Soon after I started my solo practice, I realized that I needed to develop and execute a plan for getting new clients. At first, I did it the old-fashioned way: networking, joining organizations, giving elevator speeches, passing out business cards, and doing contract work for other attorneys. This method took time and cost money and it didn’t work to the extent I had hoped. So I asked a few colleagues whether I should hire someone to help me improve my business.
I received the names of consultants, SEO experts, and coaches. Someone even suggested I talk to Tony Robbins. Some people swore by them while others said that the “advice” they provided was a bunch of hooey and can be found on the internet or at the library for free.
Over the last few years, I have become very skeptical of business development professionals (sometimes known as “marketeers”) who claim that they know the “secret technique” for improving my solo practice. A number of them are lawyers or ex-lawyers who — for one reason or another — decided to go into consulting and coaching. Also, some of these “experts” have questionable backgrounds and may not understand the professional rules that we lawyers have to follow.
I should point out that the purpose of this post is not to badmouth any particular person or the legal business development industry. This guy covered that already. But click onwards to find out the reasons for my skepticism and my thoughts on when it might make sense to retain a business development professional….
My first concern is that some of these consultants spout the same old advice wrapped in a prettier package. During their seminars or sessions, they give the same rules that you heard from either your law school’s career services office or most entrepreneur websites: network, advertise, manage your time, improve your appearance, be creative and work your butt off, to name a few. They then tell stories of current and former clients who were initially choosing between food and student loan payments and now, thanks to the consultant’s services, are choosing between the Ferrari and the Bentley.
Second — and this concerns the lawyers turned marketers — if their techniques are so successful, why haven’t they used these techniques for themselves? It’s like asking a psychic why she isn’t able to predict this weekend’s lottery numbers. Now I understand that some ex-lawyers do something else because they hate the work, have family needs, want to retire from practice, or had some strange spiritual re-awakening. But very few leave the law while they are doing well; any nuisance work can be delegated to associates or paralegals. There is usually a backstory — hopefully one that doesn’t involve a criminal conviction or a disbarment. Or, in one case, a bankruptcy.
Finally, any referrals from a competing attorney who I do not know well probably cannot be trusted completely. Let’s put it this way. If a coach or SEO expert is doing a very good job for me, I would be very reluctant to share him with a competitor. On the other hand, I may refer to a colleague a consultant or other professional who is probably good but I didn’t hire because we didn’t see eye to eye on things.
Now, despite the above concerns, it makes sense in certain circumstances to consult with — and possibly hire — a business development professional.
First, if the lawyer needs to know how to run a business. Most law school graduates have never started a business of any kind. Heck, some may not have had a real job their entire lives. For these people, the consultant can help the lawyer set up the proper business entity, understand financial statements, direct her to proper networking opportunities, and help her minimize overhead.
Second, if the lawyer needs someone to hold them accountable. I noticed that some people cannot motivate themselves and need someone to nag them. I am guilty of this sometimes. The consultant can help the lawyer set goals, minimize procrastination, and evaluate where things went wrong in order to prevent problems from happening again.
I learned that if you want to maximize your chances of success as a solo or as a small partnership, you will have to experiment with a variety of business development methods: networking, SEO, speaking, writing, websites, advertising on newspapers, radio, and even TV. Expect to get burned by unscrupulous salesmen and learn to move on as quickly as possible. Also, if you have some sort of business plan set up, you will have to stick with it for a period of time in order to learn from any mistakes and make appropriate changes.
Business development advice is out there. But you may need a professional to help you implement it.
Shannon Achimalbe was a former solo practitioner for five years before deciding to sell out and get back on the corporate ladder. Shannon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.