Ready for some more tips on how to successfully start your own law firm? Today's post features advice from Diane E. Ulman of Integris Law:
1. Tell me a little about your law firm/practice.
Integris Law is a nimble, modern practice that uses technology to make dealing with legal matters simpler and less time consuming for our clients. I co-founded Integris Law with a high school friend, Brandon Lee, after we reconnected a few years ago.
We are headquartered in Oakville with additional satellite locations in Mississauga and Waterloo. We provide legal services across the Greater Golden Horseshoe and regularly see clients in Mississauga, Toronto, Oakville, Burlington, Milton, Brampton, Dundas, Hamilton, and Stoney Creek.
My primary focus is residential real estate with a secondly focus on wills/POAs.
2. Why did you start your own firm? How did you make this decision?
I was at cross-roads in my career. I decided it was time to stop looking for an Associate position at a firm to instead go out on my own with a high school buddy who happened to be looking for his next venture.
3. What are some of the benefits of running your own firm?
There is a lot of flexibility in how to structure your new firm. We could have easily gone with tradition of signing up for a 5-year lease or buying a retiring lawyer’s practice. This approach has worked for many, but I was very opposed to starting in debt from day one. Instead we grew organically by cold-calling agents, mortgage brokers, and reached out to friends/acquaintances to develop our client base.
4. What are some of the challenges of running your own firm? How have you tried to overcome them?
Becoming an employer/manager is a challenge because I have never done it in the past. It is a welcomed challenge and absolutely necessary to have a team helping with managing real estate files. This allows me to focus on business development and business strategy.
5. What advice would you give to a lawyer thinking about starting their own firm?
Do you need to be entrepreneurial? Ask me again in 5 years! I do not consider myself entrepreneurial but have still gone out on my own. I certainly believe there are traits that have helped me so far.
Being comfortable being uncomfortable
Although I may be stressed, I can manage my way through unknown territory and can figure out a solution.
Flexibility is essential
It is a fine idea to have a 1-, 3-, 5-year plan to help point the business in the right direction. What I fine much more difficult is sticking to a daily to-do list because urgent matters will pop-up and that daily schedule to tossed out the window.
If you have a spouse...
They must be on your side. I think Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook is right on point when she said that the most important career choice you will make is choosing your spouse. I lucked out that my spouse is my number one cheerleader. At times he had more confidence in me than I did in myself.
If you don’t have a spouse...
Instead have a trusted friend or mentor that will help dissect a business problem. Even if they can’t give you precise guidance it helps to hash out a dilemma out loud verse in your head.
Any tech you can’t live without?
Our requirement is that all programs we used be cloud based. I’m often on the road at meeting with agents, brokerages, and clients and need access to our files at all times. Although we do have bricks and mortar offices now, they are absolutely not necessary.
I can’t live without Zoom for client meetings and an online booking platform to schedule them.
I can’t live without podcasts about entrepreneurship. I find it invaluable to listen to other founders’ experience, successes, and most importantly struggles. It helps to know you’re not the only one who doesn’t have all the answers when you’re starting out. I habitually listen to How I Built This, The Pitch, and Without Fail.
Any advice on how to get clients?
Talk. To. Everyone. I find it amazing how chance encounters turned into an opportunity months down the line. It also helps that I am genuinely interested in people’s stories and backgrounds. Several people I have randomly met at events, weddings, coffee shops, etc. have contacted me to help them in the future.
My advice for those first starting out, and especially new calls, is as much as you don’t want to turn away business, don’t be afraid to. Use those deductive skills you honed in law school and make sure the deal, situation, and information from the potential client adds up. We had a few cold calls in our early days that were questionable. They may have called us because we were a new firm, but fortunately I am not a new call so had enough experience to politely turn away the potential client.
When should you make your first hire?
At first, I was closing our real estate files from beginning to end. It was just my partner and I doing everything to get Integris Law off the ground. I was fortunate enough to have worked at a firm in Hamilton where the senior clerk and principle lawyer really took me under their wings and taught me the practical side of the file. Of course, as lawyers we’re trained on the academic side of property law, but if you don’t know how/when to request a postponement, how/when to request a mortgage payout statement, etc. you’re at a great disadvantage.
After we grew to a point where I was spending too much time on the admin side of the files, I was introduced to a law clerk service who would bill us per file. Their team was amazing and we had a fantastic experience working with them. This was an ideal relationship when our deal flow was inconsistent. It was a relief to know that if we had a slow month, this was a variable cost and not a fixed cost if we had jumped ahead and hired too early.
Eventually, we reached a point where we were consistently closing enough deals per month that it was more economical with hire our first employee. We did a similar calculation in relation to how much time my partner and I spent filtering though emails, following up on document requests, and answering routine questions on the phone, we realized it made sense to also hire a Legal Assistant.
Thank you Diane for taking the time to share some of your valuable wisdom.
ICYMI our previous posts featured Sara Forte, Darielle Teitelbaum Darlene Tonelli, Amy Grubb, Emilia Coto, Karen Kwan Anderson, Shamim Ara, Mitchell Rose, Lisa Feldstein, and Ellen Low. Stay tuned for more profiles coming soon....
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