Perspectives on Solo Practice: Different Views From the Trenches

by

Perspectives on Solo Practice: Different Views From The Trenches

By Kris Mukerji

Kris Mukherji is a business attorney in San Diego. He provides personalized legal service covering all aspects of Business Law. Mukherji graduated from the University of California San Diego and after working for five years in the health and fitness industry was admitted to Thomas Jefferson School of Law in 2008. During law school, Mukherji interned for private firms and the San Diego District Attorneys Office. Mukherji graduated from TJSL in 2012 and through the guidance of several mentors in the legal community, started the Law Office of Kris Mukherji. His practice focuses primarily on estate planning/probate and business law. He is a member of the San Diego County Bar Association; South Asian Bar Association of San Diego; Consumer Attorneys of San Diego; and American Bar Association.

Igraduated law school in May 2012 and started my law practice in January of 2013. I always knew that I wanted to have my own practice, but although you learn the law in law school, you do not learn the business of law. Most people will graduate law school and look for a government or private firm employment and will never have to focus on running a business. For those who want the independence and desire to own their own business, they have to focus on not only being a lawyer but also a business owner. Although I was lucky that my law school provided an introductory course on how to start a solo practice, the course did not offer details about owning a law practice.

Before starting my practice, I made it a priority to meet with several top attorneys in San Diego to discuss not only substantive legal issues, but also to get tips on how to grow and manage a law practice. I read books such as "E-myth" and "E-myth Revisited" so that I could hit the ground running.

In today’s modern age, we are lucky to have a plethora of resources at our fingertips that make owning, managing, and running a practice much easier than its ever been. We understand that time is money, and if you are spending your time on things that do not bring in money, then you are losing money. With technological and software developments we now have the ability to utilize tools such as practice management software, book keeping software, and court e-filing options to make running a business more efficient.

At its core, running a practice is about finding out your strengths and capitalizing on them. We have all heard that there are three types of lawyers: (1) Rainmakers; (2) Facilitators; and (3) Technicians. When you first start your practice, you have to be all three. However, as your practice grows you have to find out what your strengths are and then hire the right people to help with the other areas. If you are a great rainmaker, then sitting at your desk doing technical work may not be the best fit for the long-term success of your practice.

I had the opportunity to speak with a few solo practitioners who provided insights on how they run their practice and what advice they would give to new attorneys.

VALERIE HONG

Valerie Hong started her law firm Garcia Hong Law 8 months ago. Prior to starting her practice, she worked for 10 years at a mid-size firm and was a partner for 4 years where she had the opportunity to learn about the business side of law. Her practice focuses primarily on business litigation and appellate work.

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1. What are some areas of difficulty with being a lawyer who is also a business person:

a. When I made the decision to leave a larger law firm, I created a detailed business plan. In practice, it is challenging to stay focused on the larger business plan and strategy, while balancing it with the day-to-day fires that ignite with litigation.

2. How do you generate business:

a. I continue to network and build relationships with business leaders and "centers of influence" in communities that speak to or identify with me (e.g. small businesses, start-ups, and minority-owned/women-owned companies). I also use a marketing professional to assist me with online marketing.

3. Do you do any marketing (print social media etc):

a. Yes, I support and sponsor organizations and events where my clients are. Maintaining relationships is important to me and I value my clients by supporting their events (e.g. financially, volunteering time, or attending). I also use traditional print marketing in publications that serve small businesses and ethnic communities where a "familiar face" is important in the selection of an attorney. I also use Google AdWords and social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn to raise awareness of the firm’s successful outcomes and practice areas.

4. What software do you rely on in your practice:

a. Clio, Quickbooks, Outlook, LawPay, LexisNexis, and Google Voice have been wonderful resources to start a small practice. Clio is a central dashboard that handles all my case management, including billing. The invoices that are generated by Clio are professional. Clio also has an unlimited cloud-based storage system and allows for easy sharing with clients and opposing counsel.
I also create a separate Quickbooks profile for my operating account and the IOLTA trust account. This allows me to keep accurate records of client funds and prevents any commingling of funds. As an attorney with a limited accounting background, I find Quickbooks to be confusing and cumbersome. I rely on my bookkeeper and a tax attorney to assist me with keeping my financials in order.

JEFF MACH

Jeff Mach, started his law firm Mach Law almost 11 years ago. His practice focuses primarily on Family law. Jeff talked about issues with certain software and what he focuses on when dealing with employees and contractors.

1. What software do you rely on in your practice:

a. We use Abacus. It has a steep learning curve and we have encountered multiple problems with their software. If I could do it all over again, I would not use their software. Additionally, we also use Quickbooks for bookkeeping.

2. Do you work with a payroll company?

a. Yes we use Paychex and love them.

3. What do you focus on when hiring employees:

a. Do they have industriousness? Enthusiasm for the job? Those are the cornerstones for success. Are they hungry to learn and succeed? Are they a team player? Do they have a strong desire to help others?

4. Have you ever fired an employee:

a. No, but I would recommend talking to your mentors and an employment law attorney before you do anything.

5. What is the best advice you can give to an attorney who wants to hire a paralegal or admin or associate:

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a. Depending upon whom you hire, it can be a blessing or a nightmare for your team. I would recommend a detailed and thorough hiring process. Know what your firm requires and find the person that will help you serve your clients.

VAANI CHAWLA

Vaani Chawla has been practicing since 1992. Upon graduating law school she worked at Gray Cary Ware & Friedenrich, now known as DLA. In 1994 left to start the Chawla Law Group, which focuses on Immigration Law for employers, families and investors.

Vaani talked about how she generates business, maintains client relationships and software that she utilizes in her immigration practice. She also addressed the difficulty in terminating an employee.

1. What are some areas of difficulty with being a lawyer who is also a business person?

a. Limited time and managing administrative business deadlines in addition to law practice related deadlines. Vacations always involve work. Billing takes up a lot of time, and I think my process is not efficient enough. This brings me to the most difficult part of owning the business: trying to make sure that our processes are efficient. This involves reviewing what we are already doing and trying to find new methods to improve. As important as this is, it takes time away from ongoing cases that need attention. As a consequence, I often take a long time to make changes to the practice. The clients come first!

2. How do you generate business?

a. My practice is primarily referral based. The vast majority of my business originated from attorney referrals. Then those clients referred other clients to me. It has mushroomed from there.

3. Do you do any marketing (print social media etc)?

a. Other than a mediocre website, I send out cards to a list of attorneys and clients twice a year. I am also active with a few bar organizations, but I don’t attribute this as a major source of client business.

4. What software do you rely on in your practice?

a. I use AILAlink for legal research. AILAlink is produced by the American Immigration Lawyers Association. AILAlink is a good source for research in my field, but I supplement it with some hard copy AILA publications. I am also a member of AILA, and AILA’s member website includes a lot of additional research tools. I currently use eimmigration for legal forms, but I am planning to move to bluedot. eimmigration is fairly simple and relatively inexpensive to use, which is why I have used it for many years. eimmigration supposedly has electronic questionnaires we can send to clients to complete, and these questionnaires are supposed to auto-populate immigration forms. But I have found that their questionnaires are not detailed enough. Our own in-house questionnaires are much more detailed, so we end up using our own questionnaires instead of those produced by eimmigration. Bluedot is more expensive than eimmigration, but it provides detailed electronic questionnaires. I am planning to make the move to improve efficiency. Even though a lot of software options, including Bluedot and eimmigration offer case management software that tracks deadlines, I don’t use these. I had the experience of trying to leave another software vendor years ago, and I was able to leave without issue because I did not rely on their case management module. Instead, we were using Outlook to track deadlines. This gave us the freedom to move from one vendor to another. I know another immigration lawyer who was using software he did not like. He remained with the vendor because he feared losing critical data if he moved. Even though companies offer data migration services, it is difficult to be sure that all of the necessary data has correctly migrated to the new system. This is a critical issue when you have a high volume practice.

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5. Have you ever fired an employee?

a. Yes. This is a very difficult matter, particularly when you know that the employee is a good person but just needs a different work environment in which to thrive. I advise having regular conversations about performance and documenting those conversations. Give the person a chance to improve and let him or her know how much time you are allotting to see that improvement. If the person still does not measure up, be kind but firm. Let the person know that it isn’t working out. In one case, I also suggested that the employee was better suited to the more structured environment of a large law firm where a person can be trained first on small parts of cases and then on incrementally larger and larger matters

These different perspectives offer different benefits for other solos and small firm practitioners. I the view from the trenches from these experienced attorneys, at different stages in their solo and small firm careers, provides you with some guidance on your own journey to building a successful practice in your own style.

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