Building Our Dreams: The Finances of Law Firm Startups

by Alexa Drago on January 5, 2017

By Drew Hefflefinger

Analyzing financial dataWho is tired of making someone else’s dream come true? The sacrifice, the hours, the faceless P&L reports. Learning how passionate and dedicated attorneys are, it is no wonder that many seek entrepreneurship as a means of providing a greater, more focused service to their clients. According to the American Bar Association’s “Lawyer Demographics of the Year 2016,” nearly half of all attorneys work in groups with five or fewer members.

For those considering, or already in the depths of solo/small firm ownership, I congratulate you. Operating a wealth advisory firm has enabled me to tailor every detail of my business to the unique needs of the people I serve. I suspect an attorney’s motivation is no different.

To inform, and perhaps provide a little motivation, this article offers a handful of financial considerations that an attorney should take into account before making the jump, what to consider as the doors open and what to contemplate when the business starts to thrive.

BEFORE THE JUMP

Financially speaking, the theme before day one is to reduce outgoing cash flow and reduce financial risk. New businesses are cash monsters, and expenses tend to be unusually high in the first couple years of operation.

Hoard cash. There is plenty of existing information on what the cash will be spent on, but how does an attorney “hoard” cash? First, save effectively. Review current expenses and see where costs can be cut without reducing the current lifestyle in question. Some examples include consolidating personal insurance, considering a different car or cutting subscriptions that are no longer in use. Second, consider reducing expenses that lack personal value. Eating out versus bringing a bagged lunch will still satisfy an appetite, but one costs three times as much.

Review debt. Have a mortgage? Consider refinancing household debt in an effort to acquire the lowest monthly payment possible. In many cases, a borrower can apply for a 30-year refinance and significantly reduce outgoing cash flow. Also, it would not hurt to establish a home equity line of credit to provide another easy source of cash if necessary.

Have student loans? Consider an income-based repayment plan to temporarily reduce monthly payments. It will be more advantageous to apply after severing ties with the current firm since current income, or lack there of, is the main driver of the repayment calculation. In some circumstances, the borrower can nearly eliminate payments in year one.

Balance risk. Salary-based income earners have little volatility in their income. This steady stream of income enables employees to be fairly aggressive with their investable savings (401(k), etc.) due to the low likelihood of using the savings within a short period of time.

An entrepreneur’s income is much different. Income is typically volatile and subject to the immediate successes and failures of the business. By having a variable stream of income, it is prudent of business owners to be more cautious with their investable savings (Rollover IRA, etc.). In a balanced world, the entrepreneur is increasing risk in his or her ability to generate income and reducing risk in investable savings. This balanced approach provides an attorney with another stable cash lifeline, regardless of the conditions of the outside economy.

Develop a relationship with a Certified Public Accountant. Make sure they have experience in small businesses and are willing to give tax advice. Some accountants only file returns based on the information provided and fail to dig deeper into their clients’ unique circumstances.

By implementing the above, an attorney becomes risk averse in nearly every aspect of his or her financial life. This enables the concentration of risk taking toward the new business venture.

OPENING THE DOORS

The next step focuses on benefits. In the past, benefits were generally taken care of by the employer, which is not the case anymore. An attorney is now building his or her own self-sufficient island, and nothing comes for free.

Healthcare. Technically everyone needs to have it; the failure to do so can lead to a tax penalty. Working with an independent healthcare broker will do wonders. They have the ability to diagnose existing circumstances, family dynamics and identify a suitable plan.

Disability income. I worked with a former anesthesiologist who, at 40, developed a form of multiple sclerosis that left him unable to practice medicine. He was unable to provide for his family on his own but wisely transferred the risk of disability to an insurance company at an early age. Today, he and his family are still accomplishing their financial goals despite his inability to generate a doctor’s income.

Life insurance. The family’s goals are bigger than those of any one person. College, retirement, and lifestyle are important, and without the breadwinner’s income, many of these goals could never be accomplished. Should the unthinkable happen, make arrangements so that loved ones are still poised to succeed.

THRIVE

The firm is growing, clients are happy, referrals are flowing in — the dream is becoming a reality. But the firm is not the only goal. How does the firm connect with the other important aspects of the business owner’s life? Here, an attorney is typically looking at his or her personal life and considering college for the kids and retirement flexibility. By building net worth, an attorney stands in a strong position to accomplish these personal goals.

Go back and review debt. Rising cash flow affords the opportunity to get back on track with student loans, mortgage and other debt obligations. By decreasing these liabilities, the business owner increases net worth.

Go back and review financial risk. Since income may not be as volatile as it was when the doors first opened, it may be prudent to increase risk in investable accounts (Rollover IRA, SEP-IRA, etc.).

Establish a retirement savings plan. A retirement savings plan is arguably the biggest facilitator in connecting the firm’s financial success to the family’s personal goals. The result is less income in top-income tax brackets and big steps toward building net worth.

PARTING THOUGHTS AND MOTIVATION

When I left the corporate world, my former mentor watched over me as I packed my personal belongings into a cardboard box before leading me to the elevators. It was all very stereotypical; I could hardly hold myself back from laughing at the sheer audacity and rigid formality of the situation.

But I was tired of being on the receiving end of other people’s energy. As I stepped into the elevator with my cardboard box, a powerful inversion occurred. Energy started flowing outward. My old life was over; I was going to make my own dreams come true.

Best of luck and cherish the opportunities you create.

Drew Hefflefinger is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ at Engage in Wealth in Denver. He specializes in working with attorneys by helping them grow and protect wealth while achieving personal goals. He can be reached by phone at 303-459-4355 or by email at drew@engageinwealth.com.

 

This article originally appeared in The Docket.

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