Hanging Up That Shingle: Part 2 – Keeping the Challenges and Opportunities in Sight and Mind

WhereIn Part 1, I posed the question, ‘Where Will The Clients Come From?’, directed at neophyte lawyers. In this closing installment, I offer some practical suggestions that, in my opinion, help to make the move a successful venture.

Caveat: This discussion does not apply to lawyers who have practiced for some time as an associate or partner at large, medium-sized, or even relatively small law firms.  As SPU regulars well know, going solo often appeals to practitioners who have their practice niche and want the freedom of being their own boss, coming and going as they please, with a base of clients to bring along. More likely than not, these lawyers have developed a network of contacts to help them weather the vagaries associated with going it alone.  Their independent spirit helps them make it–sometimes big! 

Okay, back to the freshly-minted attorneys.  Obviously, setting up an office takes money for rent (unless you work out of your home), supplies, utilities—a myriad of expenses.  Generating a relatively steady income stream is a key goal.  In this regard, I offer short- and long-term ideas, some from my own experience, which may be of interest.  To be sure, I don’t have all the answers–at times I don’t even know what the questions are.  Well, here goes.

Get the lay of the land with another lawyer or small firm.  For those who haven’t worked at a law firm the summer, and/or during school breaks, getting into the thick of things may be instructive.  I worked as a young lawyer for a group of solo practitioners in Manhattan for a while. At the beginning, my primary job was as a coffee runner.  After a while, I was answering calendar calls (as well as the phone), working on bills of particulars, summary judgments, arguing motions, waiting all day in traffic court (sound familiar?), interviewing clients, etc.  It may surprise some readers that I learned most of the  practical side of law practice from the hard-nosed office secretary who–I kid you not–ran the office; knew what forms to use, in effect telling the lawyers what to do, and when.  My initiation in being exposed to the nitty-gritty of a small office practice was invaluable.

Learn a ‘specialty’.  As you well know, the family doctor is on the wane.  And house calls? Fuggedaboudit!  Today, even family physicians are board-certified, often going the Internist route.  For myself, I have a primary care physician because I was told it was a good idea.  Meanwhile, the PCP captains the ship while, in the main, I visit a number of specialists for preventive or specific care, including a podiatrist for that annoying callus.

The law is no different.  At one point, I worked for a major DC law firm where GPs were unheard of.  Specialties include intellectual property, real estate, securities and investment, environmental, employment discrimination, sports law, bankruptcy, trial law–the list goes on.

As I mulled the landscape years ago, I took advantage of my writing skills and decided to accept an offer from Prentice-Hall to work as an editor on their Wills, Estates, and Trusts loose-leaf services.  At first glance, it seemed to offer “possibilities.”  Was I ever right!  P-H at the time was into “Plain Language.”  While there, I studied under Dr. Rudolf Flesch, a Plain Language pioneer, author of “The Art of Clear Thinking,” The Art of Readable Writing” and, most significantly, the runaway best seller, “Why Johnny Can’t Read.”  After a while, I did some non-competitive freelance writing on estate planning and related subjects, which later became my primary legal specialization.

My first article, dealing with the common disaster, carried in the Estate Planners Quarterly, and targeted to lay audiences, generated positive reviews.  I didn’t know it at the time, but this piece paved the way for me. I was encouraged and wrote more and more articles, some with a life insurance marketing twist.  A few years later, I took the helm as editor-in-chief of Trusts & Estates magazine, a highly-respected publication with a circulation among attorneys, CPAs, advanced life underwriters, bank trust officers, charitable giving officers and the investment community.  It offered a treasure trove of contacts.  And along the way, I contributed to “Recovery for Wrongful Death,” a landmark volume with a relationship between damages in WD litigation and human life value for estate planning purposes.  At the same time, I kept my finger in the solo-practitioner pie, primarily specializing in estates, trusts, and employee benefits, with a smattering of marital relations and real estate work.

All in all, it was a fortuitous break.  However, in in a sense, I believe in the maxim that you put yourself in the position to make your own breaks.  Stating it another way, being in the right place at the right time may not always be by the luck of the draw.  In generally is true, but increase the odds by “putting yourself out there.”

Keeping up with, perhaps ahead of the Joneses: Meeting CLE requirements; venturing further.  Some years ago, I attended a legal conference a stone’s throw from the Gulf, in Biloxi, Mississippi, in August.  One morning, a group of us were chatting before the session commenced started.  While waiting, a colleague came into the lounge area, dressed in scuba-diving gear–the whole nine yards, including the flippers, spear, and goggles. Nonchalantly, he nodded to the group as he inserted his CLE attendance card for the morning session. And he flopped away to the beach, a stone’s throw-or-so from the hotel.

Obviously, CLE offers benefits, but some state bar requirements have a way of, at times, stifling innovation in learning the trade.  Those participating may think, “Well, I’ve met my CLE benchmark for the year.  That’s it until next year.  Not the wisest decision.   Bar associations, on the national, state and local levels, offer a wide variety of quality offerings, especially for those who want to explore a specialization without having to go through the time and expense of a formal LL.M.  I took advantage of the quality programs offered in NY by the Practising Law Institute where leading practitioners were among the faculty.  It is still considered the gold standard.  There are many other seminars, courses, etc., which help you get up-to-speed–and on your way.

Join legal groups; the more the better!  In my opinion, fledgling lawyers should become members of the ABA, as well as state and local bar associations.  Pick a specialty that interests you, attend meetings, volunteer to help in putting out section or sub-section newsletters–whatever it takes to increase your visibility.  And consider being active in organizations with a tie-in to “boutique” practices which strike your fancy.  In my situation, I joined three or four estate planning councils in the New York metropolitan area. It was time well spent and provided innovative perspectives in dealing with the challenges and opportunities in the field.  And, once again, the contacts were invaluable.

Also consider other organizations, governmental or in the private sector.  If possible, take an active role in your undergraduate and law school alumni associations.  Just last year, I attended the reunion of my class at NYU Law.  I went through the ritual of reminiscing with classmates about our law school experience and bringing each other up-to-date on (some of ) our doings over the years.  During our visit, as luck would have it, in the course of a friendly chat, I got some business from a colleague.

Seek out a mentor or, better yet, be tapped by one.  Along life’s journey, we can often, use help, especially career-wise.  Having an experienced teacher can be invaluable in making choices, and establishing and, indeed, burnishing one’s reputation.  For example, if you learn that a storied law professor or practicing attorney seeks help in doing research for a new or revised treatise, consider offering your services.  If you have prepared a manuscript for publication in an area within an experienced practitioner’s wheel-house, solicit his/her help in helping it to pass-muster.   Maybe s/he declines to take you up on your offer. Take it in stride and move on.  And, not surprisingly attorney may take you up on your lawyer.

Having a “leading light” take you on is, in essence, a blessing.  In this regard, I have been fortunate a number of times. The first occasion occurred as I became involved in Plain Language initiatives.  A prominent attorney from Binghamton, NY took me under his wing, recommending several options for furthering my visibility.  He also brought me into SCRIBES (see below) sought me out at various legal conferences and seminars, with helpful, low-key advice re possible authors to solicit for contributions to Trusts & Estates magazine, which I then edited.  He offered encouragement when I moved to a key management position at the American Bar Association.   I also worked closely with a senior partner at a leading NYC law firm during his tenure as president of the New York State Bar Association, and beyond.  He indeed was a great sounding board and was listed prominently on my reference list.

An aside:  One might think that contacting those in high places is not worth the effort. I don’t agree.  Indeed, it has been my experience that top leaders in any field, including lawyers, judges, government officials, corporate executives, and those in the academic community are, most often, more generous with their time and expertise that others further down the pecking order.  Bottom line, most are just nice people; courteous, self-effacing and, obviously great conversationalists.  (Perhaps that’s how they got where they were in the first place.)

Consider making a pet cause your own.  Over the years, I have taken a special interest in writing, legal and otherwise.  This led to my taking an active role in SCRIBES: the Society of Writers on Legal Subjects, encouraged by the mentor who opened the door.  Indeed, I was one of the group’s incorporators, in the rarified company of two state Supreme Court justices, among other legal luminaries.  The society is still going strong.  And, as noted above, I took a special interest in the application of Plain Language to the profession. (I recently adapted my article, “English: A Second Language for Lawyers” for an SPU blog contribution.)  I have also developed a number of pieces dealing with social responsibility–corporate-wise– which also applies to the legal profession.  Included was a robust discussion in Trusts & Estates.

In this regard, think of a cause that interests you, legal or otherwise, and get involved.  In my opinion, it has many benefits, pecuniary and otherwise.

Pro Bono–and then some! In a related vein, like many attorneys, I feel an obligation to give back by doing independent pro bono work, in a sense, an adaptation of social responsibility initiatives.  I also served on a school board and that of a local library, on a county committee concerned with cable issues, as well as a term on the board of a women’s abuse center.  I did this to make a contribution and, at the same time, made a lot of contacts.  In essence, enhancing your visibility has many benefits, psychic and otherwise.

Technology is here to stay–you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  Some months ago, I cast a dissenting vote in a Linked-In discussion zeroing in on requiring technology expertise by virtually all lawyers.  As I wrote, many lawyers, especially those at the upper echelons of mid- and large-size law firms don’t need to know that much about computers.  Familiarity with e-mail and the smart phone should suffice.  Why?  Most of these attorneys have IT staffs and assistants to bring them up-to- speed on what they have to know.  They are often rainmakers, expert in the art of the deal as well as superb networkers, with consummate skill in convincing  prized prospects–individuals and corporations–to become firm clients.

Not so with solo practitioners or, for that matter, small firms.  Not surprisingly, being conversant–if not expert–in computer applications, with particular emphasis on software, is well-nigh essential.  Templates directed to a wide range of clients, (such as an estate plan for close-corporation owners or business partners) can save enormous chunks of time.  At the same time, it doesn’t come close to innovative software that offers significant, tangible benefits.  And re running the law office, an IT specialist, together with your accountant can set up business systems to keep things running smoothly.  Furthermore, as you are well-aware, new hardware and software offerings are being introduced all the time.  Unless you are a computer geek, you may want to invest in the services of a technology maven for help in formulating your specific business model.

What’s the take-away?  Never stop learning.  Love the law.  Make a contribution.  Remember, practicing law is a privilege, not a right.  And, finally, for the upteenth, Network, Network, and when you’re finished, network some more!  Good luck!

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®.

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