When you’re a solo (or small firm) practitioner in the first or early years of your practice, your chief concern is something like this: “Can I earn enough money to keep the lights on, and support myself and my family?”
In late 2009, when I launched my private criminal law firm, my main concern was along those lines. I rented a one-room office and was careful to negotiate a low rent (and a one year lease in case things didn’t work out). I bought used office furniture and used office equipment. I scored my printer—an older HP LaserJet—for $120 off eBay. The printer cartridge cost almost as much as the printer. My only spurge was a Fujitsu ScanSnap 1500M (which was the best thing I bought!)
The year turned out to be quite a bit more successful than I had imagined. By month three, I had exceed all my twelve-month goals laid out in what I thought at the time was a fairly ambitious business plan. The upside was that I didn’t have to worry so much about expenses. The downside, a year later, is realizing that by not worrying so much about expenses, some of them have gotten out of hand. It’s nothing that can’t be corrected, but having just conducted a year-end review of my business, I’ve come to the conclusion that everything needs to be reviewed for efficiency purposes.
I’m a gadget nut, so in some ways my success and my desire to build a law practice that’s aided by technology has been excuse to buy this or that gadget that, in retrospect, I could’ve done without. Next year, I’ll be more disciplined, in part because I’m going to bring in an outside business person to consult with me on what is strictly speaking necessary to run the practice, and what is fluff.
Your indulgences might be different. Maybe you like really nice furniture. Or you like a certain type and quality of brochure or paper that you think gives you practice that air of respectability. And maybe those things are important to your practice.
But you should be careful to think about is strictly speaking required to improve your profitability. That’s because you’re in a business. If at the end of the day you want to splurge on some piece of equipment or some superfluous service you add to your menu for clients, then by all means do so. But do so keeping in mind that you’re lowering your profitability.
I have three recommendations that I’m adopting to improve my profitability.
First, I’m carefully reviewing every single expense from the past year. Some are obviously bad decisions. Did I really need that handheld scanner that cost $400. No. My Droid phone is much quicker and better when I need to copy a document on the fly. Stupid buy. I’ll do better this year. I’m also looking at recurring expenses.
At one point, I subscribed to one court records search service. By the end of the year, I’m subscribed to three. Obviously a mistake, but I’ve been somewhat careless about unsubscribing from services I don’t need. I’m going to fix that as well, saving myself $60/month or $720 next year.
Second, measure everything. Obviously it’s hard to know whether this or that acquisition is effective at adding to your bottom line. But adopting the position that by measuring effectively we can assess performance and efficenciy, you at least on your way to building a more proftiable practice. Obviously a key method is to track how clients were referred to you. But another method is to try to find out why they chose you. Was it the location? Or the time you spent at the initial interview?
Third, bring in an outside person to help you critically analyze your practice. Solo practitioners can come to enjoy the fact that they and they alone get to make decisions about how the resources of the firm are deployed. And this can lead to some unwise decisions (see above!).
By bringing someone in—ideally someone who is not a lawyer and who can critically examine your whole practice from soup to nuts—you can gain some insights about where efficiencies are to be gained.
And the more efficient the business, the more profit for you and the more effective you can be for your clients.
Raleigh criminal lawyer Damon Chetson represents people charged with serious felonies, misdemeanors, and Driving While Impaired charged in the state and federal courts of North Carolina.