By, Murali Bashyam
I’d always wanted to be my own boss. So when a very senior Raleigh attorney encouraged me 15 years ago to ‘go on my own’, I almost jumped at the chance…almost.
I was cautious. I was the first to know how much I didn’t know. How could a recent law graduate practice law without law firm experience, I wondered? I needed more information. My next step was to talk to others and get it.
I called a number of senior attorneys I knew and asked them for their opinion. They were all encouraging. Many of them said, “if anyone can do it, you can. We will help you.” I was very fortunate to have these mentors take me under their wing. In my first year of practice, it made a world of difference to have experienced attorneys answer my call, take my questions, and help me when I needed it.
Thinking back on it now, what I did then was incredibly risky! However, I was lucky to have a good support system in place to help me along the way. Today, we have grown from that one-person law practice to one of the larger boutique immigration firms in North Carolina.
I’ve learned many lessons along the way.
Here are five important ones:
Lesson #1 – Start Slowly!
If you’re going to start your own law practice, you are automatically going to think about expenses. How are you going to pay the bills? That will become your number one focus.
It shouldn’t be.
Yes, you need to pay the bills, but you also want to provide excellent service to your clients. You want to start slowly, and learn your area of practice well. Take fewer cases and develop relationships with those clients. If you do good work, people will talk. Your patience will pay dividends in the future.
As I mentioned earlier, I was lucky to have good mentors. However, I was also proactive. I reached out to other attorneys to get advice on cases. I found them to be extremely helpful. Remember, every seasoned attorney was once inexperienced, and they tend not to forget. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Lesson #2 – Keep Your Overhead Low
When I started firm, I bought a used desk for $50 and rented a small office with no windows. It was nothing fancy. That was back in 1995.
Today, our technological advances make it possible to practice law without a formal office. In fact, I know attorneys who work from home or rent a small office-sharing suite and they do just fine. Unlike many years ago, I am not convinced that clients are as impressed by the décor of the office or the quality of your suit. Some clients will be, but most of them are focused on one thing – results.
If you are going to invest in an office, office furniture, equipment and other things, make sure to be frugal. You want to worry less about meeting your monthly overhead and worry more about doing good work and developing good relationships with your clients. I guarantee that it will pay off over time.
Lesson #3 – Be Wary of Debt
When you start a law practice, or any business for that matter, there’s a very good likelihood that you will take on some initial debt. Where else are you going to get that start-up capital as a young attorney except from family, credit cards or banks? When you borrow this start-up capital, keep it as low as possible. More importantly, work hard to pay it off as soon as possible.
I’ve always been very conservative when running my law practice. Even though we have used Lines of Credit to operate at times, we have mostly stayed away from it. Once you have debt, it is automatic human behavior to be beholden to it. (Or given recent events in our country, perhaps it isn’t!) As a business-person, you want flexibility. Businesses should be nimble, be able to move in one direction or the next quickly, and often debt is the shackle that prevents that from happening.
Keep that in mind.
If you need to use debt to operate your business, make sure to use it wisely and pay it off quickly!
Lesson #4 – Don’t be Afraid of Making Mistakes
When I was about to open my law practice, I asked a friend of mine, a Managing Partner of a large law firm, two simple questions:
“Do you think I know enough?” and “What if I make a mistake?”
My friend responded quickly, “you’ll never know enough and you’re always going to make some mistakes.” He added, “it’s how you deal with those mistakes that matters.”
Given that my friend had practiced law for over 30 years, this was a strong message. He said that even after 30 years of being a prominent attorney, he still didn’t know enough about the law. He knows more, but he’s still constantly learning new things. That’s how complicated laws, and the practice of law, can be.
So if you don’t know something, it’s okay. You’re not alone. Learn it and move on because the education process never ends. And if you make a mistake, don’t worry. We are human and we all make them. Just learn from those mistakes and more important, learn how to deal with them properly as it relates to yourself, your practice and your clients.
Lesson #5 – Hire Wisely
There’s a saying that people can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep. It’s not only true in personal situations, but it’s true in a business environment as well. Clients can tell a lot about you and your law practice by the people you hire, and who you hire can make a major difference in the success or failure of your law firm.
I’ve always looked for a few simple qualities when hiring people. First, does the person generally have a positive outlook on things? Are they a positive person? You don’t want to hire negative people. One negative person can bring down the collective ‘mood’ of an office full of positive people! That will negatively impact teamwork and productivity.
Also, look for people who are smart, dedicated and have demonstrated an ability to be team players. The latter is extremely important. When everyone contributes and works together, you are generally going to have an office that is extremely efficient and effective. I’ve always felt that every position in an office is equally important, so make sure to hire wisely in all of them.
Bonus Lesson – Have Fun!
These five lessons are important, but as I was writing this article, I remembered a sixth and most important lesson –have fun!
When you start and run a law practice, you’re most likely going to be working 7 days a week, especially in the beginning. The hard work never ends. It takes an incredible amount of effort, dedication, commitment and time to operate a business and do it well. Make sure to take time to enjoy what you do, and especially the people you do it with.
When I think back over 15 years of law practice, some of my most vivid memories are the fun times our office enjoyed together. Whether it’s our office Christmas parties, or office outings, or happy hours after work, we have done a lot of fun things together and have enjoyed each other’s company on a number of occasions. This makes for great memories, great camaraderie, and will result in great teamwork.
If you decide to start a law practice, good luck! Hopefully, at the end of the day, you can sing what Frank Sinatra so famously sang in his day:
Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way