Attorneys learn what it takes to start a solo or small-firm practice

Issue May 2003 By Krista Zanin

If the success of a recent MBA program is any indication, there will be an abundance of lawyers hanging their own shingles in the not-so-distant future.
More than 170 lawyers and law students gathered April 10 to attend the day-long CLE seminar "How to Start and Run A Successful Solo or Small-Firm Practice" at the Radisson Hotel in Boston.

The program featured a variety of practical and interesting tips on what it takes for lawyers to become successful on their own. Those who attended learned the A to Zs of setting up a solo or small-firm practice - from selecting a practice area to financing the venture.

Led by Marc Breakstone and David White-Lief of Breakstone, White-Lief & Gluck - who set up their own successful personal-injury law practice after leaving large-firm jobs - the program gave the nuts and bolts about the mechanics of setting up a firm.

"Why on earth would you ever go out and open your own practice? The answer simply is because it is yours," said Breakstone, during the seminar's opening session.

The daily satisfaction of waking up and looking forward to going to work has shown Breakstone that he made the right decision several years ago to leave a law firm and start a practice with White-Lief and Ronald Gluck.

Breakstone said he enjoys having control over his own life as well as the challenge of running a business.

"I want to do it my way," Breakstone said.

Often the most challenging aspect of setting up a firm, Breakstone said, is the starting point.

"The psychological hurdle everyone faces is the same - jumping into the unknown," Breakstone said. "Going out and opening up your own firm is the closest thing to standing at the altar and saying, 'I do.'"

From that point, the challenge is not impossible and often involves going through a series of small steps to become a success, Breakstone, White-Lief and other panelists told participants.

Panelists - who also included attorneys Sarah A. Ricciardelli, Melissa Sindeband, Jose Vazquez, Risa Sorkin and Denise I. Murphy, as well as Terence Welsh, president of the MBA Insurance Agency - tapped into how to run the firm, delving into topics such as docket control, accounting and bookkeeping, and fees and billing.

Other features included client relations, avoiding malpractice and marketing. During lunch, participants networked with colleagues and talked to representative from a select group of legal-services and practice-management companies.

Breakstone said attorneys interested in starting their own firm don't have to invest in a top-notch office or office equipment to begin their journey. They can - and should - start small and then grow their firm.

For instance, he said, attorneys often are able to lease space from other attorneys and firms, sometimes exchanging several hours of work for rent.

Breakstone also said it's important for attorneys to form their own identity and be able to articulate that to everyone from friends to prospective clients. He also recommended drawing up a mailing list and being comfortable with asking for business.

"You have to say, 'I want your business,'" Breakstone said. "People will not give you anything unless you ask for it."

Choosing a location for a practice also is an important step in the process. Sindeband said she and her partner chose Andover because they wanted to practice high-end family law with a trusts and estates component.

"We needed to go to where these clients would be," Sindeband said.

Ricciardelli, who started a practice in Charlestown, also encouraged participants to understand that it takes time and effort to build up a successful practice. And, she said, more senior attorneys can be good mentors to those starting out.

For instance, when she and her partner started out, they asked for help in doing real estate closings from a more senior attorney in exchange for sharing the fee. They also initially leased space in the attorney's office. That year, they participated in 45 closings - a figure that jumped to 800 closings just last year.

"If you don't believe in yourself, don't do it," Ricciardelli said.