How do I start a solo practice?

Having been profiled in MSNBC as someone who has had some success as a solo practitioner, I’ve been contacted by dozens of recent and not-so-recent graduates who wonder how I’ve done what I’ve been able to do.  For a more extensive discussion, visit my page <a href=”http://www.chetson.com/firm/”>www.chetson.com/firm</a>.

First, I’ve been incredibly lucky. Raleigh was an ideal location to start a law firm in 2009. And I was especially equipped to do so. Second, the fact that my wife had a full-time job meant that basic expenses, including our mortgage, were covered, so that I had time to get my practice off the ground. (Too many people don’t ever get to build up a practice because they’re struggling to pay rent.)

If I have advice to share, then it’s this:

  1. Find a sugar-momma or sugar-daddy or sugar-parents who can help you pay rent for as much as a year. Or have savings. Building a practice takes time, and you need to avoid taking every client who comes in the door simply to pay rent. The time invested in building out your practice will (probably) be well-rewarded.
  2. Figure out how to attract clients. How are you going to find people who might need your services? How much are you going to pay marketing channels to advertise? You can’t practice the law if you don’t get hired. Clients pay the bill, and give you an income. How are you going to reach them? This will vary by market, but it is the most crucial question to answer.
  3. Figure out how to get hired. Practicing the law is something you can learn over time. But you first need to be hired by clients willing to pay money for your services. You need to develop the skills to meet with clients, and get hired by clients.
  4. Figure out how to price your services – not so low that you can’t make a living, and not so high that you drive away potential clients.Here are a few tips. Virtually nothing you learned in law school is valuable. Most of it is wrong, as a matter of the daily practice of law. Law school was just a very, very expensive way to punch a ticket so that you can be licensed by a governmental agency to practice law. You need to learn the real practice of the law. How do you do that?Answer: The way that lawyers have learned how to practice law since the country was founded: Apprenticeships.

Do not get office shares with fellow recent grads. You will all be equally impoverished, and equally ill-prepared to practice the law. A better idea is to identify an experienced lawyer who may have excess work who can throw you some cases each month, and for whom you can provide additional support. (Currently in my office share, we have three attorneys: A very senior lawyer who provides the other two of us with tons of experience and learning opportunities, me, and a recent grad. The recent grad benefits by getting the cast-off clients that neither I nor the senior lawyer have time for. In addition to building his experience, he’s providing me and the senior lawyer with additional court coverage.)

Find one practice area. Do not practice in multiple areas. As a new lawyer, you’re not competent even to practice in the area you pick without a mentor. Clients know that, but may see your commitment to become a criminal lawyer to be reason enough to hire you, since you can explain that you’re young, and aggressive. But saying you’re a young aggressive criminal lawyer, estates lawyer, PI lawyer, bankruptcy lawyer, and real estate lawyer is nonsense. You are not. You are simply going to be incompetent at everything, and no client who has any money is going to hire you. Clients aren’t stupid. Don’t try to pretend you are more than you are.

Get some office space. I’ve written before about the advantages of a virtual office, but I have always had at least some office space, and I would recommend you get some space as well. You simply will have too much trouble getting hired on a case if you can’t show clients that you have a real physical presence. I know of a young lawyer who had a DWI prospect come to visit him at his home. As she was driving up, she realized it was his home, and drove away. That probably cost him $2,000, which is the cost of 4 months of rent in a decent downtown Raleigh location.

Don’t over-invest in computers, equipment, and books. Start lean. You can use money you earn from early clients to buy additional equipment.

Make sure you have a mentor. Do not take cases for which you have no qualifications, unless you have a mentor. And make sure you split your fee with your mentor. You will develop far more goodwill by splitting cases, and you will get additional support on cases where you don’t split the fee.

 

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Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.