TDot’s Tips: Bootstrapping your first law office

Posted by T. Greg Doucette on Oct 10, 2012 in TDot's Tips | Subscribe

I meant to post this entry back on Saturday night, but I got side-tracked by watching one of the 3 most-amazing NC State football games I can remember1 — as my alma mater came back from a 0-16 halftime deficit to beat the #3 Florida State Seminoles 17-16, scoring the game-winning touchdown with a mere 0:16 left on the clock (the first time we had the lead all game!) :spin:

Then of course life and the whole “needing to pay rent” thing got in the way, so you’re getting this entry 4 days later :beatup:

Since we’re now more than a full week into the new fiscal quarter, I wanted to share a few equipment-gathering tips for the entrepreneurial crowd in solo and small practice. If you’re like me just starting out — or a 3L heading that way soon — you’ve probably realized the practice of law is awfully damn expensive. And unfortunately you need to make certain expenses now so you don’t risk derailing your practice from the beginning.2

Luckily there are a few things you can do to create a functioning law office without breaking the bank in your first year. Here are four suggestions that can help:

  • Get a high-end laptop as a 3L: It’s not a widely advertised program, but the US Department of Education permits students to get an increase in financial aid once as an undergraduate and once as a graduate/professional student solely for the purchase of a computer and related accessories. If you’re still a 3L reading this, your financial aid office will have the details; to see how my N.C. State does it, check out the bottom of this Scholarships & Financial Aid webpage.3 Use your last year of law school to get something on the high end that will last you through your first few years of practice. Now realistically this means you’ll end up taking out more student loans, and I fully realize no rational person normally takes out a loan on a depreciating asset, but (i) when you start your practice preserving cash will be vital (landlords don’t like credit cards), and (ii) the terms of a student loan are almost always going to be better than the terms of financing the laptop on a credit card or some other form of credit.
  • Use a scanner + laser printer as your copy machine: The costs of a copy machine lease vary depending on where you are in the country, but dropping around $200-$250 per month is a typical expense — around $3,000 a year. The problem is that, in the start of your practice when you have comparatively fewer clients, you’re essentially paying for the machine to go unused.  A less expensive combination is to combine a solid laser printer with a standalone scanner, ideally one with an automatic document feeder (ADF) attachment. It will be a slower option than the copy machine but the cost savings are worth it early on until you’re making a lot of copies. Consider this: a Brother 2270DW (wireless+duplex) costs around $99, an Epson v500 scanner is currently $150, and the ADF costs another $200. That all comes out to $449 — one-sixth the cost of the copy machine lease, with no contracts or other hidden expenses after that initial purchase aside from toner and paper.
  • Government surplus == cheap furniture: I guarantee every single person reading this is within a 30-mile radius of a municipal, state, or federal government agency of some kind. Governments routinely upgrade equipment and furniture with each budget cycle (universities especially), and when the old stuff has to go it typically ends up at a government surplus department somewhere. Find the ones in your state and go do some shopping. Most of the items getting replaced aren’t in mint condition, but they’re still more than adequate. For example, I bought an ugly-but-comfortable office chair that had a broken left arm. Price from government surplus due to the defect? $3. Once I got it home all I had to do was break out my drill and screw it into a slightly different place on the frame to make it as good as new.4 In addition to chairs the surplus folks will also have fleets of desks, file cabinets, and just about anything else you’ll need for an office.
  • Negotiate for free office space: With the economy still in the doldrums, many landlords are sitting on space that hasn’t been leased in a very very long time. Take advantage of that opportunity by pushing the landlord to consider giving you 3-6 months rent-free while you get your practice off the ground. In exchange, you can even offer to help them out with any legal needs they might have. You’re not going to end up with the penthouse suite, but you’d be amazed the quality of office space you can get for pennies with just a little negotiation — and politely reminding them that unoccupied space doesn’t make anyone any money.

Hope those suggestions are useful to at least one of you out there! :) More to come later this week, including another entry in my “I’m a magnet for government incompetence” series ;)

Have a great night y’all! :D

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Past TDot’s Tips entries:

  1. The others being the miraculous 27-point comeback over the University of Maryland last season, and the highlight-reel-worthy plays to beat the University of Non-Compliance at Cheater Haven the year before :D []
  2. CLEs are a key example: if you passed the bar in July, you have until Dec. 31, 2013 to log your hours — but some of the law practice management stuff is essential for new solos. []
  3. I couldn’t find comparable information online for North Carolina Central University, but I used the program myself just by talking to the financial aid folks in person and then providing them a receipt for the purchase. []
  4. I still haven’t actually done that of course, but that’s mostly because I grew accustomed to armless office chairs doing computer science work in undergrad :beatup: []

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