Small Firm in a Big Pond
Big City Practice

By Laurel G. Bellows

Small is spectacular, but I’m biased. At five feet tall I have that “good things come in small packages” attitude. Of course, co-partnering a nine-lawyer law firm with my husband, Joel, in downtown Chicago requires attitude. We share the entrepreneurial spirit imbued in solo and small firm practitioners. It’s the extra edge of a “can-do” attitude, loving the challenge of proving the competence and credibility of our firm each day—the attitude that ensures success for those solos and small firms that choose to swim in a big city.

There is no cookie-cutter approach to big city practice. The big city offers lots of food, lots of space, and lots of diversity. Survival in the big pond requires small firm lawyers to be creative, adaptable, responsive, strategic, and energetic. Chicago clients have an array of law firm choices: size, cost, expertise, and location to name a few. So how does a small firm position itself to attract and retain clients in the midst of so much competition?

Expertise

You need to showcase your expertise and develop a reputation for excellence. Whether you choose a niche practice or a general practice, small firms need to separate themselves from the competition and distinguish themselves to call attention to their existence. But how do you develop an expertise and how do you flaunt your knowledge?

Although the advent of videos and teleconferences provide easy access to CLE opportunities, these programs should not substitute for local bar associations and in-person seminars to develop both your expertise and rapport with other lawyers in the big city. Teleconferences fill an important gap and certainly transmit knowledge, but the chance to question presenters about specific areas or hypothetical applications that would assist you in matters on your desk is important. At in-person seminars you can build a small network of similarly interested and capable attorneys with whom to trade questions and answers in the future. You can connect with the seminar expert speakers to obtain their future assistance or hire them to augment your skills in complicated matters.

If you have a general practice firm, you don’t have to turn down business from your corporate client and chance losing the client because you have never done a commercial lease, or lose a business client who is building a house and wants someone to review her architect’s or developer’s contract. Although you may be familiar with these matters, you might also miss important details that are routine to someone with expertise. Large cities provide a wide selection of experts, one of whom will be conflict-free on the matter at hand and willing to bill you for a few hours of time to provide the special knowledge a particular matter requires. Small firm lawyers can refer this business to a small niche firm that doesn’t handle general business work and won’t steal your client. You can hire the expertise of a large firm that can’t charge fees as low as yours, or you can hire the best tax, construction, or estate planning guru for your client, maintain control, and retain your client while providing the best advice money can buy.

Using your own expertise, you can develop visibility on a national level by joining national associations of your particular specialty and become the go-to firm in that specialty in a particular city, or become part of larger referral networks such as the International Network of Boutique Law Firms, which serves as a referral network among single-focused law firms. If you have a general practice firm, try networking through the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division. Join the Division and take part in the many opportunities it offers, such as writing an article in one of its newsletters or magazines to flaunt your knowledge.

Attracting and retaining both professional and support talent are also essential to building credibility and maintaining a reputation for excellence. Although there is increased competition to attract and retain top lawyers, especially in the face of large firms willing to pay huge money for first-year talent, many lawyers are leaving large firms in the city and looking for a different way to practice law, with more hands-on experience or a closer family workplace environment. In small firms we have fewer required hours and more client contact. The pressure of 2,200 billable hours per year placed on even the senior partners in large firms doesn’t exist in the small firm. Yes, we have difficulty attracting top talent because we don’t, can’t, and won’t pay $160,000 to a law school graduate. However, small firms can find other ways to incent associates such as paying for bar membership, special CLE, or graduate education to be more competitive with larger firms. Use organized bar CLE, law school and business school conferences, and programs in finance, accounting, organization development, and technical and computer training to assist in attracting and retaining professional and support staff.

Large firms have also woken up to the urgency of attracting minority associates and developing them into partners so the firms can meet the expectations of their large corporate clients. This might pose a significant challenge to small city firms looking for diversity. On the other hand, the big city’s larger and more diverse population and larger number of law schools provides a chance to diversify your firm and support staff to meet the expectations of your clients.

Positioning your firm also requires identifying the cases and clients you want to represent. What clients are you seeking? Large corporations, small businesses, individual clients for divorce, real estate, or estate planning? In the midst of so much competition, targeting ideal clients and cases allows you to attract the clients and cases you want.

When positioning yourself, don’t forget about location—your office is a reflection of you. Small firms can match their individual personality to their office location in the big city. Downtown, midtown, or suburban; burgeoning neighborhood; local storefront, skyscraper, brownstone, or home office. Choose a short commute from home so you can attend school functions and return to the office midday or join the family for dinner and head back to work.

A small firm can also match office location and expertise with a particular neighborhood. Choose an office in an ethnic community to build a client base where you have roots and language facility, or a real estate practice in a burgeoning community, or a convenient location that attracts immigration or workers’ compensation clients who may appreciate evening hours. If you’re a litigator, opt for an office close to the courthouse.

We chose downtown, which offers transportation choices to professional and support staff, thereby widening the hiring pool. Lawyers can bill time on a commuter train or telephone time while driving. Being downtown also gives you a chance to remain competitive among all the downtown firms. But neighborhood practices reduce payroll.

Our firm opted for one of Chicago’s landmark buildings: the Rookery, a smaller, famous building that features a bronze plaque identifying our office on the outside of the building. Architecturally unique, the Rookery sets us apart from other downtown offices. Our building is a combination of the talents of Frank Lloyd Wright and Daniel Burnham and was highlighted in the recent best seller The Devil in the White City. Clients like to come to our office, and they enjoy bringing their team to us as an outing to see the building—a big plus.

Marketing

Media. We are used to media coverage of high-profile personal injury cases and lawyers. Non-personal-injury practices should also use media sources to increase their visibility. These sources include city newspapers, business journals, social publications, free corner publications, neighborhood news and bar publications, as well as traditional media. Media can be used to advertise your firm and also to publish articles where you can highlight your expertise. Also, stay updated in Martindale-Hubbell and any statewide or local attorney directories.

Referrals. Conflicts from large firms serve as a great referral source because a large city equals large firms equals large clients which equals lots of conflicts. Referrals also come from other lawyers and businesspeople. Attend community and business events and openings. Most large cities have alumni chapters from colleges across the nation that draw old classmates who in turn serve as a great referral network. Let’s not forget that we have an instant pool of clients and referrals through family and friends. These contacts are available through our regular social routines, including get- togethers, potlucks, nights out on the town, sports leagues, and even weddings.

Community involvement. Making time to be involved in local bar organizations and community events is key. Become an event co-chair or speak at a CLE. This increases your profile within the legal community and the community at large and builds credibility with lawyers and judges. If you are of a particular ethnic background or speak a second language, you have a unique advantage. Attend events and networking lunches that cater to your ethnic community and develop a name for yourself. The big city offers a plethora of networking groups such as the chamber of commerce. Banks, brokers, and human resource seminars are always occurring in big cities, and attendance is free or requires only a small registration fee. Opportunities for political activity, neighborhood groups on your own street, condo associations, churches, and nonprofit boards are all abundant in the big city and offer great networking avenues.

Internet. Information about you or your firm can be found easily on the Internet. This information should be positive and should highlight the image you want to present. For many small firms, implementing, developing, and maintaining a website may seem like high overhead, but remember: Your potential clients’ first contact with you may be via your website, even before they meet you. Conveying a competent and professional image is critical to compete with larger firms. Maintain a user-friendly, regularly updated, and professional-looking site. The Internet also provides networking tools where you can market yourself and your firm and remain competitive, such as blogging or LinkedIn.

Entertaining. Don’t forget about the most satisfying way to go about getting business: entertaining. Informal entertaining is the perfect way to build personal trust. Large firms often have institutional clients with decades of accumulated trust for a particular lawyer or firm to manage huge amounts of business. Small firms know that attracting clients is about building relationships over the long term.

The big city offers many opportunities for small firm practitioners to entertain clients and build long-term relationships. Ideas include music concerts, theater, ballet, opera and symphony, foreign films, and university lectures. Clients love variety. Creative entertaining affords the chance to impress your client with proof of your ability to bring different perspectives to cases.

Art exhibitions, theater, shoe sales, or even spa days. Join a sports team with a client and bond once a week over an entire season. Even professional sporting events are not just for big firms anymore. Whether you’re a baseball, football, basketball, or hockey fan, you can always find a client to attend. Even bowling is back. And what about cooking lessons? Do you have clients who want to learn to salsa or tango and use the large city nightlife to practice in downtown clubs? I haven’t even mentioned golf . . . the list is endless. Planning a special event that caters to your client’s special interests shows you care, listen, and are willing to expend the extra effort, which translates to the type of lawyer you are or would be. When wooing a client, think about the impression you want to make. The entertainment you plan speaks loudly about who you are and how you practice law.

Support Services for a Small Firm

Shopping for support services (printers, tech support, web providers, telephone systems, etc.) in a big city exemplifies the pros and cons of big city practice. Choices abound, but selection of the best presents challenges. As with lawyer reputations, a big city can become a small town. When it comes to reputation of service providers, people remember the Great and the Terrible. So ask around and use other small firms for suggestions and references.

Although price is frequently higher for those providers that have the option to work for larger firms, there are many small companies looking to compete for your business. Many graphic designers, web designers, and printers are small firms like us. Many are young start-ups looking for opportunities to prove their own credibility and build a roster of satisfied clients. Large cities are filled with small businesses that can provide quality, cost-efficient service. Big cities also offer a range of higher educational institutions from which to select experts as well as a number of litigation support service consultants.

Did I Mention Fees?

In large cities, large firms equal large fees. Small firms have a great deal of flexibility and can adjust their hourly rates depending on the matter, competing in complex matters where they have expertise because they can handle repetitive but complex work more efficiently.

Small firms don’t have to go through the committee process to accept a contingent fee, to obtain approval for a special flat-fee billing arrangement, to cap fees, to reduce the hourly rate for a new client, or to reduce an invoice when the results simply don’t warrant the unanticipated total.

Small firms that excel in a city of expensive law firms are attracting the attention of large corporate clients. Even more importantly, small firms are retaining consistent hourly billable work from business clients that value the attention and focus they receive from giving repeat business to a small firm. Remember, small firms do not want to develop dependence on a single client. We want a variety of dependable, consistent business. Big cities offer this variety.

Bottom Line

There is tremendous opportunity for small firms in the big city. Opportunities clearly outweigh the challenges. The thrill of maintaining control over who you are and how you practice is equaled only by the satisfaction of serving clients who select your firm because they depend on the personal attention and responsiveness of a small firm lawyer.

Laurel G. Bellows practices with Bellows & Bellows, P.C., in Chicago, Illinois. She may be reached at .

Copyright 2009

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