How To Open a Law Practice . . . or NOT to!

January 26, 2012 Betsy Lynch 2 Comments

Several months after I opened my own law firm, I am sitting down to write this “confession” so that others hoping to follow my example and become their own boss will know of not only the perks but also the pitfalls associated with it.  I’m happy to report that I now officially answer only to myself.  I can honestly say that there’s no greater feeling than dropping everything on a Friday afternoon to take your kid to the park . . . without getting any looks from associates or assistants who might disapprove of this idea while they are sitting at their desks.  Or going out to lunch every day of the week “networking” with some of the finest legal minds in Kansas City and then calling it “work.”  You’ve got to love the American dream.

About a year ago while I was on maternity leave, I went to lunch with an attorney I knew from church who owned his own firm.  His words echo in my mind constantly, “If you work for someone else, you will have income security but not job security.  If you work for yourself, you will have job security but not income security.”  I knew myself well enough that I could handle those ups and downs, so I got out my to-do lists and did some research.  #1: Find a location.  A buddy from law school offered me a deal on an office that I just couldn’t say “no” to.  It included phone, fax, copier, Internet, and a receptionist to answer my phone.  Once I finally checked “health insurance” and “get a line of credit” off my list, I was off and running.  It was scary – really scary.  But I kept telling myself that if I didn’t feel scared it probably meant that I wasn’t taking it seriously.

I was a 31-year-old woman married to a stay-at-home dad with an 8-month old son, a $1200 per month health insurance premium, a mortgage, and student loans.  Could you pick a worse time to open a practice?  But there was no turning back by then.  My family was counting on me.  I’d made my decision, and failure was not an option.  Plus, if I had to leave my kid every day, I certainly wasn’t going to leave him so I could make somebody else rich for the rest of my life. 

When I left my firm, I thought I might end up taking two or three clients with me.  I ended up with forty-eight.  “WOW!” was my first thought, and my second was, “How in the world am I going to survive without an assistant?”  Although I pride myself in the fact that I have not missed a deadline, I have had some very interesting first-time experiences.  I tried my hand at criminal law and remembered why I’m a bankruptcy lawyer.  I don’t have a magic wand that keeps people out of jail.  I wish I had a sign on the door to my office that says, “Failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”  I also regret to say that I have done the unthinkable: I actually took a client for his word.  You see, my assistant at my old firm would have been the one to double check a client’s story to make sure I was properly prepared for Court.  But now I live life without an assistant . . . and I’ve learned to do my own double-checking! (FYI: I still call my former assistant once a week!)

In Court, I’ve had to put my powers of persuasion to good use when my client doesn’t have a shred of law on his side but does have an “it’s the principle of the matter” argument that we all know and love.  My next mistake was taking a case to do something I’ve done 100 times before, but for a unique client who couldn’t find an attorney.  Sounds easy enough, right?  Well, let me give the newbies a piece of advice: always charge an hourly fee for anything involving ex-spouses.  And get a retainer.  A big one.

These experiences have taught me a lot.  It is as important to know what you’re not as much as it to know what you are.  I am a bankruptcy lawyer.  I am not a family lawyer or a criminal lawyer or an estate planner.  I am not a trial lawyer.  I have no interest whatsoever in going to court.  I actually hate going to court.  In fact, if I never went to court again for a day in my life, I would be a very happy woman.  In six years of practicing law, I’ve taken two depositions and conducted one trial.  Now I can recite you the Missouri exemption laws off the top of my head and talk about income qualifications for filing Chapter 7 all day long . . . but ask me to offer something into evidence and I will give you a look of bewilderment that would even make a tax collector laugh.  But these days, I’m doing a lot of things outside my comfort zone in order to bring in some money.

With all the bad days and bad cases, there’s still no substitute for driving to work every day with a smile on my face.  Because now my successes and my failures are solely a product of my own making.  Only I will determine the kind of lawyer I’m going to be – and the kind I will not be.  With all the bad clients, I try to remember the good ones.  When asking a prior client to give me a quote to put on my website, the client stated, “Filing bankruptcy was one of the hardest decisions we have ever made. Sitting in front of a complete stranger telling them your situation can be embarrassing and humiliating, however that was never the case with Betsy. Not only is she one of the most honest and professional persons we have met, she is compassionate. We don’t feel like ‘just another client’ because she is always available and responds to our needs at all times. Thank you Betsy for representing us and giving us the feeling of hope again!  Now that makes you feel appreciated!  That makes you remember why you’re doing what you’re doing.

There will always be bad days and bad clients and bad cases, but they will be few and far between.  There are days when I will have to make a $300 court appearance over a $500 bill, but I won’t be doing that forever.  Who knows?  Those clients may get in a car accident tomorrow and come to me to get them a $5,000,000 settlement.  There will be days when cases blow up like bombshells, but at the end of the day, it’s all mine.  It’s my firm, my practice, my paycheck, my family’s livelihood.  I can honestly say that practicing law has never been so much fun.

2 Comments

    January 27, 2012 REPLY

    Here, here! It's nice to see a little background to your current practice. At the end of the day, the most important item on the checklist is happiness/purpose/contentment. It sounds like you can check that off most days.

    Great job,

    Jonathan

    January 27, 2012 REPLY

    So true, so true! Thanks for reading Jonathan!

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