February 17, 2008

"Tip of the Week" - Only You Can Say If Solo Practice is Right For You

Periodically, others will ask me how I can be so 'rah, rah' about such a challenging endeavor as opening up a solo legal practice.

First, if you are reading this blog it is because you are already a solo practitioner or are looking to become one.  Would it serve your purpose for this blog to tell you your goals are unworthy, foolish or misguided?  No.  There are plenty within the legal profession (and without) ready to dash your dreams as they impose their own fears and agendas upon you.

Secondly, I don't believe anyone who aspires to be an entrepreneur in the legal profession or any profession, for that matter, has goals which are unworthy, foolish or misguided.  If that makes me a cheerleader for entrepreneurship I'll happily shake my poms poms.

Quite simply, I wholeheartedly embrace entrepreneurship and seek to empower those who seek it, too.

For those who would like to say, 'the legal profession is different,"  I reply, "Bulls#%t."

What is the main difference between people who have confidence they will succeed and people who don't?  Is it they live in essentially different worlds - the confident in an easier place where everyone supports their efforts at success and the less confident in a harsher world where it is harder to succeed?  No.

The confident construct a reality out of the world around them, a reality in which success is possible because they pay special attention to those who have succeeded and have carefully studied the path to success.  Those who lack confidence, meanwhile, pay more attention to those who have failed and the obstacles that exist to thwart their efforts.

It is much like two people walking next to each other on a busy city street, one looking up and the other down.  The reality of the city is the same, but the view is very different.

David Niven, Ph.D.

If you are reading my blog you know which view you are looking at...or want to look at.  And if you are reading my blog you are past the dreaming stage and ready to create your goals. I'm your cheerleader.

February 01, 2008

Hitch A Ride On Someone Else's Ego - Learn How to Be A Lawyer Under Fire

If you commit to a 40 hour work week in the beginning of your solo practice career, unless you have hip-pocket business, you will see most of your weeks will be marketing and legal education and very little billing.  In time the ratio will change from 80/20 to 20/80 only because you must always have committed time to marketing and continued education. 

So, let's talk about education.  What does a new lawyer do besides wait for the phone to ring?  She starts acting like a lawyer.  Get yourself down to the courthouse(s) you plan to frequent; park yourself in the courtroom(s) of various judges and watch and learn.  (You should actually be doing this during the time period between taking the bar and learning you passed the bar.) You will see the good, the bad and the ugly in legal skills play itself out, see who the 'players' are and how the court room is run. Watch short calendar or motion day.  Watch a trial.  Watch hearings.  Watch whatever you are permitted to watch and take copious notes about judges, lawyers, language, protocol and more. 

When you see a trial or hearing or lawyer you find good, get yourself down to the clerk's office and pull the file.  Read the file.  Follow the flow of the case through paperwork.  Spend a few nickels and make copies of motions, briefs and more and start building your form file from lawyers who are talented and respected. (Note:  this is not a license to copy verbatim legal briefs as some may assert copyright privilege if they can.)

Talk to the courthouse personnel (including marshalls) and find out who the core group of lawyers are in the courthouse.  (There is always a core group of players in every courthouse, every practice area.)  Find out when they are scheduled to argue something and watch them argue.  Learn through observation.

And some interesting things may just happen.  First, if you are dressed like a million bucks, you may be approached by potential clients (do not solicit) who ask you if you are a lawyer and if you can help them. Second, lawyers and judges start seeing your face.  They may even ask why you are present even though it is your right to be.

Introduce yourself to everyone and start to get known.

True story:  Two of my clients were waiting for their bar results and were sitting in the court room.  It was very disconcerting to the lawyers currently arguing because they were the only ones present and noone knew who they were.  After the hearing was over the judge asked them who they were.  They told the judge they were waiting on their bar results and were observing and were planning to open their own practice (partnership) as soon as they heard the results.  The judge proceeded to tell them about the lawyers who were just arguing in front of him, told them they were lousy and why, gave them some pointers and then after a little more conversation invited them and their spouses/family to be sworn in at a private ceremony officiated by himself once they heard the results.  Sweet.

Don't be afraid to make mistakes or be fearful that 'you don't know everything."

True story:  When I started out and had one of my first court appearances on a short calendar day, the judge asked me if I wished to have the motion "taken on the papers."  I had no idea what he was talking about?  I didn't know the lingo.  I stared blankly at him until a nice lawyer next to me pulled on my suit jacket and said, "just say 'yes'."  I did.  I didn't know what I was agreeing to.  The judge smiled.  No harm, no foul. ( It simply meant the papers speak for themselves; no oral argument necessary.)

Learn from others through observation until you develop your own unique voice.

True story:  When I first started practicing I had no idea how to do a deposition, never watched one, only had some protocol information from a book. This particular case was very big and I was sweating (but no one could tell.) I had all the information, some pretty nasty surprises  for the other side but didn't know how to commence. The other attorney was very seasoned and a nice guy. You could tell he was at the, 'this is mundane and boring' stage. I casually suggested he could go first and then I made it a point to object and argue (just so I could see how it was handled and he very obligingly was patronizing and professorial at the same time.) So when it was my turn I gave it right back at him!

When it was over (and I had gotten absolutely everything I needed and some bonus information) I mentioned to him, 'by the way, this was my first deposition' his jaw dropped. He said, You're kidding me, right?" I said, 'absolutely not.' That was a sweet moment.  He also offered me a job.

I would not have been taught this doing grunt document review in the cubicle of some large firm in order to 'get some experience first' before I went out to practice law. This is the greatest myth out there. You have to be clever and have faith in yourself and do copious amounts of research.  The key is your research. Your technique may be adolescent but your research will save you. 

The same for examining witnesses. Worked like a charm. 

In the beginning you don't have to reinvent the wheel.  Hitch a ride on someone else's ego while you figure out the techniques.  And as you develop your skills with practice, eventually others will want to copy you.

But spend your time marketing and self-educating through observation and acting like the lawyer you are.

And as an aside, here is a comment along these lines made by Victoria Pynchon on how she learned her trial and litigation skills (copied from the Illinois Trial Lawyer.)

This is pretty much ENTIRELY how I learned to practice law -- by watching my opponents. It takes a little while as you add discrimination to your monkey-see-monkey-do, i.e., "the usual stipulations, counsel?" -- no no no, it's meaningless. You also, of course, have to develop your own "voice" but trying on other people's is a good way to start -- it's a lot like creative writing in that way. You sound like Hemingway and Kerouac in your twenties and your very self in your 30's. The best piece of advice anyone ever gave me was this -- no one can be a better Vickie Pynchon than you and you can NEVER be as good as -- say -- Gerry Spence is at being Gerry Spence. It's much much easier to act through your own personality -- but before you find your way -- trying on those of people who are adverse to you -- and then positively resisting behaving like people who you see are not effective -- is one of the best ways to find your own voice as a litigator and trial attorney.

So, for the benefit of all the new lawyers out there who think they need to know EVERYTHING before they venture out....readers please share some of your 'newbie' stories and how you survived.

January 06, 2008

"Tip of the Week" (II) - How Creativity Will Save the (Legal Marketing) World

While scouring the blawgosphere for my upcoming turn as host of Blawg Review, January 14th, I found a buried gem that needs to be brought to the surface today.  I say buried because the last time the author posted to the site was more than a year ago so not quite appropriate for Blawg Review. So, I am bringing you "Creativity."

It was a bold two-page concept ad for MEGABLOKS in the front signature of the New York Times magazine.

Once upon a time, there lived a creature named Creativity.

When Creativity was young, he was allowed to explore the farthest reaches of his imagination. No one told him what noise his train was supposed to make.  So he made it sound like a cockatoo.

And nobody told him that his dragon was scary.  So he had it over for pizza.

Then once day, when Creativity was all grown up, people throughout the land turned to him for inspiration in good times and bad.

All the world rallied around Creativity to solve their most confounding problems. And that's how creativity saved the world.Mega_1

So often we are trapped in what others tell us we can and cannot do in relationship to how we work, how we promote our work, other people's images of us and every manner of creative restraint, our natural inquisitiveness is quashed.  Occasionally, I have to remind my husband not to tell my son 'how to do it' because my son sees through fresh, untainted, unsocialized eyes and I want to learn from him how he chooses to do something.  I want him always to say, 'me do' even though I think I know better.  As long as he isn't going to injure himself or others he should be free to say, 'me do' and do it.  (My mother told me I did that at 10 months...grabbed the fork from her hand and said, 'me do' in an attempt to feed myself.  I still have the holes in my forehead...only kidding!)

It's no different in Legal Marketing or building of a practice.  Just tell me definitely what is a violation of the rules which will get me disbarred.  Otherwise, let me be free to construct my universe, my marketing world.  Let me have my legal megablocks and play.  It's my right and privilege as long as no one is harmed and I'm comfortable.  It's my sandbox. And this is the attitude you should have, too.  Pick your mentors carefully who let you say, 'me do' and make sure you don't hurt yourself or others.  But outside of that, start inviting dragons over for pizza.  And if the train you build sounds like a cockatoo, that's okay in my book.  If it gets you the clients you want, allows you to pay the bills, makes you sing when you go to work, who's better than you.  Start building!

December 09, 2007

"Tip of the Week" - Do You Have Integrity?

If you peruse marketing blogs you will often see statements such as, 'all things being equal, people buy from those they know like and trust.'  It is true but what exactly creates trust?  I've thought long and hard about what inspires others to 'trust' another in a vendor/vendee relationship.  And the answer is both simple and complex.  It comes down to the vendor's integrity.  But 'integrity' is also another word which is loosely bandied about in advertising and self-promotion and its meaning has become diluted. 

What is integrity?  (And my apologies in advance to whoever wrote this exact turn of phrase because I copied it into my post ages ago and lost the link.  If it's you...please tell me and I will glady give credit!)

The root of the word "integrity" is "integer." If you remember your math, an integer is a whole number. So integrity has to do with wholeness. It means your whole life is unified; it means what you say and what you do are in congruence. It also implies completeness. Are you completely honest in your dealings with clients? With vendors? With other professionals in the community?

Your integrity and your dealings with others creates the trust in the 'know, like, trust' equation.  This integrity becomes the basis for your reputation. Integrity is not something you have at home and put on the shelf when it comes to your business dealings.  It needs to be a part of all relationships in your life including your clients, employees, colleagues and all those you come in contact with regardless of their integrity or lack thereof.

It's easy to try and pass the buck when we work with others, to the lay the blame for relationships gone sour at another's feet.  But when you are a solo it is your name on the stationary, your reputation, your wholeness, your honesty in dealings that is being 'purchased' by the client.  When we behave incongruously we are not just hurting our clients, we are hurting ourselves.

So, now answer yourself honestly? Do you have both professional and personal integrity?

October 30, 2007

First Year Associate Leaves Big Law and Gets Former Firm as Client

Yes, the truth is stranger than fiction but this is a great story and I got it right from the first year associate's mouth.

A former student of mine (and we will keep names, etc. out of this) called me yesterday to tell me a terrific true story of their past year. This student went solo right after passing the bar (May 2006) but while waiting for the bar results indulged another passion, advanced website design and optimization. While in law school they became proficient at blogging, too.  This student then paired with another lawyer and upon getting the bar results hung a shingle.  Just as they started bringing in clients through their site, the partner was offered a job with Big Law.  This young attorney declined the job because they were relocating out of the country but suggested the law firm talk to the partner, my student.  The offer was too good to pass up.  But interestingly enough the Big Law Firm additionally wanted this person's expertise in web design to bring them into the 21st century. This lawyer left their own site up and it continued to generate clients to the Big Law firm. This attorney also happened to be a terrific lawyer who was able to work the internet to get information for the firm that others were not capable of doing. Big Law admitted they would not have hired this person right out of law school just on paper.  They did, however, appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit and extra skill set of this lawyer when they saw how effective this lawyer's web presence was in generating business and were thrilled to get them once my student interviewed. 

Well, this lawyer did a terrific job, not just as a lawyer making an outstanding impression on clients, but on building the firm's internet presence.  Word gets out in the Big Law circles.  My student realizes their passion lies more with the internet then with lawyering.  Plus, they love the idea of being their own boss and not being married to the billable hour.

Five months after being brought on board, this student voluntarily leaves a six figure salary....but not before Big Law signs a Big contract with my student to build and maintain their web presences including multiple blogs with content.  And before he ever left the firm, other firms were contacting him to do the same...all out in the open, all positive with good will all around.  In those five months working at Big Law my student made many friends in the partnership stratosphere and was very well-liked.  This young attorney capitalized on the 'know you, like you, trust you" currency earned in their short stint at Big Law to get their coveted big business.

So, employer becomes client in five months. Isn't that a twist? We talked about the irony of not practicing law anymore.  They said, "the law degree gives me opportunities.  I choose what opportunities I take."

Links of Interest:  "You Ask...I Answer" - "If I Unshingle Am I More or Less Employable?" (This was the original e-mail from the student discussed above.)

October 26, 2007

Can Saying "I'm Sorry" to a Client Create More Income For You?

There was an interesting study conducted relating to income and one's ability to say, "I'm sorry." It showed those who are more inclined to apologize for behaviors when at fault were more likely to earn more income.

When Zogby's researchers queried 7,590 Americans, both male and female, they discovered that people who are more willing to say "I'm sorry" make more money than people who rarely or never apologize.

People earning over $100,000 a year are almost twice as likely to apologize after an argument or mistake as those earning $25,000 or less, the survey found.

"a person's willingness to apologize was an almost perfect predictor of their place on the income ladder," the study says.

More than nine out of ten (92%) of $100,000+ earners apologize when they believe they're to blame, compared to 89% of people earning between $75,000 and $100,000, 84% of those who make $50,000 to $75,000, 72% of those earning between $35,000 and $50,000, and 76% of people earning between $25,000 and $35,000. Among survey respondents who make $25,000 or less, just 52% say they usually apologize when they know they're at fault.

...saying "Oops, I'm sorry" now and then is an indicator of strong people skills, essential for moving up in almost any organization. The link between income and willingness to apologize "shows that successful people are willing to learn from their mistakes and are keen on mending troubled relationships," says British business coach Peter Shaw.

Indeed, taking the high road - acknowledging one's share of blame, or even accepting some blame when it isn't justified - is a trait shared by many great leaders, because it tends to build solidarity with the troops.

How does this relate to being an entrepreneur?  Our clients are our livelihood and being able to acknowledge we are not infallible is just good business.  Even if we don't earn more client's money by acknowledging and apologizing for our behaviors or mistakes, we may be able to avoid costly grievances or malpractice claims for doing so.  The medical profession has found they pay out less on malpractice claims for owning up to their mistakes because quite often without an apology, the patient's anger gets greater and greater.  It's been found saying those two magic words, "I'm sorry" and really meaning it helps to release the steam that feeds the "I'm going to sue you" patient train when it comes to medical malpractice.

But there is another reason.  Saying you are sorry (when you read the article you will find the most successful people apologized on occasion for things for which they had no fault.) has the ability to secure the relationship by showing respect for the client, their thoughts and feelings and can, in fact, bring clients back to you for services.  It may also generate more referrals which translates into more income for you.

And in general, I believe we have become a nation of people fearful of taking responsibility for our actions, good and bad.  We'll claim our success is based upon good luck, happenstance or contributions of others, versus taking pride and pleasure in how we created that supposed 'good luck.'  And conversely, we are afraid to take responsibility for our mistakes for fear it will visit consequences upon us we don't want to deal with, whether financial, legal or personal.  But therein lies the secret to self-respect, understanding we have choices.  With choices come responsibilities and consequences, good and bad.

When an attorney takes on a client to help them resolve their legal matters generally that attorney is quick to acknowledge their successes for the client because this builds reputation. But how often do they openly acknowledge their mistakes?  I'm not sure we have a profession which permits this type of openness with our colleagues or clients. We are expected in some ways to be superhuman by both.  It's a very tall order.

Have you ever had the occasion to apologize to a client and saw the relationship with your client grow stronger and more profitable?  Please share.

September 13, 2007

How Much Does Your Commute Really Cost You???

If you calculated the hours you spend commuting, the actual commutation costs, auto maintenance, insurance, parking, gas..the hours you lose doing something else that is profitable or which makes hefty deposits in your other psychological bank accounts like family, pleasure travel, is your BigLaw job or the current way you run your solo practice the cash equivalent of working at McDonalds?

This is the question asked by Tim Ferriss of the '4-Hour Work Week' which discusses the New Rich, those with freedom of time while building their business.  While he espouses many different working philosophies which flies in the face of second wave thinking...read this terrific post called, "How Much Does Your Commute Really Cost You?  Calculate it..then Kill it."

I know I have reaped numerous benefits by making the decision to create a home-based business.  But it was my personal choice as I did serious calculations, weighing, then re-weighing all of the goals I was trying to achieve.  Creating a solo practice from my home from 2000- 2007 was the only satisfying and profitable choice on many levels.  Continuing my coaching/consulting business from home was only natural.

If you sit back and clear out all the noise from the naysayers, those who mean well but muddy your thought processes, shoo away the fears then start blue-skying and designing your perfect work-life balance, well, what do you come up with?  It doesn't have to include a home office.  This choice only works with certain personality types and in certain situations (the desire and discipline of the individual drives this option.)  However, how much time and energy and money do you want to spend commuting to and tethered to a distant environment with fixed overhead costs?   Does this work for you on every level?  What other options exist for you?  These are very important questions that deserve thoughtful answers because when you create your solo practice you have to look past the present and start actively designing your future. 

September 10, 2007

Three Young Lawyers and a 32 Foot 'Abogadomovil' Taking Law to Georgia Immigrants

Thanks to James Perrin of Atlanta, Georgia for this story which is inspiring on every level.  Three young lawyers ditched Big Law five years ago and have combined social activism with creativity, smelling of gasoline and sweat, as they practice their trade for the benefit of immigrants in Georgia crossing the state in their motorcoach.'

It's fiberglass, 32 feet long and goes by the name "Abogadomovil," or "Lawyermobile." The RV acts as a roving office for Jamie Hernan, Christopher Taylor and Jerome Lee, the boyish-looking barristers whose larger-than-life likenesses adorn both sides.

Ringed with flags from across the Americas, the vehicle rolls into apartment complexes and soccer matches offering Spanish-language tutorials on immigration law. The RV has ferried petitions and protesters to Washington, D.C. And the billboard on wheels always carries the same message. "Hernan, Taylor & Lee," it reads. "Los Abogados Para Ti." (The Lawyers For You.)

The Roswell-based firm's blend of guerrilla marketing and social activism has made it among the biggest — and most controversial — players in a state whose illegal immigrant population has swelled to nearly half a million. Fans say the Georgia-raised attorneys are at the forefront of the latest fight for a marginalized group in the cradle of the civil rights movement. Critics call them profiteers whose activism is more about the bottom line. All agree they are the faces of resistance as communities across the region, frustrated with federal inaction, try to do something about illegal immigration.

They are controversial, to say the least. But I am impressed with their complete removal from the second wave mentality, taking their business on the road and going to this disenfranchised, demoralized population and providing exceptional services with amazing heart. 

It also supports a very important concept.  You are the product.  Everything else is overhead.  Therefore, no one but you can determine whether you should be servicing your clients in a high rise or in their home; sitting on italian leather waiting room chairs sipping Perrier or guzzling cokes in your local greasy spoon; using 50 lb  three-color letterhead or free Vista business cards. You choose your overhead expenses....but the client chooses you based upon you, the product, and the services you can deliver to meet their needs.

Regardless your stance on immigration, this is impressive from the perspective of innovation, revolt against second wave (Big) lawyering and a return to a time when professionals did 'house calls.'

August 24, 2007

How Blogging About What You Love (Personally) Can Get You Clients

Michael Keenan is a very successful trusts and estates and elder care lawyer in Glastonbury, Connecticut who recently started blogging.  He started blogging several months after he created a more expensive static web presence.  He didn't think he had the time to blog which is why he went to a static site first.

Michael has fallen in love with blogging.  So he did the natural thing, started blogging about another interest he has, running.  He created the Glastonbury Running blog.  Little did he realize in doing so his running blog would get more hits then his professional blog.  Because they are linked he gets a tremendous amount of business from people who, first, find him and then relate to him as a runner.  And because he talks about running in his home town, he is attracting the very clients he wants...plus making a tremendous amount of friends.

Susan:

Just writing to share a quick story from my tiny corner of the blogosphere that I thought you’d get a kick out of. 

As you know, I launched my CT Elder Law Blog on 5/1 and I have been posting at least once a day.  Well, I was enjoying it so much that I launched my “recreational “ blog a week later called Glastonbury Running with the intention of posting maybe 2 or 3 times a week.  Just a laid-back blog with training tips, thoughts on running, local news of interest to runners, etc.  I felt that after 20 years of competitive running I could speak with authority on the subject.

Well, the recreational blog has become a bit less recreational.  Right now the running blog is well ahead of the legal blog in regards to total views even though the legal blog got a 1-week head-start.  And the running blog is generating comments and e-mails from readers while I am yet to receive a single comment or e-mail from my legal blog.  Best of all, the running blog has actually generated 3 new clients so far (the legal bog has generated 5).  These are runners who have enjoyed reading the blog and then decided to take a peak at my legal website and blog (links for both are near the top of the left-hand column) and found that I specialize in a legal service that they currently need.  And they were happy to meet with me because we share a passion for running.

Now I’m posting on both blogs daily.  This is about a 30 to 40-minute investment of time each day, but in light of the amount of new business it has generated so far, I think it’s been well worth it.  And since I’m an English major, the concept of drafting something, clicking a button and having my writing published for the world to see on a daily basis is very appealing!

So, thanks for turning me onto blogging!  I hope all is well.

Michael J. Keenan, Esq.
Keenan Law, LLC
Estate Planning, Elder Law, Special Needs Trusts and Probate
2389 Main Street
Glastonbury, CT 06033
Phone: (860) 659-5585
Cell: (860) 597-3232
Fax: (860) 760-6350
E-Mail: michael@keenan-law.com
Please visit the
Keenan Law, LLC Website and The Connecticut Elder Law Blog

This is an excellent example of intertwining your professional and personal life when designing your solo practice.  Michael is doing nothing different but living his life as he always has.  He just capitalizes on what he loves, running marathons.  He is not creating some grandiose marketing plan that is outside of his comfort zone and which he would be unable to maintain personally or financially.  It's a marketing plan whereby he stays true to himself and his short and long term professional and personal goals.

Granted, his practice area lends itself to more homegrown community business which, say, trademark law or environmental disaster law would not.  But you should consider taking blogging to the next level if you enjoy the experience of relationship building on the internet as it can bring unexpected financial and psychological benefits your way.

Have you done something similar you would like to share?  Would love to hear.

August 04, 2007

"Tip of the Week" - Success. It Starts and Ends With You.

In Rick Georges' Sololawyer, contributing author Chuck Newton gives us the equation for solo success - sense of self.  While it is a little tongue in cheek, Chuck claiming everything he learned about being a solo he learned from his beagle, Mandy, there is actually significant truth to the equation presented:

"We live in a world where massive international corporations can grow bigger than a country.  Yet many yearn for the freedom and personal responsibility of running their own operation.  Given the number of different places the average person will work, the life-time commitment of company to employee is a thing of the past.

Even if you never step out on your own, however, you will be making significant decisions about where you want to work and what you want to do.  Accept personal responsibility for these decisions, and prepare yourself for the potential opportunities of the future."  David Niven, PH.d.

I think it is fair to say without first having self-awareness, you cannot conceive of taking personal responsiblity for your actions.

"The ability to accept personal responsibility for  work outcomes and to thrive under individual scrutiny improves your chances by 65 percent of successfully making the transition from working for a traditional large company to succeeding in a job at a small firm or as an independent consultant."   Peiperl, M., and Y. Baruch, 1997. "Back to Square Zero: The Post Corporate Career." Organizational Dynamics 25: 7-22

Becoming a solo practitioner, a business entrepreneur, requires you to have full self-awareness and take full responsibility for all your actions as they relate to clients' goals and your own personal and financial goals.  You must have this self-awareness and the ability to accept personal responsibility for work outcomes and thrive under client, colleague and judicial scrutiny.  There is no other choice.

Therefore, Chuck is right...going solo is not for everybody.  But for those who have the ability to look in the mirror and recognize the reflection is theirs, if going solo fits your long term goals, you are one step closer to achieving it.