What To Do When Your Solo Practice Isn’t a Success…But It Isn’t a Failure, Either

Some days don’t you just feel like all the wind has been let out of your sails.

You’ve finally opened the doors to your solo practice, virtual and brick & mortar.  You have everything in place.  You sweated all the small details in spite of the advice not to, lined up your malpractice insurance, built your website, got your business cards, your practice management software, announced to the world you’re open for business, got on the coveted appointments lists, participate in the local chambers, have lunches set up with mentors, continuing your professional learning, you even have paying clients.  You are working round the clock forsaking your family dinners, Johnny’s baseball game, date night.  You’re doing it by the book and working harder than you ever have.  But you’re also just scraping by emotionally and financially.  You’re busy to the point of chronic exhaustion but not feeling particularly productive. You’re even making enough to make those income contingent payments on your student loans as well as meeting all your other bills. You’re not a failure as you certainly aren’t going down in flames tomorrow.  But you also don’t feel like a success.  And the minute you want to give up believing all your hard work hasn’t paid off, you get yet another paying client who heard about you…even though they can’t remember where!

Today’s businesses (and you are a business) speak of growth in extremes.  Either you’re just getting along by the skin of your teeth eating ramen noodles and sleeping on the floor or your increasing by double digits year over year with explosive growth. There’s no consideration that sometimes a new legal business has to simply grow slowly, methodically, and in a way that allows a lawyer to feel some pride and peace with the progress. Sometimes this explosive growth never happens and sometimes it’s okay that it doesn’t (but no one will tell you this because you’re always supposed to be going 100 miles per hour or deemed a failure.) In many ways it’s very similar to the process of getting married.  You get engaged and before you can even enjoy the engagement period people want to know when you’ve set the date.  You finally get married but you haven’t been married even three minutes before the relatives throwing the rice are asking when you are planning to have your first child.  You can’t even savor the moment. The pressure from others pushing you along faster than you desire or are prepared for can be overwhelming.

Not every law firm becomes Baker & McKenzie. There are thousands upon thousands of solo/small firms who are not traditional ‘successes’ but not failures, either.  Sometimes it just takes longer to achieve whatever it is you personally are trying to achieve. You’re allowed to be okay with this.  You really are. But sometimes you also just hit an emotional wall you can’t get past.

When you hit the wall, and you will, exhausted and dreaming of the alternative, a paycheck from someone else instead of drumming up business yourself day after day, what can you do to get your engines revving again?

Take Time Off

Taking time away from the grind (something Europeans understand as every employee has at least six weeks paid vacation!) helps you to not only relax but get a fresh perspective on your life and how your work integrates into your life.  If you’ve been more heavily tilted towards work and other areas of your life, the family you presumably are ‘doing this all for’, have been getting short-changed, now’s the time to realign your priorities.  It’s a self-defeating scenario if you tell people you went solo to spend more time with the family only to spend less time with them, right?

If you can’t afford a vacation financially or time-wise, give yourself a spa day, take your son to his first professional basketball game mid-week.  Sit on the back porch read and daydream.  The point isn’t that you spend discretionary income you may not have.  The point is to disengage from work fully for a period of time, to be unplugged. You would be surprised how your legal practice won’t fold up and die because you took some scheduled (or unscheduled) time away. It may just be better for your absence.

De-Clutter: Clean out your office and your mind

Having a cluttered office, cluttered email boxes, a languishing blog and outdated social media professional profiles can all be working against your best efforts. Having some down time for a little soul-searching combined with some manual and administrative labor as well as professionally sprucing up your online appearance can do wonders for your psyche. It’s not only self-help therapy but it can reinvigorate your professional efforts as well as spur creative ways to improve your practice.

Help Another Solo

If a new lawyer has contacted you for some advice and you’ve been putting off speaking with them, call them back. The very act of sharing your experiences as one who has ‘done it’ regardless of how you currently feel about yourself during this period, can help you to look at your accomplishments differently. It may even trigger inspiration, expand your professional network and your referral base and provide unexpected opportunities for growth.  If there’s no young lawyer banging on your door, participate in a few select online social groups or listservs or even create one of your own dedicated to your practice or geographic area.  You can do this on LinkedIn, Google+ or any number of sites.

Stick Your Neck Out Beyond Your Comfort Zone

When you start a business you develop tunnel-vision. You are so singularly focused on your mission the rest of the world just zooms by with barely any acknowledgment by you.  You say you don’t have time.  Now would be precisely the time to do something on your bucket list.  Do something totally unrelated to being a lawyer and a business owner and just go where it takes you for however long a period of time you can afford to do so.   And while you’re doing it, remember you’re able to do it because you have your own practice.

Don’t Quit (unless you get an offer you simply can’t refuse!)

Yes, you are not where you think you want or should be with your practice.  Yes, life seems to be firing one challenge after the other at you like a target for destruction in a video game. However, if you are not failing at solo practice, the most important job you have at this moment is to not let your practice die.  And this means implementing 1 – 4 to help you move forward toward success.

Not feeling professionally successful?  Have you hit a wall?  How have you handled it?

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2 comments on “What To Do When Your Solo Practice Isn’t a Success…But It Isn’t a Failure, Either

  • Great post, Susan! I would add that it’s really beneficial to self-impose some structure to the day, even if much of it is professional development or (I hate these words, but) marketing/networking. I.e., have a standard schedule moving from what takes the most mental energy or discipline to what takes the least. Include whatever it is that you want to work on — developing your knowledge on a new area of the law, generating web content, reaching out to people you know with letters or calls or emails, whatever legal work you do have, social media, etc. You set the amount of time and when to spend the time. Of my friends that are a little on the slower side with their practices, this is often what it appears to me they are missing — structure in their day. Also, this is the technique I’ve used (scheduling myself AS IF I’m busy) whenever I’ve gotten slow and it always works to pick everything back up — including myself! :)

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