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.
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?