“On the eve of launching my solo practice, I had a knot in the pit of my stomach. I’d worked for a firm right out of law school, and then did freelance work for other attorneys, but I’d never been completely on my own. I never had to be a rainmaker. I never had to run a business. I always had other attorneys in my firm to bounce ideas off of. What if I couldn’t do it?”
Nevertheless, I pressed on. I sent out a letter to family and friends telling them I was open for business and ignored the nagging voice of doubt reminding me how humiliating it would be if my efforts failed. Some of you who are on the verge of hanging your own shingle might be having the same anxieties. For you, I offer a few of the lessons I have learned in the past two years.
Rome wasn’t built in a day
In the months before I launched my website, I purchased what I thought was a really good domain name: www.texaswillsandtrustslaw.com. Having decided to start a completely web-based practice, I understood the importance of having prospective clients find my website. I figured people who were looking for estate planning attorneys may use key words such as Texas Wills and Trusts to search for them. That should elevate the ranking of my site. Or so I hoped.
Delusional as it may have been, a part of me really expected being found online to be as simple as choosing a domain name. So a few days after my website became public, I ran a Google search for “Texas Wills and Trusts.” Surely, I’d be able to find my website using that phrase. I was wrong. Much to my dismay, my website was not on page 1 or even 10 for that matter. I gave up after page 26. Prospective clients would have given up long before that.
Discouraged, I called my brother. How would clients find me when my website was buried on the Internet? “Rania,” my brother said,
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nothing worth having ever was either.”
The truth is that building a practice, whether web-based or brick-and-mortar, takes a lot of time and hard work. It doesn’t happen overnight. There are no shortcuts. For me, the more I blogged and connected with other bloggers, the more traffic showed up on my website. The more articles I wrote and the more personality I injected into those articles, the longer prospective clients spent on my website.
It took time, but clients started knocking on my virtual door.
Business is often slow the first few months. Don’t get discouraged.
Virtual doesn’t have to be impersonal
Technology has influenced every aspect of our lives, including the way we communicate. Because so many of us are comfortable keeping in touch electronically, it’s easy to assume that people are content with less personal contact.
That was my assumption when I started my web-based law practice two years ago. So for the first couple of months, I didn’t engage in much offline communication with my clients. I figured that since I was operating a web-based practice and clients contacted me through my virtual law office, communicating electronically was expected.
That was a mistake.
Exchanging messages online is great for productivity, but is not very conducive to building a real relationship with clients. In order to do that, I needed to move communications offline as well.
Nowadays, the first thing I do when a new client contacts me is schedule an introductory phone call. The call serves a couple of purposes. First, it allows me to learn about his or her needs and determine whether those needs can be met in an online environment. And most importantly, it allows me to make a personal connection that I couldn’t make if I simply responded with an online note.
By taking the communication offline, I have been able to build real relationships with my clients, even though I have never met most of them in person. As a result, even after I’ve closed a case, I’ll hear back from them about major life events, such as the birth of a new child or grandchild, and also from the friends and family members they refer.
Don’t sell yourself short
During the first few months I was in solo practice, a couple engaged me to do their estate planning. After investing some time talking with these clients and discussing my fees, they said someone they knew referred another attorney who would prepare their estate planning documents for less. They wanted to work with me, but asked me to match the other attorney’s rate.
Their request took me by surprise, but I really wanted the work. So I agreed to reduce my rate. Rather than feeling happy that they had chosen me, however, the experience left me feeling resentful and frustrated for compromising on what I knew was a very reasonable fee quote.
“If someone hires you because of price, they’ll fire you because of price.”
Over the past two years, I’ve come to realize that there are always going to be attorneys who may offer their services at a lower rate. And if the lowest price is the most important factor for the client, they’ll likely be much happier choosing that option. But I think clients recognize that the lowest fee does not necessarily equate to the best value. It’s up to us to differentiate the value in our services.
Since going solo, I have been pleased with the amount of positive feedback I have received regarding the value of my services. In fact, a couple of months ago, a client sent me a check in excess of our agreed fee because she believed the value of the services she received exceeded the fee I quoted.
New solos are under a lot of financial pressure, so they’re often reluctant to turn away a paying client, no matter what the compromise. Try to resist the temptation. Do a lot of research. Understand the value of the services you provide. Before beginning any work on a client’s behalf, provide a fair quote based on his or her unique circumstances. But don’t sell yourself short.
Be open to constructive criticism
I spent months designing my website. It took me months because I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew nothing about WordPress or blogging. I didn’t know a widget from a plugin. But I didn’t have the budget to hire someone to do it for me. So I labored away until I finally had what I thought was a visually attractive website.
However, several months after I made my website public, I met an attorney who asked an interesting question: “If I were a prospective client and clicked on your website, would I immediately know how you can help me?” Tentatively, I answered, “I think so.”
So this attorney took the time to pull up my website after he got to his office and then called me after he’d seen it. I’ll spare you his point-by-point critique (it was very long), but the bottom line was that my website was not effective. While it looked nice, it was neither client-focused nor easy to navigate. To attract clients, it needed to be both. I was crushed.
Although the criticism was discouraging, I took it to heart. I made several of the changes he recommended and reaped the reward. Soon, the bounce rate on my website decreased and the time prospective clients spent on my site increased. With that came more clients.
It’s much easier to tell people what they want to hear. It takes a lot of courage and time to be bluntly honest and to back up that honesty with practical advice. But what a difference it can make! There are several colleagues and professionals around the country who I know will tell me the truth, no matter how discouraging it may initially be. I appreciate them. If someone is willing to offer that kind of feedback, don’t be offended. Accept it graciously.
You don’t have to do it alone!
And that brings me to my last lesson: You don’t have to do it on your own. There are plenty of attorneys willing to help if you just ask.
The general public’s perception of lawyers may often be negative, but the attorneys I’ve encountered in the past two years have been incredibly generous with their time and knowledge. Before I started my practice, I talked to as many lawyers as possible about what it would take to build and grow a law firm. And I still do. There is so much more I can learn and improve upon, and I’m grateful for those who take the time to help.
So go ahead. Take the first step. Call a respected attorney in your area of practice and ask for help on an issue that has you stumped. Make connections with attorneys whose marketing acumen you admire or whose blogs you enjoy. Call a colleague in another jurisdiction with whom you’d like to collaborate.
Most likely, they’ll be flattered you called and happy to offer you advice. I know I always am. Every time someone calls me, I remember all the attorneys who have mentored and encouraged me in the past two years, and I’m happy to pay it forward. I hope that those I help will one day do the same for others.
I’ve learned so much in the past two years, both personally and professionally. In some ways, it seems like I’ve been in solo practice for much longer. In other ways, I feel like I’m just getting started. I have accomplished things I never thought I could, and I can honestly say I’ve never worked harder. But the process of building my firm has been an incredibly rewarding experience.
As you start your own solo journey, I hope it will be the same for you.
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®.