Starting Solo: From Oath to My Own Office
by Bryon J. Will
Okay, so I go through three years of law school, take the bar exam and finally, become a lawyer. Now what? Do I work for a law firm? Are there any job postings in the back of the Oklahoma Bar Journal? Do I know anyone who has an opening? Or do I do something rather bold — something that most would believe is unorthodox? Yes! I will open my own law office.
This is a narrative of my adventure of opening my own law practice fresh out of law school. I hope it also serves as beneficial for my colleagues who have just graduated law school or are ready to venture out on their own. Please know, this is neither an instruction guide nor a treatise on starting your own law practice, but merely some of my choices when opening and maintaining my law practice. Go with what works for you.
First of all, let me give a brief background of my experiences. I graduated Oklahoma City University School of Law in May 2008. During my last semester of law school, I worked as a licensed legal intern for a small- to mid-sized law firm in downtown Oklahoma City. Prior to graduation, I was promised a position as an associate with the law firm upon my passing the bar exam — complete with a nice salary and benefits.
At that time, the economy began to plummet, and I felt very lucky that I had a job — unlike several of my fellow graduates. I took the Bar Exam the last Tuesday and Wednesday of July. The following Saturday, I received a call from the managing partner of my law firm with a message that the firm was closing. I no longer had a job.
For the following three months, I tried to get hired on somewhere — anywhere. The first month or so was quite difficult in looking for a job because I didn’t know whether I had even passed the bar exam. I interviewed with multiple law firms and state government agencies and heard the same answers, “Let’s wait until we find out whether you passed the bar exam.” Of course, I was not the only one right out of law school looking for a job.
In September, I found out I passed the bar exam and was sworn in. But by October of that year, the stock mark crashed, and America was in an economic depression. I waited every couple weeks for latest issue of The Oklahoma Bar Journal (OBJ) just to see what job openings were posted in the back. It seemed ironic that, while I was in law school, there was always a minimum of three pages of attorney job openings; but when I actually needed a job, there were hardly more than a half-page of openings.
I applied for several of those openings; however, the common response from the interviewers was, “We are having a record number of applicants applying for the job.” Unfortunately, it seemed like a lottery pick to get that second interview.
At the end of October, I decided to take the plunge. If I couldn’t get hired at a law firm, I would just open my own firm and hire myself. I haven’t fired myself yet.
I am now in my fourth year of practice and am still going strong. There have been some rocky roads along the way, but my doors are still open. How did I do it? I believe it had to do with talking to seasoned lawyers who were in the same place at one time or another, sheer luck and a lot of prayer.
If someone approached me and asked what they needed to do to open a law practice, I would tell him or her every factor I had to take into consideration. But I would also say that everyone essentially carves his or her own path, and what worked for me may not work for everyone else. However, I am happy to share my experiences along the way to opening and maintaining my law practice.
We have always heard the saying, “Location, Location, Location….” I don’t believe that is always the case in practicing law. Some factors to consider are the type of law you want to practice, frequency of trips to the courthouse, ease of finding your office, parking, safety and the commute from home. You need to first ask the question, “What kind of law do you want to practice?” If you want to practice criminal law, you may want your office close to the courthouse so you can pick up some foot traffic. If you want to practice family law, you may want your office where it is easy to find, with decent parking and still within walking distance of the courthouse. But, if you want to practice estate planning, location may not be a great concern.
However, I believe the most important factor to balance when deciding where you place your office is what you can afford. When starting out on your own — unless you have a large cash reserve, a rich uncle, or have won the lottery — I would assume you will not be renting an office on the top floor of either Oklahoma City’s Leadership Square or one of Tulsa’s Williams Towers. But to the other extreme you may want a place more sophisticated than your house to meet clients (though there is nothing wrong with having your office in your home if that is what you can afford. It may even be a good idea to hold an office at your home and meet clients at another office). When considering the office, you really must balance all the factors and determine what you can afford. Affordability is key.
I originally wanted to have my office in my home. I even made a little office out of a spare bedroom. But I did need a place to meet with clients; I didn’t think my kitchen table made a good conference table. I got in touch with a lawyer friend of mine who had his own office and a conference room. During the phone call, he indicated he had some extra space and would be happy to office share with me. After I looked at the office, he gave me an offer I found affordable, so I took it. It had everything I needed — a roof and a door. Even though I did move to another office at one point, I am now back in the same building where I started.
What about furniture? Do I need it? Again, only get what you can afford. A table to write on, a chair for the lawyer and a chair for the client are all a lawyer needs. If you are living in Tulsa or Oklahoma City, there are many places to shop for used office furniture. There is no sense purchasing brand new furniture unless you can afford it. Yes, it is desirable to purchase something pretty and clean, but home improvement stores like Lowe’s or Home Depot have materials you can purchase to make your used furniture look new. Sometimes a paint brush and a few cheap odds and ends can make old furniture look new again.
Although I didn’t have an income at the time, I had some savings available to loan my business for purchasing office furniture. Yes, I said loan! What’s great about loaning money to your business is you are not pressured to pay it back month to month. When you do pay yourself back, you don’t have to pay income tax on loan repayments, unless you charge yourself interest (talk to your tax advisor about this). I can’t say it enough: only purchase what you can afford.
COMPUTERS AND SOFTWARE
Computers and printers: what about those? Did you have a laptop and printer in law school or at home? Use those. Enough said.
Software, however, is another story. I will turn this topic over to Jim Calloway with the Oklahoma Bar Association. After I was sworn in, I went to one of Mr. Calloway’s CLEs on opening a law practice (I suggest the reader do the same), where he gave a really good presentation on law firm software. Again, purchase only what you can afford.
CHOOSING PRACTICE AREAS
When choosing a practice area, my first suggestion is to choose an area in which you are competent and can learn quickly. I did not say to choose what you really enjoy. You have a license to practice law, and you can practice anything (with the exception of patents and admiralty). As we all know, the practice of law in any area is filled with many intricacies; and on such, we must be able to explain to and counsel our clients. You will want to take on an area that comes naturally to you, so to reduce your risk of incompetency and malpractice.
If you can afford it, try not to take every case that walks through the door. Otherwise, you may bog yourself down trying to learn multiple areas of law. And when that happens, you may increase your risk of malpractice. It would be difficult to learn criminal law and oil and gas, and to practice both at the same time. Instead, try practicing two areas that complement each other, like estate planning with probate or oil and gas with real property. In these instances, when practicing in one area, you need to know the law in the other, so you might as well practice both.
During my internship in my last semester of law school, I was exposed to bankruptcy and debtor and creditor law. There, I learned how to counsel a bankruptcy debtor from petition to discharge and everything in between. Luckily this was one area I was already familiar with when I opened my law practice.
As for practicing in areas that complement one another, the majority of my practice is in the areas of probate and estate planning. Upon my initial study of estate planning, I realized rather quickly I needed to learn the intricacies of probate law as well. Why not take on clients in both areas?
Whether you practice in a firm or on your own, having a mentor is probably the most important factor when practicing law. I strongly suggest you have a separate mentor for each area you practice. Remember, nobody knows everything, so there is no problem in having multiple mentors. Make sure the person you wish to be your mentor is an expert in his or her area of law.
When establishing a mentor, first establish a relationship with the individual. Call the mentor and ask if he or she would mind an occasional phone call from you. Be courteous. Ask whether you can pay for his or her time. Generally they won’t take payment, but it is a good gesture on your part. Do know that the mentor is busy with his or her own practice, so when you call, get to the point immediately! Try to limit your phone call to about five minutes. Therefore, he or she will be more re-ceptive the next time you call.
It may be advisable to invite your mentor to co-counsel with you on a project, and pay him or her accordingly. Don’t think of this as receiving less income from a client. Instead, look at it as an investment for additional education — which is a lot cheaper then what you paid for law school. My experience with having mentors is that they are normally very receptive, especially those who have practiced for multiple decades. They were all in the same place when they began practicing law as well. Some veteran attorneys even believe it is their duty to mentor young lawyers when they start out.
When I came into my office building, I was very lucky there were several seasoned attorneys already practicing here. Even though we were all under the same roof, I still had to establish a relationship with each of them before they were receptive to mentoring me. Now after being there a few years, I have established relationships in which I can go and knock on their doors and ask my questions. Nowadays, I may even hear a knock on my door from an attorney needing advice. Just know it will come full circle.
STRATEGIES FOR BUILDING
Be flexible in establishing where you open your practice. It doesn’t have to be in Oklahoma City or Tulsa, or any large town in Oklahoma for that matter. Remember, you have a license to practice in all 77 counties in Oklahoma, and therefore, you can practice anywhere in the state. A wise man once told me, “If there is one lawyer in the town he will starve to death, but if there are two lawyers in the town they will both be rich.” There are several towns in Oklahoma that are underserved by attorneys. If where you live and practice is not an issue, I recommend you research which Oklahoma towns need attorneys. You can do this either by looking through the Blue Book or by visiting with members of the Oklahoma Bar Association who are familiar with the towns in need of attorneys. You will be amazed what you can find from these two resources.
It is also wise to keep an eye out for attorneys who are close to retirement and who are hiring younger attorneys to take over their practices. Some of these veteran attorneys place ads in the OBJ in search of younger attorneys. One may also be able to find out about these opportunities through networking or involvement in local bar associations.
From my experience, one of the best ways to market yourself and your practice is to be involved in organizations — from the state and local bar associations and your local Chamber of Commerce to churches and Kiwanis, Rotary, or Lions Clubs.
Currently, I am a board member of the Oklahoma Bar Association Young Lawyers Division. In this organization, I have met attorneys from across the state — young and veteran — and I have received numerous referrals from these relationships. I am also a member of the local Chamber of Commerce and a local Kiwanis Club.
But being involved is not just for referrals. Being involved is a public service duty we, as lawyers, owe to our communities. I suggest you be involved first for the sense of this duty. Referrals and business will come later.
BE OPEN AND FLEXIBLE
Flexibility and openness means being ready for change. You must be spontaneous and willing to take on whatever life, and your practice, throws at you. Your paycheck depends on it. Again, I wouldn’t suggest taking every case that walks through your door, but I do recommend that you take on the challenge of projects that will earn you a little extra money as long as you are, or can become, competent in those areas of law.
For example, as I mentioned above, I began my practice in the area of bankruptcy, but the majority of my practice is in estate planning and probate. Let me just tell you that if I only took bankruptcy cases, I would starve to death. My first case was a bankruptcy, and I was prepared for it. However my second case was a client who wanted me to do estate planning; my next was a probate; and after that, more estate planning. Let’s just say, I can count on two hands the number of bankruptcy clients I have had. I started practicing in one area of law, and the next thing I knew, I was in another area. I then knew I was competent to take on that next challenge.
DON’T BE TIMID
You can’t be timid in this realm. You must put yourself out there, or you will never have clients walk through your door. Let people know you are a lawyer. That’s not a crime. Get creative putting your name out there while still remaining compliant with the Rules of Professional Conduct. You will have to shake a lot of hands and kiss a lot of babies. And if you are ever in question as to whether you are about to do something unethical or that violates the Rules of Professional Conduct, call our Ethics Counsel, Travis Pickens, at the Oklahoma Bar Center. He will discuss with you whether there is a potential violation.
You must also be open with your clients. Be receptive, meaning don’t be afraid to talk to them. You are their lawyer. You have their lives in your hands, and they want to talk to you. Talk to them! Return their calls, and quickly. And most of all, be friendly. I have found more clients hire me, and even refer me, just because I am friendly and easy to talk to. Clients are often stressed and don’t want to hear a gruff, rude voice on the other end of the line. If you talk to your clients in an engaging manner, not only will you preserve the clients you have, but there is a greater probability they will refer their own family and friends to you.
Again, what worked for me may not work for everyone else. My intention is for the reader to take what I learned from my experiences and apply it to his or her practice in a way that works for them. If I were to break this entire article down to just a few words, I would say, “If you want to open your own law practice, know what you can afford, make a budget, research your options, be competent, don’t be shy, pray, and go to work.”
With that being said, are you ready to hang out that shingle? Open your doors?
About The Author
Bryon J. Will is the founder of The Law Office of Bryon J. Will, PLLC, with offices in Oklahoma City and Perry. He practices in the areas of estate planning, probate, real estate, bankruptcy and civil litigation. Mr. Will received his Bachelor’s degree at Oklahoma State University, his Masters of Business degree at University of Central Oklahoma and his J.D. from Oklahoma City University. Mr. Will is currently a director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Young Lawyers Division.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal, October 6, 2012 - Volume 83, No. 26