My Shingle

Does Doing Work That’s Hard Work for Solos Seeking to Grow?

by Carolyn Elefant on May 21, 2014 · 7 comments

in MyShingle Solo, Questions & Advice

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Marketing god Seth Godin recently urged his audience to take up the challenge of doing what’s hard:

In an industrial setting, the obvious plan is to seek out the easy work. You’re more likely to get it done with less effort and then move on[…] Today, though, it’s the difficult work that’s worth doing. It’s worth doing because difficult work allows you to stand out, create value and become the one worth choosing.

Seek out the difficult, because you can. Because it’s worth it.

Great advice if you’re thinking about your legacy. But how does doing the difficult work as a  growth-based business model for solos and smalls?

Not very well. And if my opinion surprises you, well, it surprises me as well.

For years, I bought into Richard Susskind’s belief that the bespoke shall inherit the earth  — meaning that lawyers with special or unique skills would survive and thrive even in a world where many routine legal tasks formerly handled by lawyers are increasingly automated. I built my practice on a niche specialty in energy regulation that’s always been in demand and enabled me to command more for my work than many of my colleagues in general practice. In an already complicated field, I chased the toughest work possible because most of my peers didn’t want it and plus, I love a good challenge. Today in my industry, I may be viewed as a bit of an outsider, but I know that I’m also respected for the quality of work that I do. 

But in the meantime, I’ve always struggled to grow because given the nature of my work, it’s nearly impossible to find and train quality lawyers to work with me. For the past five years, I’ve relied on part-time associates, freelance lawyers and of-counsel senior attorneys which works but doesn’t allow for growth.

Meanwhile, all around me, I see lawyers launching and growing empires built on fairly ordinary work capably handled but done in bulk. Routine bankruptcy. Trademark applications. Uncomplicated divorce. Social security claims. Some types of estate planning.  While most of these practice areas have a complicated side to them, the majority of cases run to type and can be easily taught to new lawyers and handled through systems, forms and automation. Indeed, services prepaid legal plans and membership services like those offered by RocketLawyer thrive because they cherry pick the small stuff.  The analogy extends to big law as well: companies like Axiom are making a killing  by picking off routine corporate work that big firms once charged an arm and a leg to handle, and doing it efficiently and cost-effectively through a pool of lawyers who do solid, serviceable work.

I’m not saying that choosing difficult work isn’t worthwhile. Most of us didn’t go to law school to process cases assembly line style.  And a specialty can distinguish you and make it easier to compete, particularly if you don’t have natural marketing skills.  But if you want to grow an empire that sustains more than just you and a small handful of lawyers, or build something scalable and saleable that survives beyond just you, then doing exclusively what’s difficult may prove difficult indeed.

What do you think? Chime in with your comments below.

  • Jacob Small

    Assembly lines are really good at a couple things: (1) turning out a consistent product, (2) being capable of easy refinement when necessary, and (3) being capable of having anyone plug into a spot on the assembly line without significantly changing product quality.

    I learned this lesson years ago, before I went to law school. I was a gymnastics coach and moved to a new job at APEX gymnastics in Leesburg, VA. The owners there ran a tight ship. Every class followed the same weekly plans, and coaches simply ran their classes through the predetermined “assembly lines.” At first I was turned off by the idea, worrying about individual attention.

    Then I came to see that parents and students were happier, students learned faster, coaches had less to worry about, and the business had no money troubles. It was a revelation. Business processes, I learned, were the key to a consistent product, happy clients, and happy staff. Later I read the E-Myth Attorney, which confirmed my suspicions even more.

    In law I’m finding that taking an ordinary, uncomplicated practice task and building processes for handling it capable, over and over again, IS the hard work. It’s easier to handle your practice case by case. But it’s better to work on your processes so that you’re working on all of your cases at the same time.

    I don’t think it matters as much whether your practice is bespoke or general in nature. Focus on your processes first. When you find a problem, fix it in the processes. Fine tune. Run an assembly line. The best businesses do it.

  • Josh brown

    interesting take, Carolyn. I believe if you are thinking about growing your practice in the “traditional” sense of adding more attorneys, more staff, and generally increasing your overhead as your work load increases, that you are likely correct. However, due to technology and the digital age, I believe there are many ways to now grow a practice that do NOT involve having a tremendous amount of overhead, but also allows you to scale and grow profitably. For instance, turning your legal services into products, courses, and the like is a great way to add additional streams of revenue and essentially scale and grow your practice without trading your time for dollars. You know better than most, what can be accomplished online. It is certainly possible to grow a practice with legal-related products that are a compliment to your practice and will inevitably add to more clients. This is difficult work, but I believe pays off when done well and allows us attorneys to serve a whole lot of people in different ways.

  • myshingle

    Excellent point Josh – more than one way to skin a cat, so to speak! I’ve actually been working on something along those lines as an ancillary revenue stream to my practice and I am excited to see where it leads. Interested in seeing where your work heads as well.

  • Josh brown

    Sounds great, Carolyn! I will be sure to share my soon to be released products that I am working on. Essentially, I have adopted Marcus Sheridan’s philosophy of “be the teacher.” Everything I am doing online and with my products is geared around teaching my expertise to those that are interested. I will be interested to see what you are putting together as well.

  • Bill

    Carolyn: I think my practice profile is similar to yours. I am a government contract lawyer–also a very narrow niche–with mostly large and midmarket clients. At least in my niche, in-house counsel seem to feel comfortable using a solo or small firm for major matters. It is mostly an hourly billing practice, with a few flat fee matters. I was a large firm partner until early 2013, and consciously set my solo hourly rate about 15% below my big firm rate (and the rate of my professional peers still in large firms). Happily, my overhead is down 90%.
    I am also use a rotating collection of free lance lawyers, all of whom have pretty deep subject matter expertise. A couple are former associates of mine who didn’t want to go back to large firms after having kids; I also use some other former large firm partners, now solo or in small firms. I was surprised how low these latter lawyers set their billing rates (50-75% below their large firm peers). While I privately think they are underpricing themselves, these low rates allow me to use them with a healthy margin.
    At least for me, this model scales pretty well. Since leaving biglaw, I am billing more but working less; the difference is an office 5 minutes from my house, and virtually no management duties (goodbye Recruiting Committee and Opinion Letter Committee!). I always staffed matters pretty leanly, and so far it is working out well.
    I was actually struck by the reaction of a Fortune 100 GC when I told her how I would staff a pretty serious matter: “…former associate of mine, solo who I have known professionally for 20 years, etc….” Her basic reaction was that she really didn’t know the associates, counsel, and partners I put on her matters at the old firm, and trusted me to guarantee the quality. She was doing the same now…period.
    I would worry about trying to commoditize any type of legal work, both because it is hard (I think) to maintain quality, and clients who buy on price will always find someone cheaper, eventually. Then it becomes a race to the bottom, or a race to keep developing new “products,” or both.
    Great topic. I really enjoy your blog, and the comments.
    Bill

  • Paul Spitz

    Do you want to be big or do you want to do what you enjoy? If the two aren’t compatible, then pick doing what you enjoy. Life is too short to waste your time on work that you hate, and you didn’t become a solo to do that kind of work.

  • Andrew Weltchek

    Why can’t you train a young associate (and then more) to do what you do? Wouldn’t that free up your time and give you more passive income? And even offer them (and you) the opportunity to buy you out when you want to retire?

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