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Do You Have A Real Business or Are You "Playing House"?

A while back I had coffee with a former colleague, Lee, who’d joined up with two other lawyers to hang their shingle. They’d each brought some business to the table ... but now it was a year in, and they hadn’t grown. Some months a little up, some months a little down, but always hitting a ceiling.

And it wasn’t long before she was venting.

“I get referrals sometimes, but it’s pretty infrequent. I do the usual things, you know, networking and having lunches with other lawyers. But as soon as I get a new client, it’s really just replacing one that's going away.”

I only had to ask one question (more on that later) to see she didn’t have a real business. She was just playing house.

My daughters play house. For Amelia’s second birthday my brother got her a pop-up toy house. The girls run in and out, pretending it’s real, that they’re actually cooking dinner. That they’re actually cleaning up, going to work, whatever.

But it’s all just pretend. They’re not really doing anything. It’s all in their heads – in their heads, they’re in a house, doing all the things that they see grownups do.

Except, of course, that they didn't earn the money to buy it. They aren’t paying a mortgage. They aren’t paying property taxes like daddy, nor two private school educations. (By the way, if you find a way to get a toddler and a kindergartener to pay their way without violating those pesky child labor laws, please let me know.)

Anyway, the point is – they’re blissfully aware of the economics that make a real house possible. They’re going through the motions, doing monkey-see-monkey-do based on what they see other people do.

They don’t really understand how all the pieces fit together. They’re living in an artificial economy. They’ll never trade up to a bigger house unless The Government, a.k.a., Mommy and Daddy, provide. They can go through the motions, but without knowing how the real world works, they’ll remain economic children, playing house.

But, at least for now, I’m OK with that. They’re just kids.

But Lee isn’t a kid, and she’s also playing house.

She saw others starting a law practice, so she figured she could do the same thing. Now, as far as that is concerned, she was right. Starting a law practice isn’t hard, after all. Compared to businesses that deal with things like inventory, factories, and minimum wage labor, we’ve got one of the easiest and most lucrative business opportunities out there.

But it’s not starting it that’s the part most lawyers miss, it’s running it like a real business. She's just showing up every day, but has zero control over her own income or destiny. And until we met, she didn't realize that you don't have to be at the whim of the market and you can actually target and get the right clients. It IS possible to control your own destiny.

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So, what were the questions I asked Lee?

“Who’s your ideal client”

This seemingly innocent one stumped her from the get-go. Her long, meandering answer was pretty much “anyone who comes in the door”. In other words, she didn’t know.

If she can’t write a whole paragraph – or better yet – a whole page describing her ideal client, she doesn't know, and she won’t grow. How can she expect to find more ideal clients if she can’t articulate who they are?

Now, to be fair, Lee is a smart cookie – so when I took her through the Ideal Client exercise that all Practice Alchemy members go through, she nailed it within a few minutes. Which gave her no less than three ideas of how to find more ideal clients. I'm forecasting some good things in her future.

But the point remains, she'd been practicing for years and never thought about it. And worse yet, she’d joined up with two other smart lawyers and as a team they’d never discussed it. Precisely who were they going to go after? Why? Then, where can we target them with pin-point precision?

It was like if Purina, the manufacturers of dog food, identified their ideal customer as “things with four legs”. No, Purina as 21 different dog foods, including one specially formulated for “small dogs with a big attitude”. They aren’t spending their time chasing other assorted quadrupeds. They know exactly who they’re pursuing and the whole business can align around that.

Why is this so very, very important?

Every client you take which isn’t your ideal client is keeping your law practice from becoming a real business.

Mis-matched clients won’t send ideal client referrals, they’ll send more misfits like themselves. Mis-matched clients don’t line up with what you offer, and how you offer it, so they won’t pay premium prices. Short of it is, each mis-matched client you take on gets you further from your ideal practice, not towards it.

Doing this right doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by design, by realizing that you need to stop looking at what other lawyers (the mediocre majority) are doing … and start looking to successful, real business models.

I don’t have any problem with my kids playing house. They have a few more years on Mommy & Daddy’s welfare plan. But as a business owner – as an entrepreneur – you don’t have that luxury. At least not if you want to have the true personal and financial autonomy that comes with a successful law business.

Raj Jha