Table of contents
Chapter 1 : Introduction
Chapter 2 : Choosing a practice area
Chapter 3 : Establishing your business
Chapter 4 : Budgeting for success
Chapter 5 : Finding an office
Chapter 6 : Marketing your firm in the Digital Age
Chapter 7 : Networking and earning clients
Chapter 8 : Reviewing the steps
Chapter 9 : Conclusion
IT REQUIRES CAREFUL PLANNING AND COMMITMENT TO GET OFF TO A GOOD START
While many attorneys both new and experienced find rich and fulfilling careers joining an existing law firm, many also make the bold decision to branch out and build their own law firm from scratch.
Starting your own business can be simultaneously exciting and nerve-racking. It requires careful planning and commitment to get off to a good start. There’s often a lot more work to manage—you may have to take more financial risks, work longer hours, and rely on an unsteady income at first.
However, the prospect of being your own boss, setting your own hours, building a business, and carving your own path in the legal world has a lot of appeal for many attorneys and can be extremely rewarding. In this e-book, we’ll walk you step by step through all the essential steps to launch a successful law firm in the Digital Age.
Choosing a practice area
Your first step in starting your own practice should be determining exactly what you want to do. Of course, this is not always an easy task. There are numerous areas of law an attorney could pursue, and choosing just one (or a few) to focus on can seem overwhelming. Here’s some food for thought to help you make the right career choice.
Consider the type of environment you think you’ll perform best in. Some may require longer hours whereas others may be slower paced, with bursts of energetic work on occasion. Certain practice areas may even involve more interaction with people than others, such as trusts and estates or family law. Make sure you know what you’re willing to accept as part of the job before you dive into any particular practice area.
Aside from your personality, evaluating your skills is another great way to determine what practice area is best for you. Skills you may have picked up during your education or a previous job could lend themselves nicely to many different practices. For instance, if you have a knack for writing, litigation or appellate law may be right up your alley. Or, if speaking and negotiating are your strong suits, you might look into wealth management or intellectual property licensing.
If you have a broad base of skills, a general law practice can be a well-rounded and reliable direction to take. A good solo-small firm practitioner with the problem solving and personal relationship skills will always have a good chance to succeed.
Carve a niche
You may also have the desire to make yourself stand out among the pack by finding a niche in an area you enjoy, or area where lawyers are scarce. For example, instead of broadly covering cases involving personal injury, you might specifically focus on brain injuries and the disorders that develop from them. By focusing on one particular area of the law, you’ll naturally become more adept at it as you continue to take cases and address legal issues in that particular area.
Of course, you want to make sure you don’t become too specialized. You may find that some niche practice areas are a niche for a reason—there’s simply not enough work to make them viable.
Location, location, location
Whether you’re happy where you are or have always dreamed of moving, research which practice areas are sought after in a location that you’d like to live in. If any particular practice area stands out to you, it could be the answer you’re looking for.
Keep in mind, however, that your ideal city might not be the best place to start a career in certain fields. A city could be oversaturated 6 lawpay.com with a particular practice area, which would make it difficult for a new attorney to stand out. Because of this, it’s crucial to do your homework before you pack your bags.
Is it sustainable?
Are there any foreseeable cultural or technological shifts that would significantly reduce the number of cases for your desired practice area? If you feel at all uncertain about the potential future of your practice area, it may be wise to consider looking elsewhere.
Try speaking with experienced attorneys about their careers in a field you’re interested in. They can provide great insight as to what your first few years of practicing law might look like, the kinds of clients they’ve had, and how they feel about the field in general. Speak with several attorneys at different stages of their careers to get a well-rounded perspective.
Establishing your business
Once you’ve given thought to your practice area and landed on the best fit for you, you’re ready to make your practice official and establish your business. Here, we’ll outline the essentials for getting your new law firm’s name in the books—both on paper and online.
Obtain the necessary licenses and permits
Determine if it’s necessary in your state to establish your firm as a business entity. Each state has unique guidelines and not all will require you to register a unique company name. For instance, some states may allow you to register under a “Doing Business As” certificate in your local city or town. You should also register for any additional federal and small business licenses or permits pertinent to your city and state.
Name your firm
Whether you are leaping into your new endeavor solo or with a partner, there are a variety of possible naming scenarios for your business. But remember, most states do not allow lawyers to operate under a trade name, like “American Lawyers.” A name of an owner or partner generally must be included in the title of the firm.
Speak with SEVERAL ATTORNEYS AT DIFFERENT STAGES OF THEIR CAREERS TO GET A WELL-ROUNDED perspective.
You want your firm’s name to convey experience and trust above anything else. Consider the following key elements that could determine your firm’s name:
- If you intend to operate as a solo practitioner, you simply must include your name in the business title, e.g. “Law Offices of Mary Jones”
- You may want a name that will accommodate growth if you add new partners in the future, e.g. “Mary Jones and Associates”
It’s good to remember that not every collaboration has to be a partnership. You may share office space and overhead with a simple “association,” which clearly defines that the members are associated for the operation of the office, but remain independent in their respective practices.
Look into the various business forms available and ask an accountant what the benefits and costs are to your business plan. Keep in mind that an entity never insulates you from your own negligence to a client. That said, the right entity could insulate your uninvolved limited partners, if that is the form you desire.
You want to set yourself up to succeed from the very start. Verify that you’re properly insured and that your business’s accounts have been correctly set up to start accepting payment. This includes ensuring you’ve lined up an attorney trust account and operating account and that you’ve secured the necessary malpractice insurance, if that is required.
Many states do not require professional malpractice insurance for attorneys. However, they may require that you notify clients of non-coverage. Check your own state’s rules on professional liability coverage. Depending on your area of practice, you should make a reasonable decision as to whether you and your family will be better protected in the event of a claim. Odds are, your clients will likely be better protected.
Budgeting for success
Every lawyer needs to know how much income will be required over a given period of time to successfully cover both the lawyers personal budgetary needs and the costs of running a practice. Many studies have shown that, if you are correctly priced in your local market, an income of four hours per business day should be sufficient to successfully operate a law office. The variables to consider are as follows:
What do lawyers charge in my community?
If you don’t know what lawyers charge in your community for legal services like you will provide, ask them! You can also ask judges what rates they typically award for lawyers in your area with your level of experience. Both local lawyers and judges are wonderful sources of this information.
Examine your expenses
If you haven’t already, take time to calculate a monthly personal budget. You should be able to come up with a dollar amount that represents how much you need for your share of your household’s monthly bills, as well as any other expenses you’re expecting throughout the year. Make sure your expected taxes are calculated into this amount as well.
The “Four-Hour Per Day” formula
Now, we’ll perform a simple calculation to determine your rate. Your goal is to divide your total monthly expenses by the number of billable hours you expect to work each month. We already know we want to aim for four billable hours a day. If we assume you’re working for five days a week, this totals to 20 days a month. Thus, 20 x 4 = 80 billable hours per month.
For the sake of example, let’s say your personal expenses equal $8,500 per month, and your office expenses equal $4,000 per month. Adding these up, we end up with $12,500.
So, if we take your total amount of expenses($12,500) and divide it by the average billable hours you’ll work each month (80), your hourly rate comes out to an effective rate of $156.
Ensure your effective rate is fair
If your effective rate is at or below the typical hourly rates charged for the work you’ll be doing, your practice has a greater statistical chance of success. If, however, the hourly rate is woefully inadequate to support your needs, take a hard look at your costs and overhead to manage them more efficiently and realistically.
AN INCOME OF 4 hours PER BUSINESS DAY SHOULD BE SUFFICIENT TO successfully OPERATE A LAW OFFICE.
Finding an office
As you put together your budget, you’ll need to consider where you want to run your practice. Do you want to go the traditional route and rent (or even purchase) an office to meet with clients and get your work done? Or would you be more interested in embracing the Digital Age and running your practice remotely? In this section, we’ll break down the pros and cons of traditional offices vs. virtual law firms, as well as other essentials you’ll need in your workspace.
Many attorneys opt to rent a traditional office, as they enjoy having a professional space to conduct their practice and meet with clients. The biggest factor in choosing an office space will often be cost, which will mostly depend on location and the square footage of the space available. However, you’ll also have to factor in the layout of the building and any included amenities, as these can affect the cost of the space.
All things considered, a budding attorney may find that renting a private solo office space is outside of the budget. Because of this, you may consider joining a collaborative workspace, where several attorneys or other professionals can share the cost of an office. Not only do these spaces come with shared amenities, like internet and printers, but they also can serve as a great way to network with other attorneys and potentially refer clients to one another.
Virtual law firm
Even still, many attorneys will start their solo career without renting an office space at all, instead running their firm from their home, coffee shop, or wherever they want. This is often referred to as running a “virtual law firm.” Although not necessarily a new concept, it has taken on a whole new meaning in light of internet technologies such as cloud computing, web conferencing, online payment solutions, and various web-based tools designed for attorneys.
A virtual law firm has the obvious benefit of eliminating the cost of renting a space, which can free up a great deal of your budget for other expenses. However, it may not work for every practice area, as some clients may not like handling their case without the comfort of a traditional office. It’s also important to note that some states prohibit the practice of running a virtual law firm, albeit indirectly.
Depending on your location, certain state laws dictate that attorneys must have a physical office in order to practice law.
Essential legal software
Aside from traditional office supplies, you’ll also need more modern essentials for your office—namely, a computer. The proliferation of the internet has completely changed how businesses operate, including the legal profession. Today’s attorneys are taking advantage of many software solutions specifically designed to increase a lawyer’s day-to-day productivity so they can better serve their clients. Here, we’ll highlight common legal software solutions that can help you run an efficient practice.
Timekeeping and billing
As a lawyer, forming effective billing habits isn’t always easy. Thankfully, there is software that can help streamline this tedious task. With timekeeping software, you can organize projects by client and run a digital stopwatch to track the time you’ve spent on each. Some of the most popular solutions today are mobile apps, where lawyers on the go can run their stopwatches from their phones or tablets.
$75% OF CUSTOMERS PREFER TO PAY WITH A credit or debit card.
In the Digital Age, it has become more and more necessary for lawyers to accept online payments for their services. In fact, a recent study conducted by Total System Services (TSYS) showed that as much as 75 percent of customers today prefer to pay with a credit or debit card. And with payments being rendered with a few clicks of a button, businesses can get paid faster when online payments are available to their customers.
There are many generic payment solutions that allow businesses to accept credit card, debit card, or eCheck payments online. However, most of them are built for retail and point of sale businesses, with features that won’t have significant use for how legal professionals do business.
Because of this, it’s best to use an online payment processor designed specifically for the legal industry, like LawPay. As you process transactions, your fees will be properly separated between your trust and operating accounts and deposited accordingly. You’ll also avoid the risk of third-party transactions debiting from your IOLTA account.
All-in-one practice management
Despite the variety of capable, special-purpose software options, some law firms prefer to use a product that can do a little bit of everything. These practice management solutions, as they are often called, come with an impressive collection of features— from document and case management to timekeeping, billing, calendaring, email organization, and even payment processing— all from one application. If this type of software seems up your alley, make sure it has the ability to integrate with billing software.
Marketing your firm in the Digital Age
The days of flipping through your regional Yellow Pages to find a business or professional service provider are numbered. As you know, today’s consumers use online search engines to find everything they’re shopping for, including attorneys. As far as potential clients are concerned, if they can’t find your law firm online, your law firm doesn’t exist. So, if you’re considering launching your own firm, it’s an absolute necessity to have an online presence—this starts with a website.
Drawing an outline
You can’t have much of a website if you don’t know exactly what you want, so your first step should be to sit down and create an outline of your site’s content. It’s important to think about who your target audience is. Most likely, this will be prospective clients, so you’ll want to make sure your site does an excellent job at selling your skills as an attorney, highlighting the practice areas you focus on, and convincing visitors to reach out with a potential case.
One thing you’ll want to be sure to include is a robust “About” page, where you can write a summary of your career and list out key certifications, professional achievements, or academic accomplishments. Not only does this help sell your qualifications, but it also makes you more approachable to potential clients.
Building the site
Once you have a rough idea of what you want your site to be, it’s time to actually start putting it together.
There are a variety of do-it-yourself options, with “drag-and-drop” interfaces that make it easy to build a professional website within a matter of hours, without any experience in web development required. Of course, if you would prefer to have more control over your site and are a little more tech-savvy, you might consider building your site from scratch.
However, if you don’t have the know-how or the time to build a professional website, there’s no shame in hiring someone else to build it for you. There are plenty of marketing firms who make a living building sites for legal professionals like you.
It’s important to note that most states require that you first apply for approval of any attorney website, so make sure you check with your own state’s regulators to find out what is required before you go live.
Search engine optimization (SEO)
Building a great website is essential to your firm’s success, but that’s only half the battle. You can make the greatest website on the internet, but if people never see or find your website, what’s the use?
This is where search engine optimization(SEO) comes into play. Getting your law firm’s website to the top of Google is a lot like losing weight—if you make the commitment, stick with it, and do the right things, it will happen. But it isn’t easy, and if you fool around with silly fads, bad advice, or fickle binges, you can end up worse off than you were before.
Our friends at Black Fin, a legal SEO and digital marketing company, recommend you take the following steps to establish a great SEO strategy.
Develop new content
Once you have your website up and running, you don’t want it to be a static asset—you need to constantly add great content to your site. Google’s web crawlers use written content to understand and organize the web. Search engine algorithms assign quality scores to every website and web page. The higher your score—and the more relevant your content—the higher up in rank you’ll rise. Writing great, relevant content for your blog is one of the easiest ways to do this, but you might also consider content like pages detailing your practice area(s).
Bear in mind that, again, depending on your state, any major changes to your site may need to be approved by state regulators. This may include SEO changes or blog posts you add to your site.
BUILDING A GREAT WEBSITE IS ESSENTIAL TO YOUR FIRM’S success.
Take local search seriously
Maps optimization is a subtype of SEO marketing. For lawyers, it’s extremely important as most law firms are competing locally. Below are the key steps to make Maps optimization work in your favor:
- Create city web pages. They’re like practice area webpages but tailored to a particular region, county, or town. If you want to get aggressive about dominating search in multiple markets, you’ll create a new page for each city and each practice area you hope to target (without duplicating content).
- Claim your Google My Business listing. Google maintains local business listings for just about every business, including law firms. You can formally “claim” yours and exercise control over it, and that’s super important. It affects whether and how you show up in Google Maps, local search results, etc.
- Ensure NAP consistency. NAP stands for “name, address, phone number.” Search all the major local directories online and make sure your contact information is consistently up to date across the web. Don’t miss out on a single case because some other website has your phone number wrong.
- Target local search terms. It’s helpful to reference local people, places, and events in at least some of your blog posts.
- Recruit high-quality local backlinks. When local businesses or organizations link to your website from theirs, Google’s algorithms see it as an endorsement. If you can pick up a handful of these “endorsements” from websites that have high Google quality scores (i.e., they already rank pretty well on Google themselves), it can give you a boost.
Social media marketing
Despite its popularity, it’s best not to overestimate the importance of social media. Chances are, you’re not going to tweet your way into the Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum. That said, social media is still a very valuable tool and should not be underestimated, either. The majority of the country’s top-performing law firms are all actively engaging with it. Here are some key factors to consider when using social media to market your firm:
- Studies show that when prospective clients evaluate attorney websites, social media is one of the things they evaluate. A weak/absent social presence suggests that you’re behind the times or maybe not as successful as you seem.
- Search engines see traffic from social media sites as high-profile “endorsements,” so there is a real SEO angle here.
- If you’re using social media correctly(i.e., actively and like a real human being), you can get attention from local community members who just might need a lawyer’s services.
Get outside your own domain
When it comes to backlinks and “endorsements,” take the bull by the horns— go out and create content on other people’s websites, too. Why ask for a mere link when you can write whole articles on their domains while still linking back to yours?
Everyone wins this way. You’re getting SEO boosting backlinks and new traffic. The other website is getting great new content from a fresh voice. And their readers are getting useful content from a widely respected professional. We call these “guest posts,” and they make a lot of sense in the legal market.
Pay to get noticed with PPC
Supplementing your SEO strategy with a pay-per-click (PPC) campaign is a great way to make sure potential clients can still find your website while you’re perfecting your SEO efforts. The great thing about PPC campaigns is they can get your firm immediate visibility— you can pay to make sure that when someone Googles a search phrase that you want to appear for, like “Houston personal injury lawyer,” your firm is visible right at the top of the page.
The bad news? The legal field is extremely competitive when it comes to SEO, so you’ll need to closely monitor your PPC campaigns to make sure you’re not spending money inefficiently. There are lots of resources online that will help you build a great PPC campaign, but there are also a lot of legal industry-specific PPC companies out there that can get you great results and often at a fraction of the price and effort that it would take you to do so yourself.
Join prominent legal directories
Speaking of the first page of Google, you’ve likely noticed a trend in legal Google rankings over the past few years. For most major legal search terms, the first few Google results don’t contain actual attorney websites, but rather, links to prominent legal directories that have compiled a list of attorneys that match the search terms you entered—some of the most prominent being Avvo, Justia, FindLaw, and even Yelp in some instances.
These directories are data powerhouses—the sheer amount of information, articles, FAQs, and other legal resources contained in them make it difficult for a single lawyer’s website to compete with them in search engine rankings. So rather than trying to fight these sites for Google placement—join up! Make sure you have an active, robust profile on each of these major directories, and you won’t be left out of those high-value, top Google placements. Additionally, it’s another valuable avenue through which you can get found by, and connect with, potential clients.
Networking and earning clients
After taking all the necessary steps to launch your business, you need to ensure you’re getting your name out there for personal, face-to-face interactions to grow your network and bring in new clients. For many attorneys, particularly those just starting out, networking may feel new and overwhelming. But the fact of the matter is networking occurs at every stage of your practice from securing an office to closing cases and everything in between. Here we’ll list our tips for forming good relationships and getting clients in the door.
Find a mentor
An experienced mentor may be the best place to start for networking. You’ll have access to a one-on-one coach who can give you advice on the best tools to use, what tasks to prioritize, introduce you to fellow attorneys, and potentially even send new business your way if the relationship is nurtured and you prove reliable and diligent. A mentor-mentee relationship can be truly invaluable for both parties over time and it’s one you want to cultivate.
YOU CAN learn something FROM EVERY ATTORNEY’S experience.
Get involved with your state, local, and specialty bars
State, local, and specialty bars serve as great building blocks for a strong network of attorneys and potential referral business. Remaining active in these groups will ensure you’re building your network as well as keeping up on your local and state bars’ guidelines. These groups also frequently offer valuable member benefits from discounts on practice management tools and technology, to lifestyle products and services such as car rentals and lodging, office supplies, and everything in between.
These groups also provide a plethora of learning opportunities such as CLE conferences, webinars, and more. Get in touch with your state, local, or speciality bar, attend meetings and events, and strike up conversations with attorneys at every stage of their practice. You can learn something from every attorney’s experience, from those in your exact same shoes launching a practice themselves, to those who have worked several years in small and large firms. More so, as attorneys retire and leave their practice, they may have clients or referrals seeking representation or counsel which could very well come your way.
Attend trade shows
Trade shows are a great place to meet other attorneys, learn about new tools and resources, and potentially find new business opportunities. Before attending a trade show, see if you can secure an attendee or exhibitor list to determine who you want to meet with, what booths you want to prioritize, and if anyone in your network is already attending. Reach out to those attending ahead of time to schedule a coffee or quick chat.
Always carry business cards
It should go without saying that carrying a professional business card to all your networking dinners, bar events, and trade shows is key to building a network. However, it’s a good practice to always have one on you, wherever you are, as you never know when a great opportunity will arise. You can work with a graphic design service to create a business card for relatively little cost.
Reviewing the steps
You may have noticed that each major step in launching a law firm requires a careful and considered approach. As such, it can be easy to get lost in the details. Let’s review each of the steps we’ve discussed in this e-book.
1. Choose a practice area – As you research areas of law to pursue, consider both your ideal work environment as well as what will provide a fruitful and lasting career. If possible, try addressing an area of law that lacks representation.
2. Establish your business – Make sure you’ve obtained all of the licenses required in your state. Consider where your practice is located as well as who you’ll be working with when deciding on a name. Don’t forget to invest in business insurance.
3. Budget for success – Put together a budget based on your monthly expenses. Then divide your total expenses by the amount of billable hours you can work each week to get a baseline of the effective rate you’ll charge for your services.
4. Find an office – Decide on whether you’d like to set up a traditional brickand-mortar office, or run your practice entirely online through legal software and teleconferencing.
5. Essential legal software – Today’s law firms can be far more productive (and profitable) with modern technology, such as timekeeping, payment processing, and practice management software solutions.
6. Market your firm – The internet has forever changed how professionals market their services. Make sure you have a professional website that is optimized for search engines and is regularly updated with new content. Maintain a social media presence and stay on the radar with pay-per-click campaigns. Offer your content to businesses and join legal directories to get your firm’s name out there. Always check with your state’s regulators on any advertising to ensure your compliance, as well as to avoid headaches and possible fines.
7. Network and earn clients – Consider finding a mentor to help you drum up business and make meaningful connections. Get involved with your state and regional specialty bars. Keep your eyes out for relevant trade shows to gain valuable industry insights and meeting opportunities. Finally, always have a professional business card on hand for when a fruitful opportunity presents itself.
Launching a business is a serious undertaking, and without a solid game plan, many legal entrepreneurs find they struggle far more than they have to. Fortunately, as long as you follow the steps we’ve outlined in this guide, you’ll be well equipped to start strong and plant the seeds for a fruitful career in law.
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