The Business of Being a Notary
In addition to earning a Master’s Degree in Applied Legal Studies and gaining comprehensive legal knowledge on the elements of the notary profession we all set up and run a business. The business we run is strikingly similar to many other businesses that are owned and operated in our communities. A notary business needs to have customers buy the service and we need to deliver the professional services and receive payment. It all sounds so simple, but a legal practice is so much more complex.
I think the common starting ground is a business plan. In particular, I found our Simon Fraser University ALS 630 course, taught by adjunct professor, David Bilinsky, a distinguished lawyer whose self-professed mission in life is “to empower [legal professionals] to anticipate the changes, realize the opportunities, face the challenges and embrace the expanding possibilities of the application of practice management concepts to the practice of law in innovative ways that provide service excellence.” With Dave’s leadership, we created business plans fundamental to professionally serve our clients ethically and responsibly while also meeting the practical needs of running a business. Indeed the decisions that I made, and continue to make, which are based on that business plan endure much longer in some cases than the legal processes that evolve throughout time.
As we plan our notary businesses some of the areas are very well defined by our profession. Our product mix will include: notarizations, real estate transactions, mortgages, personal planning documents (wills, powers of attorney, health representation agreements), and executor-trustee estate appointments. Based on the Notaries Act that governs us, we really don’t have much room to diversify and certainly in the early stages of one’s practice specializing in one particular area is seldom an option. We do have to consider a number of other elements in considerable detail including; Marketing, Financing, Organization, Office Location, Competitor Analysis etc.
I think we have an excellent course in the curriculum on this matter so covering the elements of the business plan I will leave to our mentor and leader, Dave Bilinsky. As a Notary that has recently been through the process let me tell you it took much more of my time and energy to setup the business than I expected. I started out in a package office environment with the intent of limiting the start-up costs and that worked well for a few months, however, I quickly got so busy I needed staff and the package office environment with staff across the hall was not terribly efficient. Retail space became available in the complex that housed the package office and I moved forward to negotiate a lease and take on new space.
I have leased space before so anticipated the lengthy back and forth with the landlord and after a couple of months of discussions signed a lease and started on leasehold improvements so that we could occupy the space. As is all too common in business the leaseholds took two more months than expected and we were graced with visits from carpenters, painter, electricians and computer folk for months following our first occupancy. The physical space other than costing more and taking longer was all pretty standard stuff. And, anyone who has ever renovated or constructed a new home or space will appreciate how everything always takes more money and time!
We live in an age of substantial technology, and our ongoing discussions and debates with Dave and my cohorts regarding the implementation of such into a modern notary practice was only the tip of the iceberg. Even with ample research on the style of technology in my own office, I was surprised by the complexity of the technology requirements and indeed the ongoing costs of such services and equipment. We had to determine how to connect to the internet, the type of internal network, how we would manage electronic files, electronic file backup, software licenses for computers, document scanners, photo copiers, phone systems and the desired level of connection between the phone system and the computer network. We installed an alarm system, and did you know you need a licence to have an alarm system? You also need a business license, notary insurance, business insurance, and a license for my sandwich board sign. The sign on the building didn’t need one that seemed a bit odd to me. And then we had to manage (seamlessly to the public) through the quirks and quarks of our new systems for several months after initial setup. We assessed whether we were to be a paperless office and ended up as a quasi-paperless office with the goal to implement paperless systems as technology improves and rules change for legal practices. Ultimately, the process of tweaking and improving our technological systems and practice needs is an ongoing aspect of running a modern notary practice.
Once I had my lease location nailed down the customers continued to arrive and I provided the mix of notary services. Finances were looking brighter — all was great. However, every step forward revealed new and interesting challenges in the evolution towards business success. Fortunately customers did arrive but my credit card system wasn’t right and had to be changed. It turns out setting up an accounting system was much more complex than I thought. We had to review and update that system. Plus I got sick, my staff got sick, my son was home sick and the landlord wanted the first, second and third rent cheques! Thank goodness I had a sound financial plan and we started to have some decent cash flow.
Just as I thought I had it all in hand I noticed we were really busy with files and actually needed to add another employee. Finding the time to hire and train while I was really busy with notary files was a real challenge. Fortunately we had planned the office with additional staff members in mind so the structure was there but making a good hiring decision was very time consuming.
All that said I am now close to three years into the business and the practice is thriving. Happily, I even get paid occasionally. I am grateful for our ALS 630 course for all the elements of the business planning that provided the framework to allow me to move through setting up and operating a Modern Notary Business. This may be the most important course in the program!
This article was featured in the Spring 2016 Scrivener magazine.
ALS-630 2012 Online Guide, Professional Practice, by David J. Bilinsky
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