Even the most successful lawyers shouldn’t necessarily start their own law firm. According to top lawyer Omar Ochoa, founder of Omar Ochoa Law Firm, certain signs can indicate whether or not launching your own practice would be a good fit.
How can you tell? Here, Ochoa gives his best advice for charting the right course for you.
A burning desire
According to Ochoa, the first question to ask yourself is whether or not you actually want to start your own law firm. “Starting and running a law practice involves a completely different set of brain muscles than being a practicing attorney,” he explains. “If you just want to practice the law, then you shouldn’t start your own law firm. You can do that in someone else’s practice.”
Ochoa explains that attorneys should only consider founding their own law firm if they have an entrepreneurial spirit and want to shape a practice according to their own vision because, in the end, a law firm is a business. “There are a lot of considerations that come from running an organization, so if you don’t have a burning desire to create an organization and to maintain it, then it’s going to feel like a burden before long,” he says.
Much of the work involved in getting a successful practice off the ground doesn’t have to do with being a good attorney and practicing the law, but rather with crafting an effective business plan and implementing it. For Ochoa, that means understanding where your income will come from, especially at the beginning.
“You need to know how you’re going to secure revenue,” Ochoa says. “The number one rule of business is that you’ve got to have at least enough resources to keep your operations running. If you’re starting your own practice, it would be a good thing to have that in mind, because it can be difficult to drum up business at the beginning. You need to have at least some idea of where you intend to source your cases and generate revenue. Otherwise, you’re not going to be able to operate for very long.”
As Ochoa explains, some possibilities for bringing in clients could involve asking yourself the following questions: “Do I have family friends who could hire me to write contracts or wills? Am I familiar with the court-appointed process for criminal defense in my area? Or do I have some other idea for finding clients with cases?”
Along similar lines, Ochoa warns that law firms take a while to become profitable. “Be ready to be lean for some period of time,” he recommends. “The business aspect of things requires a lot of attention, so you may not spend as much time on legal work. This means you may not be able to pay yourself at the level you are accustomed to for a substantial amount of time. Personally, I didn’t pay myself at all for two years. Any cash that came in, I invested back into growing the business.”
Assembling a team
The third characteristic Ochoa identified as critical for launching a successful law firm is having a good team of people who can assist you. “This is especially important at the beginning,” he says. “It is incredibly difficult to start a law practice all by yourself. There are a lot of rules you have to follow and systems you have to put in place. If you’re not familiar with these things, or if you feel like some of it is beyond your expertise, then you do need some practical guidance at the very beginning.”
While lawyers tend to be knowledgeable, high-performing professionals that others turn to for help, Ochoa suggests it’s best to be honest with yourself about what you might not know. “You may benefit from advice and guidance even for something as simple as knowing the best form your entity should take — whether it should be a Professional Limited Liability Company (PLLC), a Professional Corporation (PC), or something else, there are all kinds of initial rules and regulations that are important to consider properly,” he says.
Ochoa also suggests that if an attorney isn’t interested in managing people, then starting a law firm probably isn’t a good idea. “As a business owner, you have to hire staff,” he explains. “You have to separate from certain staff members on occasions. You’ve got to enforce rules and issue discipline. Managing people is one of the most important things a business owner can do. It’s the people that are generating the majority of the work, not you as a business owner, so if you don’t feel comfortable managing people, starting a law firm probably isn’t for you.”
Leading an organization toward the ideal
If you have the desire and personality to found a law firm, doing so brings many benefits. “For me, I get to implement the vision that I have for my organization, and it’s up to me whether it succeeds or not,” Ochoa says. “That’s a very exciting feeling.”
Ochoa’s initial motivation for founding his firm was a new vision for how to practice the law: leveraging technology, giving great client service, and paying attention to detail. He also organized his staff in a more equitable way, creating a flatter organizational structure. “My team is made up of people who have a variety of skill sets and can do different things, as opposed to specialized roles,” he explains.
Bringing this new kind of law firm into existence has proven rewarding. “I had this vision for a better way a law firm could and should operate, and being able to implement that and perfect this system we’ve created is an exciting thing,” Ochoa says.
For aspiring law-firm founders, he gives these parting words of inspiration: “Being able to lead an organization and mold it into what you think is ideal i’s the best part of founding a law firm.”