Flying Solo – an Interview with Charles Smith
Many lawyers in their final year of law school set their sights on landing a dream job in a famous law firm. That has been the rule rather than the exception for decades, although recently, a new trend has emerged and more law graduates are preparing to fly solo. In the lean years around the time of the Great Recession, the main reason for this was that the economic slowdown meant fewer jobs available. The number of law graduates opening their own firms increased from 3.5% in 2008 to 5.5% in 2009, the greatest increase since 1982.
But there is another explanation for this development. Even with the economy on more stable footing than it was during the recession, young lawyers aren’t opening their own firms because of a lack of jobs, but because they want to be free agents. With advances in technology, it has never been easier to be self-employed, and many law graduates are looking for the independence and flexibility of working for themselves and their clients.
However, as with any small business ventures, the transition is not easy and success is not guaranteed. Charles Smith of Charles Stanford Smith Law of Brooklyn, New York explains what is involved in opening one’s own firm.
When should a lawyer join a firm and when should he/she decide to go it solo?
Charles Smith: While this is a very personal decision, in my opinion, the major factors are area of practice, opportunity and lifestyle. There are a variety of paths that a lawyer can choose for his or her career. Many lawyers join firms in order to gain experience and then determine the area in which they wish to practice. Many lawyers also work in-house or for the government when beginning their careers. Working as an Assistant General Counsel at the New York City Department of Probation allowed me to obtain courtroom experience at an early stage in my career and reinforced my desire to become a criminal defense attorney. My practice is focused on criminal defense, because I want to help others while fulfilling an integral role in a system where every individual charged with a crime is entitled to a competent and zealous defense attorney.
Do uncertainties about the economy make the decision to start a law firm risky?
CS: This depends upon the area of practice. Some areas, like criminal law, are not as dependent upon the economy as others, like corporate law. Also, in an uncertain economy, clients are looking for better deals, and lawyers have to be willing to negotiate and adapt to the changing economic environment. In my opinion, having a smaller firm is an advantage in difficult economic times, because I have much more flexibility than a larger firm.
Describe what a lawyer needs to consider and what is involved in setting up a law practice?
CS: There are an infinite number of things to consider when setting up a law practice. Countless books and articles have been dedicated to the topic, and there is no set formula. I recommend doing lots of research and reading as much as possible before setting up a firm. Other attorneys who have gone out on their own have been a great resource for me throughout this process. Ideally a lawyer setting up a new business will already have some existing clients or contacts from a previous firm. The lawyer must then choose a business entity, develop a business plan focusing on their specific area of practice, and make sure he or she has enough money set aside for personal expenses in addition to the initial start-up costs of the firm, investigate office space and other overhead expenses. Once these initial steps are taken, then it’s time to network and hustle. A solo lawyer always has to be selling themselves to potential new clients, and there is no better person to sell your services to than yourself. Finally, maintaining a strong client base is extremely important to consider. Having your own practice requires constantly generating new business and the best way to do this is having satisfied clients refer new clients to you.
What should lawyers consider in terms of finding clients, how much to charge, how to collect?
CS: Finding clients is one of the most challenging aspects of having a law firm. Networking with other lawyers and professionals within your existing network is a great way to find clients. Advertising and using social media effectively is another excellent way to find clients. Setting fees is a difficult area, but simply asking a number of peers is a great starting point. Technology enables lawyers to collect fees via online payments and keep track of accounts much more easily today than ever before. However, a lawyer must make clear to clients that payments must be made promptly. Always getting money upfront in the form of a retainer is a great way to avoid billing issues. Also, providing clear engagement letters that make clients aware of all details of the representation helps to avoid any misunderstandings in the future. Finally, staying within the confines of the ethical rules is supremely important. Many bar associations have advice on their websites and some even have hot lines for questions regarding ethical rules. The New York State Bar Association has an ethics app that I use whenever I have a question and am not in the office or a near a computer.
What’s the final word you would want to part with for someone thinking about opening their own office?
CS: Having your own business is not for everyone. But for those who want to be their own boss and do something that they love, there is no better way to practice law.