Choice of Entity for New Lawyers

coffee-cup-and-docs-bought-at-ssChoosing a legal structure and entity type for your law firm seems like an easy decision. But is it? Consider the following scenarios:

New lawyer establishes law practice with the goal of becoming an associate

If this is you, being a straight-up sole proprietor may be the best choice, assuming you have no employees.

A sole proprietorship is the simplest and most common structure chosen to start a business:

  • No formal action is required to start your business
  • It’s inexpensive
  • No papers to file
  • Nothing to dissolve
  • Simple tax preparation

When you’re ready to make the move from running your own practice to becoming an associate, the transition couldn’t be any easier.

On the downside, sole proprietorship means you have unlimited contractual liability and potentially higher taxes.

But how significant is the liability exposure?

Lenders, property managers, and others with whom you do business will typically require a personal guarantee for loans, leases, or other business transactions.  A personal guarantee means YOU are on the hook, even if you form a professional corporation or single-member limited liability company. As a result, contractual liability protection doesn’t count for much in evaluating whether to form an entity.

The real choice between sole proprietorship and forming a PC or single-member LLC comes down to taxes and the trade-off between potentially saving money (with entity formation) and simplicity (going with the sole proprietorship model).  Talk to a CPA so you can make an informed decision.

What if I’m planning to practice business law or intellectual property?

Why would your area of practice make a difference?  And didn’t we just say entity choice is driven by risk aversion – wreaking whatever benefit you can from contractual liability protection – and saving money – courtesy of a lower tax burden?  So what difference could practicing business and IP law possibly make?

If your goal is to help clients form entities and protect intellectual property, it could look a little odd that you haven’t followed the usual formalities in establishing your own business.

Fair or not, client perception counts.  So does marketing.  And part of marketing is how you brand your law firm.  Appending a PC or LLC designation to your business name may actually be an important part of how you choose to present yourself to potential clients.

If you plan to have employees …

This is an entirely different ballgame.  Without a doubt, form an entity. If you are a solo, choose a PC or single-member limited liability company (LLC).

Both entity types offer liability protection for non-professional torts committed by your employees.  The contractual liability protection discussed above will also kick in.  Talk to a CPA, but the likelihood is that forming an entity will also result in a noticeable tax savings.

If you plan to practice with others …

This is another occasion when forming an entity is a no brainer.  Do it for the avoidance of liability discussed in the preceding paragraph and for the limitation on vicarious liability.  The ideal structure may be to form a sole owner PC or single-member LLC that belongs to the firm’s entity. This may allow you, as the individual lawyer, to completely escape personal vicarious liability.

Multi-tier entities are complex, administratively messy, and no longer have the tax benefits they once enjoyed.  BUT avoiding vicarious liability is a big plus.  To learn more about this strategy, read Choice of Entity for a Legal Practice and Lawyers as PCs, LLCs, & LLPs in Oregon, referenced below.

Being fully informed in the premises

This post skates over some pretty significant content that deserves more in-depth thought.  Do your homework.  Recommended reading includes:

  • Sole Proprietorship as a business structure choice, courtesy of the Small Business Administration.  While you’re on the SBA site, poke around.  There is a ton of great content here.  And don’t forget about the help and resources available from the Small Business Development Center.
  • Law Firm Choice of Entity, from the ABA Young Lawyers Division.
  • Choice of Entity for a Legal Practice in Oregon, available on the PLF website. Select Practice Management > Forms > Entity Formation for Lawyers.
  • Lawyers as PCs, LLCs, & LLPs in Oregon, available on the PLF website.  Select Practice Management > Forms > Entity Formation for Lawyers.
  • Tax Considerations for Choice of Business Entity, Chapter 3 of the OSB CLE Seminar Handbook Broadbrush Taxation: Tax Law for the Nonspecialist (2015). Available in BarBooks behind the member login on the OSB website.

Most importantly

Talk with a CPA.  I can’t say this enough.  This is one of the best investments you can make in getting your practice up and running.  A CPA can help you determine whether forming an entity will result in tax savings.  He or she can also help you select an entity type – which is highly driven by tax considerations.

You’ll also learn about property tax, business income tax, business licensing, and other obligations you may not be familiar with – all of which are determined by where your business is located.

All Rights Reserved 2017 Beverly Michaelis

To Boldly Go Solo

How do you know if solo practice is right for you?  Do you have what it takes to organize, manage, and assume all the risks of running a law practice?

solo-with-laptop-cropped

As Bill Nye would say, please consider the following:

Independence

Solos get to call all the shots: client selection, case selection, setting fees, choosing a practice location – every decision that goes into running a practice.  The responsibility rests on your shoulders.  Do you find that appealing, daunting but doable, or overwhelming?  If you answer is appealing or daunting but doable, please proceed.

Are You a Decider?

Some people are decisive, others are not.  If you agonize over choices and normally poll multiple friends and family members before making a decision, solo practice will be difficult.

Solos need to make business and practice decisions every day.  Some of these decisions must be made under pressure with little time to reflect. The reward, of course, is that you get to decide.  You have the freedom and independence to use your creativity, knowledge, and skills to solve problems.

Are You a Self-Starter?

Solo practitioners must be self-regulating. Can you get the work out without someone supervising?  Give regular attention to administrative tasks like billing and bookkeeping? It will be up to you to meet deadlines, organize your time, and follow through on details. If you are a good planner and organizer, your solo practice will be successful.

Are You a Marketer?

All lawyers in private practice are expected to develop business, but in a solo practice the pressure is greater.  You’re it.  Can you create your own networking opportunities and business contacts?   Devote time to blogging or updating your website?  Post to social media?  Speak at CLEs?  Write articles for bar publications?  Build business referral relationships?

Financially Speaking

What resources are available to you?  What financial demands and commitments do you have?  Is it possible (or desirable) to apply for a micro loan, regular loan, or line of credit?  Are you up for crowdfunding?  Start by reviewing your expenses, then prepare a start-up and monthly budget.  Read about other business/financial essentials here.

Drive, Stamina, and Work-Life Balance

Can you practice law, run a business, and keep it all in balance with your personal life? Are you strongly motivated?  Healthy?  Is your family supportive of your efforts?  These are all good markers.  Nonetheless, make a plan to care for yourself and manage stress.  If you are looking for ideas or resources, contact the attorney counselors at the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program.  Services are confidential and free to Oregon attorneys.

Final Thoughts

Solo practice requires a lot of time and work, but it also has benefits: no one looking over your shoulder, no pressure to take a particular client, freedom to work in the areas of law that you prefer, and complete flexibility in deciding when, where, and how to work.  Is it a match for you?

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017

Cost per Case Analysis and Your Firm’s Marketing Decisions

The following is a guest post, courtesy of Deanna Powers, eGeneration Marketing.

There are more than 12,000 attorneys in the state of Oregon. Many firms, particularly small firms or solo practitioners, may not be able to hire someone to handle all marketing efforts. If you’re in charge of marketing for your law firm, it may be challenging to know which channels are most profitable. TV ads usually lead to a lot of claimants calling your office, but is this marketing option overall more profitable than simply spending more time optimizing your firm’s social media pages?  Fortunately, there is a way to accurately compare every marketing venture to one another. A cost per case metric will help your firm make better-informed spending decisions by examining the profitability of all current marketing efforts.

What Is Your Cost Per Case?

A cost per case (CPC) analysis examines the profitability of a particular marketing venture by taking the total dollars spent on that advertising effort divided by the new clients signed because of that effort.

Marketing Effort Budget ÷ New Clients Signed = Cost per Case

It’s unlikely that your marketing channels will all yield the same CPC. Some new clients will have a CPC of $0. This happens when past clients refer your firm’s services to their friends or family members.  This is perhaps the most beneficial marketing avenue for your firm, since it cost you nothing in terms of advertising dollars.

Unfortunately, no matter how strong your firm’s reputation, not all new clients can be signed from referrals. A CPC metric gives you the data you need for a thorough analysis of every paid marketing effort, which in turn puts stronger marketing budget decisions well within your reach. Some profitability can be calculated for you—Google AdWords gives your firm a wealth of data on how your campaigns are performing if you use PPC ads. Unfortunately, non-digital marketing efforts are a little more challenging to evaluate, but the CPC calculation still comes into play. We can use billboard pricing as an example as how you would calculate your firm’s CPC through a traditional marketing channel.

Billboard Ads: High Exposure Generates Greater Leads

When considering marketing avenues for law firms, high exposure is a key factor. Many firms choose to use billboard marketing because it gets you the most views for the lowest price. Outdoor ads have a crucial place in a well-devised marketing strategy according to the Arbitron Out-of-Home Advertising Report, a national survey that examines advertising and spending habits in relation to the increasingly mobile lifestyle of Americans. According to this report, eight of 10 Americans make buying decisions while out of the house and many of these decisions are made in the car. About 75% of travelers see billboards, and about 50% internalize the messages viewed, often later acting on them.

Lamar Advertising, one of the nation’s biggest billboard and other outdoor advertising firms, offers a range of marketing locations in Portland, Oregon and the surrounding communities. Prices vary, based on ad size, location, and whether messages are static or digital, but this means your firm has ample choices for remaining within an established marketing budget. For example, Lamar offers a billboard on Mt. Hood Highway, near Haley Road, which receives more than 92,000 views during an average week. This 14’ x 48’, permanent billboard rents for $7,500 per month.

It’s very hard to know how many clients you’ll sign from a billboard, as the overwhelming majority of commuters won’t need your legal services. Conversion rates for billboards can be as low as 0.002%, and this is simply the number of people who call your firm, not the number of cases you take! You may only think one of 10 claimants who reach out to you have a pursuable case. If you sign a respectable two new clients per week due, your CPC for this example will be $938.

Is This a “Good” Cost Per Case?

Some firms may be thrilled with a CPC of $938, while others will be horrified. It all depends on how much return you’re expecting from your claimant.

If your firm specializes in divorce and family law, for example, then you’re likely to see fees of $10,000 or more per complex case, which would make the spend of $938 for signing a new client profitable. On the other hand, if your firm specializes in Social Security disability law, then the $750 spend might be a bit steep. The average Social Security attorney only receives $3,000 per settlement, with a maximum of $6,000. The profit margins would be too slim for Social Security attorneys to pursue any marketing channel with a CPC that high.

Ultimately, if your firm realizes a CPC of about 15% of the fees earned per claimant, then the marketing effort is considered a profitable advertising venture.

Getting the Facts Needed for CPC Analysis

A CPC metric only works if you have the appropriate data to complete a reliable analysis. With many of your online advertising efforts, you can easily determine how and where clients learn of your firm. When a new client calls or walks through your doors though, you’ll only discover the data you need if you pose the appropriate questions, and the most important one is:

“Where did you hear about us?”

A new client’s answer lets you construct a reliable CPC. This in turn allows you to evaluate accurately your current marketing efforts. It additionally offers the data necessary for developing profitable marketing plans for the future. Regardless of whether you use TV ads, billboards, digital marketing, or are simply working to build a name in your community, calculating your CPC can all you to pinpoint your marketing inefficiencies and invest more into your most successful campaigns.

Deanna Power

eGenerationMarketing

SEO Your Website Using Free Directory Listings

With so many good marketing folks to follow on social media, who should you choose? I previously featured two of my favorites here.  Another great contender is Edmund Yan of Yan Media.

seo

I like Edmund because his posts are concrete: he gives you specific content you can act on now. For example, Free Legal Directories Every Law Firm Should Exploit for SEO.

Boost Your Website Ranking

In this post, which is an update of an earlier piece, Edmund talks about how you can boost your website ranking on Google by creating free profiles on legal directories. You may have heard this before, and true enough some of the directories will be ones you already know like Avvo or Findlaw.  But others were new to me.

As Edmund points out, Google’s ranking system is all about popularity.  Add your link to a popular site and ta-da!  You’re popular in Google’s eyes too.  Or at least more popular.

The more popular you are, the more credible you’ll appear in the eyes of Google and the higher you’ll rank on organic search result pages. It’s that simple.

Read the full post on using free legal directories for SEO here.  At the end are six suggestions for must-include content in your directory profiles.

Why You Should Claim Your Directory Profile Even if You Don’t Care About SEO

Even if you don’t need an SEO boost from online legal directories, you should still claim your profile.  Notice I said “claim.”

Whether you set up a profile or not, I can just about guarantee that Avvo has a listing for you.  The same is true for other popular online legal directories.

  • If you want to control what is being said about you, claim your profile.
  • If you want to remove inaccurate information or scurrilous reviews, claim your profile.

This worked for at least one Oregon lawyer who Googled herself and was shocked to discover a bad Avvo review.  She was shocked because she’d never set up an Avvo account.  By claiming her profile she was able to get the information removed.

Thankfully this experience isn’t a recurring one.  Nonetheless, this is one lesson that many lawyers have yet to learn: you need to control (and know) what is being said about you on the Internet.  You may have Google reviews, Yelp reviews, Facebook reviews, or other reviews you don’t know about.

Set Up Alerts When Your Name is Mentioned

A good place to start is by setting up Google Alerts for your name and your business name.  This allows you to receive an email anytime you or your business is mentioned on the Web.

You may also want to try some of the alternatives to Google.  In recent years users have complained that Google Alerts wasn’t working as well for them.  Some prefer Yahoo! Either way do something to learn what is being said so you can take better charge of your online presence.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017

ABA Blueprint: What Is it and Why Should I Care?

ABA Blueprint.combp is a new tool designed to help solo and small firm lawyers find what
they need to run their firm.  Any lawyer may browse the website for resources and information.  Technology, marketing, insurance, retirement, and practice management services are available to ABA members only.  Here’s an overview:

Services for ABA Members at Blueprint.com

  • Discounts on products and services
  • Access to free practice management consultants
  • Firm Builder (see below)
  • Ability to save solutions to your Blueprint account so you don‘t lose your research

If this sounds good to you, check out ABA membership here.  Dues are pro-rated based on your date of original bar admission.  Membership is free for 2016 and 2017 admittees.

Resources Non-ABA Members Can Access at Blueprint.com

Informative BLOG Posts

At ABA Blueprint, click the logo (upper left) to visit the Home page.  Scroll to the bottom to find a feed of the latest posts from the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center blog. Examples include using email newsletters, trends in legal technology, website costsgetting the most out of online forms, and state data breach notification laws.

Universal Solutions

Anyone can visit the Universal Solutions page to look at the curated list of products for starting a firm, growing a firm, getting paid, building a team, mastering eDiscovery, and insuring your family and future.  Keep in mind the listed discounts are for ABA members only.  The ABA expects to add more products in the future.  Here are the highlights:

Universal Solution Category Discount Offered
to ABA Members
Projected
Annual Savings
Start a Firm Now Office 365

Clio

$222.00-$363.84
Help Me Get Paid Clio

LawPay

QuickBooks Online

$361.60-$595.00
Help Me Grow Lexicata

MailChimp

LexBlog

$169.90-$578.80
Help Me Build a Team Ruby Receptionists

Fancy Hands

$833.28-$1440.88
Help Me With eDiscovery eDiscovery Assistant

PageVault

 

$714.00-$1394.00
Help Me Insure My Future ABA Insurance

ABA Retirement Program

No data available

What is Firm Builder?

Firm Builder is available to ABA members only. Online modules provide help for technology basics, virtual assistance, and marketing.  This is also the place where ABA members can connect to a practice management consultant.  Here’s how the modules work:

  1. Select a Firm Builder topic (technology, virtual assistance or marketing).
  2. Answer a series of questions.  (Don’t worry, there are plenty of options for “I don’t know, or I’ve done some research, but tell me more.)
  3. Once you’ve answered all the questions, Firm Builder proposes a set of solutions, i.e., products that fit your needs.  The product list is curated from the Universal Solutions page of ABA Blueprint.

Long story short

Firm Builder is a fancy tool that ends up replicating the information already available under Universal Solutions.  While this is redundant, don’t let it dissuade you from using the tool as it may help you focus more specifically on the products that fit your needs. In addition, Firm Builder gives you the option of contacting a live practice management consultant.  Thirty minute consultations are available at no charge via phone or email, and users are promised a 24-hour turnaround time. Live chat is available for quick questions from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time, presumably 7 days a week as no limitation is noted on the website.

Who are these consultants?  For now, most or all of them will come from CuroLegal, a private consulting firm working with the ABA.  In the future, the expectation is that practice management advisors – like those associated with your bar or liability coverage provider – will sign on as ABA Blueprint consultants.

Endorsements and Ethics

Does the ABA endorse the products listed on their site?

No, as a matter of ABA policy.  Products featured on the site were selected based on “suitability for solo/small firm practitioners, the stability of the vendor, the availability of integrations, and the standing of the product in the market.”

Do the products on the ABA site meet ethical requirements for all states?

The ABA does not certify the ethical suitability of a given product or service.  The website recommends consulting your local ethics body for advice or guidance. Oregon lawyers can speak to private ethics counsel or contact the Oregon State Bar General Counsel’s office.

Speaking of Oregon Lawyers

If you need help, please take advantage of the abundance of resources available to you through the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund, including access to free and confidential practice management advisors.  You are also welcome to call or email me. I dedicated the last 20+ years of my professional career to helping Oregon lawyers. Thirty minute emails and calls are always free.  Turnaround time is next business day.

On the CLE front, it’s not too late to sign up for Unclaimed Client Funds this Wednesday. Or start the new year off right with “Fee Agreements – Ethical Dos and Don’ts.”  This live, online webinar is scheduled for January 18, 2017. Registration is open now.

All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis