This month’s Law Practice Management post is written by guest writer Sarah Weaver. Sarah is a happy and successful solo bankruptcy attorney located in Seattle, WA.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Sarah for the past ten years and I very much appreciate that her first rule to having a successful law practice includes working with an experienced lawyer business coach.
The following are the ten rules to Sarah’s highly successful law practice as covered in her CLE presentation materials for the WSBA Solo & Small Firm Conference to be held in Vancouver, WA this July.
If you follow her suggestions you too will have a successful law practice.
On September 15, 2013, I will be celebrating ten years of a successful solo practice, which is a great time to reflect. “Success” has many definitions and just as many paths to achieving it. What follows are the guiding principles that have worked for me. In September of 2003, I had been a lawyer for just over 23 years so I had the advantage of a healthy line of credit to set up my practice, a well-defined practice area (bankruptcy – primarily from a debtor’s perspective), and a long list of contacts that I hoped would translate into referral sources. On the other hand, I did not have a single client to my name, I had never run a business, and I had no clue about how to buy health insurance, what retirement plan to set up, where to rent an office, or the myriad list of other things that needed to be done. So, here is “rule” number one:
1. Give yourself every chance to succeed. In the early days, that meant two things for me. First, I hired a coach experienced in working with lawyers. Irene Leonard has been invaluable to my practice. I knew she would keep me on track, challenge my assumptions, and push me when I needed it. She did and still does. Second, I hired a graphic designer to design my business card, stationery, and envelopes. It was important to me to present a professional look that would inspire confidence in those who might send business my way. Both were significant investments in my fledgling practice that have served me well.
2. Pay attention to how you work and design systems that work for you. Try as I might, I could never figure out how “practice management software” would work for me. I had survived many years in practice with a stack of yellow legal pads, Outlook, Word, and Excel and saw no reason to invest in a more comprehensive program that I would need to learn and upgrade periodically. I stuck with what I already knew, and that has worked for me. My client files are red, my administrative files are blue, my files are organized alphabetically, and my intake sheets are a bright green so they are easy to spot in the file. When a matter is finished, my notes are scanned and saved in the client file, and the file is dragged and dropped into the “clients – completed” file on my hard drive. Simple and easy.
3. Invest in your practice . . . or just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Lawyers are smart people, and we love a good challenge. I drew the line, however, on the challenge of setting up templates and pleading paper and figuring out how to delete the firm logo from the second page of a letter. I hired a pro experienced in setting up templates for larger firms and whatever I paid her was well worth it! I know I saved hours of frustration and time better spent marketing or doing billable work. I also invested in excellent bankruptcy software, a good time-keeping program, accounting software, and a subscription for legal research.
4. Marketing – think about where you want your business to come from and show up consistently. In the early days of my solo practice, that meant joining and becoming active in the KCBA Solo & Small Firm Section. I met many excellent lawyers, learned a great deal from them and from the presentations at the luncheon meetings, and made many good friends. I also hoped to become the only bankruptcy lawyer they needed to know. I also continued my involvement with KCBA’s Bankruptcy Section and the WSBA’s Creditor-Debtor Section and joined WBO, the women business owners’ group. By showing up consistently and earning the trust and confidence of others in the group, my practice has benefitted from many great referrals.
5. Marketing – do what’s comfortable for you. I am a “joiner” by nature and that has worked for my business. I would rather spend an hour over lunch reconnecting with a colleague or planning a CLE than writing a scholarly article for the Bar Bulletin or NW Lawyer. For the more scholarly among us, however, those are excellent vehicles to establish your reputation. About marketing, a friend once told me “If you do nothing, nothing works,” and the point is to figure out what works for you.
6. Trust your intuition – especially with clients. In the early days of my solo practice when times were very lean, I told potential clients that what they wanted me to do would cost a great deal and would likely not be successful. Despite the prospect of a significant retainer, I had visions of defending the indefensible, being miserable in the process, and losing. I remembered the promise to myself always to follow my intuition, and it was a good decision. Turning down business, especially when times are tough, is one of the hardest things we do. I do need the occasional reminder, and it typically comes in the form of an unpaid receivable. So, listen to that little voice in your head – it knows things!
7. Finances – save for taxes and periodic expenses. I hate surprises, especially when it comes to money. I well remember the day when my CPA told me that my additional tax bill would be $20,000, which I did not have sitting in my business checking account. While I had been good about setting aside money for taxes every month, I suddenly became very good at it. I now do the same for the yearly malpractice insurance premium, charitable donations, and retirement contributions. Knowing how much I’ll need when the bill comes due is a great motivator and having the funds set aside is a great stress reducer.
8. Cyclical practices can be a challenge. Bankruptcy, by nature, is a cyclical practice. Although it has been a very good few years, business has definitely slowed for many of us. As in the early days of my solo practice, I tell myself “It’s not true that no one will ever hire you again.” I know the phone will ring and new clients will appear. The challenge is to turn that nagging worry into action – tackling the “to do” list, reconnecting with colleagues, volunteering to speak at a CLE – and enjoy the time the universe has given you to do other things for a bit.
9. Build a good team and know where to ask for help. Help is often just a phone call away, and I have enjoyed connecting with people who know things I don’t. An expert, whether it is in practice management, a different area of practice, or the latest technology, can be a great time-saver. The trick is being able to identify who can help you (or your clients) when you need it. Of course, be prepared to return the favor when a colleague calls you for help!
10. Enjoy your clients, celebrate your successes, and stay organized! It is a privilege to practice law and to make a difference for those who need our help. Don’t forget to acknowledge all that you have accomplished and to give yourself the occasional pat on the back.
Written by Sarah Weaver,
Attorney at Law
1325 4th Ave Suite 940
Seattle, WA 98101
206 388 0138