Owning a business can be richly rewarding. Law firm owners can define the scope of their practice, pick a target market, set their own hours and enjoy the creativity involved in implementing a corporate vision. With technological advancements and a move to web-based work and communication in recent years, starting a law firm has become increasingly accessible for attorneys seeking the unique benefits of small business ownership. For attorneys considering a move to solo or small firm practice, here are some tips for starting your own law firm.
1. Start with a good foundation. It may be tempting to “hang out your shingle” immediately after law school and forgo working for a law firm or training with another attorney. There are attorneys who have successfully done so. But most attorneys do not have business degrees. Starting a law practice means becoming a business owner, and practicing law and running a business are different skill sets. It is helpful to have experience practicing law before starting a law practice. Before starting my firm, I clerked for a judge and worked for two excellent civil litigation firms, where I learned how to practice law and developed connections and friendships that remain an important part of my practice to this day. This gave me a good foundation in the law and allowed me to focus on learning how to run a small business as I prepared to open my doors. Consider working for a law firm or training with an experienced attorney and developing a network of strong mentors and friendships in the legal community before you branch out on your own.
2. Branding and strategic marketing are key. According to the American Bar Association, there were 15,802 licensed lawyers in the state of Indiana in 2021. Many are solo and small firm practitioners. This means your law firm must stand out in a saturated market if you want your business to be profitable. You increase your visibility through effective branding and marketing. For creative types, branding can be one of the more enjoyable parts of starting a business because you can develop your firm’s logo, pick your brand colors and design your website. And effective law firm marketing demands a strong online presence with a website that looks crisp, authoritative and modern. Even clients who come to you as word-of-mouth referrals will look you up online before an initial consultation. I have had several clients tell me during an initial consultation that they had a “good feeling” about my firm after looking at my website. At a minimum, your website should include your firm’s name and logo, your photograph, a description of your services and your office address. There are innumerable ways to market so long as you strictly comply with the ethics rules. Your marketing should be strategic and tailored to your target market and ideal client. You can research effective ways of appealing to your target demographic or hire a marketing firm to help with this.
3. Plan diligently before you open your doors. An ounce of preparation truly is worth a pound of cure. There are many things you can do to increase your chance of success and profitability before you open the doors of your firm to the public. Here’s what worked for me: I read several good books on law practice management, had coffee with attorneys I respected with successful solo and small firm practices, and wrote out a comprehensive plan by topic with items I would need for my practice, cross-referencing applicable ethics rules. I trialed different case management and billing software and legal research programs until I found the best fit for my practice. I picked a good bank familiar with IOLTA trust accounts and set up my firm bank accounts. I interviewed accountants and hired one. I ensured my website was functional and attractive. I set up an e-filing account and learned how to e-file documents and became adept at using the Zoom and Google Meet videoconferencing platforms. I made decisions about whether to take out loans, hire staff and where to rent commercial office space. I ensured, to the extent possible, that when I took on my first client, I had good systems in place.
4. Study the ethics rules. It is critically important that you read the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct (https://www.in.gov/courts/rules/prof_conduct/), which cover wide-ranging issues relevant to the practice of law, including marketing, fee structures, trust accounts, personnel management and file retention. Identify mentors and colleagues with high ethical standards with whom you can discuss ethics questions and issues as they come up — and they will come up from time to time. It is best not to puzzle through an ethics issue alone.
5. Automate and standardize your practices. Having standardized and automated practices helps immensely with time management and ensures your files are maintained in good order. There are many ways to do this. Investing in good case management software or secure cloud-based document management systems (like Google Drive) helps. You should also consider developing two sets of basic forms and templates for use in your practice: those applicable to practice management, such as fee contracts, client intake paperwork, closing letters, client rejection letters, 10-day letters prior to withdrawal from a case and vendor agreements, and those applicable to the practice of law. Based on your area of practice, the latter category could include discovery sets, pleadings, dispositive motions and the like. This gives you a good starting point for discovery and motions practice and, ultimately, saves you time. In terms of automation, many firms set up their websites to allow clients to pay an invoice or retainer directly through the website. There are also good ways to automate your client intake, communication and document processes. Researching and implementing these minimizes unbillable hours, maximizes profitability and frees you up to enjoy other equally important areas of your life like time with family and friends. Critically evaluate your systems to ensure they are working for you and to ascertain areas where improvement is needed.
Starting your own law firm is an exciting endeavor. Growing that business is fully attainable in this age of technology and web-based communication with a combination of preparation, a good support base and a strong vision.•
Samantha Huettner is an attorney and owner of Huettner Law, based in Indianapolis. Opinions expressed are those of the author.