Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations - Michael J. Keenan
Michael Keenan is an Elder Care Lawyer in Glastonbury, Connecticut who has had his solo practice now for sixteen months. His is a paperless office utilizing technology to better serve his clients, keep his overhead down and profits up. He is a big believer in the power of blogging and is just thoroughly enjoying his professional life as a solo. Here's his story: (and a sampling of why Michael is a great lawyer in my book.)
Guest Blogger - Michael J. Keenan
First, I'd like to thank Susan for an opportunity to reflect on the past 16 months as a solo and share my experience with readers. The good news from the world of solo practice is that I have found that it is nearly all good news. I'm particularly loving solo life at this point as the stock market is continuously surging up, down and in all different directions, and the word "recession" is probably the most-used word on the internet these days. It occurred to me the other day that if I were an associate in a law firm where business has slowed dramatically then I could be cut loose without warning (in fact, that;s exactly what happened to me five years ago). As a solo, the only way that I would be "laid off" is if all of my clients fire me at the same time. I might lose one or two here or there, but I'm not going to lose them all at once. So, strangely enough, I feel like I have much more job security now than I did 16 months ago.
Of course, every new solo is going to have a different experience, but I am happy to report that my life, both professionally and personally, has improved dramatically since becoming a solo. I enjoy making and implementing decisions about how the practice is run without having to propose ideas to the partners and waiting weeks or months for a response. I no longer feel compelled to impress anyone by trying to be the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night. If I'm suddenly needed at home due to an illness or some other unexpected contingency, I can just quickly adjust the schedule and leave the office without worrying about what the boss is going to think. I can charge what I think are reasonable fees based on the client's circumstances without having to explain myself to someone later. The list of wonderful things that are associated with being your own boss goes on and on.
Of course, there are going to be difficulties whenever you make such a big career change. The biggest problem I have experienced so far is that I had more business than I could handle when I started out. I remember Amy and I spending the better part of a year squirreling away as much money as we could, anticipating that business would be slow for at least the first six months of the solo practice. Instead, it was gangbusters virtually from day one. The news to my referral sources that I was hanging out my own shingle seemed to spur twice as many referrals than usual and I was quickly swamped. Yes, this falls into the "good problem" category, but it's still a legitimate problem. For a while I was not able to turn work around within a reasonable timeframe and there was a general sense of disorganization and chaos for the first ten months of the practice. Then I hired some "virtual" paralegals and implemented some more technology into my practice, but I didn't truly feel like I was getting a secure handle on things until the first anniversary. So the moral of the story is to make sure that you are able to handle a big workload on day one.
I would offer two big-ticket pieces of advice to anyone thinking about going solo. The first is to master the available office technology out there, especially the tools that will allow you to have a paperless office. My practice is as paperless as I can possibly get it. My most expensive piece of office equipment is my Fuijitsu ScanSnap scanner (about $500) which is very fast, yet small enough to sit on my desk next to my monitors. What goes into and out of my office is immediately scanned and saved in the appropriate digital file. I enter the data from all business cards that I collect into my Outlook contact manager and then chuck the cards. I always use the notes function in Outlook instead of those sticky notes. I only keep original estate planning documents, which is required. Literally everything else is digital. My information is safer that way since I have two separate online services which back up all of my data every 24 hours, so if the building burns down I can be up-and-running the next day. And free services like LogMeIn.com allow me access to all of my files from any computer with an internet connection, so I can get a lot of work done at home in the early morning hours before the kids wake up. A nice secondary benefit is that my office is always clutter-free and organized. Visitors must think I’m a Zen-Buddhist; no paper or file folders anywhere in sight.
Other technology tools that I use: I have two large flat-screen computer monitors which allow me to have two different programs simultaneously running and visible, so that I can do computer work much more efficiently. My Treo 680 smartphone has become invaluable since e-mail has become my main source of communication. And my Bluetooth earpiece allows me to handle calls on the go and convert dead driving time into billable time.
I try to pick technological tools and systems not because they’re the latest and greatest, but because they are practical and allow me to be more mobile and productive. At this point I feel like I have put the right tools and systems in place and I know that they have greatly improved my bottom line.
The second big piece of advice I would offer is to blog. I have been doing so since May, 2006 and the amount of business my blog has brought in still blows my mind. In fact there are some weeks where I get a call a day from people who have run into it. I also have what I call a “recreational” blog on distance running (my other passion besides elder law) and even this blog has brought in a significant amount of business! A blog will boost your Google ranking and it’s a “point of difference”, in marketing lingo. In other words, it sets you apart from the approximate 98% of attorneys who are not blogging. If someone does am internet search on your practice area in your town, they will find a bunch of websites for different law practices which all say essentially the same thing: here are all of our accomplishments, our practice areas, our biographies, how we intend to deliver excellent service, etc. But if your website is accompanied by a blog then you stand out from the other attorneys in a big way. It tells the reader that you know you’re an expert in your field, and since more of your personality comes out in a blog than from a website the reader starts to feel like they know you. And any marketing consultant will tell you that a client is more likely to call a lawyer who they feel they know than an attorney who they don’t know.
So…if you’re considering hanging out your own shingle I would say that the most difficult part is finding comfort on a psychological level with “taking the plunge”. But heavy planning leading up to your launch tends to ease the discomfort. And once you take the plunge, the resulting sense of independence and autonomy will feel terrific and you’ll find yourself busier than you thought you would be. I would also recommend a business plan that incorporates a technology-oriented approach and blogging. Good luck!
Michael J. Keenan, Esq.
Keenan Law, LLC
My blog: The Connecticut Elder Law Blog