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December 03, 2006

Don't Try To Wing It When You're A Solo

Connecticut Law Tribune/Law.Com - August 1, 2005

When you open your own law practice you go from wearing the singular hat of "lawyer" to wearing the many hats of a small business owner: lawyer, office manager, accountant, and marketing public relations executive. You are a business person first and foremost and have to approach everything you do as a business person. You are selling you, the lawyer, as your product. And you have to market the product. And no successful business is run without first constructing a business plan.

You don't have to have an MBA or be an accountant to run a business or be able to write a formal business plan. Whatever shortcomings you perceive, trust me, they are surmountable. You simply analyze these "shortcomings," then manage them. And whatever your fears, they are certainly no excuse to stay an employee somewhere else.

Most people manage their lives well and practice managerial skills every day. Think about this. You are planning a two-week vacation to Italy. You select your travel dates. Based upon your traveling style you are either hitchhiking into the wind with a backpack, staying put in a villa with paid help, renting a car, reserving hotels in advance and mapping out your own trip, or taking a guided bus tour completely organized and prearranged before you even get on the plane. Your decisions are based upon your own personality, risk-tolerance, skill level, and budget when traveling. Or, you may be skilled enough to do it all yourself but have the budget to pay someone to handle the work for you. But, whatever your skill level, you are going to go to Italy for two weeks.

Putting together a business plan is no different from planning a vacation. Bottom line: know what is required to run your business, assess your skills in the various areas, and budget accordingly. If you can't add two and two, budget for an independent bookkeeper; if you are computer illiterate, budget for someone who can initially set you up then help you back up when your system goes down. You're going to open your own practice, how you are going to do it depends upon your plan.

What is a business plan? It is as individual as you are. It can be detailed or general. Unless you are looking for a small business loan and require something in a specific format, don't sweat the design. As long as it speaks to you and your ambition, it's fine. However, it should contain essential elements such as:

Long-Range Goals--You need to project 5, 10, 15 years down the road and it needs to include not just your business goals but your personal goals. The two are intertwined and to forget this is a recipe for personal and professional disappointment. The more specific you are, the better. Goals have specific achievements and a time line for success; without a time line it's not a goal, just a dream.

Mission Statements--Personal: why you wake up each morning and what motivates you to do what you do on those days you need an extra push; Professional: a commitment to your clients and staff.

Location Statement--Where do you want to locate, the rationale, the actual physical space required and decided upon, associated costs to set up, and the time frame for getting into the space.

Marketing/Leveraging Plan--What image do you want to present to your potential client base, what vehicles will you choose to project this image, what are the associated initial costs and fixed monthly costs.

Insurance Analysis--What types of insurance do you require, how much does it cost and when to purchase each.

Cash Flow Expectations--Two year, month-by-month debt service/income projection; Your projected expenses and anticipated income on a month-by-month basis.

Sunset Clause--At what point financially, if you are not meeting your goals, will you decide to no longer operate a business.

Continuing Education--Schedule and costs associated with continued learning.

Grievance and Ethical Violation Avoidance Plan--What steps will you take to make sure you avoid grievances and ethical violations.

If you've ever planned a vacation, you can write a business plan and map out your future, a future with you running your very own business. The key is to commit to doing it, then understanding in what areas you will need help, and budget accordingly.

Play to your strengths and pay someone else to compensate for your "weaknesses."

Enjoy Italy.

Susan Cartier-Liebel is solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. Build A Solo Practice, LLC www.susancartierliebel.typepad.com. She can be reached at SCartier_Liebel@comcast.net. Copyright © Susan Cartier-Liebel (2005) All Rights Reserved. No portion of this material may be copied, transmitted, posted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of Susan Cartier-Liebel.

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Comments

basquette

Excellent post, Susan. I've thought and written often about the "doofus factor" - when would-be solos get intimidated by the breadth of the challenge, I say "think of the biggest doofus you know practicing law. He's getting clients and making payroll. If he can do it, so can you - with a little planning." I also think, though, that it's necessary to see the plan as a fluid document - you have to be flexible enough to deal with the vagaries that result when other people's free will clashes with your well-laid plans, and to stay on course without being rigidly wed to a particular pair of coordinates. Course correction is often required, of airplanes and solos.

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