October 17, 2019 Articles

How to Beat BigLaw

Leaving a larger firm and starting a solo or small practice can be challenging, but here are a few things to keep in mind and help you stand out among the bigger crowd.

By Wendy Merrill

Your vision is clear. Your savings (gulp) are ready and available. The lease is signed, and stationery is ordered. Your clients are eager to follow you, and you were even able to convince your favorite assistant to join you in your new practice.

Now what?

Build It and They Will Come?

There is a growing trend of ambitious attorneys who are willing to take the plunge, leave their “BigLaw” lives, and go out on their own. Most of these lawyers love practicing, but crave a different life than that of their predecessors. The idea of working up to 12–15 hours each day, 5–6 days per week—even with the high salaries associated with doing so—has lost its appeal. These attorneys aspire to serve their clients while maintaining some semblance of “work-life balance.” What most solos and small firm partners realize, however, is that even though they determine their own workload, it does not automatically relieve many of the pressures they experienced while working for others. Just because the overhead may be smaller does not mean that the origination, production, and client management requirements shrink in size.

In fact, many solo firms and small practices struggle more with business development and marketing than their BigLaw competitors just because they are the “new kids on the block.” They must promote themselves more rigorously and strategically to gain market share, which requires them to think strategically about growth. If there’s one thing that all lawyers agree on, it’s that law school does nothing to prepare students for the business of law. There’s no lecture on rainmaking, no seminar on networking, and certainly no classes on managing people. These skills can either be developed over time within the structure of a big firm or sometimes lawyers can sneak by without ever having to develop these skills at all, keeping their noses in their files at all times.

Selling Shouldn’t be Scary

A successful solo attorney or small partnership cannot succeed on technical knowledge alone. Clients who need this knowledge must be found, cultivated, and ultimately sold to by the attorney or practice. Scary stuff for your average lawyer, but it doesn’t have to be. Cultivating business does not have to be about empty schmoozing or advertising. If the business development process is customized to fit an attorney’s strengths and interests, it can be not only lucrative but fun as well. The key to smart growth is intentionality. A firm and its legal staff must be 100 percent clear on why it exists. They must buy into a meaningful mission (one that actually resonates and doesn’t require the memorization of 3 paragraphs of marketing terms). The mission must drive every networking opportunity, call with a client, referral request, recruiting effort, professional development investment, and completed matter.

Too often firms—both large and small—base their marketing campaigns on selling their “smarts” instead of ensuring the delivery of individualized value to every client, referral source and the community in general. This need not be complicated or expensive. It requires a focus on depth of impact instead of just dollar signs. The opportunity for impact in the legal space is huge and growing. The future consumption of legal services will not be about spewing legalese from an ivory tower. Instead, millennial clients want partners who are willing to sit on the same side of the table and position themselves as relatable and committed stakeholders to their success. This applies to business law, mergers and acquisitions, intellectual property, estate planning, and family law matters.

It’s All About Value

It doesn’t matter what type of practice you’re running, it’s all about positioning yourself as a trusted advisor that is dedicated to providing consistent value to your clients. This value is found in many different places other than just legal advice. It could mean a strategic introduction to a new client, a dog walker recommendation, the name of a great bottle of wine, volunteering for an important cause, or the much-needed mentoring of a young attorney or someone else in the business community. Any time we provide value we build trust, and trust is what builds practices.

BigLaw has been very slow to embrace this mindset. Sure, many firms advertise how invested they are in corporate culture and/or donating time and treasure to the community, but too often the walk does not match the talk. Solo and small firms have an incredible opportunity to differentiate themselves not only by offering more attractive pricing, but also positioning themselves as strategic partners to clients. There are no layers of politics or superficial pressures to have to break through; there’s just you, the client, and what you can do to make their life better. 

Wendy Merrill is the founder and chief rainmaker of StrategyHorse Consulting Group in Owings Mills, Maryland.

Copyright © 2019, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded 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, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).