Secrets of Success: Starting Your Own Law Firm" featuring ELLEN LOW

Welcome to our new blog series profiling lawyers who have struck out on their own and built successful law firms. We hope this series will provide helpful advice for those either thinking of going solo, or, for lawyers who already have their own firms but are looking for new ideas or information.

Our first profile features Ellen Low of Ellen Low Employment Law:

1. Tell me a little about your law firm/practice.

I am an employment and human rights lawyer. My practice runs the full panoply from contract review and exit terminations to specific questions about statutory compliance, etc. I also assist with general human resources questions as well, such as dealing with internal human resources departments, progressive discipline issues and providing advice on how to respond to internal disputes and other issues.

I work remotely for the most part, although I do have two physical locations in metro Toronto. I have an admin/law clerk and a couple of associates who work for me remotely.

2. Why did you start your own firm? How did you make this decision?

The decision to open my own firm was made over a few years and was certainly not a decision that I made lightly. At the beginning of my career, running my own firm was never on my radar. But as I became a senior associate and then a partner, I got to the point where I needed a different challenge. I felt very comfortable with the law and with legal strategy. I had the experience and I felt that I could do things a little bit differently. Not only did I want to do things a little bit differently, I wanted a little more control over the files that I was taking, the clients I was working with, and the way I was working with them. And, I wanted (what I thought at the time was ground-breaking) a practice that was predominately paperless and agile and to some degree remote. To be able to work anywhere and to serve clients from all over was a new thing for me.

3. What are some of the benefits of running your own firm?

One of the major benefits, for me, in running my own law firm is that I get to choose who I work with, both in terms of clients as well as staff, and that is a really important thing. Other benefits would include more flexibility, which I appreciate. But flexibility doesnít necessarily mean I am working less - it means I get to be a little more creative in the way that I work.

I am also challenged and stimulated by the different things that I am working on. I now have a small business and I can relate more to my small business clients. Itís not just 100% law all the time. It also includes business strategy and developing and testing out different technology, which Iím finding really fun. I like the idea of figuring out what sort of software I can work with so that everything is automated. I can now generate electronic invoices which makes it easier for my clients. My clients can just click a link and pay the invoice. My clients can also book their meetings electronically. When working with contemporary clients, they expect that. They expect a faster turnaround. They expect to be able to book things immediately and not have to call an admin person who then must talk to me to check my availability. I like the idea of having control over how I run my business to best serve my clients.

4. What are some of the challenges of running your own firm? How have you tried to overcome them?

There is no one else to blame! There are moments where I have uncertainty, for example, over a strategy on a file, or, uncertainty over what is the most appropriate or expeditious docketing software. And all of that can be overwhelming when you are also running an active law practice at the same time.

In terms of how I overcome these challenges, I have to remind myself that I still have what I call my ďBrain TrustĒ that I can reach out to - I have other people I can work with who are either doing the same thing because they have their own small law firm or are experts in their field. So, I remind myself that I can, and should, and do, reach out to those people for mentorship and guidance.

5. What advice would you give to a lawyer thinking about starting their own firm?

Write a business plan. Pretend like you are applying for a bank loan and you need to convince a bank to give you money based on your business plan. In my view, if you can think through all the issues in a business plan, then you will be in a better position to know what you are getting in to with respect to running your own firm. Without this plan, people can be a little overwhelmed by everything they need to do.

Another suggestion is to track your own self-generated files and collections for a little while before you decide go out on your own. This may give you a little more information on whether you are able to generate enough income to survive.

These two things, writing a business plan and looking critically at your own numbers may give you some additional peace of mind. I did both of these things, but Iíve always been very metric driven. This helped with my decision to start my own firm. I didnít want to move firms, I liked the firm that I was at, and I didnít want to go in-house because that didnít appeal to me. Then a friend of mine asked ďWhy donít you open your own firm?Ē My immediate reaction was ďUgh, I donít want to do that.Ē But because I was always interested in metrics, and had always tracked my own data, one night I sat down and started crunching the numbers. Because I had this data,I could model year-over-year self-generated growth. That was helpful. This told me that even if I only had the files that I self-generated, I could be fine. If I could control things like my overhead and expenses because of the way I operate my firm, then based on numbers and data, things were going to be fine.

Also, talk to people. Talk to as many as you can who have started their own firmand really listen to what they are saying. There are upsides and downsides. Running your own business while practicing law is not for everyone. You have to know yourself and whether or not you are entrepreneurial. If you are, this may be a good fit for you. But if you are not necessarily entrepreneurial, and youíve spoken with a bunch of people and you are of the view that the downsides outweigh the possible upsides, then running your own firm may not be for you.

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