Solo But Not Alone

 As a newly minted attorney, I started my own solo practice in 2009. I was supporting clients with my knowledge of business law, and fully committed to making a go of my solo practice. I was working directly with exciting businesses in the Portland area and was finding success with my clients. But my firm, like most young, self-funded businesses, operated at a loss. I found no good model or mentorship available, and a J.D. hadn’t prepared me for the realities of running—let alone launching—a successful business.

I knew I couldn’t be alone, and I set out to create a peer support network of other solo practitioners who were similarly committed to making their solo endeavors successful. My hunch was that, absent an unexpected cash windfall, peer groups were the answer; that by pooling knowledge and openly sharing experiences, a group of committed individuals could help each other achieve what they couldn’t alone. Now, three years in, that first group has graduated, and I’ve gone on to form and facilitate a few iterations of this model, adapting it and learning as I go. We named this first group LEOS, and the acronym survived (it currently stands for Lending Each Other Support, but change is a constant).

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On a good day, these structured groups create a fertile environment that supports entrepreneurs. Constructive, supportive space allows entrepreneurs to navigate dynamic circumstances, to sustain motivation for forward movement, and to grow a thriving business in the community. Group members mentor each other, exchange information, and share resources. They also give feedback, provide accountability to one another, and extend social support.

This article is for the courageous attorneys committed to starting a solo practice or small partnership. After three years of running these groups, I’m ready to share some of the lessons I’ve learned in the hope that they prove useful to anyone who feels an independent, peer-support network would benefit their practice and personal growth.

I think of this strategy as Six Fs: focus; fun; facilitation; friendship; finances; and feedback. There are some tricks—you’ll be tricking your own mind. It’s counterintuitive—the really important parts are deeply personal, and can feel overly simple to some people. And it’s hardly monetizable—people undervalue the key elements to success. But this is as close to as “success formula” as you will find and I’m going to tell you what it is.

Focus

The peers who will push you to succeed are business people with similar goals and with businesses in a similar stage of development. Talk with many and settle on a group of six to 12.  You won’t have to oversell the idea; sharp entrepreneurs will see the advantage of what you’re doing and self-select.

The common goal each member shares is to keep his or her business thriving.  And ideally, members’ businesses are in similar stages of development: while not an established concern, the business is well past the stage where the entrepreneur doubts each day.

Members sometimes question the wisdom of meeting with potential competitors.  In a market the size of Portland, new businesses easily get a foothold without stepping on each other’s toes.   The true competitor is the established firm up the street with great marketing strategy and an existing client base. Also, benefits such as networking and referrals, while not an explicit goal, happen as a natural consequence of the peer group.

Fun

You gotta have it.  Nothing keeps motivation so high as a good time with other people.

This group is informal, not a committee, so members can relax and be social. Socializing throughout the meeting is great. The best groups have friendly members who are open to being professional connections for each other.

Nothing beats snacks and a great location.  Food is important and helps break the ice.  Location is important, too. Picking one central location is ideal for ease of planning, or a group’s members may take turns hosting.  We enjoy meeting in private, cozy spaces that feel comfortable and inviting (like a member’s meeting room).

Facilitation

Our meeting structure is simple and easy to reproduce.

Briefly—(1) Have two main organizers (one will do but two is far better). (2) Meet once a month for 12 – 18 months. (3) Meetings last two hours or so. (4) The first hour or so, hold a discussion. (5) The second hour is for a round-robin.

For those considering starting a peer group, acknowledge that organizing events takes a lot of thankless time and effort, particularly if the organizer is an entrepreneur. Because it’s tough for one person to keep the wind in their own sails, it’s best practice to have a couple organizers who share the load.

We find a two-hour meeting is optimal because it gives time to chat, discuss business, and set goals, without dragging on. We split our meetings between discussion and round-robin sections.

To set the agenda for discussion, the organizer picks a larger industry topic, with member input. For example, we talked about business insurance in relation to our finances, and client relationships post-transaction as part of our marketing plan.

We vary our discussion formats. We will often host an experienced speaker such as a tax accountant or marketing professional.  Sometimes one member teaches about a topic, or we can chose to have open discussion on a topic.

After the discussion comes the round-robin check-in. Here, each member spends five to 10 minutes discussing business goals he or she has worked on over the past month, and what he or she will do over the next month. There is some cross talk, and the challenge is to balance the loose, free flow of information, while keeping the ball rolling. Ideally, one member will serve as scribe to capture the goals and progress, which can be circulated among members.

Friendship

Create a community.

As long as good communication continues, personal ties slowly and organically form.

Encourage members to email and call each other—trade contact information, connect on social media, and invite each other to events and professional galas. A business, especially a new one or a solo professional, is truly the people inside the business and the relationships they have around them.

Finances

Money is the backbone of a business.

Because LEOS assists business people, and business has its bottom line, one goal each month should start with a dollar sign. The goal can be general, “I will make twice what I made last month,” “I will calculate my overhead,” or “I will list all due dates for bills and taxes this month.” Learning numbers and comfort with figures and accounts can be a challenge for some. Stating goals out loud a great step to meet and beat the challenge.

We may be lawyers, but as new business people we may feel inhibited and be unclear about our business’ finances.  This is one of the biggest areas for growth.

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Feedback

Feedback allows professional development. To learn the art of business requires some casual training and friendly mentorship.

Members with more experience share with members who have less, and the range of skills held by the group allow all to share and learn. Fellow business people are able to contribute knowledge from their own life experience. Perfection is not the standard. We appreciate that entrepreneurs have strengths as well as soft spots, and their businesses are not yet running smoothly.

The magic happens when a peer group supports each other’s productivity and provides the type of accountability needed to learn new business skills and put them into practice.

Conclusion

Harnessing the subtle forces of a like-minded community, continuous learning, and clearly stated goals has allowed legal entrepreneurs in Portland, Oregon to become skilled business people.  Feel free to use these guidelines if they resonate with you, and I wish you great success on your next business venture.

About the Author

BeutelShannon M. Beutel is a judicial clerk for the Oregon Judicial Department in Portland, and blogs about LEOS at leos.us.

 

 

(Image Credit: ShutterStock)

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