There are plenty of resources out there advising new solos “What You Need to Start Your Own Legal Practice.” Most of them are good. Most of them, however, give blanket advice. Do this. Don’t do that. Different practice areas have different needs, so I sat down with a few small-firm attorneys in different practice areas to address some basic issues:
One of the more divisive topics in starting your own practice is whether you need to have an office. Two opinions rule: (1) if you want to be a grown-up about starting a law practice you absolutely need an office; or (2) it’s a luxury.
The family law attorney: “Yes, you definitely need an office if you are going to practice in family law. I started renting an office almost since the first day I was practicing. My clients often get very emotional about their issues, and sometimes feel embarrassed talking about what is going on with their divorce, child custody issue, etc. I need a place they feel safe talking to me—I couldn’t do that in a coffee shop. Plus, I rent a space with several more experienced attorneys, and it has been invaluable to have other attorneys around to talk through issues.”
The appellate attorney: “I have an office as well, but you probably don’t need one if you’re doing appeals. I focus my practice on ghostwriting appeals for other attorneys, so most of my communication with my clients is over the phone or by email. Some of them aren’t even in the state. Of course, it’s useful to have a dedicated space for work: a place where you can go to separate your ‘work’ space from your ‘home’ space, but I actually don’t spend a lot of time at my office.”
The criminal defense attorney: “Having an office is a necessity. We got our office day one of practice, and there is no way we could run a business without it. Yes, sometimes we work from coffee shops—which is to say that sometimes we go to coffee shops just to get out of the office. But all our client meetings and most of the work that actually gets done happens in the office. Look, it’s one thing to talk about a contract or a landlord-tenant dispute over cheesy fries at Perkins, but when your clients need to tell you about why they were charged with CSC [criminal sexual conduct], you don’t need the waitress coming over and interrupting to ask if you want pie.”
There are lots of good resources out there for doing legal research, and many of them are free. Google Scholar is Google’s free legal research tool. Fastcase is free on your tablet, and a desktop subscription comes with an MSBA membership. Still, Westlaw is the gold standard and though many law libraries allow you to use it for free, there is no beating the convenience of having it at your fingertips. But is it worth the price?
The appellate attorney: “Absolutely. I could not do my work without it. Obviously, a large part of what I do involves digging around in the grey areas of the law, and that means Westlaw. It’s my primary research tool, and without it, I would simply be lost. When you are doing the same kind of thing a lot you can probably just cite check at a library; an hour at the end of your writing time to make sure you didn’t miss anything. But I am in a different area of law every week. I can’t do that.”
The criminal defense attorney: “We have Westlaw, but probably don’t need it. The one area it comes in really handy is the JIGS [criminal jury instruction guides]. Unlike some states, like say Wisconsin, Minnesota doesn’t have the JIGS available for free online, which means that if you want to know how the judge is going to instruct the jury at the end of your case, you have to pay for it. That said, we pretty rarely have to do in-depth briefs. We got a limited Westlaw subscription: just the criminal stuff in Minnesota. It’s still probably more than we need.”
The family law attorney: “Westlaw is fairly helpful, but family law is a very fact-specific practice area. Courts do interpret facts as a matter of law, but a lot of the time my job is just to make an argument based on a very specific fact-set. I have found the attorneys around the office very willing to give advice or even share brief templates when I have issues, and that has actually been far more helpful than Westlaw.”
I asked the panel to share the one piece of equipment that they had that they couldn’t live without:
The criminal defense attorney: “One thing that surprised me was how much storage space we use. It’s always important to back up your files, and so we started out using Dropbox. We blew through the free subscription… pretty fast. I didn’t think about this starting out, but we have so many videos—squad videos, things like that—that you can fill up 2 gigabytes quickly. We upgraded Dropbox, which we were happy with, but have since moved to Google Drive. In either case, make sure you have backup file storage, and make sure you think about how much you are going to need.”
The family law attorney: “You know, one thing that I’ve really liked has been the ability to take credit cards. It’s really helped me get paid because people can’t always save up enough to pay cash when legal issues come up. I know some people use Paypal, but I tried it once and it was horrendous. I use Square: I can take credit cards by swiping them on the reader that connects to my phone. It’s super-convenient.”
The appellate attorney: “My laptop docks have been a lifesaver. Not that they have actually saved my life, but you know, I can (and sometimes do) work from anyplace. I have a great laptop and two docks, one at home and one at the office, so I can work from wherever I want, and don’t have to worry about syncing my files between locations. Everything is always there on my laptop, and when I’m in the office or at home, I have a full screen and keyboard to write from.”