How long have you been an attorney? How long have you been in business for yourself?
I’ve been practicing for thirty-seven years and I started my own firm nine years ago. After practicing for nearly thirty years, I felt like I wasn’t reaching my full potential at a law firm. I was considering two job offers and I was feeling a lot of ambivalence about both of them, when my daughter asked “why don’t you just start your own firm?” I launched into all the reasons I didn’t want to do it, and I kept coming back to being afraid that I didn’t have the clients. My daughter said “What kind of role model would you be if you didn’t do something because you’re afraid?” That’s when I realized this was my opportunity to create an environment where not only could I reach my full potential, but I could create an environment where other women could also thrive - lawyers with young children, or who were doing late in life caretaking.
What’s the most difficult part of running your own firm? How do you manage those challenges?
Well, in spite of my concerns when I started, the most difficult part of running a firm has not been attracting and retaining clients. The toughest thing has been learning to manage people. It’s very hard in a small setting to find the right line between being in charge and being supportive. You want to encourage people to take charge of their own career, but if you end up becoming too close, you will be personally disappointed when people don’t deliver professionally. Boundaries are important. My advice is to always get expectations in writing. Make sure you have good employee manuals, with explicit performance benchmarks, reporting responsibilities, and agreements about hours worked, whether on site or remote - those kind of things need to be as concrete as possible. It’s also important to give real time feedback.
What is the best decision you’ve made as small firm owner?
Top tip: Surround yourself with a few key people as committed to the business as you are. This is a very hard thing to accomplish, but I now have a really strong balance at this point. People who believe in the business and the vision as much as you will go the extra mile. They will share your values, and their decisions will be in line with that. In addition, you want people who have different skills than you, complementary skills and different perspectives.
What technology/apps can you not live without/rely on heavily?
My answer is a pretty basic one - my firm has a lot of the same tech that the bigger law firms do because we work with a lot of Fortune 500 companies, and they expect that we have the best cybersecurity programs. I have an outside IT person who recommends new technology - they will go to outside providers to find out what will serve our needs, and come back with recommendations. Personally to me, the single best piece of technology is my phone. I started practicing law when you had to do everything at a slower pace, with no desktops. My phone is my office in a handheld device. Basic but crucial!
If you could give one piece of advice to a lawyer who is thinking about hanging out a shingle, what would it be?
I’ve thought about this a lot. First - take care of yourself. It’s the oxygen mask metaphor. If you don’t take care of yourself the business won’t succeed. For me, that’s exercise: yoga, cycling, hiking. I take time off, and do the minimum on the weekend. I have phone settings so it doesn’t ring except emergency numbers before a certain time in the morning, and I have moved the phone out of my bedroom.
When it comes to marketing, manage the low-hanging fruit: get a website that looks nice. Secure your social media handles. Have your business cards ready everywhere you go. Identify two to three practice areas you’re known for, that you’d like to be known for, and build your outreach efforts around that.
Sarah graduated from Simon's Rock College in 2005 with a BA in Linguistics, then worked in events production for several years before she graduated from New York Law School in 2012. Before joining Lawline, she worked in litigation management as a legal auditor. She loves working as a program attorney as it combines her legal knowledge and production background. She has two kids, two cats, and loves public transit and rainy days.