Going Out on Your Own as a Criminal Defence Lawyer Part Two

Here are the next 3 tips for starting your own criminal law firm:

Again, theyre based on my experience and may not be for everyone!

Tip 4) Rent a Small Office Near a Court

My first office was a bedroom in my Chatswood unit.

The second was a room in a house in the same suburb.

The third was the front half of a house in the same suburb, but very close to the CBD.

It wasnt until I moved to offices opposite the Downing Centre Courts in the Sydney CBD that my practice really took off.

Common sense? Perhaps.

The lesson is that location is very important – its best to have a small office either near a very busy courthouse, or near a small courthouse that is not over-serviced by lawyers.

Expensive? Not really.

A friend and former employee of mine recently leased an office near the busy courthouses in Parramatta for $250 per week.

The office has two rooms and a reception area.

The city is more expensive, perhaps $400 – $550 per week for a small office.

Ive noticed, however, that there are several small courthouses that are not well-serviced by good criminal lawyers – Hornsby, Ryde and Manly (currently being renovated).

Although its probably a ‘no brainer’, being near a courthouse does significantly increase the number of prospective clients.

And it seems that being in the City or Parramatta can increase credibility, and the rent is a lot cheaper than a house in Chatswood!

Tip 5) Trust Funds and Trust Accounting

I cant tell you the number of times I wasnt paid for work in the early years.

It sometimes seemed that the better the result, the less likelihood of getting paid!

Although the community thinks criminal lawyers are greedy and rich, my experience is to the contrary.

Many of us do a great deal of free work (eg under the Law Society Pro bono scheme) or for a greatly reduced fee (eg under Legal Aid) or simply dont get paid for work undertaken.

Ive seen posts about lawyers, ‘greedy lawyers’, ‘kill all lawyers’ etc etc but I dont understand why people often EXPECT us to work for free!

Just like a tradesperson or employee would expect to be paid for their work, why shouldn’t criminal lawyers who’ve sacrificed many years studying and a lot of time and money investing in their businesses be paid for their’s??

The reality is: if you dont take funds into trust, you will never be paid for your work – regardless of the result.

As to accounting, I did my trust accounting manually for many years.

What a waste of time! What unnecessary stress!!

Get an electronic trust accounting system straight away!

I recommend Cabenet, which is approved by the Law Society of NSW.

It costs about $250 to set-up which includes a live online tutorial and support.

The ongoing cost is about $55 per month.

Its easy, effective and, best of all, gives you peace of mind.

If you make an error, Cabenet will allow you to report it immediately to the Law Society and to advise them how you have fixed the mistake.

The Law Society will then quickly advise you as to whether the error has been fixed correctly.

So you dont have to stress until the next year’s trust examination!

Tip 6) Good Templates, Precedents and Systems

All criminal law firms have templates for things like letterheads, fax cover sheets, records of appearance, timesheets, cost agreements, medical and legal authorities to uplift, after-court letters, character reference guides and the like.

Get or create comprehensive templates and use them systematically.

I am always happy to share my templates with other practitioners – funnily, I notice that the record of appearance I created 14 years ago is still being used by other criminal lawyers.

Want copies? Just ask!

Law students are introduced to many good websites such as AUSTLII that provide free access to legislation and case-law.

Its a good idea to start compiling folders of precedents for each field of criminal law eg drink driving, assault, fraud, robbery etc and each area of practice and procedure eg evidence, pleas, sentencings, local court hearings, section 91/93 applications, severity appeals etc.

The Butterworths Criminal Law Practice and Procedure (published by Lexis Nexis) is very expensive: $3,000 or so for initial set up and about $4000 per year ongoing costs.

I think its much more cost effective to buy a copy of ‘Annotated Criminal Legislation NSW’ (published by the same company) which costs around $100 and, if you can, to invest in the Judicial Information Research System (‘JIRS’) which costs around $1600 per year and contains a wealth of statistics and information, including ‘Offence Packages’ and ‘Bench Books’ used by Magistrates and Judges.

Each office has a different set of systems, developed over the years.

These might include keeping comprehensive file notes after each phone call, ensuring cost agreements are signed before commencing work, immediately sending letters of introduction to police / DPP, keeping itemised timesheets, invoicing at specific times, sending after-court letters, keeping detailed records of appearance, etc.

Employed criminal lawyers will undoubtedly adopt and/or modify these when going out on their own.

I think the most important thing is to be extremely open and frank with clients, especially regarding costs, to communicate regularly and to record everything you do.

I am fortunate to never have had a complaint made against me.

I am convinced this is due to frank and realistic advice (don’t ever promise more than you can achieve), openness as to costs (fixed fees are best), regular communication (verbal and written) and comprehensive recording of everything done.

Hope this helps!

Stay Tuned for Part 3: Tips 7 – 10 for Going Out on Your Own as a Criminal Defence Lawyer

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About Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers, Sydney's leading firm of criminal and traffic defence lawyers.
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