At my law school, becoming a Biglaw attorney or judicial clerk was touted as the ultimate success. Unfortunately, that meant that the vast majority of my classmates ended up with … sloppy seconds? I knew the idea of billing in six-minute increments for the rest of my legal career was tantamount to spooning out my eyes. Similarly, cite-checking or writing legal opinions was not living my best life. No thanks, I’ll pass.
So, I chose the path of least resistance. Someone, hire me! For 11 years, I took the best jobs that I could. Now, I am creating them. I first had to tackle my untrue, preconceived notions, such as solo and small firm practice was not for me, and lawyers who hang their own shingles were not hireable elsewhere. It took some work, but I am so grateful that I found my way to entrepreneurship as a lawyer.
Here are some lessons I learned in my journey; some I wish I had known before I hung my shingle:
- Just Do It!
Remember the Colin Kaepernick Nike commercial during the height of the kneeling against police brutality controversy? Ahh, yes, a simpler time before the insurrection. The ad is chock full of video footage of athletes defying the odds despite their class, age, race, gender, ability, and religion; this is the type of video you watch to psych yourself up for a triathlon or a key presentation. The “just do it” energy is most of the battle. Setting up your shingle takes mental just do it energy.
Enter impostor syndrome, stage left.
Like a stubborn blackhead, impostor syndrome pops up at the most inopportune times. It’s that nagging self-doubt that keeps us (mostly women) from betting on ourselves. We buy the lie that we are fraudulent, not smart enough, and not worthy enough to take calculated risks. Impostor syndrome will lock you in golden handcuffs at a high-paying job or keep you stuck in the rat race rather than pursuing a life worthy of your most profound wants.
The reality is that we are worthy of entrepreneurial pursuits — if called. For some, becoming a small firm owner is a big mistake. It’s not for everyone. However, for the select few of us who desire to pursue this path, it is unbelievably rewarding. Ignore the naysayers and your internal self-doubt. Replay the Nike ad to the end. Your dreams are only crazy until you do it. So, just do it.
- Clarify Who I Serve And What I Do
Now that you’ve decided to strike out on your own, defining who you serve and what you do is beneficial. If you’re anything like I was when you start, your immediate thought is to take anyone with a detectable heartbeat.
Traffic ticket? Sure, why not.
Government contract? Sign me up.
While the spaghetti on the wall method is tempting at first, defining who you’d like to serve and what type of law to practice will help you focus and lead to more success. Be the CEO of Your Law Firm by Ally Lozano is a book with practical exercises for establishing a law firm.
3. I Must Pay Myself
It is very tempting to pour your heart and soul into your law firm and pay yourself like a part-time intern or not at all. Fight the urge to forgo payment. Yes, you may not start with a big salary, but pay yourself a living wage. What sense does it make to build a practice that does not support your lifestyle? I know so many lawyers who have thriving practices but struggle to make monthly payroll. Full disclosure: I have been there myself. Cash flow issues are the worst, but this does not have to be the norm in your practice. Build up reserves, hire a money coach, figure it out.
Next week, I will share a few more tips on what I wish I’d known before starting a law firm. Please feel free to send any constructive comments or questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would also love to hear your topic suggestions!
Iffy Ibekwe is the principal attorney and founder of Ibekwe Law, PLLC. She is an estate planning attorney evangelist for intergenerational wealth transfer with effective wills and trusts. Iffy is writing her first book on culturally competent estate planning, available in 2022 (prayers up!). She graduated from The University of Texas School of Law and has practiced law for over 14 years. Iffy can be reached by email at email@example.com, on her website, and on Instagram @thejustincaselawyer.