Advice to New Solos

Several times a year I serve as a continuing legal education instructor for my practice areas – consumer bankruptcy and Social Security disability.   Often, these seminars are attended by new lawyers who have gone solo out of necessity (i.e., no jobs) or by younger lawyers who are ready to take the leap into solo practice.

In his very insightful book The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber notes that the skills you need to ply your trade (practice law) are very different from the skills you need to run a business.  Here are some thoughts about how to approach a new solo practice:

Client Development

As a newly minted solo practitioner who is trying to establish a practice on a modest budget you must engage in guerilla marketing.  This means that you need to look for the most cost effective and efficient ways to put yourself before prospective clients.  At the same time, you should continue the process of educating yourself about the substantive areas of law that interest you and you should look for opportunities to establish a network of mentors or advisers who can answer questions if you need advice.

Substantive Education

As a new solo, you are going to have to choose one or more areas of law to practice.  Often, new lawyers are drawn to personal legal service areas – such as divorce, criminal defense, personal injury, workers compensation, bankruptcy, wills & estates, contracts or real estate.

These are good areas to start because they can generate fairly rapid cash flow and there are extensive materials and form books to help you get started.

A resource to consider is solopracticeuniversity.com.  This is an relatively low cost online resource taught by experienced practitioners.  I teach the “how to set up a Social Security disability practice” so I can speak firsthand about this resource.  The lessons are on video and thus accessible 24 hours a day and there are forums and chat rooms where you can ask questions.

Before you spend anything, however, I would advise you to familiarize yourself with local court rooms and hearing rooms and spend time watching.  Assuming you have more time that money, you will learn more in a week of watching hearings or court proceedings than you can from any book.  In addition you will probably find an opportunity to meet and talk to lawyers, court personnel and judges.

I would also suggest that you create an account on LinkedIn and join one or more discussion groups for your selected practice area.  LinkedIn is a great place to find helpful colleagues who can become part of your knowledge network.

One of the questions you will want to pose to your network will be about which form books to buy.  A good form book can save you hours and keep you from making mistakes.

If you can develop local contacts, ask if you can volunteer to help prepare a case, and then tag along to watch.  Again, hands on participation will teach you more than any book.

Listservs are also a great way to learn, and to ask questions.  Most areas of personal service law have lawyer advocacy groups – places like NACBA for bankruptcy or GACDL for criminal defense.  Usually the cost for a new lawyer to join is minimal, but can be a wise investment.  Here, too, ask your network about these groups and Listservs.

As a solo or even as a new associate you must be proactive in increasing your knowledge.  Do not assume that your first case, your tenth case or your hundredth case will follow the nice, neat pattern set out in a practice handbook.  Sometimes the best advice you can get from your network will be to decline representation.  But you have to have that network in place to help you.

Marketing

Obviously, the biggest challenge solos face will relate to marketing.  If you have a big bank account you can record some commercials and go on TV or radio and start seeing business right away.  I will tell you, however, that smart media advertising is a lot more difficult than it looks – and making smart media buys can be a lot more difficult than it appears.  Electronic media buying deserves its own discussion – suffice it to say that radio and TV salespeople are focused on earning money for their employer more so than growing your business.

The yellow pages and other forms of print advertising used to be a viable marketing channel for lawyers.  If you have a really big budget and can cut a really good deal, print marketing still can work but I don’t recommend it for a solo.  After all, when is the last time you used the yellow pages?

That leaves us with the Internet, which, in my mind is the most cost effective channel for lawyer marketing.  It is still possible for a startup solo to compete with much larger and much better funded competitors on the web – although it is not as easy as it once was.

I think that every solo must have a robust web presence.  This means that you will need to learn some technology.  You can outsource all of your web development but that puts you at the mercy of third parties and will increase your costs.  At the very least, the more you know about the technology the better consumer of web development services you will become.

At a minimum you should purchase a domain name from a vendor like GoDaddy or Register.com.  While there are vanity domains for sale, I would start with an inexpensive domain – one that will cost $10 per year.  I suggest that you purchase a “dot com” or “dot net” extension.  There are others like “dot US” or “dot biz” but most people still think of web sites as “dot coms.”

I would advise you to choose a domain name that is easy to remember and easy to spell.  Try to stay away from long abbreviations like “kvprlaw.com” – no one can remember that.  One best practice is to include your city and practice area in the domain – for example I own atlanta-bankruptcy-attorney.com and GeorgiaSocialSecurityDisabilityAttorney.com.  If your name is easy to spell correctly, you can include it in the domain name.

Because domains are so inexpensive, you may want to buy a few that strike your fancy – you can always redirect as many domain names as you want to the same site, and you will protect a potentially good name from falling into the hands of a competitor.

Once you have your domain name, now what?  You will need to get hosting for your site and a design done.  Currently I am advising clients to set up a WordPress site with an established hosting company.  WordPress is fairly ubiquitous and you will have no trouble finding vendors to manage your site if you cannot.  When searching for hosting, I would look for a host that offers 24 hour live support.  Usually the cost of hosting will cost around $20 per month.

WordPress is “open source” meaning that it is free to download. Most hosting accounts allow for auto set up of WordPress.

WordPress functions as the guts of your site.  It is web based, meaning that you log in to your site and make changes in real time.   The look and feel of your WordPress site will be determined by the theme you choose.  Here, too, there are free and paid themes.  I use a paid theme framework called Genesis which creates a layer of functionality on top of the basic WordPress install.  Genesis is called a theme framework because you can and should add a child theme to it.

There are plenty of how to videos on YouTube about how to set up WordPress, or you can hire a free lancer to set up the skeleton of your site.   A good place to look for freelancers is elance.com, odesk.com or rentacoder.com.  A basic set up should cost you about $25 to $50.

WordPress is fairly intuitive but it helps to have a live site to practice on.  Again, look for YouTube how-to videos.  In my experience the best set up for WordPress is to include both static pages (like an FAQ section) and a blog that you regularly update.

Once you have a site set up, you need content.  When it comes to writing content, you will need to familiarize yourself with something called search engine optimization.  In other words you want a page on your site to appear at the top of the search engine results when someone types in particular search phrase.

The topic of search engine optimization (SEO) occupies the time of dozens of very, very smart people and everything that any of these folks write or talk about constitutes an educated guess.  Google (the largest search engine) ranks pages based on a secret algorithm that contains hundreds of factors.  And Google changes its algorithm constantly.

There are dozens of tactics you can learn but the one strategy you need to internalize about SEO is this: Google rewards authoritative and relevant content.

Thus, when you write content, you need to crawl into the brain of your prospect and try to deduce what that prospect wants to know about your topic.  If you can produce content that compels your reader to read your entire article (time on site) and then explore other pages on your site (low bounce rate), and then share your insight with others (social share), your page will rise in the rankings.

In addition to writing content, you should learn how to distribute your knowledge in other ways.  You Tube, for example, ranks second only to Google as a search engine but far fewer lawyers utilize this channel.  You can also produce audios (podcasts) and Power Point type presentations (Slideshare).

There are literally dozens of channels for you to distribute your content for free.  Google Plus is the newest content sharing network – if you have not yet signed up for a free account, do so.  Other channels to test include Twitter, LinkedIn, Avvo, JDSupra, and even Facebook.

You will find it is easy to get overwhelmed with the number of options out there to distribute your content.  Again, you can pay experts to “help” you but you will find that non-lawyers have a very difficult time clearly communicating information about the law to consumers.  A better solution, in my view, would be to learn about these channels, develop a network of resources and implement one at a time.

A Word About Writing for Consumers

If you look around the Net you will see dozens of lawyer web sites that say essentially nothing:

“If you are having trouble paying your bills, bankruptcy may be an option to consider.”

“We help car accident victims recover money damages from insurance companies.”

“If you a facing a divorce, put our experience to work for you.”

I call this type of content “water is wet” content.  Do not be afraid to offer solid, detailed information.  Write up case studies.  Talk about an interesting case that was recently decided.  Talk about a seminal case from law school and how it may apply to your prospective client.  Interview a lawyer you met that day you were watching court proceedings.  Write about the case you observed.  Interview a paralegal from a busy firm to uncover common mistakes or good ideas.

Obviously you will need to cover the basics but don’t stop there.  Separate yourself from the pack by writing or speaking about things that your competitors have not.

People like stories.  What happened?  Why did it happen?  What could have made a difference?  What was the resolution?  Think about the more interesting professors you know and why their presentations were so compelling.

Office Set Up

As a new solo, remember that overhead will kill you.  You do not need a fancy office.  Your cell phone can be your office line (research at the free Google voice service).  Invest in a scanner and try to go paperless.

Arrange to meet clients at the courthouse, or a library, or in a friend’s conference room.  Personal legal service clients are much less interested in fancy offices as opposed to establishing a relationship with a lawyer who can help them.

Create a standard file set up and use duplicate calendars.  Make sure that your clients fill out and sign written questionnaires.  If you find yourself in a “he said/she said” dispute, you will most likely lose if you have no documentation.

Save your emails (some say print them out).  Confirm your understanding of important matters in writing.

Talk to your network about what constitutes appropriate fees.  Avoid performing services before getting paid.  With legal services, the “curve of gratitude” takes a 90 degree drop the day after the case is over.

Do not be afraid to turn down work that you do not fully understand or where there is a time crunch that makes you uncomfortable.  Avoid taking cases that other lawyers have declined or where they have withdrawn.   If your client lies to you about something important, consider getting out – the first lie you uncover will not be the last.

Finally, remember that you have worked long and hard to become a lawyer – no one case or no one client is worth losing your license.