When Stephen C. Paul graduated from law school in 2012, he knew that Big Law wasn’t for him. After four years of working as a judicial clerk and an associate at a small law firm, he decided it was time to hang his own shingle.
Like many millennials, Stephen was faced with financial pressures (a mortgage, student debt, and a child at home) and a lack of opportunity compared to previous generations (law school graduates in 2012 faced the lowest employment rate since 1994 and things haven’t been getting much better). Unlike many of his colleagues, he was able to find employment after law school, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that his firm could be run more efficiently, and that he could be doing more for his clients and community.
So, with a bit of grit, and with the help of the Pitt Legal Services Incubator, a program at the University of Pittsburgh designed to help recent graduates start their own firms, Stephen opened his practice in January of 2017. Now, he’s helping his clients in the ways he envisioned, and he has enough steady revenue to move out of the incubator’s shared space into his own office.
Here, Stephen shares what he’s learned from his experience, along with some advice for other lawyers thinking of striking out on their own:
1. Make an informed choice to start a law firm
One of the hardest parts of starting any business is the financial risk involved. “I was making a decent living compared to a lot of my colleagues. The hardest part was taking a deep breath and taking that leap while knowing I wasn’t going to have any guaranteed income and that I still had a family I needed to support,” Stephen said.
For him, it was important to take that risk. However, before starting his own firm, he took careful stock of his situation to be sure of exactly how much of a financial risk he’d be taking.
This is good advice for anyone thinking about starting their own firm. Attorney Willie Peacock puts it this way:
Evaluate your month-to-month expenses, any other income in the household, and your savings, if you have any. Expect the worst (no income for at least a few months) and ask yourself if you, and your family, can swing the risk.
2. Get support
No one makes it alone. Whether through a mentor, your family, or a business partner, it’s important to seek outside help rather than taking on everything that comes with starting your own law firm by yourself.
For Stephen, that meant applying for an incubator program at the University of Pittsburgh for new lawyers starting their own firms. “It’s a really great program,” he said. “They offer a small amount of office space and a conference room, and they kind of alleviate a lot of the early expenses that you may have. They also offer mentorship with experienced attorneys in the area.”
There’s a lot more to being a lawyer than just practicing law, but as a new grad or associate, it can be difficult to learn about the business side of things. Outside mentorship can be a big help here.
“The incubator’s focus is on making sure that we know the nuts and bolts of running a business,” Stephen said. “Most of our mentorship is about how to run a law firm, how to get clients, how to keep clients, and how to get paid.”
For mentorship, look for events put on by your local bar association or by small business associations. Taking advantage of online resources and communities can be helpful as well—the Clio blog has articles on how to write a law firm business plan, what technology your law firm will need, and more.
62% of consumers surveyed as part of the 2017 Legal Trends Report said they looked to friends or family for referrals when looking for a lawyer. In other words, you can spend time and money on marketing and advertisements, but getting involved in your community and building strong relationships may just get your business further.
It’s worked for Stephen.
If you’re getting out there, and you’re meeting people, they’re going to ask you what you do for a living and you’re going to say you’re a lawyer. They may not need you for three or four months, but they may have a family member that suddenly needs a lawyer and they’ll say ‘Oh, I met Steve at this community event, or in the kickball league, and he’s a lawyer.’
For example, Stephen is heavily involved at his daughter’s Early Learning Center. “I’m there all the time, not just for her, but because I want to connect with her teachers and with the staff,” he said. “I’ve gotten quite a few clients referred to me from them.
4. Put your clients first
Stephen also believes it’s incredibly important to put customer service ahead of profits, as that’s what will help lawyers succeed in the long run. Why? Because referrals are still crucial for lawyers.
“I think the most important thing you can do to be successful is just really care about your clients and what their needs are,” he said. “If you’re just chasing a dollar, you’re never going to have success. We’re a service industry. We’re giving people access to justice. If you have a passion for that, and you really care about advocating for your clients, they’re going to see that, and that’s what generates referrals.”
When asked why he thought referrals were so important for lawyers, Stephen said he believes it’s because when someone needs a lawyer, they want someone they can trust.
A flashy website is great when you don’t know [any lawyers], but if your brother had an attorney that he loved, you’re going to know about that, and you’re going to ask him about that instead of finding one on your own.
5. Be open to change
The most important thing Stephen has learned from starting his own law firm is that it’s important to constantly review and improve the systems you have in place. From client intake, to the way you process credit cards, to the way you calendar your appointments and the way you tag your files, there are always going to be better options, and you likely won’t get it right the first time.
“There’s usually a better way to do things, but you shouldn’t let the fear of not getting it exactly right paralyze you,” Stephen said. “Your business is going to grow and it’s going to evolve. You don’t have to have complete, perfect processes from day one.”
Small improvements add up. Look for small ways to save time and do better, and your law firm will quickly start to run more smoothly.
6. Communicate efficiently
The Legal Trends Report also found that 67% of consumers choose their lawyer based on whether they responded quickly to phone calls or emails, and 27% chose their lawyer based on a willingness to communicate via text message.
The way you communicate with your clients matters, and it’s important to do so in a way that’s efficient for both you and them.
“We’re on our phones all the time having multiple conversations all at once. Why should an attorney be any different?” Stephen said. “If it’s an easily answered question, or a simple communication to respond to, there’s always time to send a quick text message.”
In addition to text messages, Stephen also uses Clio Connect and other apps to connect with his clients. “My question to my clients is always, ‘What’s the best way for me to communicate with you?’” he explained. “If they like Skype, my Skype’s open.”
Note: Always use secure communication channels when interacting with clients.
7. Use technology
More generally, Stephen believes technology is incredibly important to make his law practice more efficient, and to serve his clients better. He uses Clio to manage his practice, Lexicata to help with client intake, and LawPay to process his credit card payments.
Overall, effective use of technology is what many of his clients have come to expect—and he believes that lawyers who don’t adopt technology will soon be left behind:
I’m a millennial. I grew up on computers, and while a lot of my clientele is older than me now, very shortly, the majority of my clients are going to end up being millennials too. We’re used to opening up a computer and finding an answer to something immediately.
With a paper-based system, Stephen points out that clients will never have the immediate access to information that they want:
With a paper-based system, clients are going to have to call you during business hours. You’re going to have to pull their file, review it, make sure everything was put in the file, and then call them back to answer their question. A simple question sometimes can have a two-day turnaround.
He believes cloud-based solutions provide a simple answer:
When you’re a cloud-based firm, your clients can shoot you a message through email or, they can use Clio Connect, and you can share documents with them immediately. Sometimes you can have interactions where you’ve never actually really directly communicated with your client, but they’re happy and they’re satisfied.
Sometimes, millennials don’t want to call anyone on the phone. We just want to send a quick message, or log in to something quickly, and get the information we want immediately.
Starting your own law firm can seem daunting, but with the right tools and the right support, it is possible to thrive practicing law the way you want to.