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 Freehold-based attorney 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, but in the end, the rewards of working for yourself make it worthwhile, he says.
Detzky will head a panel of experts who will discuss “Becoming a Better Business Person,” at the 2008 Solo and Small Firm Institute sponsored by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education on Tuesday, August 19, at 9 a.m. at the New Jersey Law Center, New Brunswick. Cost: $189. Register at www.njicle.com.
Other speakers include Grace Bertone of McElroy Deutsch Mulvaney & Carpenter in Morristown; Paulette Brown of Edwards, Angell, Palmer & Dodge in Madison; Donald Lomurro of Lomurro Davison Eastman and Munoz in Freehold; Deborah Nelson of Budd Larner in Short Hills; Nancy Rice of Haddonfield; and Jan Seigel of Seigel & Associates in Ridgewood. The panel will focus “on every aspect of becoming a better business person,” says Detzky, including rainmaking (bringing new business to a firm), marketing, billing, and protecting yourself from potential ethical dilemmas.
Other sessions will focus on building skills for the types of cases most often handled by the solo and small practice, such as family law, wills, real estate closings, and labor and employment issues.
Detzky is a partner in the firm of Detzky and Hunter, with offices in Freehold and Somerville. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from in 1975 and his law degree in 1978, both from Rutgers, he clerked for the late Milton B. Conford, presiding judge for Administration, Appellate Division in the state Superior Court. This was during a period when the judge was temporarily assigned to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Detzky made the jump to a solo practice in the early 1980 because, “I’ve always had an independent spirit and I decided it was just as easy to make money for myself as it was to make money for someone else.”
He 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. Detzky is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Immigration Law Section, and has served on the private panel of bankruptcy trustees administered and maintained by the United States Trustee for New Jersey.
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 other types of insurance, including 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. It can be difficult to obtain a loan for a solo law practice. “The failure rate is high,” Detzky says. 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 in 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.”
But still, you need to stay fit. If you aren’t in the office, no one else is taking up the slack and doing your work for you, he points out. “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. Investing in a professional-looking office doesn’t have to cost a fortune. He 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 in clothes that are too casual, such as jeans 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 consumer and business 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.