Have you ever changed a toner cartridge in a printer…and had it explode all over you?
And it’s everywhere. Your shirt. Your shoes. The carpet. It looks like rainbow fairies just threw up all over you.
The best part? You’re due in court any minute, and your other suit is at the dry cleaners.
Not so fun, after all.
It’s at moments like these that a lot of solo practitioners I talk to find themselves asking the same question…
“How did I get here?”
Nobody starts their own firm hoping to spend their time changing toner. Yet, here you are. So what happened?
The answer: You grew.
Growing a small practice entails a number of challenges, and crucial decision points along the way can have an enormous impact on the evolution of your firm.
Let’s dive deeper.
Starting your own firm usually begins with a desire for independence.
Solo practitioners often hate the associate experience and want to plot their own course — build their practice on flexible rates with the clients they like, on their own terms.
In the early days, it can be exciting and fun. Your practice is lean and mean — you may not even need office space!
It’s just you, your laptop, and the simple joy of practicing law.
For a while, it’s smooth sailing. There’s only one problem coming down the river. Or at least, if you’re good at what you do, there will be before long.
Sooner or later, you hit “white water.”
Success breeds success. Your clients are so happy they refer more business to you, and word gets around that you’re the one to call.
This is where you hit the first patch of white water — the first decision point.
You’ve leveled up, and now you start to need some support. Doing it alone just isn’t cutting it now that you’re busier. You’re getting buried in administrative work that someone else could easily do, like changing that toner.
This is the time to hire someone to take these tasks off your plate. It may be the time to hire someone someone to help with billing and accounting, too.
The first place to start is with administrative support. But as you grow, you may add fractional managers to your business. These days, it’s possible to hire very sophisticated professionals on a fractional basis, meaning you could even have a fraction CFO, COO, CMO, or CIO.
Regardless, taking this next step is a crucial part of small practice growth. At this point, you still work as a lawyer, but a lawyer with help.
Continued growth can also be a trap
Just ask any teenager: Growth can be uncomfortable. Your solo practice is no exception.
You may find yourself feeling tempted to undercharge your clients to distinguish yourself from the big firms or underestimating your overhead and expenses.
There is also a tendency to forget to factor in business development and marketing or to dismiss them as “free.”
That’s a mistake. You need to devote time to these activities, after all, but you’re not compensated for them.
Think of it this way: It may be “free” for you to do your own billing instead of hiring a bookkeeper, but if you can charge $500 an hour for your time and pay a bookkeeper $50 an hour, aren’t you actually leaving $450 an hour sitting on the table?
Is that really the best use of your time?
Of course, no sooner do you overcome this and continue growing than you hit more white water.
Now you’re busy enough that you bring on an associate or a paralegal. You need to keep busy, so next you hire some self-sufficient revenue-generating partners to afford to invest in the staffing you want.
That means asking yourself some important questions.
For example, do you hire someone who does what you do and can cover for you, or someone from a complimentary area with whom you can cross-sell and cross-market?
You should also make sure you have all the necessary agreements (a buy/sell agreement, partnership documents, and key man insurance) if you go this route.
At this point, your work begins to shift.
You start to become a manager of the firm — a business person managing an office rather than a lawyer managing client issues.
If you don’t embrace this change, you end up in an entrepreneurial spin cycle of good months and bad months. Sometimes your work is toner-free, other times you’re the only one in the office.
You’ve reached an inevitable decision: Business or law.
Here’s the challenge: Not all lawyers WANT to be business owners, but if nobody is running the business, then nobody is running the business. So they get stuck with it.
If you DO want to be the manager of your law practice, then this is a good place to be. You can keep growing and developing the practice.
On the other hand, if you just want to get back to that simple joy of practicing law, dealing with the management of the firm all day, every day can start to feel like a burden.
You’ve succeeded right into a corner!
Good news: You have three options.
It comes down to this:
- You can reduce the size of your practice.
Some lawyers want to be solo practitioners, and that is fine. You can reduce your client base by raising your rates or choosing your favorites.
- You can hire a business manager to run the business.
Keep in mind that they will have their own way of doing things, which almost never aligns with your way of doing things. There are also a lot of moving parts to building a larger firm, and it can become overwhelming. Long story short: This can work, but can also be VERY risky.
- You can merge into a larger firm.
As I have recently discussed on this blog, this option is much more viable than you might think.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that for many solo practitioners, joining a larger firm is the best way to grow.
Now, you may have started your own practice specifically to avoid being part of a larger hierarchy. That’s understandable — and plenty of lawyers bristle at the thought of being micromanaged. (As I recently wrote, however, the reality is usually the opposite).
But there are opportunities here.
First, remember that joining as a partner with a book of business is not the same thing as joining as an associate out of law school. You’ll still be able to call the shots.
The downside is that you have to assess the culture of the firm you are considering joining and judge if it will be a good fit. The upside is that when you join the right firm, all the effort and white water of BUILDING a firm goes away.
You can be a part of management or not. You have options.
You also gain access to more resources, colleagues, and support without taking on additional management hassle.
If you’re a solo practitioner hitting white water as your firm grows, you don’t have to navigate it alone. I can help you chart the right course to successful, sustainable growth, whether you want to manage your practice or just get back to the simple pleasures of law.
Let’s schedule a call to discuss your needs.