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Hanging Your Shingle: Make a Plan & Network

by Christopher Steele on May 17, 2013

When I graduated in May 2011, I was extremely discouraged by the lack of prospects in the job market and I wasn’t sure where to turn. Whenever I asked experienced attorneys what I should do, it seemed that their answer was always to hang my own shingle.  This was an unpalatable suggestion at the time – how could I possibly start my own practice when I had just recently graduated? My degree was in law, not accounting, management, marketing, or any of the myriad expertise required to develop and maintain a thriving practice. I felt that fresh-faced graduates don’t know nearly enough to run their own firm, generate new business, or actually practice law in courts and conference rooms. It just seemed to be too much.

All these thoughts, and more, passed through my head every time someone would suggest I hang my own shingle, and these thoughts gave me reason to postpone making a decision. Then January 2013 came around and the long-term project I was working was cancelled. I was shown the door 45 minutes after the cancellation was announced. Life, it seemed, had made the decision for me. I was going to start my own practice. And guess what? It wasn’t nearly as bad as I had made it out to be. I have learned more in the past three months than I thought possible, and I would like to pass along some tips to make the transition easier for any that desire to follow the same path.

Make a Plan

You will hear it more often than you would like but it is true. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. This may be the most intellectually difficult thing that an individual needs to do in order to start their own firm. It is difficult to make a plan when you don’t know what to expect, but that’s exactly why it needs to be done. Develop a plan that recognizes your depths, potential developments and establish goals, both short-term and long-term.

You may be an attorney that has had years of experience in a large firm, or you could be a brand new lawyer fresh out of law school. The important thing is to inventory your strengths and weaknesses, and then determine how you are going to accentuate the positive and shore up the gaps. If you have significant experience in litigation, but very little in firm management, you’ll want to explore training in that area. This is your personal professional plan, but you’ll also need to create a business plan for your newly minted firm. Consider your short-term goals and long-term objectives and how to best work towards both. Also do not forget to take advantage of the resources provided by the Colorado and Denver Bar Associations. If you have a question, nine times out of 10 you’ll find the answer in CLE classes, Casemaker, or any of the other sources those associations provide for free.

Developing this plan may not be a task you are comfortable or familiar with, but determining costs and expected profits is essential to a successful firm, and will protect the firm from over extending itself too quickly. If you do make the decision to step out on your own the first thing you should do is sit down and make your plans.

Network, Network, Network

Networking is essential for new firms, especially if you are a less experienced attorney. The Colorado Bar is full of attorneys that are willing to help; many of the attorneys that you will contact have been where you are and will want to share their experiences. Reach out to them and find a group that works in your practice areas. Create professional relationships with them so that when you are stumped, and you will be, you can reach out to them, take them to lunch, and ask them questions.

Networking is also essential in growing a client base. It is an unfortunate reality that attorneys seem to be moving away from free consultations with clients. These are wonderful opportunities to provide potential clients with a face to the profession. Not only will it allow you the opportunity to gain an immediate client, but that individual most likely will have friends and family that will need legal advice in the future. Thus, even if the consultation is a bust as far as the initial client, it may pay dividends in the future.

Finally, networking with other professionals may yield promising resources as well. Many times your friends and acquaintances will be able to provide information on accountants, phone services, web design, and office space that you might not be able to find on your own. If you reach out to these professionals and ask for their assistance, it may cut down on overhead and start-up costs as well as create another relationship through which referrals may come.

In the end, the decision is up to you and you alone whether you’ll start your own firm. I will, however, recommend that if you are considering starting your own firm, don’t let your apprehension and anxiety dictate your actions. Having your own practice will instill a great deal of confidence and self-satisfaction, something that I didn’t get from my time with a large firm. Make the leap and you’ll find that it’s not as hard or as frightening as it seems.

Christopher Steele started his own firm in January 2013, and specializes in bankruptcy, contract, criminal, family, and real estate law. He can be reached by email or on Facebook.

Steele graduated from Utah State University in Law and Constitutional Studies, and attended the University of Richmond School of Law. While in law school Steele served on the editorial boards of the University of Richmond Journal of Law and the Public Interest and the University of Richmond Journal of Global Law and Business. He is also a recipient of the Weinstein International Grant and the Virginia International Business Council Scholarship. Steele is a published author and enjoys playing sports, reading, and traveling.

This post was originally published on the Denver Bar Association Young Lawyers Division blog on May 8, 2013, and is reposted here with permission.

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