The current national economy, downsizing of large law firms, over supply of new law school graduates, and the restructuring of the legal market generally has forced more attorneys into solo or sole owner practices. Seasoned attorneys from large and small law firms and new attorneys right out of law school are venturing into solo practice either by design or by fate. Many are simply not prepared for the challenges they must now face – practicing law and managing a business.
I receive at least ten calls a week from attorneys that are in solo practice or are the sole owner of a small law firm with similar concerns and frustrations. However, there tends to be different needs and challenges depending which phase of development the firm is in. Here are a few survival tips for each phase:
In this phase it is all about you. More than likely initially you will not have office staff. If you are a new attorney right out of law school you must learn your trade and develop competencies in lawyering and client service. Your first priority will be to supplement your law school education with nuts and bolts practice skills – and you will have to do it quickly. Since you won’t have a senior partner in your firm to mentor and train you – you will have to reach out to resources outside of your firm. You will not have an accountability partner in your firm. Your second priority will be getting clients. You will have to actively market and promote yourself and your practice. Funds may be limited so your largest marketing investment will be your non-billable time devoted to marketing and client development activities. Finally, your third priority will be getting paid by your clients. Self discipline and exceptional time management and time keeping skills are critical success factors.
Create a business plan before even starting the practice even if it is a one page plan. This will serve as a roadmap for your practice. See Helen Gunnarsson’s article in November 2011 Illinois Bar Journal.
This includes everything from the selecting a suitable name and legal form for your practice; setting up your office whether it be a home or virtual office, a space share arrangement, or leased office space; acquisition of office systems, etc. (I have a start-up checklist available. E-mail me if you would like a copy.)
Time must be developed to business development. To be successful in private practice attorneys must be finders (originate new business), minders (manage client matters and relationships) and grinders (worker bees that work on client matters, provide services, and generate fees). You must manage and balance your time in a way that you cover all three of these bases.
Learn key metrics and “red flags” for your practice area, set goals, and measure your performance against these goals. Take corrective course actions as needed. Actively manage your cash flow. Remember – profit as reflected on the income statement and cash flow are not the same.
If you are successful in Phase I you will eventually need help whether it be administrative, paralegal, or another attorney. Now you must manage others as well as yourself. More office space will be required – especially if you are currently in a home or virtual office. A new set of skill sets (people skills) is now required.
Some Lawyers Never Develop the Skills Needed or Desire to Go to This Level and Firm Growth is Restricted as a Result.
I refer to this phase as Sole Owner Phase. I have client law firms in this phase than consist of an attorney owner, a handful of employed associates, paralegals, and staff. These firms may have 3 to 4 people or ten or more. I have sole owner law firms with over 100 employed attorneys and staff.
Eventually the question of partnership arises – weather sooner based upon the need or desire to transition an associate into a partnership or to add a practice area by acquiring a lateral partner with his/her book of business. Maybe you are thinking about merging with another firm. Or maybe you have been solo or a sole owner for your entire career and are now contemplating retirement and are looking for a succession/exit strategy and now must either bring in a partner, merge with another firm, or sell your practice. Partnership with another attorney creates another set of interpersonal dynamics and another set of skills that will need to be developed at this stage of your practice.
Are you ready for the challenge?
Dr. John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D., CMC, is a Certified Management Consultant and the president of Olmstead & Associates, Legal Management Consultants, based in St. Louis, Missouri. The firm helps law and other professional service firms improve the operations and management of their practices and the lives of their practitioners. The firm, founded in 1984 serves clients across the Globe assisting them with implementing change and improving operational and financial performance, management, leadership, client development and marketing.
Dr. Olmstead’s assignments have covered the spectrum of management issues. However, in recent years most of his time is focused on engagements helping firms with:
Dr. Olmstead is the Editor-in-Chief of “The Lawyers Competitive Edge: The Journal of Law Office Economics and Management,” published by Thomson West. He is currently serving as a Past Chair, Illinois State Bar Association Standing Committee on Law Office Management and Economics and as a member of the Legal Marketing Association (LMA) Research Committee. Dr. Olmstead may be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com. Additional articles and information is available at the firm’s web site and the firm’s blog:
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