How-To Guide: Starting an Estate Planning Law Practice
Please note that we provide examples of services and products that may be helpful in starting your estate planning law practice. Some of these companies we have used before and others we have not. These examples are provided as a starting point, and they should not be considered endorsements or recommendations from Juris Diction, LLC. We did not receive any compensation for including these companies in this guide.
You went to undergrad. Studied. Got into law school. Studied some more. Prepared for the bar. Passed. Interned. Worked. Networked. Stayed up late. Got up early. If you were lucky, landed a job in the legal profession. And now what?
We hear it all the time from our clients who are starting or expanding their solo legal practice: they just couldn’t do it anymore. Something didn’t feel right or the job just didn’t leave enough room for real life. And so, they decided to do something about it. They decided to start their own law practice and leave the bosses behind.
Starting a solo legal practice isn’t easy. We should make that clear up front. But, if you are willing to work for it, the benefits of working for yourself, setting your own schedule, and crafting a work environment that enhances your life, rather than drains from it, will absolutely be worth it. We have created a How-To Guide to get you started and help make the process a little smoother.
Why Should I Start an Estate Planning Practice?
If you are thinking about starting your own legal practice, or if you have a solo firm and are looking to expand into a new area of law, estate planning is a great place to start. The range of legal services included in an estate planning practice are uniquely suited to small and solo firms, and they can accommodate more flexible work environments. Estate planning can become complex, but the majority of clients require a relatively straightforward and defined set of legal solutions.
Getting Started, Step-by-Step
Step 1: Educate Yourself
Of course, the first step in starting an estate planning practice is to educate yourself about the area of law. This may start with buying a few books or signing up for your state’s continuing legal education seminar, but this will only get you so far. If you have access to a network of attorneys in your area, start attending events for estate planning professionals. Your state’s bar association likely has an estate planning group that puts on educational and networking events, and some even have email listservs on which attorneys discuss legal questions.
You may have heard about online tools that people use to draft their own DIY wills, trusts, and durable powers of attorney. These tools may make it seem like estate planning legal services are just interviewing clients and filling in forms. In reality, providing quality estate planning services is more complicated than that. As an attorney, you are able to provide carefully-tailored and individualized advice to clients based on their assets, family structure, and future goals. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t utilize drafting software or template documents as a starting point. Drafting software such as Fore! Trust and Wealth Counsel can be a useful tool to support your legal work. If you are more comfortable working with a human, there are also companies that provide drafting assistance, such as Back Office Drafter (Laney Lyons-Richardson).
Step 2: Draft Your Practice Vision
Before you begin marketing your new business, it is essential to identify your goals, values, and preferences for your new practice. Without clearly set goals, it is easy to get distracted, lose focus, and end up moving away from the reasons you started your solo practice in the first place.
A practice vision is a great place to start. Your vision is the broadest, most expansive version of what you want your business to look like. Where do you want to do your work each day? How many hours a week do you want to work? How much money do you want to be making? What kind of clients, team members, and colleagues do you want to be working with? When you can picture your vision clearly, write it all down in detail.
Next, think about the reasons why you want to start your own practice. Maybe it is so you can work from home. Maybe you want to be able to travel or spend more time with your kids or pursue a non-law-related passion or hobby. Whatever your reasons, write them all down as a part of your practice vision. Then, make a list of your values. Your values are the core tenants by which you will run your practice. Values can be things like respecting your own time, cultivating a healthy work-life balance, serving a particular client community, and gaining financial freedom.
Keep this written practice vision somewhere that you can take it out and review it from time to time. It may sound silly, but this exercise will help keep you on track and prevent some big mistakes.
Step 3: Get All the Pieces in Place
The logistics of setting up a law practice may seem daunting, but they can also be a lot of fun. In your experiences working for other firms, you surely have created some opinions on what not to do and how things can be done better. One of the best parts about starting your own firm is that you get to make all the decisions.
Create a legal entity, obtain an EIN, open a bank account
In your state, there are likely a number of professional corporate entity structures that you can choose from when creating your legal entity. The most important thing is that you create an entity, separate from yourself as an individual. The practice of law can make lawyers vulnerable to liability. A properly structured entity will shield your personal assets from liability and make accounting much simpler. As soon as your state approves your application to create a legal entity, you can fill out an online form with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to get an Employer Identification Number (EIN). Your business’ EIN is like its social security number, and you will need it to open a bank account for your business.
Decide where you are going to work and with whom
One of the barriers to starting a legal practice that we often hear from attorneys is the cost of office space and employees. The start-up costs associated with starting a traditional law firm and “hanging out a shingle” can be steep; however, this is not the only way to run your new business. As a solo practitioner, you not only get to set your work schedule, you also get to choose where and with whom you want to work. At the start, you may choose to operate your firm out of your home and meet with clients in public places or in their own offices. If working from home is not an option for you, or if you would prefer a professional workspace where you can meet with clients, consider visiting a coworking space in your area. Coworking spaces vary greatly in the extent of services they offer: from open work spaces without designated desks all the way to private offices with reception and support staff included. Often, coworking spaces will allow you to purchase a day or week-long pass to try out the space before committing to a membership.
At the beginning of your practice, you may feel inclined to do it all yourself. Often, this is very doable as long as you implement clear internal operations and workflow systems. However, it is also possible to bring in some help without the expenses associated with hiring an employee. There are a number of websites and companies that allow you to hire a virtual assistant for as many hours a week as you need. Virtual assistants can do everything from managing your incoming calls and emails to bookkeeping to research. Websites like Upwork allow you to post a request describing the exact services you require, or you can sign up for a membership service like that provided by Virtual Gal Friday.
Research and purchase malpractice insurance and client management software
Arguably the single most important thing you will need when starting your solo practice is malpractice insurance. Look to your state’s bar association for suggested insurers. Make sure to shop around, as different insurance companies will offer differently priced policies based on the areas of law you practice, whether you are providing services full- or part-time, and differing levels of coverage.
Without an office or storage space for paper files, it is possible to run a highly successful and efficient law firm entirely virtually. However, with all of your client information and work product stored online, it will be essential that you understand how to keep documents confidential and secure. When researching software, online services, and cloud-based storage, make sure that you ask about security.
Depending on your past work experience, you may have specific views on client management systems. If you are used to working with paper files, you may not have experience using these tools to manage and store client information. If you have used client management software before, you likely either loved or hated it. Different client management software is useful depending on the legal services provided. Some, like PracticePanther and Clio, are structured in a way that is particularly useful for transactional legal services.
Buy accounting software and hire an accountant
Whether you decide to do your own bookkeeping, hire a virtual assistant, or employ an office manager, you will likely need to purchase some form of accounting software. These software systems are incredibly varied, depending on the services you provide and your accounting needs. For this reason, it is often useful to first hire an accountant who can suggest a program that they recommend. Don’t wait to hire an accountant until closer to tax time. Preparing your firm’s taxes will be much more difficult if you are trying to convert your bookkeeping system to one that makes sense to an accounting professional. Working with an accountant from the beginning not only saves you money (in the time spent sorting through your records) but will also help prevent costly mistakes.
Step 4: Identify Your Ideal Client and Start Getting Out There
One of the best parts of running your own practice is the power to choose the clients that you will serve. When you are just starting out, it may seem like you should take any clients you can get. However, you will be better able to serve your clients and provide a more valuable service if you find the right niche for you. Maybe your ideal clients are young, wealth-building professionals; new parents; or entrepreneurs. Once you have identified your ideal client, you will be able to tailor your legal services and your firm’s marketing to best serve your niche.
Having a specific clientele in mind also allows you to target your networking to meet potential clients or the right referral partners. For example, if your ideal clients are young, wealth-building professionals, you may choose to provide legal services that help clients purchase and maintain rental properties. Networking opportunities may include local real estate seminars and educational events for landlords as well as referral networks that include real estate agents and homeowners insurance providers.
What’s Next? Honing Your Skills and Building Experience
As you research estate planning law in your jurisdiction and practice drafting documents, it is important to keep in mind that you may never feel ready. There isn’t a magic number of hours that you have to spend studying before you are ready to take on your first client. Confidence will come with experience, so, at a certain point, you just have to get started.
In the legal profession, one of the most common ways to engage clients is through referrals. Eventually, the majority of your referrals will come from satisfied existing and former clients. At the beginning of your practice, however, these referrals will likely come from people you already know. So, reach out to friends, family, colleagues, and your professional network to let them know what you are doing. Remember to keep your ideal client in mind, though. Make sure that the potential clients referred to you are within the client base that you are trying to build.
Think You Might Need Some Extra Support?
Feeling ready but still have some nagging questions or concerns in your mind? We would love to hear from you. At Juris Diction, we are passionate about supporting lawyers who want to improve their quality of life by becoming their own bosses. Whether you are just starting out or have an established practice that you want to expand, we cannot wait to hear your vision and support your pursuit of freedom! Contact us here and let us know how we can help!