This has been a year of bad news for law school graduates looking to follow the traditional path of joining a mid-size or large firm. For example, the Wall Street Journal reported, based on its own assessment of law school graduation data from nearly 200 accredited schools, that members of the law school class of 2011 had little better than a 50-50 shot of landing a long-term job as a lawyer at a firm within nine months of receiving a degree and only about 8% of 2011 graduates landed full-time, long-term jobs at larger firms with more than 250 attorneys1. Meanwhile, a different survey by the National Association of Legal Career Professionals (NALP) pegged the law firm employment rate for new law school graduates at 85.6%, the lowest rate since 19942.
Facing these and other sobering statistics, law school graduates increasingly choose to start their own practices. This, however, has plenty of its own perils. Law schools do little to prepare graduates for dealing with "The Business of Law" (client relations, practice management, finance) that determines a firm's success. Solo lawyers need all the business traits of an entrepreneur: motivation, acceptance of risk, resiliency, commitment, persistence. They also need adequate capital, an ideal financial reserve of six months living expenses to ease some of the angst of starting a practice initiating the business cycle. But above all they need clear goals and specific strategies for what kind of billable work they want to do, measured against near-term targets that are realistic. In other words, young solos need a plan.
There are smart and foolish ways to start a practice. The smart way is to plan. Every law firm is a business, and a business that grows without a clear idea of overall goals and specific strategies will wind up reflecting whatever walks in the door. Foolish growth relies on whim and serendipity - not the best paths to success. An excellent acronym, SMART, describes what's required for a smart growth plan:
John Wooden, famed UCLA basketball coach, said: "Failure to plan is planning to fail." For a lawyer in a solo firm, the SMART formula helps you decide where you want to go as you grow. Once you do, there is a greater likelihood of achieving a satisfying practice - and life.
A smart growth plan doesn't have to be complicated. It can be as fundamental as identifying two or three desired business outcomes within a given time period, defining the behaviors necessary to achieve those outcomes, identifying whom to influence in order to get both the desired behaviors and the desired business results, and deciding how to influence them. Such a plan is a guide for the future, not a guarantor of that future. The ultimate goal of a plan is simple - to control your practice as it grows, rather than letting your practice control you. Modified to your own needs, consider these 10 elements as part of your growth plan.
The Final Step
There is one final planning step: realize that your plan will always be changing, which means you will always be a problem-solver. Instead of just reacting, look ahead for solutions. Too many good attorneys are so busy with immediate concerns that they cannot look forward for ways to solve future problems. That applies not only to your own practice but to your clients' needs. Make yourself invaluable by going the extra mile and providing a service that clients feel they must have. Know your clients' business and anticipate their future problems. Suggest articles or webinars on new business trends. When you become truly invaluable to a client, you will always compete successfully for their business. And as long as you're competing, you have the opportunity to succeed.
Ed Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC, is a recognized expert in law practice management. He partners with attorneys and law firms to increase profitability, coaching them on issues of internal operations, practice development, & financial matters. Ed enables lawyers to be more effective with their clients with less stress for both the lawyer and the client. He practiced law for 25 years, has coached lawyers for 20 years, and is the author of 13 leading books. His latest book, Growing Your Law Practice Through Tough Times, was released in April 2010. Ed is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, State Bar of California (LPMT Section).
Ed is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management, a board-certified Coach to the Legal Profession and a charter member of the Million Dollar Consulting® Hall of Fame. He can be reached at (800) 837-5880, www.lawbiz.com, www.lawbizblog.com and www.lawbizforum.com.