Leaving a steady pay cheque and reputable firm to partner with Angelique Moss and start our own practice was one of the scariest things I ever did. But I now see that my fear was out-sized in proportion to the actual risk I was taking. Looking back, my initial ideas about why we couldn’t possibly start our own were misplaced:
1. I thought I wouldn’t be able to get health insurance. My husband is a transplant recipient. The anti-rejection drugs to keep him alive cost a LOT of money. I wrongly assumed that I would not be able to obtain health insurance. It turned out that as a firm of just two people, we qualified to buy health insurance through the CBA.
2. I didn’t have a full practice. This was a huge one for me. I couldn’t fathom that I could possibly wean myself from the source of more than half of my work. In my mind, I first had to achieve originating 100% of my own work before I could even consider going out on my own. But when I did the math, I realized that I would only have to generate a relatively small amount of billable work each day to pay our modest initial expenses, including draws equal to our former salaries.
The other eye opener was that people suddenly viewed me differently once I shedded the identity of “So-and-So’s Junior” and took a seat at the first chair. Work came because I had the time and space to find my own clients to serve. The result was that Angelique and I were both immediately able to generate a full practice. Within a year, we had so much work that we were looking for another lawyer to join us.
3. I did not have six months’ worth of living expenses saved up. In fact, I had no living expenses saved up and I was the sole income source in my family. We started the firm with a loan. A colleague gave us wise advice to make a discipline of billing early and often. It worked, and we started to cash flow right away.
4. I loathed risk. My dad lost two businesses and never financially recovered. Having lived that experience, I valued income security. My mindset at the time was that starting a law firm was a huge risk. A major breakthrough came when another small law firm owner said to me, “What is more risky, having just one employer who could terminate your employment at any time, or having dozens of clients? What are the chances that ALL your clients would choose to leave you at exactly the same time?” She was so right (thanks Jennifer Watson!). I also realized that owning our own firm gave us more control over the levers of client satisfaction – the workloads we took on, strategy, communication, and pricing.
5. I lacked some essential skills. As an associate in law firms, I always breathed a sigh of relief when I got to the part of the Law Society of Ontario Annual Return where I was asked whether I was the person responsible for filing the annual financial requirements and I could type in someone else’s law society number. But I realized that we could get help with the things that we were not good at. We have an excellent bookkeeper who understands the bookkeeping requirements of the LSO. We work with a technology specialist who is so responsive that it is akin to my days in Big Law where I just had to dial an extension to get technological help (which was often). I realized that Angelique and I didn’t need to have these skills ourselves. And we didn’t even need to employ these folks on a full-time basis. We simply needed to connect with the right professionals to fill our knowledge/skill gaps and pay for as much of their time as we needed.
Every time a great female colleague in estate litigation leaves private practice, I get a little sad. If that was her dream, then I am genuinely thrilled for her. But if the choice was dictated by the unbearable weight of trying to overcome the barriers that still exist for women in many traditional law firms, I hope more of us will consider the option of creating (or joining) something new.
Nothing contained in this post constitutes legal advice or establishes a solicitor-client relationship. If you have any questions regarding your legal rights or legal obligations, you should consult a lawyer.