Starting your own legal firm is a test of personal resilience as much as legal know-how. It’s far too easy to dwell on the reasons not to make the leap––poor economic timing, a harsh competitive business climate, your lack of long-term experience. New business owners can attest, there will always be doubt and doubters.
Branigan Robertson had just graduated from law school when he started his own firm. With relatively little professional experience (he clerked at two firms before graduating), he made it work by focusing on a few key areas.
Sasha Kamfiroozie also started her own firm shortly after graduating, with minimal in-house counsel experience prior.
How did these two attorneys do it? Despite being in different areas of law, both found success using similar tactics and can serve as inspiration for those starting or running a new practice:
- Rise above your doubters
- Supercharge your network
- Be humble
- Don’t forget to market
1. Rise above your doubters
Robertson launched his firm during a down market, with minimal experience, and among plenty of naysayers. He believes that being able to ignore the people who say you can’t do something is critical. “98% of your law school classmates, lawyers, and professors honestly believe you can’t.”
Although starting a firm right out of law school is atypical, Robertson’s advice has been proven time and time again by entrepreneurs and high performance individuals across the board. Optimism begets success.
The ability to tune out pessimists will help you succeed, no matter the goal. This doesn’t mean that you should disregard sound advice, though. Learn to separate advice from fear. For the latter, it’s best to “hear your haters, and pay them no mind.”
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2. Supercharge your network
Sasha Kamfiroozie started her firm right after a recession. Unlike Branigan, Kamfiroozie hadn’t planned to launch her own practice. About one year after graduating, she began doing informational interviews with attorneys who worked in estate planning.
Each in turn referred her to another attorney in the area, with whom she met. This process helped her create a network of more than 10 attorneys.
Pro-tip: Your network doesn’t have to be limited to where you’re located! With team messaging and video conferencing tools becoming more advanced and commonplace, you have different options for reaching out to new folks and experts—even if they’re halfway across the world.
Nearly everyone she met in her area of law was a solo-practitioner. It wasn’t until Kamfiroozie noticed this that the idea of starting her own firm came to mind. She began to mention the possibility of starting her own firm to these attorneys, who each promised that they would refer business to her if she followed through.
After launching her practice, this attorney network sent her cases that were too small for their own practice. Kamfiroozie approached each case as an opportunity for growth. Eventually, that same network would refer larger cases to her.
It’s not uncommon for entrepreneurism to feel like a solo enterprise. The notion that loneliness is inherent when starting a business, however, could be what’s holding your practice back. Kamfiroozie’s example demonstrates that entrepreneurism is often contingent on community.
In a competitive environment—and in a specific realm of law—she was able to create a team from individuals who some people might’ve called her competition. This collaborative network proved to bring everyone more business. “They’re technically my competitors, but I think without each other neither of us would be as successful,” she says.
“Tell everyone you meet that you plan to start your own firm and what area of law you’ll practice,” says Robertson, who like Kamfiroozie understands the power of a network. “Take practicing lawyers in that area out to lunch…”
Pro-tip: Robertson also recommends networking with attorneys outside your area of law, as they’ll be pleased to refer clients whose needs they can’t personally meet.
Take the time to get to know your fellow attorneys, but don’t be too eager to ask for referrals. It’s important to put in the work to build relationships first. Once you do, most will be happy to send business your way.
3. Be humble
“We can’t all be great at everything… you either learn from all of your own mistakes or learn from other people’s,” says Kamfiroozie.
For new business owners, recognizing that you don’t have all the answers is a powerful catalyst. A student’s mindset can open up opportunities for collaboration and guidance. Robertson’s and Kamfiroozie’s stories demonstrate that exercising humility is a best practice.
Ambitious entrepreneurs often imagine their business operating at a five-year level in just their first year. While it’s good to set your sights high, being too high-minded or picky about clients early on can prevent progress.
“I’ve watched a lot of young lawyers feel too good to take on those small cases,” says Kamfiroozie. “My philosophy was that I learned something with every new case I take and developed a referral base.”
For Robertson, this mindset was reflected in his willingness to join available networks through organizations and listservs, which are discussion-based email lists that connect people of similar interests. When he didn’t have a mentor who could answer his questions, his professional communities could step in.
Another benefit of joining listservs was the ability to connect with professionals with whom he could co-counsel.
Robertson says, “It is good to work a case with an experienced lawyer whom you respect. The relationship is beneficial because you split the fee with the experienced lawyer, but you also get to learn from their experience.”
With every new case, no matter how small, Kamfiroozie gained experience and often earned another referral. She believes that it was because of her willingness to take on grunt work and network aggressively that the opportunity for mentorship arose.
Early on, she traded the cost of office space for helping an attorney with 20 years of experience. That attorney eventually became her mentor. “A network of people who support you is necessary to succeed as an entrepreneur.”
For both entrepreneurs, tapping a network was critical to getting started and just as important to maintain after getting off the ground.
4. Don’t forget to market
While networking is a great way to find clients when you’re just getting started, strong marketing can provide a steady stream of leads (with less work) and also give your firm more credibility. New firms shouldn’t neglect this powerful asset.
Imagine your firm’s website as the front page of your business. Are you accurately portraying your brand? Most clients will first learn about you and your services online. Having an unattractive website will give a poor first impression—and will make it more difficult to win new clients.
Robertson says he generates most new leads through his website, and recommends building a website “immediately.” It’s his most potent marketing tool, and it only costs as much as a “steak dinner” to operate. Hiring a designer is also a good investment and will help you get more from your limited time.
After spending years networking to earn new clients, Kamfiroozie was burnt out. She took a seven-month hiatus from work as a result. Once she decided she was ready to restart her practice, she knew that her previous methods weren’t sustainable. That’s when she decided to invest in marketing to spend less of her time networking.
Kamfiroozie found a marketing agency that would help promote her practice online. New business owners can get more out of a marketing agency by approaching the relationship like a partnership. Your teams should enjoy working with one another, and the agency should demonstrate their investment in your success.
As she says, “It’s really important to work with a company that takes the time to do a real in-depth analysis of your business, who tells you what they think is wrong, and how they’re going to fix it.”
With a marketing agency focused on client prospecting, Kamfiroozie could spend more time focusing on her client work—and less time generating new leads.
Ready to start your legal practice? Apply these lessons, rinse, and repeat
To maintain a steady pipeline of new clients and keep your business growing, none of these principles should be used and then shelved. Legal practices should continually network to maximize referrals. And, similarly, marketing needs to be continually updated and expanded upon to offer the same returns.
It’s important for new business owners to remain humble and to accept that they don’t know everything, while at the same time overcoming the difficulties of everyday business with resolve. Not every day can be a win, and that’s okay. Doubling down on your firm’s area of expertise will solidify your reputation and earn trust from future and existing clients.