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Starting a Solo Practice on the Cheap: A Guide for the Overhead-Phobic

by Carolyn Elefant on June 26, 2014 · 11 comments

in Guest Post, Ideas & Tips, MyShingle Solo

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This post is part of the MyShingle Solos summer series which will run between June 17 and July 3, 2014. 

Liz Arguas This post is written by MyShingle Guest Blogger Liz Araguás

Let me begin by saying that I have no trouble spending money. I have always enjoyed life’s luxuries (to the extent that my meager young adult earnings have allowed) and been annoyed by those who were too tight to join in on the fun. However, when I decided to start a solo practice a few months ago, I was terrified to take on overhead expenses. What if this venture didn’t work? What if I just ended up piling more debt on myself, on top of my student loans? I was paralyzed at the thought of taking on unmanageable expenses, and so I set out in search of cheaper alternatives.

I knew that I could practice law frugally from my work as an Americorps Member Attorney at my local legal aid office. Although I intended to start a for-profit firm, the nonprofit world provided much of the inspiration for my eventual start-up plan. Below is a list of the start-up costs I took on to get my practice off of the ground. At the end of month two, I’m excited to report that I’m profitable and growing. While this tightwad strategy will likely not be a long-term plan for me, it has enabled me to get started doing the work that I love, without unduly straining my budget (or my marriage!).

  • My “Office”: $0

I practice primarily out of my home, though let me be clear: clients NEVER visit me here. Many attorneys cast concerned glances when I tell them that my office location is also my guest bedroom, but I assure you, it works. I’ve been surprised at how few of my clients even realize that I work from my home. In fact, many clients need me to meet them elsewhere: in jail, at their home, or at the courthouse.

For clients who don’t need me to come to them, I have a few other options. One of my solo mentors has utilized me as his “office-sitter” while he’s on vacation. In exchange for me keeping the doors open while he’s out, I can use his beautiful conference room for client meetings or mediation sessions. I also have a desk at a local nonprofit that I can use when they refer their clients to me (which is a free space AND a referral source!).

  • My computer: $0

One of the benefits of owning a legal practice as a small business is that the technology demands are relatively low. The same laptop that got me through law school is still chugging along as I start my practice.

  • Printer: $100

Along with the legal profession’s aversion to technology comes the ongoing demand for paper letters and hard copies of documents, at least in my area (Southeast Iowa). To get off the ground, I needed a better printer. Another new solo (and fellow overhead-phobe) recommended a Brother model to me that is highly rated and inexpensive. You can buy one for yourself here.

  • Phone: $0

Of all of the tricks I used to start my practice economically, my phone system is the one I’m proudest of. When I started setting up my practice, I had a personal iPhone. I wanted to use my phone without giving out my personal number to clients. I also felt that it was important to have a number which reflects my local area code. And, of course, I didn’t want to spend any money to set up this phone system.

In came Google Voice, the answer to this overhead cheapskate’s prayers. While I had heard of Google Voice before starting my practice, I did not realize the true scope of the service’s abilities until I started using it. Some of the benefits of using Google Voice include…

o   Voicemail-to-text translation enables you to check voicemails silently

o   Separate phone number enables your friends to call your personal number, clients to call your business line, and both will ring through on your smart phone

o   Do not disturb mode available, so you can have “off duty” hours without turning off your phone

o   You pick your number

o   Automatic spam blocking feature, as well as manual blocking

o   Text messaging from the Google Voice app

o   Full Google support easily available online

  • Marketing Materials: $150

Because I don’t have an office space, it’s important for me to focus on personal branding. I had a talented photographer friend, Carrie Geno, take my headshots, which I use liberally on my website, LinkedIn profile, business cards, even my email signature. Vistaprint offers “free” (plus about $13 shipping) business cards, but I splurged on the $20 box in order to use my photo.

In addition to business cards, I also had some glossy cardstock flyers made describing one of the more novel facets of my practice: elder mediation. This cost around $50, but it made my presentations to eldercare service providers much more memorable.

The above-listed products and services, plus my malpractice insurance of about $500, comprised the vast majority of my start-up costs. Keeping my costs low has taken one pressure off of the already stressful transition into solo practice. I’m sure someday I will recover from overhead phobia, but for now I’m just excited to have found an affordable way to practice law.

Liz Araguás is an attorney and mediator based in Iowa City, Iowa. She is a 2013 graduate of the University Of Iowa College Of Law. You can reach Liz at liz@araguaslaw.com or find her online at www.araguaslaw.com.

 

  • CJ

    That’s great! What about your website costs?

  • Paul Spitz

    Even website costs can be cheap. I pay $99/year to Weebly for hosting and for the DIY platform that I used to create my website. I pay about $50/year for a business gmail account that allows me to use my own domain name, instead of “@gmail.com.” And then I have 5 domain names, each of which costs about $12-$15.

  • http://www.araguaslaw.com Liz Araguás

    CJ,
    Great question. Personally, I had a talented friend set me up with a website for only the cost of the domain and hosting (about $50 up front, and $7 monthly). This is an area where young solos can really save cash, because anyone used to posting on Facebook can handle updating a website. My advice would be to find a local web designer who will charge you a one time fee to set up the site, and empower you to update it as needed.
    Paul’s method is also very effective, but if you find a local person to help you, you may be able to tailor the website more to your liking.

  • Ada-Marie

    I love this — I am about to do the same thing. I am going to spend more on malpractice and website development, but I love the idea of Google Voice!

  • Zach W.

    Thanks! As someone who is interested in practicing in a small town, I found your discussion of your partnership with a local non-profit to be informative and wonderfully inventive! Not only does it provide a meeting space with clients, it also seems like an amazing opportunity to network with attorneys in your community and to build relationships with potential long-term clients!

  • Zach W.

    I was listening to a podcast recently and they recommended squarespace. Though I haven’t used squarespace myself, the websites featured were both easy to navigate and visually pleasing! I can’t recommend choosing the service myself, but I would say it’s worth checking out, based on what I’ve seen.

  • tetonattorney

    Nice work! I’ll add that when you’re ready to take credit card payments via email that freshbooks/stripe is a cheap combo. I am irritated with vistaprint though since they spam my inbox and make it more difficult than other vendors to unsubscribe.

  • tetonattorney

    Also, I like the hellofax option for a cheapish fax service. It’s $10/month, which is more expensive than a fax over time, but probably comparable to the cost of the dedicated number you get. It integrates with gmail for business and all your faxes are in the cloud for ever. Easy to send/receive.

  • Charlotte

    Virtual Offices and a company called Liquid Space for booking meetings..

  • Paul Spitz

    You can barter web design for legal services, too. Web designers may need independent contractor agreements, incorporation, and other basic services.

  • Karyn

    Great post, Liz! Overhead costs were/are a phobia of mine as well and I now feel like I could maybe wrap my brain around this and encourage others to give it a shot! And yes — love Google Voice!

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