GPSolo April/May 2007
Seven Secrets to Running a Better Solo Law Practice
David Leffler is a member of the New York City law firm Leffler Marcus & McCaffrey LLC, which represents clients in business matters and litigation. Prior to that he was a solo attorney for more than a dozen years. You may write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Spring has arrived—time for a tune-up of your solo practice! What better way to do this than to read this issue’s edition of Being Solo to help get your practice running at full speed?
Check Those Spark Plugs
Secret #1. Focus on what you do best and have the discipline to say “no” to any other type of legal work. I know, you’re building your practice, and when you try to say “No thanks, I don’t do that kind of work, just take that $20,000 matter to some other lawyer,” your throat constricts and the words just never manage to come out. Instead, some invisible spirit moves your jaw, and the words, “Sure, I can do that!” just leap right out of your mouth.
You ought to do some thinking ahead of time. As a guide, build your practice around work that meets the following criteria:
• You’re experienced in doing the work.
• There’s a good market in your community for the work.
• You have a good chance of having people hiring you for the work.
• Once you get the work, your office is set up so that you’ll be able to do it effectively and efficiently.
This is not to say that you can never expand your practice into new areas, but when someone wants to retain you for a particular matter, you should have a pretty good idea of whether or not it is something you can handle. And if you do turn it down, always offer to find an attorney to do the job so that you can build up brownie points with the other attorney, who will then be motivated to refer something back to you.
Secret #2. Have a great system for keeping your files organized, even if you don’t currently have a large practice. Practices grow. Get ready for that now by starting with the right system for keeping your client files in order.
The time to get into the habit of filing everything where it belongs is early in your practice, even if you don’t have much to file. And if you are a lot further along in your practice, then make it a priority to create a good filing system that you use regularly instead of the “vertical file” system (i.e., piles of paper).
Secret #3. Use technology to maximize your efficiency. Twenty years ago this would have been hard advice for a solo to follow because the cost of doing this would have been prohibitive. These days the tools you need have become ridiculously cheap. Check out the GP|Solo Division’s tech site at www.abanet.org/genpractice/resources/
tech.html and the ABA’s Legal Technology Resource Center at www.abanet.org/tech/ltrc for some great resources to speed you on your way.
Take the time to learn about the software out there that can make your job easier—everything from software that combines billing, accounting, and document management into one product to software that allows you to dictate a document right into your word processor.
Secret #4. Plan regular vacations. Solos who never take vacations get staler than a sack of week-old croissants. You’ve heard about that guy in the credit union who worked for 38 straight years without a day off. Don’t become that guy. He didn’t take a vacation until he was in a pine box, which is no way to see the sights.
Secret #5. Get out of the office. And going to the courthouse doesn’t count. Go out regularly for lunch, breakfast, coffee, or even to the local art museum. You need some fresh air. If you feel that you are about to have one of those days or afternoons when you will get nothing done in your office, don’t succumb. Instead, grab your coat and run out the door screaming “For God and Country!” and don’t come back until the next day.
I knew a lawyer who every now and then would sneak out of her office in the middle of the afternoon to see a movie. When my office was near the United Nations, I would take a break by walking through their rose garden.
Secret #6. Get interested in something besides the practice of law. No, bar association work doesn’t count as a hobby. Now, you don’t have to get so wrapped up in a hobby that you’re attending model train shows in distant states or building nuclear reactors in your spare time, although there’s nothing wrong with that (train shows, not nuclear reactors). Your outside interest can be as untaxing as joining a book club, participating in community theater, or baking bread. If you really want to inspire yourself to broaden your horizons, go to www.43things.com and start a list that answers the website’s question, “What do you want to do with your life?”
Secret #7. Get a dog. It has been scientifically demonstrated that petting a dog will lower a person’s blood pressure. GPSolo Editor-in-Chief jennifer j. rose’s Beto the Office Dog was a remarkable asset to her office. “His eyes would show all the love in the world to a client breaking down in tears,” she says, “and if the client’s saga was getting boring, he’d yawn. I swear he could come up with more facial expressions than any Doberman I ever knew.”
Don’t Run, Walk to Your Next Appointment
My parting piece of advice is to try turning down the pace just a little bit. Every so often get up from your chair, take a deep breath and a big stretch. It will do wonders for your concentration. And don’t forget to feed the dog.