GPSOLO April/May 2009
Downsizing Is Not a Bad Word
Downsizing gets a bad rap. People think of it as a euphemism for letting employees go for reasons other than poor performance. More recently, however, the term has been applied to the housing market. Downsizing is no longer relegated to retiring persons or empty nesters; it is a growing trend across the board in this economy. All types of persons are moving to smaller, less expensive, or at least easier-to-maintain homes. The goal is a better quality of life. Downsizing in this sense is about simplifying your life so that you can focus on what’s important to you.
Where Do I Want to Be?
When I entered private practice, my top goal was to provide exceptional legal services. I did not want to be average or mediocre in any way. I wanted to approach every case with a keen sense of the law and my arguments. I wanted always to be abreast of updates and changes in the law. I had a sense that if I built a reputation for quality legal work, I would be successful. The top goal was not to generate income but to build a strong reputation among clients, colleagues, and judges. The income would be a natural outcome.
Am I Where I Want to Be?
Nonetheless, when I made the ever-so-courageous leap into private practice, I lost sight of that. I was afraid to tell people that I didn’t offer the services they needed. I was afraid to turn away any work that I knew I could do and afraid to do the kind of work I turned away. These fears—not my goals—became the driving force behind my solo practice. This, my dear colleagues, was no way to run a business.
How Did I Get Here?
As I made the decision to be ruled by fear no longer and to take the future of my practice (and my life, for that matter) into my own hands, I began to take an inventory of the current state of my practice. What I found, much to my dismay, was that the practice I had been developing was not the practice I wanted. I spent the majority of my time on activities that had no connection or correlation to what I found to be important. The practice was running me and not the other way around.
Where Am I Going?
Reality says that my practice must generate income as it is my livelihood. But how much income must my practice generate to be self-sustaining? This was my next analysis, and it, too, was eye-opening. I realized that I was in a trap that I had set for myself. I needed more income to maintain the general practice that I didn’t want but felt I needed in order to generate income. My overhead was grossly inflated by my paying others to do work that I was just too tired to do; apparently, trying to be a jack-of-all-trades expends a tremendous amount of energy.
The deeper I looked into the situation, the more I realized that, if I did not do something drastic to change the direction of my practice, I would do just as well to get a job! And I assure you the idea of getting a job is morally repugnant to me. Accordingly, I decided to take control of my future by downsizing my practice.
How Do I Move Toward Where I Want to Be?
My reputation is still what is most important to me. So my decisions regarding clients and cases would have to be governed by that overarching goal, not fear. In order to develop a strong reputation, I would need to be successful in three areas: knowledge base, client satisfaction, and familiarity with the court. My knowledge of the law, though broad, was very shallow. My workload, as built when I was driven by fear, was so heavy that I was unable to offer my clients the kind of attention they wanted—only what they required. I never wanted my idea of quality service to be reduced to meeting deadlines, attending court dates, and notifying clients of updates, but that’s what it had become. As a result, client satisfaction suffered. Moreover, I was seldom in front of any one judge enough to build a rapport with the staff or to learn the house rules. So despite how long I had been practicing, I still regularly felt like the new guy. On all three of my indicators of a strong reputation, I seemed to be falling short.
To meet my goals, I initially needed to downsize my client base. What better way than to reduce my practice areas? I decided to limit my practice to probate work, including wills, trusts, and estate planning. Focusing on probate has given me the chance to learn one area of the law really well. I have time to look into more complex issues when they come up, and I don’t have to work so hard on ordinary cases. Also, I find client satisfaction to be higher in this practice area than many others. Finally, focusing on this one area has allowed me to practice regularly before the same handful of judges and magistrates, building rapport.
As I focused on what is important to me, my confidence increased. This has freed me to command the fees I deserve, allowing me to maintain a reasonable workload and flexible schedule—and still generate enough income to support myself. It seems so simple when I say it like that. But there is a lot of work and planning needed to shift from generalist to specialist.
How Am I Spending My Time?
An over-cluttered, over-packed schedule does not allow time for business development, let alone self-care. Taking care of myself is very important to my business development: I am the face of my business, and I don’t want that face looking haggard. I must allow enough time in my schedule for regular bouts of rest and relaxation. These periods of rejuvenation actually increase my productivity. When I am tempted to skimp on self-care, I simply remind myself that my goal is to provide exceptional legal service, not to generate income, and self-care is vital to reaching my actual goal.
Early in the process, I committed to spending at least some time each workday in an activity that furthers my personal goals, thus steering my practice in the direction I want it to go. This necessarily means cutting out at least some activities that do neither. If I had continued to spend all day, everyday, nurturing a general practice, I would have continued to grow a general practice. As I consciously invest time and energy into pursuing my true goals, these goals will come nearer to fruition—and my general practice will gradually die a natural death.
Research suggests that focusing or downsizing your practice will not decrease your income, as you are replacing the other practice areas, not just cutting them out. Although I cannot report that there will necessarily be an increase in income, I can state that there will be increased client satisfaction and quality of life. In my own case, I have begun replacing some known income-generating activities with other activities that may not be immediately lucrative and some that are not income generating at all. But, again, it is a matter of quality of life—and client satisfaction.
What about My Money?
In preparation for a possible front-end decrease or in some cases overall decrease in income, there are three things you must remember: Only the essentials are essential; waste is wasteful; and successful people are mindful of their money. Taking the time to go over my income and expenses for each month over the last year has revealed a number of non-essentials that I could cut from my budget.
By looking at my Verizon cell phone bill and not just paying it, I found ways to reduce my minutes. I hadn’t come close to using all of my minutes all year. I also examined how much money I had wasted mailing letters when e-mail or facsimile would have sufficed—not to mention how much I had wasted by not printing draft copies on the back of scrap paper. I even found that I had paid my Time magazine subscription so many times that it was paid up through the end of 2010. If I had my eye on my money earlier, I would have been aware that I had already paid that bill.
I realized that I was paying a lot of money for someone else to bill my clients because I was too drained to do so. This is not an essential expense; attorneys all across the country handle their own billing. In fact, I find that handling every client file every three or four weeks in order to prepare accurate and timely bills is part of providing quality service. Besides, why should anyone but me know who owes me and how much? Some tasks shouldn’t be delegated.
With a little creativity and a lot of common sense, I was able to cut my overhead expenses by four billable hours per month. This is like a gift of time to my business development endeavors.
What about My Current Clients?
Moving from generalist to specialist is a process. No matter how aggressively I begin seeking and acquiring probate clients, I still must manage my current caseload. Doing a disservice to any of my clients does not further my goal of developing a strong reputation. So I must be careful not to be less attentive to my current cases in the areas of practice I am abandoning.
I have intentionally decided not to alert my current clients of my decision to downsize. There is no reason to possibly instigate a sense of unease and insecurity in those clients. I don’t want even the possibility of my clients worrying that I will not continue to value them or that I will fail to fulfill my duties on their cases. If and when the time comes that these clients ask me to represent them again, then I will explain that I am not taking on new cases in that area.
Incidentally, I was not prepared for the sense of almost euphoria I felt the first time I actually said, “I no longer practice in that area—let me refer you to a colleague who does.”
What about New Clients?
As a generalist I acquired new clients mostly through two means: word of mouth (i.e., getting the word out that I was an attorney) and referral lists. In both of these scenarios I was not seeking a particular type of client, I was just seeking clients. As a result, I spent a lot of time in client consultations that either didn’t lead to my being retained or, worse, led to my being embroiled in litigation that was really more trouble than it was worth.
Now that I know the type of client I want to serve, I can use direct marketing. It is a proactive approach to reaching potential probate clients. And, whenever anyone asks me about my practice areas, I have to confidently state that I am a probate attorney—not a general practitioner. This is actually harder than it sounds. As an aspect of my business development, I attend events where I will interact with financial advisors or other professionals likely to need the services I am offering. This approach makes me feel much more in control of the direction of my practice, which in turn makes me feel more in control of my life and generally more at ease.
Small Is Beautiful
Committing to downsizing my practice is the best decision I could have made for my career and for my mental health. There are so many things in this world that I have no control over, but my practice doesn’t have to be one of them. Choosing to design my practice around my goals and not my fears is a recipe for success that I hope many other solos and general practitioners will try. Life is too short to waste the opportunity we have to live it to the fullest. By not being beholden to any company or employer, we have the flexibility to spend our time doing things that have lasting value, such as caring for our families, ourselves, and our communities.
Jamie Campbell Pickens is a sole practitioner in Columbus, Ohio, with a focus on wills and probate. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.