Solo Lawyer By Design
Everything You Need For Success In Business
What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
You just passed the Bar and now you have a license to practice law. If you want long term success, here are what I believe are the top five essential ingredients for a successful practice.
First, find where your passion and excitement intersect with the economic realities you will face.
It is not enough alone to want to change the world by defending the oppressed. You need to connect that passion with a way to manage student debt and put food on the table. If you can live off what you produce in your practice – fine. But, if your passion includes supporting a family and ultimately planning for your retirement, passion and excitement alone are not enough. It is a good start, but the graveyard of exhausted and disheartened former lawyers is full of those who failed to weigh and balance their passion with the other demands and realities of their lives. The best way to guarantee professional success is to do what you enjoy doing the most that allows you to make a good living.
Second, limit your scope of practice to maximize your efficiency and competence.
Too many new lawyers take whatever comes through their door. Niche practice is not just trendy. It is commonplace these days because the competitive nature of legal practice no longer mitigates in favor of generalized legal practice. It is nearly impossible to stay abreast of all the developments in the law in such broad areas of practice as family law, bankruptcy, estate planning, debt collection and landlord-tenant law. Yet you will find attorneys who advertise for all of these areas of practice and more. Thirty years ago you could open a practice and compete offering services in all of those areas. But those times are gone. Now, you compete on the internet with services that appear to have all the benefits of compilation and advice without the high cost of seeking professional services from a lawyer. In addition, you are competing more and more with other specialists. If you were seeking a divorce and given the choice between someone who advertises practice expertise in six or eight areas of law including family law and someone who advertises services only for males seeking divorce; as a male seeking a divorce who would you contact?
When marketing your firm as a general practitioner, who is your potential audience? It is true, this expands your potential area of influence. But, omit those who would choose a specialist when given the chance. Also, when you find you have a medical condition and your health is at stake, wouldn’t you seek the opinion of a specialist? If the opinion you got was from a general practitioner, how much would you be willing to pay compared to a specialist? The same is true of a general practice lawyer. The expectation is that, since you don’t specialize your fees should be less. Counting yourself among all the other general practice lawyers also means that, unless you can distinguish yourself from your competition, you will not be able to charge any more than the competitors down the street. And as a general practice lawyer, you will not be able to distinguish yourself in every area of practice that you offer your clients.
When advertising, as someone who specializes, you can tailor your message to address the pain points of your clients in unique and targeted ways. You can find publications or websites that draw the specific type of person you wish to reach with a message tailored to meet those individuals needs. When you reach them with your tailored message, they will be drawn to you for your unique skills and not by price alone. As a result, you are no longer competing with every other attorney in your area on price alone.
Third, Find the Identity and Brand that Fits You.
Too many attorneys have no brand at all or a brand that does not suit their personality or style of practice. Ask any court clerk about any attorney and they will tell you how their characteristics play out in reality. If you want to know your brand, first be yourself and not in the style of what you perceive to be the norm for a lawyer. Too many new grads assume the persona of how they believe someone with a law degree should interact with others. And too often, it means that they are aggressive, impolite and demanding. They do this because their law school professors projected that persona in law school and demonstrated a demanding and aggressive style while using the Socratic method of teaching.
Step back and evaluate yourself before law school. Find the real you. When you do, display that thoughtful, caring persona out as you engage clients, opponents, judges and, yes, court clerks. You know how confused and worried you were when you first started law school? Now that you are out in the field practicing law, it is OK to tell others that you don’t know all the answers. In fact, you know very few of the answers when you first start out. You will continue to learn each day that you practice. Every day will present new challenges with legal concepts or applications of the law that you had never considered before.
Finding your brand is like trying on different suits until you find one that feels right to you – but most important, feels right to your clients. How do you know if you have found it? If you are true to yourself and candid about your insecurities (at the appropriate times), the real you will come out. Ask the court clerk what they find most appealing about your personality? How would they describe you to a potential client? That is your brand – become aware of it and sell it.
Fourth, Produce High Quality Legal Work and Bill Accordingly.
If you feel you can just get by practicing law on the margins – you are right! We see it every day in the courts or when opposing counsel calls us clearly unaware of how the law works in their case. They find the judges telling them what to do in court or pointing out the legal or procedural mistakes they made in pursuit of their client’s objectives. Often their clients stand by their sides unaware of the very real damage that their lawyer did by missing deadlines or misunderstanding the law. The level of professionalism in the courts is quite diverse and often discouraging to someone like myself who trains law students how to practice law. Yet, many of those attorneys who are producing unsatisfactory legal work still find themselves fully booked with clients in spite of their inadequacies. That is not to say that they are highly successful. Many times, these are the lawyers who are struggling financially and end up being sanctioned by the state bar or sued for malpractice.
If you apply yourself, obtain good mentorship, communicate often and competently with your clients, and pay attention to business management principles, you will set yourself apart from those who practice on the margins. Your client base will continue to increase every year and you will not have to attract clients by pricing yourself below the competition. Survival will not be your goal and minimal competence will not be your standard if you work hard to do well. There are no short cuts.
Fifth, Keep Your Expenses Low, but don’t be Afraid to Spend Money to make Money.
Opening a law office can be very stressful, but don’t make the mistake of substituting STUFF for why the client comes to see you. Once in your office and your counseling session begins, all that stuff around you disappears. The focus is on you, not your stuff. That means that if you can get by with a laptop computer that you used in law school to do your work initially, then don’t buy a new one. If you can find someone to give you a broom closet for your office at low cost when you start out, then make the best of it. Case management software isn’t going to help you make money when you first start out, but down the road as your client base expands and tracking a lot of open files in various states of development may require that you spend the money to access that resource to be able to use your time more efficiently billing for legal work and less on administrative work – which leads to hiring someone to help you. Resist at all costs hiring a full time employee until you absolutely need one. When you find you are spending hours doing what a high school student can do instead of billable work for your clients – it may be time to consider hiring someone and spending the money to make more money.
Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant. – Robert Louis Stevenson
First, fail to plan for transition.
This is where most practitioners miss the boat. They figure that they will wind down and gradually disappear into the sunset. They assume there is no value in their business with exception of the physical assets. They might sell the building that they owned and might liquidate furnishings and quit marketing altogether. Isn’t that what lawyers do? Take on less and less business as the client base dries up and then one day, they announce that they are retired. Not once do they consider the value of the good will that they have established over the years and why not. We are never trained to retire from practice or to convert the value of our business to cash. We only exit the practice of law once in our lives, so we have no experience doing this. With very rare exceptions, lawyers practice law, they do not liquidate legal entities.
Second, plan to fail.
Hire recent grads, work them to death, yell at them and do everything you can to make them want to bolt from your firm. Burn them out. After all, milking them for every ounce of possible excitement in the practice of law is what we are about. Generate as much income as possible and when that new associate leaves, there will be many more lining up to fill that slot. There is no incentive, with the surplus of new grads, to treat them well. Give no thought to bringing in someone who is a good fit and who might help you build or revive your practice. Do not look for someone who has enthusiasm and willingness to help you see the potential to expand your practice areas. Do not tap into their knowledge of social media to help you market your practice to a new and expanded market. Whatever you do, do not allow them to show you how to leverage technology for greater efficiency. Put them in the back room away from your loyal clients so that they will never get to know your new associate. That way, any good will you have established can be lost forever.
Third, have no plan whatsoever.
Loose the fire you had when you opened your practice. Do no planning at all. Just run on like you will live forever. Do not immagine exiting practice at all. Die at your desk. Let the State Bar handle liquidation of your business when you die. Leave your loved ones with a mess and your clients hanging regarding your transition from life to death. If you do this, they will sense your waning interest and maybe, if you are bad enough, they won’t ever return and your dream of retirement will come true even before you die.
Fourth, let your clients know that you have no plan.
Actually, it will become apparent with little effort on your part. The days you post a note on your door, “Please call this number to reach alternative counsel as I will not be in my office two days a week.” or better yet, do nothing. Just don’t show up for work and check your answering machine a few times a week to see if anyone is calling. Then when you speak to them, make sure that the times you are available are few and far between. Make it as inconvenient as possible for them to see you in person and eventually, they will stop calling.
Fifth, die leaving others to clean up and close out your practice.
This is the best rule to follow to make certain that your practice has no value left. Leave a mess for others to clean up after you die. Let them figure out where your accounts are located, how much is owed to you and what you owe to others. Hide your file storage key or place your files in a rental stall that floods, is crawling with vermin and contains mountains of paper files that someone else has to destroy by paying someone to shred all of them. But make sure that it is disorganized so that no one will know the real status of all your active cases. Take any case that comes through the door whether you are competent to handle it or not. Don’t invoice every month – better yet, do it indiscriminately and do not itemize your bills so that your charges appear to be excessive and leave the clients with plenty of room to challenge them. When clients don’t pay, ignore them and keep doing work for those clients even though they refuse to pay.
If you follow these rules, I can guarantee (unless you have gold bullion stored in your file cabinets) that your practice will have nothing of value to transfer to a purchaser. In fact, if you follow these rules, it is more likely that your practice will implode and your professional career might come to a screeching halt when your health or mental status fails.
So, it is up to you and no one else how this saga will end. . . .
Do you want to gain insight into the inner workings of the legal system where you want to practice? In preparing my students for practice, I tell them to go to the court clerks of any legal jurisdiction to get the “skinny” on who they might want to associate with and who they might want to avoid.
This is important. Because you can establish relationships with well respected attorneys or fall into an association with attorneys whose reputation you may not want to rely upon. As my students prepare their business plans, they set out to meet with local attorneys to find out the pros and cons of going into practice for themselves.
The best way to insure no interviews is to send out mass emails requesting meetings with those attorneys. Those emails, generally, will be disregarded. Most busy attorneys will see little value in taking up their valuable time to help a law student or recent graduate learn the ropes. They will have other higher priorities. Two great ways to get them to pay attention to you is to have a referral from someone that those attorneys will find to be important in their lives. One such person is a judge in a court where they regularly appear. Another such person is the court clerk of a given court.
If you contact an attorney whom you have never met and ask for an interview with an appeal based upon a referral from a local judge, they will be more likely to pay attention and actually meet with you. Now, a referral from a judge is great. Ask the judge for names of attorneys that they feel have a good reputation and treat others with respect. The names they give you will fill that bill from the judge’s perspective. And if you say, “Judge Smith told me to contact you.” That will get that attorney’s attention and you will probably get an interview.
However, judges see attorneys who are on their best behavior. No one wants to make a bad impression on a sitting judge who might rule against them in future litigation. So, for the most part, the impression they want to strike with the judge is a favorable impression.
The clerks, on the other hand, get treated differently. Attorneys file documents routinely in various courts. Some of those attorneys treat the court personnel with respect and courtesy. Some do not. The clerks are on the front line and can tell you how those attorneys act when the judge is not watching. They get information about how subordinates are treated from the subordinates who are typically sent to court to file documents. They hear about mistreatment. When attorneys are having financial difficulty or disputes with their partners or other associates, often the frustrations they are having are disclosed through subordinates as gossip.
So, I tell students to visit with judges and court clerks to get a well rounded view of the local Bar membership. As they go forward, they are better able to discern who they should associate with and who they might want to distance themselves from as they get established in the community.
One more point; don’t approach a clerk during their busiest hours. If they are busy, come back another time. And when you meet with them, if they seem disinterested and disconnected from you, come back another time when you can meet with one of the clerks who gives you eye contact. Eye contact and giving you their undivided attention is a signal that they are interested in helping you. When looking for a kind soul, you will know it when you see it. Wait until you see it! Then go forth and seek the wise counsel they can give.
- work ethic
- interpersonal skills (Carnegie skills)
- ability to get work done on time
- natural enthusiasm
The last quality in the list is natural enthusiasm. However, that enthusiasm is really not “natural”. From the perspective of the viewer, the enthusiasm appears to be natural, but in reality, it is really the product of many of the other characteristics on the list and a lot of hard work.
The reason it appears to be natural is that it arises naturally and predictably from all of the hard work and planning the precedes it. That enthusiasm is contagious. It leads to greater business opportunities for those who do the legwork. We often see attorneys who are “threadbare” when it comes to their attitude and approach to their craft. Check your attitude at the door if you cannot be enthusiastic about your craft. Your speech, posture, inflection and attitude project your feelings whether you intend to do so or not. When I ask someone about their areas of practice, their responses are telling. The enthusiastic practitioners will tell you stories about their clients and how they have helped them achieve their goals. The less enthusiastic practitioners will describe their areas of practice from a list (usually too long) and without commentary. Often it will be accompanied with some negative impressions about a judge, client, collections or other technical issues.
If you find yourself among those who find the practice of law to be a “daily grind”, I have three tips on how you might alter the negative perceptions that others may have of you.
First, review your areas of practice and reduce your scope of representation.
Either limit the geographic range of service, client demographics, or subject matter that you cover. This might seem counterproductive, but I have found that limiting yourself can result in much greater efficiency in the time you spend to generate revenue. Find a niche. Look for an area of practice that you enjoy and are passionate about. If you do, your clients will find that you are more focused and accessible. You will not need to be in as many courts. You will not have to stay abreast with as many diverse areas of law. Nor will you need to market your practice to as broad a range of potential clients. You can focus like a laser on the population that you care to reach putting your message where they gather, project it in the things that they read and tune it to address their needs in a much more focused manner.
Second, dedicate time each week to meet with another attorney to conduct a week in review with that person.
Brainstorm how you might change your behavior to be more efficient, to fire clients who are troublesome or to define your areas of practice to refresh and invigorate your approach in practicing law. Having someone to talk to allows you to unload some of the negative feelings you are having in a safe environment rather than internalizing those feelings and projecting them for the public. Find someone you know will be honest and, at the same time, encouraging. Choose carefully until you find the right person. You will know him or her when you see them. Ideally, it should be another attorney, but it could be a law student or other person associated with the legal profession who is invested in learning how they might do better as well. Give each other homework to complete during the week and to share the results in subsequent meetings. Try to set the meetings up in an environment that is fun or engaging for both of you.
Third, go online and dedicate time each week to search using terms that relate to your most challenging situation for the week.
Your search could be related to the subject matter you practice, different legal strategies, technology, marketing, or greater business efficiency. Take notes and plan to use what you learn in some manner in the following week. Set goals and follow through with them. Having a plan and executing that plan will help you feel that you are more in control of your circumstances. Do a search for developments in technology, the law or other changes going forward. If you keep an open mind, you will be able to anticipate changes in the law and new demands of consumers.
For example, for three years I have been telling my students to consider “drone law” as an area of practice. One morning driving to work I heard an interview about developments in technology that meant that consumers would have access to more sophisticated and reliable drones in the future. As I listened, I could see the potential for that change in technology creating opportunities for attorneys to counsel others on trespass claims, disaster recovery, agricultural applications and so much more as I thought about the potential applications. Everyday I see opportunities for new and potentially lucrative areas of practice if you just look about you. Use your weekly sessions to share some of those developments. This will freshen your outlook and help you to feel greater excitement about your practice.
These are just three tips to help you find and express greater enthusiasm for your practice. This approach is not foolproof, but if you find yourself wondering why you practice law and do not find it to be fulfilling – you need a different approach. This approach is a low cost and low risk method for you to refresh and reinvent your practice and find greater excitement and project enthusiasm for your craft.