There are No Glass Ceilings when You Are the Architect
Women are at an increasing rate taking on the entrepreneurial risks and rewards of foundingtheir own law firms. In many cases, they have achieved partner status at established firms and are looking for something more. In a 2016 ABA research paper, solo firms now make up 49% of all law firms. According to the 2012 US Census, there are now 29,560 women-owned law firms. The trend of more women launching their own law firms will increase, perhaps even with the reduction of gender inequities.
When you start your own firm, there are no glass ceilings to break through. There is a commonly shared phrase, “The Future is Female.”
Women are launching their own firms for many reasons, including control of their practice, greater independence, increased financial reward, and flexibility of time and resources.
In a survey I recently conducted among female California attorneys, primarily among those who practice in Contra Costa County, 67% of the respondents have started or were thinking of starting their own firm. Eighty one percent of these entrepreneurial attorneys cited increased independence as the primary reason, and 47% also stated that better financial rewards were an incentive. Other reasons included having control over business decisions, being able to tailor the practice, and being part of a smaller, focused firm. Undoubtedly there are other reasons such as having total accountability, being able to create their own vision and having autonomy.
Being a female lawyer who started her own firm, I have found starting my own firm rewarding on multiple levels: Given the increasing number of women starting their own firms, or considering starting their own firms, I find myself sharing my own story often. From the inside, I can say that the good comes with the challenges, but I am pleased every day with the choice I made and have never looked back. I am honored to share a few helpful tips.
The how starts by defining your firm’s vision, setting forth a plan and then ensuring execution. It requires the mentality of a leader, an unquantifiable trait that is key to starting and maintaining a firm. Whether you want to start a solo firm or a larger one and hire associates, or even enter into a partnership, you need to be a leader, and follow your gut.
There are many factors I encountered in launching my firm that had nothing to do with legal knowledge or experience. Being an entrepreneur requires different skills sets than managing your caseload, court calendar and client billing. In starting a firm, it is helpful to focus on three important areas: Customers, Skills and Resources.
First, your customers aka clients, will determine how quickly your firm will become successful. In professions like medicine, accounting and law, referrals are a major source of new business. To cultivate referrals, take great care of your clients as they will be a great source for new business. In your nonpractice time, continue to do what you love and clients will follow, such as serving on non-profit boards, volunteering with bar organizations, teaching at a law school, participating in sports and music, and meeting and building relationships with people who share similar interests. These relationships provide a tremendous amount of support and are a positive source of referrals.
Second, marketing is perhaps one of the most important skills that you need to utilize. Marketing is the presentation of your firm’s image to your stakeholders – clients, vendors, associates and the community. The image that you create for your firm will help differentiate you from your competitors. It will tell your potential client what they may expect from you and your company. The key to marketing is to communicate in several channels in a clear and consistent manner. Channels of marketing include your web presence, your collateral material (brochures, business cards, letterhead, etc.) and your publicity. Publicity can range from ads to speaking at events and conferences, to providing pro bono services.
Third, do you have the amount of resources you have or will need for your practice? Do you have enough capital to launch a firm? Do you have funds to equip your office needs such as a computer, furniture, etc.? The choices you make about your business can be constrained by the resources at your disposal. One of the most important resources is having a mentor who has experienced some of the challenges you will face.
Starting a firm is certainly an adventure and one way to bypass the glass ceiling, but one I think is well worth the effort.