Attorneys starting a law firm after working for others need to begin with a vision that encompasses the types of legal services they will provide, the way they will relate to clients, and how much they expect to earn from their business. A well-thought-out vision and a realistic law firm business plan will guide your choices as you establish and grow your business and legal services. Here are some ideas for thinking through that vision.
IDENTIFY THE OPPORTUNITIES
For some attorneys – a patent law specialist in Silicon Valley, a divorce lawyer in Hollywood, an estate planner in an upper-middle-class suburb populated by baby boomers – choosing the core of their new practice is easy. But legal technology makes it possible today for attorneys to cast a wider net, practicing over a larger geographic area and expanding into other specialties. If you are contemplating starting a law firm on your own, you should take a realistic inventory of your own strengths and interests, as well as the population demographics and the types of businesses in your area when formulating a law firm marketing plan. With the right legal technology in place, it’s possible to think creatively about geographic areas and specialties that may be growth opportunities once your boutique law firm gets started.
Small law firms have to be smart about identifying and seizing opportunities, such as with business incorporations and transactional law. The economic turmoil that began in 2008 has caused a lot of people to reevaluate their priorities and hopes for the future. As the promise of guaranteed lifetime employment fades, many individuals have considered starting their own businesses. These new businesses are looking to small law firms to provide expert guidance in an efficient and friendly manner. So small law firm business lawyers who seek to build or broaden their practices should not overlook the potential clients in their own backyard. These attorneys know the communities in which their clients are operating and have a good feel for the importance of building long-term relationships with those clients.
As you think about your potential niche, consider the following advice from Nicholas Wells, an intellectual property attorney with Kirton McConkie, a Salt Lake City legal services firm.
1. Start with who you are
The obvious choice is the subject that most interests you. But consider also your personality, likes, and dislikes. Do you prefer doing legal research to handling emotional confrontations? Don’t go into family law. Speak another language? Consider immigration law. Love sailing? How about admiralty? Hate public speaking? Don’t become a litigator.
The benefit of starting a law firm is that you can tailor your practice to your personal strengths and make your professional life exactly what you want it to be – something that can be very difficult at a larger firm.
2. Consider geography and economics
Some niches work better in certain locations. Use your preferred location as a guide to suggest areas where you can succeed, such as practicing oil and gas law in Texas, copyright law in Los Angeles, corporate law in Nevada or Delaware, or elder law in Florida.
Also, consider economic realities. Plan the breadth of your practice – and its natural extensions – based on current and possible future trends. Bankruptcy is strong in recessions, real estate runs in cycles, and legislative changes have a huge impact on securities law, immigration, and other practice areas.
For example, if your chosen practice area is entertainment law, you could start with a law firm marketing plan focused on the music industry, then work to add independent film or publishing. If you start with personal injury, consider expanding your training to include medical malpractice. If you pitch yourself as a tax lawyer, consider learning about transactional law, such as estate planning, securities law, or corporate governance.
Having a niche doesn’t mean you can only do one thing. It means you don’t try to do everything. And it means you have a focused law firm marketing message for those who need the specific legal services that you can provide.
3. Consider money
If you went into law just to get rich, you may succeed, but you may also be miserable. Still, money is a valid consideration when viewed in light of your other priorities. For example, if you want to work from home or you look forward to assisting immigrants, you can succeed, but you should temper your financial expectations. When preparing a budget to start your own law firm, take into account the different hourly rates, typical project size, and market expectations for your selected area of law.
4. Talk to others
You may not have the experience to make a confident decision about your area of practice. Talk to other solo practitioners or to those who work in small firms that focus on areas you are considering. Ask about their daily schedules, what they like and dislike, about their law firm marketing plan, what the business cycles are alike, and what cautions they can offer about their area(s) of practice.
Don’t neglect online contacts. They may be less likely to see you as competition, although they won’t have as much information to offer about your local market.