The best way to learn something is from someone else’s mistakes. Of course, we never face exactly the same situation as the last person. I am a newer attorney. One of my professors swore me into the Michigan Bar in October 2010, and my law practice doors opened in July 2011. Before opening those doors, though, I did as much research and investigation as I could. I was a novice, and arguably am still, so I stumbled through a fair amount of this process.
Going Solo (But Not Alone)
First, let me give a little history of myself. I had already worked for the state of Michigan for over 16 years when my bar card came in the mail. It was natural for me to look for an attorney position within state government. But in the words of poet Robert Burns, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” Before too long, it became apparent that if I wanted to use my law degree, I would have to make my own opportunities.
So my investigation began in earnest: What did I need to do to open my own practice? I already had an MBA, and I consider myself fairly intelligent. But a solo practice is by definition a small business.
To say operating a small business is easy would be a severe disservice. Operating a business is hard work, and one of the biggest challenges to a new small business is cash flow. So it became one of my highest priorities to derive a reliable cash flow for this new adventure. The solo practitioner is dependent on clients—paying clients that walk through your door. Or so I thought. As it happens, the client doesn’t have to walk through your door. Once you develop a good rapport with other attorneys, the client just might walk through someone else’s door and be referred to you.
One of the first thoughts I had was to operate out of my home. I have read a number of articles that seemed to say this is a respectable way to start and would drastically limit my overhead. The fly in that ointment was my location. I live in a small village about 20 minutes away from the county courthouse. When I contacted the court about being placed on its appointed list, the judge’s receptionist relayed the judge’s concern that people represented by a court-appointed attorney usually lacked funds—including the funds to travel to my little village. I resolved to talk to an attorney nearby to see if I could rent, lease, or just use a conference room as needed.
There happened to be an attorney’s office right across the street from the courthouse. When I went there, the attorney was out, but the receptionist graciously directed me to another attorney who owned an office building with space that I could rent for a reasonable fee (utilities included).
Finding a Mentor
Arranging to rent my office was really my first experience in networking with other attorneys. The attorney who owned the office building took me in—and now has become invaluable to me. First, I should say he has a history of taking in new attorneys and helping them get off the ground. It is a very useful arrangement for everyone involved, and if you can find someone willing to take you under his or her wing, you should give it serious consideration.
Not only did my landlord/mentor provide me with an office a block from the courthouse, but he also allowed me access to his paralegal. For a new attorney, this is pure gold. The paralegal directed me through the maze of logistical land mines when filing or interacting with the court.
An equally important benefit: My mentor sends me a fair amount of business. If he has a conflict of interest, is short on time, or just doesn’t want to handle a particular case, he often sends it to me. This relationship has resulted in a respectable amount of business. For example, once he was stuck in a jury trial that went well past what was originally scheduled. Whatever he could not reschedule or needed to have done, he sent to me. Not only did I receive fair compensation for the work I did for him, but I also developed relationships with these clients that, I hope, will last for a long time. (Note that I must pay a referral fee for clients sent my way; check your state’s Rules of Professional Conduct relating to referral fee agreements to see if this would apply in your jurisdiction as well.)
Another networking strategy—one I have never read about—was to find all the law offices in the immediate area and visit as many as I could. I introduced myself, spoke with the attorneys or the paralegals, and generally made myself known. This was time-intensive and I didn’t meet all the attorneys the first time I stopped in, but I did meet a large number of the local attorneys and their paralegals. This strategy paid off when one attorney was asked to handle a friend’s divorce case. He has a self-imposed rule against representing friends and remembered me. The case proved interesting (“interesting” is code for labor-intensive and a client that needed his hand held through much of the proceedings). The experience was well worth my efforts, and I developed a better relationship with the referring attorney.
Being the “new guy” can have its drawbacks, but it has a number of advantages as well. The attorneys in the area already know each other and know whom they can call for help. But once they’re comfortable with the “new guy,” and know that your schedule is not full (to say the least), you become the ideal candidate when there is a last-minute need. You are more likely available and willing to step in and help—but you have to take the initiative and let them know you are available and willing.
In one instance, an attorney who has an office out of the area called another local attorney seeking help with an arraignment the next day. Owing to the short notice and scheduling conflicts, the matter made its way to me. The out-of-area attorney didn’t mind using me to handle an arraignment because he saved himself two hours of driving time, and there was comparatively little risk of harm from my lack of experience. This was a bargain for him and an opportunity for me. The trick was that I had introduced myself to the fellow who passed him along to me (and left a card with my contact information) so he thought of me—and will again the next time this type of situation pops up.
Is there a magic bullet? No. Networking is sometimes hard work. Sometimes it is just being in the right place at the right time. Of course, you can attend the attorney gatherings, make yourself available, give out your business cards, take advantage of all the networking channels available, and still have days that don’t produce as much as you would like. But think of those days as opportunities to expand your networking even further.
The ability to network in person with attorneys in your area can be quite beneficial, but don’t forget to network in the modern age as well. If you neglect avenues such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, you may be missing wonderful opportunities. Spend at least some time every week developing these contacts also.
I know, I know. This is a lot of work that is not billable. But don’t sell yourself short. The long-term relationships you make, the experience you gain, the benefit to your reputation, and the network of people, including attorneys, that begin watching what you are up to will be beneficial far beyond your expectations. The downside is that you have to keep up. No one will follow a site that hasn’t been updated with even a post for the last six months. When you set up your sites, make sure you devote at least a few precious minutes a week sending out valuable information. This doesn’t mean you have to be a best-selling author. I send links to articles I find informative or useful. Keep your online networks alive, at least—thriving is better, but don’t let them die from neglect. You could send someone away by having too many cobwebs on your website.
On the other hand, you don’t want to devote so much time to virtual networking that your more pressing priorities are not being addressed. In his recent online article “How Much Networking Is Too Much Networking?”, William R. Simon Jr. cautions against signing up for so many lists and groups that your e-mail is flooded, you become overwhelmed, and you let valuable information and opportunities slip away. You must be realistic in how much time you spend with all the groups you sign up for and choose the most valuable ways to spend your time.
Take the Time, Make the Effort
I started this article by stating that small businesses are challenged by cash flow. This one issue can be the bane of an otherwise thriving business. The opportunities I mentioned don’t cost anything except time. Once you find your business growing, your time may be more valuable than money. You need to have developed your networks before this happens, while the costs of your time are still comparatively small, or you run the risk of not being able to develop effective networks.
If you are extremely busy, you may be thinking that you won’t need the fully developed network. You would be seriously mistaken. As I am building my little business, one of the difficulties is being overrun with work a paralegal, secretary, or receptionist would do, but not having the cash flow yet to hire one. Your network needs to be well on its way before you find yourself in this situation. Even when you are bone tired and feeling the weight of being a solo practitioner, you are still the boss. That means everything is on you. You need to build, renew, and maintain your networks, or they will wither. Like anything, if left unattended and neglected, your network will become less and less effective.
Perhaps the primary contribution to a good network—and one that must not be forgotten—is your effort to return the favors that have been done for you. No one likes to feel as though there is no return. If a client comes through your door with an issue outside your practice area, keep handy your list of those to whom you can refer the case. When you decide what your area of practice is, or you simply fall into one, make sure you have a network of attorneys to whom you can send your regular clients when you aren’t able to serve their needs. The persons who will remember you first and foremost are those who know you are thinking of them, also.
A good network is a mélange of good working relationships, but more than that it is a web of interpersonal relationships with individuals. Each person you interact with provides a potential for you to develop a relationship. Perhaps this person doesn’t have a legal matter, but he or she may know someone or be able to say something nice about you that will generate business. Your reputation is one of the most valuable commodities you have. Yet so many people don’t bother to attend to it until they realize it is in danger. Would you refer a client to someone who has a poor reputation? If you do, you run the risk of guilt by association. Just one step behind a negative reputation is being an unknown. How can you expect an attorney to refer someone to you or even speak well of you if they don’t know anything about you? They could just as easily open the Yellow Pages and close their eyes as they point to a random name. If you have developed relationships with other attorneys and let them know you are knowledgeable and trustworthy, you make them comfortable in giving your name to potential clients, just as you should be comfortable in sending a client to them. Make no mistake; if you refer a client to someone else, you are linked to that other attorney, for good or for ill. Developing a network helps you to send clients to the right other attorneys—ones you know will be able to help them.
Intangibles to Hold Onto
Whatever the logistics of your practice—a virtual office, bricks and mortar, one area of law or another—the networks you develop will help build your business, your reputation, and your resources. These are the intangibles that can help you through hard times or sink you in even the best of times.
If you neglect the opportunities to network, you and your practice will suffer. Instead of developing a network that gives you resources and the ability to gain guidance when you need it, you may isolate yourself or, worse, develop a network that blocks you from being as effective an attorney as you could be. This means you won’t be as healthy—financially, professionally, or personally. Good luck.