Solo/Small

How To Start a Law Firm Without a Plan or Budget: Do What An Owner Does

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

Welcome to Day 7!

Before we talk about how you should run your business, I want to give you a view of how I ran mine. Hopefully this transparency is helpful.

Learning From Business

We know they don’t teach us much about business in law school. If you want to learn those lessons and best practices, you can analogize from other industries and business wisdom.

Personally, I rely on the business logic of the systems that get us our food and goods every day. Before law school I worked in transportation — trucking, international shipping, and the supply chain. It’s a helpful analogue if you’re building a law firm, so let’s try to think through your “legal supply chain.”

A friend recently asked me what the supply chain does. “Isn’t it really just getting into a truck and driving some furniture (or whatever) to the local store? How is there such an elaborate science around something so simple?”

The supply chain, I told him, exists to get people what they want, when they want it, at a price that’s less than the value they perceive. Deliver, at a fair price.

To put it differently, Peter Drucker said, “the business enterprise has two – and only two – basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs.”

You Firm’s Purpose

To apply Drucker’s pointed statement to what I learned in my transportation career, innovation is about getting people what they want, when they want it; marketing is about the user experience, or pushing the perceived value above the price you charge. An owner makes sure to deliver what the customer wants in a way that makes her feel like she got a good deal.

This is how you should think now — like an owner.

Owners don’t simply pay bills or hire employees. A responsible owner looks to customers to ensure the product matches the need, and that the customer is aware of that match.

So, central to most businesses is this activity of taking user feedback and turning it into products to sell. In law, there’s one big complication: you already have a product.

Thinking Like a Product Developer

There’s a real debate in the industry around what “thinking like a lawyer” is and whether law schools should teach more about what lawyers do. Largely, though, most of us go to law school thinking we’ll later sell fairly well-defined (and regulated) legal services.

The product is sort of handed to us. That’s not normal.

A smart entrepreneur would identify an audience, ask them what problems they have, ask what price they’d pay to fix the problem, then try to craft a solution that can be built at a profit. The market comes before the product.

In a sense, you and I made a shortcut through that process. We came to the market with a product. That means your profitability will hinge on reverse-engineering the entrepreneur’s process.

You have identified your avatar. Can you find groups of similar people and ask what their pressing problem is? If so, you’ll know whether your product can solve the problem at a profit. If not, you need to change the product.

Some might disagree with me on this. We have a social function that goes beyond profit and loss sheets. However, in your special role as law firm owner, you have to find creative ways to make profits. We’ll talk through that.

This next few days will cover how you can craft that market-responsive product. We will discuss your system for getting people what they want, innovations you can use to improve those systems, and the channels you will engage in to make sure the clients know they’re getting a good deal.

We’re talking about innovation and marketing, because that’s what you do now. You’re an owner. Own that.

[Mental Exercise of the Day]:

I’d like you to sit with this idea of “perceived value.” How do those two words fit in with your ethical duty as lawyer?

Lawyers have complicated the concept of “value.” We’ve added in words like “fair” and “reasonable,” then imposed standards than no other business labors under.

I didn’t bill hourly. Maybe you will, and that’s fine, but you have to pick some numbers. If you’re like most lawyers, you’ll seek out the “market hourly rate.” I still have no idea what that means. Asking a bunch of lawyers what they charge and then picking a similar number strikes me as price-fixing. (Seriously, look that term up on Wikipedia and think about it. Not that lawyers fit the legal definition, but our pricing is awfully inward-focused.)

I don’t want to spend too much time on the anti-hourly billing soapbox, but you should contemplate how you’ll deliver the value that justifies your fees, however you calculate them.

Do you have a duty, beyond pointing to the time you spent, to deliver value for the fees you receive? If so, who defines that value, you or the client? And, the hardest thing, how do you capture that value in your pricing?

We’re talking about value in the context of marketing, but you have a duty to consider it in the context of representation. Do that.

[Big Little Step of the Day]:

Let’s talk about branding, or how you present visually to the world. Not because this is more important than other issues, but because it fits the timeline to think about this now.

You need a logo.

If you asked me to list biggest time sucks of my first years of law practice, finding the perfect logo would be way up there. I never had the perfect logo, but I stopped caring about perfect. I didn’t have time for perfect, and neither do you.

With that in mind, let me give you three options for getting your logo done quickly:

Good: www.LogoMaker.com

  • This is a free logo generator. I say free, but it only gives you a web-friendly image. If you want to get a logo that you can download and use on things like business cards, you’ll pay a small fee. The options are limited but you can have a logo in minutes. The time saved is worth a lot.

Better: www.Fiverr.com

  • Speaking of time sucks, Fiverr can swallow your very soul with distracting projects. The concept is simple: you pay $5 and the international contractors create what you asked for, within some predetermined limits. This is somewhat more custom than what you get from free sites, but Fiverr artists are usually operating from templates. Look through the providers to get ideas, and maybe give four or five of them a try. For under $30 you’ll have a few to choose from. (But don’t be like us and do that several times. It’s dumb.)

Best: www.99designs.com

  • 99 Designs is platform that allows artists to compete on a bid. Basically, you put a strong description together of what you want and a bunch of designers try to get it to you. From there, you give feedback to narrow the list. You can even host contests, putting design options out to your friends to see which they like best. Prices for this option range from $300 to $1,200, so not cheap, but it’s the best way I know to get custom work.

Whichever option you go with (and I’d start with Fiverr, which I think is the best balance of time and cost), expect results in about a week. You’ll need that speedy turnaround so you can get yourself some business cards.

Up Next…

Go on to the next chapter: Document What You Do

Or, go back to the Table of Contents

Mike Whelan, Jr. is Managing Editor at Casetext. He spends most of his day advocating for and training solo and small firm attorneys in topics as varied as writing, marketing, design, and collaboration. He was a solo attorney himself for several years after graduating from the University of Texas School of Law. He lives in the Kansas City area with his lovely wife and four rambunctious children.