(Note: originally published at Complete Lawyer, November 2008 )
If you’ve just read this article’s title, you’re probably racking your brain trying to figure out what the heck a lowly solo practitioner like me can teach you about succeeding as a law firm associate.
You probably think that solos simply churn out form documents for simpleton clients who need help with run-of-the-mill problems like estate planning, divorce or landlord tenant matters, while law firm associates grapple with earth-shattering matters, sophisticated business clients and demanding law firm partners. And for goodness sakes, you’re billed out at an hourly rate that matches or exceeds what most solos charge. So what secrets of success can you possibly learn from us?
Plenty. But before we get started, you’ll have to dispel your negative impression of solo practitioners. First, though you may not realize it, many solos handle complicated, traditionally “biglaw matters” such as tax, corporate transactional work, regulatory and complex litigation. Even solos with consumer-oriented specialties like criminal law, consumer credit, bankruptcy or family law regularly encounter constitutional issues or dissect tricky federal and state statutes. And while solos may charge less than a biglaw associate, because of lean staffing and low overhead, they also pocket a larger percentage (as much as 80%) of that $300/hr billable than you do.
Solos also oversee office administration, manage employees or virtual staff, and constantly market their practice. Once you begin to view solos not as loser-lawyers who couldn’t cut it in biglaw practice but as a blend of independent lawyer, team manager and entrepreneur, you’ll appreciate how solos’ secrets of success can help you succeed as well.
The first secret of solos’ success is that we recognize that we don’t merely work at our firm; we own it. Every action that we take—or don’t take—directly impacts our own bottom line. Early on, we learn to assume full responsibility for our caseload, our clients and our destiny, which means that we’re well acquainted with the mindshift that ownership brings. If you own your own home, for example, you invest more in its upkeep than you did in the apartment that you rented during law school.
Granted, as an associate, you don’t own your law firm or the clients whose matters you handle. Nevertheless, to succeed you need to act as if you do. Ask yourself a question: if you did own your own firm, would you send out a poorly proofed or ill-formatted document to a client because it was only a draft? Of course not, because you’d realize that it would reflect badly on your firm. If you wouldn’t accept substandard work, neither will your current superiors. Act as if you own the place, and perhaps some day you will.
Get What You Need No Matter What
We solos have no one to rely on but ourselves. We must exercise our professional, independent judgment to determine what we need to effectively and zealously represent our clients—and stop at nothing to get it. That may mean asking a series of seemingly stupid questions to a colleague; hiring a more experienced lawyer to help out on a case; demanding, repeatedly, that a balky client tell the truth about an incident so that we can evaluate her case and establish a suitable strategy; or standing firm before an insulting, nasty judge to make sure that we properly preserve an objection for appeal.
As an associate, you also must figure out what you need for a case and get it at any cost. If you believe that you can’t meaningfully research whether your client’s contract was supported by legally sufficient consideration without reviewing the contract itself, then you must insist on getting a copy. There’s no sense in sabotaging yourself and producing less than your best work because you didn’t seek out the resources that were necessary to succeed.
Build Relationships, Not Contact Lists
My mailing list of contacts comprises an important part of my marketing efforts. I can blast contacts with a press release about a recent victory or forward a link to a recent blog post. But while contact lists keep me loosely connected with a large group of existing clients and remote prospects, the bulk of my business comes through referrals from close working relationships that I’ve cultivated over time. For example, since 2002, when I began blogging, I’ve been building relationships with the pioneering community of bloggers and they, in turn, have put me in touch with sources of business. I’ve formed alignments with other solo energy lawyers here in the D.C. area; we’ll often refer cases back and forth and team up on matters. Thanks to blogs and listserves, I’ve developed lasting friendships with several accomplished female solo lawyers who inspire me with the ways that they balance family, law practice and thriving entrepreneurial careers.
Conventional wisdom suggests that you work with many different lawyers at your firm, and you may well feel that simply knowing more people will enhance your job security. Though there’s nothing wrong with reaching out to many people, it pays to build trusted relationships with a select few partners and associates with whom you share common goals and values. They’re the people who will go to bat for you and will continue to root for you even if you eventually leave the firm.
Find Different Ways To Skin A Cat
Like Jack who jumped over the candlestick, we solos are nimble and quick. The legal and economic landscape changes constantly, sometimes diminishing our fortunes (think real estate lawyers in recession), but always presenting new opportunities (think bankruptcy lawyers in recessionary times). The most successful solos monitor these trends, ever poised to find ways to capitalize on potentially lucrative areas.
Likewise, when we realize that one business model is broken, we tweak it to find success. I realized, for example, that many of the nascent marine renewable energy companies that I represented for bargain rates in their early stages would ultimately trade me in for a biglaw model once the first round of venture capital came through the door. Rather than try to cut my rates further, I founded a trade association with a colleague to represent the interests of the industry in lobbying and policy matters rather than helping an individual company.
As an associate, particularly a young associate, you may find yourself squeezed out of “sexy” practice niches or interesting opportunities. However, the possibilities remain endless. Instead of fighting with others for a middling position on a project, why not scope out your own business opportunity and start blogging about it? Or better yet, ask to interview firm clients for your blogs which will give you first hand access. Or you might organize a monthly networking event for young lawyers or women or lawyers of color who are interested in a particular practice area. By taking the lead, you become the go-to person instead of remaining the low man on the totem pole.
Don’t assume that you need to wait quietly in line for your chance to get the contact or experience that you crave. Instead, like us solos, search for opportunities and figure out shortcuts or alternative approaches to capture them.
Learn In The Most Unusual Places
Most solos are sponges, soaking up lessons on client service and marketing wherever we can. Every time I thumb through the ads in a magazine or observe how a restaurant waiter deals with an obnoxious patron, I ask myself whether I can apply any of those lessons to my own practice. Some of the most outrageously successful solos borrow their marketing and business ideas not from conventional lawyer-marketing gurus, but from copyrighters, advertisers and entrepreneurs who’ve found success in other venues.
As an associate, you should do the same. If you represent a successful businessman, pump him for information about his business, his goals and what keeps him up at night. The information will help you better serve him but will also give you insight into how you might advance your own career. Similarly, observe the charismatic partners at your firm closely whom you admire; emulate their mannerisms, dress and work habits.
Most of all, don’t reject advice out of hand. In most cases, even the worst suggestions generally obscure a worthwhile nugget if you’re willing to dig deep enough. That includes taking advice from well-meaning friends, a spouse, that old seemingly senile law partner emeritus who constantly reminisces about the good old days when law was a noble profession—and believe it or not, even from a lowly solo like me.