If you are wondering how much it costs to start your own law firm, then you are probably also seriously considering hanging your own shingle. The good news is that in the long-term, your decision to start your own legal practice could be very beneficial. Starting your own law firm could provide professional independence while giving you the flexibility to craft your own legal niche and brand. With these benefits, however, come some challenges.
Two initial obstacles you will face as you decide hang your shingle is figuring out how much it will cost to start your own law firm and whether you have the financial where withal to undertake the venture. As to the question of cost, the answer is that it depends. There is no exemplar number that fits every situation. Several factors, however, will determine the amount of capital you need to start your own law firm. Some of these factors may include:
- Geographic location you choose for your practice,
- Scope of your practice, and
- Your own liquidity.
To the extent that you are grappling with only a few or many of these cost factors, you will most likely have to make provisions for these must-haves when starting your own law firm:
The cost of an office space can be either significant or minimal, depending on the real estate market conditions in the location of your practice and your preferences. Generally, this expense will represent your largest overhead cost if you choose a traditional office setup. The recent, emergence of virtual offices, however, can minimize this cost. Another cost-saving option is sharing office space.
Either choice has some ethical implications. For instance, State Bar rules prohibit lawyers from misrepresentation. Passing a virtual office off as a traditional law office could breach this prohibition. Likewise, care must be taking to segregated practices if sharing an office space with another lawyer. In most jurisdictions, and given the right set of facts, another lawyer's professional liability could infect your practice if you share space with the lawyer.
Atticus Finch is gone. So too are the days when all a lawyer needed to hang a shingle were a few legal treaties, a pleasant secretary, and a quaint sign post situated in front of his/her office. Modern realities have made it such that at the very minimum, you will need to make a modest investment in technology. Here, allocation should be made in you budget for basic technology such us a computer, internet service, a copier/scanner, a fax machine, and a typewriter. Yes, a typewriter! Depending on the nature of you practice you may have to frequently complete documents such as a corporate stock certificate or some probate and estate document that are not amenable to electronic completion. In these instances, having a typewriter lurking somewhere in your office can be a very useful.
While on the topic of technology, the question often arises whether a startup law office needs a website. Here too, the answer is that it depends. A website may be useful for strengthening your brand and providing a path to customized email accounts and addresses. These topics are discussed more fully in the Marketing section of this website. But, the cost of a website can be prohibitively expensive. This is particularly so if you are starting out on a limited budget. In that case, you may still be able to get professional email accounts for your practice simply by purchasing a domain name and hosting a landing page under the domain name. For some, this will alleviate the displeasure of having to provide prospective clients an email address attached to a public domain.
Professional Liability Insurance
Some jurisdiction make insurance coverage mandatory for practice attorneys, while others require that attorneys practicing without malpractice insurance disclose this fact to all prospective clients. As such, the cost of malpractice insurance should also be factored into you startup budget. Estimates for this expense can also vary depending on factors such as the breadth and depth of you legal experiences and the practice areas you choose, coupled with the geographic market you find yourself in. The good news is that most State Bars and many bar associations offer affiliate programs that provide significant discounts. So, do a little research and you may find substantial savings.
Just as technology has become indispensable to the modern solo or small practitioner, so too has business collateral. However, most small practitioners do not spend a lot of time thinking about their office collateral. As a small practitioner, your office letterhead and stationary may be a source of significant branding-building, and projection of competence and professionalism. So treat the choice of business collateral with some attention the rewards will be apparent. Incidentally, your firm website can alleviate the need to produce extensive print collateral, while offering the ability to make regular updates to the information without incurring re-printing costs.
Naturally, your startup budget will also set aside funds for office supplies. This line item will most likely be your least costly since your client-base and office activity is likely to be minimal at the onset, thus requiring only a modest amount of office supplies. If you are not sure what supplies you will need, a good practice is to visit a solo practitioner's office, conducting a survey on what supplies, aside from the obvious ones, the office uses. Still, be sure you are well-stocked on basic office supplies, such as paper clips, file folders, staples and pens, particularly if you find a retail sale on these supplies. Do not worry if you are slow to deplete these items. The good news is that office supplies do not go bad and you can also offset the expense of office supplies against your tax liability even if your supplies are not depleted by the end of the tax year.
Taxes, Fees, and Licenses
On the subject of taxes, your startup budget should also set aside fund for taxes. Depending on the legal structure you chose for your practice (see discussion on Business Structures) and the state in which your practice is located, your tax liability matures immediately upon the business registration of your practice. Do some research into the various business tax liabilities in your state and when these liabilities are due, and ensure that you have allocated sufficient funds to meet these obligations.
In addition to taxes, registering your business may also trigger, for instance, a business registration fee and other licensing fees. Make sure that you thoroughly research these potential fees and make provisions in you startup budget for these costs.
Professional dues such as bar memberships are also necessary considerations. After all, what good is having a law office if you cannot practice law due to suspended membership for failure to pay your dues? Thus, set aside funds to cover your professional dues. Your professional membership costs may turn out to be a very inexpensive but valuable investment. Membership in many professional associations, like the ABA for instance, could yield savings in all other aspects of your legal practice, including discounts on continuing legal education events, professional literature and journals, networking events, and other associated practice costs.
Presumably, your small office will, at most, have only a secretary and a paralegal. If you decide to utilize such personnel, you will need to think about personnel costs. As a budding law practice, employing full-time personnel may not be, for tax and regulatory purposes, very advantageous. A better option is to utilize personnel drawn from a staffing agency. This alleviates the headaches of ensuring that you are tax and labor compliant in your staffing.
The cost of starting a law practice varies. There is no definite number. However, by carefully thinking through your startup budget, planning in advance, and leaving ample time to shop around and research, you can yield significant cost-savings for your law practice budget.