In a few months, I will celebrate my third anniversary as a solo practitioner. Without question, this experience has been the most rewarding of my nearly 16 years practicing labor and employment law. In reflecting on this arbitrary milestone, I realize that I’ve amassed a few nuggets of useful information to share with others who are thinking about taking the leap to their own solo practice. Here are seven tidbits I hope you find useful.
1. Be confident. Before a prospective client hires you, they must know they are in capable hands and their problem is now your problem. If you are not projecting confidence in all your interactions, it will become immediately apparent and the prospective client will look elsewhere for counsel. During your initial contact, whether it is in person, on the phone or via email, you need to convey that you have not only the knowledge and experience to handle their issue, but the confidence as well.
2. Always work on your pipeline. In my experience, finding clients is not the most difficult aspect of growing a practice. Rather, the challenge is balancing the competing demands of handling your existing work while at the same time obtaining new clients. There will be times when you feel overwhelmed and you will neglect to return a call or two, delay a consultation, or skip a good networking opportunity in order to put out the inevitable (and sometimes daily) fires. Don’t fall into this trap. If you do, then when you get through that crazy period, you’ll be staring at an empty desk.
3. Your reputation is worth more than any one case. My alternative title for this tip was: “You are the brand; don’t tarnish it.” I’ll illustrate this point with an example from my own experience. A client alleged she was wrongfully terminated and wanted to proceed to litigation immediately. I counseled patience, and we held a settlement meeting where we reached a settlement in principle and the parties shook hands. One hour later, when I was back in my office drafting the final agreement, the client called to ask if the adversary agreed to a particular point, even though she knew it was specifically rejected. After explaining this, the client reneged on the deal and proposed that we proceed with litigation. I declined to proceed and terminated the attorney-client relationship. To me, it was better to preserve my reputation as someone who honors settlement agreements than continue to represent an unreasonable client whose conduct would reflect poorly on me. Don’t forget that your reputation is invaluable, and be particularly aware early in your practice since it’s your name on the door.
4. You’ll never regret the client you didn’t take. One of the great things about being your own boss is you don’t get nightmare cases or clients assigned to you by others. (No, you get to choose them yourself). When evaluating whether to take on a new client, ask yourself, “Is this person going to be too demanding, irrational and difficult, and give me so much grief that I’ll regret the day I accepted the representation?” Your sanity is worth more than any particular case. Don’t be afraid to say no, even to good cases, if your sanity is at risk. There will be other clients.
5. Refer to others early and often. My practice is limited to labor and employment matters, so I often get referrals from attorneys in other practice areas. I’m not a very spiritual person, but I do believe in “networking karma,” and I always look for possible referrals to others in my network, both legal and non-legal (accountants, for example, often have great networking synergy for lawyers). If you make the effort to send work to your contacts, they will do likewise and everyone wins.
6. If you’re networking properly, no one will know. No disrespect to the parents of Girl Scouts or your cousin who sells life insurance, but no one likes to “sell” to their friends and family. Good networking is really simple: Make sure the people in your network understand — in very general terms — what it is that you do. Don’t bother trying to explain the intricacies of your practice area, just give enough information so they can recognize a referral opportunity when it crosses their path. In my case, I just want people to recognize that if it involves employment in some way, shape, or form, they can call me; I’ll handle the rest.
7. Enjoy your down time. Don’t confuse being in the office for long hours with being productive. There will inevitably be a slow day, week or even month — it’s not cause for alarm. Rather, it’s the universe telling you to get out of your office and enjoy the freedom of being your own boss. Your business will survive and perhaps you’ll meet a new client when you’re at the gym, playing golf or snowboarding.
Startup Mode? You Might Also Like …
- Is Solo Practice a Good Fit for You? by Ellyn Caruso
- Just Passed the Bar – Want to Go Solo? By Michael Ehline
- War Chest for a New Trial Practice? by John Snyder
- Sounds of Silence: Solo Challenge by Otto Sorts
- Risky Business: Startup Advice from Women Lawyers by Joan Feldman
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