In my career I have had experience practicing law in three law firm settings, and have sampled different compensation options and levels of support. Out of law school I practiced for two years at a mid-size regional law firm based out of Portland, ME (about 120 attorneys) and then joined a Boston based firm (6 attorneys) opening an office in Maine in a position partly compensated by commissions from client receivables. As a second year associate, this pushed my business development and practice management skills into overdrive, and I quickly grew a practice that could keep me busy and pay the bills. Now, I practice at a small firm (13 attorneys), working directly with my clients on corporate and intellectual property issues. My husband is a solo practitioner, working with creative businesses. Our combined experiences have run the gamut of options for private practice, other than true Big Law.
Create A Reasonable Functional Definition Of Success For YOUR Practice
This wide range of experiences has come to pass over a relatively short period of time, and has given me an intense survey of different contexts in which lawyers are chasing success in their career. What has been most fascinating is how the “functional definition” of success changes drastically depending on the work environment and institution. Watching my husband’s newly launched practice grow, while I am in a more traditional office setting, creates an interesting dichotomy and place from which to assess what it is that makes solo practice so unique. Reflecting on these differences, I put together a list of factors to focus on while creating a functional definition of success for your practice.
The Importance Of Focus
While a lawyer in a firm may spend relatively large chunks of time talking to colleagues and support staff, in practice meetings, or firm lunches, a solo has much more control over how to spend time throughout the day. For a solo, a day is likely to feel most successful if it has been focused on tasks that move the business of the firm forward. Since there may be no assistant or paralegal to manage the progress of the case while you are in a lunch meeting, you are successful if you are not frivolous in how you spend your time. Finding ways to keep you focused and find the purpose in all actions will allow a greater feeling of success at the end of the day.
The Importance Of Juggling Tasks
On a similar note, the solo is likely wearing many hats within the firm, acting as marketing department, billing department, administrative assistant, staffing attorney, and billing attorney. Since you have no one to blame but yourself if things aren’t going the way you want them to, you are most successful when you are able to identify what is needed and seamlessly take on the appropriate role. Juggling tasks, without letting ego or distractions get in the way will allow for greater success.
The Importance Of Efficiency
One concern I have always had in private practice is that efficiency of lawyers in a firm is not rewarded. Although it may be in the best interest of my client and their pockets if I am as efficient as possible, the end of the month reports of my billable hours won’t benefit if I streamline processes, create effective forms, or rely more on support staff. In my practice, my clients benefit and my reports suffer because I can’t stand the thought of some unethical billing practices. As a solo, your long-term goal is to maintain happy client relationships – referrals from happy clients is after all your best marketing tool, and depending on your practice area, repeat business from one client is better for your bottom dollar than engaging new clients. Without a management committee to please at an annual review, you are most successful when you create and implement systems for efficiency that best serve your clients interest, and your sanity.
The Importance Of Embracing Celebration
While I may get excited about landing a new quality client now, it is not likely I will see any direct monetary benefit, but I do get the benefit of working with a new client I am excited about. The “celebration” becomes smaller and more routine as I hand off case opening forms to my assistant and schedule follow-up deadlines into the firm docket system. But as a solo, a serendipitous introduction to a new prospect or closing a deal can literally make your day, your week, or your month (financially and emotionally). If you win a case, close a deal, or land a new client, you can (and perhaps should) take the afternoon off to do something for yourself that feels like a celebration. I promise your boss won’t be mad.
The Importance Of Setting Barriers
While all lawyers I know fight the workflow anxiety (when too slow, anxiety stems from fear of where work will come from, and when too busy, anxiety steams from your ears while trying to keep pace) – it can be particularly trying for solos. Two related goals should be at the top of your mind when anxiety relating to workflow seeps in. You will be most successful when you set barriers and boundaries around work, so that even when you are busy you can remain some semblance of balance. It can be enticing to just “barrel through” a busy period round the clock but you are not doing yourself or your clients a service by running yourself ragged. Train your clients to have reasonable expectations for turnaround times, and associate with other solos or contract attorney networks that might be able to pitch in when overflow overwhelms you. Take time to disconnect altogether. For real.
The Importance Of Remaining Flexible
On the flip side, if your anxiety is stemming from wondering how you will make enough money to keep the lights on this month, be flexible and consider your next step. Maybe you wish you were billing 15 hours a week, but are only billing 10. Instead of stewing in your home office, switch gears and join a networking group, Chamber of Commerce, or use the slow time to create better forms (for greater efficiency). Only you have the power to grow your practice, and there are lots of resources out there to help you fill in holes for areas of managing your firm that aren’t in your areas of strength. Also, accept flexibility as an inevitable evolution of your practice. Don’t like how something is working (or not)? Change it!
Be The Boss To Yourself You Wished You Had While Working For Someone Else
What it all comes down to is that as a solo practitioner, you are a master of your domain. You may have left a prior firm work situation to find something you were missing. Flexibility of how you spend your time can be crippling or can be freeing. You will be most successful when you create your own functional definition of what your days, weeks, months, and year should look like, to keep you a balanced and energized attorney. Be as good of a boss to yourself as you would want a partner at a law firm to treat 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®.