This list began as a blog post designed to share a few lessons learned in my first year of solo practice. Then, I received comments and emails to remind me of things I’d forgotten. So, I created this page, and it will continuously change to reflect new ideas, updates, peer comments, and things the voices in my head decide to list. Comments and/or emails to me for corrections/additions/deletions are welcomed. I especially welcome anecdotes from experienced attorneys.
It may seem solo-centric, but it’s not. Much of what is here applies to anyone practicing law–whether solo, small, or big.
If it helps just one person, that’s fine with me. If it hurts someone, well, I hope it’s someone I don’t like.
Also, please feel free to check-out a different list: Everything You Didn’t Want to Know About Solo Practice. Warning: Not for those who just want to be happy about the practice of law.
In no particular order:
- Practice law like you are blue collar. The difference between you and your client? Circumstance. They need your help. Act like it is a privilege to give them the help they need and deserve. Work your ass off. Get dirty. Skin your knees.
- Before starting, bank 6 months of expenses and 12 months of patience. Patience is a virtue. It can also save you oodles of cash and freedom from stomach ulcers if you have a bit for the first year.
- The first 6 months of private/solo practice are a lot like the first 15 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan.” I believe this. Only, it’s been a year for me, and I’m still running around the beach holding my own severed arm. (thanks to JMo for the original thought on this one).
- You haven’t earned the BMW. You may never earn the BMW. Incurring debt for the BMW is stupid. It’s just a freaking car, people. Get over yourself. A Nissan Versa can get you to the courthouse all the same. $80K+ in debt for a car is a poor life decision.
- You’re just as smart as self-titled gurus, business practice experts, SEO gurus, solo practice experts, and law office startup coaches, unless you hire them. I promise you, you are just as smart as any of these people. Like them, you can google business information and read about the ins and outs of starting your practice, building a business model, and attracting clients. The only way you are below them in expertise and intellect is if you hire them. Secondary note: if they have been licensed to practice law for less than 5 years, they have no business giving advice. They know precisely squat. Secondary secondary note: if they’ve never established their own long-term successful practice, they don’t know anything more than you. Wake up. Spot these charlatans early and often.
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a great way to drive yourself to the brink of suicide. Don’t believe me? Ask anyone whose firm pops on the first page of organic Google searches. They have great stories about crazy people in the world, but no good clients. And funny stories don’t earn you any money. They do, however, make you fun company at happy hour as you drink-away your memory of the day’s calls.
- Can you practice law after a lightning storm? That technology is cool, but it has vulnerabilities that a pen, paper file, and legal pad do not have. Analog redundant systems and backups are your friend.
- Blogging is great if you like to write. Blogging to market yourself is stupid and disingenuous. If you don’t love to write, don’t waste your time. If you do love to write and decide to open your ideas to the entire world, be prepared for peer review, occasional pains in the ass, and risk. Oh, and a statistic: # of clients I’ve gotten because of this scintillating blog: ZERO. Thank goodness.
- Find a mentor. Be honest with them. Prepare for them to beat you about the head and neck. Learn to enjoy such treatment. You need them more than they need you. Let them give you tough love. Over 10 years of legal experience is a requirement. 5-9 years are merely experienced peers. Less than 5 years means that they are still searching for the courthouse bathroom, just like you.
- Tech is cool, but be real about it. This is not the backbone of your practice. It can help. It can save you time. But tech does not practice law, you do. A 5-year-old Dell computer running Ubuntu allows you to type documents, email, and print as well as the latest Octo-core Blitzkrieg Processor 8000. Despite what the internet says, juries are not impressed by technology. They are impressed by simple, coherent arguments.
- Online branding is bullshit. Your professional reputation, abilities, and work ethic are everything. If you are focused on your online image, your actual performance suffers.
- Do not have sexual contact with employees or clients. If you have to open office windows to let the stank out, you’re wrong.
- Don’t act like you are doing your employees a favor by giving them a job. Sure, everyone likes to provide for their family, have a career, and contribute to society. This does not give you permission to be an asshole. Once you hire an employee, you transform from lawyer to lawyer/leader. You must work to develop “leader” skills, and you must accept self-awareness that you might just suck as a leader. Compensate or suffer the consequences.
- Treat everyone at the courthouse like they are a judge. They deserve respect, and they tire of dealing with every self-important esquire in the county. Plus, you never know which one is having a clandestine affair with the chief judge. The pillow talk could either make you a favored son or reduce your status to rat. (thanks to TexasADA)
- Find a peer to whom you may vent. Frustration is a daily occurrence in solo/small practice. Calls from the deservedly-maligned “potential client” will shorten your life by decades. Discovering that your client lied to you throughout representation causes you to pull out your already thinning hair. Find someone to whom you can vent. Develop this friendship through shared experiences and shared hardship. Learn to laugh at frustration. If you don’t, you’ll explode. Literally.
- Having a law degree does not make you right. Us CDLs like to say that wearing a badge does not make law enforcement right. I agree. However, we should occasionally point that high-powered perception at ourselves, just to stay real.
- Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, 4Square, etc are not good marketing tools. They aren’t even mediocre marketing tools. They are good, however, if you want to be stalked by ex boyfriends/girlfriends.
- Attorney vs. Lawyer. Attorney refers to a relationship. Lawyer refers to the person. For instance: I am a lawyer. I am Archibald’s attorney. Mark Bennett taught me about this one.
- Shooting from the hip is a great way to shoot yourself in the foot.
- Dealing with crazy people is an art. Know the rules. Mark Bennett did the hard work and compiled a list of 10 things to remember. Read it. Love it. Learn from it.
- If someone is buttering-you-up, it’s not because they want you to enjoy the butter. You’ll get calls from potential clients who tell you how highly recommended and wonderful you are and how they just know you’re the person for them and that god led them to find you, yadda, yadda, yadda. They are not saying this because they want you to feel good about yourself. They want you to love talking to them. They want you to want them, for a reduced or no-fee price. Same thing goes for marketers and all varieties of salespeople. They aren’t looking to give you anything. They want you to give them a fatter wallet.