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As another year draws to a close, do you find yourself thinking about hanging out your own shingle? Perhaps the thought occurred to you the other night while you were polishing up a brief, wishing that you — not the partner who isn’t at all familiar with the case — were going to argue it. Or maybe after a year of working the temp circuit, using your Ivy League law degree to perform paralegal work, it occurred to you that you couldn’t be any worse off if you started your own practice. So what’s holding you back? ‘I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING — NOT EVEN WHERE THE CLERK’S OFFICE IS’ So you’re afraid that you don’t have the skills necessary to start your own firm because you’ve never filed a case, or drafted a contract, or handled a jury trial or did any of the other things that you think all lawyers know how to do. Join the club. I’ve been practicing law for 16 years, and on a regular basis I find myself in an unfamiliar situation — one in which I have no idea what I’m doing. Just a few days ago, I covered a hearing for a colleague, and I didn’t even know where I was supposed to sit, let alone other matters of basic procedure. But if you let your fears or inexperience paralyze you, you won’t go very far. No matter how long you practice, a situation that you’ve never before encountered will arise. Get used to it. All you can do is prepare as best you can. And if, after all of your preparation, you still make a mistake, so what? I’ve been scolded by judges countless times in front of my clients for improperly preparing paperwork or failing to follow certain procedures. I got over it. And even if I were to file something late because I misread a statute of limitations, for example, well, that’s what malpractice insurance is for. (I do, however, recommend filing matters at least six months in advance of all deadlines to avoid any such problems.) ‘I CAN’T AFFORD IT’ I disagree with the traditional advice that you need to have a year’s salary saved up before you strike out on your own. Certainly, you’ll want to have some money saved, but you won’t need nearly as much as the so-called experts say you will. As with any business, starting a law practice is risky. But starting a law firm doesn’t require a big up-front investment. The major expense needed to start a law firm — law school tuition — has already been paid (or will be in monthly installments over the next few years). Beyond that, there’s really very little additional investment needed to start a bare-bones practice: a computer with Internet access (which most attorneys already have), a phone, business cards, office supplies and malpractice insurance (which is not as expensive as you’d think). You can rent furnished office space month-to-month or economize even more by working from home using a virtual office address. And even if you do factor student loan payments into your monthly expenses, you’ve still got a law firm for a little more than $1000 per month. Of course, when you first start out, the task of generating even $1000 per month is daunting, but it’s entirely possible to do. For example, say you plan to bill at the (measly) rate of $100 per hour. You’d only need to find 10 hours of billable work each month. If you can’t manage that, you could take court-appointed work or contract work to make up the difference. You’ll be surprised to see how quickly you’ll break even. And how far you go after that is entirely up to you. ‘I HATE DOING PAPERWORK’ When you start your own practice, unless you can afford to hire a support staff right away, you’ll likely be handling administrative tasks in addition to your legal work. But, believe it or not, there are upsides to doing this work yourself. For example, when you write and send out your own bills, you keep much better track of the costs of your cases. This will help you monitor your cash flow and enable you to quickly adjust the strategy of a particular case if financial circumstances require you to do so. Moreover, experiencing firsthand the ins and outs of administrative work will help you better appreciate your support staff — when you eventually do get one. ‘I DON’T WANT TO WORK ALONE’ Who says being solo means you’ll be alone? I’m surrounded by a robust social and peer network. Once a month, I lunch with other area solos. We share personal and professional experiences, and many of them have become my good friends. I’ve also befriended experts and professionals with whom I work on my cases, and even some of my clients. As a solo, I feel far more connected to the legal community and socially fulfilled than I ever did during my bleak days as an associate. ‘THE OTHER LAWYERS WILL LAUGH AT ME’ If you choose to leave your position at a large firm or your secure government job to start your own firm, many attorneys will question (if not laugh in your face at) your decision and will try to discourage you from making such a disastrous mistake. Many of these naysayers have never met a real, living, breathing solo practitioner, and will try to save you from becoming “one of them”: a disheveled, unsophisticated lawyer who wears cheap shoes and can’t find a “real job.” But for every lawyer who mocks your choice, there’s another who admires the gutsy move that you’re making. And if you happen to become the next David Boies, Johnnie Cochran, or any of the others who’ve started their own firms and hit it big, you’ll have the last laugh. So, if you’ve been dreaming of starting your own law practice, let 2005 be the year you overcome what’s been holding you back. I guarantee that when the year draws to a close, the only thing that you’ll regret about the endeavor is not having done it sooner. Carolyn Elefant is founder and principal attorney with the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant in Washington, D.C., and counsel to the Law Offices of Scott Hempling in Silver Spring, Md. In 2002, Elefant created My Shingle.com, a Web log for solo and small-firm practitioners and lawyers who dream of starting a practice. Elefant invites inquiries about her law practice or starting a law firm by e-mail at [email protected] Read Elefant’s bio.

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