In this week’s edition of Things I Wish I Knew, New York lawyer Joleena Louis shares the worst advice she has received about starting her solo law practice, and explains what you should do instead.
When starting your solo practice you are going to receive a lot of advice, solicited and unsolicited.
While most advice will be motivating and helpful, some advice should definitely be ignored. Following poor advice can not only limit the amount of clients that come in, but can also cause you to lose interest with the entire profession.
Here are the seven worst pieces of advice I have come across since starting my solo practice.
1. You Have To Wait For The Right Time
There is never a perfect time to start a practice. You will always feel like you need more money, experience, time or other ideal condition to start your solo practice.
While you need to should make sure you’re ready for the complexities of becoming a business owner, there will never a be a perfect moment when everything falls into place. Entrepreneurship is always a risk, so once you decide to take the leap, you have to go for it despite the obstacles.
2. You’ve Got to Be Cheaper Than Everyone Else
This is an easy trap to fall into when you first start out. In order to compete you may feel like you have to be cheaper than everyone else, but this is a huge mistake for several reasons.
If you’re not priced appropriately it can be difficult to cover your expenses. You’ll have to take on a high volume of cases to make ends meet, which can be difficult in the beginning.
If you undervalue yourself you’re signaling to your clients that you are not worth more. It will be difficult to raise prices later and any referrals you receive from people who paid you below market value will expect the same discounted prices.
And lastly, you’ll turn off clients who are willing to pay more. If your rate is $100 an hour and the guy next door is $300, clients may assume the other guy is better because he can command a higher fee.
Someone will always be willing to accept a lower fee than you. In order to maintain a sustainable practice, you need to charge based on your expenses and value, instead of competing to be the lowest price in town.
3. Never Turn Down A Paying Client
As a new solo you’ll want to take whatever business walks in the door, but if you take this approach you’ll very quickly regret it.
As soon as you start your practice, you need to know what type of cases you want to take and what type of clients you want to deal with. I’ve talked with many new solos who have neglected to this approach and end up hating their clients and their work. They may end up in a practice area they are not interested in because it brings in money. Or end up with nightmare clients since they had no vetting system.
Taking on any client that walks in the door will lead to headaches (and possible malpractice claims) in the long run. Before accepting that retainer ask yourself: Is this the type of case I want to work on? Will this person listen to my advice and direction? When the retainer runs out, will this person pay?
4. You Have to Spend Money to Make Money
This is not entirely true. Some people lead you to believe that you have to pay thousands of dollars for advertising, have an expensive website or pay for leads to build a successful solo practice.
You have to make worthwhile investments in your business, but that does not mean indiscriminately spending money.
A worthwhile investment is something that saves time, will bring you business, and/or cannot be achieved in a more cost efficient manner.
5. The Customer is Always Right
While you should do everything possible to accommodate your clients, the truth is they are not always right. In fact, they are often very wrong.
For example, giving discounts every time a customer makes a demand could devalue your brand and hurt your bottom line.
And often the things clients want you to do are wrong. I never hesitate to let a client know if their actions or direction will cause the case to have an undesirable outcome. As attorneys it’s our job to help guide our clients to the best solution, not to agree with everything they say.
My best reviews have come from clients who were happy that I told them the truth and steered them in the right direction instead of following their orders without objection.
6. Never Stop Working
Yes, running a successful business requires hard work and long hours. But failing to find a balance can lead to burnout, loss of relationships and a lower quality of life.
Social media will lead you to believe that successful people work 24/7. This mindset is unrealistic and in most cases untrue.
From the moment you start your practice, you have to set boundaries and find balance. The life of a solo lawyer can be a tough journey so you’ll need the support of your loved ones and time to recharge.
7. If You Build (A Website) They Will Come
“I have a great website. Why is nobody calling?” I get this question from new solos on a weekly basis.
Building a law practice requires more than a website. While a website will help, it is not the solution to all problems. As I have said before, the best way to get business is by word of mouth. And that requires networking and building relationships.
So remember, not all advice you receive is going to actually benefit your practice. Be smart, use your best judgment and look for advice that will help your practice, not catchy cliches.