I’m often contacted by lawyers for advice about going solo or how to start a law firm. In the legal world, going solo is the equivalent of quitting your day job and launching your startup full-time. So I’m dedicating this blog post to provide some background about how I launched my startup law firm. I received quite a bit of good advice when I started and this is my way of paying back/forward, etc. I know many of you aren’t lawyers but hopefully some of the advice might otherwise be helpful.
I launched my startup in 2006. I refer to my law firm as a startup because I run it like one, except for the fact I can’t raise capital (it’s basically illegal in the US for a law firm to have non-lawyer shareholders). The concept of bootstrapping and working in a startup wasn’t new to me–I had just left a startup company. (Long story for another day)
How did you choose your law firm’s location?
I selected my law firm’s location based on what I’ve dubbed the “Cheesecake Factory Principle.” Growing up in California, I noticed that the Cheesecake Factory always opened their restaurants in thriving business areas. Thus, I decided to open my law firm in Southlake, Texas, a suburb of Dallas and also home to a new Cheesecake Factory. I figured I would just borrow the Cheesecake Factory’s R&D on Southlake and move on to other decisions. The point is–don’t pay for or waste time on finding answers to questions that have already been answered for you by others. And to be honest, after living in downtown Los Angeles while at USC and after going to law school in SF, I was more than happy to live and work in the suburbs. And for what it was worth, while I was at the startup, we had an office in downtown Dallas and it was quite depressing down there.
What type of office do you have?
I started out in a mid-range executive suite and have since moved to one with a better location and conference room (now we are in a pretty nice suite next to the apple store). I have intentionally avoided signing any type of long term lease (12+ months) because I feel flexibility is key in your first 2-3 years as solo. You might need 3 offices next year, or what you thought was a great location might not be that great 6 months later.
How do you market your law firm?
Before I started out, I was warned by an older attorney that I wouldn’t be able to go out on my own because I couldn’t afford the overhead expenses like yellow page advertising. Yellow pages? The last time I saw one of those books it was being torn in half by The Power Team in my high school’s auditorium. Forget about large marketing expenses and bootstrap your law firm’s marketing. If you are going to spend, do it on your business cards and website (and when I say “website” I mean blog used as a website)
How important is technology?
Use technology to your advantage. Afraid of technology? Then rethink going solo. Technology is that critical to a solo’s success. If you know how to do 2/3 of the phrases in Daft Punk’s “Technologic” you are tech savvy enough to go solo.
As lawyers, we are about 6 years behind the tech curve and that may be generous. For example, law firms are not currently interested in search engine optimization (SEO) and you can level the marketing playing field via blogs and practice area websites. For example, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a fantastic law firm with a killer venture capital practice states on its website:
We have more experienced attorneys focused on representing start-up companies seeking venture capital financing than any other law firm
Well Google doesn’t think so. I googled “venture capital lawyers” and stopped looking for a Wilson Sonsini URL after the 10th page.
How did I select practice areas?
I’m a big believer in focusing in on one or two (if both are related) areas of law. If your practice areas look like a laundry list of legal areas, you run the risk of becoming a jack of all trades, master of none. While difficult, resist the urge to cast a wide net for potential clients. The more I have reduced my areas of practice, the better the practice has done in terms of both revenue and clientele. So, I pretty much started a startup law practice that catered towards entrepreneurs.
What did I do right?
If you are a new solo, there’s likely a fear of getting in front of people, practicing your ‘pitch’, etc. Ironically, this is the same thing that startups have to do. Well, one of the first things I did was join the local chamber of commerce, because I knew that was a good avenue to ‘pitch’ to various other business owners what I did. I didn’t really expect any clients, but after about the 100th visit, I was comfortable meeting with anybody.
The other thing, which is by far the most important, is that you have to be absolutely passionate about the type of law you want to practice. You have to stick with it, and allow all your efforts proper time to start working for you. Nothing happened overnight. Why would anything that’s worth anything happen overnight? he only way you stick with it is if you actually like what you are doing.
What would I do different?
React quicker. I saw a t-shirt at the mall recently that said “Procrastinators Unite Tomorrow.” I felt like buying one just to tack to my wall. As a solo, you can change every part of your law firm quicker than any larger firm. Use this to your advantage when you start a law firm.
2010 Update: I realize having a web presence is vital to starting a law firm. But don’t get suckered into (over)paying Lexis, Westlaw, or Findlaw for a bad template website and/or blog. Find a web developer/designer who actually understands web design and social media. I used Dave Onkels for this site and proudly recommend him.
2016 Update: Wow. What a journey (which is still going). Well, along the way, I partnered up and have taken on an associate. I’m still really worried that I’ll create the firm I never wanted to work at. There’s nothing wrong with working at a large firm (other than I wouldn’t be allowed to wear my monochromatic Nike Air Epics to the office).
Sort of ironic that I work with high growth companies, but I’m not that into growing. Since 2010, I’ve certainly had chances to increase the headcount, merge or ‘get acquired’ by larger firms, but as a very wise and well-respected venture lawyer at a prominent firm once told me “the grass is always greener” and “there’s a lot of partners in Biglaw who would trade with you in a second”. Man that was some good advice. I feel like I also got similar advice years earlier from the Fresh Prince when he said “if it ain’t broke, then don’t try to fix it.” So, I’m just adjusting the bass and letting the Alpine blast.
Best of luck to you!