I am blessed to have a couple of law firms as clients. These are, by and large, lawyers that do not specialize in business law (as I do) or maybe really didn’t know much about running a business when they hung a shingle. I say I am “blessed” because lawyers make really wonderful clients. They understand that this is how I make my living, and they don’t tend to waste my time.
Recently, I was approached by a friend, a solo lawyer who was looking at renting space in my office building. He has been focused mostly on raising his two small children, and only recently decided to put more into his practice. His confusion, he said, was whether to put the money into a brick-and-mortar office or whether to put the money into marketing the practice.
“What are you doing now to market your practice?” I asked.
“Nothing, really,” he said. “I don’t even have a web site.”
Nor did he have a defined set of practice areas (“whatever walks in the door” not being a practice area), an idea of what an ideal client looked like beyond “paying,” or even an established place to work in his home. He had been meeting clients at Starbucks or borrowing my conference room as needed, but without a plan for how he was going to serve those clients.
I sent him home with some homework: “I want you to do a SWOT analysis on your business,” I said.
“A what?” he replied.
“A SWOT analysis,” I answered. “An analysis of your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats,” I added as I drew him this chart:
“I want you to write down what you feel are your firms greatest strengths under, ‘STRENGTHS,’” I said, “then put the greatest threats under ‘THREATS,’ and so on with your biggest opportunities and your biggest threats.”
“Ah, I think I remember doing this back in business class in college,” he said.
“Yes,” I said, “only this time you are doing it for your law firm, not just as a hypothetical. This is where you start your business plan.”
“You need to do an assessment when you are done making your SWOT chart,” I continued. “How will you use your strengths to address your weaknesses? How will you leverage your opportunities to lessen your threats?”
That, you see, is what my friend was missing. He had done no analysis of his business, so he had no idea where he was going with it. How would he know where to best put his money – office space or advertising – without knowing what weaknesses or threats he needed to address?
For example, I know that one weakness I have is that it is just me – I’m the only attorney, so there is no one to pick up the slack if I have an off day or if, as I find myself lately, I am swamped with more work than I can get done in a day. To address that, I knew hired my assistant, Wendy, for a few more hours each week to give me less time doing administrative tasks and more time for client production. So I addressed a weakness (being too busy to get it all done) with a strength (Wendy is an AWESOME assistant!).
Similarly, when I planned my business, I knew that there were plenty of business transactional attorneys in this town. So I addressed the threat of having lots of competition with an opportunity: I specialized in small businesses and offered my services on a flat fee basis, differentiating myself from a typical business lawyer.
A SWOT analysis will help you to find focus for your law firm as a business. Because if you are a solo attorney, you run a business, not a law practice. “Legal work” is your product. Your business is how you make and sell that product. Don’t confuse the two.
When I was at Big Law, I never had to worry. I was a part of a law practice factory, cranking out the work and letting someone else worry about the business. My boss, the firm’s managing partner, was very, very good at what he did, which was hiring associates to do the work while he “made it rain,” oversaw the bookkeeping and made sure the lights stayed on. I will admit, when I first went out on my own I did not give enough thought to whether I wanted his job as well as my own. But when you run your own firm, you are the business manager, the marketing manager, the rain maker and the work producer. It is vastly rewarding, but you had better know that you are in business or your firm will fail.
Whether or not you ever do a formal business plan, I strongly encourage you to do a SWOT analysis at least every year or so to make sure you know where you are going and how you plan to get there, what you are up against and how you plan to survive in spite of it.
My friend called me back on Friday to thank me for making him do his homework. He has a better idea of what direction he needs to take his practice in, and asked me to work with him on a low-cost marketing plan. In short, he now thinks of his law firm as a business, and I think he’s going to be OK.
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®.