It’s not easy to start a law practice as a young lawyer, especially on your own. (Good thing groups like Starting Out Solo are around, huh?) Now, I can tell you about all kinds of tricks; but, I’m not young, and I haven’t practiced in years. That’s why we like to occasionally spotlight the perspectives of new practitioners, who have something to say, too, about starting and managing a law practice. This time around, our guest is Emily Amara Gordon. Emily is the principal attorney of the greater Boston immigration law practice Amara Immigration Law LLC. She is also very active in the New England Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), including as its liaison to the national New Members Division. If you’d like to reach out to Emily, to discuss immigration law or law practice management, her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This article was originally published in the April 2015 edition of the AILA New Members Division eNews.
I still remember the first time I heard, ‘you should hang your own shingle one day’. It was the Spring of my second year in law school and I was interviewing for a job with a lawyer who, little did I realize at the time, would be one of many people who would help lay the foundation, brick by brick, of my law practice. I had been so worried about getting that part-time job in the first place, that I could not understand why he was talking to me about opening a practice. My concerns were one-dimensional: get my first job in a private immigration firm in downtown Boston. Opening my own practice? I barely understood what an I-130 was at the time, much less how I would ever manage to run a law office. I ended up getting the job; but, more importantly, that lawyer, that interview, and that one short sentence had inspired me in ways I could not have appreciated at the time. Eighteen months later, I opened an immigration practice immediately after being sworn in to the Massachusetts Bar. I joked to the freshly-minted lawyer sitting next to me at the swearing-in ceremony that my first client was waiting for me outside for the moment when I could finally practice law. The only problem was I really did not have a client waiting outside, and my first client wouldn’t walk into my office until three months later. I had moments, especially during those first three months of no income and bleeding office expenses, when I seriously questioned my decision to ‘go solo’. Another one of my ‘brick layers’ told me not to give up, the clients would come. He assured me that having an active domain name and a law license is not an automatic formula for consistent business. It takes time. I didn’t believe him; but, eventually, my first client led to 10 clients, which led to a busy law office. Are you thinking about opening your own practice, or are you battling through the infant months of your new practice? Here are some survival tricks to get through the obstacle course of going solo:
Your bricklayers could be hiding where you least expect them. Bricklayers, mentors, supporters — it takes a village to create and sustain a successful law practice. Have an open mind, and recognize the potential in every experience you have and in every person you meet. While I was in law school, my professor placed me in an immigration clinic at a legal services office. At first, I was disappointed that I was not selected for a clinic at a private firm; but, the legal services clinic ended up being fundamental to my law practice. My former clinic supervisor has helped me with numerous issues, has put me in touch with other lawyers and continues to mentor me. Although I did not appreciate it until I started practicing law, that clinic was an incredibly valuable experience. Fortunately, I did not turn it down because it wasn’t what I thought I needed at the time.
Be engaged and always be civil. Opposing counsel could be your next referral source. Effectively advocating for your clients does not mean you should forget to be civil toward your colleagues. The basics can get you far: be appreciative, be humble and offer to help. Whether you live in a big city or a small town, the legal profession is small. No one forgets bad manners or a poor attitude.
Use technology to your advantage. The practice of law is much easier and less expensive today than it was thirty years ago, due to the accessibility of technology. From saving money on storage by scanning documents to having immediate access to your office files via the cloud, technology should be your new best friend.
Know your industry. Talk to other immigration lawyers in your geographic area to learn how they generate business, set legal fees and run their practices. Don’t start charging hourly rates because you think you will make more money when the standard practice in your area is flat fee pricing. Clients are smart shoppers; they compare notes and research lawyers. Recognize when it’s better to follow the crowd than to be an innovator.
Don’t let anyone discourage you; never give up. For every two people who encourage you, there will be three people who will tell you that you will fail. Treasure what the two positive people say, and forget everyone else. Even today’s most successful managing lawyers think going solo is an incredible challenge. They survived, though; and, so will you. Give it everything, approach the practice one day at a time, and don’t give up. The beauty of this is that you will be a better lawyer tomorrow than you were today.