Solo/Small

How To Start a Law Firm Without a Plan or Budget: Document What You Do

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Welcome to Day 8!

Your business is worth nothing when you die. Sorry. You need to recognize that and change it.

What’s Your Law Firm Worth?

I saw this all the time in divorce cases: Spouse 1 built up a professional practice and Spouse 2 wanted a piece of it. But the assumption behind any property division in divorce is that you can quantify the value of the asset. How do you quantify something that has no value without you?

I’m going to make this easy for your future divorce attorney (That’s a joke. Don’t get divorced.): BUILD SOMETHING OF VALUE.

Imagine you died tomorrow — who would buy your business? What about that business has value without your beautiful brain? Your charm? Your way with angry judges?

No one would buy it. But you’re going to start building your empire by documenting what you do.

Your First Process

Earlier you decided what product to zoom in on for this early part of your practice, called your Minimum Viable Product. You went to a practice guide and spent a weekend mapping out how to deliver the MVP. You have a step-by-step process, and that is now your business.

To be clear, the product is not your business, your process is. Lots of people will do a divorce without children and under $25,000 in property, so the product will not differentiate you. How you deliver the product, your process, is what makes you different.

Once you have that process on paper, manipulate it. Measure it. Did clients like the way you handled the phone call in step 7 of your process? If not, change that step. Then ask customers how they feel about the update in step 37 being delivered by email rather than letter. Did updates come frequently enough and in a way they could access? How would the customer like to see those updates change? Measure and make changes.

Make sure the closing interview is part of your process. Give the client their file on that day, ask them questions about your service, then ask them to wrote a positive Yelp review. Survey Monkey has a free product that would help here. Send a Survey Monkey a week after the closing interview with more specific questions about your service. Data, gathered.

You see, the point in a process is that it can be manipulated. People can’t, including you. Do not expect that you can take this feedback and just keep it in your brain. You have too much to do for that — you’re building an empire that changes the world.

Well, at minimum, you’re creating a business.

If the difference between owning a business and being self-employed is the value of your enterprise to someone else, the processes are what the buyers would pay for.

Get in the habit of documenting a process for every case type as you expand your practice. If you don’t have a strong process for your MVP, you aren’t ready to add new case types. Otherwise, you’ll be just as dysfunctional delivering the new products as you have been with your MVP.

Some Tips on Documentation

Document your process somewhere that others will be able to access later. Your website can have a wiki added once you have enough revenue to pay a website guy, or add an intranet on Google Sites if you’re feeling adventurous. In the meantime, use a Google Doc. Add a new document for each process. Outline every step you will take to deliver your product, and stay on top of editing that document as new suggestions arrive.

Eventually you’ll be ninja enough to define procedures. These are the steps inside a process. You may know how to do things like “draft a letter of representation,” but a future employee won’t know how to do that. And, if you don’t tell an employee how you want something done, it won’t be done the way you want it. Guaranteed.

Say your process requires you to submit a pleading to the court clerk — well what the heck does that mean? Define the input (what employees will need at their desk to complete the procedure), the procedure itself (the steps they’ll take to complete the task), and the output (what the results should look like so they can measure their own success).

You may think you don’t need these records because you don’t have employees, but by the time you need to hire employees, you won’t have time to write this stuff down. Not thoughtfully anyway. You have time now, so get writing.

[Mental Exercise of the Day]:

You know your avatar, now you need to brainstorm how to find that person. And his or her friends.

The value of an avatar is the specificity. You should already have ideas in mind of where that person shops, what that person reads, and how that person spends time online. Put that knowledge to the test.

So write it down — if you were to get in touch with your avatar, where would you go? Facebook? Twitter? Conventions? PTA meetings? Pinboards on college campuses?

List as many possibilities as you can. We’ll test them later. Today you just have to narrow the list from “everywhere.”

[Big Little Step of the Day]:

The first leverage point for getting to know your avatar is the survey. You need to formulate a questionnaire that helps you identify what your avatar needs, then you have to get your avatar to fill it out.

Again, Survey Monkey helps. The software allows you to generate a questionnaire and share it to relevant spots online. And then it gathers the data so you can make decisions.

Here are a few tips for writing a good survey:

  1. Keep questions general. This breaks cardinal rules of survey-taking, I know, but you are trying to get answers that you couldn’t possibly have imagined. Multiple-choice questions are easier to measure statistically, but open-ended questions accomplish your purposes here.
  2. But mix it up. Although the open-ended questions are most valuable, you should also be able to test specific steps you’ve imagined in writing up your MVP. You may want to know what percentage of would-be clients prefer email versus phone calls, for example. You can measure that with multiple-choice questions.
  3. When writing multiple-choice questions, always have an “Other (please specify)” option. You can’t possibly know the range of responses to your questions. Give respondents a place to tell you something you didn’t know.
  4. Keep it brief. Most people don’t like to fill out surveys, so don’t over-burden them. If you can get a big enough group to answer, Survey Monkey allows you to ask one question to each respondent and still get enough data to draw educated conclusions. In any case, no survey should be more than five questions.

If you don’t know how to get your survey to your avatar, start first with your immediate circle of friends. More than likely, you can list out 200 people you know. (Dunbar’s Number is lower, but Dunbar didn’t have social media.)

Within that group of 200, see if your avatar pops up more than once. Maybe you have 5 or 10 avatars in your personal network. In my case, I calculated a dozen of my avatar in my network. You may, too.

Ask those people if they will complete the questionnaire. And encourage them to be honest. Then ask if they will share it with friends who share the characteristics you’re looking for. Consider adding an incentive for everyone who completes the survey, like a gift card. Survey Monkey has that capability in the paid version.

No matter how you get it, get some data. Find out how your avatar likes to be found and served. That information is golden.

Up Next…

Go on to the next chapter: Use The Right Tools

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.