Whether you are still in law school, working at a firm job that you hate, or have recently unemployed, you may be thinking about going out on your own and hanging a shingle. The thought of “going solo” is a frightening thought to most, and if you have kids or a family… well, I shudder at the thought. But it can be done and this article focuses on the things you need to do to start a successful law firm.
This article is going to walk you through a quick and dirty roadmap of things that you to do to start and run a successful law practice. Here is a quick overview of the topics that I will be covering:
Start with the End in Mind
The first thing you need to do is take some time, by yourself, and really think about what it is that you want out of your law firm. What will your firm look like in 5 years? How much legal work do you actually want to do (versus running and marketing the law practice)? Do you want to become an “untethered lawyer” or do you want a normal, brick and mortar practice? What is your purpose?
Your answers to these questions will dictate how you should proceed moving forward. I recommend that you take out a journal (I love me a good Moleskine Notebook), and start to write down your ideas. If you are not into writing in the traditional sense, you can use a program called OmmWriter (free for the Mac) to eliminate distraction on your computer and just write.
Head to your local coffee shop, turn on some good music (I recommend focusatwill.com to help you concentrate on the task at hand), and start jotting down your vision. This is important because your vision of your firm will drive every single decision you make from here on out.
While you are at it, make sure to write down some of your core values. These are things like “we treat our client’s like family” and “we accept very few cases” (these are two of my values that I have written down). You may have 5 core values, you may have 25. Just start writing and see what comes out.
Invest some time and money to learn marketing
Many attorneys think that it is enough to hang a shingle, start a basic web page, send out some announcement cards, and they are off and running. That just isn’t the case. When you start a law firm, you are starting a business. That’s no joke. There are things you need to consider (and I’m not talking about what legal entity to choose – although that is important, getting your first paying client is more important).
I recommend that you invest some money and time into marketing. When I say this, I DON’T mean to hire some snake-oil salesman who promises you X number of clients per month. (Read this article about what just happened to lawyers with Findlaw sites if you don’t believe me.) What I mean is to start by learning a little about marketing and how to build a business. This website is packed with free information and resources on how to build a successful law practice, but I recommend that you start on the “Start Here” page up at the top. I’ve included links to many of my top resources and posts for lawyers just getting started running a their own law firm.
If you don’t have a lot of money, but you need a lot of bang for your buck, then I have 5 business books to recommend to you:
- The E-Myth Revisited, by Michael Gerber
- No B.S. Time Management, by Dan Kennedy
- The One Thing, by Gary Keller
- The Slight Edge, by Jeff Olson
- How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie
If you do nothing other than read these five books (or listen to them on Audible.com), you will be head and shoulders above many of the lawyers that you will be competing with for business in your market.
Pick One Practice Area
I can’t tell you how many young lawyers I meet who start their own practice, throw up 5 different practice areas on their website, and then wonder why they aren’t getting any clients. The days of the “town lawyer” who handled everything from a will to a traffic ticket and everything in between are long gone. You need to focus your practice on one area of law to start. By focusing on one area, you will make it easier for other lawyers to refer you business and will attract clients that are looking for someone with an expertise in your chosen practice area.
Note only that, but you will make the actual practice of law easier on yourself and minimize the chances of you committing malpractice because you weren’t up to date on the law in a given practice area. For a very short period, I tried practicing in two different areas, and it was next to impossible. As soon as I eliminated one practice area and focused on the other, my revenues shot up, almost overnight.
Like what you have read so far? Sign up for my free legal marketing bundle and receive a 14-point checklist to assess your current marketing efforts, as well as a video training course and email training course…
Start Working on your Procedures
One of the biggest mistakes that many lawyers who are just starting a law practice make is that they fail to document how they do things and why they do it that way. This is a huge and costly mistake. If you do not document your procedures, how can you expect to ever hire anyone to replace you? They won’t know what to do without a clear set of procedures.
They will just do things however they have always done it, which will be nothing more than organized chaos. They will develop their own “system”, but what happens if they leave? If you are the type of person that just really doesn’t want to document your own systems, you can bring your staff on board (when you hire staff) and have them document what they are doing each day, and how they do it.
A great tool for this is SweetProcess. I use it on almost a daily basis to document how I do things in my law firm. I wish it had been around when I first started (although back then I just used a word document).
If nothing else, you should immediately write out how to answer your phones (consider using a script), how to greet a client, and how to open a new client file. These are pretty basic tasks that are universal to just about any law firm.
Hire Someone to Answer your Phones
One of the biggest mistakes that lawyers starting out on their own will make is to answer their own phones. And frankly, many lawyers that have been practicing for years on their own will still answer their own phone. Why is this such a big problem, you may ask? I have three reasons:
- Answering your own phone makes you less productive. Whenever you answer your phone, you are taking time away from whatever it was that you were doing. If you were in the middle of drafting a legal document that required intense concentration and attention to detail, you are allowing yourself to get side-tracked. This wastes your time, as well as your client’s time.
- Positioning. If you called up a heart surgeon to schedule a consult, what would you think of that surgeon if they answered their own phone? Probably not much. Client’s want their lawyers to be busy, and even though they won’t admit it, they want you to be unreachable too. This means you are busy, which means you are in demand, which means you are good. Lawyers that answer their own phones give the impression that they are less busy than lawyers that don’t.
- You don’t know who is calling. I don’t know about you, but if I’m getting a call from an attorney that represents the spouse of one of my clients, I want a chance to review the file first. Chances are that they did. If I answer the phone blindly, without knowing who is on the other end, I could potentially be hurting my client’s case.
Inherent in each of these reasons for why you should not answer your own phone is my recommendation that you shouldn’t be taking unscheduled phone calls either. Taking an unscheduled phone call is tantamount to answering your own phone – just with a filter.
So what do you do if you are not going to be answering your own phone? Starting out, I recommend that you contact Ruby Receptionists. I started using them after the birth of my first son almost 4 years ago and absolutely love them. They are professional, nice, and they even sent me a cute little onesy after the birth of my third child a week ago! If you use the link above, they will give you a two-week trial period and waive your activation fee.
A step-up from Ruby Receptionists (or Call Ruby) is to hire a full-time staff person to answer your phones. Depending on your call volume, this may be the way to go for you. Frankly, I have a full-time legal assistant, but I also have Call Ruby in place as a back-up. There are many times where my assistant might be on the phone, so the calls will roll-over to Call Ruby to take a message. This also helps when my legal assistant goes to lunch or leaves at the end of the day.
Answer the questions your clients are asking
If you are representing consumers (i.e. family law, bankruptcy, criminal, immigration, personal injury), than you will need to build up a web presence. The best way to do that is to answer the questions your client’s are asking, and put them online.
And I’m not talking about a short, 300-500 word blog post once a week. I’m talking some substantive, “epic” content that really highlights your knowledge of the practice area and sets you apart from your competitors. Research shows that longer articles tend to perform better. Kyle Smith, an employment lawyer in Los Angeles, wrote an absolutely fantastic article on how he took a brand new domain name from no visitors to over 12,000 visitors per month in less than a year. Here is his screenshot to prove it:
I recommend that you read that article, then go back and read it again. It is fantastic, and has changed the way I produce content for my law firm website.
Some of the highlights from Kyle’s article include:
- Using Google’s search bar to find content ideas
- Don’t use promotional plugs in your writing
- Write with the end-user in mind
- Don’t use legalese
- Use footnotes and a table of contents
- Longer is better – his best performing article had 2,500 words and generated 25% of his search traffic for the month
If you are just getting started, try to figure out what the top 10 questions are that your clients might be asking, then write some in-depth articles answering those questions clearly, in a way that the average user can understand, and use citations and a table of contents to organize your article and provide authority for your writing.
Write a Book and give it away
One of the best things you can do to establish your authority in your practice area is to write a book. After you have written 10 or so articles (as outlined above), you have the beginning of a great book that will provide lots of substantive help to your clients.
If you don’t want to invest into a physical book initially, start with an e-book and give the book away in return for email addresses from your prospects. That way you can start to build a list of people who you can continue to send useful information to. (Check the ethics rules in your state first, but the ABA Model rules allow this type of marketing, so long as you are not being misleading in your follow-up messages). ((See Comment 1 to Rule 7.3 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct))
What is important here is that you are beginning to create something of value that you can give to people in exchange for an email or physical address. The primary goal of your marketing efforts should be to build and grow a list of people who are interested in using your legal services.
One of the big objections I get from lawyers about this is that they don’t need to build a list because clients that would hire them have an immediate legal need that they need help with. These prospects may not continue to have a legal need in the next several months, so continuing to follow-up with them is a waste of time and resources.
If you can continue to provide useful, relevant, valuable content to the members of your list on a regular basis, who do you think will be on the top of their mind when they actually do need a lawyer? And even if you don’t handle the type of case they have, this gives you an excellent opportunity to refer business to other lawyers and continue to build and nurture those referral relationships.
Start taking people out for coffee or lunch
When I first started my law firm back in 2005, one of the first things I did was invite some of the big name attorneys in Orlando out for coffee or lunch. I would offer to pay for their meal, of course, and used that time to basically pick their brains about their law practice.
These attorneys were more than happy to share with me their experiences, what was working for them in their law practice and what wasn’t, and offer to assist me in any way they could – including sending referrals my way.
For months I was booked solid – scheduling 4-5 meetings per week with other attorneys. And it worked! I got a substantial amount of business from these meetings, and built up solid relationships with attorneys that I still have to this day.
Lots of new, young attorneys are scared to invite other lawyers out to lunch. I’m not quite sure what the worry is – are they scared that their invitation will be declined? Are they worried that they won’t have anything to talk about? Perhaps they are concerned that they will not come across as “professional” and the other attorney will bad-mouth them to the local bar?
I suppose any of these things could happen. But honestly, they are not likely. The biggest concern I had was that I wouldn’t have anything to talk about. However, Bob Burg put that fear to rest with his book, Endless Referrals. In that book, which I recommend that you purchase and read, is a list of 10 “feel good” questions that you can commit to memory and cycle through during these lunch meetings. That’s exactly what I did, and I can honestly tell you, I never worried about having anything to talk about again.
The thank you note is your best friend
After you take each attorney or referral source to lunch, make sure to send them a nice handwritten thank you note. Even though it is quick and easy, an email just won’t do. When someone sends me an email thank you note is says to me, “I don’t really have time to tell you how much I appreciate your time, so I’m going to spend 30 seconds and type out a note instead.” A handwritten thank you note, however, takes time. It makes you stand out. You have to sit down and think about what you are going to write. It makes the receiver of the card feel special. There are people who I have been out to lunch with 5 times, and every single time I send them a handwritten thank you note. (One person actually told me to stop sending them!)
Also, if you receive a referral from someone, make sure to also send out a handwritten note telling them how much you appreciate the referral and the fact that they thought so highly of you and your practice that they would trust you with such an honor. There is no better way to solidify a referral relationship and ensure that you will receive future referrals than by sending a handwritten thank you note.
So, to reiterate – you should never, under any circumstances, send a thank you note via email.
If you need some nice, relatively inexpensive stationary, try Vistaprint.
Track your marketing efforts
Once you get started on building your practice, you want to start tracking your marketing efforts. One of the easiest ways to do this is to track the number of calls you get from prospective clients. This is as easy as creating a simple spreadsheet that you can put “tick marks” in.
Here is a sample of what I use that you can download (no email required) and use on your own. I used to include a section on whether or not an appointment was scheduled. However, I took this out because I don’t want my assistant to have a reason to fudge on the numbers – I just want her to keep track of how many prospects call our office each month.
Final Thoughts on How to Start a Successful Law Firm
Starting a successful law practice isn’t easy, but it is not impossible either. You can do this – have faith. Work hard, be diligent, and do good work for your clients. Before you know it you will have a thriving practice that you can be proud to call your own.