Don’t Grow: Be Proud of Your Solo Practice

seedling-solo-practice

You can bring the “less is more” mentality to your solo practice every day. It’s a cliche, I know, but you’ve got to ask yourself whether having your own wing on the top floor with 15 associates under you is worth the headache and the risk.

Businesses (including law firms) obsessed by growth are their own worst enemy.

I read somewhere that economists no longer speak in terms other than “growth,” that our society’s obsession with growth has led them to characterize periods of recession as “negative growth.”

There’s another way to be successful: Don’t grow. Be proud of your solo practice. Because when your primary focus becomes growth, you no longer care about the things that really matter.

What Really Matters

Ranked in order of importance:

  • Your paying clients. You will exchange time, the lawyer’s most precious asset, to attend to the necessities of growing a solo practice into something bigger. If nothing else, time is what you’ll need if you want to get home in time for dinner on a regular basis. Growth means diverting your time and attention away from paying clients—your reason for existing in the first place—to billboard marketing campaigns, finding and hiring people, and looking for bigger (and more expensive) office space.
  • Financial stability. Money keeps the lights on in a solo practice. Money feeds your kids. With money, you can practice law. Without it, you go into bankruptcy. Worse, you make poor decisions of the type where you’re dipping into client trust accounts (“just this once”). Many of us know a lawyer or two who went to jail for it. It’s the quickest way to lose your license.
  • Being a damn good lawyer. Like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, time and money is the foundation on which you pursue your higher calling. You didn’t go to law school to become Google AdWords Certified. You went so you could be a lawyer. So be a lawyer. Learn all you can about your niche, invest time into quality cases, and service the heck out of your clients. That’s how a solo practice succeeds.

What Doesn’t Matter (as Much)

If the paint is peeling off the walls, don’t pick up and move. Hang a piece of decent artwork over it. Your clients won’t notice. If you’re in a nondescript suburban office park, don’t dream of downtown architecture as the solution to giving the right impression. Stress to potential clients—who all live in the suburbs anyway—that your office is easy to get to. If the marketing and SEO folks are saying you’ve got to grow your online presence to compete as a solo practice, focus instead on what you’ve already got. Improve your existing attorney profile. Get out and do some real face-to-face networking. Write something good and publish it on your blog or as an op-ed in your local newspaper.

If you look at what really matters versus what doesn’t matter as much, you’ll agree that less is more in being a lawyer, and that focusing on growth for the sake of growth will directly impact your ability to be a good one.

Parting Thoughts

At a bankruptcy hearing I once attended with a client, there were of course many other lawyers. There was one, in particular. I don’t know anything about him or his life’s circumstances. I don’t know whether he ran a solo practice or captained a sizable firm.

What I do remember was the shock and surprise, just perceptible below the surface, among the debtors in the room (bankruptcy hearings often take place together in one large conference room) when this particular lawyer sat in front of the trustee, not as a lawyer, but as a debtor. If growth was the cause of this lawyer’s bankruptcy—again, I have no idea if it was—that’s good enough reason as any to forget about growth and simply be proud of your solo practice.

Because if you’re a successful lawyer, no matter how “small,” one who cares more about his or her clients than growth, that is something to be proud of. Lincoln had a solo practice and he did quite well for himself. Or, if you prefer an updated version of this notion, I’ll end with the founders of the software company 37signals, who in their book Rework said:

What is it about growth and business? Why is expansion always the goal? What’s the attraction of big besides ego? [...] What’s wrong with finding the right size and staying there?

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/_sjg_/5472660657/)

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  • http://www.horensteinlawgroup.com Steve Horenstein

    Having come from a large firm to starting my small one (15 months old,) I agree with everthing in the article except the reference to SEO. Unelss your client base is such that you don’t need more clients ( in my view it is almost always dangerous to think this way,) Then Search Engine Optimization is the great equalizer. It is what solo and small firms can use to compete for business with big firms. I remain a big believer in getting out from behind your desk and talking to folks and do it almost every day. However, we are now getting a significant number of clients from our website SEO properly done costs money but we are definately seeing a return on our investment.

    • http://bradleywrites.com/ Chris Bradley

      You raise a good point, Steve. I do believe that online marketing and SEO can level the playing field, so to speak, among the competition.

  • http://www.lesliehartlaw.com Leslie Hart

    Thank you SO much for this refreshing perspective on the value of solo practice. I have spent my career working in law firms, as an associate and as a partner. About 18 months ago I started my own practice. I had/have so much to learn about promoting my business (which is ME). I had never networked or done any marketing.

    I have been to countless seminars and workshops on the topic of how to “grow your business.” Granted, a full time paralegal, administrative assistant and bookkeeper would ne nice, but I am confident that if I “stay the course” these things will come. To me, “growing my business” first, means bringing in enough income to pay someone else to do the stuff that diverts me from my real goal: offering excellent service to my clients. After that, it means bringing in enough income to sustain an acceptable lifestyle. Do I need to expand to a law firm with a name the Receptionist can’t pronounce when she answers the phone (hence the generic phrase “law offices”)?? I think not

    Your article made me stop and consider what kind of “growth” I want. Quality, not quantity is the thought that comes to mind. Thanks again!

    • http://bradleywrites.com/ Chris Bradley

      And thank you for your kind words, Leslie. I’m glad this post was useful to you. You hit the nail on the head. It’s not quantity, in the form of lavish offices and employees and large monthly overhead to support all that, but the quality of legal representation you can provide. Everyone’s got to figure out for themselves where they stand on that.

  • Mark

    I also think there is a perception by other non-lawyers that a firm must have multiple lawyers. I was just asked yesterday when I was planning on hiring an associate. I have been in solo practice for 18 days. I have one client.

  • http://Www.richmontewells.com Sally Calverley

    Couldn’t agree more!

    It’s not size that matters, but what you do with it!

    Embrace the opportunities offered by technology though – the Cloud and virtual/outsourced support can ease a lot of the headaches of working alone

    • http://www.royginsburg.com Roy Ginsburg

      A valuable post. Many of the points you make apply not only to solos, but to all sized firms. It never ceases to amaze me how many firms want to grow for no other reason than to grow. Few, if any, analyze whether the growth will make the firm more profitable; they just assume it will. Of course, many times, it doesn’t.

      Whenever you grow, it’s a virtual certainty that running the firm will become more complicated and create more headaches. More lawyers should follow the KISS principle. Keep It Simple Stupid.

  • guest

    What do you mean by “grow”?
    If you mean “hire associates”, then it is indeed stupid to make this an outright goal.
    If you mean “increase revenues and profit”, then growth must always be the goal.
    When you have increased revenue to the point that you can’t, or don’t want to, do the work yourself, is when to hire an associate.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/chrisbradley/ Chris Bradley

      I am arguing against increasing revenues and profit for the sake of increasing revenues and profit.

  • http://jacksonandwilson.com Mitch Jackson

    I’ve been in private practice since 1986 and wouldn’t change of thing :-)

  • http://www.towerofivory.net Lukasz Gos

    I have a similar situation as a legal translator (made the lateral move in 2009). Translators naturally progress to small agency owners but that’s a lot of administration, mostly e-mail forwarding and phone calls, not to mention double-checking everything, such as proofing the proofers, giving advise on specialist areas, and keeping tabs on people to make sure they keep deadlines, all the while there’s also marketing to do and accounting/tax affairs. In brief, welcome to the admin world. It’s gonna take a while before you can delegate without uncomfortable risk. Associates are much more survivable on their own than rookie translators but there’s still more than enough management and admin to do as the boss of other people in the same office, and supervising isn’t as cool as actually practicing. Then again, there are folks who hire office managers, client managers, project managers and whatnot while actually practicing in their own practice.