You know that you have the necessary skills to start your own law practice. You've done the business analysis. You have a strong client base or pool of prospective clients. You have adequate funding to get through the start-up phase. You have a sensible and affordable marketing plan. But before you make the jump, have you asked yourself if starting an independent law practice is right for you? How well will the work you do match your interests, personality and values?
As you know, there are significant differences between working for a law practice and running the practice. While a fortunate few are able to generate enough revenue out of the gate to delegate much or all of the day-to-day management duties to their staff, many lawyers who start legal practices will find themselves dealing with issues with which they have little prior experience and which consume time that might otherwise be spent on the practice of law.
For example, a lawyer may need to devote a significant amount of time to staffing issues, including hiring, training and supervision. Somebody must manage the office finances, including payroll, process payments, pay the bills and keep the books. Somebody must be responsible for cleaning and maintenance, or for supervising anybody who is performing those tasks on behalf of the law firm. Great care must be taken with regard to any third party access to areas of the premises that contain confidential client information which, in many law firms, means pretty much any place in the entire office
Although the effect will vary significantly by practice area, any lawyer who offers services to the general public is likely to receive very frequent requests for discounted or free legal services.
- Are you prepared to stick to your guns, to tell the sad cases that you have taken all of the pro bono clients you can afford to take, to let a discount shopper move on to your competition?
- Are you prepared to insist upon getting a full retainer from a client who wants to work out a payment schedule, in order to avoid investing your time in a case where the client doesn't follow through with payments?
- Are you prepared to bill clients and to take further measures to collect overdue amounts from clients who have not paid their bills?
- Are you prepared to deal with ebbs and flows in your law firm revenues?
- How will you feel if you have to give yourself a pay cut, even if temporary, in order to cover office expenses and payroll? How will your family feel?
In working with clients, it is inevitable that a lawyer will eventually encounter client complaints, such as a client who is adamant that a bill is too high, that the lawyer did an inadequate job, or for other alleged faults or problems for which you bear no responsibility.
- What will you do when that time comes?
- How willing are you to bend in the name of client satisfaction, even if it means discounting a bill or refunding money that by any objective measure you have earned? How aggressive will you be in collecting unpaid bills?
- What will you do if a client starts an online campaign against you, posting bad reviews about your services on a wide range of websites, some of which are likely to appear when future prospective clients search for your name?
- What will you do if the client files a grievance against you, alleging professional misconduct?
- How are those experiences and your response to them likely to make you feel about yourself and your practice?
You have done the research and know that you can make a living - perhaps an excellent living - within the practice areas you have selected for your new firm. But how do you feel about devoting your life to those practice areas for the next ten years or longer?
If you are leaving a law firm job because your work makes you miserable, stop to consider whether the problem lies with the firm - in which case a change of context might improve your satisfaction - or if it is with the work itself. If you don't like your practice area, lucrative though it may be, you're unlikely to gain a great deal of job satisfaction from your continued practice in that area.