If you are already a contract attorney for someone else or have your own profitable law office, it's not a big deal to plan a transition like this. But what if you are in a restrictive contract as someone's employee or partner? What if you have moved to a new geographic area and don't know anyone? I don't have any advice for you in those scenarios, because I have never done that. The planning here is focused on the practical aspects of starting a law firm from the perspective of a former sole practitioner and contract attorney with an already running practice.
Step one: office space
See full article on office space.
Step two: where to get clients
Hopefully, you already have an existing, profitable practice and too much work to get done yourself. At that point you can either bring in an associate employee, or take it to the next level and bring in a law partner. I chose the latter route because I didn't want to be "The Law Offices of" my individual name. In that case, a plan on marketing to clients is essential. I have found a lot of business on Nolo and Yelp, and great service to those clients has led to more business as well. Regardless of the particular business development route you choose, you must have a concrete plan for how to develop more business to permit more risks.
Step three: finances
You definitely want to arrange financial backing, whether that is your personal funds or a credit line, or both. A credit line is only going to be viable if you have solid income numbers for at least a year. Otherwise, you're looking at borrowing from family members and/or clients, because there are few people who will invest in a new law firm. By invest, I mean lend money, because of course there is no possibility of equity ownership for a non-attorney.
Step four: pre-launch
Prepare the contracts, sign the papers, and establish all the accounts you need to in order to run your law firm. Then let people know informally that you are forming the firm of Doe and Roe. This is for multiple reasons, starting with the fact that you want people in the legal community to know that you're doing something courageous and unusual by starting your own firm.
Step five: launch
Announce the new firm in a personalized email to existing clients, and a mass email to your network of legal professionals. You want everyone to know that you're doing this. As to clients, they don't want to be surprised. As to the legal community, at least some of them want you to succeed and will view the establishment of your own firm as a positive developent as well as a qualifier when they screen referrals. An established small firm or medium sized firm that is conflicted out of a case will want to refer that case to a peer, not a lawyer in a lower caste. You want to make it easy for them to refer you cases.
Step six: development
After the flurry of activity when you launch, and the excitement that comes with signing papers, signing leases, gaining a colleague or more than one colleague, etc., there is a stark reality that sets in: this is your business, your reputation, and your future. At that point, it's sink or swim. You can develop your practice in any number of ways. Personally, I prefer doing what I love: software and creative writing. So I joined a few groups that do those things and I get to market myself as the only lawyer in those groups. People have already called me saying that they heard I do complex divorces, and that's how it starts..
Step seven: maintenance
Ensure all financial obligations are met. Ensure all clients are satisfied. Ensure all professional obligations are met. Ensure a continued successful workflow. Those are the minimum steps needed to maintain your operation.
Step eight: expansion
You get to a point where you and your colleague are swamped and cannot take on any more work. What should you do? Raise your rates and hire a contractor. That's the way to expand your firm, assuming you are getting great reviews on Yelp and clients are happy with your services.
Last updated: July 6, 2018
© 2018 Andrew G. Watters