Welcome back to our blog series with advice on how to successfully start your own law firm. This post features tips from lawyer, entrepreneur and founder of Forte Law, Sara Forte.
1. Tell me a little about your law firm/practice.
Forte Law is an employment law boutique firm based in Surrey, BC with a satellite office in Calgary, AB. We help our clients solve legal problems at work. We advise workers, businesses and unions on issues from hiring to firing, and everything in between. Our practice includes human rights, workers’ compensation, employment standards, labour law, employment insurance, and civil matters including wrongful dismissal. We also act as neutrals conducting workplace investigation and offer StandUP Teams™ respectful workplace training.
2. Why did you start your own firm? How did you make this decision?
I always had an entrepreneurial streak. I dreamed of opening a florist or a bookstore, and actually did a full business plan for a microbrewery. None of these businesses ever launched because no matter how much research I did, I realized I actually did not know that much about these industries. But law, I knew some things about.
The timing had little to do with law, and a lot to do with my family. I had 3 children in my first decade of practice, which was the focus of much of my time and energy. Practicing law and being a mother was a full load. When my youngest son turned 3, I was ready to take on something new. I considered a broad array of options: partnerships, cost sharing arrangements, in-house counsel roles. I got the last push I needed to launch my practice by meeting with another successful sole practitioner for a lunch during which she debunked all my fears, and reading a blog by Tara Mohr. Tara signs off the blog with “clear a path by walking it, boldly.” I have been boldly walking my path every since.
3. What are some of the benefits of running your own firm?
I love the creativity and freedom. If I see a gap or something that is not well-addressed in the market, or in society, I can do something about it. I don’t have to consult with any committees or justify a departure from the norm. I can speak and write publicly about whatever issues I think are important.
A recent example was the development of our respectful workplace training program StandUP Teams™. The prevalence of workplace sexual harassment and racism has always been front and centre in my practice. These issues have persisted despite decades of workplace harassment training and policies. Academic studies in the US identified some fundamental changes needed to make harassment training effective and relevant, including bystander activation training. The idea of arming all bystanders in the workplace with the skills needed to be allies resonated with me and my team immediately as a critical missing piece. So, we built out and trademarked a proprietary respectful workplace training program. StandUP Teams™ was developed to enable our team to have the greatest positive impact on the world.
I am very proud to have built a firm that is founded on respect of people, including clients and those working at the firm, but also opposing counsel and other community members. We offer individualized work arrangements that allow our team to create life-work balance (and not work-life). Diverse team members are valued as assets.
4. What are some of the challenges of running your own firm? How have you tried to overcome them?
Growth is the biggest challenge. Our primary office is in the rapidly growing suburb of Surrey, which will soon overtake Vancouver in population. Attracting clients has not been a problem, but convincing lawyers to take a job outside of the big city has been difficult. I have tried several recruiting strategies and eventually realized I just always need to be in a recruiting mindset when I am meeting lawyers. Interestingly, the pandemic seems to have solved my recruiting woes. Remote work has removed geographic limitations and many lawyers are more driven than ever to find a firm that aligns with their principles.
5. What advice would you give to a lawyer thinking about starting their own firm?
Talk to lawyers who have done it – talk to a few. We are happy to share our war stories and pass on lessons learned. Watch the video profile that Lawyers Financial did about my firm and others in their Going Solo series.
If you want to grow (and maybe you don’t), you will need to work hard and put yourself out there. I have done a lot of self-promotion, in person and online, and grown from a solo practice to 6 lawyers in 4 years. To attract clients, the core skill is to know who you are and what you have to offer and be able to communicate this effectively. My year one marketing campaign was simple – meet as many lawyers as I could in my community and make sure they knew who I am and what I do. There were very few dedicated employment lawyers in my area and I built a large referral network and also made some great new friends.
A written business plan has also been a critical piece of my strategy. I started working with a business coach, Jane Iannacone from Jigsaw Performance, very early on and this relationship and the plan we created has been key in reducing stress and ensuring I maintain focus. I have since met some great business coaches who specialize in law practices, but I have found great value in working with a coach who looks at my business like any other. I also retained an accountant from the outset, Jennifer Phipps from Manning Elliot, which relationship has also been very valuable as I have considered business strategies.
I am often asked whether I would recommend starting a law firm. I always answer that you have to really want to do it. It takes a massive amount of time, energy and passion. If you didn’t love it, it would be exhausting and miserable. I do love it, so it is exhausting and fun.
Thank you Sara for taking the time to participate in this series and for sharing what you have learned! Congratulations on all of your accomplishments.
ICYMI our previous posts featured 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....