Solo/Small

How To Start a Law Firm Without a Plan or Budget: Your Self-Education System

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Welcome to Day 5!

On day 2 you wrote down the gaps in your skills; today we’ll go a step further and map a plan for developing true expertise.

Getting to Know

There’s a lot of pressure to act as if you know everything – I once had a client yell at me because I didn’t know how to fill out a DMV form (he said “But you’re a lawyer!”) – but do not give in to this temptation.

The truest sign of a mature expert practitioner is the ability to say “I don’t know.”

That said, if you never fill in those gaps in knowledge, you’ll never be able to generate the insights that clients value. So, let’s start with a systematic way to fill in the gaps. (I’m pulling this from a much more robust on knowledge management which you can find here.)

According to David C. Baker in his book The Business of Expertise, the first step to becoming a genuine expert is recognizing what you don’t know. Here’s his process:

  • First, list all of the issues about which you don’t have an informed opinion but that are relevant to your chosen area of expertise.
  • Second, identify content projects that will motivate you to develop opinions on those issues.
  • Third, order each issue by importance and set a firm date by which you’ll create a robust content piece.
  • Fourth, write 3,000 words on each issue in order of importance, whether you expect the writing to eventually become a podcast script or a blog post.
  • Fifth, share your writing with smart people who’ll give you honest feedback.
  • Sixth, publish your work and use the continual “peer review” that follows as a way to hone your arguments.

This “Getting to Know” process helps you turn insecurity into expertise, and it creates an interesting opportunity.

Find Your Mentors

Once you’ve identified the gaps in your knowledge and the content schedule that’ll force you to fill them in, connect with smart people who’ll peer-review your work. We call these professionals your “mentors.”

I’m a big believer in mentors, but you have to be creative about it.

Gone are the days when the lawyers went from the courthouse to the bar to break down cases. Senior attorneys used to sit around schooling the youngsters, who compensated them with a pint or two. Now we have looser social affiliations, and you’d probably face disciplinary action if you lush up some senior attorneys. How can you foster these crucial relationships?

Opportunities abound for mentorship. You could leverage technology, for example. I joined a few practice area-specific Facebook groups where members bounced ideas off each other. I also interacted with some really smart lawyers on Twitter. And, old school as it seems, I often took lawyers out to lunch so I could pick their brains.

However you make those personal connections, please make them. Mentorship works. You’ll need those senior pros to review your “Getting to Know” work product, so find your Obi Wan.

Read the Primary Sources of Law

The other phrase you need to learn is “It’s all in the Code.” I can’t tell you how many times my experienced lawyer buddies told me that. They encouraged a rare activity as many lawyers today focus on case law and rumor. The lawyers who know the relevant primary law have a distinct advantage.

Once you determine your practice area, create a schedule for reading carefully through the relevant book of statutes. Maybe you read a page a day, or organize by subject. However you do it, make a plan. If you really get to know the code, you’ll be in elite company.

The other bit of reading that could push you to elite status can be found in your local rules. Every county is different (EVERY COUNTY IS DIFFERENT!!!) and knowing the local rules can save you some real headaches. I’ve seen a judge deny relief because some tangential piece of paper wasn’t filed two weeks before a hearing. Don’t be that lawyer. Your client won’t like you.

Be Careful With Secondary Sources

Here’s an unpopular thought on third party publications: you should go sparingly.

Every time you go to a CLE conference you’ll see countless booths selling the $300 guide you must have. Your insecurity will make you feel you need those books, even if all they do is restate the statute in an even more incomprehensible way.

There may be a book or two you really do need in order to practice well, but you don’t know which books make that list. Please don’t jump at the practice guides too quickly.

Directly ask several mentors which practice guide, if they could only have one, they’d buy again. They’ll probably point to one great one, and they’ll likely give you the previous year’s version to hold you over until you can afford a current edition. I spent my first six months as a lawyer following an old edition of a practice guide — and it worked beautifully. Just make sure your mentors check your work to see if you’re using old law.

Whichever sources you find, your professional education is now 100% on you. Be a lifelong learner and you’ll jet past the competition. Few lawyers master their craft because few put in the time to study. You’re better than that. Practice makes perfect, so get at it and pay attention. #winning

[Mental Exercise of the Day]:

Develop an appreciation for mentors. Ask yourself why you should look to your betters for advice. Ask yourself how they are your betters, and understand how they are not. You need to understand that distinction.

Like any young lawyer, you have something to bring to this practice that no one has ever seen before. No one thinks like you. You have new ideas and can’t be held back by convention. Our industry is slow to grow into new dynamics, and you’re going to change that.

Today’s mental exercise is to contemplate how to balance the need for mentors with the need to go it alone. What won’t you compromise on? What innovations have you thought of that you’ll pursue, no matter the headwinds? And, when new ideas come later, how will you draw the line after seeking counsel from mentors?

Innovation happens at the edges. Crazy ideas and happy accidents gave us penicillin and the iPad. You’ll get pushback when you seek change. Sometimes you need to listen, and sometimes you don’t. Be aware of that dynamic and develop the mind muscles you’ll need to distinguish between too crazy and just crazy enough.

The world needs you to figure this balance out.

[Big Little Step of the Day]:

Attack life in an organized way. Trust me, the tasks are going to start overlapping. You’ll have a letter to write for your client, a bill to pay at home, medications to pick up, and a hearing to prepare for… You will quickly get lost.

I’ve spent a lot of time keeping all these things in my brain. Dumb, dumb. I practiced with a wife and four kids in tow, two of them homeschooled. I was on a charity board and had a job at church. I had other legal-adjacent business interests. I had books to read and a lawn to mow. No doubt you’ll have just as many distractions.

When you fill a bowl with too much water, stuff starts to spill out. The same will happen with your overloaded brain. That means angry clients and ethics grievances. You have to stay on top of it.

So get a task management program. You can do this for your practice (I used Clio) and/or for your personal life (I used Todoist, which has a free version). Several of these programs are free and some are more robust than others. The law firm stuff usually focuses on contact and project management while the personal stuff is usually task-directed. Pick what works.

Don’t get in the habit of keeping it all in your head. Trust me. That’s the quickest path to a bad Yelp review from an angry client. Get a solution.

Up Next…

Go on to the next chapter: Ethics Can Kill

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.