Ten years ago it would have been impossible to have set up a successful practice on your own without a full time secretary/receptionist (and the accompanying burdens of Paye and national insurance), a minimum of two offices and probably also a small conference room for meetings.
However, recent technological developments and the introduction of the serviced office mean that you can now set up an efficient practice without this expense.
Because of increased specialisation, clients are now prepared to spread their legal work around and it is no longer necessary to be a general practitioner before setting up on your own. many specialists are setting up on their own because they are increasingly disillusioned in large firms, although this is obviously not feasible in every area of law.
At the end of 1993 I decided to start up my own legal practice in March 1994, practising only in my specialist areas: tax trusts and probate work.
I spent a lot of time in the intervening months researching the available information technology and was helped in this by articles in The Lawyer and other legal publications. It soon became obvious that the leading word processing package on the market was Microsoft's Word for Windows 6.0, described by one of the IT experts in The Lawyer as “probably the best word processor in the world”.
When I worked at Linklaters & Paines some years ago, the firm had a large computer department and developed its own tailor-made software. However, I don't need the luxury of specialised 'Cliona O'Tuama software' and am happy to rely on the computer gurus at Microsoft to develop software to meet my needs.
I ordered a computer from Dell, requesting an up-graded version of one of its basic computers with some extra memory and other add-ons. My computer came pre-loaded with Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel, which is the spreadsheet I use for office accounting. In my area of practice I do not need to hold clients' money, but would probably have to buy new accounting software if I did.
I was advised to buy a Hewlett Packard Laserjet 4L printer. This also prints envelopes and transparencies for slide presentations.
I bought the latest BT plain paper laser printer fax, which came with a BT service agreement.
Doing tax and trusts work I often have to complete revenue forms and was pleased to find these can now be obtained on disk. I bought all the forms I use from Laserform and I am delighted with how user-friendly this is. I am proud of the fact that I have ben able to set up a 'technologically-advanced' office, which does not have a dinosaur typewriter.
I found an excellent serviced office near the Temple in London. As I do a lot of referral work for banks, accountants and foreign firms, it has been very useful to be based in the City. It is also useful to be near the Law Society's library.
The building provides an efficient telephoning answering service, which means I don't need a receptionist. I do most of my own basic typing, but also have a part-time typist. My rent includes use of the building's conference rooms, which I use for meetings with clients.
Apart from my magnificent view over Inner Temple Gardens, another advantage of the office is that there are other people around, including some lawyers with other specialities, which is helpful for practice development. So I haven't experienced any of the sense of isolation often associated with being a sole practitioner.
I have not found the administrative side of running the practice too onerous. It was essential to ensure my office equipment had service contracts, so that someone would be on hand if any hiccups arose.
As a tax lawyer, I have experience of VAT, which helped in relation to my own VAT returns and I have been fastidious about keeping my accounting records up to date. As I approach the end of my first year, my practice is continuing to expand and I know I took the right decision. I would recommend specialist practice to anyone with the enthusiasm and drive to make it work.
Cliona O'Tuama is a specialist sole practitioner based at Hamilton House in Temple Avenue in the City.