You don’t need a crystal ball to see the future of solo practice lawyering: we’re already there. From hosting our data (securely) in the Cloud to virtual offices to just-in-time delivery of à la carte services, solos and small firms are driving the growth in new legal technology. And we are also at the vanguard of change in the structure of the industry, as Big Law gets leaner and more lawyers hang their own shingles.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em
Branded networks like Avvo and LegalZoom and RocketLawyer are here to stay, having survived Bar scrutiny and legal challenges. As Big Law quits hiring, these branded networks are filling the void for clients looking for one-stop-shopping for legal services. Only instead of calling their Big Law attorney to see who in the firm can help them with their services, the client is asking their solo attorney who in their network can help, or simply Googling their problem to find the right lawyer themselves.
Let’s be clear: a branded network is not simply a pay-for-referral service. In fact, some do not charge attorneys to join them at all. They are a mechanism for clients to find and hire you, yes, but they also provide a portal to interact with clients and other lawyers. The best branded networks vet the attorneys who join their service, checking the attorneys’ backgrounds, disciplinary history, and verifying that they carry sufficient errors & omissions insurance.
Your network probably consists primarily of people with whom you went to law school, some you met at voluntary bar meetings and a few more from having worked with them directly, almost every one of them local to you. As part of a branded network, your network is hundreds if not thousands of other lawyers all across the U.S. I am part of two branded networks, and I have gotten dozens of referrals from those branded networks – enough that they compete with my local referral sources for most clients referred this year. Not too shabby.
Networking your digital butt off
Who says a network has to be branded to be effective? Maybe it’s time to think like software developers and work in our own collaborative networks.
We already do this in a way through referrals to lawyer friends in our networks. We just need to expand our networks to include virtual resources. Have you got a LinkedIn profile? Do you actually use it? Maybe you should! LinkedIn has become the social media provider of choice for professional networking, and it is a great place to get to know other lawyers and service providers.
Here’s how: First, build your LinkedIn Profile completely. Then, find your referral sources and colleagues on LinkedIn and add them to your Connections. Endorse Connections with whose work you are familiar (it will encourage them to do the same). Then, and this is the tricky part, look through their Connections to see who on their list you want to be connected to and ask your Connections for introductions to those people. Focus on people that will help you build your referral business: other attorneys in your practice area that are out of state, attorneys in different practice areas wherever they are, service providers who are likely to have referrals for you (like CPAs or doctors or insurance agents – whoever is in a position to meet potential clients and send them your way). Once you have a warm introduction, send them an invitation on LinkedIn. Now that you have those people on your list, start working your Connections and get to know them. Remember – they will refer to you if they know, like and trust you, online or off.
Competing with the forms services.
LegalZoom and RocketLawyer hook their customers with low cost document assembly services – so-called roboforms – and then offer a referral to an in-network lawyer if you need more assistance. But you can provide low-cost form services to your clients just as well, and use that offering to attract and retain clients. Other sites, like ReviewMyContract.com, offer reduced-cost services – in their case, document review bundled with a half-hour consultation with an attorney. The lawyer pays to be part of the network, and in exchange gets the flat fee for reviewing the contract and maybe gets a client out of the deal.
Document assembly software is now available to every lawyer, and there is absolutely no reason not to use them in your firm. As we build our practices, we all build our own forms library. Automating those forms is a simple next step that will increase your productivity – and your bottom line – by allowing you to compete with roboform sites. Software such as HotDocs, WebMerge, TheFormTool, BusinessIntegrity, and ProLaw will let you produce your own forms, cheaper, faster and better than any form service.
Everything can be virtualized. You can be a lawyer in your PJs and still be professional. Virtual office space is abundant, and many solo lawyers (like me) will rent out their conference rooms to other solos. Virtual receptionists, paralegals and assistants can give you support staff when you need it for a fraction of the cost of hiring on your own.
Beyond that, it is now possible to create “virtual firms” comprised of lawyers who come together for a project without creating permanent relationships. Less than Of Counsel but more than a referral. Think, collaborative solos, partnering with other lawyers and firms when it makes sense to do so. For example, I have worked with Donna Chesteen on matters involving eDiscovery issues and transactions involving complex technology issues. Shannon Davis is Of Counsel to my firm, but still has her own law firm and offers services we don’t. Our skills and practice areas are complimentary, but we don’t see the need to form a traditional firm in order to work together. We decide up front how we are going to bill the client (your firm or mine?) and how the fees will be split, define each lawyers’ duties, and sign an agreement specific to the project. It is flexible, scalable, ethical, and it works.
How are you going to future-proof your solo/small firm practice?
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®.