Welcome back to our new blog series where lawyers will find some great advice on going solo and running your own practice. Today's profile features Lisa Feldstein:
1. Tell me a little about your law firm/practice.
I am a health lawyer focused on helping clients create and protect their families. For almost two years I have been joined by an amazing associate (former articling student) Priya Somascanthan.
Our firm is focused on Family Health Law™. Broadly speaking, we have two main categories of work that both touch on the intersection of health care and families.
One part of our practice is all about helping family caregivers navigate the health care system. It is actually broader than it sounds. It encompasses helping families access psychiatric services for a loved one, dealing with conflicts in long-term care facilities, or applying for guardianship when a client’s relative has lost the mental capacity to make decisions. Much of our work is behind the scenes, although we occasionally have to litigate.
The other part of our practice is reproductive law. We help clients build families through third party reproduction, such as surrogacy and ova donation. We also advise organizations who are part of the fertility industry.
While our firm is based in Markham, we serve clients all over the world. Transitioning to fully remote work in March was a breeze because we already had the right systems in place.
2. Why did you start your own firm? How did you make this decision?
Starting a firm is a complex decision that involves weighing many factors. One reason that compelled me forward was because I had identified what I saw as a gap in legal services. As a health lawyer I had noticed that all of my colleagues were serving health care providers, organizations or patients, but no one was dedicated to advising or advocating for family caregivers.
In my first year of practice at a health law boutique I had been approached twice by lawyers interested in making referrals for family caregivers in need of legal advice, but I was unable to accept the referrals due to a conflict of interest.
I had also attended a Consent and Capacity Board hearing in which an elderly man with dementia had no representation even though the case involved whether his unconscious wife would have her life support withdrawn. He wanted to speak but was not really heard. I don’t think the outcome of the case would have been any different if he had a lawyer, but it felt wrong to me that he was not a party to the hearing. It planted the seed for thinking about the role of the family member as patient advocate and the need for family caregivers to be empowered through counsel.
3. What are some of the benefits of running your own firm?
Undoubtedly the flexibility. In the early years, when I did not have children, I was working all the time. But now that I have two young kids, and am married to a spouse who does shiftwork, I am so grateful that I can set my own hours and not worry about face time.
The flexibility also makes it easy for me to teach at York University, which I’ve been doing for the past 10 years. My classes are often scheduled mid-day and I don’t think I would have accepted the opportunity if I was an employee.
I also love being able to make and implement decisions quickly and without being accountable to anyone else (although I frequently consult with my associate). If I want to speak to the media, offer a discount or submit feedback on proposed legislation, I can do so without permission.
4. What are some of the challenges of running your own firm? How have you tried to overcome them?
It is easy to let math fool you. Example: “At my hourly rate if I did just one hour of billable work a day I’d make my salary, wow that sounds doable!” The reality is, it is very difficult to land clients. There are many more expenses to running a business than meet the eye. And there is a ton of non-billable work that needs to be done, even in a very small office. I guess I could summarize these challenges by saying it’s harder to make money than it sounds!
To overcome some of these challenges, I have found a variety of software to do some of the non-billable work for me. I do a happy dance ever time I set up a new automation. We also take a systems perspective and if we notice ourselves repeating a task, we explore how we can eliminate the step altogether by changing our processes.
5. What advice would you give to a lawyer thinking about starting their own firm?
(1) Go niche. That could mean a niche practice area, or could be a broad practice serving a specific client base. You can also create your own niche, as I have done. While this can be intimidating because it feels like you are excluding potential clients, think of it this way: if you are the only person on an island, you are also the only expert. And when you narrow your practice, you will gain that expertise quickly.
(2) Put on your entrepreneur hat. It is not enough to be a good lawyer. To have a successful practice, you must think of yourself as a business owner. Read some books. Download some podcasts. Explore resources that are not just for lawyers. Get inspired and think bigger and differently about how legal services can be offered.
(3) Keep your overhead as low as possible. Live within – or below – your means. As money starts to come in, don’t spend it all. Keep cash in the bank so you can survive a rainy day. Or a pandemic.
Thank you Lisa for participating in this series. It is true that people often forget about the hidden costs of running a law firm, thanks for the advice to keep this top of mind. Flex Legal can help with keeping law firms' overhead low. If a lawyer is not ready to take on a full time associate but needs assistance with their files we are here to help on an as-needed basis.
ICYMI our previous post featured solo lawyer Ellen Low. Stay tuned for more profiles coming soon....
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