This is my fourth year in practice for myself, and I finished a first year as a true solo. I wrote a post back in 2012 about how to start a solo practice. I wrote this post about what it’s like to be a solo practitioner. And I wrote this piece about a day in the life of a young lawyer.
These are 10 practical tips I’ve tried to assimilate into my own practice. If I’ve found one thing it’s this – you are either running your law practice, or it’s running you.
I’ve had good months, bad months, and in between months. Borrowing a line from my former boss, all you can do is keep plugging away.
Here are some musings and reflections…
1. Stop giving clients your cell phone number. I stopped putting mine in my email signature. When you give your clients your cell, expect to get text messages on holidays, weekends, early in the morning, and all hours of the night. Expect your clients to get angry when you don’t respond to a text in two seconds, and court “isn’t a good excuse.” People nowadays expect instant communication, which simply isn’t possible as a lawyer. A conversation with my Uncle Jim, a successful commercial litigation attorney:
Me: “Man, it’s Christmas and I’m getting text messages. I thought technology was supposed to make things great…”
Jim: “I don’t do text messaging. I’m upfront with clients about that. If they send me one, I won’t respond, and I won’t check it. They can call the office, and I’ll call them back when I’m available.”
Me: “Really? Don’t they fire you?”
Jim: “Never. I return all the calls by the end of the day. But text messaging? That’s a recipe for disaster.”
I’m with Jim. Don’t do text messaging. Don’t do Facebook messenger. Don’t do SnapChat and all those other wacky things.
Instead, give clients your office number, and let clients leave voicemails when you’re busy. Schedule phone calls in advance, rather than take them off the cuff. Personally, I have the voicemails transcribed into an audio file and sent to my email via Nextiva. The only clients who have my cell phone are ones who I’m personally friends with, and yes, they still tend to abuse it. “Dude, real quick, I just need to know this one thing…”
Ever since I’ve stopped giving my cell out to clients, life has been much easier. I’ve had time to blog again, return calls, and write briefs.
And if a client doesn’t want to hire you because you’re not always immediately available? They’re not a client you want.
2. Make time for office hours. As a solo, one of the things you have to do is plan strategically. Make sure you have at least two or three days a week where you’re in the office, and not in court, a deposition, or with a new client. You need to find time to write briefs, return emails, send letters, etc. It’s too easy for a solo to book up their week with court appearances, meetings, and new client interviews.
While I hate doing this, the best time for office hours is early in the morning around 5am. I’ve started getting to the office around 7am, which creates a three hour barrier before the phone starts ringing and emails start piling up.
3. Make time for yourself. My absolute biggest failure as a solo is not making time for myself. Skipping trips to the gym, skipping meals and then eating crap, not having time for things like haircuts, doing laundry, or even reading books.
My friends Jeena Cho and Keith Lee have been writing about Mindfulness for Lawyers. I think this is a good topic, because as lawyers, we are constantly putting the needs of our clients ahead of our own.
When your entire life gets subsumed by the practice of law, your quality of lawyering drops dramatically. Find time for yourself, and your health. Do something active every day no matter how busy you are. Go camping, hiking, or otherwise disconnect from time to time.
A burnt out, anxious lawyer is a liability.
4. Stop putting others ahead of yourself, and charge accordingly. Everybody wants a favor, some free work, “just two seconds of your time.” It’s okay to do some unpaid work here and there. But it’s extremely easy as a lawyer to get caught up in other people’s crusades. They can easily become a distraction from your paying clients, and drain your resources. If you find that you have no time for yourself, and you are short on cash, chances are you’re doing too many people too many favors.
Charge appropriately for your services. Sure, clients want a cheap lawyer who can fix their problems for $200. But if you’re taking on cases for $200, you’ll soon find that you have to take on volume work, and that you don’t have the time to put into the case.
Instead, explain to clients that if they want their case done right, they need to pay you accordingly. If they’re unwilling, it’s not that important to them.
A lawyer who can’t pay their mortgage is a lawyer who can’t fix their clients’ problems.
5. The phone will ring. Solo practice is a bunch of ups and downs. When the phone doesn’t ring, do what Brian Tannebaum suggests and do a little bit of networking. Be grateful for your downtime, and use it to retool. Update your website, call a person you haven’t spoken to in awhile, or write a blog post. People always need legal services. Eventually you just understand that sometimes it’s busy, and other times it’s not.
6. And sometimes the phone won’t ring. Keep three, and really ideally six, months worth of operating expenses in your bank account. It’s hard to enjoy the downtime when you’re worried about paying your rent and your mortgage. Save as much money as possible, and remember that having money built up in your bank account will eliminate a great deal of anxiety.
7. Read books and get better at your craft; have some hobbies. Some suggestions? The Practice by Brian Tannebaum. Gorilla Mindset by Mike Cernovich. Read Marc Randazza‘s epic lawyer letters. I have found that constantly reading books, even non-legal related keeps your skillset sharp. I’ve been trying to read at least one or two books a week.
If you find your entire life is subsumed by your practice, you’re not going to be very happy.
8. It’s easy to grow, hard to downsize. Be extremely selective about hiring staff. The practice of law can be lucrative when you’re running on a lean budget. What’s hard is to slave 80 hours a week, only to find all your hard earned cash has gone to your secretary, landlord, service providers, and to clients you were “doing favors” for.
9. Check your emails once or twice a day, not all day. Smartphones are the worst thing that has happened to the practice of law. Back in the old days, lawyers used to write each other thoughtful letters, send a fax, or perhaps even pick up the phone. Now you’re connected to your email 24/7/365, and often clients expect an immediate response.
First off, I will not send substantive emails from my phone. I will send a logistical email, but not a substantive one. I try not to respond to anything from my phone unless it’s critical.
When I’m in court all day, on a trial, I find it necessary to put up a vacation reminder saying that “I’m in court and have little access to email.”
I am debating taking the email function off my phone altogether. There really isn’t a need.
10. Run your practice, don’t let it run you. You have to enjoy your law practice to some degree. Your clients, your practice areas, whatever. Burnout happens when you feel like your practice is running you, rather than you running it. To quote Blink 182, “And she said it stopped being fun, I just bring her down.” When it stops being fun, you’ll bring your clients down with you.
If nothing is working, retool. Make it fun again. Fire bad clients. Even cut down on staff if need be. Figure out what’s working, and what’s not. Call some people who you haven’t talked to in awhile. You got into law and started your own practice for a reason.
Remember what that reason was, and go back to the basics.