My Shingle

Yes, It’s Really Hard

by Carolyn Elefant on September 15, 2010 · 12 comments

in Encouragement, Lessons, MyShingle Solo

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You thought you’d done everything right in starting your law firm.  Read the blogs and the books, talked to a couple of solos around town, wrote a business or marketing plan, bought the business cards and set up a decent website, sent the announcements out to everyone and their brother too.

Yet here it is, three months, six months, nine months later, and things are looking grim.  The phone rarely rings and when it does, it’s from some marketing firm trying to sell you the $5000 SEO special.  The two potential clients who set up appointments last week never showed up, so you blew $30 on your per diem rental for nothing.   Though things are slow, you worked til 2 am two days ago, correcting the motion that was returned because it didn’t comply with the court rules and forking out another $50 to refile it. When you finally muster up the nerve to contact a couple of colleagues to let them know that you’re desperately salivating available for referrals, they don’t return your calls or your follow up email.  At this point, the only thing that’s keeping you going is the $1500 in fees that you recovered as part of a nuisance value settlement in a slip and fall case, and the $300 that your uncle paid you to draft his will.

Yet all around you, seems that your colleagues are thriving – flying out to depositions across the country and wondering how to bill the time on the plane, or finishing review of a 300 page contract. Meanwhile, most of the other people you approach and try to chat up simply brush by in search of someone more important. Lately, attending these networking functions has gotten so demoralizing that you make excuses not to go. It’s counterproductive, yes, but at this point, there are more days than not when you simply don’t want to leave the house.

Of course the Internet isn’t any salvation either. Twitter and the blawgosphere are nauseatingly happy, with everyone either sharing stories about the clients that love them or the magic secrets that helped them earn millions working a few hours a week or annoyingly touting all the wonders of starting a law firm (mea culpa). And suddenly, in a world where there’s never been more opportunity for connection, you’ve never, ever felt like this much of a loser, or this isolated or alone. Because no one told you that solo practice was going to be like this.

Well, it is, or at least it can be. Don’t get me wrong; some solos are simply golden and soar right out of the gate. Others — many others — flounder and struggle until they hit their stride. My own solo experience put me squarely in the latter category for the first two years of my practice. My firm picked up after that, but then I had my daughters, went to part-time and had to ramp up all over again.  So I know what it’s like to hit those bumps in the road.  And since I’ve had so much practice navigating them, here are some suggestions for dealing with them:

Don’t hole yourself off: It’s the hardest thing to keep pounding the pavement, networking with other lawyers week after week when you’ve been turned away so many times before. And while it’s so easy to never leave the house (particularly if you work from home), you need to force yourself out and meet people in person.
At the same time, don’t keep hitting up the same old tired bar events, either. Check out small business meetings or lectures or try participating in a charitable function like  Habitat for Humanity or a food drive.  Even if these aren’t lawyer-only or even business-only events, you may meet other people who can connect you to people who may want to hire you.

Take charge: You might also try to organize something yourself. I know; seems scary and maybe too overwhelming when you’re down in the dumps. So just make a list of what needs to be done and tick through it on auto-pilot. Once you start planning an event – a lunch or an office party – you’ll get caught up in the momentum. And once it’s over, you’ll feel great when you start reaping the benefits of return invites and people seeking you out rather than the other way around.

Do or change just one thing: Turning around an entire firm might be difficult, but it shouldn’t be hard to pick just one thing to do or change.  Maybe you’ll commit to writing an ebook or finding a place to give a presentation.  If working from home is just too isolating or distracting, look into coworking spaces space which may not be that expensive but where you have a chance to interact with other people.  And if you’ve been limiting your interactions to only social media or email, well…it may be time to pick up the phone or get out and meeet other lawyers.

Own Up: Let people know that things aren’t going well and ask for help. Again, it’s the hardest thing in the world to admit that you’re struggling or to ask for help, but it’s the only path forward. On listserves, I’ve seen emails from people asking for help and invariably, six months later, they’re on the upswing. So put out your ask – on a listserve or a close friend. If there’s a blogger whom you’ve built a relationship with, write or pick up the phone and call – (real bloggers are really good about talking to our colleagues and readers). One caveat: don’t put people in an awkward position by begging for work.

Recognize the “spin” cycle Realize that at least 70 percent of the people you meet are editing out at least 70 percent of the whole story to give a positive spin.  Yes, that colleague of yours may have reviewed a 300 page contract, but that may have been his only piece of paying work for the past six weeks. Or the friend who’s trotting off for what seems like a lavish weekend in New York is really riding the $25 bus and staying free on her college roommate’s floor. People don’t mean to lie — it’s just a natural defense mechanism to conceal ourselves at our most vulnerable.

Just be patient: Online, almost everyone seems like an overnight success.  In truth, building a law practice for the long haul takes time.  I’ve suggested that three years is a more appropriate guidepost, but really, it could take even longer. So just keep putting one foot in front of another and keep your eye on the prize.

Turn the spin cycle on yourself: Though it can be intolerable listening to false positives, every so often, it pays to take a lesson and focus on the bright side yourself. Maybe you only collected $1500, but yes, you did settle a case. Maybe relatives are the only people who want to hire you right now, but at least you can talk about how you drafted a will. And maybe you’re barely scraping by, but at least you can say that you have a law firm.  Because you do.

  • Leanna

    I had to go find a post I sent to a list serv when my practice was 9 months old. It's now 5 years old. This was what I wrote:

    “It has been quite slow for me lately. To the point where I am trying to get out of my office lease and move to my home office in order to cut expenses.
    I do not want to have to go work for someone else. I want my practice to work.
    I'm coming into my 9th month and a lot of the cases I had going on when I started have wound down, and the new clients and cases aren't coming in.
    I'm doing all the things I'm supposed to be doing: networking with different groups of professionals who work with the elderly and having follow up meetings with some people I've met at the groups, giving presentations at local senior centers and groups (I have 2 coming up), providing wonderful service to my existing clients so they will keep me in mind for future work and refer their friends to me (which has happened somewhat). I stopped advertising in the local papers because I wasn't seeing a return on that, but I wonder if I should go back to it just to have my name out there.
    I'm sure other people have experienced this in the beginning stages (or all stages?) of their firm; please tell me it gets better.
    And any suggestions (besides “BLOG!”) are welcome as to how to get past this slow spot.”

    I got advice ranging from “keep doing what you are doing” to “expand your practice areas” to “wait it out & market like crazy while you have the time” to “Action conquers fear. Do something. Anything. ” to “take contract work.”

    At the time, I ended up giving up an expensive office and finding part time space, doing online document review for another attorney for a while, and continuing to network & blog and not give up hope.

    It was really hard. And now it's only sort of hard.

  • Carolyn Elefant

    I still remember that post and how so many people responded. I know it sounds cliche, but honestly, everytime I see the neat stuff you're doing, I just think to myself, you go, girl!

    We all go through slow and low periods – not sure that ever changes (not for me anyway) But what does get less hard is knowing how to respond, when to start reconnecting with referral sources or putting together ebooks or updating the website or putting into place whatever protocols we've developed to get start the spigot flowing again. And at least having a little bit of confidence that they'll actually work.

  • Sam Glover

    I think the “spin cycle” is one of the hardest things to cope with, because it makes you feel constantly like you are doing something wrong. But a solo talking about success has a lot in common with a college freshman talking about sex: neither is getting what they want you to think they are getting.

  • http://www.calawreport.com John Corcoran

    I like the idea of setting a 3-year benchmark for yourself. It's good to not set a high expectation where you tell yourself that you must find success within the first 3 or 6 months.

    I work for a small firm, but I treat my practice like a solo practice, in that I'm working hard to develop my own clients and my own book of business. Sometimes it seems like it's really rolling and I get a couple calls a week from new clients who sound really interesting. Other times, a few weeks go by without any “bites” so to speak.

    I've found that blogging helps, and social networking helps. I've gotten a number of clients through Facebook – friends or friends-of-friends who I wouldn't have kept in touch with if it weren't for Facebook. I also just compiled a bunch of my blog posts into an ebook which I put up for sale on my blog. It's called the Foreclosure Legal Guide. It's too soon to know if it was worth the effort but I'm thinking at least it seems impressive.
    At least that's the hope.

    John Corcoran
    California Law Report
    http://www.calawreport.com

  • http://twitter.com/skberrylaw Sarah Berry

    How did you know I needed this today? It's been 6 months and by far the hardest 6 months of my life. But I have clients. I more than pay the bills. And I have a heck of a lot more experience doing immigration law than when I started. Thanks for a little perspective.

  • http://twitter.com/BruceGodfrey Bruce Godfrey

    Carolyn this is so wise and so needed. Thank you.

  • http://constructionlawva.com constructionlaw

    Getting rolling IS hard. But rewarding.

  • Heidi

    Thank you very much for this post. I sit at my home office and because it is slow, I sometimes check out Facebook or play games on my computer. Sometimes I enjoy the slow times but other times I almost panic because I still need to contribute to the household income.

  • Pingback: “No One Told You That Solo Practice Was Going To Be Like This” | Koehler Law()

  • Carolyn Elefant

    I just saw this comment Sam. That is a GREAT analogy! Ha! ha!

  • http://www.TimeForLifeNow.com Sonia Gallagher, Esq.

    Thank you for such an honest post. Things are really difficult for solos right now because there is more competition than ever and the public sees us as a commodity. Clients are taking their time making payments and some are not paying at all.

    I really think that using the internet to engage with people on a transparent and genuine level- where people actually hear your voice, what you are about, and what it is about you that makes you different from the hundreds of other solo firms in your block attracts clients that are willing to pay your fees. Think about it. People buy from those that they know, like, and trust.

    The internet is the one tool that allows you to compete on a fair playing field with other law firms. It gives you a venue to differentiate yourself and create strategic alliances that would otherwise take a lot of time and money to reach. When I had my law firm in South Florida, I used the internet to position myself as an expert in Immigration law. I can honestly say the ROI was well worth the effort.

    Sonia M. Gallagher, Esq.
    http://www.TimeForLifeNow.com

  • K. David

    To help solos get exposure and grow their business I started a website called LeyLegal.com. We are now registering attorneys and will soon make the site available for client questions. From one solo to another, I would love to have people like you signing up. It’s free.

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