Starting Your Own Law Practice? Here’s How to Fail
Take it from Elizabeth Miller, co-author of “From Lawyer to Law Firm, How to Manage a Successful Law Business,” this is what you should NOT do when setting up your law firm.
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“Mr. Beaver, your articles influenced me to become a lawyer, and I was just admitted to the bar in my state. One day I hope to do something like you, writing a newspaper column that educates and helps so many people.
“Due to COVID-19, it is proving impossible to find employment. So, there is no choice but to open my own office, and I would appreciate your advice on the things I should avoid doing. Thanks, ‘Stella.’”
Her email came at the right time as I had just finished speaking with Elizabeth Miller, who co-wrote From Lawyer to Law Firm, How to Manage a Successful Law Business.
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Based upon her 41 years working in the legal field, beginning as a paralegal, becoming a law firm administrator and law practice management consultant, following her advice is a road map to success. But she offers serious warnings to any newly minted lawyer who is in a hurry to start making money — the wrong way.
“If your ambition is to open a law firm and survive, you must know what not to do,” she underscores, providing a list of traps just waiting for new lawyers.
To fail in your law practice, do these things:
1. Don’t decide what area of law you want to specialize in.
Instead, practice DOOR LAW and take whatever comes through the door.
Consequences: You will have a lots of cases in areas of the law of which you know very little, if anything, about. You end up being a Jack of all trades, master of none, and likely not very good at any of them. You will flounder around, probably won’t get paid, as clients do not like the “learn-as-you-go” program. As a bonus, you will almost certainly commit malpractice.
2. Engage in illegal behavior to obtain clients.
This includes as paying for referrals from ambulance drivers, doctors in the ER, chiropractors and physical therapists.
Consequences: You could lose your license to practice law.
3. Don’t choose a mentor.
Don’t find someone who practices law in the way that you want to and pick his brains.
Consequences: You will make all sorts of mistakes without anyone telling you, “Don’t do this!”
4. Don’t decide what kind of fee structure you will use.
Don’t research the competition to see what the going rate is.
Consequences: You can determine what to charge by speaking to people in the industry. If you don’t talk with your colleagues, no one is going to open up and talk with you.
5. Don’t send out a bill until you need money.
Don’t run your law practice like a business. Fail to collect expected out-of-pocket costs from your client, such as court filing fees.
Consequences: You will experience the “Oh my God I’ve Got to Pay the Rent, Better Send out a Bill!” syndrome. This way you make sure the client not only owes you legal fees but also court costs, and then you get stuck holding the bag!
6. Don’t prepare a budget for rent, secretary and fixed monthly expenses.
A budget is only as good the day it is written anyway, so who really cares about it?
Consequences: You will probably go broke sooner rather than later.
7. Don’t give serious thought as to where you want to locate your office.
Don’t think about proximity to the courthouse. Don’t think about reducing your travel time, getting stuck in traffic and being late for court.
Consequences: Especially if you are a trial attorney, if you have a court appearance and are late, you will have plenty of time to consider the reactions of the judge and jury to your being late.
8. Don’t have a web presence.
Consequences: The first thing any prospective clients do is to look at your website. If you don’t have one, no one will think you are legit.
9. Follow a client’s orders without considering ethical or moral consequences.
Consequences: Far too many lawyers do as instructed, knowing that what the client wants is unethical and illegal, but they do it anyway for the money, often harming their own clients and innocent people around them.
Miller concluded our discussion on this note:
“As a lawyer you have a legal, ethical and moral responsibility to do what is right, not to say yes to a client who is using your skills and law license to harm others. You do not want to be among that group of lawyers who will do anything clients ask. Have the courage to say, “No! We are not doing that. It is not right.”
Miller’s website is FromLawyerToLawFirm.com (opens in new tab), and it is worth the time of any law student and lawyers starting out.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield, Calif., and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to 661- 323-7993, or e-mailed to Lagombeaver1@gmail.com. And be sure to visit dennisbeaver.com (opens in new tab).
This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.
After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law (opens in new tab)." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."