Small Firm Roadmap Stories: Build the Tech You’re Missing

Lawyerist Lab is a community where solo and small-firm lawyers go to innovate, test, experiment, and improve their law businessesWe’re interviewing Lab members on their experiences as they align with The Small Firm Roadmap.

“People may not realize that if there’s not a technology or software product out there that works for your needs, you might be able to build one. It might not be as expensive or as complicated as you think.”

Tell me about your practice. How did it start? What were you doing before it started?

I launched my practice in late 1999. We focus on trademark law. 

Prior to launching my firm, I worked at the US Patent and Trademark office for about a year as an examiner reviewing trademark applications.

When I decided to launch my practice, I had a couple of thoughts. One: I knew working for the federal government wasn’t for me. It didn’t meet my professional goals. I wanted to be an entrepreneur — get out on my own.

Also, the internet as a marketing tool and platform was really just taking off at that time. When I launched my business, the majority of law firms didn’t even have websites. I saw an opportunity. 

What kind of opportunity?

I decided to charge flat all-inclusive fees from the beginning.

I also realized that technology was changing the way that firms worked and marketed, particularly in a field like trademarks where your practice can be national. So, I built a website, marketed online, and got my first clients. 

What were your struggles when you transitioned to own firm?

Like most solos, I struggled with being alone. I had a huge support network at the trademark office and in school before that, so being on my own was different. At the time, I didn’t have the wisdom to reach out to find mentors. 

Plus, there weren’t a lot of small or solo IP shops at the time because the market was undergoing an evolution. There were no roadmaps to follow. I really had to make my own way. 

You had your practice for quite a while before you joined Lab. What made you join?

A combination of things. Number one, even when things are going well, I’m always looking towards the future. I don’t want to be static or stuck in place. The practice of law is changing. The management of firms is changing. If you don’t keep up, you’ll get left behind.

Second, I had become tired of going to traditional conferences in the field. You’re surrounded by people who practice in the same field and they have the same type of lectures every year. I was getting so little out of going to those conferences that I wanted to try something new.

I wanted to think out of the box and make fresh connections. And Lab has been so valuable for this. Even if other attorneys in the group are working on different issues, I still get value out of hearing their stories, their obstacles, and how they overcame them.

What else do you find helpful about Lab?

When I was ready to grow, I had no idea how to handle staffing. I had zero experience or training in managing, overseeing, hiring, firing, all of that. To have support and coaching in Lab while I figured all of it out was really important. 

It’s also great to be around like-minded people — attorneys who are thinking differently about subscriptions, billing, staffing, processes, and everything else. Even if we aren’t working on the same issues, just hearing their solutions and stories is so helpful.

The Masterminds [peer-led brainstorming groups] have been tremendously helpful. Being around other people who are sharing their experiences and challenging each other and asking questions and learning is so valuable. 

Finally, one-on-one coaching with Stephanie. I’ve been working on a book, and she’s kept me on track. She’ll ask me questions like, “You finishing that book today? No? OK, what’s keeping you from writing? What’s the struggle? How do we fix the jam?” I can make a list of a hundred things to do, but it’s hard to do them without accountability. 

What’s one area of The Small Firm Scorecard where your firm is doing well? How are you maintaining that growth?

Technology. We’ve always been ahead of the curve there and we’ve kept the progress going. 

Going paperless is huge. You would think it’s not something to brag about anymore, but you’d be surprised. You’re still ahead if you’re paperless. And if you aren’t paperless yet, make it a priority as it opens up so many other doors with efficiency. 

I’ve also found that people may not realize that if there’s not a technology or software product out there that works for your needs, you might be able to build one. It might not be as expensive or as complicated as you think. We built our own product that works as a CRM, an intake, and our docketing system. It’s invaluable. A bonus benefit is that it is a great marketing tool when I tell prospective clients that we’ve built our own proprietary software.

If building a new tool feels daunting, talk to an expert and break it down into pieces – maybe your tool only needs to do one thing to start. What’s one very repetitive task you need help doing that you can’t find the right tool for? 

What’s your advice for someone starting their own firm?

Number one is to find a passion that you can tie into your work. I don’t believe in the separation of work from life. For instance, if you love sports, try to work with sports companies. If you love music, go to music events and network and promote your services that way. Combine your passion and work in every way you can. 

Second, have patience. I used to say, wait six months for progress — and even that’s probably generous. But when the returns start to come in, the results can be contagious. People are calling you because they spoke to you at an event a year ago. It just builds.

And then I’m always looking ahead, so that even when things are good and busy, I’m planting new marketing seeds to make sure there are pipelines of business coming in six months or a year. 

Erik Pelton is all about energy, whether he’s representing clients, addressing workshop or conference-goers, volunteering with Falls Church City’s Economic Development Authority, testing his mettle in a triathlon, drumming up support for charity, or wrangling kids on Bike to School Day. His superpower is making complicated subjects clear, using real-world examples to illustrate his points in an engaging—sometimes-hilarious—way. And as an early-adopter gadget freak, the exploding world of technology and associated intellectual property laws is to Erik familiar and fun rather than intimidating. Erik got his start as a trademark examiner for the USPTO and, in the years since, has grown his law practice with the enduring ideals of customer service, affordability, and clarity.

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