How to establish yourself as a sole practitioner
Technological advancements, social media and evolving methods of legal service delivery are all making it much easier for lawyers to get themselves set up as sole practitioners or in their own boutique firms. But there are still necessary boxes – such as community, branding and purpose – that must be ticked, according to three practitioners, writes Jerome Doraisamy.
There is often a significant event that births the decision to become a sole practitioner, Sweetlove Family Law principal Megan Sweetlove says. For this lawyer from Adelaide, it was “children and a FIFO [ﬂy in, ﬂy out] husband”.
“Before having children, I never contemplated starting my own practice. It was really only when I was pregnant with our second child that I decided it was something I would do. The idea was triggered from a very rudimentary thought of how I was going to make it to work on-time, when there were two small humans to get ready and childcare drop-off to contend with,” she recounts.
“At the time, my husband had no plans to stop FIFO work and so I thought I could slowly build up my practice in a way that provided me the intellectual stimulation I missed from paid employment, but with no grand plans to turn it into a large legal practice.
“The idea developed a bit further, until I started my practice and one client turned into many.”
Part of the reason for her success, she notes, is her association with an online community called The Club, run by Brisbane Family Law Centre founder Clarissa Rayward. The importance of this group “can’t be understated” for her business, Ms Sweetlove says.
“We discuss ways to develop and improve our businesses, share tips and tricks on useful products, business planning, marketing planning and development, and generally support one another in our individual pursuits as business owners and lawyers. The environment is so positive and supportive, which is completely at odds with the stereotype of the lawyer environment,” she reﬂects.
“If a question is asked and the group member can’t help, inevitably they know someone who can – there are many sole practitioners in the group and we are completely aware that, as sole practitioners, we lack that physical ability to pop our heads into the office next door and we so often call on one another online for help.”
Redefining community spirit
Viridian Lawyers principal Richard Prangell is similarly gushing about the importance of community, and he goes to lengths to ensure that it is called as such, rather than falling back on what he sees as the more archaic descriptor of “network”.
“I’m as guilty as anyone of leaning on jargon when I need to, but I particularly dislike saying ‘network’, because it complicates something that should be very simple and organic,” says the Sydney-based lawyer.
“Your network is your community [emphasis his], and your community is just a big group of people that you know and like.”
Building and retaining this community, says fellow Sydneysider, Kinny Legal principal Jessica Kinny, is fundamental because no one is an island.
“Having your own law firm and being part of a wider legal community means that you get the best of both worlds – you can work on a business that is entirely yours while still having the opportunity to support each other. For example, my firm is part of [Clarence Chambers, which has] 400 other lawyer members,” she notes.
“Not only can we support each other professionally (e.g. referring work to each other and working together on larger projects), we can also provide all-important social and personal support to each other, as we are all experiencing similar challenges and opportunities.”
Mr Prangell agreed: “People want to work with people they like, and if you need to prove to a stranger that you’re capable and likeable, your friends will be your best advocate. Plus, if they’re friends, they’ll want to help when they can.”
It can only help to be engaged with such like-minded practitioners, Ms Kinny continues: “If you are not part of a community, you are robbing yourself of the opportunity to benefit from the wider experiences and perspectives of your community … which means that you are probably not finding the best solution to all the problems that are coming across your desk in a single day.”
Sole practice can be very isolating, Ms Sweetlove adds, and law as a profession is “tough and competitive”. Without the right support around you, she says, you risk doing yourself and your clients a disservice.
“If you are a naturally non-adversarial lawyer, but you spend all of your time with fierce litigators, I think you are quickly going to feel quite dissatisfied with your work. The conversations surrounding litigious work compared with non-litigious work are very different,” she says.
“While not all of those in my circle have children, I have also found it really valuable finding other lawyer-mums to develop friendships with, because they get how challenging it can be to try and juggle life in law with the competing demands of home life. I feel very fortunate that my husband and I have divided our roles to play to our strengths … we both work part-time so we get to spend really great, quality time with our children.”
For Mr Prangell, having a personal and professional community was the key to building a sustainable business.
“There’s really two reasons for this. When you’re running a small business, and even more so when you’re building one, your mental health and personal satisfaction will have an outsized inﬂuence on your work,” he explains.
"There’s no easy solution to that problem, except taking care of yourself and having a great group of people around you to support you."
It’s all well and good to have a community backing but, as the term suggests, being a sole practitioner also requires individual responsibility and management of your enterprise.
Personal branding is inextricably linked, our subjects agree, to the success or otherwise of a new legal practice. Defining the goals of a new practice, and working out its intentions, will help sole practitioners determine the direction of their branding, Ms Sweetlove advises.
“My biggest tip is to just be authentic – there is no point pretending to be a certain person in your marketing because clients will feel a disconnect when they meet you in person,” she says.
“Secondly, spend time considering what sort of work and clients you want to attract, and then work out how you can attract that work. If you love litigation, work out how you can attract all the litigious work.”
Tailoring such branding is essential, Ms Kinny says.
“Branding comes down to being able to answer a simple question – why should the client engage you instead of someone else? – and believing in that answer with your whole heart,” she posits. “If you do not have a good, authentic answer to that question, you don’t have a compelling brand.”
Mr Prangell notes that he doesn’t put a lot of stock into traditional understandings of branding, which he sees as garnering disingenuous relationships at scale.
“By comparison, boutique professional services businesses should focus on building relationships one to one,” he argues. “Impressive branding might get your foot in the door with a new client, but if it is not genuine, it can’t build a long-term business.”
So, instead of worrying about branding, he encourages practitioners to think more about personality and credibility. “Who are the clients you want to attract, and what do you need to do to show them that you are trustworthy and understand them?” he says.
“A colleague of mine works exclusively with artists and entertainers and is known for always coming to meetings in jeans, a t-shirt and a leather jacket."
The way forward
For those looking to become sole practitioners, or whom have just started out, working for yourself as a lawyer can be one of the more rewarding roads to be travelled.
As Ms Kinny puts it: “Why wouldn’t you [consider sole practise]?”
“The barriers to entry have never been lower, the services supporting your new firm have never been better, and there are more and more clients actively seeking to engage NewLaw firms rather than traditional firms. If you have a compelling service to offer clients, why wouldn’t you start your firm now, while all these trends are working in your favour?” she asks.
Not only this, but sole practice is “one of the few paths to a balanced lifestyle in law”, Mr Prangell claims.
“Lawyers are, mostly, smart, capable people that left to their own devices are capable of managing their own time and making good decisions. I start every day with a run or a gym session at 9:00am, get started at the office at about 10:00am, and I take half a day off every week to spend time with my toddler,” he outlines.
“I couldn’t do that at a larger firm. Perhaps if I worked harder, or longer, I might make more money, but to me, the trade-off wouldn’t be worth it.”
The decision to start her own practice was “one of the best professional decisions” Ms Sweetlove has ever made.
“It is really important to me to spend a lot of time with my children. Somehow, I make it all work in a way that enables me to provide a consistently high level of service to my clients and I get to do great things with my kids – including going to school excursions, assemblies, drop-off and pick up. And lots of lovely other things,” she says.
“I am really deliberate and conscious about the choices I make with my marketing, which is something I have only really worked through in the last 12 months. It’s still not a perfect plan, but I try to be kinder to myself and ignore the perfectionist side of my personality with the non-legal work.”
Whichever path one chooses in law, there are compromises and trade-offs, she concludes.
“By having my own practice compared with being an employee, I have ﬂexibility with my work arrangements but the compromise for that ﬂexibility is ﬂuctuating cash ﬂow rather than a fixed and regular salary,” she says.
“Whichever path is chosen, there is no mistaking that there is a lot of hard work and compromise required. But it is extremely rewarding.”