Five Things I Wish I’d Learned in Law School – Guest Blog
Holly Wilcox is a solo practitioner in Mount Airy, North Carolina. She practices immigration, criminal and family law. She blogs about immigration at Holly Wilcox Law Blog.
I thought I was well prepared to hang my own shingle and enter solo practice after law school. Opening my own firm has been my dream since the end of my 1L year. Since that time, I’ve tried to learn as much as possible about opening and operating a law firm successfully.
While this article is aimed towards law students or newer lawyers considering solo practice, I wanted to share some of what I wish I had known or learned in law school about running a law practice. It’s worth noting that I don’t really have answers to these issues. But, I think they are worth considering before you open your doors.
Before I hung my shingle, I attended several North Carolina Bar Association’s “Starting Out Solo” meetings (which are a wonderful way to connect with likeminded solo practitioners), and during law school I took a class on law firm management. I read countless blogs and books and even developed a decent business plan. However, as I’m sure many of you reading this know, you can never be truly prepared for what comes with opening and managing a law practice.
How to Set Fees
When I was in high school, my mom owned a florist shop, and I worked there part time. If we didn’t know how much to charge for a certain type of arrangement, we would anonymously call the competitors in town and ask their rate for a comparable item.
This isn’t possible in the legal profession. Setting fees has definitely been the most difficult aspect of running my firm so far. On the whole, lawyers are secretive about their fees and often refuse to discuss anything other than their average hourly rate. The Rules of Professional Conduct don’t provide much guidance, as they only prevent us from charging an unreasonable fee. It’s difficult to determine how much my time and energy is worth.
Additionally, I’ve faced the constant internal struggle of, “If I quote this client too much, will they decide to hire someone else instead?” and, “But if I don’t charge enough, I’m wasting my time.”
I’m by no means an expert at this yet, but I’ve started trying to evaluate flat-fee cases by approximately how many hours I anticipate the case will take and multiplying that by what my hourly rate would or should be. I am often reluctant to charge an hourly rate because I want to limit my dealing with my trust account until I become more comfortable and experienced. I also felt that charging an hourly rate would be more confusing to my clients. But in some cases, an hourly fee is truly the only way to make sure taking a case is worthwhile if it is complicated or hard to evaluate from the consultation.
I will admit that I have become significantly more confident when quoting or discussing attorney’s fees with potential clients. At first, I was timid when quoting a price, and I almost hoped potential clients would haggle with me on it. However, I’m trying to sound more secure when discussing payment with clients. Talking money is never easy, and I’d strongly suggest trying to determine what your fees will be for most of the services your firm offers before you open the doors to your small practice.
How to File With a Clerk’s Office
I spent almost my entire three years of law school working in immigration law, which has its own bureaucratic issues but never interacts with state court. Only recently have I learned the importance of understanding simple tasks such as filing a complaint at the clerk’s office. Unless you’re lucky enough to be able to afford a legal assistant or paralegal right out of the gate, you’ll need to know how to do these administrative tasks yourself. It’s frustrating and embarrassing to be told that you need multiple copies of a document or that you didn’t correctly punch holes in the top of your document while you’re standing in front of everyone waiting in line at the clerk’s office, so I’d advise calling ahead and getting some information if you’re not quite sure what you’re doing.
How the Politics of Judicial Races Work
I’m originally from Virginia, where judges are appointed, not elected. I was shocked when I learned that judges are elected in North Carolina, because it makes the process so politicized. What average voter actually does his or her research on local judicial races? Better yet, what average voter knows what qualifies someone to be a good judge?
No one in law school ever truly explained how important it is to understand the political implications of these races. Sure, we were told to be professional when interacting with judges. But I was never told how the process works—from a potentially multi-candidate primary to a general election, with governor-appointments to fill in if a seat becomes vacant mid-term. I had no idea that the district bar was responsible for nominating candidates to be sent to the governor. (And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, my point is made!)
Judicial elections and appointments are crucial to your day-to-day operation especially if you practice in a rural area, and it’s very important to understand how judges become judges and what you can do to get involved in the process.
How to Use an IOLTA Account
I know this comes up a lot. In law school, I was constantly reminded to learn how to use a trust account and make sure not to screw it up. From a “professional responsibility” class to the MPRE to the bar exam, this comes up over and over. For as many times as they tell you not to make a mistake, it’s surprising that no one really teaches you what a trust account is, or how to manage it!
I have a trust account, and it terrifies me. But I made sure I knew exactly what to do before I made a deposit into the account, and I’d highly encourage everyone to check out the IOLTA handbook at www.nciolta.org before taking any retained clients for whom you will need a trust account.
How Much You Have to Pay to Stay in Business
This one I think I was the most prepared for. I had heard from various other attorneys about setting aside for taxes and paying for advertising, office space, etc. However, I wasn’t prepared for the cost of the mandatory CLEs due almost immediately after graduation from law school. I intend to primarily practice immigration, so I joined the American Immigration Lawyer’s Association, which was an additional upfront expense. If you want to join any other networking organizations, plan to pay dues annually. Although your North Carolina State Bar and North Carolina Bar Association dues are waived for your first year of practice, these will be an expense to prepare for in your second year of practice. Malpractice insurance is an additional cost. And finally, make sure you plan for the cost of incorporating your business with the state bar and North Carolina Secretary of State, as well as applying for a privilege license with the North Carolina Department of Revenue.
I hope these tips are helpful. I know many of them probably seem like common sense, but they are crucial business development issues that are important to address before opening your doors.
Jared Pierce hung his own shingle right out of law school and has spent every minute since then discovering the joys and difficulties of chasing success. Anyone who has ever met Jared will tell you h