Wisconsin Lawyer: Managing Risk:Taking the Bull by the Horns: Going Solo to Find Legal Work?:

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    Managing Risk:Taking the Bull by the Horns: Going Solo to Find Legal Work?

    Some lawyers see opening their own law firms as their only option to gain work, given that there are more lawyers than there are legal job openings. If you’re thinking about going solo, here are a few things to consider.

    Thomas J. Watson

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    BullIt’s no mystery that finding a job in the legal profession these days can be a real challenge. Whether you are a recent law school graduate or an attorney who has been in practice for several years, the statistics show that your job search will not be easy.

    For recent graduates, the task is especially daunting. Career services staffers at both Marquette University Law School and the University of Wisconsin Law School have said that in recent years, at least half the members of each graduating class had not yet landed a law-related position by the time they walked the stage to receive their law degree.

    A recent study released by The Atlantic bears that out. The study looked at the number of law school graduates compared to the number of available law job openings state by state. It found that the worst states for job hunting by law school grads were Mississippi, Michigan, Delaware, and Nebraska.

    In Mississippi, the study found, there were roughly 10.5 graduates for each law job opening. In Michigan it was 6.5, in Delaware it was 4.2, and in Nebraska it was 4.0. Those are daunting odds for any job seeker, no doubt.

    Wisconsin ranked 27th in the study. The report said there were 1.94 law school grads here for every law job opening. That certainly is better than Mississippi or Michigan. But still, that would translate to about 50 percent unemployment among new law school grads looking for work.

    Is the legal profession saturated? Are law schools churning out too many graduates? Is it even worth it to pursue a law career these days? Those are all questions that cannot be answered in one risk management column.

    Thomas J. Watsoncom Tom.Watson wilmic Thomas J. Watson, Marquette 2002, is senior vice president and director of communications at Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co., Madison.

    However, many lawyers have decided to address the issue by taking the bull by the horns. They’re opening their own law firms. The percentage of lawyers starting their own practices increased a few years ago when the recession hit. It may have declined a bit as the economy has improved, but opening their own firm is still an option that many lawyers are choosing. Some lawyers see it as their only option right now.

    Changes in the Legal Profession

    Although the economy is improving, the fact of the matter is the legal profession is changing. Many law jobs are gone and are not coming back. Law firms are rethinking the way they deliver legal services – and they should. Clients are demanding more efficiency in the way lawyers serve them, and law firms seem to be hearing them.

    In a recent nationwide survey conducted by Altman Weil, a legal consulting firm, responding law firm leaders indicated they are very aware of the changes the legal profession is facing. These include the following concerns:

    • the demand for legal work is flat or shrinking;
    • clients are demanding that legal services cost less;
    • clients have lower-priced options – namely, self-help Internet sites; and
    • change is happening more rapidly than many in the profession are prepared for.

    Hanging out your own shingle can have its rewards, no doubt. But it also has risks and challenges. The questions that typically run through the minds of the intrepid lawyer willing to take the plunge are the following:

    • Where should I locate my firm?
    • Should I lease office space?
    • Which kinds of technology do I need?
    • Do I need start-up money?
    • What should I do about legal research?
    • How do I attract clients?

    Of course, there are more, but those are certainly enough for any lawyer starting a practice to begin with.

    In spring 2013, the State Bar’s Law Office Management Section put on a one-day program entitled, “Considerations for Starting a Law Practice.” The Saturday event attracted a packed room with nearly 100 attendees, including both brand-new lawyers and established attorneys looking for ways to make a solo practice work. It was certainly an indication of what is happening “in the trenches.”

    Sally Anderson, vice president – claims at Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co., was one of the program’s speakers. She says typically lawyers are used to being the problem solvers. “Asking for help is not something that comes easily to them. But help is plentiful, and if they have a problem, they should not be afraid to get some guidance.”

    That guidance, Anderson says, can come from the State Bar Ethics Hotline, the law practice management advisor, section electronic lists, mentoring programs, the Lawyer-to-Lawyer Directory, or even your malpractice carrier. Many of these resources are available on the State Bar’s website. (Log in, click on the forMembers tab, and scroll down to the Practice Management link.)

    Getting Your Practice Off the Ground

    Among the more intimidating parts of opening a law office are the things you probably didn’t learn about in law school: a business model, a budget, payroll taxes, accounting, and whether and how to hire staff.

    Another challenge is making sure you have enough business and being able to attract new clients to sustain a long-term practice. Milwaukee attorney and past State Bar President Diane Diel had been a solo practitioner for 16 years before recently adding an associate. She says after taking the leap in starting her own firm , she has never looked back. “I left a then five-person firm and had been named partner. I was fortunate in that I had an established clientele and a good referral base. What was vital to me was the fact that I could predict my income and knew what I could afford.”

    For the “newbie” with few clients, Diel recommends volunteering and developing contacts. “Get involved with a volunteer lawyers’ program in your town. Take every CLE program that is offered. Join every specialty bar group that will have you, and volunteer to be involved in every activity relevant to your desired practice area. Network endlessly.”

    Diel thinks spending for effective advertising can be cost prohibitive. “Save your money for membership and lunches.” (For practical activities to help market your new firm, see “Building a Law Practice in a New Location” at page 47.)

    Anderson also warns about client selection. “Taking every potential client who walks through your door will only lead to frustration and discontent for both sides. Be selective. Taking every client can also lead to practicing in areas of law in which you may have little or no expertise. That can be a recipe for trouble.”

    Learning a new area of law is possible if you have the time and resources to appropriately service the client’s needs. Can you fulfill this client’s expectations reasonably? A good mentor is invaluable when a lawyer is looking to expand into new areas.

    Technology

    Some lawyers argue that solo practitioners have never had a better chance to succeed than they do now, given the proliferation, thanks to technology, of inexpensive, innovative, and reliable resources. It is no surprise that many lawyers and law school graduates today are very tech savvy. Innovative lawyers, such as Zeshan Usman, Madison, continually consider how technology can work for them. “I think basic technology for the lawyer starting his or her own practice is important and essential.”

    Usman says, “In this day and age you aren’t tied to a bricks-and-mortar office. I can often provide great service to my clients remotely from my laptop. I can outsource tasks to a virtual paralegal, I can use cloud-based client management tools, including billing, and I can manage my workflow from anywhere, even when I’m not in my office.”

    Usman also says he saves on overhead costs. “I have a virtual phone system that can answer or forward client calls. It sends my messages and voicemails directly to my smartphone via email and text.”

    Of course, Usman says, there is still no substitute for looking the client in the eye and delivering the needed services. “You can use technology to your benefit, but don’t forget about the client. In the end, the connection you make with them can make all the difference.”

    Conclusion

    Covering every aspect of going solo cannot be done in a short article such as this. An entire edition of Wisconsin Lawyer could be devoted to the topic. But, at the very least, when embarking on such an endeavor, consider the following practice set-up and management issues:

    • Putting together a business plan, with financial goals and objectives;
    • Assessing on-site and remote technology needs;
    • Selecting clients and setting and collecting fees;
    • Attracting clients (marketing your practice and networking); and
    • Making backup plans in the event you are temporarily disabled or cannot work.

    Finally, don’t forget to consider insurance, including malpractice insurance, a business owners policy, and health and life insurance. Considering these issues can be a good foundation that can lead to future success.




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