This post is part of my blog series about how to start and build a solo law practice. In these early posts I’m taking the time to tell my story, which I hope will frame the advice and opinions that I give in future posts. In the last post I covered how I discovered the internet and managed to position my firm online so that, for a time, I owned a segment of the market in Seattle. I was suddenly a young attorney with a new solo practice with as much business as I could handle. In this post, I’m going to talk about how I weathered the learning curve of being a suddenly very busy attorney while trying to build my firm for the long term.
After using law school to prepare to open my own firm which included spending a semester in court trying cases as a prosecutor, I had a false sense of preparedness to be a solo criminal defense lawyer. I had successfully opened my solo law practice, secured office space and survived until I got my first clients by doing appearance work for other attorneys. I then discovered the web and built my first law firm website. Suddenly I was inundated with 50-100 viable potential client inquiries a month from my website. I realized that I needed to become instantly competent in the following, for which there was little to no room for error:
- Intake (AKA discovery and sales).
- Client-control and expectation-management.
All of these “soft skills” have “hacks” or shortcuts that a newly solo lawyer can use to get up to speed rapidly. These will be the subject of future posts in this series where we will talk about all of the options, as opposed to the path that I happened to take.
They call it the “practice” of law for a reason. Every lawyer has a lifelong learning curve about not just law and procedure, but about the “soft skills” listed above and many others. As a solo lawyer, you need to know every aspect of your business, and often need to competently execute every bit of it yourself.
That’s the position I found myself in. Thanks to the internet I was suddenly swimming in new client opportunities at the same time I was trying to figure out how to be a lawyer. There were other aspects of a law practice that I was learning on the fly as well, including:
- Calendar management.
These, and many other mechanical functions of a solo practitioner are more mundane and easily outsourced or covered by a staff member, which are also topics to be covered in future posts.
When you’re a new solo practitioner for the first time (whether fresh out of law school or coming from employment where you were not the primary relationship with the client), you have to learn how to sell and control your clients. If you don’t your life will quickly descend into chaos.
Positioning myself as a new and young-looking solo lawyer
Now that I was getting all of the new client leads that I could handle, I needed to quickly learn how to sell. I was a young lawyer in my mid-20s, but I looked much younger. On more than one occasion in the early years I was mistaken for the son of older (40’s or older) clients while in court. This made me self-conscious, and a bit frustrated. I knew that many clients, judges and opposing counsel would likely not take me seriously because of my youthful appearance.
I could not change my appearance, so I had to find a workaround. I started asking myself how I could make my appearance my advantage in a way that was authentic and that potential clients would embrace? The answer that I came up with was positioning, which is the practice of defining a service, company or product in the prospect’s mind. I could not compete based on age or experience, so there was no use in trying. Like the Avis rental car company’s campaign that embraced that they were “number 2” and therefore tried harder, I needed an angle that I could embrace and that would sell my youth and inexperience as an advantage.
Within weeks of trying out different messaging on potential clients during consultations, I arrived at the following:
- My appearance was an advantage for my clients because it caused judges, prosecutors and state’s witnesses to routinely underestimate me. When they let their guard down I was able to get more latitude, more attention, more sympathy and very often more information than my older competitors.
- My inexperience was an advantage for my clients because prosecutors, judges and police officers had no, or at least less, history with me. Their perceptions of me were less likely to be biased by previous experiences. This would be an advantage over older attorneys who had a reputation for always pleading their clients out, and therefore had no credible leverage to negotiate a favorable deal short of trial.
These two points proved to be very effective at overcoming the “you’re too green” objection when potential clients made it. And I learned to listen and watch for unarticulated clues that it was an unspoken objection. After several tests, I realized that it was best to draw the sting on the issue by preemptively outlining to prospective clients the choices they had. They could choose me with the advantages outlined above, or they could choose the advantages of experience. I eventually found that adding that if they were looking for an attorney with receding or gray hair I wasn’t the right attorney for them. This proved very effective because my main competitors mostly had receding hair, gray hair or both. Preemptively addressing it planted the idea, without saying it, that any concern about my appearance and inexperience was a superficial concern.
Most weeks I did a dozen or more in-person new client consultations. Because of my position online, leads were a plentiful resource, and I realized that the better able I was to sell my services to those leads, the better able I would be to grow my practice. At that point I had two ways of growing revenue. I could take on more volume, or I could raise my prices. As I’ll discuss in a future post about how to decide what to charge, I realized that volume was a trap.
Learning how to sell in my new solo law practice
I started reading books on how to sell. But the books that I found at the time didn’t speak to me. I found the advice to be less than compatible with selling legal services to a potential client that had found me online. As luck would have it, my stepfather’s printing company was working with a franchisee of Sandler Sales for his printing company’s sales team, and he thought that I would get something out of it. My wife and I both ended up attending the classes. It was a revelation to me. The techniques that I learned would serve me well through more than a decade in private practice, and another decade and counting as the leader of legal tech companies. The methods are as relevant today as they were 20 years ago.
I’ll go into greater details about how and why the Sandler Sales training and methods are so effective for lawyers in future posts (as well as how to incorporate other sales systems into a solo practice or small firm). For now, I want to leave this portion of this discussion with my observation about sales and marketing for solo lawyers.
Lawyers need to be very good at both.
One without the other is a recipe for frustration. So if the lawyer stronger in one than in the other, I believe it’s worthwhile to focus on bringing the weakness up to speed. Since neither discipline is taught (or taught well) in law school, its incumbent upon the new solo practitioner to actively cultivate sales and marketing knowledge and skill. These two disciplines separate successful solo practitioners from ones that struggle. Sales and marketing skills are, in my experience, also precisely what makes attorneys truly great in front of judges and juries. Without the benefit of a well-told story I’ve found that the law, no matter how on point, is often a blunt object.
Some lawyers are offended by the notion that the best marketer or salesperson is the most successful. And that stance is justifiable given the way that law school profs and old-school attorneys have traditionally talked about sales and marketing — with disdain. But that stance is also part of a set of beliefs that will limit the financial success of adherents. And today’s law firm owners who are willing to die on that principled hill mostly do.
There are different definitions of the word “success.” When it comes to being a solo practitioner, you can be the best lawyer in the world, but if you’re not running a business that lets you harvest the rewards of being the best lawyer, then your story is one of wasted talent and unrealized potential.
Taking on my clients problems as a new solo practitioner
At the same time as I was realizing the importance of having equally strong marketing and sales skills, I also realized that I had to be able to back those things up with client control and bonafides in litigation and negotiation.
The thing that I didn’t realize while representing the state during my time at the prosecutor’s office, and that also mostly eluded me in doing appearance work for other criminal defense lawyers, is the weight of the responsibility that comes with accepting a client’s matter. The minute a new client signed my retainer agreement and I countersigned, I had agreed to be their guide, confidant, shield and lightening rod. By accepting their case I was giving them my word that I would fight for them, and that I would be there for them.
I found that each retainer check that I deposited in the bank reserved a piece of my consciousness for that client. It was rented space in a finite building that would be theirs until the matter concluded. What I was not prepared for was the psychological toll that absorbing that responsibility would exact. Like marketing, this is not something that law schools can teach well. The thing that struck me early on was how exhausting it was to absorb that responsibility. With every client conversation, I told myself that this person is depending on me to get them through a very scary time in their life, and that they could have chosen dozens of other attorneys, but they chose me.
My drive to do good and to do well were both strong, but the drive to do good was stronger by design. By this I mean that, when I had to prioritize, I would choose my clients 100% of the time over my business, which is also plain good business sense.
I quickly started noticing little areas where compromises were necessary. Every minute I was talking with a current client was a minute where I might miss business from a potential new client (more on this in the next post when I discuss hiring my first employees). Time spent preparing my clients’ cases was time that I couldn’t spend on marketing. Weeks when I was in trial, were weeks that were completely lost in terms of generating new revenue, and trials were costly because I now had to pay another attorney to cover all of the other hearings that I couldn’t be at. I happily made these revenue sacrifices. Doing so created the following benefits that far outweighed the costs:
1. My clients understood that I cared and felt that they were well taken care of. Over the long run, this resulted in more referral business than the business that I likely missed while tending to my clients.
2. I spent a LOT of time preparing my cases, and that translated directly into getting improbable verdicts in challenging cases. While the time spent prepping and trying cases meant that I wasn’t working directly on building my business, the results that I was able to achieve in trial garnered even more referrals. These referrals came not only from happy former clients, but from other attorneys including prosecutors that I had gone up against as well as from judges who had presided over my trials.
3. The results that I had achieved turned into case studies that I could post on my website, which served a significant function in causing potential clients to both find and hire me based on my web presence.
4. The way I treated clients, and the positive results I achieved for them resulted in many positive written recommendations (and later in online reviews) as well as clients volunteering to serve as references for me. When strategically displayed on my firm’s website and strategically embedded into my conversations with potential clients, my success at new client meetings went drastically up. This meant that each lead became more valuable because the same number of leads produced more revenue.
Most attorneys make the same choices I made out of fear of bar complaint or discipline. While avoiding being disciplined by the bar is a powerful motivator, I believe that the positive business benefits of being an ethical and diligent attorney stand on their own. The business case for legal ethics, when understood by attorneys, incentivizes attorney conduct that benefits clients and raises the overall quality of the bar.
Concurrently being an ethical attorney and good at the business of law
I also believe that it’s a lack of business understanding or a lack of business discipline that causes most unethical attorney behavior in private practice attorneys who own their law firms. With the exception of substance abuse, which has brought down far too many of my legal friends and colleagues, I believe that simply being bad at business is the leading root cause of private practice attorney discipline. Law schools and “old school” lawyers often conflate being good at business with being bad at legal ethics. The stigma that attaches in the legal community to an attorney who excels at marketing can actually prevent some attorneys from pursuing marketing success. Instead they wait for the mythical reward that their professors and mentors promised would naturally result from simply being a good lawyer.
My early experiences in law school showed me that, aside from academia, most law professors did not have useful insight into how to build a successful and sustainable law practice. By the time I got out of law school, I was very comfortable ignoring most of the advice I was given. Being in the bottom 10 of my law school class academically because I refused to play the law school game helped me develop a thick skin in the practice of law as well.
As I attracted more cases that older longer-suffering attorneys believed that I had a right to, I heard, both directly and indirectly that older attorneys resented me. Here was a kid, fresh out of law school that was doing well for himself, and had gone from obscurity to quickly become a noticeable factor in a zero-sum game using a tool (the internet) that they didn’t understand. Every new client that retained me was business that an older attorney would have gotten months earlier.
While many of my competitors were friendly and helpful, I suspected many, including some of the friendly ones, were secretly hoping that I would go away. This made me double down on my case prep, and caused me to spend a significant amount of time making sure that my legal knowledge and trial skills were beyond reproach. As a result I took some very difficult cases to trial early on, and got unexpectedly good results.
Burning the candle at both ends
But what I had built, and what I had accomplished was not scalable, and there were signs that it was not sustainable. My early success was starting to take a toll. I was a one-man-band, and I realized I was burning out. Initially I had a blind spot to what was needed, but after consultation with friends, relatives and attorneys that I trusted, I realized that in order to sustain or keep growing what I had built, I would need to start hiring employees. My early experiences with hiring an associate and a paralegal will be the subject of my next post in this series.