GP MENTOR: Hanging Out a Shingle

Volume 29 Number 5

By

Joseph Dang is a personal injury attorney in San Diego, California.

Fresh out of law school in 2003 and recently admitted to the Bar, I opened up a law practice with another lawyer, Forest Penning. We were two smart guys who were victims of bad timing. We had graduated law school during a downturn in legal hiring. Unable to find a job for a few months, we decided to start our practice. How hard could it be? Hang a shingle, and they will come.

But they didn’t.

We hung our shingle, and hardly anyone came. Sure, we got a few cases here and there, mostly from people we knew or former mentors who handed us the ugly cases they didn’t want to deal with. But for the most part—and much to our amazement—nobody found us.

The one thing I wish I’d known then is that a law practice is a business. Lawyers tend to think of the profession as something related to but also completely separate from other businesses. This is true in a sense. The legal profession is unique in the duties we must uphold and the profound impact we have on our clients’ lives. However, it is wrong to conclude from this that a law practice is not a normal business and should not be run as such. It is, and it should. Your law practice must be marketed. You are a salesperson, whether you want to believe it or not.

The Internet really has changed the dynamics of law, especially for sole practitioners. Twenty years ago a solo had to network, advertise in the Yellow Pages, and run expensive TV/radio ads. Now the Yellow Pages are dying, you can network through social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and the Internet has allowed solos to compete with the big firms that spend millions in TV and radio advertising. It isn’t easy, but it’s possible.

Even ten years ago if you wanted a nice website, you would need to pay thousands of dollars or learn to design it yourself. Neither option is desirable. Today, you can literally pay less than $10 a month for website hosting, install a WordPress blog, buy a premium WordPress theme for $100, and have a very nice, professional-looking website. Or you can hire a designer for a few hundred bucks.

The way consumers search for lawyers has also changed. Consumers faced with a legal problem don’t open up the Yellow Pages and choose one of the 5,000 lawyers listed. They pull up a web browser and search. But they don’t necessarily search for a lawyer right away. They search for answers to their questions. Sort of like the person with an upset stomach who searches on Google for “causes of indigestion,” a person who has just been in a car accident may search for “How long do I have to file a lawsuit?”

Armed with a computer and Internet access, a solo can create a mountain of content online, for little or no cost except time. Doing so establishes the solo as an expert and puts the lawyer in more places to be found by potential clients. This allows a solo to compete with the big firm that is trying to outshout everyone else with ads on television, radio, even city buses and benches.

Virtually all of us joined the legal profession in order to serve clients, help them with their legal issues, and generally contribute to the public good. We don’t want to think of ourselves as businesspersons—and definitely not salespersons. But we are, and we have to spend a significant amount of time working on our business, not just working in it as a lawyer. There is no point of being the best lawyer in your city if you don’t have clients to serve. Now, if you are a great lawyer and treat your practice as a business, you should have business systems in place to ensure efficient delivery of legal services to a greater number of people. You will be helping more people who are in need of your help. Embrace this concept, and you and your clients will be rewarded.

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