I started my own law practice almost by accident.
I wasn’t sure if it was what I wanted to do, or how long I would be doing it. The only thing I did know was that I didn’t want to work for anybody else.
Most attorneys start their own practice with visions of rainbows, roses, and corks popping from Champagne bottles. They start multiplying what they charge per hour, times the number of hours per week ... and assume they’ll make a fortune.
Sometimes I wonder what color the sky is in that world. Because it’s not reality. (Then I remember that I lived in that fantasy world for a while before reality set in.)
The Harsh Reality of Starting a Practice
Most of the time spent in the early stages of your practice – printing business cards, launching a website and trying to scrape up a client or two – isn’t time you can charge for.
Those first few clients are typically small, cheap, and demanding. The real tragedy is that attorneys assume it always has to be this way – myself included.
For years as a solo, I worked under the delusion that my practice was destined to be dominated by these types of clients. I looked at what I had then, and assumed that doing better meant doing more of the same.
Instead of a few crummy clients, lots of crummy clients.
And it's a demoralizing thought, and stops a lot of lawyers in their tracks. Because they don't want more of today, they want something different.
The good clients. The good matters. The ability to say no because they don't want to take on a client for whatever reason.
But they can't see a path to get there.
How I Differentiated Myself
After wallowing in the sea of high maintenance and low reward, things started to change. But the reason it changed had nothing to do with my legal skills.
It had to do with the questions I started asking – all with the end game in mind.
Ask: How can I transform this practice into a business that both generates high income and provides top-notch legal services?
Charging low-end fees and letting annoying clients run the practice were not part of the answer. So what did I do?
Ignored what everyone else was doing and saying (like the most poisonous advice of all, "Just do your time with the low end work and slowly climb your way up over the years," an absolute falsehood).
Screw market rates, screw what everyone else is doing. What would help me develop the kind of practice I really want and stand out from the crowd? And how can I do it now, not at the turtle pace that gets me there at retirement?
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Escaping the Average Abyss
Most practices, by definition, are average. They're average because they do average things and listen to the same average people. The articles you read, the advice you hear, is written by the average for the average.
Since you're reading this, I know you don't want to be average.
So how do you approach the problem?
Re-frame it. Most solo practitioners and small firms compete based on price to win low-end clients. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the large firms that charge what seems like impossible amounts of money for what are perceived as high-end services.
You have a bunch of firms at the bottom, a few at the top, and very little in the middle. And if you ask the people at the top how they got there, many of them don’t have a clue. They kind of blundered into it.
The key is to find someone who's done what you want to do and work backwards to figure out how they got there.
Don’t Walk. Jump.
If you expect to have a successful, profitable practice soon you can’t walk up the mountain. You can’t think that if you slowly raise your rates over the course of 20 years, you’ll wake up one day and find yourself on the mountaintop in a high-end boutique.
If that was the case, you wouldn’t have 35-year-old partners making millions.
But they do. And they’re no smarter than you.
The legal community - again, average practices saying average things - placed a ladder in front of us. They expect us to climb the ladder slowly, rung by rung, up the mountian. They need the ladder, because they, the average ones, need to believe that there's a reason why they're not at the top. An excuse why they're struggling, while younger and less bright lawyers are above them.
But here's the secret. You don’t have to climb the ladder.
The One Thing Holding You Back
It’s not talent. It’s not work ethic. It’s not experience.
The only thing holding you back is what you feel like you’re worth.
This will determine how you position yourself and your practice, what kind of clients you pursue, and how much you charge.
After establishing my own self-worth, everything radically changed. Quickly.
I found homes for clients who weren’t a good fit with the practice I envisioned. Clients who were looking for a commodity vendor, didn’t respect my time, and would never pay me the fees I would need to grow my practice.
Instead of fighting with everyone else to land the little fish, I focused exclusively on hunting whales.
Price-insensitive, high-end, big clients with interesting matters. Whales that would help me and build my firm into a seven-figure success.
And guess what - the market takes you at your own appraisal. From that day, I raised rates and was more profitable every single year.
I did it. So can you.
Go get 'em, Tiger.