I established my own law firm 14 years ago – less than three years after being admitted as a lawyer.
I made many mistakes along the way, but the firm has grown exponentially because – unlike the firms I worked for, and many others around today – it has always focused on great results and client satisfaction, rather than budgetary goals and profit generation.
I believe in sharing information, whether through freely available blogs and detailed website pages, or assisting other lawyers and professionals. I have no issue at all with openly offering tips and advice to those who are considering establishing their own firms.
Dozens of new criminal law firms have opened their doors over the past few years – many of which are led by keen and talented young lawyers – and I believe that a few important steps can make all the difference when it comes to cementing a solid foundation for a successful criminal law practice.
Indeed, I wish that someone had given me the advice below before I first opened for business!
So here are my Top Ten Tips for Starting Your Own Criminal Law Firm.
1. Buy a Smart Business Name
Your business name is the face of your firm – it is the easiest way for clients to identify you, and a great way to position and market your firm.
Many criminal law firms choose a name based on the surname of the principal or partners. I think that is a mistake, and I can say this from experience because Sydney Criminal Lawyers® was originally called ‘Nedim Lawyers – Criminal Defence Specialists’, before I decided to rebrand and reposition the firm many years ago.
The importance of having a business name which instantly communicates your area of specialisation cannot be overstated. From a business perspective, it immediately conveys what you do, and even helps to boost your Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), leading to higher rankings on engines like Google.
And in the event of change – such as a different partner, or the sale of business – a generic yet relevant name makes the process a lot easier – certainly better than chopping and changing the firm’s name and all that goes with it to accommodate for an incoming or outgoing partner!
Business names can be purchased for as little as $70 – a sound investment to make.
2. Register a Relevant Domain Name
In the digital age, it is important to have a domain name that contains both the business name and keywords which a prospective client may type into an engine like Google.
For this reason, I recently decided to change our domain name from the very established and powerful domain www.criminallaw.com.au (which we have had for 14 years), to www.sydneycriminallawyers.com.au – a move that I believe is in the firm’s longer term best interests.
I regret not having done this many years ago when we changed our business name.
3. Invest in an Impressive Website
Following on from the above point, I have to stress the importance of having a good website.
These days, prospective clients generally conduct a web search to scope out what lawyers will be able to represent them effectively in their particular case. They will especially focus upon lawyer profiles, recent cases, client testimonials and of course the particular offence page (eg ‘drink driving’).
A good ‘wordpress’ website with all the bells and whistles – including responsive layout (so it shows well on mobile devices), a blog and social media buttons – can cost as little as $2,000 to $4,000. That investment can make all the difference in establishing and positioning yourself in the market – as well as building up a client base.
Besides having a website with an excellent SEO structure that can be easily navigated, it is important to keep the site updated with new content on a daily basis.
New website pages, blog posts, client testimonials and case results are good ways to keep your content fresh and relevant for users and search engines.
4. Location, Location, Location!
Our criminal lawyers are constantly dashing in and out of court – and we have a lot of cases in Sydney’s busiest court complex, the Downing Centre.
So it makes sense that our offices are located just across the road from the Downing Centre, in a building with free parking for us and our clients, and easy means to get across the Sydney Metropolitan Area.
But it wasn’t always this way – we opened our doors in a Chatswood unit 14 years ago. The the move into the city made our firm far more accessible to clients, added prestige and saves us a lot of time.
Although there are now many established Accredited Specialist criminal law firms in the city – and indeed experienced specialist criminal law firms in Parramatta – my advice to new firms is to strategically position yourself near a courthouse that is not well serviced.
Smaller courthouses such as Manly and Hornsby – both of which have recently had upgrades – fall into this category, so it might be worthwhile capitalising on these areas.
Burwood and Liverpool are also interesting locations, with many courtrooms and cases, but without any Accredited Specialist criminal law firms to compete against.
5. Once Bitten, Twice Shy
It is a sad reality in criminal law – and all of the books on criminal law practice make the point – but the fact is that getting funds into your trust account before commencing work will protect you from being burnt financially, and may even be the difference between staying afloat and going under.
In the early days, I accepted many cases without upfront payment – and ended up being burnt many times, even after securing outstanding outcomes for my clients.
By all means give free advice, help community legal centres for free, undertake other pro bono work, and otherwise volunteer your time to the community – but it is wise to ensure that funds are in your trust account before you embark on paid work.
This will not only ensure you can pay your bills, but also enhance your client relations and reduce frustrations in the longer term.
6. Make Your Life Simpler
Another good tip is to subscribe to and familiarise yourself with a reputable electronic trust accounting system such as Cabenet, which is approved by the Law Society of NSW, as well as timecosting software.
Up until 5 or 6 years ago, we were doing our trust accounting manually – which takes a great deal of time and can lead to innocent mistakes being made, especially when you have a lot on your mind.
But Cabenet is brilliant – very simple, cost-effective and accurate – and any mistakes that you make can be quickly rectified and put behind you, rather than having to wait for your yearly trust examination!
7. Templates, Precedents and Systems
Practice precedents for different case types can be built up by a firm over several years – for example, my precedents for ‘representations’ (ie detailed letters to police and DPP to get charges withdrawn) comprise hundreds of sets of representations for dozens of case types. We also have precedent packs for a range of offence categories with a wealth of information built up over more than a decade.
But for those who haven’t built these up yet, and who don’t want to spend thousands on a subscription to LexisNexis or other research databases – a copy of the current ‘Annotated Criminal Legislation NSW’ and a subscription to the Judicial Information Research System (‘JIRS’) is a cost effective way of starting out.
Templates for letterheads, fax cover sheets, records of appearance, timesheets, cost agreements, authorities, character reference guides are a must for any law firm from day one. I am always happy to provide mine as a guide to budding firms.
Finally, it is imperative that you have proper systems in place when it comes to making file notes, managing cost agreements, sending letters out to clients, the DPP and police, invoicing and so on. Again, I am happy to share mine with budding firms.
8. Most importantly – Give 110% to Every Client and Every Case!!!!!
While marketing is great to get your name out there, you will not be able to grow a reputable law firm unless you give your all to each and every client.
All too often, we have clients who come to us after their first previous law firm (or law firms!) let them down.
In many cases, the lawyers failed to properly communicate with them, or misadvised them, or failed to fight for their case to be dropped, or didn’t push for the result,or overcharged – the list goes on.
Our team is dedicated to each and every client – we are a passionate team that fight for the result in every single case that we have.
This has been the hallmark of our practice for 14 years, and it will always be the foundation of our firm.
But while we can boast experience in many thousands of cases – and have Accredited Criminal Specialist lawyers within the firm – firms that are just starting out will need to make an extra special effort to ensure that every client that comes through their doors leaves as a satisfied client, with a great result.
This might involve calling more experienced lawyers for advice and guidance, but it is imperative that the firm’s reputation is enhanced with every day of practice.
The importance of effective communication is so great, and so overlooked, that it deserves a heading to itself.
I can’t count the number of times clients have come to our firm after being unimpressed by the lack of communication by other lawyers.
It is vital that all lawyers – not just those starting a new practice – take the time to explain the case to their client in a way that it is easily understood.
They shouldn’t just tell them what to do, but must go through each of the options, the process, the likely outcomes and the cost.
Equally as important is communication throughout the process – responding to calls and emails in a timely manner, advising of any updates, emailing after certain times even if there is no update, providing detailed after-court letters, etc. All of these things are vital to the success of a practice, and all firms should have client communication policies to ensure that clients are kept advised and satisfied.
Effective communication with colleagues is also vital to a successful practice – making sure you respond to internal emails and questions, and that colleagues are consulted about strategy, will assist with the smooth functioning of the firm, ensure that no-one is left in the dark and enhance results.
Gone are the days of the old Law Society Diary – and good riddance! Digital office calendars are crucial to any modern law firm – ensuring that court and conference dates are immediately accessible to all members of the practice, and that case instructions are instantly available wherever the lawyers might be.
It is in your firm’s interest, in my view, to create a cooperative environment where everyone works together as a team – rather than a competitive, cut-throat office where individual budgets create an obstacle to teamwork. Do away with budgets! The money will come with visibility, great case results and positive client testimonials.
10. Get an SEO Expert
You’ve probably realised that I’m a big fan of online presence – and for good reason.
People need to hear about your firm in the first place, and getting yourself out there online is very important in this day and age.
More people experiencing your great service = more positive reviews = more referrals – and your firm will grow exponentially, as our’s has over the years.
SEO experts specialise in making the pages of your website visible to search engines like Google, and increasing your ranking.
Aim to pay them between $500 and $1000 per month – provided you find the right SEO expert, it will be money well spent.
All the best!