Taking the plunge and setting up a solo intellectual property practice is an exciting and nerve-wracking time for any lawyer. With barriers to entry falling thanks to advances in technology, the risks and initial investment are lower, while the rewards – from financial to work satisfaction to nailing that elusive work life balance – are tempting would-be legal entrepreneurs to take the leap.
While your legal expertise is top notch, it can be daunting to take on all the other aspects of running a business. We talked to some solo and small firm practitioners to find out what the challenges were and what advice they have to offer fellow lawyers thinking of going it alone.
Time is money
Underestimating the time it takes to carry out admin is a common theme among small business owners. In fact, research from Thomson Reuters found that solo or small firms spend 31% of time on administrative tasks, all of which detracts from the billable hours available.
Mark Hiddleston achieved a lifelong ambition when he started his practice in 2015. He agrees that administration can take up a surprising amount of time, particularly during the first six months: “A big challenge was re-inventing the wheel. Obviously, we had to set up all of our systems and administrative procedures from scratch.” He notes that “it is always difficult when running your own business trying to balance doing billable work and setting aside time for admin.”
Admin isn’t the only task competing for time in the early days of a business. Daniel Smart started his practice Colman+Smart in 2011 after time spent working in London and overseas. He found that business development was frustratingly time-consuming in the early stages, remarking that he was surprised by “the amount of time wasted in providing quotes that never went anywhere.” He also warns of “the number of people looking for free advice,” with no prospect of this developing into genuine client opportunities.
Time-saving technology investment
While only experience can determine which quotes are likely to result in clients, there are a raft of labour-saving technology options to help reduce the time you spend on admin. Cloud-based legal practice management software and billing technology, alongside specific trademark management software, gives you more time to devote to finding and working for clients.
Both Mark and Daniel use a combination of free and subscription-based tools to support their business. Mark uses toggl’s free time-tracking software and describes xero accounting software as “highly efficient”. He has also invested in SERION for trademark searching and watching and WebTMS for trademark portfolio management. Daniel also uses WebTMS, which as well as helping him manage his clients’ trademarks efficiently, forms part of his commitment to operating a paperless practice.
When investing in software and subscriptions, there are a few things to consider. As a new business, one of the important decision factors might be a competitive entry-level rate offered to start-up organisations, but make sure you know what’s included in that contract.
Ask questions about the functionality of the product – is it a cut-down version of an enterprise product? If so, what are the differences? Does it include systems and software updates? How about training? If the service is industry-specific are updates to legal processes and regulations included or do they require additional payment?
Support is a particular area to examine. As a solo practitioner, you need to know that someone is on the other end of the phone should the need arise.
As your business grows, you may need to upgrade your subscriptions, so knowing at the start what the different pricing tiers are allows you to build this into your business plan. When selecting solutions you need to strike a balance between cost-effectiveness and scalability to make sure there aren’t any surprises further down the line.
The advantages of small practices
Working with a small practice can have significant benefits for clients, as Daniel Smart explains: “A small practice has low overheads and offers a personal service that can be very responsive to client requirements.”
Mark agrees. “With low overheads we are much more cost effective and competitive than larger firms. It is also much easier for us to make decisions quickly and to adapt our services to the needs of our clients.”
Daniel also believes that differentiating the practice pays dividends, saying: “I have developed a niche knowledge of trademarks in some of the lesser known jurisdictions of the world, and am price-sensitive, which appeals to clients.”
Building a client base
While initial clients may come through word of mouth, building a broader customer base means getting out there and marketing your business. For a small practice, a lot of that comes down to personal networking – as Daniel notes: “my company’s brand is really me.” Mark regularly attends regional networking events and travels to global professional events such as INTA.
Tips for budding solo practitioners
For lawyers considering taking the plunge into solo practice, Daniel advises: Don’t get an office, at least to begin with, as clients don’t really care if you’re working from home.” He also warns of the need for patience: “Potential clients will promise work to you, but when it comes to the crunch it may not be forthcoming – these may need to take time to come to anything, if at all.”
Having started his practice in response to what he sees as a fundamentally changing UK trademark environment, Mark advises like-minded entrepreneurs that meticulous planning is important, but it’s worth taking the leap, saying: “Think carefully: it is obviously a life-changing experience. If you decide to go ahead, plan carefully how you are going to proceed. That said, I have found the experience thoroughly enjoyable and very freeing! In terms of decision making, it is much easier to make quick and rapid decisions than working in a much larger organisation.”
There’s no doubt that setting up a solo intellectual property practice is an exciting but daunting undertaking. Freedom and flexibility for the practitioner combines with adaptability, cost-efficiency and personal service for clients, which are attractive features in today’s market. With careful planning, patience and the right technology tools to free up time for clients, starting an IP practice is clearly a satisfying and potentially rewarding step.
Thank you to Daniel and Mark for sharing their experiences with us. Do you have any golden tips for launching an IP practice? Share them with us!