Bar News - July 13, 2012
New Lawyers Column: Practical Tips for Opening Your Own Law Firm
By: Seth Hipple
The tough hiring market and ever-present desire to keep more of what we earn leads to more attorneys hanging their own shingles. Of course, there are challenges. These are a few of the ones you will need to consider from day one.
1. Get New Clients
A law firm needs clients. Referrals and advertising are the two ways I get most of mine. Most people don’t know a lawyer so meeting people and handing out your card is a great way for potential clients to think of you when they or a friend have a legal issue. Getting involved in the local Chamber of Commerce or a similar organization is important. Business Networking International – an organization dedicated solely to members passing referrals to one another – is another option. (Note that around 2007, the New Hampshire Supreme Court approved a comment to Rule 7.2 of the New Hampshire Rules of Professional Conduct (NHRPC) clarifying that active membership and participation in groups such as Business Networking International are within the ethical rules).
When it comes to advertising, your website is one of your most effective tools. Since a website is often a potential client’s first impression of you, it is worth doing right. To cut costs, consider hiring a new, un-established web designer to build and maintain your website for a reasonable cost – around $750 usually.
2. Get Paid
Once you have clients, getting paid is a rather important consideration that far too many lawyers neglect. I never do work without payment up front unless I’m willing to do the case for free. If you don’t subscribe to this practice, you will soon learn through bitter experience why you should have. On the same note, don’t accept personal checks; if the client has the money, they should be able to pay you with a certified check or money order.
A client should know right away if he owes you money. Send out monthly invoices.If the client doesn’t respond when her trust account is getting low, call her.
Make it easy for clients to pay you. Accepting credit cards is one way to do this. Be cautious, though, that you process card payments through a company that understands attorneys’ ethical obligations. Some credit card companies take their fee right out of the initial payment so that if your client paid you $100, you would see a $96.50 deposit into your IOLTA. This is commingling of client funds. A good credit card processer will deposit the full $100 and then bill all accrued fees at the end of the month, being sure to remove those funds from your operating – not trust – account. The Bar Association has a member benefit partner, Law Pay, which processes credit cards (See page 40 for its advertisement). Citizens Bank also has a good program that is easy to use and affordable.
3. Know How to Handle Your Trust Accounting
IOLTA record-keeping software is a corner that many lawyers cut when starting a new firm, usually resulting in a headache. Do yourself a favor: pay for billing and trust account software right away. Take it from someone who learned the hard way: trying to do billing and trust accounting by hand is a time sink. It’s not worth it. I use Bill4Time.com for my billing and trust accounting (it handles conflict-checking too). Every month, I send out invoices – which the software prepares for me based on the time entries I’ve made over the month – and each trust account transfer is noted in that client’s individual IOLTA ledger and tied to a specific invoice which the client receives.
4. Have a Dependable Copier/Scanner/Printer
You need a nice copier/scanner/printer. Paper is the blood of a law firm and the copier/printer is its beating heart. Having a fast, dependable machine is a must. Fortunately, you don’t have to pay the $2,000 to $4,000 on a new machine up front. Leasing companies will lease them to you for around $150/month.
Do not skimp on service for your printer. The first time your machine breaks, you will be amazed at how quickly your office screeches to a halt. Pay for a service contract. It’s only $30-50 per month, but is invaluable.
5. Have a File Management System
You will need a system for maintaining files after cases have closed. The file belongs to the client and you must give it to them when they ask. Averill v. Cox, 145 N.H. 328 (2000). You should – arguably, must – maintain a copy of the file at your own expense.
To save space, many firms convert their closed files to PDF files which they save electronically (with a backup). This is a good idea, with two caveats: (1) put a paragraph in your retainer agreement getting the client’s consent to save their file electronically, and (2) always have a backup. I keep an electronic copy "in the cloud" with my billing software company and have a backup in a password-protected hard drive. Some criticize this practice as unsafe; I view it as safer. After all, anyone with a lockpick or a hammer can break into my office and take my paper files, but at least my electronic files have the added security of password-protection.
6. Use Your Bar Association’s Resources
Your Bar Association has many resources that some never use. Participate in the mentoring program and use the law practice management tools on the Bar’s website. [Editor’s Note: Visit the For Members area at www.nhbar.org and click on Law Practice Management Tools and Law Practice Tips & Resources. The Client Relations manual is an especially useful starting place for model forms and letters.]
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is challenging but rewarding. May your client trust accounts always be fully replenished, may your pleadings be concise and persuasive, and may the courts smile in your favor.
Seth Hipple co-founded Martin & Hipple, a busy and growing firm in Concord, where he mainly practices family law and criminal defense – though civil cases sometimes catch his fancy. Seth welcomes your comments, questions, and criticisms at email@example.com.