Recently, a short piece in the Marshfield News Herald describing the downsides of entrepreneurship included this sad story about another solo practice that didn’t make it to the finish line, this time for geographic reasons:
“A few years ago, a lawyer I know had to leave her hometown where she had lived most of her life and move cross country for family reasons. And because she loved her solo practice and the flexibility it afforded her as a mother, and since she is smart and confident, she decided to re-start her solo practice in the new city, thinking it would not be too difficult. But it proved to be much more challenging than she ever thought.”
“Back here, in her hometown where she knew everyone, clients were not hard to come by. In the new city however, she had a lot fewer contacts and even fewer potential clients. And given that back here she had not really had to work too hard to get business, she never really learned about marketing, so that too was new. Eventually, between the Not-So-Great Recession and the challenges of starting from scratch, she finally had to go to work for someone else.”
The article got me thinking: How much of an edge does a lawyer’s hometown — or college or law school town, for that matter — provide in starting a successful solo practice?
Depending upon a lawyer’s intended practice focus, the hometown advantage may be fairly significant. For example, while attending a recent conference on Foundations for Practice with fellow ATL columnist Keith Lee, one small-firm, small-town, small-business lawyer whom I met shared that he tries to hire young associates with deep ties to the surrounding community because they’re likely to bring clients through the door solely on the strength of personal connections. Likewise, if you start a firm in the place where you grew up, your proud parents, siblings and high school friends are likely to drop your name any time they’re asked for a recommendation for a good lawyer. And even if you don’t handle the particular matter, you refer those cases to other lawyers in town to lay the foundation for cross-referrals or referral fees (if permitted).
Of course, hometown referrals work best in consumer-oriented legal matters — divorce, criminal defense, bankruptcy, or small business. But every once in a while, hometown connections can lead to more specialized complex cases. Consider, for example, small-town and small-firm lawyer David Wasinger, who’s currently embroiled in two multi-million dollar whistleblower actions under the False Claims Act. The client? An old business acquaintance from Wasinger’s from the small Missouri town where he practices.
Collegetown or, more likely, law school town connections can also give new solos a leg up on practice. During law school, aspiring solos can join the local bar or intern for lawyers in the community. When these students graduate, they can reach out to more established solos for advice, referrals, or potentially paid freelance work projects.
Still, while hometown and law school town connections confer advantages, a small firm practice isn’t doomed without them. The lawyer described in the article had grown accustomed to local contacts that provided a steady source of business so when she moved, she didn’t realize that she needed to market her practice and build new connections. In short, it’s not the lack of local contacts that killed this lawyer’s practice as much as her failure to recognize that she’d need to replace them after she moved.
What’s your view? Do lawyers have a hometown advantage? Share your experience in the comment section below.
Carolyn Elefant has been blogging about solo and small firm practice at MyShingle.com since 2002 and operated her firm, the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant PLLC, even longer than that. She’s also authored a bunch of books on topics like starting a law practice, social media, and 21st century lawyer representation agreements (affiliate links). If you’re really that interested in learning more about Carolyn, just Google her. The Internet never lies, right? You can contact Carolyn by email at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @carolynelefant.