Opening a Small Firm – How to Survive the First Three Years

By Branigan Robertson

Starting a law firm isn’t easy. The first three years are the toughest. I opened my employment firm three years ago and it has certainly been a wild ride. Looking back, I realize now that most solo lawyers can survive on their own with a plan and a little bit of luck. But if you’re anything like me, you don’t just want to survive as a solo lawyer, you want to thrive and kick some serious legal butt.

Below are the essential things attorneys must do in order to thrive after opening a law firm:

  1. Only Take Clients You Trust

You can’t practice law without clients, but you can practice law without bad clients. Clients can make your life miserable; bad clients lie, demand unreasonable results, and sometimes their motives are simply evil. Any one of these contingencies can wreck havoc on your success as a small firm lawyer.

Here is the number one key to success in your early years – DON’T EVER TAKE A CLIENT UNLESS YOU TRUST THEM! Screen your clients as best as you can. The money is never worth the agony that comes from a bad client. This is especially true if you’re a contingency lawyer and you’re gambling on the case outcome. Bad clients generally lead to bad outcomes. Trust me, I know.

  1. Law is a Business – Treat it as Such

There are lawyers out there who don’t think that the practice of law is a “business” in the traditional sense. That is ridiculous. At its basic level, lawyering is a service in exchange for monetary compensation. Therefore, unless you’re taking a case pro bono, you need to pay attention to the bottom line.

Fundamentally, this means that no matter how great your lawyering skills are, you will never thrive as a solo practioner if you are constantly under financial stress. It’s impossible for you to focus on the motion, pleading, or deposition at hand if you’re worried about how to pay for this month’s mortgage.

Here is the key concept I want to convey – if you treat your firm like a business you will have more opportunities to use your magnificent legal skills to benefit your clients and future clients.

  1. Find Your Niche and Repeat it Over and Over and Over

Everyone has heard the phrase – “Niches to riches.” While the cliché is true for the practice of law, it is lacking a critical element. You also need to streamline and repeat your niche legal service over and over and over.

The most successful solo practioners I know do one thing and they do it well. But that is not the magic. The magic is that they repeat their service thousands of times. For example, the successful mediators in employment law mediate two to four cases a week. Employment mediation is the only thing they do. They charge anywhere between $4,000-$10,000 a day. If they keep that pace week-in and week-out simple math will show you what kind of “riches” they are earning.

  1. Bad Days Happen to Everyone – Get Over It

The best surfers don’t catch every wave. The best lawyers don’t win every case. Despite your exquisite legal writing, sometimes the judge will ridicule you in open court. I personally guarantee that opposing counsel will sometimes treat you as if you’re an incompetent piece of garbage. Sometimes it’s difficult to “thrive” when the whole world seems to hate you.

But take heart. Storms always pass. If you heed the following precautions you won’t sink. First, find several legal mentors. When an issue arises, call them and admit your failures. They will calm you down and help. Second, realize that your mental toughness will grow the longer you’ve been practicing law. So take a few days to feel bad for yourself and then get back to the helm and steer your ship.

  1. Find a Repeatable Source of Clients

It’s pretty hard to thrive if you’re constantly starved for clients. Therefore, you need to make it a huge priority to find a consistent source of clients. I know this is much easier said than done, but this should be a top priority. Here are a few quick tips:

  • Become friends with people who interact frequently with your target clientele and then politely ask them for referrals.
  • Join a referral network.
  • Advertise on Findlaw, Nolo, Avvo, or one of those platforms.
  • For Pete’s sake – please build a decent website!

It’s been three years since I hung my shingle. I’ve learned that the difference between thriving and surviving is following these tips. While I am definitely not perfect (and have failed to follow my own advice on several occasions) you can trust that these five tips are well vetted and will help your law firm dreams become a reality.

Branigan-RobertsonBranigan Robertson is a plaintiff’s employment lawyer in Irvine, California. He graduated from Chapman University Fowler School of Law in 2012 and opened his law firm’s doors immediately after he passed the bar. He has written several articles on law practice management including “How I Started My Own Law Firm Right After Law School.”


Previously posted on My Shingle.