Young Lawyers Division Newsletter
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Young Lawyers Division

April 2008, vol. 52, no. 5

Making the transition to a solo or small firm practice

Many attorneys consider starting their own firm. Obtaining clients and successfully collecting your fees are a couple of obvious aspects of starting your own solo or small firm practice. Some other aspects of the transition may not be so obvious.

Start by thinking about your current practice setting. Making the transition can be completely different, for example, if you are coming from a big firm, a small firm or a government practice.

Stephen Peck made the transition from a government litigation practice to his own solo practice, the Law Offices of Stephen Peck. Leaving a government practice to start your own practice can have special difficulties. Depending on your government practice setting, it might mean you would be forced to start from scratch without any clients. Starting a practice without any existing clients is very tough, Mr. Peck acknowledged, but does not mean that you cannot still build a successful practice.

On the other hand, if you are leaving a firm and planning to bring clients with you, you might experience an entirely different set of problems. Jason Bent left a large firm litigation practice and teamed up with another attorney to start Smith and Bent, P.C. Among other considerations, leaving a firm requires an evaluation of your portable business and clients. If you are planning to try to take any clients with you, Mr. Bent suggests that it is crucial to determine which clients you are targeting and to decide whether it is worthwhile to try to bring them to your new practice. You should also evaluate whether you will have to fight with your former firm over a client and whether such a fight is worthwhile considering the time, resources and potential damage involved.

Getting clients in the door is obviously one of the most, if not the most important aspect of starting your own firm. In some practice areas, such as personal injury or real estate transactions, advertising might bring in clients. In other practice areas, such as corporate work, advertising might not bring in any clients. Networking for clients on your own and seeking referrals from other attorneys might be useful, depending on the practice area.

One of the toughest aspects of starting your own practice is learning to handle new tasks that you probably did not deal with before. Purchasing and managing supplies is one example. Dealing directly with an information technology professional is another. Not only are such aspects of running your own practice time-consuming, but they can also be very expensive.

Managing information technology can be expensive. And even with substantial costs you might not receive the type of results you would really like. Mr. Bent acknowledges that it can be very difficult for a small firm to set up the technology systems that many clients will expect to be in place, particularly if they are sophisticated clients used to working with larger firms.

Spending more money on equipment and personnel might be a difficult choice, but it could pay off in the long run. And make sure you have sufficient funds to do it. At an absolute minimum, Mr. Peck suggests, you should have enough capital on hand to fund at least six months of operations without relying on receiving any income. Having more capital would be even better.

Not to suggest that there are not any benefits to going out on your own or starting a practice with a partner. “There is definitely a greater risk and greater reward potential that can certainly pay off if your firm is successful,” says Mr. Peck. ■

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** The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and are not attributable to the City of Chicago Law Department.