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In recent years, as we all know, large firms cut back on hiring, laid off staff and, in a handful of high-profile cases, dissolved. Consequently, we’ve seen a surge of interest in “going solo” among current and former BigLaw associates and partners. While the impulse is understandable, there are a host of issues to keep in mind when considering a leap from a large law firm to a solo practice. Here are seven of the major ones.
1. Don’t spend like a big firm. You may be accustomed to mahogany-lined halls, plush carpet and ample support, but you won’t have that when setting out in solo-land. You must have a relentless focus on avoiding unnecessary expenses. The good news is it has never been easier or cheaper to get a practice off the ground. The bad news is that working in a large firm can condition you to believe that many luxuries are necessities, or critical to telegraphing an “air of success.” Don’t fall for it. Save your money for things that are truly mission-critical. Which leads to point number two.
2. Invest in marketing. Yes, your big firm may have done little real-world marketing, though it likely had a big budget for box seats at baseball games and for buying those forgettable full-page magazine ads aimed at corporate counsel. But that’s a luxury for firms with a legacy roster of deep-pocket business clients. It’s a whole different world for the new solo, trying to make a name in what is typically a deep pool of competition. Nonetheless, it’s remarkable how frequently solos fail to recognize the importance of marketing. Across the business world, companies routinely spend a third of their revenue on marketing and business development. And for emerging companies this percentage can run far higher. So why would it be any different for your new business? Swallow hard and recognize the necessity of paying to get the word out about your services.
3. Adjust your attitude to risk. A gold-plated mentality can sink in when working for large corporate clients, where all legal problems must be given equal and comprehensive time. For newer associates considering the solo path, consider whether partners in your firm treated your meticulous, time-intensive legal work as training, reducing client bills to something more closely resembling the value delivered. As a solo, you will be called on every day to explain how you are providing value. The surest way to do so is to always, always align your legal work to the risk or opportunity at hand. While there are practice areas and problems that require the full unblinking gaze of your legal attention, the vast majority of the time you must strike a balance between what’s at stake and the cost of your time. This interest—that is to say, the client’s interest—must always be top of mind.
4. Pick a niche. It’s distressingly common to see solo practices bill themselves as handling a wide range of practice areas. It’s not hard to see why—if business is slow, why not cast as wide a net as possible? The problem? It’s really hard to become good at any one area of law when spread across so many practice areas. And there’s no way to market effectively or build a referral-based practice when you can’t offer differentiation or deep expertise compared to other general practices. Find an area or two that appeals, and dig deep. Learn everything there is to know. Become the go-to attorney in your niche. Early on, it may be hard to turn away work that’s outside your focus area. But this strategy will pay big dividends in the longer run.
5. Embrace networking and social media. While it’s important to invest in marketing a new solo practice, it’s also critical to invest time and energy in business development. This means getting away from the desk and engaging with potential clients and referral sources over lunch, coffee and events. But don’t neglect social media. Blogging yourself, and actively using sites like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, lets you connect with a far larger group of people than you can in your local community. Some of these people may even become “real life” friends, clients and business partners. Just don’t make the mistake of using social media as a means of blasting out marketing messages. Social media is a tool for engagement and connection, not one-way promotion.
6. Focus on quick follow-up. Even at a hefty percentage of your revenue, your marketing budget will be limited, so maximizing return on marketing investment is vital. One easy way to do this is to adopt a mindset of responsiveness. Reduce friction between a potential client contacting you and signing a fee agreement. Answer the phone whenever possible. Return calls immediately. Manage your inbox and stay on top of contacts. There’s a reason the electrician or plumber working at your home always pauses to answer the phone. If it’s new business calling, the likeliest response to a no-answer is to call the next business on the list. The same is true for most any law practice.
7. Don’t let yourself be forgotten. Re-marketing to current and former clients is a stunningly easy—yet underused—method of keeping a practice humming. By regularly following up—consistently—you stay top of mind when new legal issues or referral opportunities arise. Some of this is simple. Regularly meet with referral sources and potential referral sources. Take them out to lunch, tell them about your practice and find out what you can do for them as well. But there are other ways of staying in touch. For example, a regular email newsletter can be effective, and low- or no-cost online services make them relatively easy to deliver.
Making the leap from BigLaw to solo practice is freighted with change. It requires a sharp shift in focus, and a willingness to spend time every day on developing business.
Josh King is vice president and general counsel of Avvo.com, a social media platform that provides trusted answers to consumer legal questions every 10 seconds. Check Avvo’s free legal marketing resources at www.lawyernomics.com.
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