AS A SOLO LAWYER starting your own law practice, your priorities are clear 1) learn how to be a good lawyer, and 2) learn how to bring in money. But what happens a couple of years down the road when you’ve gotten good at what you do, and money seems to be coming in at a fairly regular pace, but you still feel anxious, worried and even a bit miserable? It seems like money is going out as fast as it comes in and everyone is getting paid but you even though you are hustling as hard as you can.
This is not what you thought life would be like when you decided to open your own practice. Not at all.
Hey, I hear you. I’ve been there. And I’ve heard this same story over and over again from my clients, many of whom are solo practitioners with budding law firms. When I first opened my law practice in 2007, I was scared to death about how I was going to make enough money each month to just cover my monthly nut and pay my personal bills. But there was no backup plan, so I knew I had to make it work.
So I did. And quickly, too. Within a year, my firm was cranking along so well that I decided to bring in a partner. Soon, we also added a paralegal, receptionist and then another associate.
Alas, I was miserable. All I did was work, referee employee disputes, and go home late at night to my glass of wine and whatever I could find to quickly grab and eat before collapsing, weary to the bone, in my bed.
My health deteriorated, my marriage suffered and I never had time for my friends anymore—or even just to read a good book, workout or watch my favorite TV shows. Eventually, I decided to make a drastic change. I sold out my half of the business to my partner and walked into a new life. No amount of money was enough if it costs me my health and my happiness.
If only I knew then what I knew now. In the years since, I’ve learned so much more about how to run a growing business so that it’s bloom does not kill me on the vine. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned, not only from my own experiences, by from working with hundreds of solo professional clients:
- Get Crystal Clear on What YOU Want: The first, most important step is to get crystal clear on what you want. For some people, that’s an empire and, eventually, their name on a jet plane. For others, it’s just a steady income that allows them to support their families while still being able to spend time with their families. Dissatisfaction and unhappiness seeps in through the cracks when we are living a life that is not in alignment with our core values. The only solution for this is ruthless honesty with yourself. Know what YOU want, not what you THINK you should want or what OTHER PEOPLE think you should want.
- Learn to Lead. Hiring a support team is perhaps one of the biggest challenges of growing a business of any kind—but it is necessary if you want to grow. As a one-woman band, you will be severely limited in what you can accomplish. Quite simply: While you can do anything, you cannot do everything. At least not at once. What always strikes me as interesting about solo professionals is that we know we need to grow a team, and we even know how critical it is to our success to have the right people on our team, and yet, we don’t invest nearly enough time to learn how to lead, hire, fire and manage people so they can perform at their highest level. If you want to successfully grow a law firm, invest some time and money in developing leadership and management skills. Don’t think leadership is innate, because it is not. It’s a skill like any other and requires practice to master.
- Document Your Processes. As solos, we do it all—often in weird and wonderful ways. We create messy desks, black holes where we admonish people to “not touch anything” because it may look like chaos, but we “know exactly where everything is.” If this sounds like you, then pay attention: You’ll never grow your business if you don’t open yourself up to learning new ways of doing all the things. If you want other people to help you (and trust me, you do even if you don’t), you must get good at documenting your processes, training other people in them, and then trusting them to follow your directives. You have to let some crap go. Really, put it down…
- Learn to Leverage with Technology. Technology can feel like the bane of your existence sometimes, particularly if you haven’t mastered it, yet, but you must persevere until you do. Technology and systems are going to become your saviors. The more you can automate, the more you can stop trading your time for money and learn to leverage, the better you will become and the faster and more efficiently you will grow. When it feels like you should be cutting expenses, what you need to do instead is invest in efficiencies.
- Understand How You Get Paid. Realize you are getting paid in many ways you might not think of as “getting paid.” When you are an entrepreneur, you manage money differently than non-entrepreneurs. You may not get a paycheck like everyone else does but if you are savvy you are using your business to cover a lot of expenses so you can take write-offs on your taxes. Are your needs being met? Are your personal bills getting paid? Make sure your needs are met and then, remember, you are choosing to make sacrifices now so you can life a life of envy in later years. Investing in your business is like investing in real estate or the stock market. As with any investment, a) you must be committed to it for the long-haul to get the big pay-off, b) you must ride out the highs and lows and, when it goes low, you invest even more, and c) you can seek advice, but you must ultimately (and sometimes, quickly) make the hard decisions despite other people’s opinions.
- Planning is more important than the plan itself. Take time periodically to step back and take a 30,000-foot view of your law practice. Bring in professionals to help you evaluate your plan, procedures and processes. As the CEO of your business, your number one job is to set a course for the practice and to navigate through both calm and rough seas. Plans change, but the value of planning never does.
- Schedule Self Care. Like everything else, you need to calendar this. As I tell my clients: “If it doesn’t get on the calendar, it doesn’t get done.” Make time for you and you alone. Schedule your workouts, a walk in nature, a massage appointment, a bubble bath, time to read for fun, or whatever it is that makes you feel nurtured, safe and loved. Do this daily if you can.
- Remember: You Get to Choose. Resenting the people you hired for “taking all your money” or your prospects for making decisions that they think are right for them even though it means not hiring you, or your family for not understanding how hard you work, is a losing proposition. You chose to open your own practice. You chose to hire people to help you. You get to decide with whom you work and how you help people. At any moment, you can make another choice. It’s your life, your business and your journey. Don’t fall into the trap of blaming others for your unhappiness. If this business isn’t working for you, you can choose to make changes.
If you are a solo practitioner working hard to grow your law practice and you could use some support mapping out and implementing your business growth over the next several years, please reach out to me to schedule a one-on-one conversation. I’d love to help.