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Solo & Small Law Firms

The Three Year Rule – er, Guidepost

When it comes to building a law practice, I don’t like to use the word “rule,” because for every rule – e.g., “You must never work for free” or “You must commit to building a firm full time,” there are always plenty of exceptions. Still, based on others’ experience, you can glean certain guideposts or observations to help guide your practice and make decisions. And based on my own experience and those of a number of colleague, I’ve always regarded the three year mark as the time that most solo practices – even those that begin with the utmost success – truly begin to soar.

I’d always believed that the three year guidepost was merely a product of timing: You spend most of Year One simply scrambling to get the practice up and running and pull in whatever matters you can to generate cash flow. Year Two, you start to reap the benefits of Year One marketing so that more profitable cases find their way through the door. And by Year Two/early Year Three, you gain enough confidence to shed practice areas and/or clients that consume your time and energy but don’t produce much revenue. So by the middle to end of Year Three, you’ve finally got a good sense of where your firm is going and you can truly take off for the stars. And in fact, many solos I know who’ve started a practice after leaving a firm report a drop in income for Year One, steady growth in Year Two and meeting or surpassing earlier income from previous employment by Year Three.

I’ve found some confirmation of the three year guidepost in another, seemingly unrelated source: this post Tips for Succeeding as a TV Writer in Hollywood by Gretchen Rubin (a former lawyer), of the Happiness Project Rubin writes:

You have to live in L.A. for three years before anything much happens.”
People told my sister this when she moved out there, and indeed, after she’d been there for three years, her career really picked up speed. This is largely because relationships are so important in L.A., and it takes about three years to work up a serious network.

Rubin’s advice made me re-examine the three year guidepost in a different light. Maybe the three years aren’t really a matter of timing, but a matter of relationship building. And in law, networking is just as important as it is in L.A. Yet, many lawyers don’t bother to network and build relationships until they turn solo and thus, need the full three years to get a practice up and running because that’s the time it takes for them to establish relationships.

The lesson here? If you’re thinking of starting a law practice – today or five years down the line, start building relationships with other lawyers and potential clients right now before you start your firm. In that way, you can ensure that you’re an exception to the three year guidepost for law firm success.