General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

American Bar Association
General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division
The Compleat Lawyer
Spring 1998
© American Bar Association. All rights reserved.

The Business of Law


Edward Poll is a certified management consultant in Los Angeles. He is the author of The Profitable Law Office Handbook: Attorney's Guide to Successful Business Planning and the creator of Law Practice Management Review: The Audio Magazine for Busy Attorneys. He can be reached by e-mail at

A recent survey of top lawyers revealed some important attitudes and beliefs about success. The lawyers defined success in these terms:

  • Being well-regarded by peers.
  • Being a rising star within the firm.
  • Advancing rapidly on the partnership track.
  • Earning more income than law school classmates.

When asked to describe the reasons for their success, a core group of common denominators emerged from the lawyers' responses. What follows is a list of the top eight methods of achieving success.

1. Find Something You Love to Do

Passionate, contented, and happy lawyers perform better, deliver higher quality legal services, and get better results for their clients. In general, they feel better about themselves and their careers.

Lawyers who are not happy need to look elsewhere and have confidence in their abilities to learn a new field or to focus on new issues and earn a living at it. If you're considering making a move—either to a new area of the law or as a lateral hire to a new firm—spend time researching the new arena, take CLE classes, read all the articles and treatises you can get your hands on, and associate with acknowledged experts in the field.

For example, if you're a personal injury lawyer who's tired of the expanding legislative restrictions on fees and who sees opportunities in labor law, don't refuse new personal injury cases while you're still researching and marketing for clients in the new area. Move away from your current activity as your new business grows.

2. The Client Comes First

There is one common truth associated with profitable, growing businesses of all types: The customer is number one! This belief means that you educate the client about the judicial system and the particulars of her matter, develop reasonable expectations in the client, and then perform as though this were your only client. Clients today are not only concerned about "winning"; they are also concerned about the commitment of their lawyer to their matter and their relationship with their lawyer. Appreciative clients will always come knocking when this attitude is genuinely expressed.

3. Think Like an Owner

Most lawyers are hard-working professionals. But, increasingly, many think like employees, merely punching their time card on a daily basis. Ask this question: "If I were the owner of this business, what would I do to improve this situation?" As an owner, everything that occurs in the day-to-day operation is your responsibility. Your actions should be based on keeping clients and increasing the firm's revenues and profits, a sure recipe for personal success.

4. Be a Problem-Solver

Instead of just reacting, look ahead for solutions to client problems. Too many lawyers are so busy with immediate concerns that they cannot look for ways to solve future problems. Successful lawyers think about the long-term effects of actions taken now and in the future.

Litigating a matter to a successful conclusion for $50,000 when a settlement would have cost roughly the same is an example of not being a problem-solver. When the cost of the litigation (or negotiation) is not substantially outweighed by the potential advantage to the client, the client will see the activities of the lawyer as self-interested, not as solving the client's problem. The client will also perceive that the lawyer is not paying attention to the bigger picture.

5. Never Stop Learning

Many states now have minimum CLE requirements, but successful lawyers have always continued their education and currently take more than the minimum requirements. Law schools did not and do not today provide enough education to enable a lawyer to stop learning. It is impossible to know everything in any one field of endeavor, let alone everything that is contained in the vast and growing area of resources made available by books, the Internet, etc. To be successful, you have to continue to learn new information and update old thinking.

6. Develop a Knowledge of Business

Knowing how a business operates can be very helpful in dealing with clients. When a lawyer seeks business clients, it's important to be able to speak their lingo. For example, if a client has a business problem, the lawyer can have an intelligent conversation instead of shallow chit-chat about the family or the client's last golf game.

Advice from a lawyer that helps a client in his own business is usually well-received, and it also lets the client know that the lawyer can see the entire impact of the current situation on the client's business. This will build trust and confidence in the lawyer and will create more referrals than would otherwise occur.

7. Treat Partners as Clients

Most large firms tend to be a conglomerate of sole practitioners; unfortunately, the lawyers fail to really integrate their practices with others in the firm. An outstanding and too-often-underused source of new business is your own partners and the relationships they have with the outside world.

8. Make Yourself Invaluable

Make a difference in the lives of your clients. Go the extra mile and provide a service that clients feel they have to have. Know your clients' business and anticipate their future problems. When you become truly invaluable to a client, you will always compete successfully for her business.

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