Another successful solo-preneur has been kind enough to share with us her insights and advice for starting your own law firm. Read on for Michelle Fernandes' tips on what to do (and not to do) when starting out on your own:
1. Tell me a little about your law firm/practice.
I love what I do. I practice criminal defence law exclusively and have my entire career. It is the best of all possible worlds; no two cases are the same, nor the clients. I have the chance to delve into constitutional law, trial and appellate advocacy. From bail hearings to jury trials, I have the opportunity to defend all manner of charges and appear in all levels of court.
At my firm, my primary focus is on the vigorous defence of charges, but I take a more holistic approach to my clients’ cases. People who walk through my door are facing one of the most stressful periods of their lives. Some are at their lowest. Some struggle with issues that contributed to their case, so I suggest services to address those. It has a positive impact and puts them in a better position to fight their charges. Being able to provide a strong, experienced, and compassionate defence for these individuals…it’s just amazing.
2. Why did you start your own firm? How did you make this decision?
I was a partner at Rusonik, O’Connor, Robbins, Ross, Gorham and Angelini L.L.P. (now Rusonik, O’Connor, Robbins, Ross & Angelini, L.L.P.), a large criminal defence trial and appellate firm from 2011 to 2017 in downtown Toronto. In 2017, I left to open my own firm to better serve my clients because I wanted to provide a more holistic approach to criminal law. There are underlying issues and stresses that contribute to people winding up in the justice system. I wasn’t satisfied merely being another part of the revolving door, so I offer external resources to anyone interested.
Venturing out on my own took several months of consideration and working on my exit plan. I reviewed materials provided by the Law Society of Ontario and consulted with several lawyers of my vintage, who had already left to start their own practice. I amassed savings to cover business and living expenses for the first two years as well as to provide a psychological poultice against an uncertain income flow. I also established tenancy where there were others practicing criminal law.
3. What are some of the benefits of running your own firm?
I experienced all the benefits that would readily spring to mind: a more satisfying work/life balance; the freedom and independence that comes with being your own boss; as well as greater flexibility. What I didn’t expect were the cost savings, increased and upgraded client service offerings and improved quality of life that resulted from abandoning traditional forms of overhead. There are virtual assistants, virtual meetings, shared office spaces and staff that can be obtained for a fraction of the cost and time required to run a traditional brick and mortar style firm. COVID19 has highlighted the weaknesses of the old, outdated modes of practicing the law and forced change that should already have been ushered in a decade ago.
I can also cherry pick my colleagues and mentors. While working for a firm, you end up spending a lot of time there and consequently with the people who work there when you’re not in court. As wonderful as the people in your firm may be, to really grow as a lawyer you have to expose yourself to other ways of approaching cases and thinking about the law. Some level of groupthink and resistance to change is inevitable in long established firms and practices.
My work is, in part, my legacy, as it is with many other lawyers. At some point you have to ask yourself, what will be your unique footprint in this world? How are you shaping the law and the practice of it? The way “things have always been done” are rarely the best ways to do it and certainly not the only ways. Be brave. Be better. Challenge the status quo. Make your unique contribution.
4. What are some of the challenges of running your own firm? How have you tried to overcome them?
Starting out I was terrified I would not be able to make ends meet. That fear was unfounded, but you do have to learn how to effectively market yourself and not just throw money at the problem, or do what you see others doing.
One problem I did not anticipate was having new clients banging down your door when you are buried in trial work for weeks on end and unable to assist. I had great lawyers to refer work to, but who weren’t always able to return the favour due to the nature of their practice or other constraints in their lives. I developed a network of lawyers that I respected as colleagues and on a personal level, whom I could refer work and who would refer work back. Just like in your personal life, reciprocity is vital to a healthy, long term business relationship.
I approached more senior or established lawyers who had a lot of work, but not the staff to handle it. They used me on a case by case basis when they were too busy to prep their matters themselves, or as co-counsel on large, complex cases. It’s a great way to build relationships and your reputation when starting your own practice.
I also developed relationships with lawyers outside of criminal law. Often there are complementary practice areas which overlap with your own. Forging relationships with such lawyers brings needed diversity to your own work, allows you to develop alternative sources for referrals and support when you have queries that are outside your area of expertise.
5. What advice would you give to a lawyer thinking about starting their own firm?
Develop a network of lawyers you feel comfortable sending a text, email, or even picking up the phone and calling at the drop of a hat before you go out on your own. Be considerate when you reach out. Select times, days, modes of communication and time durations that work for them. Everyone has their own pressures and commitments, so unless a short deadline has been imposed on you that’s beyond your control, give others a lot of time to respond. Send a gentle reminder to them if they haven’t responded in a reasonable time period and always express gratitude. Appreciation and consideration will take you much further than an attitude of entitlement and indifference.
Expect to feel fear, anxiety, and self-doubt. It gets better as you go along, but don’t expect those feelings to ever disappear entirely. Everyone has them, whether or not they will admit to them. Find people in your professional and personal life to share those thoughts with so they don’t overwhelm you.
Most importantly be kind to yourself and don’t compare yourself to others. This job is not without its stressors and detractors. Don’t be one of them.
Thank you Michelle for your honest and helpful advice and guidance. You can reach Michelle at firstname.lastname@example.org
ICYMI our previous posts featured Laura Chaves Paz, Diane Ulman, 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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