September 2016

13 Steps to Start Your Solo Practice

By Christine McCoy

Phillips and Pelly

Although I’m happy with my law firm now, I loved my time as a solo practitioner. In the seven years I was a solo, I received a lot of questions about my practice from attorneys who toyed with the idea of going solo, such as “how do you stay focused?” (I stayed away from social media); and “do you just go to the beach every day?” (only some days); and “is it annoying to have people in your household wanting things from you when you’re trying to work?” (yes). Only occasionally would people ask about things like Errors and Omissions insurance, startup requirements and costs, and how to get clients. When people asked these questions, I knew they were serious about going solo.

It takes a special kind of attorney to be a solo practitioner. You have to enjoy and work well in solitude. You have to be willing and able to market yourself effectively. You must be optimistic and you must trust your own skills even when the chips are down. But it can be very rewarding, professionally and personally, if it’s a good fit for you.

By no means am I an expert on developing or running a solo practice, but here are the things that worked for me. You may want to do things differently. In no way does this constitute legal, financial, or tax advice on how to open your business. Now, on to the fun stuff, in 13 easy steps.

Step 1: Decide on a Practice Area

What is your experience? What are you good at? What do you want to actually do? Do that thing. Just do yourself a favor and do not try to be a jack of all trades. You risk spending unbillable time trying to learn unfamiliar aspects of the practice, and risk making mistakes. Expensive mistakes.

Step 2: Be Open to Contract Work for Other Attorneys or Law Firms

While you’re deciding what you want to do, get some side work in. The goal is for just enough overflow work to keep your lights on while you’re starting out; not to be a de facto employee. You may get work ranging from discovery and motion writing, or even taking lower-value cases the firm doesn’t want. Do good work and be professional and cordial, and your reputation will grow. Try not to come across like you’re fishing for a job. You don’t want to work for someone else anyway, do you?  Plus, if you are having trouble deciding on a practice area, contract work could be a low risk way to preview areas of law you are not familiar with and see if you enjoy them.

Consider registering with a staffing agency for document review. The work is temporary and often boring, but you’ll be thankful for the paycheck if months go by without a single client.

Step 3: Determine Your Corporate Entity Status

Sole Proprietor? APC? S-Corp? Talk to your tax preparer about how you want your business structured. Do this before you register for your EIN, open your trust account, or get business cards printed.

Step 4: Get an EIN and Client Trust Account

Part A: Get a Federal Employer Identification Number, even if you aren’t sure you’ll ever hire employees. It takes five minutes to get an EIN online at www.taxid-gov.us and it is free. Do it. Your EIN will be used to identify you to your bank and the IRS. If you’re not sure what name to use for your EIN, talk to your tax pro first.

Of course, you can use personal SSN to give to every client, defendant and insurance company that sends you a check, but I don’t recommend it.

Part B: Open a client trust account. As you’ll remember from Professional Responsibility, you must keep your money physically separate from your clients’ money. Once you have an EIN, go to a bank and tell them you need an “Attorney Client IOLTA Trust Account.” I took an added precaution and opened my business and trust accounts at a bank where I had no personal accounts to prevent accidental transactions with the wrong accounts. Note: In most states you cannot electronically transfer money to and from an IOLTA; checks only.

This is one thing on this list you can’t ignore. Do not mess with the IOLTA. The Bar will investigate you for even accidental mishandling of trust account funds. It is not worth it.

Step 5: Get a Mentor

When working alone in an executive suite or home office, it is invaluable to have someone to call to bounce ideas off of or simply to answer a quick procedural question. There are plenty of attorneys who would be happy and honored to mentor a new attorney in their field, you just need to meet them.

Step 6: Put up a Website

Even if it’s just a placeholder until you get your “real” website up, put up a site with your name, phone number, practice area, and a bio with a picture. Get something up there so people who are looking for you can find you, and so you have some identity. Get a personal domain name. Nothing says “newbie” like “www.BobLoblaw.wordpress.com.” Same goes for getting a professional email address with your domain, not gmail.com.

Step 7: Get Business Phone Numbers

It was true for me in 2008 and it’s still true in 2016: you’re going to need a fax number and (what at least appears to be) a dedicated office landline. Since I worked all over the place (law library, home, while traveling, and yes, the beach), I wanted to stay mobile and avoid the cost of landlines. The right solution for me was a virtual number I could forward to another phone, and an e-fax account.

If you can choose your numbers, select two with the same prefix or suffix for a more professional looking set. If you are a landline person, there are plenty of multi-line phone plans available so you can install dedicated office and fax lines. One of the great things about being solo is your flexible schedule, so be sure to have a plan for when you are out of office, whether it be call forwarding, transcription of voicemail to email, or using an answering service.

Step 8: Business Cards

Now that you have a business name and contact info, you need these. Resist the temptation to get cards until you have finalized what will go on those cards. Consider carefully whether to include your personal cell phone number. Custom cards can be expensive, but if you must use a free service, at least pay the couple extra bucks so the printer’s website isn’t on the back of your card.

Step 9: Put Your Forms Together

Every practice needs two kinds of forms: pre-printed standard forms, and those documents you use repeatedly in each of your cases.

Determine what standard forms are most often used in your practice and save these to your hard drive with the caption or header completed. If you’re in litigation, you’re likely going to need Summons, Civil Case Cover Sheet, Form Complaint, and Statement of Damages at minimum. If you’re not sure what forms you will need, this is a great question to ask your mentor.

Next, think about what forms and letter you’re most likely to use in every case, and draft them early on, when you have down time. Often-used “fill in” forms include those for intake, litigation expenses, billable hours; letters of representation and the all-important “non-rep” letter; and of course, a written retainer. If you’re unsure what to include on these forms and letters, your mentor, lawyer friends, and your law library are a great place to start. Just be sure not to plagiarize (without permission).

Save your new form templates as Read Only and keep a copy in a folder you never access. I also set all of my forms as auto text for the ultimate in time saving.

Step 10: Buy Errors and Omissions Insurance

You aren’t legally required to buy it, as long as you disclose to your clients that you don’t have it. However, you will be glad you have it the first time you notice a major mistake (and it will happen). There are plenty of plans out there for newer attorneys, and financing is usually available if you need it.

Step 11: Develop a Formula to Set Aside Money for Taxes and Overhead

Be prepared: the first year you pay taxes as a 1099 contractor may shock you if you’ve always been a W2 employee. Thankfully, my tax preparer warned me ahead of time to set aside a substantial percentage of each check to pay taxes. Talk to your tax preparer about how much to set aside. If you’re doing well, ask about paying quarterly. Plan to also set some of each check for bar dues, E&O premiums, overhead, and emergency office expenses.

Step 12: Join the County Law Library

The San Diego County Law Libraries have free limited access to Westlaw and Lexis, practice guides, and electronic access to nearly every form you’ll ever need. Many hold free live programs and loan out self-study CDs. The librarians are often helpful and willing to assist with your research, especially if you become a regular. As a bonus, the law libraries are air conditioned. Membership is cheap, especially for first-year solos.

Step 13: Profit!

Just kidding. Going solo is a long road. With some contract work to tide you over, solid networking to cultivate your relationships, and using the early downtime to get the mechanics of your practice down, you’ll find yourself working steadily in no time. Your contacts will get to know you and trust you, and will think of you when they hear of someone who can use your help. Your few clients will refer you to other clients. Your mentors will think of you when they have a case to refer. It will all come together.

There you have it. That’s how I chose to open my law practice in 13 easy steps. I did it the way that worked for me, which is not everyone’s cup of tea. Please take from this list what works for you, ignore what doesn’t (except Step 4 — you have to do that). 

The San Diego County Bar Association also has numerous resources to help out attorneys looking to go solo, including a specific web page full of resources to build your practice, programs from other attorneys regarding opening a new practice, networking opportunities to find mentors, and resources at the Bar Center.  

Now go forth into the world to make it better with all your legal knowledge and skill.