Every generation of lawyers and prospective lawyers encounters various hardships with the practice of law. Today, those who aim to enter the profession face daunting challenges in terms of rising law school tuition, as well substantial administrative bar call fees/and or lawyer licensing costs. Further, it can be quite challenging to find an articling position.
In the early years of practice, it is difficult for many litigators to obtain courtroom experience due to the extraordinary expense involved in taking cases to trial or to long motions. Since the advent of the internet, reliance on technology has served to increase the size and complexity of files.
More broadly, the current COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically affected us all, and it has led to increased anxiety and social isolation. Some have lost their previous employment, and others struggle to adjust to working at home.
While these considerations paint something of a grim picture, there are many reasons to be optimistic about entering and establishing oneself in the legal profession. Many enjoy and will continue to prosper while practicing law in boutique, medium, and larger firms, as well as in government institutions or NGOs. This article is aimed at those who have an interest in or who may be considering establishing their own law practice. The reasons for pursuing that option are many and varied; the ways and means of doing so are equally varied. Regardless of one’s motives and aims, it is the author’s intention to provide an overview of how one may choose to go about opening a law practice, and to examine some of the difficulties that solo or small firm practitioners face. Hopefully, by examining some of the issues involved in opening one’s own law firm, this article will help to make for a smooth transition for those pursuing that course.
Whether to have a physical office or to go virtual
Given that we are living in this extraordinary period of COVID-19 uncertainty, the process of considering the pros and cons associated with opening a virtual law office is significantly complicated by the fact that most lawyers, in large urban settings, are currently working from home—even those who are employed by medium and large firms.
With that said, human beings are social animals, and one of the greatest difficulties associated with establishing one’s own law practice is that doing so can make one vulnerable to experiencing significant and enduring social isolation. Such isolation can manifest as a lack of meaningful contact with others, generally, as well as an inability to connect with valued colleagues and trusted mentors.
While some lawyers may choose to rent office space alone, it is becoming increasingly common to join a Law Chambers or, at least, to practice in association with others. The benefits of practicing law in a Law Chambers involves the capacity and opportunities to network and interact directly with other lawyers, while sharing operating costs such as Westlaw or LexisNexis, if applicable. Moreover, that operating arrangement is conducive to receiving referrals of potential clients from other lawyers sharing the Law Chambers. In many instances, the viability of a lawyer’s practice depends on the size of his or her network. However, if one chooses to practice from a home office or in office space alone, there are still many other ways to network—as will be discussed in greater detail below.
Annual fees and insurance
Now that you are your own boss, you are responsible for paying your Law Society annual fees, as well as your professional liability insurance through LawPRO. Consider obtaining increased professional liability coverage if you intend to take on files that could result in liability that exceeds $1 million.
Further, now that you do not have an employer you may also wish to obtain long-term disability insurance. The sobering reality is that serious illness or injury, resulting in debilitating impairment, can happen to anyone. As such, at an absolute minimum, purchasing long-term disability insurance is a must. In addition, it is prudent to carefully consider obtaining business interruption coverage and life insurance. Though the costs involved can be formidable, the peace of mind that doing so provides is certainly worthwhile. In the event of some calamity or unseen misfortune befalling you, having the appropriate insurance in place can mean the difference between losing one’s practice, and being able to survive unexpected and difficult circumstances and challenges.
Accountants and bookkeepers
In the early days of operating your own law practice, you may well do all of your own accounting in order to manage your costs. As your practice expands, you may consider hiring a bookkeeper, as well as an accountant. While it may well be feasible to maintain one’s own books and records when starting out, that option becomes increasingly untenable and unwise as one begins to establish a sizeable, busy law practice.
The amount of assistance you will require is directly correlated with the growth of your practice. As such, ultimately, the burden of such tasks as filing HST returns, dealing with monthly CRA payroll remittances for employees, and compiling and organizing, all of the requisite tax information for your business on a monthly, quarterly, and yearly basis can become far too time-consuming. As a matter of practical priorities, one will be confronted by the reality that a lawyer must devote most of their time working on the law, and developing a book of business. There is only so much time that one can and should devote to addressing accounting issues. Focus on your expertise: if you had intended to be a bookkeeper and/or an accountant, you made a serious vocational error when you attended law school. On the other hand, the buck always stops with you. In the event of a calamity, a defence of blaming the bookkeepers and/or accountants will only go so far (if anywhere). Therefore, you will need to oversee the work to ensure it is accurate.
- Trust and General accounts
The Law Society of Ontario has excellent “how to” guides to assist you in opening your firm’s trust and general accounts, as well as instructing you in how to balance and maintain them.
These accounts must be maintained diligently and precisely. Lax or sloppy office practice does not constitute a valid defence to charges of misappropriated trust funds. Monies in trust belong to the client. You will be required to generate monthly reports demonstrating that your trust account has been reconciled. The Law Society of Ontario can audit you at any time, and it is an offence to fail to complete said reconciliation reports within the allotted time.
- PC Law or other software
There is nothing that forbids one from maintaining all of one’s accounting records by hand. However, practically speaking, doing so would be next to impossible. Clients expect professionalism. Software programmes—PC Law or Bill4Time, for example— will be of invaluable assistance to you.
Process Servers, printing companies, binding machines, stationary
The early days of running one’s own practice can certainly make one feel at a distinct disadvantage, in terms of resources and business infrastructure, compared to established and more substantial firms. Trying to manage costs by addressing as many tasks as possible may seem like a reasonable approach at the beginning, but it soon reveals itself to be both untenable and unreasonable. For example, while you might attend a courthouse to have a client’s order entered, that experience should quickly reveal itself to be a very inefficient use of your time. In the pre-pandemic era, anecdotally, that course of action could result in a wait-time of between half an hour and three hours in Toronto. Amongst a hierarchy of process servers, a lawyer standing alone in the lineup to enter an order is a rare specimen indeed. A client cannot be expected and will not want to pay for that expenditure of your time. Consequently, the more cost-efficient course is to hire a process server to handle the filing and serving of documents.
As for generating copies, things are changing rapidly during the pandemic. Increasingly, hardcopies are becoming an anachronism, but that does not mean that they are about to disappear or fall completely out of favour. Admittedly, it is difficult to anticipate what the legal landscape will look like when, finally, COVID-19 is behind us. Nonetheless, in all likelihood, there will be occasions when you will require a printer to generate hardcopies of your documents. Further, you will likely also need a binding machine, and you should still keep a supply of tabs in your office (perhaps numbering from 1-50 and A-Z) to deal with those instances in which they are necessary. Though there may come a day, in the not-too-distant future, when hardcopies become a thing of the past, you should not count them out just yet. Such outlets as Staples, Grand & Toy, Uline, or Supreme Basics are convenient sources of bulk office supplies, amongst others. Further, consider outsourcing large printing and binding jobs to established printing companies.
It goes without saying that an office nowadays will be significantly reliant on electronic and virtual programmes to survive. Desktops, laptops, tablets, electronic devices, access to Zoom etc. are a must. Most courts are now expecting that motion and trial materials be uploaded to CaseLines or via Sync.com.
While one can write an entire article on the subject of technology and the law, the above is a cursory outline of what might be required. More information can be found at https://ontariocourts.caselines.com/ and at https://www.ontariocourts.ca/scj/notices-and-orders-covid-19/ce-civil-notice-jan2021/ .
Website and Business Cards
Websites have been the “new” business cards for quite some time now. Given the importance of websites as both general information and marketing tools, investing in the creation of an informative, impressive looking, professional website is imperative.
A proper website should include a carefully crafted biography, featuring notable career accomplishments, a description of one’s areas of practice and the services one offers, and photos. While business cards were still relevant in the pre-pandemic era, they have gone the way of “the handshake,” though they will be useful if and when there is a return to post-pandemic “normalcy.”
Marketing and Advertising Your Services
There are several legal marketing companies that can help with the development of an attractive and informative website, while also designing the site with search optimization in mind—thereby increasing the chances that members of the public will be drawn to your firm through relevant keyword searches. A word of caution: legal marketing contracts should be thoroughly reviewed, and lawyers should carefully assess whether or not they can afford or really require such services. Legal marketing firms can only do so much. They are certainly capable of providing significant content for your website, and they may improve the look of your brand in terms of stationary. However, the extent to which they can be effective pales in comparison with the quality and quantity of your own referral network. Rather than regarding legal marketers as representing the gold standard with respect to attracting clients, you should look at the services they provide, generally, if you opt to retain them, as being complementary to the network you have established and are trying to expand.
Finally, it is important to keep all social media looking polished and professional. In particular, I am referring to LinkedIn, though one should also be diligent about postings to social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and others. As the old and slightly modified adage goes, never publish anything on social media that you would not be willing to have appear on the front page of the newspaper. Clients and potential clients may well be conducting research about you by reviewing your participation on these platforms.
Pro Bono activities, the Law Society Referral Service, and Legal Aid Ontario
One great resource for lawyers who are starting their own practice is to volunteer at Pro Bono Ontario (PBO). PBO has a Small Claims Court duty counsel programme, a Superior Court duty counsel programme, a Divisional Court duty counsel programme, a Court of Appeal duty counsel programme, as well as a Supreme Court of Canada leave to appeal review programme.
In addition to those programmes, PBO also offers both a call-in and in-person centre. Taking on a PBO shift or being part of the Amicus Duty Counsel programmes listed above can be a great way to gain valuable experience by assisting self-represented litigants, as well as meeting other lawyers and appearing before Judges. While the pandemic has made it difficult to meet other lawyers, and while it has disrupted some pro bono programmes, we do the best that we can remotely.
It is also advisable to sign up for the Law Society Referral Service (LSRS). In the early days of practice, and even later on, some decent referrals can come from it. Further, consider registering with Legal Aid Ontario if practicing in the fields of immigration, criminal, or family law.
It is important for young lawyers out on their own to attend networking events. Professional associations—such as the Toronto Lawyers’ Association, The Advocates’ Society, the Ontario Bar Association and other legal organizations throughout the province—regularly host professional gatherings. Attending social events, whether in-person or remotely, is certainly a good way to build one’s own brand. It is important to meet as many people as possible. If you are coming from a mid-sized or larger firm, then you may be able to draw on an existing network to build a professional network related to your own firm. Further, taking part in the activities of associations, and even seeking and/or obtaining board membership is a great way to network with other lawyers.
Writing articles, presenting at CPD’s, and outside affiliations
One of the most challenging aspects of operating your own practice is name recognition. When you work for a more established firm, other lawyers and prospective clients may not know you, but they do know the name of the firm.
The gravitas of a firm’s reputation may make it easier to negotiate or act on behalf of your clients. Opposing counsel will have a sense, albeit in the litigation context, of whether you ultimately aim for resolution or to take all of your matters either to trial or as close to it as possible. Being a sole practitioner or part of a small firm, imposes a significant burden in dealing with opposing counsel—insofar as they do not know you or your firm.
This may lead, in turn, to opposing counsel testing you more than they would when dealing with counsel from established firms, or being unwilling to compromise with someone they may regard as not being their equal. On the other hand, the lack of recognition may result in opposing counsel underestimating your abilities and expertise. Ultimately, you should aim to increase your name recognition and reputation, which will benefit both you and your clients in the long run. To that end, simply being active in the profession is important. One way to enhance your professional profile is to write articles and submit them for publication. Doing so is an effective means of demonstrating to other lawyers that you are informed about and interested in commenting on the law and the legal profession, conscientious about your professional responsibilities, and that you take pride in your work.
Maintaining and developing affiliations and associations outside the legal profession are important as well. Maintaining and cultivating hobbies and interests—particularly those that will connect you with other people in a positive way—will benefit you both personally and professionally. One never knows where a potential client, business, or legal opportunity can come from. Each person that you meet represents a potential contact or gateway resulting in a professional opportunity. However, the law is not the be all and end all. It is important to have some form of creative release from the stresses of the legal profession, and especially so when one is shouldering the responsibilities of running one’s own practice. The risks of professional “burnout” are very much a real danger, and one of the most effective ways of guarding against that end is to pursue interests and sources of satisfaction that allow you to enjoy yourself.
In sum, I have offered these insights and observations, based on my years of experience in operating as a partner of a small law firm to serve as guidelines and suggestions to those who are thinking of opening their own practice. As noted, there is no simple “one size fits all” formula to aid one in pursuing that aim. These are simply my observations and recommendations. It is not legal advice. Ultimately, practitioners will be starting their own practice at different stages in their careers and from various platforms. Some will be newly called members of the Bar, and others will be coming from mid-sized or larger firms several years post-call. For those who do aspire to establish their own law practice, I hope that this article has been at least somewhat informative.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cameron Fiske is a partner at Milosevic Fiske LLP in Toronto, Ontario, and a graduate of McGill Law School’s Transsystemic Programme. He is a commercial litigator and class actions lawyer who was called to the Bar of the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) on January 28, 2009. Cameron is also recognized by the LSO as a Certified Specialist in Civil Litigation.
 Hryniak v. Mauldin,  1 S.C.R. 87 at para. 1.
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