You’ve done it. Maybe you’ve left your former firm, maybe you are newly admitted and have decided that solo practice is the way to go. You’ve created a business entity; you’ve ordered business cards; you have a website, a domain name, and a Twitter handle. You are ready to launch your solo practice. Then reality hits… now what? How will you manage running the business and leave yourself time to practice law?
Many solos find themselves in this situation. It doesn’t matter if you started in a big firm and are used to lots of support, or if you are new and have never managed a business before. Suddenly, the administrative functions that come with a solo practice—and particularly, if you have no support staff—can seem overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be, and even better, you don’t have to re-invent the wheel. Help is out there, and you can learn from those who have mastered this balancing act.
At Practice 2.0, our practice management program at the State Bar of Arizona, some common themes have emerged from our work with solo and small firm lawyers. Here are some practical tips based on that experience.
Practice management software is a must.
This is the way to organize your digital files, keep time records, do billing, accept payments, and more. Numerous choices are available, and it may seem overwhelming to choose. People can help narrow those choices for you (see below), but practice management software is not a one-size-fits-all solution. You will need to take a little time to “play” with your top contenders to see which one looks and feels best to you. Do you know which program you will use? The one you like and that seems logical to you—no one else can make that choice.
Chances are good that your state bar association has a practice management program and at least one practice management advisor (PMA).
Practice management advisors are there to help you start and run your practice with advice and resources. Best of all, the services of practice management advisors are free, a member benefit. Call your state or local bar, or check their website, and ask about these member resources.
Use document templates and automation.
This is a two-fer, but they so often go together. A wise colleague recently advised a webcast audience to not “reinvent the wheel” by doing the same task over and over again. This is particularly true when it comes to frequently generated documents or pleadings; or when it comes to doing the same repetitive tasks over and over again. Your practice management software may aid you in this effort—many come with the ability to create forms and templates—but if not, easily accessible software makes this possible. If you are not a “techie,” and don’t feel comfortable doing this yourself, many consultants can assist you—some connected with specific vendors, some independent. Do your research, however, before you select one.
Spend money frugally.
This does not mean that you should be cheap. This means that you should wisely decide on how best to spend what may, at least initially, be a limited amount of money. To do this you will have to be very analytical and honest about your skillset—and about what you just can’t do.
For example, hiring someone to help you may seem expensive at first blush, but it may actually be a frugal choice. How long does it take, for example, for you to do your monthly billing? If it takes you 10 hours a month, multiply that by your hourly rate. Let’s say it is $200 an hour. The time you spend billing is time you could be doing legal work. So rather than forfeiting $2,000 of time a month, does it make sense for you to spend $500 a month to get your bills out on time?
You are your own most valuable commodity.
No one can substitute for you, so take good care of yourself. Many solos feel that they need to give their cell phone number to their clients and that they always need to be available. No one, not even 911 operators or heart surgeons, work 24/7. You can’t do your best work if you are over-stressed, over-worked, and just plain tired.
Manage client expectations from the outset. Define your working hours and the hours during which you can be reached for emergencies. Define what constitutes an emergency for your clients. Don’t assume that when they are under stress, they will be making the best, most rational decisions about whether they need you immediately.
Get a phone number just for your practice. At this point, most people know about free or inexpensive services that allow you to have a second number you can access anywhere on your mobile phone. Some of these systems include a professional-sounding call sequencer.
You don’t have to answer every call, or every text, or every email within moments of receiving it. Triage! And be aware of your habits—some of which you may not have consciously noticed. For example, MyAnalytics, a feature included with Office 365, will help you identify your working habits; last week it told me that I check emails within 17 minutes of receiving them and suggested that I could be more productive if I checked emails only once an hour. Voice mail, automatic replies, and virtual receptionists are some of the tools you may use to be sure you aren’t constantly interrupted, and that your clients get a response telling them when you will return their calls or messages.
Be engaged in your local legal community.
Solo practice—particularly for those lawyers who work virtually, at home, and/or without administrative staff—can be very isolating. Maybe that’s not an issue for you, maybe you enjoy solitude, but even the most introverted lawyer needs to be connected to other lawyers. This is not only a social imperative; networking requires personal contact. Notwithstanding the pervasive use of technology and social media, the fact remains that people refer clients to people they know, like, and trust. The fastest way to establish those vital connections is in person. So how? Get involved with your state or local bar association; find continuing legal education classes to attend; and join committees, working groups, or sections that interest you. Get involved with affinity bar associations or volunteer for an access-to-justice program (Wills for Heroes, Modest Means, Law for Seniors, etc.)—not only do they provide an opportunity to get to know lawyers you might not otherwise meet, but they also provide prime networking and business development opportunities.
This is also a great way to form a relationship with a fellow solo practitioner. Why? Your “solo buddy” can be part of your succession planning (what will happen if you get hit by a bus), can provide court coverage in an emergency, and can be a sounding board.
One last tip. Come to the ABA TECHSHOW, February 26 -29, 2020. No better legal technology conference exists, and a variety of seminars this year are aimed at solo practitioners (and at all levels of tech competence). If you are a solo, TECHSHOW has a “meet-up” group for you—a ready-made way to get to know other solos around the country and share your experiences.
About the Author
Roberta Tepper is the lawyer assistance programs director at the State Bar of Arizona, where she advises lawyers on starting, running, and winding down their practices; technology; lawyer well-being, and trust accounting. Roberta is the co-vice-chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2020 and serves on the Law Practice Division Council. Contact her at Roberta.Tepper@staff.azbar.org, @AZPractice2_0, and www.ReadySetPracticeAZ.com