Confession: I love filling in the gap between what attorneys learned in law school and what they need to know in the real world about running a law firm. Specifically, running a law firm like a business.
But what causes that gap to begin with? Frankly, law schools have been a little slow in understanding that there’s a major difference between running a law firm and running a law business. This is a major issue for their graduates, especially the ones who don’t go on to “big law,” but decide to hang their own shingle.
Fortunately, more schools are recognizing this and offering practice management classes and teaching the basic concepts of profit and loss statements, client evaluation, marketing, and other aspects of how to grow and run a business.
But it’s not a widespread practice, and there are still thousands of lawyers, new and established, who are great at practicing law, but not great at doing what it takes to successfully manage their own law firm.
While it’s not rocket science to master the business side of owning a law firm, it does require discipline and, most importantly, a shift in the way you see and operate your practice.
More specifically, it takes looking beyond the day-to-day operations and administrivia that bog down even the most well-intentioned attorneys and relegates them to fire fighters, conflict avoiders and email inbox warriors.
It makes the big picture view of yourself as an attorney and your practice as a business opportunity the more important—and powerful—first step you can take in building the law firm of your dreams.
Developing a Vision for Your Practice
Being based in Seattle, I see Boeing, Microsoft, Expedia, Nintendo, and a number of majorly-successful businesses in my area. And the one thing that they have in common is that they have a vision for their business.
They know what the business can be, they know where they want it to go, and they know how they’re going to get there.
In my consulting work for law firms all over the country, one of the first questions I ask every client is, “What is your vision for your practice?”
Unfortunately, most of them don’t have an answer.
In fact, very few attorneys have even given it any kind of thought. They just open up for business and assume that clients will come to them, and they’ll make some money, and that’s it.
Unfortunately, the “If you build it, they will come” law practice is a thing of the past. Today’s increased market competition from online legal resources and savvier attorneys in their own markets, coupled with pickier and more educated clients, means that every customer should be treated like gold. And mined as such accordingly.
Your Vision is the Foundation for Your Firm’s Business Plan
Successful businesses have a roadmap to follow when they make business decisions, when they plan for growth, when they hire, when they create a great customer experience, when they identify new opportunities; they have a vision when they’re determining how best to spend money to benefit the business and its clients, and so much more.
This roadmap is called a business plan. And every successful business plan starts with a vision for your practice.
Step 1: Where Do You Want to Go?
Close your eyes for just a moment and think about where your practice could go, what it could become, what it will be when it grows up. Imagine all the possibilities of how big you’d like to grow and the practice areas you’d like to offer, how many partners you’d like to have, the kinds of clients you’d prefer, and so on.
Step 2: How Will You Get There?
Think about the steps you can take, one at a time, to get there. What sort of additional training could you use? What kind of opportunities do you need to develop? What location do you need to be in? What practice areas do you need to add to your business?
Step 3: Who Will Help You Get There?
To paraphrase an old saying, “No attorney is an island.” Who do you know—either directly or indirectly—that could help you reach your goals?
Think of mentors, additional staff, contractors, accountants, bankers, marketing consultants—anyone and everyone that might help contribute to your success as an attorney.
And don’t count out other attorneys, either. Many forget the opportunities that lie within networking amongst other specialty firms who are an often untapped source of referrals for clients outside their areas of expertise. Approach —and will likely view you as the same.
Step 4: How Will You Measure Your Success?
Success means something different to everyone.
Success might be that you have happy, satisfied clients who are bringing you lots of referrals. Success might mean that you have quality time to spend with your family. It may be that you have alternative income streams and you’re able to practice law, but you’re also able to have money coming in from other sources. Define your own version of success, and then figure out how you’ll measure it.
Step 5: Where Are You in Relation to Your Goals?
Where is it that you’re starting at this moment in time?
It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in practice for a month, or 10 years, or 20 years. If you do not have a business plan, this is exactly the right time to start working on that.
And I’ll tell you what the business plan is meant to do: it provides much-needed guidance when you are making business decisions. With each decision, ask yourself: “Is this taking me towards my goals or away from them?”
This simple question should help make the decision-making process much easier—and more impactful.
In the end, how exactly your vision is structured and what your business plan contains is slightly less important than having them in the first place. Many of your legal competitors have neither, and you’ll find that developing both—and sticking to them—will set you above the fray and put you on the path to long-term success.
To learn more about running your law firm like a business, download Ann Guinn’s full white paper.
About the Author
Ann M. Guinn is Principal of G&P Associates, teaches attorneys what they don’t learn in law school—how to build and maintain high-earning, client-centered, and satisfying law practices. She offers her services through webinars, membership groups, CLEs, and 1:1 consulting. Ann’s book, Minding Your Own Business: The Solo and Small Firm Lawyer’s Guide to a Profitable Practice, was published by the American Bar Association in 2010. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.