Many lawyers are considering the option of becoming a solo practitioner. But even with all of the blogs, articles, and advice from colleagues and friends about certain aspects of running a solo practice, many attorneys still struggle with the big picture. Between deciding on a name and URL, setting up the financial side of a business, marketing, choosing a business management tool, and the many other details of starting a firm, is it really worth it to go out on your own? What does the process of starting your own practice look like?
In this episode of New Solo, Adriana Linares interviews legal ethics attorney Michael Downey about the solo practice he started in 2015. Together they discuss why he decided to leave a big law firm to start his own law practice, the decisions he had to make, and how he dealt with everything from choosing technology to successfully parting ways with his old firm. Downey talks about the research he did with different practice management tools, the process of deciding on a name and buying relevant URLs, and his decision to use Apple computers in his practice. Although he already had a client base that he believed would stay with him, he marketed his new business by collecting articles he had written, developed his mailing list, and updated his LinkedIn account. For those struggling with the decision of starting a solo practice, Downey’s experience is a useful place to start.
Michael Downey is a legal ethics lawyer who has been practicing for about 15 years in St. Louis, Missouri. After spending most of his career in big law firms, he founded Downey Law Group LLC, a law firm devoted to legal ethics and the law of lawyering. Downey represents lawyers and law firms in legal ethics matters, risk management issues, and represents lawyers in disciplinary proceedings.
Special thanks to our sponsor, Solo Practice University.
Mentioned in This Episode
New Solo: How Michael Downey Started His Solo Practice – 3/10/2015
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Adriana Linares: Hello and welcome to New Solo on Legal Talk Network. My name is Adriana Linares, I’m your host, I’m a legal technology trainer and consultant. I’m normally based out of Orlando, Florida, but this week I have the pleasure of being in New Orleans. Before we introduce today’s topic, I want to make sure to take a moment to thank our sponsor, Solo Practice University. Please make sure to visit their website and learn more about what they have to offer. Today I’m very excited to have run into Michael Downey a couple of weeks ago, I was at the ABA Midyear Meeting. He’s the former chair of the ABA’s law practice division. He and I know each other pretty well from our work with that division together. He let me in on a little secret that he was going out on his own. He was going to become a new solo. I invited him to come out on the show and tell us about what he has gone through, what he is going through, and what his big plans are for being a solo. Hey Michael!
Michael Downey: Thank you!
Adriana Linares: I’m so glad you’re here, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day, especially considering what you’ve done. before I get into questions about being a solo, tell me a little bit about yourself so our listeners know who they’re listening to.
Michael Downey: Sure. I’ve been practicing for about fifteen years and I am located in St. Louis, Missouri. Most of my time has been spent at large firms. In fact, I had been at three different Am Law 200 firms, and most recently was with a 240-lawyer firm based here in St. Louis. I did spend a little bit of time at a ten lawyer firm; and for about the past decade, my practice has focused on representing lawyers and law firms in legal ethics matters, risk management issues, and also representing lawyers in disciplinary proceedings.
Adriana Linares: And then you decided that you might have a go at being out there on your own. What made you decide to do that?
Michael Downey: I think it was a lot of things. I actually teach a couple of law school class on legal ethics and law firm practice. As you mentioned, I was chair of the ABA law practice division, and so I spent a lot of time talking to people about how law firms can do things better with regard to technology, management, and serving their client and so that was certainly part of it. I was fortunate as a child, my father actually started his own accounting firm. So I had really entered the practice of law seeing it as a profession and certainly a valuable thing to do, but also as something of a business. And frankly, also, I really looked at my own practice and thought that it would be a very good practice to have a small independent firm as opposed to trying to fit it into a larger firm, where sometimes, didn’t fit all that smoothly.
Adriana Linares: So my first question for you is once you decided to go out on your own, did you still decide to expand your practice areas or are you going to stick to that sort of niche area of legal ethics and other stuff?
Michael Downey: The short answer is that I’m really sticking to the niche area. I have enough business that I will be bringing with me that I know I can certainly support myself. And I am anticipating that there will be clients that previously didn’t want to call a large firm, either because they thought it would be expensive, or they were afraid that people would find out that they would be in trouble, and I’m hoping to get more of those people. And frankly, I also really saw it as also an opportunity to fill in the space that I was already in instead of expanding. So I expect, for example, to be a little bit more adverse to law firms and lawyers, things like a little bit more legal practice work and that type of thing that a larger firm was frankly a little hesitant to do.
Adriana Linares: That’s great, that’s very interesting. So you decided to go out on your own, you decided you’re going to stick to what you know, keep working on your niche. What was the first thing you did when you said you woke up that next morning and said okay, today’s the day I get ready to go out on my own; today’s the day I start. What was the first thing you did?
Michael Downey: Well I was actually very fortunate. I knew that one of the big places to start with me was to build the marketing and business development apparatus of the firm. So I actually contacted a couple of friends who I know through the ABA law practice division, who are focused on marketing and I started to talk to them about if I am going to do this, what are the types of things that I want to do to get ready. And obviously, part of that would be the typical things with transferring clients to a new practice. But I was more concerned with how do I build up practice. And the couple of pieces of advice that I got from them were, I publish a lot, I’ve written about 100 articles, and they said get your publications in order so you’ll have them readily available. And really work on getting a good mailing list together so that you could use that to broadcast your practice as well. And I should add that this is something I considered frankly for a long time, and so I had done a number of other things, for example, really building up my LinkedIn connections, and doing some other stuff to sort of build out that part of my marketing and business development. And then, frankly, the last thing that I did sort of right away was I started to look online at business entity names and also at websites at URL’s to see what was available to make sure that I could get good real estate in the digital world for my new practice.
Adriana Linares: Oh right, of course, that’s definitely one of the first things
Michael Downey: I went with DowneyLawGroup.com
Adriana Linares: Great, and then so when you were doing that, did you have a list of words and ideas? So, Downey Law Group, Downey Law Office, Law Office St. Louis Downey; how did you work through the process of deciding, sort of breaking it down to what it was going to end up being?
Michael Downey: I searched actually through one of the online search engines that allows you to see if websites have been taken, and since Downey’s a relatively common name and lots of Downeys become lawyers, I had to find a good opening there. So I reserved a couple of sites related to that. And frankly also, for a while I wasn’t sure if I would actually use something like Downey Law Group as really just for a law firm, or whether instead I would call my practice something like Downey Legal Ethics, so I grabbed that site as well and then I grabbed a number of other sites. And then frankly, I would periodically be doing something else. I would be reading a book or talking or watching television, and I get an idea like, you know, I should have this website. And so I think I purchased about sixteen or so websites, which the good news is they’re only ten dollars a piece.
Adriana Linares: Right, I think that happens to all of us once we start buying domain names; we become domain hoarders. I think I have about 50 or 55 domains registered, many of which I don’t use, but I certainly point back toward my main website. Did you do that?
Michael Downey: I’m in the process of doing that, yes, and frankly, I also expect that once things get going, I’ll probably let some of the 16 or so names expire. And I had a clever idea that I grabbed the website and a major defense contractor intellectual property counsel contacted me and said, do you really want to use that? And I said no. So I backed down, there was a potential trademark fight that wasn’t going through.
Adriana Linares: Oh, interesting. So, you talked to a lot of colleagues and friends and trusted relations in the business and said, how do I get started with my marketing. You developed and put together, or you had been working already on a good marketing list, you updated your LinkedIn, you got a domain name that suits the practice; you got a website built then, I take it?
Michael Downey: Yes.
Adriana Linares: And do you want to tell us a little bit about what that process was like. How does a lawyer get a website built?
Michael Downey: Sure. Most of the sourcing for my law firm, I like to say, is either local, local, or international. A lot of the instances I use companies that are very close. When I actually decided to open my own practice, one of the things I decided to do was I wanted an office within walking distance of my house; and I actually have accomplished that, I now have about a ten minute walk to get to the new office. And so in that context, for example, when I looked at banks and when I looked at printers and things, I looked very locally. With regard to my web design company, though, I decided that I wanted to use a national company. And I advised a lot of other lawyers in starting their firms, and a lot of them had used a particular company and really recommended that company. And so I felt very good about going with that company and contacted them and retained them to design my website.
Adriana Linares: Well that’s very good. And did they design your logo for you as well? Because I’m looking at your business card, I have it right here. Did they design your logo for you as well?
Michael Downey: They did not, the logo was actually designed by a very good friend of mine who lives about three or four blocks from me. We were actually cub scout leaders together and I knew that he was a graphics designer and asked him if he wanted to do some work on the side. And he’s designed my business cards, my stationary, my logo, my mailing labels, envelopes; it’s amazing how many things I needed and actually I communicate with him daily right now trying to get loose ends wrapped up. He’s been excellent.
Adriana Linares: That’s great. So we got marketing, we got a mailing list, we got collateral, we got a website, you got an office just a few minutes from your house, that’s great. Any tips for our lawyers that our listening about making sure that you get the right office space? Any things that you learned specifically that you hadn’t thought of procuring an office?
Michael Downey: I think I learned a million things. I knew the location which frankly made it relatively easy, and so I was really targeted on one small area. Interestingly enough, while there is a fair amount of commercial space there, it’s a very hot area; there’s not a lot of space available. And because there was not a lot of space available, I quickly figured out that I really had to watch what’s going on. I used a number of websites to figure out what space became available and really tracked properties. I also had some friends that had visited businesses in some of the buildings I was thinking of using, and one of them mentioned that there’s a very large health clinic in one of the buildings that does great work, but frankly, creates horrible traffic and parking problems. So a building I originally thought would be one of my top choices, I ended up not even pursuing at all. And I visited a number of properties, informally, and actually also knew some landlords and went out to lunch with those landlords and said hey, if you have space let me know. It was actually through a friend that I found the office space that I ultimately went with.
Adriana Linares: Well that’s good. And you furnished it; what did you do as far as infrastructure when it comes to phone lines and technology and internet connection, how did you get all of that put together?
Michael Downey: The space that I took over had a prior tenant that was a job placement business, and so there was already a lot of that technology available. There are things – and actually that space is still in the process of being finished; and I will, for example, put a video monitor on the wall because I’ll use that with some of my client meetings and some of the work that I do. But a lot of the actual wiring was already there. And the building’s 140 years old, so there’s a lot of restrictions on what we can really do; for example, the outside space.
Adriana Linares: Well that’s great. Before we move on to the next segment we’re going to take a quick break to hear a message from our sponsors.
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Adriana Linares: Welcome back to New Solo, I’m Adriana Linares and with me today is Michael Downey, he’s telling us about what it took to get himself all set up and running as a new solo out there in St. Louis, Missouri. So Michael, right before we went on break, you had told us about procuring your space and that it already had an internet connection in there and it was pretty much set up that you’re getting ready to buy a big monitor to put on the wall to use during meetings. What about practice management and document management? Did you end up going with any particular tools or products? Did you spend some time studying those products? What did you decide to do as far as technology for managing your caseload and practice?
Michael Downey: Well I was fortunate. One of the nice things about being the chair of the law practice division was that I was at Techshow last year. And since I had an inkling that I was going to do this, I spent some time with the exhibitors and talked to them about their products and tried to test things out. When I really made the decision that I was going to go on my own, I actually took advantage; virtually all of the major online management software programs will give people free trials. So I created accounts and then I created fake client matters and then I would email myself as if I were a client to see how it looked from the client side of things, how it looked from employer side of things; and really played around with a number of the different services for several weeks.
Adriana Linares: That’s great, that’s the best way to do that. And I find that most clients of mine and most attorneys, they really don’t take the time to do that. So they’ll just pick one, and either they end up loving it because they got lucky, or they ended up not liking it because it didn’t have certain features that they wanted and they didn’t know until they dove in and really started using it. Do you mind telling us which one you picked?
Michael Downey: Sure, I ended up going with Clio.
Adriana Linares: Great, that’s one of course of our favorites. I feel like there are so many great options for attorneys today that you almost can’t go wrong, but I really admire you for having taken all that time to really put them through the punches and making sure you picked one that you liked. Okay, so you’ve got your technology picked out. Did you go with desktop or laptop or both?
Michael Downey: I actually went with both and I had decided I was going to be an Apple office.
Adriana Linares: So you decided to go Mac.
Michael Downey: And one of the advantages that I had, of course, also was that I knew people that wrote books like how to run your law office with a Mac, so I would contact them and say hey, am I crazy to do this? In which of course they said no.
Adriana Linares: Well certainly there are plenty of lawyers that are successfully running their law offices with Macs on Macs and surrounded by Macs. And of course, with a product like Clio, and many other web-based products out there, they’re browser and device agnostic. So as long as you take the time to learn how to use these programs, the platform that you’re putting them on and using them on isn’t going to be a big hangup at all. Alright, so let’s see; we’ve got website, office, infrastructure, technology. What about maybe PR, marketing? You said you had your articles all put together; what are you doing with those to get the word out?
Michael Downey: Part of it is that I publish several articles a month and so part of it is just a normal flow. As the articles would come through, I would make sure my new firm and contact information would be on there. I also was very fortunate, I have connections with some of the local legal newspapers and actually had a call yesterday from one of the legal newspapers where they interviewed me and ended up writing a story about me starting my firm and another lawyer moving into a new position; we had once been at the same firm, so that was wonderful publicity. And really it’s also just even looking at things like, I went in LinkedIn and updated my profile to a very detailed update. And because I had really been building my LinkedIn platform in the last few years, I have about 2,100 or 2,200 connections. And within 72 hours I’ve had over 300 visitors visit my LinkedIn profile and get a lot of positive comments and a lot of invitations to lunch and those types of things.
Adriana Linares: Oh, that’s great.
Michael Downey: And I’m probably going to do some actual traditional advertising and I’m also in the process of getting a mailing ready to go. I mentioned my website’s not quite done, once my website is done, I’ll probably send a mailer to about 2,00 lawyers. And for me, lawyers are really my target audience, and so it’s easy for me to figure out where to send those cards.
Adriana Linares: That’s really good. And have you thought about how you’re going to network? Are you going to have a specific referral system, network? What are you going to do as far as tapping into your network whether it’s through LinkedIn or through your local network; do you have a plan for that?
Michael Downey: I do, I do a lot of speaking already. I’m planning to actually organize some events for people that would be within my target area and provide them with continuing legal education credits. And things like using LinkedIn to make sure that as new people come on board I have another lawyer that I’ll be working with, so I’m not officially announcing him that he’s there in place, he’s actually got to be announced a little later so that we get staggered news coming out.
Adriana Linares: Oh, that’s a smart way to go at it.
Michael Downey: And doing things like that so the thinking I have is I think it would be better to have six small communications and one big communication about the firm.
Adriana Linares: Right, that makes sense. A little marketing strategy there. So you’re going to have help from another attorney. Are you going to have an assistant?
Michael Downey: Yes, I’ve done some interviewing and I think we’re going to have a paralegal assistant.
Adriana Linares: Great.
Michael Downey: Hopefully someone who will be part time, but I do a lot of the work and I’m also using a lot of outsourcing. I outsourced my receptionist function, I’m going to outsource a lot of my bookkeeping activity and things like that. As they say, letting people who their front office is my back office doing those types of things.
Adriana Linares: Was that something that you really had to think really hard about? Did you say to yourself, like most of us do, well I can handle it, and then have to sort of talk your way out of having to do it all yourself? Or did your trusted advisors talk you into that?
Michael Downey: I trusted the advisors plus the amount of work and time that I spend teaching others about law firms, I really realized there was a lot of sense to doing it. And I represent lawyers who’ve had trust account problems, so I really had to make sure that, for example, the financial end of my firm was operating properly. And I had to say, the last straw with the receptionist; I was really thinking about it, and one day while at my former firm, I actually got 3 sales calls in a row. And I thought okay, I’ve just wasted about half an hour talking to salespeople, and that half an hour basically paid for the receptionist. If they can take care of 3 salespeople a month, I’m coming out ahead on that one.
Adriana Linares: Is there any particular piece that we haven’t talked about or that I haven’t thought of to ask you that you feel is really important for someone who’s thinking about doing this to hear from you?
Michael Downey: Sure. The one thing that I will say is that I think I did actually somewhat cleverly and really was helpful – I did have a business plan and I do have a business plan that I’m using that sort of talks about where to focus my practice. But what actually I thought was perhaps the best thing I did, was I went ahead and created the entity that I ultimately am moving into about 3 or 4 months ago. And in doing that, it allowed me to get an EIN number, it allowed me to get bank accounts, it allowed me to do a lot of that sort of financial infrastructure, so when I did open the firm I had a lot of those things in place. And that was really more helpful than I thought. And what I actually did was it was not originally called Downey Law Group, it was DL Group. And obviously, I’m just renaming it over so that it will become Downey Law Group.
Adriana Linares: And then one last thing that I’m sort of wondering, as you mentioned, you were doing this work ahead of time while you were obviously still working at your bigger law firm. Did you tell anyone there or how did you decide; did you say hey guys, I’m leaving in 3 months, or did you do all of this in the background, get all your ducks in a row and then give notice? What can you tell us about that process?
Michael Downey: The ethics rule introduce your obligations allow lawyers to do preparation work as long as they don’t solicit employees or clients. So I really did the preparation work in the background. The firm that I was at had become a little inconsistent as to whether they would escort people out right away if they knew they were leaving or let them stay, and I wasn’t sure how much time they would give me after I give notice. So I kind of made sure that things were in place. Now, when I ultimately did give notice, they were very nice and I stayed about 30 days beyond that notice and had plenty of time, but I wasn’t sure how things would work out so I wanted to be prepared. If they said to me, you need to leave now, I needed to be ready to serve my clients immediately. And particularly with the practice that i have, I have clients that literally need help every day, so I can’t say I’ll get back to you in six weeks.
Adriana Linares: And how do you go about either taking your clients with you or leaving your clients behind? Tell our listeners about that process.
Michael Downey: The firm had a departing lawyer protocol and I knew that the clients that i had worked with were people that were likely to be loyal to me. There wasn’t anyone else at the firm that did the exact work that I did at the level I did so I felt pretty safe there. I was very careful to go ahead and their protocol called for joint notice to be sent and it was sent. And I also knew that I could reach out to clients after I was on my own and call them up to the extent that I wanted things to go with me. I could probably bring a lot of that with me. I was very careful also to say nothing derogatory about the firm and trust they did the same. And one of the things I thought would help my departure was I really said to the firm, I’m looking to go on my own, I’m going to be close to my house, it’s going to be a small office, and my office is very small. I don’t want to do all the things that a 230 lawyer firm does. And so there were actually matters where I told them I was leaving them behind, I told the clients that I really can’t service you very well. And I even got some calls as I was getting ready to walk out the door where they were matters that i thought would be good for the firm but not good for my new firm. And I actually brought other partners in and make sure that the work stayed behind.
Adriana Linares: Oh, that’s great. Well, I’m sure your clients were grateful for that as well. The firm is definitely one of those things where you don’t want to burn any bridges, you want to keep building it so that you’re able to help each other when it’s right. So overall, when you look back now and you’re in your office and it’s done, how much do you think it cost you to get all this done and up and running. That’s a question that I know our listeners are always very curious about. How much does this stuff cost, is it possible financially for me to actually go out on my own; could you talk to us about that?
Michael Downey: Sure, and I think one of the biggest things that I would say, the advantage that I had with having a practice that I plan to continue was I could really sit back and look and say what do I need? And one of the things that I said very quickly was I need an office where people can actually go. I couldn’t do it out of my house because if someone’s facing losing their license, they want to know that they’ve got a real lawyer; so I needed that space. I was benefited by not having something in a major financial area because people that visit me don’t want everyone to know that they’re visiting me. There were places where I knew I could save money, there were places where I knew I couldn’t save money. I did a gut rehab on the space; new flooring, new tiling, new carpet, new walls, new paint, really everything. And with all the technology and everything, I’m probably looking at a physical plant expense about – all the numbers haven’t come in yet – but probably about $22,000 or so. And I’ve got some website expenses and those types of things. And part of what I was also able to do, a lot of the providers will give you discounts if you pay for the first year in those types of arrangements and not all the discounts are so large that it makes sense. I didn’t want to take on a huge amount of debt and then basically have to work my way out of it, but I did try to be judicious on when I was prepaying on things and when I wasn’t.
Adriana Linares: Oh, that’s great. Well, unfortunately we’ve reached the end of our program. Do you have any closing thoughts or comments that you want to make sure our listeners hear?
Michael Downey: I would just say definitely something I think careful planning is worth it. They always say if you have ten hours to cut down a tree, spend nine hours sharpening your axe. And I definitely felt like the planning that I did was really worthwhile.I’m glad also that I was willing to take the plunge and it’s fun to see my name on the door and on the business cards and talk about people as my employees and say I’m going to try to do this a little differently than it’s been done before and try to do it right. And there’s a lot of excitement to it, so I’m looking forward to it. It’s sink or swim on my terms and I certainly hope I make it swimming through the first year.
Adriana Linares: I’m pretty sure you’re going to be just fine. Tell our listeners how they can get a hold of you, how they can visit your website, how they can get in touch with you.
Michael Downey: Absolutely. As I mentioned, the website is DowneyLawGroup.com, and my email is [email protected]. And one of the things that I’ve decided to do was to get a toll free number. So my toll free number is (844) 961-6644.
Adriana Linares: That’s great. Thank you so much for your time, Michael, really appreciate it. The content has been really valuable, I know our listeners are really going to appreciate it. For all you listeners, who’d like more information about what you’ve heard today please visit New Solo at LegalTalkNetwork.com. Don’t forget you can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and keep an eye on things through RSS and iTunes. That brings us to the end of our show. I’m Adriana Linares, thank you for listening. Join us next time for another episode and remember: you’re not alone, you’re a new solo.
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