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  • The Business Plan: A Roadmap to Starting and Building a Law Practice

    Thinking of starting your own law practice? Maybe you just graduated and can’t find a job. Maybe you are tired of your current firm. Maybe you’ve always wanted to be your own boss, or just want to improve a business aspect or your existing firm. Whatever the case, you need a business plan.

    Joe Forward

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    business planningJuly 16, 2014 – Superior-based attorney Johanna Kirk was 35 years old when she decided to make a change. She had worked for a law firm for seven years, first as an associate and then as a shareholder. But she wanted to do things differently.

    “I guess I just wanted to do things my way,” said Kirk. “I wanted to make a change in my life, and starting my own practice was cheaper than buying a Cadillac or a Harley.”

    Kirk began researching the market and her chances of running a successful solo law firm in the area. She started writing a business plan, which forced her to consider the market, the competition, operations, financing, and potential expense-to-revenue ratios.

    Her business plan came out to more than 30 pages. “Based on the research, I knew that I had to offer something different,” Kirk said. “The business plan helped me define the business model I envisioned. It helped me draw a business roadmap.”

    While Kirk is already off and running, others can benefit from the State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE's new Business School for Lawyers (BSL), which provides a unique opportunity for lawyers to get in-depth training on business concepts, including how to write a business plan.

    Business Plans for Lawyers

    A business plan, aside from the fact that any lender will want to see one before lending start-up costs, is an essential map for long-term success, says attorney Jeffrey Krause, founder of Solfecta LLC, which helps lawyers and law firms with technology solutions.

    Krause is on the faculty of a BSL program called “Business Plans for Lawyers.” The full-day program on Aug. 13 will cover the nuts and bolts of starting and building a law firm from a business perspective.

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    Any attorney considering opening their own practice should first complete a business plan, says Superior-based attorney Johanna Kirk. "One of the most important things you can actually do is work on a business plan. That's going to help you set up your ideas, your dream of what areas you're going to practice, who your ideal clients are, and it forces you to go through the process of doing the reality check on that." Kirk recently spoke at the 2014 State Bar of Wisconsin Annual Meeting & Conference in Lake Geneva, Wis., June 25-27.

    Speakers are hand-picked based on their specific knowledge about running a successful business. Krause will focus specifically on writing the business plan.

    Other speakers will dig deeper into business plan details and how to find the information necessary to assess things like risk tolerance, the current market, and competition. This business training will also help firms and lawyers who want to improve their bottom line.

    A more advanced program, “Business Principles for a Successful Law Firm,” will take place on Sept. 16. Both these in-person seminars at the State Bar Center will be available via live webcast. Webcast replays will be available on selected dates and times during September and October.

    In the advanced program, business owners and consultants will go deeper into the advanced business school concepts related to operations, financial management, and marketing, including but not limited to accounting methods, cash flow forecasting, market trends, and evaluating clients.

    In the future, BSL will develop more business-specific programs for lawyers. For instance, BSL programs are planned for Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference, Oct. 23-25, 2014.

    Creating a Roadmap for Success

    Like Kirk and Krause, people start small businesses every day. Whether it’s a law firm providing legal services or a bakery selling baked goods, similar business principles apply. And the first step in the process is developing a solid business plan.

    Why do you need a business plan? First, if you need a business loan to get started, the bank will require a business plan to assess the risk and the chances of your success. But even if you don’t need a business loan, the business plan provides a “reality check.”

    Law school taught you how to think like a lawyer. The business plan will help you start thinking like a business owner, Krause said. Aside from defining the specific services you will deliver, the business plan is an assessment of every business aspect.

    “Once you go out on your own, it’s very easy to get pulled in a lot of different directions,” Krause said. “A business plan is something you can always fall back on. Or, if things have changed, the plan will reflect those changes and keep you on the right path.”

    As the youngest attorney at his law firm starting out, Krause was often tapped to help with technology issues. He soon realized that working on technology issues was his true calling. He worked for a technology firm for five years to get experience.

    Then he sat down to write a business plan, hoping to start his own business. “I wanted to help law firms and lawyers find and implement technology solutions,” he said. “The plan-writing process forced me to look at the market and the competition.”

    BSL programming will provide an in-depth perspective about starting and running law firm businesses in particular, with recommendations on where to turn for useful information and research materials. For instance, Krause advises developing alternative business plans. 

    “The legal profession continues to change,” Krause said. “What if you don’t get all the clients you expected in your first year? Developing alternative business plans will prepare you for that possibility because you’ve considered how to deal with that situation.”

    Krause said tailored plans may indicate what costs can be cut if revenue is down. Kirk’s plan, for instance, relied heavily on technology. She has a physical office but cuts costs by using free research tools like Fastcase, a State Bar of Wisconsin member benefit.

    In addition, most all of Kirk’s research materials are digital. For instance, she uses Books Unbound, the online version of the State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE books collection, which cuts down on the storage space necessary for book collections.

    “I made the intentional choice to invest in technology, which allows me to reduce costs elsewhere,” says Kirk. “In addition, my business model reflects the way I view the lawyer’s role. I think the whole concept of the legal services we provide is changing.”

    Business Plans in Challenging Times

    Krause says more new lawyers are going solo because of the stressed job market and other changes in the legal profession. Even without experience, Krause says these lawyers can still be successful with a good business plan and a cautious approach.

    “If you are new and handling legal matters for people, obviously you’ll have to be very, very careful,” Krause said. “New lawyers will spend a lot of time learning the law and honing their skills. Any business plan should take these factors into consideration.”

    In addition, Krause says any lawyer who starts a practice must understand the competition and the market for services. “Have you done the research on whether there’s a market for these services? Who are your competitors?”

    “The number of people going out there and seeking a lawyer is decreasing, meaning there is increased competition for the ones still seeking out lawyers,” Krause said. “To be successful, you’ll have to analyze how your firm can compete for these clients.”

    But that’s just the beginning. Making revenue and expense projections and determining the overall management and operation of the firm requires business acumen that law school does not teach. That’s the purpose of the Business School for Lawyers.

    “Long-term success will be based on a solid business plan that you can revisit to ensure you are meeting your goals,” Krause said. “This ongoing program will have speakers with a lot of business knowledge and resources to consider in developing the plan.”

    Conclusion

    The Business School for Lawyers (BSL) provides a unique opportunity for lawyers who want to learn the business concepts and principles necessary to start and build a successful law firm. That includes a crucial first step: writing a thorough business plan.

    To review the schedule, the faculty, or to register for an upcoming BSL seminar, webcast, or webcast replay, visit the BSL webpage. And don’t forget: BSL programs are planned for Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference, Oct. 23-25, 2014.