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Solo & Small Law Firms

Even In An Online Age, Bar and Professional Associations Are More Relevant To Marketing Than We’d Like to Admit

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Longtime readers of this blog know that I have a love-hate (or more accurately, a friend/frenemy) relationship with bar and professional associations.  To be clear, my beef isn’t about the services provided to solos: in the past decade since I’ve started this blog, the bars have stepped up – and I’ve watched as the initially scant offerings grew into a steady and never-ending stream of content . Rather, I simply lack the patience for the endless levels of bureaucracy, childish shenanigans and politics inherent in most bar associations. In many associations, just running for an entry level office requires a nomination by a member followed by approval by a committee followed by an election. Scheduling a brown bag lunch involves vetting dozens of friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend speaker suggestions and adopting the same format (the panel) over and over and over again. Even volunteering for a committee requires endless and persistent emails to frequently unresponsive participants or officers.

Because my time is limited – and because when I’m on a committee I want to do more than sit as a passive member so that I can put a notch on my belt — I’ve often gone off in my own direction. I’ve started a blog, organized my own webinars and occasional get-togethers – and advised others to do the same. Yet I wonder whether my impatience has cost me opportunities – because as much as those of us out here in the blogosphere hate to admit, bar associations — including the ABA, state and local associations as well as subject or demographic specific associations like NACBA or Woman’s Bar Association — for all their foibles, are still relevant and important sources of connections and business.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the resumes of the solos and smalls who have built sustainable solo practices beyond just one person or just two or three years. I’m willing to bet that most of them have done some significant legwork on bar committees that has lead to increased visibility and referrals (if you’re a solo who’s benefited from association work, give us a shout out in the comment section).  Even Tom Goldstein of SCOTUS Blog and a Supreme Court niche-practice who is a bootstraps kind of guy boasts a couple of years of ABA committee service on his resume.

Changing a bar association from within also works better than complaining about it (as I often do). These days, virtual law firms are gaining widespread acceptance – due largely in my view, to persistent efforts by Elawering Task Force  by e-lawyers like Richard Granat and Stephanie Kimbro to force change from within.

Likewise – (and almost counter-intuitively given the conservative predilections of many associations), many of today’s 21st century legal technology companies  – like Clio or Fastcase have grown their user base by partnering with bar associations and participating in their activities. I know that my book, Solo by Choice while quite popular and a solid seller, has always faced an uphill battle since many state bar associations won’t publicize it because it is not an ABA or association publication.

Maybe the legal profession is disrupting but it’s not dead yet – and wounded animals are always the most dangerous.  Which means that bar associations and disciplinary committees will continue to devise ways to fend off competitors and will live to see many more days.

Meanwhile, blogs and social media and self-organized meet-ups may level the playing field by making networking more accessible and less expensive and opening up new opportunities.  But these new tools don’t eliminate the field entirely in the way that for example, Netflix killed the brick-and-mortar video store.  Rather, social media and tech either enable us to play on the same field more competitively (through cloud-based practice management and mobile devices) so we can attract lower-budget clients or compete on smaller fields (like niche practices or VLOs).  Question is, are those the venues where you want to play ball forever?

Because in contrast to Netflix — which convinced consumers to download or mail away for movies instead of picking them up at the local store– neither lawyers, nor consumers of legal services have come that far. Lawyers still generate business from referrals from other lawyers. Clients still call bar referral services to find lawyers (even though most of the referral sites are impossible to find or navigate).  Courts still turn to bar associations for judicial nominations. And hundreds of thousands of lawyers still use bar associations as their primary source for information, CLE and networking. And while the bars as the central focus of the legal community has diminished over time, they will continue to exert significant influence at least for the next few decades.  I don’t think that the world will remain this way forever, and I don’t like it – (I’ve spent at least a decade trying to change it or run from it). But welcome to the world as it is today. Reality often bites.

So what does the current state of the legal market and legal profession mean for today’s lawyers starting out? Basically this:  you’ve got at least a decade, maybe more of life as we know it in the law — so don’t be too quick or impatient to eschew traditional forms of networking through bar associations. Association work isn’t exciting or sexy – and you’ll have to put on your subservient-shoes and check your ego at the door as you eagerly volunteer for a clunky job like writing minutes. But this kind of involvement remains a sure-fire way to build presence and credibility that will open doors and grow your firm in mainstream markets.  Plus, you might help to lay the foundation for more lasting reforms in the profession. Finally, those old guys and gals in the bar association hierarchy won’t be around forever – and eventually, they may look to find successors to take over their practices or move them into the future. Some lawyers may have the prescience to look for buyers on Craigslist but others are likely to draw on the pool of lawyers they’ve gotten to know – where else? – through bar work.

By all means, don’t ignore social media and blogging and do-it-yourself events – at the very least, those skills will serve you well in organized groups and can open doors and create opportunities as I’ve done in my practice.  But as I’ve learned from almost 25 years of practice, the engine of change in this profession grinds as slowly as the wheels of justice – and if lawyers only plan for tomorrow while ignoring the current reality of where the profession stands today, they may not be able to keep the lights on until the future gets here. As Malcolm Gladwell has observed, sometimes first is worst.

  • Brian Galvin


    I have enjoyed your blog, passively, for years (i.e., I posted no comments). Partially, this is because I am not a lawyer, and so many of the issues don’t relate directly to me, but are very relevant nonetheless (I practice law full-time as a solo Patent Agent, licensed to practice in the PTO and equivalent there (in patent matters) to a Patent Attorney). This post was a perfect example, since bar associations are not a part of my life or practice at all.

    I write today because I think you are making a good point in this post, but it isn’t so much bar associations, as such, that is your real topic. Rather, your topic is the solo’s need for a large, pre-existing network that: (a) doesn’t have to be built from scratch by the solo; and (b) has a means of entry for the solo, so the solo can have word of his/her skills and services spread within the large network (hopefully!). A bar association is a perfect example of this.

    Unfortunately, I think all such large, pre-existing networks are likely to be difficult to deal with, since that is what all large social groupings seem to have in common. Nevertheless, as your post suggests (and my story below will also suggest), it is worth the effort to get an effective “referral subnetwork” set up within such large networks, because it is an extremely effective way for word of the solo’s quality services to spread far and wide. Such referral subnetworks will, if the solo provides excellent service, naturally grow of its own accord if it is planted in a suitably large parent network (such as a large bar association).

    My own experience is quite different than the typical attorney solo’s in some respects (since I am not an attorney), yet essentially mirrors what you suggest above. I am not a member of any bar associations, since the only ones I could be a member of are the patent bar associations, and they consider agents to be second class citizens so I don’t bother. So I had been fairly insulated from the lawyer referral network, until recently (I now get some referrals locally because the local attorney community has discovered I exist, and I did get one recent successful referral from a national blogger, quite unexpectedly).

    But I found a way! [Carolyn: you and a very few other bloggers were a big help, and you in particular were a big encouragement]

    I voluntarily left a series of successful executive jobs in high tech three years to go into law practice full time, essentially making an analogous move to a BigLaw partner’s going into solo practice, but (a) without any preexisting legal clients, (b) without any preexisting legal reputation or network; (c) in a completely new profession; and (d) at a particularly bad economic time. All I had was my specialized law license, some legal experience gained part-time along the way, and a desire to practice law. Everyone thought I was crazy, and two years ago I thought they were right! (not any more!)

    I got going with blogging and Twitter. I built up 3000+ Twitter followers and wrote a couple dozen reasonably good essays (not such great blog posts), each of which was read by a few dozen people.

    The blog and my site have been useful (although I long ago stopped blogging, people still occasionally read the essays when checking me out), but Twitter was a complete bust, and I never use it now—never. After one year of trying Law 2.0 Marketing, I had a few small clients and was in danger of losing everything I had built up over the years.

    I shifted gears dramatically and started mining my LinkedIn network by writing personal emails to each person I thought might either have a need, know someone who did, or just generally not realize I had switched to patent law. Those 100 emails led to 50 thoughtful replies, 25 phone calls, 6 meetings, and two client engagements. Then my pre-existing network began to realize that I had really made the switch (I don’t think they believed I was serious), and referrals started to come in.

    In effect, I had a pre-existing network that had many needs for my services, but they didn’t know about me or my services. LinkedIn was the key (I also removed all references to non-patent related services in my LinkedIn profile, to make it clear I had crossed the Rubicon). Once the network knew I WAS serious, and since I was able to “stay in the game” long enough for the network to do its work, things changed rapidly.

    Two years ago, I had one medium-sized client and a half dozen very small clients, but had started getting referrals. I was still massively underwater financially, but I hung in because I could see the tide had turned. One year ago, I had three medium clients and another dozen smaller clients. Now, I have one Fortune 500 client in a very cool technology area (which never would have happened if I hadn’t hung in there), over a dozen medium-sized corporate clients, lots of small clients, an office in town that led to three new clients within the first month (another lesson in itself), and six heavily-engaged virtual contractors. I now routinely get third-generation referrals—and only time will allow that to happen.

    To me, the lessons learned are:

    1. Of course, never EVER lose a customer due to lack of care or quality (knock on wood, so far I haven’t).

    2. Stay the course if you can; it takes time but will work if you do (1) above, and are in an appropriate market.

    3. Have a large pre-existing network you can tap into that can spread the word for you once it “gets a clue”. Bar associations are one kind; be alert for others.

    4. Blogging is effective for those special few (you are one, Carolyn), who have a calling. For attorneys who don’t, it is obvious, and I drop their blogs quickly if I don’t learn anything. Personally, I don’t, but I didn’t know that initially. I don’t like blogs that are merely advertisements in disguise, but the good ones aren’t.

    5. LinkedIn is awesome, even if they ARE adding extraneous materials and will certainly ruin it as a place to go soon.

    In my case, a third of my clients are international, a third are in Silicon Valley (I live in Washington state), and the rest are either local or elsewhere in the US…so a large pre-existing network is GREAT for building a national or international practice as a solo, because the cost of marketing nationally or internationally would be prohibitive.

    PS in case anyone reading this wonders why I went through this, when I had “made it” in high tech, the answer is that I always have been interested in law, but didn’t want to go to law school at 50, so I figured an alternate route to specialized law practice, and it worked. It was just as hard as law school, and no less expensive, now that I think about it, but it probably was more fun:) I always believe you should follow your passion if you can, and thankfully I was able to.

    But if you contemplate going solo, expect a long hard road to get to a sustainable practice, and dig in for a good long struggle—and stay the course!

    I am glad I did it. I now LOVE my work, every day.