Laws of Survival For Solo Practices

Taking care of the business end of business is something every sole owner must be aware of, no matter what the profession.

Lawyers are as often guilty of forgetting this rule as people who work in any other profession, says Michael Detzky, a partner in the firm of Detzky and Hunter, with offices in Freehold and Somerville, who has had his own practice for about 20 years. It can be tough to go it alone and the failure rate is high for solo or small practice attorneys.

Detzky advises anyone interested in developing a solo practice to specialize. His areas of concentration are consumer and business bankruptcy as well as immigration and nationality law. He also represents armed services members in administration separation proceedings and courts martial defense.

Be prepared. Getting everything in order before you head out on your own is vital to success, says Detzky. Make sure you have everything in place. What are you going to do about health insurance? Do you have a spouse with a job whose benefits cover you and your family? If not, health insurance will be a big expense you must plan for. You also need to look into malpractice and basic business coverage.

“Make sure that you know the actual cost of doing business,” he says. Along with the cost of insurance don’t forget to factor in rent, utilities, an answering service, and any other services you think you might need.

Consider a loan — but don’t bet on one. Banks are often unwilling to write a business loan for a law practice, so attorneys may be forced to consider a home equity loan. “It’s tougher now than ever before,” he says.

Plan on long hours. After more than 20 years in a small practice, Detzky recently took a three-week vacation, but it’s been a long time coming, he says. “When I first opened up I could never have taken that kind of time off. If you aren’t prepared to work long hours don’t go into solo practice. Don’t think you are going to take off at 2 o’clock every afternoon and go to the gym.”

Still, you do need to stay fit. “Make sure that your health is good. If you’re not fit enough to work the hours, you aren’t going to make it.”

Invest in your image. That means everything — your personal appearance, your advertising, your office space.

“I know some attorneys who start their practice out of their homes, but I don’t think it ever portrays the right image,” Detzky says. “I can assure you that people don’t want to confide their legal problems to you while sitting in your living room and listening to the dog bark and smelling the onions frying. Unless your business is strictly transactional and you never meet clients face-to-face, get yourself an office.”

Once you have the office, make sure it projects a professional appearance. “You wouldn’t feel comfortable going to a doctor whose office was messy and unkempt, why should you think someone wants to go to a lawyer whose office looks that way?” he asks. Detzky suggests start-up practices consider space in a business incubator or other shared office facility.

Another part of your image is your answering service. “It is just more professional to have a person answering the phone, not a machine,” he says. Some incubators or shared offices include secretarial service, and remote answering services are also available and cost much less than a personal assistant or receptionist.

Detzky is also “old school” about personal appearance. “It is rarer and rarer to see a colleague in a business suit these days,” he says. But coming to work injeans and a sport shirt, “just makes it look like you are not on your game.”

Find a specialty. Every small practice will have its share of “bread and butter business” such as real estate closings and simple wills, says Detzky. “These are the things that keep the lights on.” But the way to become successful is to become known as a specialist in a couple of areas.

“When I first opened my practice very few people were practicing immigration law in New Jersey,” he says. Today there is much more competition in this specialty. However, Detzky has back up specialties. He also works in military law and bankruptcy.

There is a lot of competition out there. “The number of lawyers in New Jersey is growing but the number of clients is finite,” he says. That doesn’t mean that a solo law practice can’t make it in today’s business climate. To do so, however, you must be prepared to put in the time and effort to build your business. Contact Detzky and Hunter at 732-780-3090.

Excerpted from the August 13, 2008, issue of U.S. 1.

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