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Baby Steps: On Holding Your Horses Before Your Carts, so that Your Big Plans Have Some Room to Grow Big

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Now that I have been at this law practice management consulting game for a long time (very relatively speaking), I have been noticing some trends. (And, I think it is true, that, generally, those persons who are attuned to trends, and who can understand the directions of those trends, and who can then access the resulting waves, are those persons who can be most successful. Witness, most recently, the stunning Massachusetts senate victory by Scott Brown and his team. This blog post has not been approved by Rodney Dowell.) Not to parenthetically pat myself on the back any longer than I have to, I will say that one trend that I have noticed is that, as it appears to me, lots of folks that come before us are at least considering biting off far more than they can chew, and putting their carts before the horses, if you prefer to double-fist your clichéd proverbs.

Perhaps it’s a function of the economy, and people feeling the itch for a big hit, or to think so far outside the box that they can no longer even see the box anymore, but it used to be that people would come in to see us to discuss something along the lines of establishing a solo practice covering family law, by way of example. Now, while we still see a number of persons reaching after that more limited sort of goal, we have seen, also, and more so recently, persons striving for much, much more. Numbers of our clients have discussed with us two far-flung practice options: (1) multi-national, or multi-jurisdictional practices, touching most of North America and the known world; or (2) entirely referral-based practices, of the James Sokolove variety. Now, those are certainly admirable goals, and goals that might be reachable under the right conditions; but, when the answers to my first two questions are: “None. I just graduated from law school.” and “Zero. But, someone called me yesterday and said that their third cousin had a case for me.”, the proposition becomes far more difficult of achievement, at least, directly.

There are certain factors that may combine to make the creation of national/international firms and referral-based/income-generating systems impossible to achieve, from the jump. And, many of those factors are strapped like baggage to starting attorneys. It is not possible to establish a multi-jurisdictional practice without, at least, contacts within other jurisdictions, as well as some knowledge of the specific ethical rules of those other jurisdictions. It is not possible to effect the management of a multi-jurisdictional practice without a reputation of your own, to which attorneys practicing for you would comfortably attach. It is not possible to establish a multi-jurisdictional practice without significant capital. Yes, I know about the internet. I understand that it makes connection and collaboration easier. But, the internet will not pay for an attorney to assist you on the inevitable questions of employment law, which must be answered for the establishment of appropriate contracted relationships between you and your scattered associates; neither will the internet have the cash to cover your use of an ethics attorney for determining an appropriate business course in light of ethics rules in each state. (But you could ask; I haven’t hit the internet up for money in a while.) That would be three strikes as far as the immediate, genesidal creation of a multi-jurisdictional/multi-state practice would go. There is a reason why very few of these sorts of firms exist, and exist for long; the fall of Rome was occasioned by the advancement of a too far-flung empire. Neither was Rome built in one day. See that: Good things come in threes.

As to the birthing of a referral-based, income-generating practice, on the order of the Jim Sokolove ideal, I say nay . . . er, neigh . . . no, nay. Hold your horses. There are difficulties in establishing such a framework, namely, initially, that there is only so much of a market for large-scale referral generators to hone in on. How many Jim Sokoloves can there really be? Well, that’s based nearly directly on the number of potential clients there are; and there are only a finite number of those. And, this is a matter of timing and circumstance, as well, and as are so many things. Consider that Jim Sokolove was cutting his swath through virgin territory. He established his foothold at a time when lawyer advertising was new, when most people were opposed to the concept, and when those who were not hadn’t quite figured out the best ways to leverage advertising to gain clients. Unless you fail in attempting to run from Libryan terrorists, but save your young friend by the mechanism of a specially-outfitted Delorean, those days, for you, are gone, my friend. You must live in the world where there are mammoth perpetrators of a business model that you seek to arrest. But, perhaps, the most difficult problem for a starting attorney in imagining this scenario of wealth, large glasses and bigger hair (and the other scenario, too), is the lack of a professional reputation. Without an existing professional reputation (a good one, now), Why will clients trust you to begin with, or decide to stay with you once they find out that you are only interested in them as commodities, to pass along to some other attorney for a portion of a fee? Why would they trust your judgment generally, or that your judgment is effective with respect to the lawyer that you are sending them to? (This is not to say that good reputations are transparent; there is the disturbing case of the internet, where savvy persons can build resumes that appear much better on screen, than in actuality. And, Sunny Jim Sokolove himself was something of a greenhorn when he started this thing; but, keep in mind his special circumstances, as outlined above.) Furthermore, Whom will you be referring these clients to? What seasoned lawyers are in your referral stable? Beyond that, How will these lawyers know to trust your judgment? How will they know that you have initially vetted this client, and well, and that it is worth their time to go through their own process to determine whether to take representation? There is no easy way to the crest of that hill. As AC/DC says, It’s a long way to the top, if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll.

Even with respect to a simpler sort of tiered practice, say, one sitting on the Massachusetts and Rhode Island borders, there is, roughly, double the work to be done. Dual licensure means that you need to know, and to accommodate, a couple sets of ethics rules (with some overlap likely, granted). You’ll need to understand the laws of each state affecting your relations with clients. Similarly, you’re establishing marketing ground in two, distinct geographic areas. (Although the use of social media marketing, and online marketing, generally, make it is easier to accomplish an expanded reach, there is yet the need for personal connections to seal deals (especially when you’re starting out), even in the modern world, however long this remains the modern world.)

But, even if you have a very simple law office setup, with a limited scope of practice, and you’re only seeing clients from a single state, that practice will still not become self-sustaining at the opening of your doors. You have to establish processes for the running of your law firm, and learn your state’s ethics rules, among other, various start-up duties. You’ll also wish to develop a referral system, for incoming and outgoing referrals, to access those clients other attorneys will pa
ss along that you will want, and to pass along those clients whose issues fall without your practice area. This all takes time and effort to effect. If you’re talking about a two-state practice, you can expect to roughly double that establishment period. If you’re talking about a multi-state practice, or national or international firm, or a referral clearinghouse of some sort, you’re then multiplying by factors. While it would be nice to start up running the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise universe immediately, you’re more likely to begin as a Harland Sanders that nobody knows, working on the 11th herb or spice in your own kitchen–just like someone else once did.

Now, I’m not making an attempt to stifle anyone’s creativity, or drive. If I did attempt that, I would be a hypocrite of the first order. My point, rather, is that, you should be certain to check your prevailing plans against reality, and that you should create a business model that is based upon your realistic position, while allowing for room for expansion and growth, as you settle an expansion plan as a long-term goal. Perhaps it’s a function of the internet culture; but, generally, people expect what they want to be theirs rather immediately. While that works when you’re downloading a song, it doesn’t work quite as well when you’re establishing a business. There are growing pains and fits and starts involved as you process through your daily working life; but, if you keep your goals in mind, you can achieve them, or a reasonable, comfortable facsimile of them. Instead of lifting and throwing a large stone into a well, and perhaps injuring yourself, and your potential, in the process, rather be like the crow of the Aesop fable, dropping pebbles into the pitcher, as the water rises tall enough for you to drink.

The chances for success in establishing a new law practice are raised significantly when realistic planning, with an eye toward extended goals, is accomplished.

. . .

Liner Notes

Trivia Answer:Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, written by The Beatles

Last week, I covered some of my favorite favorites: those video clips I can find online, but can’t access through the iTunes store, or any other legitimate vendor. (I’m assuming; I doubt that I have investigated all legitimate vendors to this point. Neither have I been aggressive enough to act out outlaw enough to discover other ways to grab them). Last time, the lineup featured alternate or unique versions of songs, and rarities. This time around, the list includes great live versions of songs that I’ve tabbed over time. (Not literally tabbed, because I can’t play guitar, or any other instrument, for that matter, except for the smallest violin in the world–sadly; but, you understand–maybe.)

Some of my favorite live songs online include:

Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” by Warren Zevon (in his last performance on “The Late Show” with David Letterman)

Man of Constant Sorrow” by Dan Tyminski and Ron Block (at the Crossroads Guitar Festival)

Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac featuring the USC Marching Band

She’s Waiting” by Eric Clapton featuring Phil Collins

Up In Indiana” by Lyle Lovett and His Large Band

Any Road” by George Harrison

It’s Up to You” by Justin Hayward

Drivin’ My Life Away” by Eddie Rabbitt (in Branson) (seriously one of the coolest places I’ve ever visited; and, my hair is brown, not blue–what’s left of it is, that is)

Maybe You’re Right” by Cat Stevens

Tuesday’s Dead” by Cat Stevens

As you’ve no doubt realized, if you’ve read down to the base of this and my second to last blog post, I love Cat Stevens so deeply that it tends to make other, more modest men, blush. I’m too lazy right now to look to see whether or not I have drafted a “Liner Notes” segment on Cat Stevens yet, but rest assured one is coming. (No, I’m not going to check back; this is not just a passing phase.) I mean, the quality of the man’s output throughout the 70’s is just staggeringly good. In preparation for reading my future piece on Cat Stevens, do yourself a favor, and buy the Majikat * Earth Tour (1976) DVD. It’s got many of his best songs, and he’s in top live form throughout. You’ll play it until it warps. And, you’ll also find out the inspiration for the song “Peace Train”, which is probably not what you think it is, and which will likely disappoint every beauty pageant contestant from here to South Carolina.

(Why my sudden, more ardent fervor for Cat Stevens? Trust me, it’s not that much more ramped up from the usual; but, perhaps it has been enhanced somewhat, because I ran into someone yesterday who did not know who Cat Stevens was. (Gasp.) Yes. Yes. I know. I was shocked, too. But, after overcoming my discomfort and chagrin, I decided that the best way to attempt to educate those other poor, unfortunate souls who do not know who Cat Stevens is, was to do so through this blog, and the vast audience that reads it. So, now you know, Ma.)

CATEGORIES: Client Relations | Law Firm Management | Law Practice Startup | Marketing

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