DLCCS had  the pleasure of exhibiting at the Contra Costa County Bar Association’s 25th Annual MCLE Spectacular in November.  I attended the “So, You Want to Open Your Own Law Office?” roundtable sponsored by the CCCBA’s Solo and Small Firm Section.

This is what they were talking about:

Office Location 

  • If, as a solo, you are sharing office space, is your data secure? Make sure it is not accessible by anyone you are sharing space with.  Keep things locked up, keep them password protected.
  • Do you have adequate signage in your building that helps to distinguish yourself from those with whom you are sharing space? You want to make sure your clients do not think you are part of a larger firm, and that they know it is only you who represent them.
  • If you work from home, are you safe? It may depend on your practice.  If you advertise your home address as your business address, you may not be safe if you practice family law or criminal law.
  • Are you comfortable working on your own in a more isolated environment, or do you feed off of the energy of others? If it’s the latter, you might want to share space.

Financing

  • Professional Liability Insurance is based on your area of practice, and to a smaller extent where you practice or the location of your office. Check with your broker on how these two things may affect your premium.
  • Are you considering buying the business of a retiring attorney? It may be beneficial to you and the soon-to-be retiree to share a small percentage of receipts collected from his/her clients for a year or two.
  • If you do buy a book of business from another attorney, make sure you are not buying a lot of uncollectible debt.

Staffing

  • If your ratio of attorneys to staff (this includes all non-attorney employees) is greater than 1:3, you might be paying a premium for your Professional Liability Insurance policy.
  • Independent Contractors are generally not covered under your PL insurance unless you specifically and intentionally include them. If you don’t, check to see if they have their own coverage.

Marketing

  • Make sure your marketing material does not misrepresent who you are. Does your website have a photo of a roomful of attorneys sitting around a conference table?  If you are a solo or have a home-based or small firm, you may want to switch out that photo with something more realistic.
  • If you are a solo, do not name your firm The Smith Group, or call yourself The Thomas Firm, Attorneys at Law. Again, this could be considered a misrepresentation.
  • The Lawyer Referral Service is a great resource for finding clients. The bar association that supports that service generally gets 15% of your revenue for the referral.
  • Has a former client posted online a false or malicious review of you or your firm? Be very careful about how your respond.  You don’t want to push the former client into filing a malpractice suit.
  • If you have received a very negative review, you can hire a pro to help elevate your online presence in a positive light.

Billing

  • Obtain a fee agreement for all clients. If you need to find a good sample fee agreement, check with your bar association.
  • If you have to aggressively chase a client for fees due, they may turn around a sue you for malpractice. Sometimes, it’s best to let it go.
  • If a client balks at having to provide a retainer or tries to negotiate a smaller retainer, chances are they will balk at your bills or try to negotiate a lower rate. Is this the kind of client you want?
  • Enter all of your time, and then write it off, if you don’t want to bill the client for certain work, rather than not logging it at all. This serves two purposes – it lets your clients see the totality of your work and they will appreciate the discount, and it leaves a record of the work you have done, which will be especially important if there is an issue after the fact.

IOLTA

  • Never co-mingle funds between your IOLTA account and your general or operating (or any other) accounts.
  • Always return any balances left in the IOLTA account to the client when the matter is done.
  • Retainers stay in the IOLTA account until fees have been billed. Only then can the monies be transferred into your general or operating account and applied to the bill.
  • If you do nothing else when starting your own business, invest in the services of a good CPA to set up your general ledger accounts and your IOLTA account.

Client Selection

  • If you come across a client who wants to negotiate fees, refer them to your bar association so they can find another lawyer to represent them. You will probably be happy you passed on them.
  • Always get a retainer.
  • If you are rejecting the client, document it in some fashion, whether it’s in an internal note or a ‘thanks but no thanks’ letter to the rejected client.

Records Retention

  • Make sure your fee agreement outlines how long you will retain your clients’ records (if they have not claimed them) before destroying them.
  • Destroy records regularly, perhaps annually.
  • Scan as much as you can, rather than keeping hard copies that will end up in storage.
  • Know how long you should keep certain records (bills, correspondence, tax, payroll, items of intrinsic value, etc.). Your bar association and/or your document storage company will have guidelines on retention.

Time Management

  • Read Getting Things Done by David Allen.
  • Use task lists to prioritize, and cross off finished tasks from the list when done.
  • Develop a way to measure your accomplishments. Maybe it’s just reviewing those items you have crossed off your task list.  Maybe it’s looking at your time entries to remind yourself of all you’ve done in a given day.
  • Suggested by the professional liability broker attending the session: maintain a dual calendar system. This could be a combination of Outlook, a hard-copy calendar, Compulaw or some other tool.  Your PL insurance company will want you to maintain a dual system, and it will serve to make doubly sure you don’t miss an important date or deadline.

I am grateful the Solo and Small Firm Section group allowed me to sit in on their roundtable.  It’s always helpful to hear about what is on the minds of attorneys as they tend to their day-to-day business.

What’s on your mind?  Share with us.

 

 

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