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Thinking of Swimming With the Sharks: Lessons Learned While Starting a Practice

by S. Yossof Sharifi

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series summarizing CLE presentations given as part of the YLD’s “Practice in a Flash” program.

My first client in private practice was a white supremacist prison gang leader. Odd, considering I’m Afghan and my law partner is Jewish, but he liked us and was far more pleasant than I would have thought.

We thought when we signed him up that it was a simple felony. As we started receiving the police reports, we realized our client was under investigation for an alleged murder that occurred during this simple felony.

I had been a prosecutor for Salt Lake City for a while but thought I would start my own practice out with some misdemeanors, maybe some traffic tickets, and slowly and methodically work my way up to defending felonies. Instead, we had a murder thrown in our lap as our first case.

We had two choices: send the case elsewhere due to lack of experience, or work our tails off. Since we were sick of playing Angry Birds and watching Hulu in our office all day, we chose to work our tails off. We ended up getting our client a deal that, looking back, I can’t believe we got him. Probably because I was too inexperienced at the time to know that you can’t push for the things I was pushing for. But we pulled it off and our client went home while the co-defendants in the case took their trips to an all-male government retreat.

That first case, in retrospect, taught me a lot of lessons about opening a practice; in fact, it taught me the most important lesson I’ve picked up along the way. Our firm also grew extremely fast and that quick growth has taught us lessons about running a practice we couldn’t have learned any other way.

When the Young Lawyers Division asked that I write this piece, I was excited to share these lessons with those just starting their practices. Also, if any of you young bucks run into roadblocks and need some quick advice, don’t hesitate to email me at ysharifi@sb-legal.net.

Lesson 1: Make Sure this is What You Want
Do you really want to run your own business or is this just something you’re doing until that big corporate law firm job comes along? I own three companies including the law firm and I can tell you one lesson that applies to all of them: if you don’t have passion for what you do, you won’t make it.

Times are going to get lean; they do for everyone. You’re going to get clients that are so detached from reality you start wondering if you’re the one who’s crazy. You’re going to get stiffed on bills, you’re going to get yelled at by judges, and you will, at some point, question why you ever went to law school in the first place.

If you enjoy what you do and have passion, you’ll get through those times with the realization that good times are just around the corner. If opening your own practice is just a place holder while you apply to other gigs, more than likely those bad times are going to crush you.

I’m a big self-help guy. One of the things that most self-help books like Anthony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within and Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich have in common is that you must ask yourself tough questions, and keep asking questions; following that thread of thought until you get to the answer you’re seeking. Don’t start by asking, “Do I want to open my own practice?” Start by asking, “What do I want out of life?” Follow that thread, work at it every day. When you get up in the morning, give it thought. When you’re drifting off to sleep, push down the mental barriers in your mind and look at yourself and your desires in as harsh and objective a light as you can. I guarantee you will be surprised by what you actually find.

If after asking yourself the tough questions and deciding that running your own law firm is what you want (rather than teaching orphans in a third-world country, for example) then it’s time to jump in with both feet, because the only way you are going to learn anything is by doing.

Lesson 2: Minimize Costs
A friend of mine opened her own practice and was spending nearly $5000 per month on expenses right out of the gate. What she discovered was that the first few months you may not get a single client and those expenses are coming out of your pocket. The key here is to prioritize: there are some things you want to splurge on and some things you want to skimp on.

For example, in my experience, personal injury clients love flash. They love walking into their lawyers’ ostentatious offices and seeing flat-screens on the wall and leather furniture. Criminal defense clients: not so much. Depending on what field of law you choose, you’re going to have to sit down and go through all your expenses and keep only what is necessary. You’re going to want the Wii and the iPads, but are they really necessary when you’re first starting out?

If you do this objectively, you will be amazed how little you really need to start a law firm. One book I read while in law school said you need at least $50,000 to start a law practice. I don’t know a single lawyer who would have been able to start their own practice if this were the figure. The actual figure will vary based on the fields you choose and the savings you have to feed yourself while the firm gets up and running, but I promise you it is not $50,000.

There are a million things you can do to cut costs, but you’re going to have to get creative. Google offers phone numbers that can be transferred to your cell phone for free, there are virtual receptionists, you can go with efiles rather than paper – really think about it and cut wherever you can. Even if it’s just a few cents here and a few cents there.

Lesson 3: Hire a Good Accountant
Sweet Mother of Mercy! If you don’t listen to anything else I say, listen to this: hire a GOOD accountant. You think skydiving and being attacked by rats is scary? Try an IRS agent calling you in 2011 and saying, “Hey, we found some problems on your 2009 returns.”

Your initial inclination is going to be to go cheap, cheap, cheap. This is one of those areas I don’t recommend doing that. At first, in 2009, we got some guy that worked out of his house and did our taxes for $75. Two years later, I was still paying for that shortcut.

That being said, the price someone charges for their services, you’ll soon learn, is not an accurate indication of the quality of their work. After our debacle with the cheap accountant, we went to the opposite extreme and hired an accounting firm that charged more per hour than we did. The day our taxes were due, I got a call from this firm saying they couldn’t get our taxes done in time. This was seven months after we hired them. I had a few choices phrases for them before threatening a malpractice suit, and our taxes, miraculously, got done and we fired them a short while later.

Recommendations from friends and family are gold in this area. But meet with the accountants, ask them questions, and see how they treat you. There are plenty of good accountants out there so don’t settle for someone you have a bad feeling about.

Lesson 4: Reread Lesson 3.
It’s that important.

Lesson 5: Don’t Take Everything that Comes Through the Door
It took me years to be able to discern when I should and should not take a case based on the client. At first, we took everything, with unpleasant consequences. There are some clients that won’t be happy no matter what you do for them. We got one client’s criminal case dismissed and she still went online and wrote a bad review about us, saying we didn’t do it fast enough. During the initial interview, I had a bad feeling about her but a pile of cash is hard to turn down when you’re starting out.

It’s going to take self-discipline on your part, but I promise you, no amount of money is worth the hassle of dealing with an impossible client.

Lesson 6: Don’t Practice Every Field of Law
I have a friend that sues the U.S. government on behalf of waterway shipping companies when the government unreasonably interferes with their delivery schedules. I had no idea that was an actual field you could go into until she told me about it. Much less that you could make a living doing it.

We all have different strengths and weaknesses. I’ve known brilliant attorneys whose motions were like legal poetry that made judges swoon, but who couldn’t walk into a criminal case and ask for a new date without nearly passing out in a packed courtroom. I’ve also known brilliant criminal lawyers who think they can do anything and they screw up a simple personal injury case and get sued in the six figures.

No one’s forcing you to do anything you don’t want to do, so why make yourself miserable? If you’re not interested in bankruptcy law and don’t think you’ll be willing to put in the time to learn it, why take that bankruptcy case?

In one of my first jobs out of law school, I was suing companies for infringement of copyrights. I hated the work, didn’t enjoy the field, and found the clients unreasonable. I couldn’t jump out of that field, or a window, quickly enough. But I have friends who love intellectual property and would hate the fields of law I’m in. It’s all about self-knowledge and asking yourself those tough questions about who you really are and what you really enjoy.

Lesson 7: When it Comes to Marketing, Try Everything
My partner used to get up at six in the morning on Saturdays and drag himself to an “interview” on a Spanish radio station dealing with immigration law. He hated it, especially since it took up to three hours on a Saturday morning. But he did it because we had made up our minds that we were going to try every form of advertising until we found the ones that worked for us.

This relates to the question I most get asked by young attorneys: how do I get clients? That’s a tough question with an answer you’re not going to like: it depends. It depends primarily on you. Are you a good salesperson? Is that really one of your strengths? Or are you more a behind-the-scenes person? If you’re a terrible salesperson and don’t inspire confidence in your potential clients, you’re going to want marketing that creates a high volume. That way, it doesn’t matter if you strike out nine times out of ten as long as you get that one.

But if you’re a charismatic salesperson who can convince clients to sign up without ever having met them, the expense of high volume may not be necessary for you and you may want to find higher quality leads through different forms of advertising. Remember, your business is really just you. You’re selling yourself so how you market yourself is very fact-dependent on who you are.

I will give one bit of warning: outdated advertising models. I won’t mention any names (Yellow Pages, we’re looking at you), but there are some methods of advertising that worked once upon a time that just don’t have the punch they used to. You can experiment with them later on when you’re established, but starting out, stick with what you know will generate clients rather than rolling the dice.

You have to stay current on marketing theories and practice if you want to compete. More and more attorneys are opening their own practices and you have to stand out from the competition; not stick to dogma.

Some of the best books on marketing for lawyers are: The Referral Engine, by Jan Jantsch, and Book Yourself Solid, by Michael Port. They weren’t written explicitly for lawyers, but most books I’ve read on marketing for lawyers are so outdated and ineffective they may as well tell you to wear a sandwich sign and walk up and down State Street.

Then again, you may hate these books and find gems trolling through the used bookstore. Just keep an open mind and try anything within reason. You never really know what is going to work and what isn’t.

Final and Most Important Lesson: Guts
I think it was George S. Patton who said, “The virtue of guts makes up for almost any vice.” You’re going to be scared to death. You may have a family that’s relying on your income from your practice. You may feel you have no idea what you’re doing. You might even feel you’re not smart enough to be an attorney or run a business.

All these are perfectly natural feelings. Fear can give you an edge. Or, it can take away any edge you naturally have. It can make you work, or it can destroy you.

That fear you have upon deciding to open your own practice won’t go away, but you can use it to your advantage rather than have it be a handicap. I hate to end with a quote by Machiavelli, but “fortune favors the brave.”

One thing I can say for certain in all this: ten years down the road, when you’re re-writing a memo for the twentieth time for a partner who hasn’t read it all the way through even once, you will regret not opening your own firm when you had the chance. Don’t let it pass you by without giving it a shot.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on September 26, 2012 8:45 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Paralegal Division: Message from the Chair.

The next post in this blog is Attorney Discipline.

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