Following on with our features on Law School & Careers, Lawyer Monthly has heard from Joshua E Stern, Esq., Founder and Managing Partner of the US based Law Offices of Joshua E. Stern, who has 7 top tips for lawyers who have just graduated, started in their first position, opened their own law firm or just all round ready for their future legal career.
I went solo in late 2012, two years out of law school. Despite months of reading and planning, I was terrified. What if I went broke? Would anyone want to hire a failed solo? Would I continue to grow as an attorney without someone to mentor me? How would I stand out and attract clients? What I knew for sure was that I wanted to practice law on my own terms. I told myself early on that I would run my firm on my instincts and fully commit to my vision. If I failed on my terms, I would be able to sleep easily. I’ve learned a lot along the way. If you’re thinking of going solo, I applaud you. It will change your life. I have some thoughts I’d like to pass along and hope they help shape your planning.
What are you going to do?
What practice area do you want to pursue? Remember, you’re going to be practicing law nearly every day for the rest of your working life. To be successful, you will have to give everything you have to your practice. This means sacrificing time with friends and family to work late. It means peeking at your email while on vacation. It means wholly committing yourself. If you hate what you do, you’ll never be as invested as your competitors and will never achieve your potential.
Where are your clients?
Once you’ve decided what area you want to pursue, you have to decide where your clients reside. You are not a brand name and clients won’t go too far out of their way to see you. As such, you need to be convenient. Your office location should serve your clients’ needs, not your own. For example, if you’re going to practice family law, you may want to have an office in an area with high home ownership rates and plenty of married families with school-aged children. If you are going to practice plaintiff-side employment law, you want to be accessible to workers. I’d suggest exploring an office in a dense urban environment and one in a middle-class or working class neighborhood. If you practice criminal law, you may want to explore having multiple office locations, including one by the courthouse. What’s important is that clients can find you and see you easily.
Where can you stand out?
You’re a small fish, and a young one at that. People hire lawyers based on their hair color: the greyer, the better. If you set up shop surrounded by larger firms and more experienced practitioners, what will draw clients to you? While you can still survive in this environment, it will place a tremendous burden on your marketing budget. It’s smarter to look for underserved markets. Go through attorney directories and find all attorneys in your desired practice area. Where are they located? Where are there gaps? Likewise, how strong are your competitors’ grips on the market? Are they large firms or small solos? How visible are their marketing efforts? Do they have a strong web presence? It can be worthwhile to take on weak competitors out of the gate, but you’ll be in no shape to compete against industry giants on day one
Where can you get space?
I’d strongly recommend renting office space, if at all economically feasible. Clients can tell when you’re just renting a conference room. Likewise, you will want to have a space away from your home where you can focus on work. As your days become increasingly busier and you string together multiple client meetings, you’ll need a place to stay in-between. You can look into shared office suites. I’d also suggest calling solos and small firms and seeing if they have any room to rent out. When I was looking for office space, I made a list of every law firm in my target market and called each one looking for a spare room. It eventually paid off.
What makes you different?
You’re young, you’re inexperienced, and you have no support staff, partners, or associates. Why should anyone hire you over a more experienced competitor. You need to think about how to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Do you bill differently? Are you more responsive? Cheaper? Can you show your expertise and convince clients that your lack of experience doesn’t equate to a lack of knowledge? It’s important that you establish a clear brand identity and it cannot include the same adjectives and verbiage that your competitors use to market themselves.
What do you need to start?
You’re probably launching on a shoe-string budget. Look for used or cheap furniture. Ikea is always a viable option. Use whatever computer got you through law school. Spend as little money on your first website as possible and spend as much time on generating content as you can tolerate. Design your own business cards and letterhead or hire a freelancer to do a quick sketch. Expect to be cash flow negative for 3-6 months. You’ll want to keep your overhead low to get you up and running. You’ll absolutely want to have cash savings to draw on until you can pay yourself. Be patient and stay hungry. Don’t take money out of the business too soon and deprive your practice of funds needed for operations or growth.
What are you going to do to grow?
You’ve got to hustle. Join local chambers of commerce and network. Go to CLEs and bring business cards. Write articles and guest blog posts for anyone who will publish them. Answer questions on Avvo. Add articles and content to your website on a regular basis. Speak anywhere you can. Stay visible, active, and hungry. The more you market, the more you’ll figure out what resonates with your clients. Your marketing plan should be fluid and constantly evolving. Keep analyzing and refining it, looking for the greatest return on investment.
Joshua Stern is a family law attorney and owner of the Law Offices of Joshua E. Stern. For more information about these and other divorce-related issues, visit www.JESFamilyLaw.com, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.