This week in Bigger than Biglaw, Neena Dutta looks back at starting a law practice and discusses seven things she wishes she did and did not do.
I have been in private practice for about year and it is the best professional decision I have ever made.
As you know, before solo practice I worked for medium to large multi-service law firms.
Maybe, you are thinking about leaving your law firm job to embark on the path of self-employment. Maybe as you read this, you are sitting in your office hoping that a supervisor does not dump a pile of last minute work on you so you can get home at a reasonable hour.
I can relate — that used to be my life.
If you are considering the dream of starting a law practice, you probably have you punch list of things to do before you quit your job. You’re also probably worried about a bunch of things that you probably don’t need to be.
Looking back at my own experience, here are some dos and don’ts.
1. Do: Begin early.
There is nothing you can do too early to prepare yourself for self-employment. But the most important thing: begin curtailing discretionary spending so that you are financially prepared to start your firm. Doing so will allow you to live the lifestyle that is close to the one you are accustomed to as you ramp up your practice, and will provide a cushion in case you have some leaner months. Also, try to pay off credit card debts, store cards and “extras.” You may well end up solo with excess money but since there are highs and lows, you want to be prepared for minimal fixed costs. Additionally, figure out what your fixed costs are and see what it is you need to bring in monthly (don’t forget about taxes!), as well as, business expenses that will crop up.
2. Do: Talk to 2 million people who’ve done this before you.
I talked to a million people about starting my own firm. Literally, I think I spoke with every lawyer I had ever met that went solo. I wish I had talked to more.
Everyone has a different take, a different opinion and perspective. You won’t end up doing it exactly like anyone else, but it is good to take into account what everyone says and then form your own strategy.
For me, the best nugget of advice I received was about cloud storage. People had very strong, positive opinions about this and the cloud has saved me many times and allowed me to travel, work from home and access documents at a moment’s notice for clients. You’ll get the efficiency of 10 staff members, even though you’ll be an army of one.
3. Don’t: Waste time worrying about health insurance.
I stressed many nights about the cost of health insurance. It didn’t end up being a big deal. There are affordable options out there, and with the new NY State of Health market place, there’s now a central place to find a plan that fits your needs.
4. Don’t: Forget about your old email, its contents belong to your old firm.
Today’s most important tool for lawyers is email. It is likely your primary means of client communication, and reviewing old emails helps you figure out what work you have done for clients, time spent and information given by the client.
However, those emails belong to your old firm. It is their property. You cannot take it with you. You are not supposed to take printed copies of it. However, if you are not organized or are an email “hoarder,” before you announce your departure- start to go through your email, file important emails and delete the trash. Organize as much as you can. This will also help you when partners ask you to hand over cases and prepare memos for those cases.
However, your contact list, as far as I know, is still fair game. A lot of people have smart phones which they have for both work and personal use. Depending on the ethical rules where you practice, you may not be permitted to solicit a former client for an active piece of business once you start your firm. And even if you can, it’s probably bad business, especially if you had ideas of getting spin-off work from your old firm. If this is a client you developed however, you should not feel shy about asking the firm to send a joint letter from both you and the firm apprising the client of your departure and asking them what they would like to do with the file. You did that work and it is the client’s choice.
5. Do: Take the High Road.
When you leave your law firm, take the high road. What does that mean?
It means don’t burn bridges. Adding them on Linked In and updating your profile the day you leave the firm, (or putting that client on your firm’s new email distribution list) is not likely to cause problems.
Your exit interview is not the time to throw people under the bus and it is definitely not a therapy session. You should conduct yourself professionally and display the type of decorum which makes the firm regret your loss, not feel relieved at it. Plus, you never know- they may refer you cases in the future!
6. Don’t: Expect your employer to take the highroad with you.
Employer vengeance is not necessarily a problem at a huge firm. However, if you are leaving a boutique firm, you are probably a valuable asset. Be prepared for the fact that your employer may not have the most kind words to say about you; especially if they are trying to keep a client who has chosen to follow you on your solo path.
7. Do: Be true to yourself.
Be true to yourself and follow your heart. Life is too short to do anything else.
Neena Dutta is a corporate immigration attorney with the Dutta Law Firm, a firm she founded after leaving a Biglaw associate position with a prestigious New York firm. Neena is a client in Law Firm Suites’ executive suite for law firms in Downtown, New York and her weekly blog series, The Dutta Diaries, explores the thought process that goes into leaving a Biglaw job for the world of solo practice, and her experiences since making this career altering shift.