How to Build a Criminal Law Practice

You’ve decided to branch out on your own and build a criminal law practice. Starting a business is an exciting time, but it’s also a challenge.

Did you know that around 90 percent of startups fail? More than one in five startups fail in the first year, 30 percent by the second year, 50 percent by the fifth year, and 70 percent by the end of a decade in business.

The legal profession trains you to be a lawyer — not to run a business. So, it can be tough to know how to get started and what to focus on in the all-important first year.

In this article, we look at how criminal defense attorneys can build a business from the beginning to not only survive but thrive.



What budget do you need to get started?

How much do you need to start a criminal law firm?

Calculating a “ballpark” figure will help you determine whether you have the resources to get started.

Many small business owners underestimate the required budget. You can start a firm for $500, but you probably wouldn’t want to do that. With one in five startups failing in the first year, you should aim to have enough in the bank to cover at least the first six months.

Starting a criminal law firm with anything less than $3,000 to $10,000 is asking for trouble — depending on location, competitors, incoming leads, etc.

To put a more precise figure on the budget you need, start with your office expenses. Remote working could save you significant startup costs (rent, design, expensive furniture, etc.) and has become common practice for lawyers since the pandemic.

Next, consider these other four main areas of expense.

law firm budgeting checklist


How to write a criminal law firm business plan

A business plan is the starting place for every enterprise. It provides a formal outline of how your business will operate, how it will make money, and its main objectives and targets.

It effectively acts as a roadmap for your business.


What should your business plan include?

Here’s a quick summary of what to include in your business plan.

law firm business plan

The most important aspects of your business plan concern what you want to achieve and how you’ll get there: big picture ideas with a granular breakdown of how to accomplish them.

So, as you write your business plan, keep four important questions in mind.


What are your main goals?

Everyone who starts a criminal law firm wants to be successful, but we all have a different view of success.

Consider the following when writing your business plan:

  • Why are you starting your own firm rather than working within an existing firm?
  • What are you hoping to gain from starting a firm?
  • How can you best apply your talents to helping people?
  • Who are your ideal clients?
  • What problems can you help solve?
  • What does success look like?

Ideally, set lofty but achievable goals.


How much revenue do you need to make?

Did you know that:

lawyers billable hours

The number of billable hours you work will be even less as a business owner. Technology, automation, and outsourcing can help, but your time is limited. Keep this in mind when you calculate projected revenues in your business plan.

The average lawyer made $126,930 in 2020. If that all goes into paying for expenses, there will be nothing left to grow the business with (hiring expertise, technology, marketing, etc.)

Work out how much you need to make to cover costs and invest in the business.


What fees will you charge?

As a criminal defense lawyer, you may charge anything between $150 and $750 per hour for your time. The average is around $200 per hour, but a highly experienced criminal defense attorney may charge up to $750 per hour.

Some lawyers charge hourly rates, and others charge fixed case fees.

The rates you can charge will depend on:

  • Your location
  • Your level of experience
  • Method of billing (hourly or fixed)
  • Competitor charges
  • Case complexity
  • Business expenses

If one of the reasons for starting your law firm is to set your own hours or work less, reducing your fees to the lower end of the scale might not be such a great idea.


How many cases do you need to meet your goal?

If you know how much revenue you need to make and what your fees will be, you can work out how many cases you need to have on the books to hit your financial goals.

Lawyer caseload revenue targets

The above scenario is overly simplified. Not all cases will be similar or require the same amount of work.

You’ll need to consider time off for vacations, sick days, and mental health days, especially if you’re a solo practice.

The point is that your business plan needs to go into such detail. It doesn’t matter if you don’t hit the targets that you set, but having them will provide a guide for you in the first year.


Setting up your criminal law practice

After writing your business plan, you’re ready to set up your business and make it official by naming it, licensing it, and ticking off the legal formalities.


Tips for naming your firm

Criminal law firms often use the name of the lead attorney, like Oykhman Criminal Defence, named after Michael Oykhman:

oykhman criminal defence law
(Image Source)

Previously, the Model Rule of Professional Conduct Rule 7.5 from the American Bar Association prevented law firms from using the state or jurisdiction in their name, but this requirement has been removed.

Firms like The Maine Criminal Defense Group have embraced the change.

maine criminal defense group
(Image Source)

It’s still important to check your state’s law firm naming rules and not mislead clients.

The following are some basic tips we recommend:

  • Don’t include language that implies that your firm is the only law firm in its field (e.g., “The” Criminal Law Firm)
  • Don’t include language that implies a comparison between the services performed by your firm and other firms (e.g., Best or Greatest Criminal Law Firm)
  • Don’t include demeaning, degrading, or derogatory language

Here’s a final example from Affordable Defence in Ottawa. Highlighting a unique selling point of your practice in your name is perfectly acceptable:

affordable defence
(Image Source)

Options for forming a legal business entity

There are four primary options to consider when forming a legal business entity, though your jurisdiction may affect your options.

These should be considered carefully as your decision will affect your level of liability and the tax structure you’ll follow.

Law firm business structures


Opening a bank account and purchasing insurance

Your criminal law firm needs a business bank account for checking, savings, and an Interest on Lawyer Trust Account (IOLTA).

With IOLTAs, you cannot deposit your own money except to pay service charges. Other rules may apply depending on your jurisdiction.

Criminal law firms are involved in life-changing matters, so you also need to consider the following types of business insurance:

  • General Liability Insurance: The standard business coverage that includes most claims that come up during regular business operations.
  • Property Insurance: Covers your offices and the main contents.
  • Legal Malpractice Insurance: Professional liability insurance covers claims of negligence or malpractice made against an individual in your firm.
  • Cyber Liability Insurance: Covers security breaches, which can be especially serious for law firms handling confidential client information.

Insurance needs may vary according to your firm’s employees, client requirements, etc.


Licensing and compliance

The licensing and compliance requirements to legally start your business will depend on the rules of your state agency.

You may need some or all of the following:

  • A business license to operate and identify your business for tax purposes
  • A state tax identification number
  • Trade name registration
  • Zoning approval (if you are opening new offices)
  • Employer Identification Number (EIN) if you intend to hire employees

Setting up systems and processes

Part of the reason you want to start your own criminal defense firm is to do things your way, right?

This is where you get the chance to do that — setting up the systems and processes. But how do you create a consistently high-quality business?

We recommend that systems are client-centric and focus on improving the client experience, reducing errors, delegating work effectively, and building better teams.


Internal operations/workflows

If you’ve decided to work remotely and meet clients mainly by video conferencing, it will save considerable overhead.

law firm remote stats

However, you still need to decide:

  • What are your working hours?
  • How else will you communicate with clients (email/chat/phone)?
  • How will you keep client data secure?
  • Who will look after the administrative tasks?

Start developing internal documents that commit to workflows in writing. Anyone coming into the firm in the future will know how things work. But don’t forget to revisit these documents regularly and keep them updated.


Client intake process

A client-centric firm puts the client experience first and addresses their pain points.

To do that, you need a clearly documented client intake process that builds credibility and trust.

Here’s what you need to cover:

criminal Law Firm Client Intake

If something’s not working for clients or for you, review it and change it for a better solution. That applies to all of the systems and processes mentioned here.


The use of technology

Technology should be used to improve your life and the efficiency of your criminal law firm — not simply because it’s the “thing to do.”

The automation possible with the right technology can save you time and money. Many laborious tasks can be made easier, but all technology should serve your systems and processes rather than disrupting them.

A good question to ask is: How does this technology support the goals I outlined in my business plan or my workflows?

Your legal tech stack should not be without the following two items, at a minimum.

Case and client management software

Legal case management software like LexWorkplace can help you look after the needs of your clients and your business:

  • A client portal
  • Document management
  • Going paperless
  • Staying organized with a shared calendar in the cloud
  • Automated billing

Practice management software

Law practice management software like Uptime Practice is like having a complete remote legal office to help run your practice.

uptime practice practice management
(Image Source)

It is specifically designed for law firms just starting out and can help you:

  • Work anywhere
  • Manage cases/legal matters
  • Manage office workflows
  • Manage client intake
  • Securely store information in the cloud
  • Track expenses and manage accounting

Plan to market your firm online

You’re finally ready to start taking on clients and provide the stellar service that will set you apart from the rest.

Referrals alone are unlikely to cut it. How are you going to attract new clients?

Criminal defense marketing is the most effective (and economical) way to generate quality leads. Before you start employing the many digital marketing strategies available, consider your brand and your marketing goals.


Build a brand

A brand is more than a name or logo. It’s what you stand for, your unique selling proposition (USP), and what people think of first when your name is mentioned.

When you think Louis Vuitton, sumptuous quality luggage comes to mind.

Some criminal defense lawyers are surprised when we talk about “branding” a law firm. Understanding the unique quality that clients consider important and that differentiates you from the rest cannot be underestimated. It will guide your law firm’s marketing strategy.

Here’s a good example from San Antonio criminal defense attorney Trey Porter, who understands the unique value he can bring to DWI clients.

trey porter law
(Image Source)

And here’s another from appeals attorneys Barhoma Law in Los Angeles.

Barhoma Law
(Image Source)

Brands are not about “buzzwords” or being too general. They convey specific benefits and emotions to the target market.


Know your target clients

Before starting any criminal defense marketing campaign, you need to know who you’re trying to attract. Trey Porter’s messaging is very clear: he wants to attract DWI clients in the San Antonio area who want to fight their cases and seek dismissal.

Who are you going to target? Create a target persona — age, location, occupation, salary, criminal charge, marital status, etc. This will help you shape your content and messaging to their “pain points” and may even help set your pricing correctly.


Set your marketing goals

You have already set business goals in your business plan, but you also need to set marketing goals.

Marketing is likely to be a major expense for your firm, and it’s important to ensure that you’re spending your money wisely. You can’t measure what you don’t track, so you need to define your goals and track progress to measure how successful your campaigns are.

Create SMART marketing goals.

law firm smart goals

If your goal is to start making profits after three months, that’s great, but it’s not a SMART goal. You need to “reverse engineer” it to be more specific and measurable.

To be profitable in three months, determine how many clients you need to serve in that period and what you will charge them. Then calculate how many leads you will need to attract to make that happen (maybe one in three leads will turn into paying clients). Decide which marketing campaigns you need to run to attract that many leads.

Write this down in your marketing plan.


Attracting clients with digital marketing strategies

How are you going to attract the number of leads you need to hit your goals?

This is where you decide on the marketing channels/strategies that will bring new paying clients into your firm. These are big decisions. Marketing budgets may be limited, so getting it wrong here can be expensive.

First, understand the following.

Criminal Law Firm Marketing Channels

Working out the main channels that attract your target clients should be fairly easy. As a simple example, if your target clients are mainly young, social media will be an obvious focus.

As a criminal law firm just starting up, you will need to establish credibility and built trust and authority before a steady flow of leads comes your way. Most criminal law firms look to the following marketing channels to reach out to potential clients.


A top-notch website

Potential clients should be able to find you, read about how you can help them, and find answers to their most pressing questions. That will convert interest into commitment and leads into paying clients.

The leading law firm websites include not only branding and practice area service overviews but informative and original content that can help you do that — like this one from The Law Offices of Bryan R. Kazarian in California.

bryan r kazarian
(Image Source)

Register a domain name with GoDaddy, SquareSpace, or BlueHost and outsource your website development to professional law firm web developers with an impressive web design portfolio.


Search engine optimization (SEO)

People are searching for the criminal defense services you offer in your location. Whether they will be directed to your website depends on how well you optimize it for the search engines.

SEO pays long-term dividends so you’ll need other marketing campaigns to get leads through the door more immediately. You can learn what you need to know in our SEO guide for criminal defense lawyers.


Local search

Criminal defense firms just setting up may want to focus on attracting local clients at first.

Start building your visibility by optimizing your Google My Business presence like The Maine Criminal Defense Group.

maine criminal defense group
(Image Source)

To learn more, check out our guide to Google My Business for Law Firms.

Also, get yourself registered in the main directories. These rank well in search and can send traffic to your website. They are also hubs for reviews and ratings, which help develop social proof and build credibility.

Focus on optimizing your presence in the following legal directories (many offer free listings):

  • Avvo
  • FindLaw
  • Yelp
  • YellowPages
  • Lawyers.com

Here’s a good example of an attorney bio on Avvo from William Bly at The Maine Criminal Defense Group.

lawyer avvo profile
(Image Source)

Social media marketing

Over 80 percent of law firms have set up social media accounts — and that includes many criminal defense firms.

The most successful firms use social media to inform their target clients, who then click through to their website and enter the sales funnel.

Here’s a good example from Wasatch Defense Lawyers, a firm in Utah that regularly updates its Facebook page and has almost 2,000 followers.

Wasatch-Defense-Lawyers-Facebook
(Image Source)

Social media is not just for personal injury or estate planning firms. This is a huge topic but you can find out what you need to know about this in our recent post on social media marketing for criminal law firms.

Meanwhile, keep these stats in mind when choosing your social media platforms.

law firm social media usage


Online advertising

Another effective marketing channel for criminal defense lawyers is Google Ads.

Facebook and Google ad campaigns are best outsourced to professionals as they require expertise and management to avoid overspending.

Facebook ads

You’ll need an optimized Facebook page, specific audience targeting, clear campaign goals, and engaging ad copy/design to catch the eye in a competitive space. Here’s an example from The Law Office of Ramos & Del Cueto PLLC.

Facebook-ad-criminal-defense

Google Ads

Google Ads for criminal defense lawyers appear prominently at the top of Google above the organic rankings.

For instance, Oykhman Criminal Defence specifically targeted the keyphrase “impaired driving lawyers Calgary” in this ad, which appeared at the top of Google:

Oykhman-Impaired-Driving-Lawyers -GoogleAd

Visitors who clicked the ad were sent to a dedicated landing page that aimed to convert leads into consultations.

Paid ads are a more immediate way to generate leads than SEO and can be very effective if experienced pay-per-click professionals run your campaigns. Our post on PPC for lawyers goes into much more detail about this.

Other marketing strategies for criminal defense firms

We’ve just covered a few key areas of digital marketing strategy here. There’s much more to it, and you can learn more about this in our article on how to market a criminal defense practice in 2022.

Digital marketing isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it type of deal. It requires constant work to build a brand, grow credibility and trust, and generate a steady flow of quality leads. Be patient, and the results will come.


Networking and hiring

Starting a business is challenging. You’ll need some practical and moral support along the way.

Friends and family can help. You’ll also meet mentors and colleagues who can provide general small business advice and more specific criminal law practice advice.

This is like gold dust and can keep you going even in the toughest times.


Find your community

It may not always be top of mind when setting up your practice, but plenty of people have done it successfully before you. And they can help you avoid making the most common mistakes.

Your peers are an important source of advice and recommendations — and you have all the tools you need to connect with them online and find out more about setting up a business.

Some of the best places to find these resources are:

  • Small business associations
  • Facebook and LinkedIn groups
  • Local bar association events

On LinkedIn, for instance, you’ll find specific small business groups and groups like this one, which is set up to help lawyers who specialize in cybercrime).

criminal law group linkedin

The following is the Facebook group for the National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers with 11,600 members.

lawyer facebook group

You’ll find similar criminal law groups set up for lawyers in your local area and/or who specialize in a particular area of criminal law.


Hiring talent

LinkedIn is also a great place to find talent to help your business. That may not be necessary early on but, once you get busy, you’ll at least need part-time legal or administrative assistance.

LinkedIn has an active jobs board and is one of the best places to find qualified help.

criminal defense jobs linkedin

By hiring some help, you can free up your time to focus on building the business.


Outsourcing

When running your own business, many tasks can be outsourced to professionals through platforms like Upwork or Fiverr.

We’ve already mentioned web development and marketing campaigns as two prime candidates for outsourcing. Think about outsourcing your law firm accounting and bookkeeping too.


Are you ready to start a criminal law firm?

A passion for practicing law is not enough to start a criminal law firm. You need to be passionate about running a business.

It’s a big responsibility. Not everyone is cut out for it.

You need to be prepared to take on the extra workload and responsibility and make decisions for the good of your business and yourself.

If you’ve read these tips on building a criminal law practice and are keen to follow the roadmap for success, congrats!

If you’d like professional help with marketing your newly found law firm, schedule a free consultation with our experts today.