10 tips for starting your own firm

10 tips for starting your own firm
Illustration: Matt Daley
Having a law degree and being called to the bar no longer guarantees a job in a law firm. According to the results of this year’s Canadian Lawyer Compensation Survey, only 45 per cent of law firm respondents plan to hire more lawyers next year. With this in mind, you might want to consider hanging up your own shingle. Since the prospect of starting a firm can be intimidating, assistant editor Heather Gardiner asked sole practitioners for their tips on how to start off on the right foot.

1) Evaluate yourself

The first thing you need to do is assess whether running a business is right for you, because after all, having your own firm is just that — a business. Lisa Ridgedale worked in government and at a large national law firm for 16 years before opening her own boutique litigation firm in Vancouver last year. “If you do not have an appetite or desire to run a business or learn how to run a business, you shouldn’t do it because it’s a huge part of it,” she says. “You can’t just be a good lawyer, you have to be a good businessperson.”

Michael Jakeman, regional legal careers officer of the Canadian Bar Association B.C. branch’s Rural Education and Access to Lawyers Initiative, says you should also examine your interests. “Are you passionate about people and want a labour of love in your law practice? Then you may want to consider being your own boss,” he says. After law school, Jakeman spent two years running a firm with another lawyer in Fort McMurray, Alta., and then his own firm in Victoria before taking on his current role at the CBA-BC.

Once you’ve decided that you’d like to have your own practice, don’t be afraid to take the plunge! Heather Campbell started her own elder law firm in Vancouver after being called to the bar in 2011. She received a lot of encouragement from colleagues, family, and friends but also faced some criticism. She advises listening to their warnings, but “keep your head high and stay confident that [you] can do it.”

2) Develop a business plan

Before opening shop, you need to have a clear vision of what your business will look like and a plan for how you’re going to achieve your goals. “This plan may include the office space, your business structure, your staffing policies, practice management, professional development, financial investments and leveraging, and growth — just to name a few,” says Jakeman. Without a solid business plan in place beforehand, every step towards building your practice will seem more difficult, he adds.

Another vital aspect is your firm’s image. “Part of what you want to look at is the image you want to portray with your firm. When I started my firm, I wanted to have something that’s young, dynamic, and modern,” says Elmé Schmid, who started her own criminal and regulatory law boutique firm in Toronto earlier this year. She worked with a graphic designer to create a web site and stationery to reflect this image.

Your office space should also reflect your firm’s image, says Schmid. There are several factors to consider when choosing the location of your office, including whether you want to be close to home, what geographical area you want to be in, whether it shares space with other lawyers, where your clients are located, etc.

3) Get your finances in order

“Know the financial constraints well in advance as they relate to banking, taxes, your legal structure, and your professional reporting and accounting obligations. Your management of money and accounts will be a clear indicator to your success,” says Jakeman.
Schmid says it’s imperative that you set up a good accounting system and find out what your obligations are as a sole practitioner. She suggests using the Law Society of Upper Canada as a resource. “As an associate, you spend so much time on developing your legal skills, in fact that’s all you spend time on because you don’t have to concern yourself with running a business or handling the accounting side of any firm. So for most people who start out on their own that’s a completely new experience — it was for me — and for that especially, the law society was very helpful,” she says.

Campbell suggests becoming friends with a bank representative, particularly someone who works with law firms so your needs are well met. She learned about the financial side of running a firm through the Law Society of British Columbia’s Professional Legal Training Course. “Literally just a few months before starting my own firm I was finally taught exactly how a trust account works,” she says.

Regina Lee, who launched her own general practice in Toronto last year, says it’s essential to have enough of a financial cushion to fall back on, especially in the first year when you’re unsure of how many clients you’ll have.

4) Do the legwork

Opening your own firm means all of the work falls on your plate — at least until you can afford to hire more staff or other associates to share the workload. Although it might be overwhelming at times, doing the work yourself will pay off. “You’re going to have to do a lot of self-study on things like ethics, on substantive law, things that you will have to look up and do a lot of research on initially,” says Schmid. “But in a week or in a month from now, you’ll have a file with a similar issue and that legwork will be done.”

5) Network

Building a network can do a lot for your practice. Getting out there and networking with others can lead to mentors, referrals, and even clients. Ridgedale takes advantage of every opportunity to network. “Anytime I get an invitation to speak at an event, attend an event, write an article, [or] go somewhere that has potential clients, I do it,” she says.

Schmid says networking doesn’t have to be challenging. “You know a lot of people already,” she says. Whether it’s through your summer position, articling term, or law school — those are all referral sources, she says.

Ridgedale says joining professional organizations is also key to developing your network. She is currently a member of a women’s business group and a small business group.

6) Seek help when necessary

There will be times when you just can’t do everything on your own, but don’t be afraid to seek help. “Incorporate all resources, mentors, and professionals when necessary and do not fall into the trap that you can do everything yourself,” says Jakeman. “In my practice, I was always very honest with myself and my clients in choosing what work I was excited about and confident that I could handle competently.”

Lee admits that sometimes you need advice from a more experienced lawyer. “As a junior lawyer, it’s really intimidating to call up a senior lawyer that you don’t know [and who is] just some random person and say, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, can you help me?’ I’ve actually done that before,” she says. She called a senior lawyer who had been a speaker at a continuing professional development program she attended. He was also a sole practitioner, who seemed friendly and approachable, and he was happy to help her.

Schmid says there are lots of lawyers who are willing to guide you. “Even though you might feel very alone, it isn’t that lonely out there,” she says. She suggests having a number of mentors to consult with whenever an ethical or other issue arises.

However, if you’re starting your own practice immediately after articling, you may not have developed many relationships with mentors yet. If this is the case, the Law Society of Upper Canada, and probably other law societies as well, provides a mentorship program that matches young lawyers with more experienced counsel practising in the same area. You can also find mentors by joining local law associations and bar groups.

“So you’re not completely stranded just because you haven’t worked with another lawyer for a longer period of time. There are ways to go around that and to find mentorship elsewhere,” says Schmid. It’s also a good idea to rent office space from a senior lawyer as he or she can become a mentor or referral source for you.

7) Utilize your resources

There are all kinds of resources available to help you start your own practice; you just have to use them. The Canadian Bar Association offers lots of assistance in this area. For example, its small, solo, and general practice forum publishes a regular newsletter. The CBA PracticeLink also offers tips on work-life balance, client services, marketing, money and finances, starting out, technology, and working with people.

Law societies are also available to provide support when you’re first starting out. Schmid found the LSUC’s continuing legal education courses on starting your own practice to be extremely informative. The LSUC also has a step-by-step guide to opening your practice. There are countless resources out there — you just have to take the time to seek them out.

8) Be professional

Remember to abide by the rules of professional conduct. Your law society should have practice management guidelines where you can learn about the bylaws and procedures for sole practitioners and small firms. The Law Society of Upper Canada even has a practice management hotline. Don’t be afraid to use it.

You must also take ethics into consideration for all of the work you do. Those principles you were taught in law school? Make sure you apply them to your practice. “Young lawyers must understand that they are not excused from anything because they are new to the practice. We must at all times act according to the principles of our profession,” says Jakeman.

9) Stay organized

When you’re the only one running the show, it’s important to stay on top of things. To do this you need to be organized. Schmid recommends allotting time for specific tasks to avoid getting sidetracked. “You need a lot of time to work on files, but at the same time, in the beginning there’s a lot of time required to set up the business, to do the accounting side of things, to establish certain practices that you need to have in your own firm,” she says. “So that’s been challenging, and the advice I give people now is that you should allot time. You should say, three days a week I’m going to be working just on my files and nothing else, but two days are going to go to business development.”

It’s also wise to invest in office supplies that will allow you to be more efficient. For instance, Campbell highly recommends purchasing a multi-page scanner.

10) Reflect on your results

It can be easy to get caught up in the busyness of your practice and neglect to reflect on your accomplishments and mistakes. Jakeman says measuring your progress and then absorbing the results is crucial. “Successful people and businesses measure the business periodically and the greater your ability to measure your success, progress, and work, the better you will be able to grow or make changes to avoid problems in your business,” he says.

Go to canadianlawyermag.com/4students for exclusive interviews with Elmé Schmid and Regina Lee.

Law Society of Upper Canada:

Guide to Opening your Practice

Practice Management Guidelines

Practice Management Helpline: 1-800-668-7380 ext. 3315 or practicehelpline@lsuc.on.ca

Canadian Bar Association:

Small, Solo and General Practice Forum

CBA PracticeLink:

What You Didn’t Learn in Law School: Top Tips for New Lawyers

Starting a New Firm: Top 10 Mistakes to Avoid and Top 10 Tips for Success

Independence Day: Starting Your Own Law Firm

Secrets of the Business of Law — Opening Your Own Office: What Will It Cost?

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