The truth of the matter, as with starting any business, is that undercapitalization is a serious disadvantage to overcome. It can mean a swift crash-and-burn for any enterprise that is starting out. And there is the competition to deal with.
Here are 10 tips for the pauper-start-up, solo practice on a small budget:
1. I begin with Sun Tzu, and paraphrase his famous quotation, All battles are won in the planning stages. At the expense of being a little cliche, you may have heard this one before as it is axiomatic in business. A small legal practice is no exception. If you do not have a plan, more specifically a well-defined business plan, you will likely have a poor execution of your business. Part of this plan must include an equally delineated marketing plan, which is one of the core elements to be followed "religiously," daily, weekly, monthly, and so on.
2. Speak to trusted solo attorneys or former solos who found success. (You may want to be careful who you confide in, especially if you are still working for someone - you never know how word can get around.) It is never a good idea to believe you know everything or can get all the information you need from a book or the internet. Other's wisdom can be worth more than what money can buy. A common theme in the advice you will find is that sole practitioners made strong business alliances with other attorneys and business owners. These two are perhaps the strongest sources of good referrals and steady contract work. Many attorneys, for instance, do not have the time nor expertise for certain cases or matters, and they may have told a prospective client about referring the work to another attorney. Once you gain trust, that referral could be yours. Building trust can be gained by doing some smaller work for another practitioner and demonstrating competency and reliability.
3. The previous tip naturally leads to this: network, network, and network. But network in worthwhile places and groups. There are few things starting out more frustrating than unproductive or lazy networks. A local bar association can be a great place to meet other professionals, but a section of the bar such as the estate planning one may mean just CLEs and collaboration. You will be hoping for work from your competitors! Maybe you can get some. And referrals from them may be few. In the alternative, I recommend seeking a section of the bar where there is a good cross-over of work where you can refer out what others need and they can do the same for you. For example, family law attorneys are great for estate planning attorneys. Let them do the divorces that you cannot, and they may want to send you business to re-write the wills and trusts, which is usually necessary following divorce. The same can go for family law attorneys and bankruptcy practitioners - often following bankruptcy people can divorce, and following divorce people can need to file a chapter 7 or 13.
4. Know and practice your "bread-and-butter" law: family, criminal, business, estate planning, debtor work, and general civil litigation. These areas tend to be steady in any economy and some are more so in a poor economy. Yet, also find a specialty, which may require certification or practice hours. Pro bono work can help get you the practice hours where the paid work is unavailable. It is typically encouraged to do 50 - 75 hours of pro bono work. Thus, offer the free time wisely in the ares you want to focus on. Legal-aid clinics in your area can be a good source. But trust me, there are plenty of people who want "free legal" and there will be no problem finding it. Just have a good pro bono policy and agreement form for the client. Getting recognition for doing pro bono work is good, but don't gain the reputation of being the "free attorney." You need paying clients to stay in business, and those who can't pay you are the least likely to send you good business. Sometimes you need to politely decline some referrals as well.
5. Trust in the 80/20 principle. This means that in the beginning 80 percent of what you do is marketing and rainmaking to get clients and 20 percent is doing the legal or business work. Later on, the goal is to flip this ratio. What is more, that 80 percent is following the broad marketing plan and the evolving one that conforms to changes in the market as they arise. A marketing plan should never be static. It needs to change over time to account for market trends. Think about this, lawyers 20 years ago had no need for internet marketing, 10 years ago online marketing through social networking sites was not in vogue either. Now, they are becoming indispensable. However, the marketing plan must also be diversified; don't put all your scarce eggs in one basket:
Have a plan that includes business and social groups, some which cost nothing to join, such as those with a church organization; go to a leads group with good professionals that can offer leads, like accountants and realtorsprofitable referrals; don't spend a dime on advertising unless the seller can provide tested methods using metrics in which dollars translate into phone calls or emails that lead to clients; market and brand yourself by doing seminars that provide people with relevant and useful information.
The list goes on, but these are some well tested marketing tools.
6. Truly, focus on these centers of influence mentioned above. Relationship building and establishing trust are key. They will want your business and you will want theirs only if these are first in place. Offer to buy them coffee or lunch as these tend to be the best casual meetings during the business day. The "contact" ought to be someone who is successful, has a good reputation, knows a lot of people, has clientele, etc.; and she/he is "interviewing" you as much as you are doing the same. Find out what they need. Ask your appointment if she/he is working with an attorney who practices in your primary area(s). If they are already working with someone who is your competition, then consider someone else, but stay in touch and make sure to show appreciation for meeting with that person. Lastly, go to your strongest connections, and friends first. They will, or should, be the most willing to help you when starting out; although, don't forget to maintain the professionalism no matter who you are networking with.
7. Use a proven system. When I wasn't practicing law, I did sales. And I learned many things doing sales that law school will never teach you. One thing any successful salesperson will tell you is that their pipeline for new business depends on an effective sales system. Your marketing plan needs a system that lines up activities for each day, each week, each month, and each quarter and year. There should be an activity planned almost every day and week that is outlined in the ongoing marketing plan with the goal of reaching a minimum number of contacts. Sales? Yes. Lawyers are indirectly "selling their services" as much as marketing them. At any rate, proficient sales skills are essential to a solo attorney starting their business. You very well may be an exceptional attorney, but without sales skills your services will be harder to close with prospective clients. But it will also be harder to have anyone in front of you to attempt to close your services with unless you have a good system that gets you appointments. In sum, the law office needs deliberate communications to go out consistently and specifically to a target market. How this is done will depend on the practice and service offered. Caution to the wise: the ABA ethics rules adopted by the large majority of states allow some advertising, but always check the rules before engaging in any "sales efforts."
8. Create an affinity and attraction to you that will mean good clients sending you good clients. Centers of influence can send you good clients, and working with strong centers of influence will assist in filling the 60 - 80 percent of your clientele that comes from referrals. The business of practicing law as a sole practitioner, or otherwise, is one predicated on referrals. Your branding and image will mean something in terms of those who do not know you and may hire you as opposed to another attorney. Yet the connections you have with your current and former clients is a main artery for your new clientele. Reach out to clients in a way that is sincere when using mailers or other tools; i.e. invite them to a seminar you are presenting, or hold an open house, but avoid being impersonal when you go about it. Address your clients directly and try to make connections that are lasting and meaningful. The hardest part is gaining those clients with whom you can have a lasting and meaningful connection and turning down those with whom you'll have the opposite. In other words, "don't step over a dollar to pick up a dime." It is okay to be discriminatory in as far as doing legal work for someone. Just remember using proper disengagement or decline letters, and be tactful. As a side note, working-professionals, successful tradespersons and business owners will be best to have in your client base; sifting through various personality types you can work well with comes with some time and learning how certain "people-types" function.
9. The right location and demographics, as any entrepreneur who has made it will tell you, are essential. You may be renting an office space, and so before signing a lease make sure you are in a location that best serves the demographic that has the highest percentage of your target market. Being where the other attorneys are can be good and bad. It can be good because that is where the legal action is, and such locations are often near the courthouse. You are also nearby where you can get work from other attorneys. It can be bad if you cannot afford the rent. The other consideration is if you are relocating, study the demographic to see how many active attorneys are in the area. Go where there is growth and less attorneys per capita. Presently, migration due to the weak economy will mean some areas are growing. Your state may have such a place. So, what about those on the small budget? They will likely have to start practicing out of their homes. At times, though, an office sharing arrangement can be found with an established practice where rent is free, but labor is given in exchange. This can be a good fit for some as long as the work traded is comensurate with the rent. Otherwise, there are a growing number of flexible lease plans being offered these days for office time sharing or limited day use, which can mean leasing a space for as little as $99 or so a month. If you must work from home, network around and try to find someone willing to let you use their extra office or boardroom when you need it.
10. Always provide high quality work and attention. No matter how busy or not so busy you are give your best to each matter and each client. This applies even to the client you will part ways with. Moreover, when parting ways try to do so amicably. Do what you can to avoid "bad blood" because word of mouth is like wild-fire. Return client calls within 24-hours, or if they have email let them know when you will call should you be unavailable by phone that day. Or schedule a telephone conference as any other meeting, and be transparent about being busy. Most people know that attorneys are busy people. Plus, being busy shows you are in demand for others. The worst thing, however, is a client who feels blown-off by their attorney. Their message to others will be that their attorney never returns calls, and this will mean poor rapport with the client and no referrals.
Given the state of the economy for the past few years, more attorneys are going solo. Starting a practice can have its benefits and can also have its challenges. Going about by using general and applicable business principles along with the special ones that uniquely apply to the legal business is crucial to success. There is a lot more to the above, and there is much to be learned before and after starting one's own practice. Following these tips can aid the solo attorney starting out, but as to each practice there will be variables that will define how to employ them. I wish to those who are going solo, the very best of luck!
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