Finding independence: Advice for women going solo
Karen M. Lockwood
Starting your own practice takes courage, and if you’re a woman it takes conviction. That’s why the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession set out nearly two years ago to invite women in the legal profession to share their decisions, experiences and reflections in letters to other women who are thinking of launching their own firm.
The letters they gathered are so much more than advice, says Karen M. Lockwood, CEO and founder of The Lockwood Group, LLC. “The letters open a window onto the field of reasons why women left larger practices. It is not family pressure—these women are working harder than ever. It is ownership, control, ambition, success and challenge,” she explains about the new ABA-published book she edited, The Road to Independence: 101 Women’s Journeys to Starting Their Own Law Firms.
To help aspiring women of all ages and seniority start down the road to independence, Lockwood recently met with YourABA, sharing the wise and unique insights from the 101 letters written by women lawyers who started their own firms from 1956 to 2011.
A trial lawyer and partner for 30 years, Lockwood emphasizes the book’s importance to all lawyers who wonder what the next law firm business model should be.
What are the top three things to consider and the top three mistakes to avoid when starting your own practice?
I would offer these three things to consider:
- What is your market for clients? Corporate or individual? Types of industries? Types of legal issues? How can you differentiate your work from that of other firms? How will you do so every week? This mindset works if you make a habit of it and, as one of our writers expresses, think and breathe it in every conversation.
- What is your vision for 20 years down the road? Do you plan a legacy firm that you will leave behind, or are you focused on year-by-year ability to meet client demands? This forms the reference point for many of your business decisions.
- How will technology help you? Do you know social media, cloud computing, alternative solutions for servers that meet security requirements for client work, and more? Get an IT specialist you trust. Decide you must invest in this. This elemental necessity both absorbs the largest cash you need to invest, and returns the benefit the soonest.
I would offer these top three things to avoid:
- Failing to believe that clients want you individually. They want you. But they want answers to questions about your new practice form and reliability, and your most important job is to have answers that are real and provable. This of course requires that you have created that reality. Reflect back on the top three things to consider, where I mention IT and specialty focus.
- Expenditures that yield few or minimal returns. There is time later to lease fancier space, and to have the finest furniture. Your immediate image will be portrayed by the material you send out—letterhead to tweets. Measure your visibility in those media and communication spheres against the number of clients who visit your office, and you will be choosing the right tools to invest in first.
- Underestimating your worth. This affects not simply billing rates, about which different writers have different views. Beyond that, it affects the goals you create, your expression in marketing and presentations of how you offer what clients want, and more. The letter writers show that when you emerge from a larger firm, you suffer from the habit of measuring your worth in line with what your firm colleagues reflected back to you. This may well be irrelevant to your value in the marketplace and your new practice form. Know your value, believe it, act on it, and prove it every day.
Are there bumps in the road to independence?
Of course. The top three items to consider, and to avoid, are tricky in that they demand constant attention and re-assessment. But every re-assessment can knock you off your game in bad weeks, or inflate your appetite unrealistically in good weeks.
Commission on Women in the Profession Chair discusses Road to Independence and the current status of women lawyers in law firms
It is not surprising that more and more women are deciding to create their own firms, says Roberta D. Liebenberg, chair of the Commission on Women in the Profession.
“Women continue to face significant barriers and obstacles at law firms in this country. They experience disparities in compensation, which increase with seniority; are often subjected to implicit bias in assignments and evaluations; and are grossly underrepresented in the equity partnership ranks and in positions of real power and influence in law firms. All of these factors contribute to disproportionately high rates of attrition of women from law firms,” Liebenberg writes in the book, The Road to Independence: 101 Women’s Journeys to Starting their Own Law Firms.
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The bumps in the road are little different than bumps in any investment. If you are committed to your vision, well-formed, then today’s bumps will seem a lot lower when tomorrow arrives than they seem today.
These writers show how important it is to stay the course as business strategists, and to render top legal service at all times. Early success may require hiring more lawyers before you had planned, but strategic business analysis and the commitment to high-quality service will guide you in how much risk to assume as you grow.
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What are the seeds one needs to start and grow a successful law firm?
Seeds: the women founders speak of vision, commitment, a starting plan, advisors, imagination, creativity and a healthy does of humor.
Fertilizer: a great IT plan with investment that saves labor; a good banking relationship with a real banker; a routine emphasis on developing client relationships; and event-based visibility in your markets.
What are not needed as top priorities: long-term leases; fine furniture; trappings that require sunk costs without immediate returns.
You mentioned that many of the writers tell how they created routines and were able to reap rewards because of their consistency. Does a particular routine stand out?
Women mention marketing and sales repeatedly. Each developed a routine that fit her practice and her reality. But, however varied those routines, they emphasized the need to constantly elevate her visibility through public appearances and articles, to be friendly, warm and personal in making repeated contacts with future clients, and to develop acknowledged expertise in specialty fields. They tell this story in the most effective way—through anecdotal evidence and variations on personal practice.
For many people, the uncertainty of the future, fear of failure and just plain worry is paralyzing. How were these women able to conquer their fears and move past their doubts to actually start a law firm?
The answers are as diverse as the backgrounds from which women moved into autonomous practices. These women are courageous, yes. But they are not alone in that courage. Rather, they are a symbol of many, many women in practice generally.
Women in practice are already faced with more than their share of reasons to be afraid, to doubt and to reach paralysis, given all of the demands for their work and time. So whether you consider a woman fresh out of school who starts her own practice, or a woman with 25 years in large-firm practice who takes her knowledge and authority to a new level of independence, you are considering the same tight-rope balance between ambition and service on the one hand, and obligation and cultural expectation on the other. That has always been a challenge. Conquering these obstacles is not new to most women lawyers. As this book shows, the challenge of starting the new firm lies more in mastering the business of law practice. It is not hard—but it takes time.
So when those in private practice consider whether women have big alternatives to big success in traditional firms, the question itself unwittingly aims at the gender that is already used to risk, and is poised to seize more control.
The writers of our letters show this power to seize opportunity. They aren’t running from; they are running toward something new. And that knowledge empowers them to become the businesswomen they are.
That knowledge also should make women equally recognized in traditional firms as key assets—as leaders, full participants, and powers to contend with. We’re not there yet.
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Starting any kind of business is challenging, what are the unique challenges for lawyers?
The trappings of a distinguished profession—as with other professions—seem to create a scrim through which it is hard for new firms to focus on the essential startup investments and to bypass the cosmetic ones. With law, as opposed to medicine or engineering, for example, there are few huge costs for major equipment, scientific instrumentation and the like. Rather, we are hired for our knowledge, judgment and advice—things that need thought and access to information.
For startup practices, the puzzle is how to impress the marketplace that the firm is a serious competitor and well-learned in the art of the practice. Naturally, a founder’s answer to this puzzle differs depending on her years of practice experience, her visibility and reputation in the marketplace before founding the new firm, and other individual traits.
The letters reflect this individuality. As such, they sometimes give contrary advice, because each writer knows best the path that she took. Senior practiced lawyers advise women to work in an established firm before trying to go out on her own; and these founders seem to elect more frequently to invest in some of the badges of their distinction—a key office address, bespoke letterhead, and the like. But with just the same conviction, lawyers who started a new practice directly upon earning their JD reflect their excitement, and the reasons that it worked for them.
On balance, and given my experience founding a firm after being a trial partner in a highly reputed, now global, firm, the greatest challenge remains finding the balance between working on billable matters (and deciding how large a volume of work requires expansion), and effectively marketing the new firm’s brand (and converting potential business to new work).
Internet-based business communications are a tremendous boon to founders of new practices, bringing the cost of information access, as well as marketing output, to nearly the simple value of one’s time. More than ever, we can leverage the flexibility of how to divide one’s hours from week to week between client work and highly productive marketing work. With this, I believe we are looking at the sweet spot for new startups during the next five years, and new efficient models for practicing law.
How important is it to have a mentor in this process?
That’s a great question. Before studying these letters, I would have described it as helpful. But the letters make mentoring one of the most essential strategies. They talk about mentoring for new founders in several unique ways.
First, because you are making business decisions that both carve a real first impression and make hard choices between expenditures, you need to talk with people who have done this before.
Second, because you are betting everything on your ability to increase revenue, you should focus on a few good mentors as your most valued relationships, checking out your business plan and sharing your thoughts about what you offer in your marketplace.
Third, because you are relatively alone, in contrast to working with more lawyers in a larger firm, you need to substitute someone for the audience you used to have by walking into the office next door. In sum, your hours are your gold; seek deeply helpful mentors and use them consistently.
What were some of the more unique business models used by the writers?
Well, the value-based billing business models of firms that are now famous for that, have women founders. The virtual firms, which abandon the need for a lease or even location-based addresses, have women founders. Necessity seems to have helped the profession invent these new recognized, valid business models. I was fascinated to note that women entrepreneurs are key among the visionaries who matched their new firm models to their needs.
Ultimately, what do you hope people will get out of reading this book?
I hope readers will pick this up because of the window that it offers onto the trajectory of our profession over the last 50 years. I hope that they find reason to think hard about our profession’s business models, the underlying values and visions implicit in those models, and issues about loyalty in partnership businesses.
I hope that readers will see the tenacity and incredible talent of women in the profession: that they are probably the most determined of working women; that they see the deeper issues about business models, loyalty and values; and that as highly ambitious people they will find the business vessels in which they can best practice, grow, profit and improve the profession notwithstanding the obstacles that may confront them.
I hope that the profession understands as a result that it needs a great deal of re-examination and reform to attract and keep women of all races and backgrounds at all levels in traditional firms, and to groom them for leadership.
And of course, I know that women who are considering their own future forms of practice will think, grow, reach and remain bold by reading these letters—whether in their own new firms or leading where they are now.
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