Are you ready to start your own law firm?

November 1st, 2017
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By Emmie de Kock

So you are a well-rounded attorney, running your own matters, managing your own support staff and clients. Perhaps you are waiting to be promoted, but it seems too long to wait, or you are uncertain that it will ever happen. Perhaps it frustrates you to exceed your budget and work for a fixed salary. Perhaps you always had an entrepreneurial side that you wanted to explore. Or maybe you just feel stuck where you are and want a new challenge. There may be many reasons why attorneys decide to go solo or start a new law firm. But how will you know if it is the right decision for you?

To be a successful law firm entrepreneur, it is essential to have confidence. It is true what they say: ‘If you do not think the world of yourself, who will?’ For a person starting and standing alone, you must have confidence that you will be able to make it by yourself. You must know yourself. You must trust your abilities and your judgment. You must be your own best friend. You must be able to forgive yourself for failures. You must be able to award yourself for achievements. You must be able to trust others and earn the trust of others. You must be a consistent hard worker.

Another important quality for law firm entrepreneurs is the taste for adventure. Perhaps not everyone will refer to ‘financial risk’ as adventure. Unless you can negotiate to move your client matters with you, you will start from zero and must learn to be a good business owner, on top of being a great attorney. In this regard, if you are a person who requires the certainty of a monthly salary, you are likely to find starting your own law firm from scratch very daunting. Generally, especially start-up entrepreneurs see opportunities to serve others, contribute something new to society, make their own mark, or make a living from something they feel passionate about. I think this is what is meant by referring to an ‘entrepreneurial spirit’. It is contagious and requires only one person.

Other aspects to consider include:

  • Knowledge and experience: You must assess, and be honest about your abilities, knowledge and experience. To start a law firm, is to set a standard for others to follow. If you lack knowledge or experience in any legal area, be open with your clients, and involve or refer instructions to other expert attorneys on an ad hoc basis to grow and diversify your practice.
  • Finances: Finances are also a reality and must always be approached rationally. While busy developing your law firm, your income may not be guaranteed and you must continue to provide for normal living expenses. Responsible start-up law firm owners try to limit personal expenses, and even downsize, if the firm may take a substantial time to develop before profitability is likely to follow.
  • Support: Starting your own law firm, may put you solely in charge of your firm’s business, but you will nevertheless not be alone in the world. Even if you are the champion of your own team, you will appreciate a cheerleader to help you win. Your life partner’s support for your career path is very important. If you are married, your spouse is your partner in life, and this includes your business life. Family can be a very good support system. The right friends and colleagues can also be good cheerleaders. Support could also be gained from business networks, professional societies, or other business owners in the same sector. The social platform LinkedIn also provides many helpful online interest groups.
  • Coaching: Especially when starting a law firm as a sole proprietor, it will be helpful to contract a lawyer coach to assist you in this journey and changes. Coaching can assist to develop you on a personal and professional level to be the best leader and manager for your law firm. A coach can help improve your competence, help set goals, build confidence, and be a thinking partner and support.
  • Mentorship: If you are a young attorney starting-up a law firm for the first time, it will also be helpful to seek a mentor with more attorney experience, who can guide and support you through challenges. In this regard, apart from the prescribed practice management training, the Mentorship Programme of the Law Society may be helpful. More information is available at www.lssalead.org.za.
  • Planning: It is always good to have a plan. It is further crucial to have this in writing, as a business plan can serve as a good road map to keep you on course. If you are a sole proprietor, it may take extra effort to do a written business plan, as you may feel that you have it all organised in your head. If you are married, it is a good idea to share your business plan with your life partner for input. However, regardless of the size of your law firm, or the extent of your future plans, a written business plan forces you to go through a checklist to make sure you thought of everything, and develop your dream and goal to grow.Sometimes the problem is not that we do not plan, but that we omit to refine and define our plans, to make them understandable to others, as well as practical. Forcing yourself to write your business plan, before being too eager to start with your exciting ideas, will force you to evaluate and reflect, and give you something to measure your progress against.

When leaving an established firm to start a new small law firm, there may be many adjustments. One aspect which may be new, but absolutely crucial for your success, is marketing. You must be able to network and market yourself to get clients and work. Due to the ethical rules of our profession, marketing a law firm is different to marketing any other type of commercial business. Aim for excellent client relations, as this will afford you recurring business and referrals from clients.

Starting a new law firm can be very exciting, but you must be sure that you are ready. Not every attorney should start their own law firm. If you are committed to this journey, make sure that you plan ahead and have some support, especially financially.

Emmie de Kock BLC LLB (cum laude) (UP) is a coach and attorney at Emmie de Kock Coaching and Consulting in Centurion.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2017 (Nov) DR 14.

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