For many attorneys, the idea of starting their own law firm is attractive and alluring, however, only a small percentage actually take the leap and do it.  The general perception is that attorneys are risk averse and are reluctant to trade stability for an entrepreneurial venture.   There are many factors to balance whether to become your own boss.  For some, they are in a relatively stable position and weigh the risks of leaving stability for the unknown future of being responsible for a paycheck.  For others, their future opportunities may be limited and they try to discern whether to seek another law firm opportunity or bet on themselves and build a law firm practice from scratch.

Howard I. Elman, Esq., is a co-founding partner with Matalon Shweky Elman (“MSE”), a boutique law firm located in Manhattan.   Prior to forming MSE, Howard spent a significant part of his career at a New York mid-size law firm and ultimately became a litigation partner at that firm.  It was shortly after making partner that Howard started considering moving out on his own.  “I wanted to control my own destiny,” Elman said.  He did not want to be dependent on anyone else, and “the idea of being an entrepreneur appealed to me,” he added.

Obviously, when starting your own firm, an attorney wants to ensure that he/she has a revenue source to fund the new venture.  Mr. Elman indicated that he had some business and was confident that his clients would follow him because he was the primary client contact.  “I knew day one I would be able to support myself,” however, he was not sure how much business he would be able to generate beyond his initial clients.  Mr. Elman said that he had a sizable network of friends and colleagues at large and small law firms and reached out to them as referral sources of business.

When starting up your own firm, attorneys might have to take on work and cases that they haven’t had significant experience with during their careers.  Upon transitioning to his own law firm, Mr. Elman expected to continue his commercial litigation practice.  However, due to a fortuitous law firm malpractice case that was referred to him, there was a slight change of plans.  According to Mr. Elman, he “had one law firm malpractice case, representing a big law firm, without knowing at the time, there was a need for high caliber attorneys with competitive rates to defend large firms in malpractice cases.”  Because of a positive outcome for his client, Mr. Elman received referrals and inquiries from law firms that needed defense counsel in malpractice cases and that evolved into a focus of his successful practice.

Once he got settled into to his own law firm, Mr. Elman noticed some professional skill developments.  “I was able to develop my own style of lawyering and develop my own voice,” he said.  While at a larger firm, he had to deal with preferences of other partners and their styles.  While this was a positive development there are also challenges that attorneys face for the first time as a small firm owner.  Mr. Elman states the “the administrative side of practice can be tricky and scary.”  There are financial accounting, medical benefits, taxes and retirement accounts among other responsibilities.

With respect to ongoing challenges, Mr. Elman stated that he focuses on three things, “one, bring in business, two, bring in business and three, bring in business.”  Developing and generating business requires a significant effort.  Mr. Elman says that he gets business by word of mouth, and he also “stays on peoples’ radar.”  He says that it is “threading a needle of staying on peoples’ mind and not annoying them.”  He tries to gauge the individual client whether its following up with an email, dinner or drinks.

Staffing is also a critical element to having a successful law firm.  Mr. Elman says that “we mostly recruited people through people we know and trust.”  He adds that the growth of the firm has been organic.  “We would only hire quality people and pay them competitively for a firm of our size.” Mr. Elman sums up his experience that “it has been life changing in a positive way.”  For Howard Elman, stepping out on his own proved to be personally and professionally rewarding.

David B. Sarnoff, Esq. is a legal recruiter and Principal of his search firm, Sarnoff Group LLC. He has over eighteen (18) years of experience as a recruiter and career counselor. He has placed partners, counsels, associates and groups into law firms. He has also placed attorneys into companies and hedge funds in many cities. He has been a frequent presenter to various Bar Associations on recruiting, marketing and branding for attorneys. Feel free to contact David for a confidential conversation at 646.665.4899 or David also practiced at a New York law firm in the areas of complex commercial litigation and white-collar defense. He is a member of the Board of Education in Fort Lee, NJ and currently serves as the Board President.