The recent exponential increase in websites, books, expert consultants, and tweets devoted to starting a law firm is evidence of an undeniable trend: more lawyers are going out on their own, in solo practice, than ever before.
The reasons for going solo vary among attorneys. Some may leave a big firm to gain more flexibility or independence, other attorneys may choose to start their own practice because there are insufficient opportunities at law firms, and still others may simply want the satisfaction of working for themselves. Despite the various motivations behind their choice, those who go solo have much in common. Successful solo practitioners take risks and are self-motivated but, most importantly, they have (or quickly develop) the balance necessary to accomplish law firm management tasks as well as to actually complete the necessary legal work on their client files.
The constant influx of innovative technology (from office management software to legal research tools and handheld devices) has helped equip solo practitioners and small law offices alike with many of the same resources that used to be available only to large law firms. For the tech savvy solo practitioners, this has translated to a decrease in overhead, an increase in revenue, improved time management, healthier attorneys, and happier clients. While technological improvements have helped ease the stress associated with hanging out one’s shingle as a solo practitioner, the stresses of the practice of law and the challenges of running a business remain more static.
Regardless of what you read or whom you talk with, starting your own law practice is not for everyone. Like any other attorney, a successful solo practitioner needs to be an effective communicator, problem solver, and creative thinker. But having all of those qualities still won’t get you through your first trial. A critical component is effective practice management. Practice management is not learned in law school, it is learned in practice; and in reality it continues to develop throughout an attorney’s entire career.
In addition to the legal skills, client work, and client development, a solo practitioner must be ready to manage the books, create and maintain an effective marketing plan, develop good relationships with colleagues and referral sources, manage client expectations, and play the roles of associate, partner, office manager, and entrepreneur. Fortunately, solo practitioners are not alone. Many attorneys have taken this leap, and many have found great satisfaction and success in doing so. It is important to identify what makes those people successful and this requires careful planning if you wish to be successful as a solo practitioner.
Create a Business Plan
Becoming a solo practitioner or starting a small law office can seem daunting. Before taking the plunge, attorneys should treat the venture as if it were any other business start-up. Lesson One: preparation, preparation, preparation. It is essential to create a business plan and budget that considers various levels of revenue and identifies measurable short- and long-term goals. The plan will largely depend on the actual practice you intend to pursue. Do you plan to lease office space or hire support staff? What about technology, equipment, furniture, insurance, and office supplies? Marketing expenses will largely depend on your particular practice. Your ability to connect with your ideal clients will depend on the amount of time you’re able to dedicate to client development. Be sure your business plan includes measurable goals (financial and nonfinancial). That which goes unmeasured rarely is improved. These are all important components of a solo practitioner’s business plan. Once you’ve created a business plan you can live with, review the plan with a mentor or your peers and solicit their feedback and advice. An experienced attorney or a good friend will have a lot of insight to share.
Get Organized and Stay Organized
Solo and small firm practitioners shoulder a lot of responsibility. The best way to overcome the challenge of having this degree of responsibility is to create systems and procedures to promote better organization. Creating a system for each process, from client intake forms and billing to file management, is best. The better organized you are, the more time you will have to spend actually meeting with clients and billing your time, thus improving your bottom line.
More important, be sure to memorialize your procedures and to practice them constantly. This will assist with training new employees as well as give an existing employee a reference guide to consult before he or she instead pulls you from a client or other billable work for guidance. Files should be arranged consistently and organized so that anyone in your office can glance at the file and quickly be up to speed. Such measures may seem unnecessary when you start with just a few files, but you’ll be glad the system is in place when your files start to multiply.
An abundance of effective, yet inexpensive, practice management software options exists to assist with managing client files. Clio, RocketMatter, Freshbooks, and Work Etc. are a few “cloud-based” products with useful and innovative file management features. They all offer free trial periods or incentives for trying their products, but before you spend time or money on any of these programs, read the customer reviews to ensure you’re purchasing the product that best suits your need. Lawyerist.com has reviews for almost every product available to the small practice attorney with comments and conversations on the pros and cons of each product. Other pieces of technology that can assist with managing a practice include virtual desktops and remote servers, virtual assistants, phone answering services, and cloud-based file storage and back-up programs.
Focus, Focus, and More Focus
Every solo practitioner comments on the ebb and flow of billable work that exists in their practice. Some say it is feast or famine out there. The reality is that a solo practitioner will not start with a week’s worth of billable time each week. Stay focused on the big picture; developing a practice is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Use the down-time to brush up on recent developments in the law, create checklists and forms, organize files, update your books, improve your systems and procedures, and be sure to reconnect with mentors, referral sources, friends, classmates, and colleagues.
A good friend and mentor recently shared what I believe is the key to a successful legal career. “Do great work,” she said, “and everything else will fall into place.” She was not only talking to solo and small firm practitioners but also to a group of attorneys from big and mid-sized firms as well. Of course, nobody starts the day thinking, “I am going to do mediocre work today,” but there is no substitution for great work. Failure is a certainty if the number of hats worn by solo or small firm practitioners compromises the quality of their work. Excellent organizational skills and focus will maximize your efficiencies and enable you to do great work for every client.
If you are starting a practice with relatively little legal experience, avoid the tendency to take any file that comes in the door. It is more effective, long term, to do quality work on a lesser quantity of files, than low quality work on a greater quantity of files. Stay focused and develop your core competencies in a specific practice area. Every area of law presents a steep learning curve and deepening your knowledge of a specific practice area will get you to the top of that curve in a shorter period of time. The result of a focused practice will improve the quality of your work, your confidence in that work, and your clients’ confidence in you. In time, this will lead to more referrals. In addition, focused practice will also help you build a reliable network of mentors and colleagues whom you can depend upon for support—the keystone to a successful practice.
What’s in a Website Anyway?
You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Going beyond the walls of their office, solo and small firm practitioners are connecting with clients and professionals all over the country through the world of websites, blogs, tweets, and e-mail. Clients increasingly defer to Internet searches, testimonials, and client reviews for their legal needs. In fact, you can guarantee your client attempted to research and solve his or her own problem before finding you. This underscores the importance of maintaining a well-designed website and a positive online presence. Time invested in keeping your online presence up to date and effective is well worth it in the long run.
Space for Rent
Choosing office space and signing a lease marks a significant milestone in a solo practitioner’s business venture. This is true not only because office space is one of the largest expenses on your books, but also because an office helps shape the culture and identity of a solo practitioner’s practice. Luckily, solo and small firm practitioners have a few options to consider that help lessen the expense associated with leasing space.
A virtual office is an inexpensive option for attorneys who only need a conference room and mailing address. Joining other attorneys in an office suite can be an economical way to share the expense of having support staff or a receptionist. Office-share situations can produce referrals or opportunities to collaborate. For the frugal solo practitioner, working from a home office can be an appealing way to reduce overhead. That being said, it is likely worth the extra expense for attorneys new to the profession to find a space in close proximity to other practitioners, in the dividends such arrangements provide in collaboration, mentoring, and potential referrals.
Let’s Sum It Up
A solo practitioner, like any business owner or entrepreneur, needs a business plan and a strong work ethic. A good business plan will provide a road map and measureable goals. A strong work ethic will get you through the inevitable challenges presented by each file that crosses your desk. The remaining decisions—how you use technology, your area(s) of practice, and how you will connect with clients—will depend upon your individual skills and personal preferences.
No matter what area of practice, solo and small firm practitioners alike should employ measures to improve efficiencies, stay organized, and remain focused. Becoming an organized and focused practitioner with a good network of mentors will prove invaluable in the beginning stages of any solo career. Developing positive relationships with mentors who want you to succeed creates a support structure and provides opportunities to expand your professional network. You will discover that having a few talented people on your side increases your confidence and inspires you to continuously improve your practice. These positive relationships can also provide introductions to new friends, clients, and mentors—and you can never have too many mentors.