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January 05, 2007

The Bare Truth About Solo's Office Budgets

Connecticut Law Tribune - June 28, 2006

My husband and I, in our never-ending quest to trim the budget to accommodate the rising costs of gas, home heating oil, and property taxes, invariably ask each other the question, "what do we actually need?" We know our "needs" never change but the manner in which we fulfill those needs will either increase or decrease our expenses and determine our budget. The same is true for the startup solo.

Which leads me to the most frequently asked question by those who want to strike out on their own,"What do I actually "need" to open an office?" I always find this an interesting question. It is interesting because what every solo "needs" is absolutely the same. What separates Solo A from Solo B is the manner in which those needs are fulfilled. No two lawyers’ personalities or situations are the same. Yet, when the question is invariably posed, my answer remains the same; " Whatever you feel you really need is what you need." You may think I’m playing a game of semantics, but I’m not. An example would be the following: you need a place to interview potential clients. That remains an absolute. Do you "need" to interview that client in a fully appointed private office across from the court house in downtown New Haven or are you comfortable meeting at a law library? Your need remains constant, a place to meet potential clients. How you ultimately decide to fulfill that requirement will be driven by your budget and personality.

The purpose of establishing your basic needs for startup is to help you construct a budget. Every decision a new lawyer makes is predicated on their seed money and projected income and expenses, both personal and professional, for the first two years. Therefore, no two solos’ budgets will ever be the same.That being said, what does a solo need to get started. (And this is just a short list.) A solo needs the following: 1) A place to do work with relative privacy; 2) a means of creating, printing, saving, copying, and storing work product; 3) a means of communicating confidentially; 4) a means of receiving as well as sending faxes, e-mails, regular mail; 5) a place or places to meet with clients; 6) a voice messaging system whether mechanical or human; 7) a means of doing research; 8) a means of keeping an accounting of your business and a system for time management; 9) business cards and letterhead; 10) internet service and an internet presence; 11) a paper shredder and office supplies; 12) reliable transportation and; 13) a million dollar suit. Your budget and psychological mindset will determine your comfort zone in each category when getting started. As your practice grows how you fulfill your continuing needs will evolve. Are you shocked? The reality is all you need to run a practice is a means by which to satisfy these thirteen requirements. The "how" is totally individual and predicated on your budget.

Two examples of the thirteen needs fulfilled are illustrated as follows: Example A: 1) a home office; 2) computer, 4-in-1 copier, fax, scanner, laser printer, offsite safety deposit box for computer backup files; 3) landline and/or cellphone; 4) PO Box; 5) meeting at court houses, law libraries, other attorney’s offices; 6) voice mail on land line and cell phone; 7) law libraries for research; 8) Quickbooks and/or TimeSlips; 9) business cards & letter head computer designed and printed on your computer; 10)Internet Service and website; 11) paper shredder and office supplies; 12) car, and; 13) million dollar suit.Example B: 1) a home office; 2) computer, 4 in 1 copier, fax, scanner, laser printer, offsite safety deposit box for computer backup files; 3,4,5,6) cell phone/Virtual Office for client meetings, mail, voice messaging live and mechanical, and a la carte professional secretarial/paralegal services; 7) Lexis/Nexis; 8) part-time bookkeeper and Time Slips; 9) professionally designed and printed business cards and letter head; 10) Internet Service and Website; 11) paper shredder and office supplies; 12) car, and; 13) two million dollar suits.

You can mix and match, substitute in multiple virtual offices for statewide presence, allow for a secretary and/or full or part time paralegal service, budget for an accountant, an associate and so on. Remember, what you "need" to start your solo practice remains constant. The manner in which you fulfill those needs will vary with each individual based upon personal skill set, personality and budget.

Susan Cartier-Liebel is solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. She can be reached at SCartier_Liebel@comcast.net. Copyright © Susan Cartier-Liebel (2006) All Rights Reserved. No portion of this material may be copied, transmitted, posted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of Susan Cartier-Liebel.


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Grant D. Griffiths

Nah, all you need is "A Blog, A Mac, and A Home Office." You might throw a Treo 650 in just for good measures.

Peter Mullison

I opened my practice about four months ago and have done several budgets. I started the new year with a commitment to actually following it, or rather, doing a better job tracking my expenses. My budget includes several items that I haven't purchased yet. My research needs have remained relatively low. Fortunately, I have access to a law school library.

I guess my point is that while I have constructed a catalog of my "needs," I have put off getting any of them until the actual need arises. I have also taken to looking at craigslist for things like office furniture and equipment.

Peter Mullison

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