by Joe Wilhelm Jr.
Budget cutbacks have limited the expansion or reduced the size of staff at the offices of State Attorneys and Public Defenders. Law firms are rethinking their operating procedures and doing more with fewer employees or maintaining staff levels.
These factors don’t provide the brightest outlook for lawyers looking for a job, and some may decide to go out on their own. The good news from three local attorneys that have recently taken the plunge is that now is one of the best times in recent history to start a law firm.
“It may not seem like the perfect time, but everything is negotiable right now,” said attorney Maggie Jo Hilliard, who opened her office in October, 2008. “Offices are closing, so furniture can be found cheap. Rents are negotiable because property owners are happy to be earning income from their rentals that may be sitting empty with you.”
Hilliard graduated from Florida Coastal School of Law in 2005 and practiced in both the public, State Attorney’s Office of the Fourth Judicial Circuit, and private sectors before opening her own firm in Neptune Beach in 2008. An undergraduate degree in print journalism and advertising from Western Kentucky University has helped her in the development of her business.
“I have a graphic design background, so I knew the marketing aspect would be easier for me when I decided to open my own firm,” said Hilliard. “Knowing how much it cost to develop advertising and being able to design my own has helped hold down costs.”
Thorough and diligent investigation can be another way to hold down costs, according to Elizabeth Oakes, who opened her practice in October.
“Before I left the firm I was at previously, I was looking at offices, “ said Oakes. “Rents are low, but its hard to find a property that allows for outdoor signage. I didn’t end up getting (an office that allows signs), but I got an office for a couple hundred less than it was first quoted.”
Oakes, a 1994 University of California Hastings College of Law graduate, used the same tireless effort in selecting a research service.
“I negotiated and researched different services, Westlaw, Lexis, Jenkins Law Library and Fastcase,” said Oakes. “My best advice is to hold out for as long as you can in negotiating price because the fee will come down.”
All three of the lawyers agreed on the most difficult part of opening a law firm, getting clients in the door.
“How do you get clients to start coming into the door? How do you create revenue. These are things that aren’t taught in law school,” said David Goldman, founder of the Apple Law Firm. “You need to be doing things to build marketing and clientele six months before you open your doors.”
Just as Halliard’s design background helped her open the office, Goldman’s experience with founding, operating, buying and selling businesses helped him in the development of his firm.
“There’s a lot of people that are trying to start a firm that don’t have a clue how to run a business,” said Goldman. “You need to run a business that practices law, not open a law firm that runs as a business.”
Goldman has about 20 years experience operating computer and technology based businesses. It was a lawsuit filed against him by Apple Computers that created an interest in law for Goldman.
“I started planning to open a law firm the first year I was in law school,” said Goldman, a 2006 Florida Coastal School of Law graduate. “I practiced at a firm after I graduated from law school and had a good relationship with them when I decided to go out on my own. I rented my first office space from them.”
The one piece of advice that Goldman uses to keep his business successful is simple.
“Always buy things outright and stay away from credit. It makes it a lot less expensive in the long run,” said Goldman. “I think it’s important to understand what you are getting into. The biggest mistake people make is looking at cash flow instead of profits, how much money they actually have.”
How much money firms actually have is a result of how many customers come through their doors and referrals are a lifeline for new firms.
“Referral services are key,” said Hilliard. “People you have worked with in the past, let them know you are out on your own and you’d appreciate anything they could throw your way.”