Thinking of Starting a Solo Law Practice? Avoid These Traps for the Unwary

ShipwreckedToday we’ve got a fantastic interview with Jared Correia, Law Practice Management Advisor at the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP).

If you’re starting, or thinking of starting, your own practice, this is a must-read. Find out where you’re likely to run into ethical problems, so you can steer well clear!

Let’s get to it:

Alison: I’m a law student who’s thinking of opening my own law practice when I graduate. Are there any common pitfalls I should be aware of? What steps should I be taking now to ensure my practice will be a success?

There are a number of potential pitfalls that new attorneys starting practices should be aware of. At LOMAP, I consult with a lot of new attorneys who are starting practices, some straight out of law school.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the questions that I get are the same. For that reason, we’ve created resources geared to start-up attorneys that address common concerns new lawyers starting practices will have; those resources are primarily packaged within our start-up kit.

In addition to working with attorneys who come to see us of their own volition, we also audit lawyers who have run afoul of Massachusetts’ attorney ethics rules, and who are required to consult with us.

Based on our experience with attorneys who have had ethics issues arise, there is a regular, clear scenario, that is most often the cause of those issues.

The precipitating event usually stems from a lack of follow-up and follow-through: a court date is missed, or a motion is not filed, because the task or event was not appropriately scheduled; an important client call is never returned, or clients are not updated appropriately with respect to case progress.

The flub results in some negative consequence to the client, who calls the ethics board.

If it is determined that an investigation should commence, the precipitating event is investigated, and the ethics board often follows up by asking about the firm’s management of client funds. Since most solo and small firm attorneys do not, or do not appropriately, manage their trust accounts in formal compliance with the IOLTA rules, that opens up a whole new can of worms, and the ethics investigation becomes full-blown.

The Two Most Important Things to Do When Starting a New Practice!

Given that common, generic fact pattern, I tell new attorneys that the two most important things to do when starting a new practice are to:

  1. Establish and exercise appropriate follow-up techniques, in effectively managing cases and client relations.
  2. Formally comply with trust accounting rules, including the performance of regular reconciliations.

At our blog, we have posted respecting the importance of follow-up for attorneys, and also on the importance of complying with IOLTA accounting requirements, including a listing of helpful resources for establishing and maintaining compliant trust accounting systems. At my podcast, I have focused on IOLTA accounting in two parts (here and here).

For more general, wider considerations, bar associations will often produce and make available to new attorneys ‘traps for the unwary’-style books, which cover a broad series of issues that new attorneys will face. The Massachusetts Bar Association, for example, has produced such a book.

Want to Succeed? Find Some Mentors!

But, without doubt, the best thing that a law student who wants to found a practice/a new attorney founding a practice can do to improve his or her chances of success is to access mentor attorneys.

The trick in ramping up quickly is to not be reinventing the wheel constantly. We’ve written on the importance of accessing mentors, again at our blog, here; and, we’ve also covered the importance of networking within bar associations, as a method for finding mentors. (Law students can find mentors through bar associations, as well; bar associations offer steeply-discounted membership rates to law students, and law students should take advantage of those.)

There are two important considerations to keep in mind when searching for mentors:

  • The first, is that you should not find just one mentor, and feel secure. You should find circles of mentors. If your one mentor changes jobs, or moves away, you may end up being back at square one — but, not if you have a mentor circle surrounding you to fall back on. Your circle of mentors should also include at least two classes of mentors: those who have started practices that have become profitable, and those attorneys who are expert in the subject matter/niche you are interested in; and, perhaps some attorneys with whom you establish mentor-mentee relations will embody both of those class characteristics.
  • The second thing to remember is that you are no longer limited, in your search for mentors, to your locality, or to your local bar association membership; the advent of social media means that you can potentially get access, personal access, to mentors across the United States, and around the world.

These are extremely powerful tools for law students and new attorneys seeking mentors, especially for those who may be shy, or who feel less than comfortable with traditional modes of in-person networking.

Later on, I’ll talk more about social media, including the potential usefulness of law students getting online while in school, to get a head start on establishing their professional reputations.

— – —

Stay tuned for the next two parts of Jared’s interview. Finally, someone as long-winded as I am!

Part Two: Want to Start Marketing Yourself in Law School? Some Great Tips!

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Comments

  1. I started right out of law school. The ethics stuff is easy. He’s right most results from follow through. As a new lawyer you won’t have the business probably to be super slammed or depressed yet. That’s why malpractice premiums are so low for new lawyers.. Finding knowledgeable mentors is very very hard. Where I start malpractice is endemic due to people never looking stuff up. I’ve taken over mulitple cases where the other attorney clearly didn’t know what they were doing. (IE read a practice manual).

    The economy will matter alot. Unfortunately if the economy mandates starting your own firm it’s not a good time.

    Oh and I’d set up a website and presence as soon as you know you might be practicing. All that stuff is really age dependent.

    • Yeah, it’s interesting how many new solos don’t have any sort of web presence. When I ask for referrals, and I get a young lawyer and only a phone number, it makes me question whether I really want to refer the person to them. I want at least a bio and an email address!

    • You’re right, David. I am always surprised by the number of new attorneys I talk to who don’t look things up before asking, including basic ethics requirements.

      But, you make a number of good points in your comment, especially with respect to the importance of creating and maintaining a web presence.

      • Jared, it’s all the attorneys (and judges frequently) around here who don’t look stuff up. New attorneys were if anything better than average. I was appointed counsel in a juvenile court case and was apparently the first attorney to ask for an expert witness that anyone could remember in years. (This a a county with over a million people).

  2. Great article. I appreciate your sharing these useful tips and insights on starting a solo law practice. Many of my classmates are about to finish law school and are contemplating whether to join another firm or go solo. The additional resources should be particularly useful.

    I am actually a student and currently working on a project called Ridacto (http://www.ridacto.com). It is an online platform based on artificial intelligence technology and specifically designed to help attorneys draft bulletproof contracts.

    • Interesting project! As a former programmer, I’m eager to see how technology transforms the practice of law in the coming years. I think it will be interesting…if not entirely welcomed.

  3. Thanks, Max.

    I’ll have to take a deeper dive into your platform, and maybe contact you about getting a demo, if available.

    Jared

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