Welcome back to our series that focuses on the secrets to successfully open your own law firm. This week we learn from lawyer and lawpreneur, Emilia Coto founder of Sisu Legal:
1. Tell me a little about your law firm/practice.
I practice immigration law in Windsor, Ontario and will be expanding into Troy, Michigan soon. As an immigrant from Honduras, I am very attuned to the opportunities created by immigration and love helping others achieve their goals.
I am on a mission to provide accessible, innovative, and effective legal services. I am passionate about using technology to increase access to justice. This means that I leverage technology and systems to optimize my services and to lower my costs, where possible. I also offer alternative legal products, such as unbundled services, legal coaching and informational courses.
I come from an entrepreneurial family and as small business owners, I saw my parents struggle to find legal representation that was affordable and that could speak their language. For example, when I was in high school, I helped my parents at a landlord and tenant board hearing. It was my first experience as an advocate because I interpreted what they were trying to convey and what the other party was saying. English is their second language, and they did not feel comfortable to navigate the system alone in the circumstances.
I hope to make the difference for other immigrant families and small businesses.
I am proud to be able to serve my clients in Spanish and Portuguese.
Before opening my own firm, I worked at a mid-size regional firm for three years, and I also spent some time at a local legal clinic, Legal Assistance of Windsor. I believe legal clinics do important work and I now sit on the board of directors of Legal Assistance of Windsor.
Another passion of mine is finding creative ways to use technology to serve more clients, accelerate impact, and achieve more with less. I love finding ways to practice law without sacrificing lifestyle and I love connecting with other lawyers seeking to do the same. This year, I will be the technology liaison on the executive committee of a few sections of the Ontario Bar Association:
Serving my community is important to me and I do so by getting involved. I am on the Young Advocates Standing Committee of the Advocates’ Society. I also sit on the board of directors of the Essex Law Association.
2. Why did you start your own firm? How did you make this decision?
I started my own practice because working at a traditional firm no longer fit my lifestyle. I was commuting for many hours and crossing an international border on a daily basis. I craved more flexibility and autonomy, both in the practice of law and economically.
I did not feel ready when I took the leap, but I did not feel like I had a choice at the time. Looking back on it, I am glad that my circumstances pushed me to leap before I felt ready.
The thing that inspired me the most to start my own practice, as opposed to seeking an alternative career, is seeing lawyers build the type of firm that I envisioned. I met Peter Aprile and Natalie Worsfold of CounterTax after listening to their podcast, Building NewLaw, and it changed my perspective on what the practice of law could be. They were generous in so many ways, but one the most helpful things they did for me, is they introduced me to their network.
Right when I was about ready to throw in the towel because my situation felt unsustainable, they invited me to the Legal Innovation Summit at Fireside Conference. At that conference, I met a small group of incredibly inspiring small firms. These firms were practicing law differently than the traditional model and making an impact by doing so.
For example, I met Megan Cornell of Momentum Legal, a law firm that focuses on entrepreneurs. I also met, Sophie Tremblay of Novalex, a firm that offers one hour of pro bono legal services for every hour of paid legal services it provides. I also met Martha Sullivan, who manages a small firm in Peterborough and is innovating in her community.
On my way home from the conference, I decided that I wanted to give myself the freedom to try. I became at peace with the possibility of failure. And, I found comfort in knowing that trying and failing was better than not trying at all. The worst thing that could happen is that I would be in the exact same spot than I was before – looking for a job that fit my desired lifestyle better.
I love your idea for this blog series because I think seeing others start their own firm is a powerful way to inspire action.
3. What are some of the benefits of running your own firm?
The ability to create your dream career. When you run your own firm, you get to decide the area of law you want to practice, the type of clients you want to have, and how to practice law.
The best part of running your own law firm is that you get to decide what kind of life you want to live and build a firm that supports that life.
When you run your own firm, you get to build solely around your vision without having to worry about whether it fits into someone else’s mold of what your career trajectory should be.
You have more control over your time and economic future.
I also think that smaller firms are particularly suited to provide service to traditionally under-served markets (like low to middle-income individuals and small businesses). Small firms tend to have lower overhead costs and have the ability to pivot easier because there are less people that need to approve of decisions.
When I think about the benefits of running your own firm, I think of Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter who said, “Creativity isn’t limited. Creativity is a renewable resource”.
4. What are some of the challenges of running your own firm? How have you tried to overcome them?
Overcoming the fear of failure or success is a challenge. At first, I was afraid to start my firm because I was afraid of failing. I was afraid of not being able to get clients and I was afraid of not generating enough business to pay my bills.
Once I started my firm, and started getting clients, I was afraid of getting too many clients. I was afraid of getting too busy. I had a somewhat irrational fear that I would mess the files up and prejudice my clients.
Mindset is so important to running a business. I think mindset is always a work in progress, but in order to overcome this challenge, I have sought out mentorship. I have mentors that help me see the possibilities when it comes to the business of law and I also have mentors that I can call on for when I get a particularly challenging file. Being a sole practitioner does not mean you have to practice alone.
I am also working on learning how to delegate more so that I can focus on doing the things that I do best. When you are just starting out, it can feel daunting to delegate because it costs money to do so. But once you realize how much more money you can generate by delegating tasks, you will be hooked.
5. What advice would you give to a lawyer thinking about starting their own firm?
You can do it! Do a lot of research on what you hope to build and connect with lawyers that have done it for inspiration and so they can help you realize that you can do it too.
Starting a law firm is a lot more affordable than I thought. If it is something you want to do, give yourself the freedom to try. I heard from senior lawyers that their biggest regret when starting a firm was not doing it sooner.
I always thought that I could not start a firm before paying off my huge student debt bill. However, once I did the numbers, and realized how few clients I needed to make that minimum number, it became doable.
Finding good mentors is a must, in my opinion, even if the mentorship is paid.
For marketing and for economic reasons, finding a niche is important. Think about the type of clients that would support the kind of firm you want to build and think of ways you can serve that client.
Find an entrepreneurial community of lawyers that get what you are trying to build and do not try to do it alone.
A few of my favorite things when I need inspiration:
Technology I can’t live without:
My favorite quote is, “may your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears” – Nelson Mandela.
I am always happy to chat with lawyers that are thinking about starting their own firm, particularly newer calls.To get in touch:
Email - firstname.lastname@example.org,
Website – sisulegal.com
Twitter – @em_coto
Instagram - @sisulegal
WOW! So much great advice in this one blog post. Thank you, Emilia, for taking the time to participate in this series and share with us what makes your law firm so successful.
ICYMI our previous posts featured Karen Kwan Anderson, Shamim Ara, Mitchell Rose, Lisa Feldstein, and Ellen Low. Stay tuned for more profiles coming soon....
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