Extending the Reach: A Young Lawyer’s Continuing Experiences in Developing a Solo Law Practice (Part Two of a Series)
By Brian Annino
“Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?”
Since launching my practice in January 2009, I have learned many important lessons along the way. I chronicled some of my initial experiences in the first article of this series, “ Hanging the Shingle,” published in the Spring 2009 issue of GPSolo Law Trends & News.
This article is the second of this series through which I discuss my experiences in developing and building my practice and offer ideas and opinions for you to consider in starting a new solo practice or analyzing your current practice. Future articles will continue to discuss additional ideas, opinions, and lessons learned from my own practice. Please feel free to reach out to me and let me know of your comments, ideas, and experiences. I enjoyed the comments you provided resulting from my first article and appreciate the opportunity to speak with other attorneys about the joys and challenges of solo and small firm practice.
In this article, I discuss the importance of networking within local business organizations and participating in bar associations and lawyer organizations. For the reasons set forth herein, I believe that my participation in each of these types of groups has extended my reach for clients, in terms of gaining additional education and experience in addition to my making strategic contacts for them.
Networking Within Local Business Organizations
I assert that networking is fundamental to success as a solo and small firm attorney. In order to build trust amongst clients and potential clients, we need to earn that trust through in-person discussions and exchanges.
I am a big believer in utilizing social networking through the World Wide Web, particularly through LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. As more fully discussed in my last article, I see these as tools to supplement, but not replace face-to-face meetings and networking. Therefore, in order to thrive, we must be successful in our in-person networking encounters.
I am currently a member of a county Chamber of Commerce and various business organizations. Some of these organizations are structured to serve all types of business within a locality and others are designed to serve particular types of businesses (such as an association of real estate agents).
These business organizations offer a great amount of networking opportunities. In fact, my county Chamber of Commerce may offer enough events to provide most of my breakfasts and lunches each week. Therefore, the key is selecting the appropriate audience.
I find that “leads” or “connection” events that feature 50–200 people offer an ideal opportunity to grow one’s practice. Typically, these events begin by each person introducing themselves and conducting a brief (30 second-1 minute) description of their business. I carefully make note of each presentation and decide which persons and business to connect. For example, financial advisors, accountants, and real estate agents are natural allies to me in my estate planning, business, and real estate practice. Therefore, I seek them out after completion of the presentations and have private discussions. Also, I have a number of persons approach me directly for discussions. These discussions lead to future discussions, and in many cases, ongoing business relationships and clients.
As we would not imagine entering a courtroom without proper planning, you should not plan on entering a networking event without having a game plan. Most importantly, you want to ensure that your short presentation (think of it as your “elevator speech”) is a clear and concise description of your practice and how you can help the businesses that are in the room. This may require more preparation than you think. If you are not sure, take some time tonight and practice a speech before a loved one (or someone else that will provide you an honest assessment).
Another great preparation tool is to review the membership list of an organization prior to an event. You can pinpoint particular connections you wish to make at the event.
I generally refrain from utilizing large events (featuring 500 attendees) in furtherance of networking. I think that these events are too impersonal and do not allow for sufficient time to connect with businesses and persons. These events frequently provide excellent educational and civic functions, however.
Such educational and civic functions should not be underestimated. I find it extremely helpful to learn about local businesses in the area and seek out civic volunteer opportunities that are typically broadcast through the organizations of which I am a member.
Business organizations provide ample opportunities for the solo and small firm attorney to network and participate. With proper selection of the organization and networking event coupled with proper presentation, the attorney has a very useful marketing tool at hand. In addition, such groups provide a great resource for the attorney to better learn about businesses and civic affairs in his or her community.
The Importance of Bar Associations and Lawyer Organizations
As discussed in my previous article, budgeting is of the utmost importance. In furtherance of strict budgeting, it may appear tempting to forgo paying the membership dues for voluntary bar associations or lawyer organizations, particularly when we have to pay yearly mandatory state bar association fees.
However, I assert that participation in voluntary bar associations is essential towards building your law practice. Voluntary bar associations for purposes of this artcile include all bar associations for which membership is not required to practice law in a particular jurisdiction. Important voluntary bar associations include national and local bar associations, such as the American Bar Association and the Atlanta Bar Association.
Lawyer organizations are varied and include the American Association for Justice and the Defense Research Institute, amongst a multitude of others. There are lawyer organizations geared towards numerous practice areas, philosophies, religions, and ethnic groups.
Bar Associations and lawyer organizations are important to solo practitioners because they allow for efficient and extensive networking opportunities, continuing education offerings, and learning opportunities. For these reasons, I assert that the solo and small firm attorney greatly benefits from membership in such bars and organizations.
As discussed, networking with business professionals and potential clients is very important towards the goal of developing a solid client base. However, I assert that networking with fellow attorneys is also important. Its importance lies in our duties towards our clients. Because we are charged with looking out for the best interests of our clients, this will often lead us to legal issues beyond the scope of our practice areas. Therefore, I believe that we must have resources to attorneys in other practice areas related to our own. For example, I have a strong real estate and business law practice, but I do not practice bankruptcy law. Therefore, I stay connected to what I deem to be the top bankruptcy attorneys so I can refer my clients to these attorneys as may be necessary.
In my experience, I have built trust with my clients by referring them to other attorneys and business professionals that practice in areas that I do not. They appreciate my good resources and endorsement of attorneys outside my practice area. In short, this extends my reach for my clients and I find that they really appreciate this.
Also, I believe you will be quite pleased to hear that solo and small firm attorneys genuinely enjoy referring clients to each other. In referring clients to other such attorneys, I have enjoyed receiving referrals three-fold in return.
I find the best way to stay connected with other attorneys is through the various networking events of the bar associations and lawyer organizations of which I am a member. These groups offer networking events geared to a wide variety of practice areas and include breakfasts, lunches, and evening events. If I wanted to, I could probably attend networking events through these groups nearly every day of the week.
The bar meetings I most frequently attend are “meet and greet” type events, roundtable discussions, and seminars. In the course of these meetings, I make note to get there early, stay late (or both) and introduce myself to as many attorneys as possible. I very much enjoy the conversations I have with attorneys regarding legal trends, news, and discussing our recent experiences in the transactional and litigation worlds.
These groups are also important because of the continuing legal education (CLE) credits offered at affordable rates. If you are in a mandatory-CLE state such as me, you are conscious of fulfilling CLE requirements without breaking the bank.
I receive an estimated 15 flyers per week about CLE courses offered by various private education companies. Prior to becoming a solo practitioner, I never paid too much attention to the price of the CLE courses. Of course, now that business expenses are drawn out of my own operating account, I pay particular attention to such costs. The flyers and brochures I receive advertise hundreds (even thousands) of dollars for half or full day courses.
Bar associations and lawyer organizations offer CLE courses at much lower rates than private education companies. For example, my local bar associations routinely offer a half and full-day course for $200.00 and less. In addition to such rates being a relative bargain compared to private education companies, I find that the courses offered by the local bar associations often feature local judges and experts. Therefore, I can stay sharp on local law and trends at a reasonable rate.
Voluntary bar associations and lawyer organizations also present additional learning opportunities for attorneys. These opportunities include pro bono opportunities, lending libraries, mentor/mentee relationships, and exposure to other practice areas. All of these opportunities are invaluable for developing a practice. I find that these learning opportunities also extend my reach for my clients.
It is also important to note that bar associations and lawyer organizations have generally frozen dues increases due to the economic climate. Some have actually reduced their dues or made special arrangements for solo and small firm attorneys. Most notable is the American Bar Association’s action to reduce dues for solo attorneys, effective for the 2010–2011 membership year. See http://www.abanet.org/members/solo/.
I assert that to be successful, the solo and small firm attorney must make good use of local business organizations, voluntary bar associations, and lawyer organizations. This leads to new clients and connections, increased experience and learning opportunities, and the personal enrichment that comes from human interaction. It also helps us extend our reach for our clients.
This concludes my second article in this series. I look forward to drafting future articles that discuss my experiences in starting and building my solo law practice. In the meantime, I welcome ideas from your own practice and perspective. Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with me via LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.
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