Category Archives: Solo Law Practice

My Newfound Obsession With Process

???????As the launch date for my solo practice approaches, I find myself obsessed in a way I never was before in my law practice about the subject of process. I have developed the belief that my own practice is far more likely to be both successful and satisfying if I establish a solid set of systems for how my business will operate.

This isn’t brain surgery, of course. I’ve been influenced by blogs I’ve read and the excellent law practice start-up books by Carolyn Elefant and Jay Foonberg. Specifically on the subject of process, however, I learned a lot from The E-Myth Attorney, by Michael Gerber, Robert Armstrong and Sanford Fisch.

The central notion of The E-Myth Attorney, about which I’ve previously written, is that law firms, whether a solo practice, small partnership or large firm, should adopt and meticulously implement specific systems for every single thing the business does, from greeting clients, to filing papers to making coffee. Ideally, under the E-Myth model, these systems will be reduced to a handbook that can be handed to every new employee as they walk in the door. As Gerber, et al. write:

“With the right systems, your law firm will . . . reflect your vision about practicing law. What is going to make your firm unique? Why should prospective clients pick your firm over all others? What special place will your practice occupy in the community?

In the beginning, maybe it was just about the money. Get the clients in the door and start generating as many fees as you can. But we all know that’s not a sustainable business model and, more importantly, will not ultimately serve you or your clients.

But when you implement systems, you create the machine that can work independently of you. You give your employees the roadmap they need to do the things that need to get done.

•  This is how we greet clients.

•  This is how we draft documents.

•  This is how we take a deposition.

•  This is how we prepare for trial.

•  This how we manage our finances.

•  This is how we generate leads and convert them into retained clients.

•  This is how we hire great people.

And so on and so on . . .” (Id. at 66-67.)

Applying this concept to my own world, what kind of systems am I developing for my new practice? First, a major priority for my firm is to be as paperless as possible while maintaining a reliable filing system. While litigators in California are still required to serve documents in paper by mail (in addition, perhaps, to email or fax service), I think this practice will soon be history. Already most courts I deal with do fax and electronic filing. Most lawyers I deal with prefer to receive documents by email. So, I suspect there will be only limited need to serve or hand-deliver anything in paper form before too long.

Embracing paperless practices, if done systematically, will reduce overhead associated with having a file clerk (or, gasp, doing it myself), and it will reduce storage space (and attendant cost). Using the system I’m developing will, moreover, make it easier to instantly access a document without the need to carry large, bulky files with me wherever I go. So, the system will be to convert any document I receive by mail, fax or email into a pdf file that can be saved–and is immediately saved–in an appropriate sub-sub-sub folder created for a particular client, matter, category (discovery) and sub-category (interrogatories). Again, I recognize that this isn’t rocket science, but it is one example of how I’m focusing lots of energy at the outset in developing systems for each aspect of my practice that can be reasonably systematized.

Of course, not everything can be done according to a system. Part of the reason lawyers are in demand and charge a financial premium is that we are taught not to think one dimensionally about a legal problem. In other words, the solution to a problem that best serves my client might not be the most obvious solution. It might require an innovative approach that is exactly the opposite of what our system would prescribe. But this is not an exception that swallows the rule. Rather, it is by subjecting tasks that are logically capable of systematization to a rigorous system, that we are freed up to devote time and mental energy to solving our client’s most complex problems in innovative ways.


Taking The Plunge–Going Solo–But Not Without A Plan!

A diving dachshund pursues a sinking tennis ball underwaterAlmost exactly two years ago, I enrolled in the excellent 14-week class, provided by the Women’s Economic Ventures (WEV) organization in Santa Barbara, on how to write a business plan and start a business. You see, six months earlier, while recovering from emergency surgery to repair the first (of two) detached retinas, I had a vivid and exciting dream about leaving my firm and opening a solo law practice. Well, on March 1st, I’m finally doing it!

My wife had taken and absolutely loved the WEV course to develop her own business plan (to start a unique school for adult women). When I told her about my plan to open my own law practice, she absolutely insisted I take the WEV class, even though I’m . . . not . . . really . . . a woman. Q’est que c’est?  you’re wondering.

It turns out that, despite the moniker, the Women’s Economic Venture classes are open to men. Or men who are brave enough. Out of a class of 30, only 3 or 4 us were men. But I really found the class to be practical and useful. It forced me to think about all sorts of important things crucial to successfully starting a business that I would probably not have thought about until I was 15 months in and potentially struggling.

Like what, you ask?

For starters, there’s cash flow. Even if I am lucky enough to have a plate full of paying work the day I open my doors, under most billing models I have to do the work, submit an invoice, then wait to get paid. I might wait 30 days, or 60, or 90, or . . . Unless I had a bottomless well of cash (if I did I’d lawyer pro bono, or do something else entirely), doing a cash flow analysis as part of a business plan was the only way to have the slightest clue how much I’d need to set aside to get started. And even then I can only forecast how much I’ll bill, how much of that I’ll collect and when I’ll collect it. Educated guess work, but guess work none the less.

Then there’s a marketing plan. I’m not foolish enough to think that being a good lawyer is enough. According to the State Bar website, there are 181,474 active lawyers licensed to practice in California. I’ve got to somehow differentiate myself from the other 181,473 lawyers in order to get hired. Unfortunately, being tall isn’t enough. But the WEV program provided a lot of help in this, including some excellent written materials and exposure to marketing professionals who volunteered their time to help students shape marketing plans.

These are both critical pieces of the puzzle of starting a business from scratch that I could have foolishly skipped over, thinking that two decades of practicing law was preparation enough to jump ship and start rowing. Or swimming. Or treading water. Or . . . Apparently, I’m not alone. While Carolyn Elefant, writing in Solo by Choice (Decision Books 2008), which many consider the Bible of launching a solo law practice, advocates starting with a business plan, she also recognizes that not all solos share this view. She writes:

“For other lawyers, though–especially new or aspiring solos unable to identify immediate sources of revenue–a formal business plan might seem like an exercise in futility.” (Id. at 246.)

But, again, Carolyn urges against falling into this trap:

“Quite the contrary. A ‘business plan’ (which is just business-speak for a simple outline that helps you look ahead, allocate and prioritize resources, and identify future opportunities) will be extremely helpful whatever your circumstances.” (Id.)

One part of the business plan that I would easily have skipped, had I not been doing a class, is the development of a mission statement. It’s not that a mission statement is such a foreign concept. It’s just that I see a mission statement as the kind of guiding principle for larger entities, corporations and nonprofits. Why would a solo employment defense lawyer need a mission statement?

It turns out that this process of formulating a mission statement, even if it’s never communicated to anyone, is a good exercise for understanding why you’re launching your own practice at all. While I recognize there are lots of new lawyers who might be going solo out of necessity, if you’re making the move from a comfortable position in a large or small firm to the uncomfortable, but exhilarating, position of a small business owner with no safety net, it’s a good idea to think about why you’re doing it and what you want your business to look like.  Carolyn Elefant echoes this sentiment:

“A mission statement embodies all that you hope to accomplish in starting your firm. It articulates your vision of what you want to create. Most of all, a mission statement serves as a beacon for your practice, a light that helps illuminates [sic] your path on those days when the judge tears you apart in court, when opposing counsel drives you to tears with insults, or when a problem client brings a disciplinary action against you.” (Id. at 251.)

And my own mission statement? Are you interested? Here goes:

“The Craigie Law Firm exists to provide small and mid-sized companies with a cost-efficient alternative when facing an employment claim or lawsuit. By combining skilled lawyering with a clear explanation of each step in the dispute resolution process, and a sincere willingness to work under alternative fee and billing arrangements, the Firm strives to bring confidence and predictability to the challenging circumstances of a lawsuit.”

It’s kind of weird to read it again after some time has passed. On reflection, I would probably change it slightly. Specifically, I’ve always prided myself on being a litigator–a courtroom lawyer–who’s strongest skills are dispute advocacy. Hence, the mission statement’s focus only on clients “. . . facing an employment claim or lawsuit.” In the two years since I crafted this statement, however, I’ve really come to appreciate the preventative role an employment lawyer should play in his client’s business. So, a revised mission statement would probably give dispute prevention equal billing with dispute advocacy.

I’m candidly elated at the prospect of launching my own practice. Wish me luck.


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