Despite being generally grouped together, small law firms are of such a diverse nature and character that it is difficult to paint them with a broad brush. There is essentially no uniformity in terms of how they choose to structure their practices, what practice areas they decide to enter, the clients they choose to serve, or how they run their businesses. But this last category does start to show some signs of commonality that is worthy of deeper discussion.
Generally, small firm lawyers do a tremendous job of developing and running their practice. After all, this is why they went to law school, to be practicing lawyers who help clients solve their legal problems.
But it’s almost equally universal that small law lawyers are reluctant business owners. A great many of us don’t have business backgrounds, and very few of us went to law school with the intent of starting our own small business. We went to law school to build a law practice to help other people lead their businesses and support their entrepreneurial spirit and enterprise. That’s what we’re good at.
But small law lawyers are increasingly coming to the realization that they are, indeed, business owners, and that they need to improve their business management skill set. And growing, disruptive technologies and ever-evolving dynamics in business are reinforcing the importance of that need by the day.
The first step toward building a future is planning for that future. While they won’t often admit it openly, many lawyers will agree that they struggle when it comes to developing and implementing a strategic plan for their law firms. Larger law firms have the luxury of some economies of scale that allow them to hire business professionals for the express purpose of running the firm. This trend in operating teams is not new; larger firms have conducted their businesses this way for nearly two decades.
Small law firms, on the other hand, generally do not have the infrastructure or resources to hire an MBA whose sole job is to watch out for the firm’s business operations. This job falls on the “owner-operators” of the firm.
It is essential that these owners recognize that a solid business plan is central to the overall health of the firm and is necessary to sustained business growth. And unless this approach is truly well-planned, it will not create a healthy and profitable business over the long term.
You must set goals and allocate resources toward accomplishing them. Your goals should be phased. Ask yourself: What do I need to accomplish in the next 90 days? By the end of the year? Next year? And what lies beyond that?
Within each phase, ask what it will take to achieve these goals. What will it cost? And what are the dependencies? That is, what do we have to achieve first for our next goal to be successful?
You must be realistic with what you’re trying to achieve. The corporate world loves to talk about SMART goals. These are goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. These could be great watchwords for lawyers as well.
Many lawyers may contend that they simply don’t have time to implement a strategic plan. To that I would offer the following: Practicing with passion can be an essential part of a fulfilling law practice, but to make the practice that you’re passionate about a sustainable part of your future, you must practice passionately in a profitable way.
Your practice needs to be structured in a way that will last for the long term. And that kind of structure requires forward thinking. To face the long-term realities of running a business, dealing with change, and confronting competition, you need to have a plan.
Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 9, Number 7, February 2020. © 2020 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.