Taking Care of Business
Law schools teach students to think like lawyers, but graduates who open their own firms usually must teach themselves how to think like business owners.
Emily (Riordan) Lucibello JD '09 is well aware of how important the entrepreneurial mindset is. In 2009, she started a firm with two other attorneys. After experiencing business differences, she recently dissolved that partnership to form a new practice in Orange, Conn., with attorney Lisamaria T. Proscino '06, who studied legal studies and criminal justice at Quinnipiac. They met several years ago when both were summer clerks at a New Haven law firm.
Lucibello thinks the number one reason law firms fail is that they do not run their office like a small business selling legal services. "You are not just hanging a shingle...you need to set financial goals, market yourself, do a website and social media. We wear two hats: lawyer and business owner," she says. Large firms of 30 or more lawyers usually have an administrative team that handles personnel issues or a CFO for financial matters. "But in small firms, you don't want to hand that off," Lucibello says.
A newly designed elective called Law Practice Management, offered at the School of Law for the first time last fall, makes the learning curve less steep for future law firm owners by focusing on the skills and knowledge needed to build and manage a practice. Students learn about alternative fee agreements; docket control; malpractice insurance; risk management; timekeeping and billing; hiring, firing and performance reviews; and technology and equipment. Ethics, website maintenance, marketing and branding are covered as well.
"Whether you open your own firm, create one with a partner, or rise to partner in a larger firm, knowledge of basic business skills is a definite advantage," says Anthony Minchella JD'96, who developed and taught the course. He is the founder and managing partner of Minchella & Associates in Middlebury, Conn.
If an associate in a firm is asked to become an equity partner or shareholder, for example, he or she probably will be voting on business decisions. "You make partner because you generated revenue, but as a partner with business skills, you bring added value to shareholder meetings where discussions about layoffs, realization rates and software upgrades are held. If you know what a cost-benefit analysis is, you can help decide, for example, whether iPads for all associates would be a good investment," Minchella says.
Learning to sync as partners is a skill gleaned on the job, not in the classroom. Lucibello and Proscino each brought a unique skill set to their practice. The former has experience in running a firm, including client oversight, balancing long- and short-term projects, billing and marketing. Proscino has significant courtroom experience gained from clerking at New Haven Superior Court, a position that allowed her to participate in and oversee family and criminal matters while developing key relationships along the way.
Lucibello & Proscino handles criminal defense, family and divorce law, personal injury and business law. When you own a small business, and particularly a law firm, there is a lot of responsibility, Lucibello notes. "As it pertains to client trust accounts, this is especially true. Any liability is ultimately imputed to us, so we feel that we must not only be 'aware,' but 'in charge' of our accounting." Rather than entrusting the oversight of their accounts to another entity, they review all accounts internally, and at the end of the month, have their accountant take an objective look with a third set of eyes.
Besides business acumen, the two partners point out other key ingredients to a successful practice. "Every decision is made by the two of us," Proscino says. "We want to be interchangeable and seamless, two attorneys working hard for each other and the client," she adds.
And know your business partners. "Consider how you fit together. You should have similar goals, values and work ethics," warns Lucibello.
Lucibello emphasized that they are carefully building their brand and reputation from the ground up. "We want to make this practice profitable, but we also want it to last a long time," she says.