Eventually, all sole practitioners (hopefully) come to realize that a law practice is just that, a business. If they do not, then they are doomed to fail. The evolution of a business stems from coming up with new ideas, pinpointing your target demographic, and, of course, the factor of trial and error. Some things will work, others will not; that much is always clear. But some might argue that it is more difficult going out on your own as a young lawyer because you not only lack the legal experience of someone who’s put years into a larger firm, but it is also likely that you lack significant business experience . . . unless you had another career before pursuing law.
I am certainly not the first person to go straight from law school to opening his own practice. I am sure I will not be the last. However, in recent months, many young attorneys have reached out to me about going solo because they are considering taking this route themselves. They ask me about the usual things like business planning, marketing client outreach, etc. But they also ask me about some of the mistakes I have made and how to avoid them. What follows is not an exhaustive list. If we reviewed all bumps in the road, big and small, we would be here all day. But here are four common challenges that a young lawyer is very likely to experience, and how to navigate around them.
Bump 1: Not Enough Business, Too Much Overhead
One thing I often get asked is how much overhead a new solo should plan on spending per month. The answer is going to vary depending on whether he or she is opening a virtual office versus bricks-and-mortar, or going completely paperless, etc. No matter what the business model, my first advice to a new solo is always “keep your costs low.”
Early on, as a young, hungry lawyer, it can be tempting to spend a bunch of money with the hope/expectation of seeing a fast and hefty return on investment. As the saying goes, if you want to sell, you have to spend, right? If you take on long-term commitments, such as entering a three-year lease agreement for an office or hiring several employees, and do not have the revenue coming in to pay for all of it, you are setting yourself up for disaster. Whatever “must have” expenses you do feel the need to take on, make sure that you can get out of them should business slow down.
After seeing this mistake firsthand at some other firms where I had worked as a law clerk, I was able to get my firm up and running for less than $1,000. You can do it, too, and it will allow you to build your business as the money starts to come in more consistently. Try not to get locked down in any serious long-term commitments until you are ready; especially when just starting out. Go month-to-month on a virtual office, get a private mailing address (which is similar to a P.O. box but has an actual street address), use the local law library for legal research, and hire independent contractors who can work remotely on an as-needed basis if you do not have the work for a full-time employee.
Getting out of a contractual obligation can be difficult. And if you do not have hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars it would take to get out of a financial obligation, then you will have to find an alternative solution in order to stay in business. If, in reading this, you find yourself already in this position and your overhead costs are spinning out of control, consider finding another sole practitioner with whom you can split costs (but not profits—keep all your own business revenue for yourself).
If possible, consider hiring a good accountant to run your numbers and help you determine where to cut your costs.
Bump 2: Too Much Business
When is too much business a bad thing? When you do not have the right systems in place to handle it efficiently. To address this, I highly, highly recommend the book The E-Myth Attorney: Why Most Legal Practices Don’t Work and What to Do about It by Michael E. Gerber. In this book Gerber argues that a successful law practice should be run as efficiently as one would run a . . . wait for it . . . McDonald’s restaurant.
I can already sense the eye rolls among readers, but think about it in terms of trust and consistency. Gerber’s point is that just like you know what that Big Mac will taste like in London, Chicago, or Timbuktu, when clients come into your office, they should know exactly what services they will get, how long it will take, how much it will cost, and what the result will be. It comes down to simplifying the system. Being able to produce these types of results consistently is what will allow your practice to thrive, according to Gerber. Personally, I re-read this book every year just to keep me in line with my vision. Getting there, however, requires having solid systems in place that encompass every level of your business, from client scheduling to billing practices.
How do we develop these systems? To answer, think back to why you started your own firm in the first place. What was your vision? How exactly will a person go from a potential client off the street to a satisfied client posting a great review online? The goal is to be able to have someone else in your place who can do certain tasks your way to achieve the result that you want for your business.
Sure, writing down systems takes time. A lot of time. And time is a lawyer’s most valuable resource. However, making the time now will help you devote less of it to dissatisfied clients and mistakes later. This is because developing systems that achieve the results you envision is what will allow you to delegate more duties to other people working within your practice, thereby allowing you to free up your time to focus on more important activities. Essentially, it will allow your practice to run as a well-oiled machine that produces results and revenue without your having to physically be there.
Bump 3: Not Following Your Gut
Entrepreneurs start their own businesses for a variety of reasons. Along the way, we ask for help. We seek advice, influence, guidance, etc. And we should. After all, being a “solo” practitioner does not mean that we are going it alone. We have support from our family, friends, and colleagues.
Regardless of our motivation, let us not forget that at the end of the day, all this advice that we seek comes from people basing it on their own experience. As lawyers we know that the facts can vary case by case. That said, sometimes you will come across advice that your gut is telling you to ignore. Or maybe you have a great idea for a new advertising campaign that someone completely shuts down. In these cases, it’s important to remember why you chose to go into business for yourself in the first place, and remember your vision. Some ideas will work. Some will not. But in the end, it is your call to decide which path to go down.
As an example, very early on in my practice, I was out for an evening jog when I suddenly had a “terrific” idea to invest in some new advertising . . . on my car . . . with a magnet. I had seen this done around town, but mainly for personal injury, traffic tickets, and DUI defense. In my field of immigration, I had never seen a mobile advertisement except on a bus.
Before jumping the gun, I asked around to gauge the reactions of my peers to the idea of my driving around with a magnet on my car advertising my services. While many were supportive, others, as you can imagine, were not. One naysayer went so far as to say it would make me “the laughingstock of every respectable lawyer.” This naturally made me skeptical of my idea because this was coming from someone I respected. After mulling over all the opinions I had received, I decided to go for it. The very first phone call I received from that magnet led to a 400 percent return on my investment with one client, who later referred two more clients to me. Had I not followed my gut, I would never have put that ridiculous magnet on my bright orange Prius.
Not every decision we make as entrepreneurs will have the same result. (If only, right?) However, as you are carving out your own path in this industry, never forget that it is just that, your path. You will encounter naysayers at every corner. Those who support your decision may try to dissuade you because they do not want to see you fail, while others will do it because they do not want to see you succeed.
When in doubt, go with your gut.
Bump 4: Lack of Discipline
As your own boss, it is easy to slip and slack off a little by perusing Facebook, taking personal calls, or whatever other distraction you allow to grab your attention. While it is incredibly important to take breaks from your work to reboot, when you are the person in charge, you do not have someone above you giving you deadlines, tasks, or other time restraints. Thus, it is up to you as the driver of your destiny to draw the line between business and pleasure. Again, where this line is drawn will vary depending on your vision. Nevertheless, you must be disciplined when you are running the show. If you have found yourself becoming disorganized, not completing tasks, or taking personal calls that eat away at 30 to 90 minutes at a time throughout your day, step back and create a routine.
There are many great resources on time management, and deadlines are of the utmost importance in our profession. But without a boss dictating them to us, we need to force ourselves to stick to a routine and self-imposed deadlines. When I first was doing this, I took the advice of a fellow solo in my area who told me simply to write down what I do at work every day and for how long I do it. After a week, I saw where my time was being spent, and I saw where there was room for improvement. The freedom that comes with being your own boss is a luxury. One of the prices of that luxury is the self-discipline it takes to make your business successful.
If your practice is circling the drain because of poor planning, or if you have encountered your own bumps in the road, just remember that a bump is a small obstacle that can be overcome. Take a step back and remember why you went into business for yourself. If you still have the same drive as you did when you first started, then begin simplifying your business by developing systems that achieve your vision while keeping your costs low. Best of luck to you!