The list below consists of things that helped me get my own family law practice in Toronto going. It’s the first of a multi-part series. Read the second part of the series here.
- Design (or pay someone to design) a good firm website. Most people will Google you before they call or email you. Your website is the most important marketing tool you have. Luckily, you don’t have to spend a fortune on a website to get something that looks professional. Local web design students may be willing to do your website for a substantially reduced price (or even for free) to build their portfolio. Check out your local Kijiji listings and consider posting an ad that sets out what you’re looking for and what you’re willing to pay. You will probably be surprised by the volume of responses you get. Make sure to have a few other websites in mind to give the designer a sense of what you’re looking for. Using a WordPress template will make it easier for you to make future changes to the site on your own. Pro tip: choose a template that is “fully responsive”, meaning that it will look good regardless of whether the viewer is viewing your site on their smartphone or laptop.
- Find scalable office space. You don’t want your overhead to crush you before your firm gets off the ground. Companies like Regus, Intelligent Office, and iQ office offer a range of products that allow your office space to correlate with the growth in your practice. You can start off simply with a business mailing address. A business mailing address is key (you don’t want your home address appearing on business cards, court documents, etc.) As business picks up, these companies let you upgrade your account to include a certain number of days per month of private office use. You can pay for as many office days as you want, and can even rent an office full-time. The advantage to working with these companies is that you can scale up over time without changing your business address – meaning that you won’t have to constantly update your contact information with professional organizations, clients, and opposing counsel, or re-print marketing materials.
- Network. Print some business cards, tell everyone you have ever met that you’ve started your own practice, and get out there! Focus on making connections with lawyers in your age group. (Chances are that lawyers who are 15 or 20 years older than you already have strong referral relationships with lawyers who do what you do.) Why focus on other lawyers, you ask? About 90% of my referrals come from other lawyers (and I have heard other lawyers say the same.) That’s not to say you shouldn’t also try to branch out – some lawyers get most of their referrals through various sports or community groups they are involved with. Don’t get too caught up in the details – the most important thing is to get out there!
- Get credit card processing capability. It’s 2015. Just about everyone pays for just about everything with credit cards – yet many law firms still refuse to accept them. It’s true that you will probably pay a fixed fee each month and also give the merchant processor (i.e. your bank) and the credit card company itself (i.e. Visa) a cut of each credit card payment you process. You can expect to lose about 5% of the total payment to the processor and the credit card company, and that’s not including the fixed monthly fee. That said, for clients who can’t pay a retainer other than by credit card, it’s probably worth giving up the 5% to shift the risk of non-payment onto the credit card company rather than work without a retainer and bear all of that risk yourself. Remember that even if you have the ability to process credit cards, you can still tell clients that you would prefer they pay by Interac e-transfer, cash, or check. Getting credit card merchant services through the same bank that you do your business banking with will likely save you money on bank fees. After looking into Square (which doesn’t have a fixed monthly fee), I decided to go with TD Merchant Services because it would reduce my overall banking costs and would also ensure that the credit card processing fees are deducted from my operating account and not my trust account, in accordance with the Law Society Rules. [Note also that the Law Society prohibits lawyers from charging extra to clients for paying via credit card.]
- Sign up for a Legal Aid number. Obviously this one depends on your area of practice. However, if you practice in an area of law where Legal Aid is available, then don’t delay in signing up for a Legal Aid number (it can take a month or longer to get one). Legal Aid won’t make you millions, but it can provide you with enough income to cover the bills as you get started.
- Seek out community resources. For example, the Law Society of Upper Canada offers a consultation room in downtown Toronto that lawyers can use for free for up to 15 hours per month. It’s a great resource for lawyers who operate out of home offices and who don’t want to meet with clients at their homes, or lawyers who would rather not pay for extra office days through companies like Regus, iQ Office, or Intelligent Office. Another example of a great resources if the fact that the Toronto Lawyers’ Association library has a computer with DivorceMate software (which ordinarily costs $2000+). It’s available to all lawyers (not just TLA members). In terms of legal research, Quicklaw and Westlaw are available for free at the Great Library. Keep an eye out for resources like this – your pocketbook will be glad you did!
Read the second part of the series here.
Stayed tuned for Part III of this series!