By Elliot Sim
A $7k bank loan can probably get you a computer, a desk, a filing cabinet and printer. All the necessary tools for a lawyer who has decided to go it alone, according to Dunedin sole practitioner Ben Nevell, so long as you’ve built up the necessary experience and relationships to sustain the business.
After covering rent, indemnity insurance and a practitioner’s certificate, Mr Nevell says you can start charging immediately.
However, a downside to the buzz of starting your own practice means no more paid holidays.
“I haven’t taken many holidays as a sole practitoner, but what I have done is have a huge amount of flexibility to take an afternoon off to hang with the kids or come in late. It means I see the kids more during the week, but I don’t have as many long holidays with them,” Mr Nevell says.
Making the move to sole practice was a revelation for Mr Nevell.
“If you feel like you don’t fit into a big law firm, you probably don’t … and I didn’t. I found being a good lawyer challenging enough. The additional challenge of being an efficient time recorder and biller was too much for me.”
Mr Nevell graduated in 1994 from Victoria University and practised for 10 years, finishing up his law firm experience with Webb Farry Lawyers.
He has been “out on his own” for about five years, focusing on civil litigation, employment law and debt collection.
He initially tackled family legal aid – his bread and butter for the first few years – but he’d always done civil litigation as well.
“I discovered that there’s a real lack of intermediate civil litigators in Dunedin … and very few who do legal aid so I was able to establish a niche there.
“It’s just so expensive and time consuming doing civil ligation, and the amount you get paid from legal aid is about half of what you’d get from private fees, so it’s not profitable for bigger firms, but I can make it work financially.
“One thing about being a sole practitioner, I found, is that it doesn’t take much work to be busy. One big litigation file can take a large chunk of your time.”
Mr Nevell has no administrative support, apart from his wife helping to pay the bills on the odd occasion.
“I don’t run an efficient business model, but it’s very difficult for a sole practitioner to find an extra $30,000 to pay a secretary – even if it makes sense on business grounds – and it absolutely does make sense.
“It’s one thing to say ‘yes I’ll do it’ and quite another to find an extra $500 a week to pay a full-time secretary. If I was to do that, I’d rather get a lawyer in than a secretary and have them do some of the administration work.”
He says the feeling of autonomy and control is an overwhelming benefit to going solo.
“I think most sole practitioners are also control freaks. I type a letter, I proof it and make sure the attachments are on it and I send it. If there’s something wrong with it, I only have myself to blame. It’s not good business sense, but it makes me feel secure that I’m doing things right and that mistakes aren’t getting through.”
The extra time and sense of control aren’t the only benefits for Mr Nevell, as sole practice fits better with his personal ethos.
“At heart, I’m a lefty. I believe in access to justice and doing legal aid work fits with my philosophy that even if you’ve got no money you can still knock the big boys back.
“When I went through law school, that’s what my ideals were – fighting for the little guy. Going out as a sole practitioner has really allowed me to get that sense that I’m still doing something that means something to me,” he says.
Relationships with lawyers within firms and other sole practitioners is the key to survival, according to Mr Nevell, as “just about all of the work comes from referrals from other practitioners”.
Relying on those relationships which have been built up over a period of time can also help to alleviate the sense of isolation which will inevitably follow.
“Collegiality with other lawyers is key. I have to make an effort to have coffee with people in order to knock ideas around and also just get out of the office and have some human contact,” he says, adding that there is real support among fellow sole practitioners.
Mr Nevell asked an experienced barrister for guidance recently when he needed help with a big High Court case. The barrister was generous in his support and wouldn’t accept payment.
“Often there’s a real support of referring amongst sole practitioners and so I definitely access that support. In Dunedin there’s also a lot of professional support amongst practitioners. If anyone reaches out for help, they’ll get it.”
Mr Nevell says his income is currently limited by the number of hours he can put in behind the desk but that in the future, he hopes to take on another lawyer.
“In order to increase my income beyond the time I spend behind the desk, I will try to bring in another employee and grow a little bit, but I don’t want to grow into a big firm; it’s just not me. I left a bigger firm because it wasn’t me and I’m glad I worked that out. I think everyone needs to work in the environment that suits their personality.”
This was first published in LawTalk 852, 10 October 2014, page 7.