Five tips for the new solo

generation-jd-sheri-hoidraA solo practice is no different than any other business and it is critical that you set yourself up for success. The following five tips will help you survive the first year:

1) Office-share. The most essential piece of advice I can give is to share an office space to cut overhead costs. To this day, I office-share with another solo, who happens to be a fellow mom solo attorney. How did I find her? I saw her ad pop up on Facebook, emailed her and asked if she had an extra room I could rent. We hit it off and, from there, signed an office-sharing agreement whereby she allowed me to gradually pay more rent and office expenses as I built my practice.

The beauty of sharing an office is that both attorneys can save on costs and operate independently, but also have someone to commiserate with about unprivileged information. Solo practice seems lonely, but it doesn’t have to be if you share an office space. Before signing a lease by yourself, reach out to some colleagues to see who may have an extra space to rent, or join an email list like the MSBA Solo Listserv, where attorneys regularly post about available office spaces.

2) Hire a virtual receptionist. If you cannot afford an assistant on day one, do yourself a favor and hire an answering service to pick up your line if you are not in the office. Clients hate to wait, and those calling for a consultation will just call the next attorney.

I personally use Smith.ai virtual reception services to pick up calls when no one is in the office. The virtual receptionist is a live person and can transfer the call to your cellphone, take a message or even text or email you call details. Costs can range depending on the provider, but it generally runs between $100 to $300 a month.

I wish I would have used these services sooner because the first couple years of practice, I had my office line transfer to my cellphone, which interrupted family time. Plus, I was not able to distinguish between personal calls and business calls or remember which number matched a prospective client on my caller ID. A virtual receptionist solved those issues.

3) Nurture relationships with other attorneys. Many of the referrals you get will be from other attorneys, and you have to take time to cultivate these relationships. If you know any other lawyers who practice in a small-firm setting, send them business cards and ask them to do the same. Send emails and make calls relatively often, and try to go out to lunch with colleagues at least once a month no matter how busy you get.

There will also be some attorneys you meet who are more experienced than you. Try and align yourself with them if they are willing to be your mentors. Learn from them and their knowledge of different jurisdictions. Just remember that if they refer you a case in an area in which they do not practice, do not under any circumstance keep that client for a shared area of practice without suggesting they go back to prior counsel. Nothing kills a referral relationship like poaching someone’s client.

4) Utilize templates. The solo practitioner should avoid reinventing the wheel if at all possible. There is simply not enough time to start everything from scratch. Word-format templates are available for download if you locate the right resources. For the immigration law side of my practice, I immediately purchased AILA’s Immigration Practice Toolbox. For the family law side, I acquired the MSBA’s Publication, The Practice Manual for the Maryland Lawyer, Fourth Edition. Other templates were obtained from seminar handouts, webinars and even mentors who were kind enough to send over redacted pleadings. Just make sure to check that any law cited in a template is still good law.

5) Pick a business model that works for you. Your style of practice may not match the historical law firm practice model, and that is perfectly acceptable so long as you are ethical. I charge flat-fees for everything, including family law. My prices are even posted on my website. Some of my colleagues think I’m crazy, but my clients love it. My view has always been that clients are consumers, and so they like to know what something is going to cost before they “purchase” it.

Although I do spend an inordinate amount of time on some cases without being able to charge for that additional time, I find that those hours are by and large made up by not having to track my time in 6-minute increments. My clients also usually pay on time because they know the total price of their case. Again, some attorneys prefer the billable hour, or some other practice model, and that is totally fine. The point is, do what works for you.

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