«Starting A New Law Office: A Checklist Michael C. Smith On January 14, 2008, after fifteen years at my prior firm, I opened a new ...»
Starting A New Law Office: A Checklist
Michael C. Smith
On January 14, 2008, after fifteen years at my prior firm, I opened a new office for the
practice of law. Actually, “opened” and “office” are misnomers – since I did not yet have an
office, what I actually did was walk into my study and start working from my home computer.
But the point is that I left an existing firm and started my own office, essentially from scratch.
There are countless good articles about how to open your own office, many of which I studied and learned from. What this article will attempt to do is provide a checklist of the steps – in order – that I learned starting a new office requires. Of course some will not apply to your situation, and there may be some not here that you’ll need to add. But hopefully this will give you a starting point for the things you need to do, and when you need to do them.
STEP ONE – WHO AM I?The first step you’ll need to take is to establish the identity of your new entity. Since my practice is almost exclusively litigation, and I need to file pleadings or motions with courts on an almost daily basis, I thought of this as creating my new firm “block” for court filings and e- mails.
1. Set up your entity & get an employer identification number (EIN).
The first thing you need to do is set up the legal entity under which you will be operating, whether it be a corporation or whatever. You’ll also need an EIN right away. Fortunately, both are essentially only a phone call away. In my case, I was setting up a new office for an existing firm, so one of my new partners advised me on the pros and cons of different corporate structures, then set up the new entity for me through an incorporating service – which also handles the paperwork of getting you the EIN you’ll need. Once you have the EIN, go ahead and fill out a W-9 form (available online) with your new EIN and keep it handy – you’ll need it sooner than you think to give corporate clients the information they need to pay you.
2. Get a post office box The second thing you’ll need – now that you know the name of your new entity – is a permanent location. Whether you know where physically you will be or not yet (at this stage I didn’t) what you don’t know is how long you’ll be there. What you need is a stable, long term official address that your new office can rely on. That means a post office box. I’ll get to “street mail” later.
3. Get a phone number It can be a temporary one, such as your cell phone, which is what I did for a week until I had a land line. Your goal here is only to populate a signature block – even with a temporary number - so that you can give anyone who asks complete contact information from the minute you open your doors, even if the doors and the opening are only figurative.
4. Get a fax number Even though with the advent of e-mail most of what used to be sent by fax now comes by e-mail, you still need a fax number. If you try to get by without one – as I did – within a couple of days you’ll discover how important one still is as requests come in from other lawyers, clients, and vendors who are used to communicating by fax.
What I did was something I had been wanting to do for years, which was eliminate paper faxes altogether. Rather than get a fax line from the phone company and buy a fax machine, I set up an account with eFax, www.eFax.com, which gave me a number to give out as my fax number. But any faxes sent to that number the company converts to an e-mail attachment in the format of my choice. Now all faxes come directly to the e-mail addresses I designate as.pdf files. I delete the junk faxes and drag and drop the ones I want to keep to the appropriate folder.
All without having to rescan anything – or pay for the cost of toner (you’ll soon learn that that black stuff that makes words on your printer/copier paper is very expensive!) Plus, as you’ll learn below, not having to get a separate fax line is substantially cheaper when you start looking at phones.
5. Get a new e-mail address and Internet access to it.
You’ll also need a new e-mail address, and while you can get any number of free addresses through providers such a Google or Yahoo, I would suggest that you purchase a domain of your own from providers such as eNom, www.eNom.com. A “domain” is the thing that goes between the www. and the.com - and usually comes with several free e-mail addresses. That way when you’re ready to set up an Internet website for your new firm, you won’t have to change your e-mail – and your new office will look more professional. In my case, I was opening a new office for an existing firm, so they provided me with whatever addresses I needed, using their already established domain name, www.siebman.com.
While you may prefer to access your e-mail primarily via a program on your computer, such as Outlook or Outlook Express, it’s a good idea to make sure that your e-mail is also accessible via the Internet. Some providers have their own online sites for reading e-mail (www.NetworkSolutions.com is an example) or you can set the mail up to forward to a Gmail or Yahoo! account. Having a way to access your e-mail from the Internet is not just a good backup – it’s a way that you can work using your new e-mail before you buy office computers. In my case, I worked e-mails from my home computer and/or a borrowed laptop using the e-mail provider’s Internet site for a week before my new office’s computers came in.
If you can automatically forward e-mails from your old e-mail account, do – otherwise make arrangements for someone at your old firm there to monitor your old e-mail and send you any e-mails that are not related to cases that you are not going to be involved in any longer.
STEP TWO WHERE DO I GO?Once you know who you are, you need to figure where you’re going to be.
6. Find an office.
Practicing law requires a “place.” It can be as simple as a folding table and chair, but you need a home base to do most of your work from. You can work out of your home, and many attorneys do, but assuming that you want an office outside the home, the next step is to locate a
place for your new firm. In my case I talked to realtors and other lawyers, but found my new office talking to a friend at a supper club my wife and I are members of the day after I left my old firm. The space I leased was never listed with a realtor, but was far better suited for me than anything I looked at that was on the market at the time.
Once you have identified the space you want, get it set with a signed lease as soon as possible so that you know what you can and can’t do, what you need your landlord’s permission for, and – most importantly - you can then start planning what goes in your office.
Depending on what your office provides and what it doesn’t, you may have other things to do, including (a) setting up an account with the local electric company, gas company and/or water company (b) getting an alarm system installed, or an existing alarm system account transferred to your new firm; and (c) putting up signage. If you are in an office building the landlord may provide the necessary signage – if not, you may need to order and install the signage you want. Advertising is beyond the scope of this article, but every office needs something outside the door for deliveries and visiting clients and attorneys, at the very least. In my case, a piece of paper with the firm name taped beside the front door worked nicely for several weeks until the metal plaques came in.
7. Plan your office The first thing to do when you know where you physically will be is to sit down and decide what will go where in your new office. Primarily this means determining what locations in your office have phone and/or network connections, and where you’ll need to have these added. I was lucky – my office suite had previously been used by a hospital’s billing offices and was blanketed with electrical outlets and phone and computer connections, so the decision was really which connections to use, and not where to add new ones.
Furniture is a significantly lower priority when planning your office, since when you get right down to it folding tables and chairs and old furniture from your house are functionally identical to a custom-made mahogany partner’s desks and leather chairs, but it is a good idea to make a list of what you need, complete with dimensions, early on so that you can add the furniture you want as the opportunity arises. In my case, I bought one major new piece immediately – a secretary/receptionist station – but put the rest off for several months until I had fees coming in to pay for them with.
8. Get a “computer guy” and order computers and related equipment How soon you order computers depends in part on how soon you have a concrete idea what you’ll need. In my case, I ordered computers on D + 2, since while I didn’t know where I’d be, I knew what I’d need. They were installed on D + 7, when I moved into my new offices, but the laptop I would be using as my main computer the “computer guy” brought over on D + 4 when it came in so I could start getting set up on the machine I’d actually be using.
On computers and other office equipment, there are as many different setups and models as there are lawyers, but I think my setup is a good basic one, so I want to go through what I got and why.
Server – no matter how small you are, your system really should start with some type of server and a network. It doesn’t have to be a “server” per se – just a workstation brainwashed into thinking it’s a server may be sufficient. But to be efficient you need a central computer on a network where the other computers can access the files. Connected to the server should be a removable hard drive to which the server’s files are routinely backed up. It’s also a good idea to
have two of these hard drives so you can rotate the backups and keep one off-site. They’re small and cheap, and good insurance, especially if you don’t keep paper files.
Workstations – each employee needs a computer workstation, starting with you.
Typically, this is a CPU tower and a monitor (or two) with keyboard and mouse, which is usually connected to the network using an Ethernet cable. For my workstation, I chose a laptop with a docking station, which sits on my credenza and is hooked up to a large monitor and a wireless keyboard and mouse. Each morning I just drop the laptop on the docking station, press one button, and the exact same desktop I was working on at home the night before pops up, but on dual screens.
Copier/Printer/Scanner – what you need here depends heavily on your practice.
As far as copiers, for what I do (litigation practice in an all e-filing federal court) it is rare for me actually to have to handle paper documents, much less copy them, so I didn’t purchase a copier at all, instead simply relying on the copier features of my networked printer for the rare occasions that I need to make a paper copy of a document. If your practice won’t accommodate this, you can either buy or lease a standalone (or networked) copier from an office supply or copier company.
For a printer, again, I didn’t anticipate needing a lot of actual printing on paper, so I got one of the smallest network printers available that would do double-sided printing. I also got used immediately to printing almost everything on “draft” mode to save toner, and two-sided to save paper. At the current rate of use, despite having several dozen cases in active litigation, our office uses less than one ream of paper per month.
For me, the scanner features were key, since we intended to run an essentially paperless office, so the network printer also had a sheet-fed scanner so we could easily scan in documents that came in and save them on the server. It took a couple of weeks to determine the right settings, but this is the machine that’s used for multi-page scanning. Another option would have been to get a dedicated scanner such as the Fujjitsu ScanSnap, which scans documents doublesided quickly and accurately. If you receive a large amount of paper in your office, and don’t want to maintain it in that form, something like a ScanSnap would probably be well worth the price.
Wi-fi network. Wi-fi networks have become prevalent in law offices, and while the people working in them may not need them because they are already hard-wired into the network and get their Internet access that way, visiting lawyers have come to expect it. Accordingly, I had a wireless network installed in my building, with a security code that we give out to visiting lawyers so that our bandwidth isn’t being used by offices around ours. What I do use the wi-fi network for is to read my Google Reader account on my Palm T/X while away from my desk, for example while having lunch in the break room. I can also use it to work from other locations in the office using the laptop so if, for example, I have loaned my office to a visiting lawyer for a meeting, I can keep working from one of the smaller offices, or from the stand-up desk in my office.
VPN – Finally, in order to work from home or on the road, you’ll need a way to access your server’s files remotely using, for example, a virtual private network (VPN). There are other options – you can use a program such as pcAnywhere to access your desktop remotely, and use its connection to the network. But there’s little point to having your files on a central server if the only way you can access them is at your office desktop machine.
Internet access – Internet access is available several ways, depending on where you are – most locations have cable modem, phone line, or broadband wireless as options. Which you
use is up to you, but as your computer guy will be hooking it up to your system, make the decision at this point and call whoever you need to to get Internet access. In my case, the computer guy was selling broadband wireless, so that’s what I got. That way if anything goes wrong – it’s his fault.