Updated: Feb 12, 2020
No secrets here, I’m laying it all on the table. You can attend a thousand seminars about starting your own law practice and not one of them will give you the important lessons you need to know to become your own boss. Being your own boss is an UNBELIEVABLY AMBITIOUS UNDERTAKING chock full of challenges and moments of hysteria. However, after one full year of enterprising, I can honestly say that I have NO REGRETS.
So here’s my blueprint along with some of the most important lessons I learned that carried me through my first successful year.
ONE YEAR BEFORE THE LAUNCH - FEEL THE FEAR BUT DO IT ANYWAY
When I first started telling people I was planning on going out on my own, 99% said things like “Yes! Finally! After all those years of public defense, it’s about time!” The remaining 1% were just as excited but reminded me about the risks attendant to building your own business. Of course, being the judicious person that I am (I am a single mom of a pre-teen and a teenager heading off to college soon - GULP) I staved off the cautionary comments by PLANNING.
Start off by writing a business plan. You have to identify what you offer and how it fits into the market - there is no skimping on this one! This may seem obvious but I can’t tell you how many people skip this step and end up 6 months into their practice with no real direction. Why is this important? You need your OWN blueprint. You need something to remind you of your goals and to entice potential lenders if you’re not need help financing your enterprise.
Get your Coins up. I was determined not to borrow too much to get started but I also wanted to have enough of a safety net to carry me through those months when the money wasn’t rolling in. I asked a lot of solo practitioners how much money they had on hand when they started out. Most criminal defense lawyers suggested 3 months worth of living expenses. Most civil practitioners said 6 months worth. Although my main area of practice is criminal defense, I chose to secure enough to cover me for 6 months (after all I do have two additional mouths to feed). I sacrificed and saved half of what I needed and borrowed the rest. Although I wasn’t able to secure a business loan because, well my business wasn’t up and running yet, I found a low interest personal loan that pays itself monthly.
THE FIRST YEAR - BE FLEXIBLE, TAKE RISKS
Diversify your practice. Listen, opportunities don’t just fall in your lap. You have to create them and you can’t create opportunities for yourself if you’re afraid to venture into uncharted waters. For example, as I sit here today, I have 12 years of criminal defense experience under my belt but criminal defense isn’t my only area of practice these days. While your first instinct may be to turn away that divorce case because you have zero experience with divorce law, think again. Tap into your network and find someone to co-counsel with you. You’ll learn a lot along the way and you’ll increase visibility and REVENUE.
Another key to my success (read: financial stability) has been taking court appointed cases. Sure the hourly pay rate is less, but in terms of generating revenue and filling-in the financial gaps on those slow months, court appointed assignments are great. Also, if you’re someone like me who is committed to community service, taking court appointed cases is a great way to stay involved.
Track your progress. When you are busy, it’s easy to lose sight of where you were and where you are going, that’s why I track my progress frequently. Every 3 months, I do a deep dive. I pull up my business plan, my case-management system, and my “ledger” and I go to work. I ask myself the following questions: 1) how much revenue did I generate this quarter, 2) which are my highest yielding cases and 3) am I giving back to my community. Once I have answered these questions, I know where to focus my energy moving forward.
ONE YEAR + - CELEBRATE THE WINS AND KEEP THEM COMING
Tighten up the “squad.” Identify your squad (the people that helped you along the way ie. your accountant, your photographer, your most helpful colleagues, the people who consistently referred cases to you, your intern, your kids) and then identify the areas in which you need additional help. If your phone answering service doesn’t offer all the features you need now that your practice has evolved consider hiring a virtual receptionist an add him/her to your squad. There is no substitute for a strong team - remember that and you’ll never fail.
Celebrate the Wins. The single most important lesson I learned this year was: there are NO LOSSES. Even when I got a split verdict on a trial I thought I should have won, I walked away knowing I was better prepared for the next go around. Host an event to check in with the people who were integral to your success. Share the lessons you’ve learned and invite others to share their newfound interests and talents with you. Remember, as you have evolved so have the people around you. Identifying how you can be mutually beneficial to each other and increase wins is an integral part of any successful business venture.
For those of you inching towards hanging a shingle, INCH CLOSER! Follow me @jmoraleslaw for more tips and tricks on building your own successful boutique.
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