cartoon illustration of a business person in a time machine, moving across the sky and pointing forward

Build as You Go – and Four Other things you Should Know Before Opening Your Firm

  • November 30, 2023
  • Emily Sinkins

While no legal practice is the same, there are some common keys to success in establishing a thriving enterprise uniquely yours while building a solid reputation and stepping up client service. With a mission to spare would-be sole and small-firm practitioners potential missteps or missed opportunities, the OBA’s Law Practice Management and Sole, Small Firm and General Practice Sections presented a program on October 2, in which lawyers representing a range of professional backgrounds and specializations tackled the topic of “Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started My Law Firm”. Below are some of the panelists’ top tips to take to heart before setting out on your own.

1. There may never be a ‘perfect’ time – but you can learn as you go

Panelists expressed a variety of different motivations for starting their own practice – from the potential for growth, gaining a foothold in an untapped niche or greater flexibility, to the power to choose location, clients and cases, not to mention create the firm culture – but when they made up their minds to pursue that path, they knew they could only be so prepared. They didn’t allow the learning curve ahead to prevent them from making the leap – they equipped themselves the best they could with a clear vison and plan, cashflow forecasts, and the essential tools of the trade (website, accounting software, contact systems, etc.) and determined to devote the time to learning as they went.

Lisa Feldstein, who established Lisa Feldstein Law Office Professional Corporation – the only law firm in Canada focused on advising and representing family caregivers – less than two years after she had been called to the bar, was still figuring out the terrain and the ins-and-outs of becoming a competent lawyer as she launched her healthcare and fertility law boutique. Her advice? Take advantage of that time when the phone is not exactly ringing of the hook to “build as you go.” In the early days, she spent time reading and getting good advice – even while marketing her services. She notes that she offered free phone-consultations that would often extend beyond half-an-hour while she got a handle on what the clients were seeking and the issues at play, then spend additional hours doing research to ensure she was well prepared going into the subsequent advice meeting. She didn’t charge clients for her learning – but the payoff was in building her expertise.

When he opened the doors on Michael Coristine Law Professional Corporation after having spent 10 years as a crown prosecutor, Michael Coristine was passionate about, but not as experienced in, the family law side of his family and criminal law focused practice. To build that business, in the beginning he invested money in paying other lawyers to consult, as he says, “to make sure I was on the right track in my research and competent in that regard.”

He agrees with Feldstein that, when you’re starting out, free consultations are important to growing your client list, but advises being very clear around what such a consultation entails, which leads to Tip 2…

2. Be smart about how you spend your time: “Sometimes the best client is the one you don’t take.”

“When you’re looking at a lot of empty spaces on your calendar and someone comes knocking at your door, you just want to sign them up,” says program co-chair Dan Rosman, of Minster Law, but he cautions against acting hastily out of excitement, particularly where free consultations are concerned.

Coristine agrees, adding you can waste a lot of time when you don’t set expectations around free consultations. “If you are a viable lead, I will talk to you for free and follow up on your issue, but I am not duty counsel,” he notes, explaining that some people will use that opportunity to pepper you with questions without any promise of future, paid work.

It will vary based on speciality, of course – as Hilary Book, whose firm Book Law focuses on commercial litigation, can attest. “I spend a lot of time meeting with people for free – that’s just the nature of my practice,” she explains. “It’s not high volume but asking for high retainers.”

“Look at every client as not just a chance to make money but also a liability,” program co-chair Rocco Scocco, of Scocco Law Professional Corporation, suggests. Consider, “can they cause me more problems than they’re worth? – and deal with that accordingly.”

3. When hiring, focus on the kind of help you really need

The topic of hiring - when, how and who – sparked the most back-and-forth between panelists, evidence of how tricky a question it is for sole and small-firm practitioners. Looking at the staff you need, like looking at the systems you need, begins with examining where the gaps are. Ray Leclair, who is currently vice-president - public affairs at LawPRO and whose diverse solicitor-side experience includes serving as in-house counsel, starting his own firm and starting a firm with a partner– advises asking yourself, “What is your forte, what are you going to be doing most of the time and how can you be set up so you have those resources?” Then, once you know where you need help, look at your cashflow. You have to consider what work you would offload to another person and how much that is actually going to save you. Bringing in an administrative assistant to handle the admin work might prove more cost-effective and beneficial to the practice than bringing in a lawyer – which involves more expense and more obligation. Canvass around; you might even choose to send files to other lawyers. “There are all kinds of solutions out there,” says Leclair. “You just have to be creative in your approach and understand what you need and where it fits in.”

“It’s a very difficult thing to know when to hire,” adds Coristine. “I wish there was a mathematical formula – x number of files and x number of billing revenue.” Ultimately, he agrees that it depends on the work you’re doing and your own personal ability to carry file loads. If you are at the point of hiring another lawyer, he recommends hiring someone at the junior stage of their career so you can help mould them in a way that aligns with your own message and approach.

Hilary Book is open about the fact that hiring – and retaining – staff was initially a struggle for her. She worried about taking on an associate and whether she would have the time to appropriately train them and the work to keep them busy – to make it a meaningful experience for them. It is an investment in more ways than one. “Success of each individual person at my own firm is much more important to me than it was a big firm.” Her solution is to proceed cautiously and mindfully in in considering candidates. “I’m trying to be deliberate,” she says, “making sure they’ve not just got the skills but are enthusiastic about, and will work well in, that environment.”

Lisa Feldstein, who keeps her firm lean “by design” agrees that the commitment can be daunting. A stepping stone for her was first hiring placement students. Having a student with her two days a week was, in her words, “a great entry way to learn to how to be a boss,” and it forced her to develop vital systems, checklists, precedents and templates.  Like Book, she takes a methodical approach. For her most recent hiring, she posted a three-page PDF to LinkedIn that included a job description and questions designed to both communicate her values and capture some of what makes candidates tick. For interviews, she had someone else join so she would have the opportunity to debrief. “Rather than just focusing on the experience,” she says, “I focused on fit and then trained them.”

4. Be creative in getting your name out there

When it comes to marketing, creativity is key – and knowing your audience. “Different practice areas are going to have different ways to market,” says Rosman. “Personal injury marketing will have a different style than employment law.” You’ll want to look at how other people in ‘your space’ are doing it.

You can make inroads in your area through involvement in associations and boards. For real property lawyers, Leclair suggests speaking to real estate agents, to bankers and to brokers at their meetings and events – or joining groups where fellow business owners come together share strategies and refer clients to each other. “OBA and all those organizations help you get out there and be known,” he says. “Get out there and tell them what you can do.”

Feldstein offers a list of ideas for building awareness and establishing your reputation: viewing other’s LinkedIn profiles so they’ll look back at yours; preparing a press release; writing articles and blog posts; speaking at events or serving as a podcast guest; commenting on or making your own posts (which can be boosted cost-effectively), engaging in conversation, or creating content for social media; and making sure to congratulate others on interesting articles they’ve written. 

Videos can be time-consuming (the plotting, the filming, the post-production) and potentially expensive (the equipment and expertise), but they don’t need to be. Feldstein ended up just using her own computer webcam and enlisting the help of high-school coop students for editing.

Coristine – who doesn’t generally find videos as effective for his type of practice – did create one video around CaseLines usage during the pandemic that still generates calls from other lawyers to this day. But of course, there is a difference between marketing yourself to peers for referrals and marketing to prospective – and don’t forget, current! – clients, where you need to create as many touchpoints as possible.  Either way, he advises caution when dealing with salespeople who make big promises in order to lock you into a contract, particularly when, “you can do SEO for free,” and it grows over time.

5. Don’t shy away from asking for help

All the panelists agree that practicing in a silo is a mistake; relationships are vital – not only in building a referral network but in building your confidence and competence. And, the good news is, their collective experience in both acting as and seeking that kind of sounding board indicates fellow lawyers will almost always ‘take the call’.

When he was on his own, Leclair used to connect almost daily with another sole practitioner down the road whom he could bounce ideas off and get reassurance from about his planned approach, or just ask questions of that he wouldn’t feel comfortable asking someone in his own firm – without giving out too many details, of course.

“All of us need somebody – multiple people – we can discuss things with,” says Book, who shares a space with other lawyers who are always keen to lend new perspectives. “If you’re struggling, call up someone … don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she advises. “Lawyers love talking about themselves and giving advice.”

Members of the OBA’s Law Practice Management and Sole, Small Firm and General Practice sections enjoy free access to the program recording here. OBA members can purchase the archived video, at a discount, here.