One year ago today, with great excitement and much trepidation, I launched Rachel Rodgers Law Office. There was no fanfare – no flashing lights, no balloons, no fancy office or website and not even fancy business cards. It was just me, my laptop, 3 precious clients who I still adore for believing in me and a whole lotta guts. As I sat at the same desk I had studied and worked at throughout law school, bar study and a judicial clerkship in my little, quiet apartment, my wildest dreams could not have imagined what would occur in the year to come.
So today, to celebrate with all of you, I want to do a couple of things. First, I want to tell you the things I wish I had known on that official launch day, so that hopefully it will help those of you who will be starting your own solo practices soon. Second, I want to tell you the things I’m glad I knew and did, also in the hopes that it will help soon-to-be-solos. Lastly, I want to encourage you to get past your fear and allow your own wildest dreams to come to fruition.
Things I Wish I Had Known & Things I’m Glad I Knew
1. Everything is a test. When I started, many of the decisions I had to make scared me. What niche do I want to focus on? Should I spend money on making my workflow more efficient? Should I charge for consultations or not? I was terrified of making the wrong choice. Over time I realized that there really is no wrong choice. Because in business, everything is an experiment. Try something new and see how it works for you. If it doesn’t work, you can scrap it and learn from it. If it does work, hurrah! Even then you may want to tweak it to make it work more efficiently. So remember that every hypothesis needs to be tested. And negative results of the test are not a failure on your part. Instead, the results are a win no matter what because now you know what works and what doesn’t.
2. Establish a good accounting system on day 1. This one is a hard lesson I had to learn. I used an excel spreadsheet to track my business expenses and income for most of the first year. I dabbled with one or two software systems, none of which seemed to really work for me. Eventually, I broke down and implemented QuickBooks in my practice and I have to agree with many who told me its the best accounting software there is for small businesses. This is something I definitely wish I had done from day 1. Of course, on day 1, I couldn’t imagine actually having real income and expenses that required such software but trust me, it will happen. And I want to spare you the hell I experienced when I had to enter every expense and every bit of income my business had in the past year into QuickBooks. Spend the $150 to get good accounting software now. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.
3. Don’t spend a dime on marketing advertising. This falls mostly into the things I’m glad I knew category. Through surveying other solos, relentless reading on the topic and diving into the social media scene before I launched my practice, I realized that much of the high quality marketing I needed to do did not involve spending money but did involve substantial amounts of time. Luckily, as a new solo I had more time than money anyway. The time I have invested to market myself and my practice has not only been enjoyable (I really enjoy writing and connecting with people through social media) but has yielded great results such as new clients, press, expansion of my network and speaking engagements. In the past year, I have spent no more than $500 on advertising and that money did not result in any new clients. So save your money on advertising and start writing and connecting with people.
4. Have CEO days. Being a lawyer and being a CEO is almost like being a ballerina and being a truck driver. They are completely different roles! And its hard to put your CEO cap on when you are knee deep in legal work. Therefore, I have learned to create time and space for CEO days. These are days where I do a business assessment. I consider where my practice is in terms of various measures for growth and then research and/or implement new infrastructure, technology, services, etc. Sometimes these days just involve brainstorming new ideas for my business based on where I want it to go. CEO days are hugely important so I highly recommend blocking off time for this in your calendar from day 1.
5. The less start up money you have, the better off you are. During my researching days, before I started my practice, I talked to solo and small firm lawyers who had spent large amounts of money on things like Westlaw accounts and radio ads. These lawyers shared with me that they regretted spending the money after realizing there were less expensive ways to do research and marketing (and probably everything else). When you have start up money, you spend start up money, usually on things you don’t need. So rejoice if you have little to invest in your practice, you are better off. There is very little needed by way of start up funds for a new law practice, anyway. You’ve already spent large sums of start up capital on law school tuition and taking the bar. Better to focus on getting those first few clients and bootstrapping.
6. Ask an absurd amount of questions. You may notice a theme on this list is that I learned some things by experience over the past year but I learned even more by asking questions. Maybe its the fact that I have a big sister whose mistakes I had the benefit of learning from that makes me insistent on learning from others. In any event, its really worked for me. So I encourage you to ask an absurd amount of people an absurd amount of questions! Ask questions of every solo and small firm lawyer as well as every potential client. It’s true that there are some things you can only learn by experience but there is a whole lot more you can learn from others who have done it. And you’ll be happy to know that solo lawyers are among the most generous people in the world when it comes to sharing their knowledge (yes, that is a fact). See for yourself!
What Are You Afraid Of?
One of the reasons I love writing this column is that I get to be a guinea pig for all the soon-to-be-solos out there. I hope that by sharing my experiences and showing you that I am still standing, that my life hasn’t imploded and that I haven’t been kicked out of the universe, you will be able to get past your own fears about taking the solo leap.
I know what its like to deal with paralyzing fear of taking a chance to make your dreams come true. I was terrified to go solo. I wondered what people would say. I wondered what I might lose. I wondered if I would fail. I still deal with fear all the time. Sometimes I am fearful that I’m taking my business in the wrong direction, that the phone will stop ringing, that (fill in the blank).
And then I think about not doing the things I really want to do. And that always looks way worse. I can’t imagine my life without being an entrepreneur. I can’t imagine my life without being a lawyer. I can’t imagine my life without writing about it. These things are so core to who I am, they’re my gifts/talents/superpowers, whatever you want to call them. I wouldn’t be living if I didn’t live the life I want to live.
So if you are a young lawyer considering starting a solo practice or anyone else considering going after your very own precious dream so you can share your very own precious gifts/talents/superpowers, don’t ask yourself only, “what if I fail?” Also ask yourself, “what will my life be like if I succeed?”
Here’s to many more years of living the dream for you and I, both!
Do you have any more tips you want to share after YOUR first year flying solo?
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.