep. Many of these records are now on computer and are rapidly becoming available on the Internet. The auditor and recorder usually have a published listing of their fees which will become important in collecting those fees from your clients. Knowing the judge’s law clerks, secretary and court reporter can be very useful. Even today I could do my own title and judgment searches, if it were not cheaper to have a title company do it for me.

Over the years I have kept a master list of all my clients. I check this list to make sure that any person I am taking legal action against has not been a former client or I have some other conflict of interest. This is particularly important if you practice in a small community. I would also recommend you keep a list of the names of persons you have taken legal action against.

As a professional you have an obligation of service to your clients and to your community. The obligation to your client is not just to be their advocate, but to tell them what is right and what is practical. You will often have clients whose cause is just, but the amount in controversy is not worth the time and the mental aguish of pursuing. If after explaining the expense and what is involved in the legal action, the client still wishes to proceed, then you can proceed. However, it they have a frivolous case, you should tell them, explain that you cannot take their case and advise them that they are free to seek another attorney.

In starting out you should read a few books on starting a practice. Just do a web search, or the American Bar Association has some information on their website at•

Donald Doxsee is a 1963 graduate of the Indiana University School of Law, a past president of the Allen County Bar Association, and is in the private practice of law in the association of Williams Williams & Doxsee.


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

  2. Paul Hartman of Burbank, Oh who is helping Sister Fuller with this Con Artist Kevin Bart McCarthy scares Sister Joseph Therese, Patricia Ann Fuller very much that McCarthy will try and hurt Patricia Ann Fuller and Paul Hartman of Burbank, Oh or any member of his family. Sister is very, very scared, (YES, I AM) This McCarthy guy is a real, real CON MAN and crook. I try to totall flatter Kevin Bart McCARTHY to keep him from hurting my best friends in this world which are Carolyn Rose and Paul Hartman. I Live in total fear of this man Kevin Bart McCarthy and try to praise him as a good man to keep us ALL from his bad deeds. This man could easy have some one cause us a very bad disability. You have to PRAISAE in order TO PROTECT yourself. He lies and makes up stories about people and then tries to steal if THEY OWN THRU THE COURTS A SPECIAL DEVOTION TO PROTECT, EX> Our Lady of America DEVOTION. EVERYONE who reads this, PLEASE BE CAREFUL of Kevin Bart McCarthy of Indianapolis, IN My Phone No. IS 419-435-3838.

  3. Joe, you might want to do some reading on the fate of Hoosier whistleblowers before you get your expectations raised up.

  4. I had a hospital and dcs caseworker falsify reports that my child was born with drugs in her system. I filed a complaint with the Indiana department of health....and they found that the hospital falsified drug screens in their investigation. Then I filed a complaint with human health services in Washington DC...dcs drug Testing is unregulated and is indicating false positives...they are currently being investigated by human health services. Then I located an attorney and signed contracts one month ago to sue dcs and Anderson community hospital. Once the suit is filed I am taking out a loan against the suit and paying a law firm to file a writ of mandamus challenging the courts jurisdiction to invoke chins case against me. I also forwarded evidence to a u.s. senator who contacted hhs to push an investigation faster. Once the lawsuit is filed local news stations will be running coverage on the situation. Easy day....people will be losing their jobs soon...and judge pancol...who has attempted to cover up what has happened will also be in trouble. The drug testing is a kids for cash and federal funding situation.

  5. (A)ll (C)riminals (L)ove (U)s is up to their old, "If it's honorable and pro-American, we're against it," nonsense. I'm not a big Pence fan but at least he's showing his patriotism which is something the left won't do.