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Building a Solo Law Practice: Getting Clients, an Introduction

October 13, 2011

This is a continuation of a popular series by guest blogger Douglas Greenberg, a successful tax solo based in San Francisco, CA.

When first starting out, the single biggest issue I dealt with (as do all young solos) was building a client base. At the time, I had very few clients. And unlike an established attorney, I did not have the luxury of sitting back and relying on repeat business or word of mouth (which there was very little to speak of). Building a client base takes time and it’s difficult. And while you are doing it, the bills keep piling in.

Like most lawyers, I had very little training in the ways of marketing. Indeed, marketing and advertising were about the furthest things from my mind when I applied to law school. But suddenly I had to be my own marketing department. I had to figure out a way to generate interest in my business.

In my experience, there really is no silver bullet. But there are a lot of options. As an attorney, you can obtain clients in a number of different ways:

•Networking

•Attorney Referrals

•Local Bar Attorney Referral Programs

•Legal Insurance Providers

•Advertising

•Word of Mouth

•Web Presence

•Direct Mail / Solicitations

•Drafting Articles

•Giving Speeches

•Repeat Business

Unfortunately, there is no one-size fits all solution. What works and what doesn’t really depends on the nature of your practice. It requires a lot of trial and error. At some time or another, I did just about every bullet point on the list above. Some worked. Others didn’t.

Over the next several posts I will try to spend some time on this difficult and important issue: As a young attorney, how do you market yourself and generate leads?

Also check out previous posts in this series: Part One (the decision to go solo), Part Two (choosing a specialty), Part Three (sole proprietorship, corporation or LLC?), Part Four (gaining practical experience as a young lawyer), and Part Five (preparing to go solo mid-career). 

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  1. October 17, 2011 6:44 pm

    Getting a Job

    One of the best ways to build a personal injury (PI) practice is to get a job in a PI firm. That is what I did. While I was earning a salary handling my boss’s cases, I was also building my own client base. I learned how to handle PI cases during my employment. Then, when I had enough business to support myself, I decided to hang out my own shingle.

    Some of the people I represented for the firm followed me to my new office. My boss had not asked me to sign a non-compete agreement, so I was free to take those cases. The client has the right to choose who her lawyer will be. My old boss was not pleased, but there was nothing unethical in what I did. Moreover, the cases I took helped establish my practice.

    You can expect a savvy employer, as a term of your employment, to ask you to sign a non-compete agreement stating that you will not solicit his clients, if and, when you leave. If you need the job badly enough, you will sign the agreement containing the non-compete clause. These agreements are generally enforceable, if they are limited in scope.

    Hang Out Your Shingle

    If you cannot find work, or are fed up with the one you have, one option is to open up your own law office. You will need two things: clients and the ability to service their legal needs. Sounds simple—it is not, but this book should help. See Chapter 3 for a discussion of how to find clients. See the rest of this book for how to help them.

    Office Equipment

    I highly recommend caller ID. When you see who is calling, you gain a few moments to direct your thoughts to the caller’s case. Sometimes, you will see that the call is from someone you do not want to speak to at that moment (or ever), in which case, go right back to your work and let voice mail take the call. You will also need conference call capabilities for many reasons.

    For example, if I am speaking to a new client on the phone and that client needs a referral to a doctor, I make a conference call. Instead of going back and forth between the two, during the conference call the appointment can be scheduled and billing issues can also be addressed. I also use conference calls with recorded statements. If my client’s insurer requests a recorded statement, but the client is not able to come into the office, the statement can easily be given via a conference call.

    I use a headset I purchased from Plantronics. I used a corded headset for many years but I recommend you go with a wireless model. It gives you the freedom to walk around the office while on the phone. I can grab a file without missing a beat. Also, there are times you are going to get calls that waste some of your time. Clients may call just to jabber. Especially if you are very busy, this can really test an attorney’s patience. Rather than cutting the client off, however, I walk around the office multi-tasking. For example, files can always use more organizing. Eventually the client will tire, or after a while, I will find a way to politely abbreviate the conversation.

    Using a headset will save your neck. You do not have to cradle a phone between your neck and shoulder while you try to type, which will allow your hands to be useful. You will be “hands-free,” so that you can type the important information from the call directly into the client’s computer file. In the old days, lawyers wrote on fill-in-the-blank forms to capture important information. Now, everything goes straight into the computer. Why do the same task twice? Once it is in your computer, you can easily manipulate the data into whatever form needed. It’s a big advantage if you can touch type. Clients like eye contact, so if you can enter data while looking at the client, it will help you form a nice bond, and also impress the client.

    Similarly, while you are engaged in a casual conversation with a friend or client, you can peruse emails. Since you are hands-free, you can easily cut and paste important emails while talking.

    Whenever you enter data, you should think about how you might need it for the future so that you can enter it in the most useful way. For example, when I prepare a settlement demand letter, I think about the fact that its contents will be useful in a settlement conference memorandum. So I just cut and paste. This motivates me to do an especially thorough job with the letter, since I know my work will be used again.

    Some lawyers use Dragon Naturally Speaking, a dictation tool that uses voice recognition technology. What you say magically appears on your monitor. Dragon apparently improves over time, as the program trains to your voice. I have heard mixed reviews about the product, however. As someone who learned to touch type in high school, I have not personally tested Dragon. For more information about Dragon, go to: http://www.nuance.com/dragon/index.htm. More and more devices use voice recognition technology, such as Android. If you are concerned about carpal tunnel syndrome, it is worth looking into these devices. Some day we may all input data this way.

    Many lawyers purchase one machine that can copy, print, fax and scan. Be sure to buy a service contract with a reliable company as well. This company may have refurbished machines to sell at a discounted price. Find out from members of your listserv which machine to buy and which company to use.

    A listserv is an email group of like minded individuals. By posting a question to a trial lawyers’ listserv, many of the top trial lawyers in your area will receive your email. They will be able to provide you with valuable input simply by responding to your email. Similarly, when you see posts by other lawyers, you will have the opportunity to lend a helping hand. Effective listservs become extremely valuable communities. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a listserv to run a successful PI practice. I belong to the listserv run by the Pennsylvania Associate for Justice. The American Association for Justice is another major organization that hosts a trial lawyers’ listserv. There are many others. See the additional discussion about listservs later in this chapter for more on this important topic.

    Whenever the machine needs service, and all do from time to time, call the company. They should have you up and running within a day. You need backup for that period when your office machines are down. If you share office space with other businesses, work out an arrangement to use their fax machine, copier, etc. This will assure that important emails, filings, etc. go out on time. Much of what you do as a litigation attorney is time-sensitive. So it is imperative that you have a back up plan for all contingencies.

    If you purchase a scanner separately, be sure it has a multi-page feeder. Law is a paper intensive business. You will find multiple uses for documents scanned in pdf format. You may be unable to e-file documents unless they are in pdf format. Be aware that documents you email in other formats may contain meta-data that the recipient can access. This meta-data will show the changes you made in the document during its preparation. Do you really want opposing counsel to be able to read your thoughts during preparation of a motion? So scan any sensitive documents into pdf format before you email them.

    Some law offices scan every document that comes in. This takes a lot of front labor, but there can be savings of time and money on the back end. I use both scanned documents and hard copy in my office. So while my office is paper less, it is surely not paperless. Especially in cases with multiple attorneys, emailing scanned documents is of great benefit. You save time, paper and postage. Just make sure you have ready access to such emails so that you can prove they were sent.

    For a low volume law practice, stamps and a low-tech postage meter are fine. You really do not need a fancy meter that prints postage from a dispenser. Take a walk to the post office every few months to purchase postage. The exercise will help clear your mind before you go back to your computer. For a higher volume practice, many firms use fancy Pitney Bowes meters. Less expensive options include Hasler products and Stamps.com. These machines all do essentially the same thing. So go with a less expensive one.

    Learn how to use certified mail and priority mail. You will need certified mail for the times when you want proof of delivery, or to get the recipient’s attention. You will need priority mail for large mailings. Priority mail envelopes and certified mail cards are available for free at any post office.

    Furthermore, buy a desk and chair that are ergonomically healthy. Trial lawyers spend a lot more time in the office than they do in court. You are going to spend many years sitting in front of a computer screen pounding away on your keyboard. The last thing you need is to develop back pain, neck pain or carpal tunnel syndrome. Consider an ergonomic keyboard.

    Open an account at Staples. You will need all the usual office equipment (file cabinets, legal pads, pens, tape, staplers, a staple remover, paper clips, highlighters, thumb drives, rubber bands, copy paper, folders, envelopes, post-it notes, etc.) You don’t need fancy legal paper, though there is nothing wrong with using it. You don’t need fancy letterhead. Just cut and paste your contact information from letter to letter. Don’t forget business cards. You can get them for free at http://www.vistaprint.com.

    I have three staplers; small, medium and large. You will mail packages of documents of all different sizes. The wrong staple will make your package look sloppy. I also make frequent use of heavy duty rubber bands. My files are filled with them. If you staple documents together, you are going to need to remove the staples from time to time for copying and/or reorganizing. Better to use thick rubber bands, or binder clips, that can hold a lot of documents without breaking.

    You must back up your computer regularly. There are many ways to do this. A low cost method involves thumb drives. Buy two or three and rotate them. Thumb drives, like everything else, break. So if your hard drive and most current back up fails, at least all will not be lost. Keep a thumb drive stored off site. So that if the unthinkable happens and your office is destroyed, you will still be able to retrieve the information you need to recreate your files.

Trackbacks

  1. Building a Solo Law Practice, Part 5: Preparing to Go Solo Mid-Career « PhiLAWdelphia
  2. Building a Solo Law Practice, Part 4: Gaining Experience as a Young Lawyer « PhiLAWdelphia
  3. Building a Solo Practice: Equipping Your Office | Vinh P. Su, Esquire
  4. Building a Solo Practice: The Power of Yelp! « PhiLAWdelphia
  5. Building a Solo Practice: Phone Call Tips « PhiLAWdelphia
  6. Building a Solo Practice: Generating Work Through Legal Insurance Referrals « PhiLAWdelphia

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