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.