Solo Practice Year Two: Now What?

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Starting a solo practice is a difficult and rewarding experience.

Keeping your lights on for a year is a monumental achievement. The only thing harder is duplicating and expanding on your success in year two.

Here are five ways to keep your solo practice running strong.

Assuming continuing success is a recipe for failure

There are countless professional athletes who had a brilliant rookie year and then were never heard from again. And I bet you can name at least five bands that were one-hit wonders (what happened to the Spin Doctors?).

Part of the reason some rookie athletes take their sport by storm is because of their drive. Yes, they have talent, but they want to prove that they belong—and that’s what separates them from all the other rookies. Sometimes bands become one-hit wonders because their second album lacks that energy and excitement of their debut.

Those are not perfect analogies by any means, but you get the idea. When I meet with someone who has just opened their own firm or is planning on opening it soon, I can tell within five minutes if they are going to make it. Seriously, I can’t think of one person that has proven me wrong (good or bad).

Running a solo practice requires an unrelenting drive. It takes a lot of energy to get your practice open and keep it open that first year. It also takes a ton of work, blood, sweat, and tears to keep it going in year two (and beyond). It’s a different type of energy (and stress), but don’t think you can start coasting after one good year. If you put your practice on cruise control, you’ll just become another statistic.

Figure out what worked

Always start with the positive (we’ll get to the negative in a minute). Maybe your marketing efforts were a mixed bag, but you gave a well received CLE. Your first couple of court appearances didn’t go as planned, but you blew away opposing counsel during two hearings at the end of last year.

It’s usually a bit easier to evaluate productivity and marketing as opposed to case success. Because every case has different facts, with different opposing counsel, and a different judge, it’s like comparing apples to zebras. You can probably draw some general conclusions, but be careful about thinking you’ve established the magical legal strategy after one year of practice.

Take a few hours and look over your cases, your books, and your client intake data. One thing I’m always conscious of is when client referrals spike or client intake shows a marked increase. I can usually tie that to networking lunches, a CLE I presented, and sometimes just a blog post on my firm’s website.

I also look at my finances to see when the finances tightened or exploded. Sometimes it’s pure coincidence—a few cases settled at the same time. Or, sometimes a number of cases that I suspected would resolve quickly did not. Even then, I’m able to look at those cases and figure out why they resolved when they did—which is extremely helpful information moving forward.

Pick three problems/issues and fix them

Honestly, you will have more than three problems. If you try and fix all of them in year two, you will focus too much on fixing problems instead of focusing on what worked. So pick three things you want to change, and you’ll probably succeed at two of them.

I’m not advocating for setting the bar low, I’m just a realist. My two biggest goals during year two were changing my negotiation style in my Plaintiff side cases and altering my fee options for defense cases. In terms of negotiation, I wanted to get better results for my clients. And we all know it’s silly to expect different results if you continue to do the same thing.

For my defense cases, those are almost exclusively flat fee and/or unbundled clients. I had a ton of clients that hired me for my cheapest service, but then they never came back. So I added an additional service to the cheapest service, and it paid huge dividends. Adding the additional service created more face time with my clients, which made them more confident in my legal skills. In turn, it led a majority of clients to hiring me for additional services.

Honestly, I can’t remember what my third big goal was. Probably because I realized the importance of the other two issues.

Let your confidence grow

There’s a big different between assuming you will succeed and believing you will have continued success. The former is a recipe for failure, the latter is the foundation for success.

My practice really started to take on its own life and personality in year two. I started to realize that “hey, I’ve been doing this for a year and it’s actually working.” Every time I thought that, I would quickly tell myself to shut up and get back to work.

But those 5-6 instances of “oh, right, I now how to do this” were huge confidence builders. And clients and opposing counsel can smell confidence. I guarantee I have current clients who would not have hired me two years ago. And I have definitely convinced opposing counsel to do things they never would have agreed to two years ago.

I’m still meticulous and cautious, but I’m more confident of the end result. That confidence flows downhill—meaning it effects every part of case from client intake, to dealing with opposing counsel, to hearings. Being confident does not mean you automatically win, but it puts you in a better position to do so.

Loosen the purse strings

To a degree, you have to spend money to make money. In year one, there is a near-obsesssion with keeping your overhead low. It makes sense, because during year one you are hustling and scraping to make sure you can pay yourself something.

In year two, your finances should be a bit more comfortable. Not go buy a new car comfortable, but “my computer is really slow, it’s time to get a new laptop” comfortable.

In year one you would agonize about whether it made sense to spend $500-$1,500 on a new computer and “oh man, that’s really going to throw off the profit/loss for this month.” In year two, the thinking should be “I’ve got a solid client base, I’m busy, and a new computer will help me be more efficient.”

During year one, attorneys spend a lot of time comparing and trying to replicate other attorney’s successful solo firms. By year two, you should be spending your time figuring out what works the best for you.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/64524019@N07/6279818064/)

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  • Darren Wells

    It makes so much sense that after a year of putting everything you have into your practice and achieving success, that there may be a slip in year two. It is extremely easy to get comfortable in a situation, whether you mean to or not. I really liked the idea of identifying three problems and then working to fix them. Like you said, there are probably more than three problems to fix, but having a set list of three that you want to accomplish makes the goal look more achievable and organized. It’s something to shoot for- not everything to shoot for. I always thought the “you need to spend money to make money” adage was interesting. While it is certainly true, people need to make sure they don’t abuse the mindset. It’s important to spend money where needed.