Starting a new firm? Here are some mistakes to avoid

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Published on 6/12/06

According to the American Bar Foundation, nearly half of the 1 million lawyers in the United States are solo practitioners, while another 20 percent-plus are in firms of 10 lawyers or fewer.

It seems reasonable to say, despite all the publicity about consolidation and the rise of mega firms, that the majority of lawyers stand a good chance of opening their own law firm, or starting one in partnership with just a few other lawyers, during their professional careers.

Starting a new firm requires a special set of skills. Lawyers frequently emphasize the importance of planning to their clients, and planning is essential when starting a firm.

But after years of focusing on the business at hand -- cases and contracts, the pressure for quick action and immediate results -- you may be unprepared to devote the time and patience required for the details in a successful launch.

Yet the biggest mistakes most lawyers make when starting a new law firm inevitably involve a failure to plan. That failure encompasses a host of shortsighted errors. This list, while not definitive, surely highlights a number of key blunders.

  1. Failure to establish a timeline
    Opening a new firm is such a complicated process that you should, ideally, allow six months to one year to accomplish the many tasks involved.

  2. Failure to negotiate office space effectively
    When you look for the physical location of your practice, focus on what you can afford, what kind of space you need (in terms of computer hookups and electrical outlets as well as square footage), and what your financial obligation will be before you sign the lease. The terms of the lease, the rent, the improvements to be made before you occupy the space -- all these can and should be negotiated.

  3. Failure to contact key service providers
    The list includes financial institutions and insurance carriers, bar associations and courts, vendors, utilities, the news media and the U.S. Postal Service. Forgetting any of these can cause big problems.

  4. Failure to notify clients
    If you are starting a firm from scratch, client development is top priority. But if you're already established with clients, make sure they know what you're doing and can reach you at all times. Keep them fully informed of your timeline, provide full contact and direction information, and give them your cell phone or other emergency number.

  5. Failure to publicize
    Don't feel publicity is undignified. Send a press release to the local business and legal media. Consider an open house at your new office location. If you blog, tell the world about your new firm.

  6. Failure to develop a budget
    Physically setting up your firm has costs associated with it. You should develop a line item budget for everything you need to purchase or relocate: decorating, moving company, telephones, computers, office furniture and supplies.

To have a successful new firm, view your practice as a business startup that must be approached step by step. Doing that will ensure your new firm's long-term future.

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