Tuesday, January 3, 2012

An ABA Journal podcast offering advice on hanging one's own shingle

The ABA Journal organized a panel discussion of three former BigLaw partners who left to start their own practices (either as solos or partnering with someone else) who share advice on the benefits, pitfalls and lessons they've learned along the way.  While the discussion is directed more towards the experienced practitioner looking to start her own firm, there's valuable advice for new law grads trying to get a new firm off the ground. You can click here to listen to the entire podcast or use that same link and scroll down for the transcript.  Here's an excerpt:

[Moderator] Stephanie Francis Ward: Let’s switch gears a bit, and I’m curious about the aspect of finding office space and setting it up. Janice, I’m going to ask you first since you’ve had your own firm the longest. What would you do differently, do you think, or what advice would you give to lawyers about that?

[Janice P. Brown: The advice I’d give to lawyers is get yourself a great leasing broker because I did not understand that there’s a lot of space and office space and if you have somebody who understands that business effectively, they can help you get a better deal. The second thing, I think, is also know sorta what Victor said–is you can get a temporary space initially, and then, move into another space. And then, the third part I will say is that you don’t have to have the same type of environment that you left. You know, when you have big firms and, you know, they have the beautiful furniture and all that money that’s spent on tenant improvements, you don’t have to have that.

And, in fact, I’ve had clients say to me, “Well, now –” you know, I have a very nice office; don’t get me wrong. I’m very proud of the office. It’s clean. It’s really nice. It’s beautiful. You know, I really like it, but it’s not as rich in looking as the firm that I left. And people have said to me, “Well, you know, we like that because we feel comfortable that the rates are lower because the overhead is not as high.” And so, those are the kind of things that you take comfort in, but I would not do a lease negotiation now without the use of a really good broker.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Okay, John, what do you think?

John Ratnaswamy: Yeah, we had terrific brokers. The two guys I started out with, honestly, they visited most of the places–I visited more of the finalists–but boy, did they do a good job. I will mention one other thing though, which is the ABA’s General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division on LinkedIn has a discussion group, and there was a question last month about looking back at starting out: what would you do over? And I think two of the first three people said, actually, when they started out, they wished they had not gotten an office. They think they should have–I think both people starting as solos, so they wished they had worked out of their home first, and then, as they started to get more cash flow, then that they had opened an office.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you think, in this day and age, what clients think about that–of course, it would depend on the client–if you had a general solo practice for consumers? What do you think they would think of someone not having an office?

John Ratnaswamy: Well, not having had that practice, it’s hard for me to say because most of my clients are actually large companies. But at least these two people, and I think others who chimed in later on that blog–and not everybody agreed–said that that would have worked for them and that they wished they had done it.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Hmm.

Janice P. Brown: I think it depends on the industry and the type of law you practice. I think if you’re a family law attorney, perhaps you can go to your client’s offices or go to your client’s homes. I think having access to an office or access to a conference room, even if you don’t have an office, is probably a smart thing to do because depositions–people–you know, if you’re doing litigation. If you do transactional work, maybe perhaps not, or if you do work in IT or biotech because people there are much more accustomed to people who operate with computer system, and laptops, and more mobile. But for traditional litigation, I think it’s easier to practice with an office in a location that people are comfortable with traditionally.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Okay, now–and we’ve talked about office space. Do any of you have any tips on acquiring equipment and furniture?

Victor Henderson: Well, I would say, I think, whether it’s office space equipment or furniture, what my partner and I did, we went around and spoke to people who had left large law firms. So, we probably spent–ah, I don't know–six or nine months going around Chicago and talking about people about these very issues: office space, equipment, IT system, you know, all the kind of things that, at a large law firm, are just in place when you get there. So, we talked to–we sought out people who had left large firms to talk about these very issues to get as much of a sense as we could about how to do things because people will tell you, based on their experiences, including the bumps they have taken in the road.

You know, things like John was saying–well, what to do, what not to do. As Janice said, it was critical for us to be in the Loop. In my mind, in Chicago, you can’t be taken seriously–at least as a trial law firm–unless you have office space downtown. And so, you know, we might be in the very last corner of downtown Chicago, but we are here nonetheless, and ironically enough, the first week or two that we–after we opened our doors, we had a press conference and so needed a conference room. So, you know, being in a home office just would not have worked for us. So, I think what you wind up with in terms of equipment and office space and all those things are gonna be unique to your practice, but I think it’s critical to talk to other people who have left large firms so you can hear what they have to say, to be able to help you develop your own recipe.

John Ratnaswamy: And to illustrate that, for us, we needed IT as good as a big law firm, given our clients and our matters, so we got an IT consultant. On the other hand, furniture, not important to us, not important to our clients, so we were pretty economical about it.



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