This is the sixth post in 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 previous post I covered how I got office space and other logistics for my new law firm. In this post I’m going to talk about how I survived in the early months before I had a client base of my own. My story continues:
So there I was. It was 1999, and I was now a member of the Washington State Bar and the owner of my own law practice. I had my office space. I had my computer. I had insurance. But I didn’t have clients. And I didn’t have revenue.
I was all dressed up with no place to go. Crap! I had the ability to pick up nearly unlimited law clerk type work from my office mates. But if I spent too much time doing that, it would cannibalize my opportunity to build, learn and grow my own skills, practice and reputation.
I needed to get into court, and I needed to be compensated for my time while learning, but without committing to any responsibility that would interfere with building my practice by compromising my ability to take on my own clients when the opportunity arose.
Targeting Other Solos and Small Firms
I took as many coffees and lunches as I could with practicing attorneys. I always asked them what they would do in my situation. Most of them suggested that I do research and writing for other attorneys. Many promised to give me any overflow work that they got, but that usually resulted in them sending me potential clients that they rejected because they didn’t have money, didn’t have a case, or were difficult people to work with.
I also attended as many live CLE events as I could so I could talk with attorneys. The WSBA ran a “nuts and bolts” series which covered various common types of practice. I was most excited about the criminal one. It was taught by two prominent criminal defense attorneys who were law partners. One of the things that they talked about during the presentation was how it’s nice to have partners or associates when you’re a criminal defense lawyer, because you are often double or triple booked and need to be in several courts at the same time.
This was the idea that I needed.
I went back to my office and created a form letter to send to every solo practitioner and small law firm that practiced criminal defense in the greater Seattle area. In the letter I outlined my court experience from the Pima County Attorney’s Office, and offered to make myself available to them to cover hearings when they were double booked.
After mailing out the letters (today I would still do it via US mail because emails are likely to get missed or ignored, but not letters coming from another attorney), I marked my calendar to wait four business days before starting to call attorneys to follow up by phone to try to set up meetings.
I never got to call all of them. A few attorneys called me when they got my letter and offered me coverage work immediately. The first one to give me work was James Walker, an experienced attorney with a thriving word-of-mouth criminal practice that was well earned. James and I went out to lunch, during which we agreed that I would cover simple hearings for him for a flat fee of $100 per hearing. Even including driving and wait time, that was a significant increase over what I could charge for research and writing. It also gave me a benchmark for what I could charge other lawyers.
Soon I had a viable court appearance coverage business going. In the small network of attorneys that I did coverage for, I found that, when I got booked by one attorney, I could sometimes double or triple my revenue for a court appearance by calling other attorneys to let them know that I’d be in that court. If I showed up with two or three files on the docket, I’d make 2-3x for my drive and wait times. For me, this was great money, especially for appearances in courts that were close, and that had defense lawyer friendly dockets. Of course there were times when I spent a whole day waiting for a case to be called and still only made $100, but that was the cost of doing business.
Beyond the money, the appearance work sparked my practice growth for the following reasons:
• I got experience talking with clients who were usually stressed out and needy because they were criminal defendants. This was something that we missing from my experience with the prosecutor’s office.
• I got to witness a lot of other hearings, conducted by a lot of different defense attorneys while waiting for my cases to be called. This exposed me to different styles, and also gave me insight into who my competitors would be and their strengths and weaknesses.
• I was able to ask questions of and get help from other defense attorneys, and this resulted in me knowing more people and getting some additional appearance work.
• I was able to get to know how different courts operated and go through the learning curve playing the part of other attorneys’ lackey. This allowed me to save face by not making rookie mistakes in front of the paying clients that I would soon be attracting and serving myself.
• I got to know different judges and court staff. This made a big impact as I took on paying clients over the first year. It’s very reassuring to a defendant when their very young looking lawyer is greeted by name by the judge or bailiff when they walk into court.
• I got a good feel for how fast or slow various calendars in the different courts throughout King and Snohomish County Washington flowed. This would prove valuable in determining my own coverage needs as I got busy with my own clients.
• I got to build up a lot of confidence in my ability to walk into any courtroom and handle myself. My experience in Pima County had been limited to a single courthouse with a handful of judges. The court system in the Greater Seattle Area was a vast network of county court outposts and municipal courts, each with their own idiosyncrasies. It was a great confidence boost to see that I was effective in handling the nuances of the various courts.
With my court coverage business now up and running, I was making good money for that time in my life. I was more excited about building my law firm than ever. When I was not busy covering for attorneys in court, I was working on ways to attract clients directly to me.
Early Law Firm Marketing Experiments
As a new solo attorney I didn’t know what would work to attract and convert new clients. The advice that my law school professors gave, which amounted to be a good lawyer and business will come, was theoretical theater proffered by academics who, by and large, had never proven the theories they espoused. The advice from the lawyers in their 50s, 60s and 70s, that advertising will ruin your reputation and the best way to build your reputation is go work for us for cheap, was equally impotent.
I knew I had to start placing some bets. Networking was netting me a bunch of garbage referrals, including assorted crazies. Random defendants would approach me in court after they saw me do appearance work for other attorneys and ask me questions. If they were not represented I would give them my business card. This resulted in a few calls seeking even more free advice, but did not result in any revenue. I was too inexperienced to be able to effectively compete for a municipal contract to handle indigent defendants, and I recognized that as an economic prison of sorts even if I could land a contract (more on this in a later post).
During that time I had an ongoing conversation with myself. Over and over I would ask “what do I need to do to create a flow of new clients that I can rely on to grow my practice without being depend on, or beholden to, anybody else?” I’m a believer in asking myself questions. Questions open the mind to the right answers and activate the subconscious mind to work on finding an answer. I always know when I’m about to start succeeding at something. It’s the moment when the question that I am asking myself feels right. The question causes something to click, and even if the answer is not immediately available, it feels inevitable.
I would ask the question of what do I need to do when I was driving from court to court. When sitting in court covering somebody else’s case, I’d ask myself “what do I need to do so that clients like him go directly to me instead of going to another lawyer?” When I was sitting in my office, I’d ask myself “what is the best thing I can do right now to grow my practice?”
As my brain worked the problem, I tried to keep busy. I tried some marketing experiments, including the following:
• Letters asking for referrals. I mailed out letters to attorneys who had non-criminal practices letting them know that I was building a practice focused on criminal defense. I asked them for referrals, and told them to let me know what kind of referrals they would like to see from me. This resulted in some initial referrals, and a viable case or two. I noticed that there was an initial bounce from the mailings, and then the referrals died down pretty quickly. I made a mental note that advertising to attorneys worked. But with my budget (which was next to nothing), sending out a bunch of letters was very time consuming and I determined that it was not likely the most efficient way to grow my new solo practice.
• Ads in the Seattle Weekly. Like many metro areas, Seattle had a weekly free news magazine. In the back of the rag were classified ads. I experimented with buying ads on the back page where text ads were jumbled together. My ad occupied space with ads for all kinds of other services ranging from attorneys, to get rich quick offers, to sketchy massage parlors. This ad produced a surprising number of calls, each one a bigger waste of time than the next. My favorite was a lady who called and said “my chickens are fighting with my cows and my husband is not sympathetic.” Out of sheer morbid curiosity I tried to clarify whether her husband’s lack of sympathy was related to the livestock issue, but was unable to get a coherent answer. Another guy showed up to my office with a stack of Seattle Times newspapers and showed me how many of the articles were secret government code that proved that the CIA was trying to locate and kill him.
As frustrating as the Seattle Weekly experiment was, it helped me modify my questions. Instead of simply asking what I needed to do to attract clients, I started asking what I needed to do to attract intelligent, educated clients who could afford and would appreciate my services.
Around that time I ordered a book on Amazon. It was my first purchase of a physical object using the internet, and at that time Amazon was thought of mostly as a bookstore. The book arrived within hours of my order.
I can’t remember what the book was, but I do remember that every time I read or even saw that book, the idea of using the internet to build my business reverberated in my mind.
I was in Seattle, the epicenter of the internet boom that was happening all around me. And while at that time the typical lawyer’s use of technology consisted of fax machines, word processors, dictaphone and bike messengers, I could see an evolution was about to take place.
There were a lot of young, smart people working at places like Amazon, Microsoft and dozens of other internet startups in the Seattle area. They were making good money, with many of them driving around in expensive sports cars that presented an inspiring contrast to my Chevy Blazer for which I could not afford a parking space. If these techies got in legal trouble, what would be their preferred method of finding and engaging a lawyer?
The answer, I believed, was the internet. And my early experiments and traction with the internet will be the subject of my next post in this series.