Students get an earful on the realities of solo practice

Students get an earful on the realities of solo practice
Wayne D. Garnons-Williams and Jennifer Reynolds talked students through the highs and lows of running your own firm.
There is a pervasive culture in most Canadian law schools that warns “Big Law or bust.” Generations of law students have experienced the phenomenon that converts 1L moral idealists into 3L financial realists. So while many of us begin law school with the passions of Atticus Finch and Jake Brigance, after three years of legal education, we often find ourselves more influenced by The Wolf of Wall Street.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. The world needs corporate lawyers, hence the Big Law recruiters in front of every tri-panel display board in the atrium. The problem, however, is small firms lack the resources to compete for the attention of talented law students.

There is a gap in the network; a void as yet unfilled. Enter the University of Ottawa’s Small Practice Law Students’ Association. It was founded by three University of Ottawa law students in the fall of 2013. Just a couple of months into its second year, the membership has tripled and the latest event, “Start Your Own Firm after Law School,” was a success.

 The event took place Nov. 6 at U of O and began with a web conference delivered from Vancouver by Clio, a company that specializes in practice management software. It was a valuable opportunity for future lawyers to hear about cloud-based solutions for efficiency and productivity for small firms.

Next up was Jennifer Reynolds of Reynolds Family Law who enthusiastically runs a solo practice.

  “You are pretty much on 24/7,” she declared. It was clear she loves her practice but also how much work is involved in doing it.

  Reynolds warned most of the time is spent on managing the business, and only a fraction on actual legal work. This was a profound realization. What was even more eye-opening was the fact some of the business management work won’t necessarily be entirely stimulating either.

  “I spend time doing HST, accounting, billing, marketing, folding paper into envelopes . . . I fix my own computer and photocopier, I go out and buy staples and stamps, and I have to read all the mail that comes in. There is nobody there to filter through and tell you what is important,” Reynolds said. “There’s nobody here but me.”

  You’re out there on your own, but this means you get to reap the rewards of your hard work. As a result, you’ll find yourself enjoying even the menial tasks involved in running your own firm. Everything you do is for your firm. And it’s fun — even buying staples and stamps, she said.

 Reynolds discussed the importance of creating a brand, your own persona, and always maintaining your reputation. You will need to decide who you are, what your logo looks like, and what your tag line is. But even once all that is accomplished and you acquire a reputation, you must maintain it because the most valuable thing a lawyer has is her reputation:

“If you’re on Twitter . . . be aware that a lawyer might read it, a judge might read it, or a client might read it. Don’t just worry about how you’re perceived in the courtroom or in your office, be aware of how you are in the community and how you are online.”

  Reynolds encouraged students to build a professional network among their colleagues, describing it as a “virtual firm in the community of small and solo practitioners.” She then provided every student with her contact information and an open invitation to ask questions or seek her advice.

  The next presenter ignited the room with his similarly energetic presence. Wayne D. Garnons-Williams began by insisting every student take out their phones, snap a “selfie,” and tweet about the evening’s event. The audience of law students happily obliged.

  Mid-way through his presentation, he echoed the reputational considerations stressed by Reynolds earlier: “Cultivate your image on social media. Clients will look you up . . . build relationships in the community, on social media, on committees, and at community meetings. Always give 110 per cent.”

  Garnons-Williams also provided a great deal of insight into the pros and cons of various technologies necessary for effective law firm management. He highlighted the benefits of cloud-based solutions over installed software, and emphasized the importance of deciding whether you require a traditional or virtual office space (and whether your financials require one decision over the other as well).

Lastly, he stressed the importance of security — keeping all documents safe and secure is balanced against the demand all documents be immediately accessible at all times.

During the Q & A, SPLSA executive member Laura Metcalfe asked about the financial implications of starting a firm for students graduating with immense debt loads. Both speakers advised students to put together a solid business plan, and look into bank financing if a seed fund isn’t readily available.

  The SPLSA continues to foster relationships between small firms and law students, and plans to host its third event in Winter 2015.

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