When setting up a law firm you will find no end of sales people keen to offer you their wares and indeed there are many good products on the market. It would be all too easy to sign up to long term commitments to services which seem essential, but may turn out to be a white elephant; after all on day one you will not know how your practice is likely to evolve and its future needs.
If you are planning on launching a sizeable firm then no doubt you’ll need to spend a good deal of time scoping and costing the tools you will need taking advice from specialist in law firm set up/spin out can be invaluable for those wishing to make a splash in the legal world (Kindleworth are highly regarded in this respect). However, if you are launching a firm of up to five partners the tools that are likely to be essential are easily identified.
Bank account – You will of course need a bank account and most probably more than one account.
If you are going to hold client funds then you will need a client account as well. Setting up a bank account for a new business is tricky and time consuming at the best of times; setting up a client account adds complication. Further, if you wish to hold client monies then the controls on that account must be put in place from the start and specialist Solicitors Accounts Rules auditors must be retained to audit compliance.
Email – there are a many services available that offer perfectly usable email at little or no cost. However you should exercise extreme caution before using any such provider. The SRA (rightly) insists that your email is secure, resilient, confidential and capable of being inspected by the SRA if needs be. Further, beware of providers based outside Europe (and especially those based in America), data protection laws effectively require the data to be held in the EEA. Microsoft’s Office 365 software is a good way forwards. This offers quick and easy setup for a simple monthly fee. There is still debate whether the SRA is happy with the use of Office 365 as the data may be backed up in America and further that the US Patriot Act means the US authorities can access the data without your consent. However, there are a number of law firms using Office 365 and they are very confident that they meet with the SRA regulations.
Website – websites are essential to all businesses these days and will help prospective clients find out further information about your firm. If anything, the problem is choice as you will need to choose a domain, how the site will be built and then how you will promote it.
Websites can be built from scratch to match your chosen branding perfectly or can be built based on templates (often very much more cheaply). Almost all sites these days offer a content management system which allows you to update the website once the web developer’s work is over.
In recent years a number of agencies which focus purely on the legal sector have been established including Conscious Solutions and MMA Digital. Alternatively if you choose to build it yourself you will find that many domain hosting companies have online website builders with pre-set templates. However, you may struggle to convey the quality and uniqueness of your service through such a site.
All websites of course require content that tells your clients about how you can help them. Writing website content is a skill in itself, you may be lucky enough to have this gift – if unsure try some sample copy out on a trusted contact (preferably not another lawyer!). The chances are, you were born to draft and not to write website copy and if so you might do well to seek help from a copy writer. Copy writers are very affordable, many have day rates less than your hourly rate, but even the best of them will need you to set out the key messages your new firm is looking to convey to your clients. Not surprisingly those messages will centre around trust, service and expertise, but when creating content make sure it is client focussed (i.e. explains to the clients the benefits your firm will offer it rather than simply the features of your firm) and it is written in a way that will ensure clients searching for you can find you. If you are an expert in, say, shareholder agreements, then your content needs to mention that phrase many times and it should further feature in page structure (generally referred to as search engine optimisation, another skill you will need shortly to acquire or retain). Search engines don’t just look at the words on your site, but also the words behind your site, referred to as “meta data”. This is built into the coding including the title of pages, tags, description and keywords.
It is possible to pay to appear at the top of the rankings, this is called pay-per-click (PPC) and is good old fashioned advertising, but unlike traditional advertising with PPC you can target your adverts in minute detail to make sure you are getting bang for your buck. Needless to say there are further agencies which can help you with PPC campaigns, but trial and error is usually enough and there are plenty of books on the subject that will get you going if you prefer the DIY approach.
Finally, remember that assembling your website is not a once and for all task. If you want it to attract clients to your website then you will need to ensure it has content on it that they (and the search engines for that matter) will find attractive and that new content is regularly added to keep the site looking fresh and up to date. Your competitors will be doing this so you’ll be falling behind them if you don’t. Not surprisingly there are services that can give you content to add to your website if you like, indeed PLC (or the Practical Law Company to give them their full name) offers monthly articles you can upload to your website or put into a newsletter to your clients.
Precedents and legal library – most lawyers now view an external provider of legal precedents as essential. In reality, save for niche areas, there are only two players: the Practical Law Company (now owned by Thomson Reuters) and Lexis Nexis. They each offer these separate services and prices are dependent on the subject area and the number of licences needed.
Practice management/case management/accounts software – for most firms their practice management system or PMS is a core business tool. There are many such tools on the market. Some are limited to accounting software only and other packages include a full suite of practice tools, such as document management and client relationship management, one notable provider is Clio which offers a full back office service to include legal cashiering.
Office space – your offices say a lot about you and your firm, but office overhead has been the downfall of many a firm. When setting up your own firm you would be wise to think twice about taking costly office space. It is possible to present a professional image to clients using a suite of on demand meeting rooms combined with a post receipt and phone answering facility. Where physical office space is required then service offices are available by the month to avoid committing to long term costs; such need not be in the same location as your chosen (prestigious) client meeting rooms. Landmark offer a good range of affordable accommodation.
There is an alternative solution if you seek all the flexibility and freedom of setting up your own law firm but wish to avoid the investment inherent in setting up.