By Patrica Donkor
Hello everyone! Thanks for tuning into another installment of the Lady Lawyer! I’m so excited warm weather is finally here! One of my goals for the year is to participate in more speaking engagements. So, I am excited to be speaking at the International Municipality Lawyers Association (IMLA) conference in a couple of weeks. It will be my first time presenting a CLE. There is something about the idea of speaking to a group of lawyers that makes me nervous. Wish me luck!
If you tuned in last month, you will recall that I spoke with Vernida Chaney, criminal defense attorney extraordinaire. There, she and I discussed her experiences as a Fairfax County Senior Public Defender (PD) and Capital Defender, and some of the self-care considerations that she grappled with in those roles. This month, is a continuation of that discussion. Vernida, who established her own law practice three years ago, and I will explore the decisions that preceded this venture, as well as tackle the decisions she continues to face as owner of Chaney Law Firm.
PD: Welcome back, Vernida! Tell me, how did you know it was time to leave Fairfax County Public Defender’s Office (PD’s office) office and establish your own practice?
VC: I loved being a public defender; however, I always knew I wanted to either head up my own PD’s office or start my own law firm. I decided it was time to step out on faith and chose the latter. Over the years, I had learned a lot but I was eager to explore other aspects of law, mainly federal law. Therefore, by going into private practice, I am able to represent clients in both state and federal courts, which offer a nice variety of cases.
PD: I see. So, at that time, you felt that you had reached your full potential at the PD’s office?
VC: Yes. I had learned a lot and gained invaluable experience, but everyday is another opportunity to learn something new. I wanted an opportunity to work in the federal system and explore different practice areas, like personal injury. The Fairfax Public Defender’s Office only handled state criminal cases.
PD: Was speaking to people important to you as you began to seriously think about starting your practice?
VC: Absolutely! Before I decided to start my own practice, I consulted with dozens of people, including former public defenders, about going into private practice. Everyone I spoke with was very generous with their time and advice. They gave me so many tips and resources, including things to avoid. For example, one piece of invaulable advice was to keep my overhead expenses low for the first few months of starting a new law firm.
PD: Makes sense. Okay, tell me about the planning process for starting your own practice. What did that look like for you?
VC: Before I left the PD’s office, I began to set things up. First, I told my boss at the PD’s office that I was planning to leave about six or seven months prior. Over my last four or five months there, I began to move things into place. I took various training classes and Continued Legal Education (CLE) courses on the new areas I wanted to explore, such as federal criminal law, family law, and estate planning.
PD: Did you do anything else?
VC: I read a lot about starting a law practice. I wanted to avoid many of pitfalls that attorneys experience when leaving the public sector for the private sector, so I took time to educate and prepare myself. I also consulted the Professional Rules of Responsibility and Virginia State Bar to make sure my practice complied with the ethics rules. Additionally, once I made the decision to start my own law firm, I began telling people, especially other lawyers. Most of my first cases came as a referral from other lawyers. To this day, many of my clients still come from referrals from other attorneys, who have confidence in my work and skills.
PD: How did you decide what you wanted to do about office space? In Virginia, you don’t actually have to have an office. You could identify your home address or even a P.O. Box as an “office” for recordkeeping. Considering you wanted to keep costs down, was having a physical office important to you?
VC: I spoke with a lot of attorneys about office options, too. You’re correct; you are not required to have a physical office in Virginia. I know many attorneys who do not have a private office but instead work from home and meet clients at the courthouse or other meeting locations. Over the past few years, many attorneys have taken advatange of virtual offices which provides them the flexiblity to rent office and meeting space on an as-needed basis. Both options are excellent for reducing overhead; however, I was used to working in a physical office and wanted to establish a permanent presence with my firm. My office is located across the street from the Fairfax County Courthouse. The cost for the space is a business expense I personally feel is necessary for me to have a place that is comfortable for myself and my clients.
PD: Now that you have been out on your own for a couple of years and have seen a bit, can you think of any common, yet unnecessary, purchases by people opening their own practices that you strayed away from?
VC: Yes, office space. Office space can be the biggest monthly expenditure so people starting their own practice should fully consider all options before making that financial commitment. Although, I considered other options, for me, it made the most sense to have a permanent physical office for my practice. Besides having a nice office close to the courthouse, I also found that I needed a work space outside of my living space to handle complex trial litigation. In the type of cases I handle, I often receive boxes of discovery from the government. Having an office separate from my home provides me with a place to review and store a mass of files and documents. Additionally, I have work and conference rooms at my office that others can use to assist me.
PD: Sounds like your decision to wait on the permanent office space was a form of self-preservation. Are there any other wasteful expenses that you can think of that you consciously avoided?
VC: Yes. Other things that a lot of people spend money on right away, which may not be necessary, are websites, optimization, and branding.
PD: What is optimization?
VC: Hiring companies to increase your placement on search engines is an example of optimization. There is definitely a benefit to having your law firm appear first or second in a web search when a potential client is looking for a lawyer; however, I decided against spending money on this. I knew from having left the PD’s office that I did not want to have a volume practice. Instead, I decided to focus on procuring the right clients and not on being first on the list of a Google search.
PD: Have you seen people take on more than they can chew?
VC: Definitely. Starting a new practice can be overwhelming, both professionally and financially. Many people take on cases they may be unprepared to handle just to pay the bills. I chose not to do that and only handled cases and clients I could properly serve.
PD: Any other common pitfalls that you knew were not conducive to how you wanted to enter private practice?
VC: Yes, hiring unecessary full-time staff. As attorneys, we must delegate a portion of our admistrative tasks so we can focus on representing our clients. However, attorneys should be cautious in delegating specialized tasks to staff and create a monitoring or checks system to ensure those tasks are done properly. Also, attorneys should consider the cost and productivity of the staff to assess whether the investment in human capital is worth it. My business background requires me to think of things like return on the investment.
PD: So, do you use any support staff or do you do everything on your own?
VC: Yes I do. I cannot do everyting on my own. Using assistants, paralegals, and interns have proven to be vital for me. They help me with client communications, research, discovery review, and the like. I also use courier services to pick up/drop off items and a transcriptionist to save time.
PD: In the beginning, did you have to decide how much money you wanted to make versus how many cases you wanted to take on?
VC: I made a conscious effort that I would not take everything that comes through the door. I would only take what I could handle. Also, I decided that I was not going to overextend myself. That meant that I had to turn down some cases. I knew it made sense to focus on what I knew, so that I would not have to worry about the learning curve if I ventured into an unfamiliar area. The times that I did venture into new things, those cases were ancillary to criminal law, such as grand jury witness representation, protective orders, school disciplinary hearings, et cetera. I think setting those parameters early in my practice have served me well.
PD: I am curious about this decision. I can see someone just starting out and being tempted to take on as much as they could, especially when they go from a steady income to having to generate income.
VC: So can I, but I didn’t do it. I just stuck to what I knew. I’m a firm believer in staying in your lane.
PD: You are your own boss. How did you determine what your work schedule would be?
VC: I don’t necessarily have a set schedule. I usually work Monday through Friday during traditional work hours either in my office, at the jail, or on the road. I also work nights and on the weekends, as needed. If I am not able to meet with a client during the day because of court or other obligations, I will meet with them in the evening. I also tend to spend a lot of Saturdays at the jail visitng clients. Flexibility and balance are important to maintain when operating your own law firm. For instance, when I finish a big project, I try to take a bit of time off before I move on to the next big project.
PD: You mentioned that you informed people that you were opening your law practice before you left the PD’s office. How was business in the beginning?
VC: When I first began, I had a lot of downtime which was much-welcomed as it allowed me time to focus on establishing a strong foundation for my private practice. During this time, I continued to explore legal topics relevant to criminal defense as well as wrap up any administrative obligations the firm had or would soon need.
PD: Another decision that I think falls under the category of self-care/self-preservation when starting your own practice is partnering with other lawyers. Did you consider partnering with anyone?
VC: I did. A few people solicited me for partnership.
PD: Why did you decide against partnering?
VC: It was a hard decision. I was approached and had conversations with several great attorneys who I admire. At the time, I knew I could benefit from a partnership; however, I felt the better option was to establish myself first.
PD: You did not partner, but do you collaborate with other lawyers in any way?
VC: I do, often. I have a group of lawyers that I work well with. We share cases. We refer cases to one another. I cannot say I will never partner with anyone, but it is something to weigh very heavily before doing.
PD: You mentioned taking downtime in between big projects. What else do you do to clear your mind?
VC: After my most recent trial ended a couple of weeks ago, I travelled to visit my sister. After another big trial last summer, I vacationed at the beach for a week. I need to have downtime. My happy places are anywhere there is water and a beach. I take advantage of these getaways whenever I can. It’s relaxing to get away from work and deadlines. It helps me to balance the demands of running my law firm.
PD: Describe the vision that you have for your practice, as far as Vernida is concerned. What do you want your practice to look like, for you, mentally?
VC: I am blessed to have a good practice and great clients that trust me to handle their cases. This work is hard and can be very unpredictable, so it is important for me to take things in stride and stay composed no matter what obstables may come. My vision for myself is to stay on this path I’ve already established so that I may continue to give my clients highly-skilled and ethical representation. Also, I will continue to steadily grow my business and, maybe at some point in the future, have a full-time staff and perhaps a partner.
PD: Thanks Vernida and congrats on the success of your firm!
VC: Thanks Patricia!
If you want to learn more about Vernida, visit her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/vernida-r-chaney-b9899045