Solo/Small

How To Start a Law Firm Without a Plan or Budget: The Path to Mastery

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Welcome to Day 3!

Yesterday you got a sense of how hard this is going to be, and you made a list of where the holes are in your personal education. You’ve identified the what and now you need to map out the how.

Character is Destiny

Angela Lee Duckworth gave a great talk in 2009 at TEDxBlue called “Grit: Can Perserverence be Taught?” In her talk, Duckworth defined grit as a dogged determination to get where we’re going. Doing the daily tasks required to make the future we want a reality. Grit is staying on task. Sticking with the plan.

But Duckworth outlined a delicate game: the differentiator between those who succeed and those who do not isn’t planning, apparently, it’s doing.

The first iteration of this series was called “Stumble Through: A Guide to Your First Year of Law Practice.” The scope got too big and too prescriptive, but think about that title. Why would I encourage stumbling?

Because your firm will be a combination of your habits. If you have a habit of making things happen, rather than plotting, you’ll have actual impact.

Your law practice will succeed if you resolve now to stumble through. Take steps, sometimes without looking, willing to change direction without abandoning the destination.

That habit of taking action won’t come easily. Lawyers plan. But when you have a business, you have to get offerings out the door. To avoid shipping out low-quality (or unethical) work, start by mastering a single focus.

Identify Your Core Offering

Begin by painting a very rough picture of the destination. Let’s call this a “vision,” your design for what your firm must be in 10 years. Because your vision is that far off, it’ll be blurry and not wordy. A “back of the napkin” business plan was good enough to create Southwest Airlines and it will be enough to create a successful law firm.

The secret is to get to the core of what you want to offer.

If you were to start a hot dog stand, what about the product would you define as the most important aspect? If it’s the hot dog then you’d better go out and get the best darn wiener you’ve ever tasted. Your customers will then tell you what bun you should change to, better ketchup, great relish… and you’ll grow into success. It’s not accidental, it’s lean. And we’ll talk more about that later.

For now, you need to get comfortable with not always knowing what you’re doing. You’re going to make some things up as you go. As General Patton said, “A good plan implemented today is better than a perfect plan implemented tomorrow.” That’s all you need to expect of yourself.

In her TED talk, Duckworth pointed to Dr. Anders Ericsson’s finding, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice leads to expert status. We’ll add nuance to that rule later, but know that if you spend 10,000 hours chasing after your back-of-the-napkin plan, you’ll succeed at it. The science machine says so.

[Mental Exercise of the Day]:

Get out your napkin (or paper, I guess) and get writing.

If it helps, use Simon Sinek’s model of “why-how-what.” As an example, in his book Start with Why, Sinek outlines what he believes is Apple’s model:

  • Why: We challenge the status quo
  • How: We do that by creating beautiful things that are easy to use
  • What: We happen to make computers

As Sinek points out, the “how” and the “what” are negotiable, but the “why” is not.

So what is your “why?” Why did you go to law school? What do you believe in that you’d like others to believe in? Can you create a product that furthers that mission? Can that be your focus?

When I practiced, our firm’s back-of-the-napkin business plan focused on one idea: “Access to knowledge is access to justice.” That’s the answer I came up with after reading a Texas State Bar Journal article that asked how we could increase legal services to the poor. And that answer, simple as it is, defined everything we did.

Imagine the power of a “why.” I didn’t have to guess when salespeople called me or new cases came up. I could ask the simple question: “Does this increase access to knowledge for the people I serve?” If the answer was no, I declined the opportunity.

It took me two years of practicing law before discovering my “why.” It’s probably not reasonable to expect you to come up with your forever plan on this, Day 3. That’s okay. Just put something down. And trust that you will discover the steps needed to get there.

[Big Little Step of the Day]:

You have a domain name and an office address. It’s time to set up systems for contacting you. That means phone, fax (yes, you’ll need that), and email.

What I’m about to point you to are easy resources. They aren’t the perfect solution, and certainly aren’t a long-term solution, but they’re a solution. Take action and ask questions later. That’s your mantra.

  • Prerequisites: You may already use Google Apps like Gmail or Drive, but you’ll need to get a Google Apps for Business account. Setting it up is easy. And it has a 30 day free trial, so that’s awesome. You’ll also need to set up your hosting account for your website now. Dreamhost, BlueHost, HostGator, 1&1… they all have their good and bad. Pick one and contact their customer support. They’ll tell you how to get started better than this book could.
  • Phone: Once you’ve set up Google Apps for Business, you can sign up for Google Voice. It’s a fantastic starter service that’s meant to be as mobile as you will be. Voice will provide a list of options for your phone number and you should pick a number that seems easiest to remember. Without overthinking it. As with your domain, few people even try to remember phone numbers anymore. Don’t fixate.
  • Fax: I’m a huge fan of e-faxing services. I won’t recommend a specific service since who’s best in the field constantly changes (we’ve used Ring Central, e-Fax, and Metrofax, all with few issues), but it’s so easy. Seriously, if you buy a big machine to send faxes, I will hunt you down.
  • Email: You’re getting Google Apps for Business, and you need to link that up with the domain name you registered. That comes once you’ve set up the hosting. You can have an email address that’s you@youlawfirm.com, but have your email and other services with Google. Again, get with the support team at your hosting service. Don’t learn how to do this — just have somebody at the company walk you through it.

Now look how official you are. You’ll be getting business cards soon (yes, again, we still use those). Like a big kid. This should feel good.

Up Next…

Go on to the next chapter: You Have Nothing Without a Good Product

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.