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Lawyering and Living for Less: Start a Firm Without Spending a Fortune

It's no secret that the legal job market is in depressingly terrible shape.  Ask any recent or prospective law school graduate about their career plans (if you dare) and you'll hear stories of grads fighting tooth and nail for legal assistant and paralegal positions, planning their return to pre-law jobs, or perfecting their latte-making skills.

But many recent grads are taking a leap and putting their legal skills to work by forming a solo practice.  Starting a firm has many benefits - you can work when and where you want, practice whatever kind of law strikes your fancy, and be your own boss.  However, it also has downfalls - there are seemingly endless start-up costs, you're starting from scratch with no clients and no reputation, and it's a serious gamble that may or may not pay off.

I spoke with Elizabeth Rosar Chermack, a 2009 graduate of William Mitchell College of Law who, after several months of job hunting, decided to start a solo practice.  She talked to me about the challenges of starting a firm on a budget and how she is overcoming them.

Liz cites finding an office that would meet her needs and that she could afford as the most difficult aspect of starting her practice.  After touring and turning down several offices due to out-of-date design and sketchy lease agreements, she found a small office and decorated it from her local Goodwill.  She then established her web presence, creating a website (http://www.chermacklaw.com/) and enlisting the help of a friend for graphic design.  For her phone, Liz set up a free Google Voice account, which forwards calls and messages to her cell phone without giving that number out to clients.

Even with low overhead costs, staying on budget is a constant challenge.  "It's hard," Liz said.  "Any time I spend money, I have to have that money already."  Keeping your personal finances in check is essential, too.  However, no matter how much budgeting you do, it might be awhile before that big payday: "It's going to be hard to show a profit this year," Liz said.

When asked about her typical day, Liz stated that there really was no typical day, as she generally just works on whatever is the most urgent.  One of the challenges of owning and managing your own firm, like any other business, is that "I always feel like there is more to do."  As a way to publicize her firm and attract clients, Liz blogs (http://blog.chermacklaw.com/) about issues in bankruptcy, family, and housing law (her practice areas), and she also volunteers and attends CLEs.

One of the challenges of starting a firm is finding a balance between being a low-cost attorney and working for free.  Liz continually comes across people who think that, because she is a new attorney with a new practice, she'll be willing to represent them for free to gain experience.  However, with bills of your own to pay, "you have to be strong," Liz said.  "A smarter policy is to only take pro bono cases from agencies."  She offers a sliding scale fee plan, but recommends only taking one client at each level at one time.

When asked what advice she would give to a new lawyer considering a solo practice, Liz said to make a plan for how you're going to make ends meet and to keep your expectations in check.  "Your income will be taken away by all those little expenses," she said.  She cites her mentor as essential to her practice, stating that the value of a mentor who will give both practical and substantive advice is immeasurable.

Despite the challenges, Liz says that starting a solo firm is definitely possible, so if you're struggling, keep your head up.  "Don't expect to get a lot of income at first.  Expect it to be a little slow at first, and don't be discouraged."

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