Pound the pavement, not your desk: start your new firm right
Whether you’re straight out of law school or ready to strike out on your own after practicing at a firm, you face several “unknown unknowns,” as former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would say.
For recent graduates, you know you need clients, as well as mentorship and guidance. You may know the law -- or at least an idea of where to start -- but no law school teaches you the mechanics of filing, the preferred languages of certain judges or mediators, and all the other seemingly small but fundamental “wheel greasing” aspects of legal practice. The Missouri Bar’s sections and committees can be a great resource for forming mentorships. The LawyerSearch tool can also help connect you with prospective clients.
For seasoned lawyers charting a new path, your prior firm probably took care of more than you think. Unless you were in a managerial position, it was someone else’s job to think about everything from rent to health insurance to breakroom snacks. Furthermore, it’s possible you relied on secretaries, legal assistants, and paralegals to facilitate client interaction and document preparation. For insurance options, check out the Plan | Insure member benefits page. If you’re looking to hire an associate or contract lawyer, post on The Missouri Bar’s Jobs for Missouri Lawyers board. For support staff positions, some local bars, like Metropolitan St. Louis, accept postings for non-lawyer personnel. For office space, look to the Office Space/Office Sharing page.
For additional considerations regarding business structure, employee compensation, and accounting options, review the bar’s Practice Management site for the Starting a New Firm checklist. It doesn’t have all the answers, as some questions are fact-specific, but the checklist will move some topics from “unknown unknowns” to “known unknowns.”
Beyond legal knowledge and personnel, you also must consider technology. Gone are the days where a legal pad, law library card, and well-placed Yellow Pages ad got the ball rolling. When starting a new firm, we can break down your technology needs into two core categories: hardware and software.
On the hardware front, I encourage you to equip all employees, lawyers, and support staff with laptops. It is a slightly pricier route, and you can argue that certain job functions don’t require mobility. But, if you had started your firm prior to March 2020, how much better-positioned would your employees be if they could grab their laptops and pick up working from home immediately?
Depending on your practice area, and any specialized software you may need, you have two options. If you are platform-agnostic, meaning you don’t require software that runs only on Windows, and are already in the Apple ecosystem with iPhones and iPads, it’s worth considering a MacBook Air. If you need Windows-only software or are not in the Apple ecosystem, I suggest a ThinkPad X1 Carbon. Both the MacBook and ThinkPad start at about $1,000. Bar members get a discount on ThinkPads via this link.
Beyond the laptop, there are a few additional core tech pieces: a docking station, webcam, quality headset, and scanner. With docking stations, the convenience and technology has shifted in the last three years. You want to find a USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 or 4 dock. These docks connect to your laptop with a single cord that provides the connection for external monitors, webcams, wired internet, and other peripherals. On the USB side, I like the ICY BOX USB 3.0 Universal Docking Station, available at Amazon for around $100. On the Thunderbolt side, where the single cable will also charge your laptop, I recommend the CalDigit TS3 Plus, which retails for about $250. For webcam, you can’t go wrong with Logitech. Any of their webcams are a step up from what’s built into laptops. For headphones and a microphone, refer to the headphone recommendations on our Practice Management site. Finally, the Practice Management site has recommendations on printers, scanners, and portable printers and scanners, which are useful if you’re going to clients’ locations or to court.
Software for your new firm falls into one of two categories. There’s the everyday, core software that you’ll need, and then there’s the legal-specific software. The two core software products are an office suite, usually Microsoft Office, and a PDF program that lets you create and edit PDFs. For email and word processing, I suggest subscribing to Microsoft 365. Rather than buying a shrink-wrapped copy of Office that never receives updates, Microsoft strongly encourages people to subscribe for $8.25 per person per month, or more depending on desired features. That $8.25 gets you the desktop programs most people think of as “Microsoft Office,” with installation rights on up to five machines per user, and full access to the smartphone and tablet Office programs. An additional $4.25 per month would move you up to the Microsoft 365 Business Standard, meaning Microsoft hosts your email and provides you access to many additional, business-oriented web-based programs.
On the PDF side, everyone has heard of Adobe Acrobat, the granddaddy of PDF software. It is available as subscription only for about $15 per user per month. That $15 per month also includes access to Adobe Sign, Adobe’s legally binding e-signature platform. If $15 per month is too much, or you dislike having more subscriptions, there are many PDF programs available that have the same features as Acrobat (other than Adobe Sign) and can be purchased on a traditional “pay once” model. Visit Affinity Consulting’s Practice Management PDF Programs Comparison Chart for more information.
On the legal-specific side of the fence, your firm should consider how you’re going to handle matter information and financial information. For matter management, you must decide if you want a web-based case management program or a traditional program that runs on a server. If you are fresh from law school with no established work habits, I suggest going the web route. On the other hand, if you are already familiar with PracticeMaster, for example, I might lean more towards sticking with the familiar program as you begin your new business. One hesitation on this point is that all web-based programs are subscription based so they let you try them month-to-month, with minimal-to-no upfront expense. For a server-based program, you will need to pay for hardware and software upfront.
The Practice Management section contains resources to help you decide what features are most valuable for your practice areas. Affinity Consulting also has two comparison charts corresponding to web-based and server-based practice management options.
As for financial information, nearly all practice management programs let you record time, send bills, and track trust accounts. A minority of practice management programs also allow you to track general ledger business information, such as rent and office expenses. The programs lacking this functionality usually integrate with QuickBooks Online or Xero to bridge the gaps. After you have narrowed down your choices, visit the Build | Manage page to see which programs offer discounts to Missouri Bar members.
Off and Running
The Open a Practice section of The Missouri Bar’s website holds additional information not covered here, including suggested minimum computer specifications, helping prospective clients become DIYers, and a walk-through of using the comparison charts effectively.
There is also an upcoming CLE on this very topic in the bar’s Management Matters Series. The program is available in both a webinar and self-study format. Click here to register. If you were admitted to the bar in Spring 2021, the starting a law firm CLE is complimentary, so check out the flyer from MoBarCLE in your welcome kit for more details.