Hanging a shingle on a 'shoestring'

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Published on 7/9/07

You've decided to open your own practice.

You've heard that it takes up to five years to get a new practice established. You know the rule of thumb that you need six months of living expenses saved before you pay yourself any salary. You don't want to lavish big dollars on your practice. Can you still be successful on a shoestring budget?

A recent discussion on the American Bar Association's small-firm listserv, Solosez, suggests that you can. These ideas were offered to a lawyer just starting out, but they could apply to any practice in its early years.

  • Office space

    Unless you know a lawyer colleague who is willing to share offices with you, begin with a virtual office. You won't have to worry about furniture expenses or receptionist. You can have your phone calls forwarded to your cell or home phone, and schedule client meetings at the office conference room.

    Most virtual offices also offer basic office supplies, a copy machine, fax, scanner, and mail service. If you do want to start your own office, get your furnishings from a used office furniture store and don't spend on unnecessary equipment like postage meters and envelope folders.

  • Computers and software

    Start with a refurbished laptop or PC, rather than a new one.

    Skip Microsoft Office and Outlook, and go with open source software and a free e-mail management program.

    Use an e-mail fax service rather than a fax machine.

    Consider whether you need a printer -- if there's a quick-print shop nearby, you can simply go there.

    And do you really need an expensive online research service? Visit the library at your courthouse or local law school instead, but do make sure you have a current copy of your state's statutes and court rules.

  • Fees

    Massachusetts doesn't have mandatory bar association membership, so delay joining. If you're starting from scratch with your client base, you likely can postpone purchasing malpractice insurance too.

    Save fees by registering yourself as a sole proprietorship rather than an LLC or some similar form -- business lenders will make you guarantee your debts in any event. Some fees, however, are unavoidable: for example, purchase a city business license.

  • Marketing

    If you need a website, use the simple software and maintenance that your Internet service provider likely offers. But holding off on a website might be a better idea. Instead, make your marketing personal with family, friends, law school classmates ... anyone you meet.

    Use a quick print shop for simple business cards, and don't spend money on preprinted letterhead and envelopes when you can just make your contact information part of a word- processed document.

    Don't do Yellow Pages ads unless you absolutely need to, but consider placing classifieds in local shopper newspapers.

The message in all these pointers is that you should forget about being image-conscious. Every purchase you make for a new practice should be with your bottom line in mind.

On the other hand, if you can afford it, creating the right, quality image (though likely to be more expensive), may endear you to a "better" clientele.

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