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Risky Business: Startup Advice from Women Lawyers

By | Nov.03.11 | Daily Dispatch, Enterprising Lawyer, Legal Careers, Strategy, Workstyles

“The best thing about owning our own firm is to have the control and autonomy to decide how you want to do it and when you want to do it,” says Roberta D. Liebenberg, a senior partner at Fine Kaplan in Philadelphia. Whether you prefer to work late at night or in the morning, it’s your choice—and if you need to leave for a soccer game you can.

While economic forces may be spurring more lawyers to start their own firms, the desire for autonomy—to create a workplace built around your own values and no one else’s—is a powerful motivator. Liebenberg says that for her the final push came during a camp visit with her youngest child. “A partner at my law firm tracked me down, and I spent the entire camp visit on the phone dealing with an anxiety attack he was having about a case. At that point, I decided to start my own firm.”

But With Rewards Come Risks

In October, Liebenberg joined five of her colleagues—all contributors to the new ABA book Road to Independence: 101 Women’s Journeys to Starting Their Own Law Firms—for a frank discussion of what it takes to succeed in your own firm. The ABA-CLE teleconference featured moderator Marsha E. Simms, Amanda Green Alexander, Julie I. Fershtman, Georgialee A. Lang, Liebenberg and Karen M. Lockwood.

So what advice do these enterprising women have about starting a law practice?

Develop a thoughtful business plan and proceed incrementally. “You have to be realistic about expectations and have a realistic strategic plan,” says Liebenberg. One of the best ways to manage risk, she advises, is to create a good relationship with your bank. “We did not want to sign a letter of credit or take out a loan that would put our houses in jeopardy, so we had to develop a business plan for the bank.” Also, she says, “We wanted to do a combination of hourly and contingency work—hourly to cover the monthly expenses and contingency to help ensure we remained profitable. There were months we were quite apprehensive. But when the business is your own … you really have incentive to make payroll and to market.” Her advice: Consider securing a personal line of credit before you quit your current firm.

“I plunged in,” says Julie Fershtman, now a shareholder with Foster, Swift, Collins & Smith, P.C., and current president of the Michigan State Bar Association. “I realized the biggest risk was a financial risk—how was I going to pay my bills without the predictability of a law firm paycheck?” Fershtman worked from home for a couple of months before renting an office and didn’t hire a full-time secretary for a few years, instead relying on voice recognition software to help with documents.

Before opening her firm, Alexander & Watson PA, in 2005, Amanda Green Alexander says she identified three people she could trust to walk her through a long list of the risks associated with starting her firm. From telephone systems to staff, she says, “I did a whole lot of planning,” and had deep conversations about what works and what doesn’t.

“Do everything you can to ensure your responsibilities don’t exceed your capabilities,” says Alexander, and know exactly what you are able to handle. That means making sure you are secure enough financially to be able to say no to work that isn’t suitable. “Your reputation and your time are the only thing you have.” Alexander, who staffs her firm with contract lawyers and law students, says one of her biggest concern is that younger lawyers understand how important it is to do exactly what you say you will do. “If you cannot, make sure you check in with clients and others to let them know you are having issues with deadlines.”

Maintain relationships with future referrers. The biggest risks of starting a new firm are often relationship-driven, warns Alexander. “You need to figure out how to walk away from your current position in a good way, so that they become your cheerleaders and not naysayers.” Before leaving a firm, adds Liebenberg, “Make sure you check the requirements of your local ethics rules, especially the implications of contacting former clients.” She says her former firm was one of her biggest sources of referrals, especially for matters in which they had a conflict. “Keep in mind that large firms typically don’t want to refer to other large firms. As a smaller firm, you can be a great resource for them.”

Surround yourself with other lawyers. Karen Lockwood, CEO of the Lockwood Group and an editor of Road to Independence, says a good portion of the letters in the book came from women who were quite young when they started their firms. They seconded themselves to other firms, sharing office space in a suite arrangement so that they could be near and learn from other more senior lawyers. They took pro bono work and volunteered in court cases where they could work with senior lawyers and they asked mentors to review their briefs and letters.

It seems that every lawyer in the book had a champion, or go-to person, says Lockwood. When it came to marketing, many were surprised by how willing other lawyers—even competitors—were to help and refer. When starting her firm, Liebenberg says, “We contacted several other lawyers who had their own practices. They were so kind and generous, from advice on billing systems to where to get insurance … so I have tried to return that favor.”

Marketing Is Everything

Do what big firms do. “You are your own marketing department,” says Fershtman, so do what big firms do. Send out press releases and client updates, find speaking engagements and write articles. “Find the contact information for the publications you want to be in and once you are an author they will promote you just as much as big firms, if not more.” For Georgialee Lang, developing media contacts and writing created big opportunities, including a profile-boosting column in the Huffington Post. “Once you start writing you get invited to speak,” she says, adding that local bar associations need speakers, authors and editors, and that local CLE programs are a good starting point for building your reputation.

Selling is easier when it’s something you believe in. Most women lawyers who practice in firms they don’t own find marketing—especially selling—to be a puzzle, says Lockwood. “We think, ‘there must be some magic mold,’ and if we can’t fit into that mold we feel even more awkward.” The book’s letters show that once women became owners of their own firms, it suddenly became much easier to sell what they believed in. As one lawyer wrote, instead of being a burden, it became a pleasure to talk to people about her own firm.

Leverage the “woman-owned” advantage. Liebenberg says that her brand-new firm got a marketing boost in 1992, from the publicity of being the first woman-owned law firm in Philadelphia focused on complex commercial litigation. In today’s climate, woman-owned firms may not be as novel, but they are much more in demand. “Having a woman-owned law firm is a good marketing tool in itself. Women-owned businesses are the largest growing segment in today’s economy and they are looking for women lawyers.” In addition, there are more women general counsel and senior counsel at corporations in positions to give out business to woman-owned firms. It’s also true that woman-owned law firms pay attention to the diversity of other firms when referring clients.

You can download the teleconference “The Road to Independence: Women’s Journeys to Starting Their Own Law Firms” from ABA-CLE, and read excerpts from Road to Independence: 101 Women’s Journeys to Starting Their Own Law Firms at the ABA Bookstore.

Joan Feldman is a principal at Feldcomm, a custom publishing and marketing design firm in Chicago. An editor and writer, Joan has created, steered and contributed to myriad leading practice management and trade publications, including the American Bar Association’s Law Practice magazine, where she served as managing editor from 1998-2011.

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