Many attorneys are drawn to setting up shop as solo practitioners for the increased autonomy and control over their work lives as compared to other career tracks such as BigLaw or in-house counsel. With the correct strategy and approach, achieving a healthy work-life balance as a solo legal practitioner is possible. The advantage of life in solo practice is that you have complete authority to make all the decisions about marketing strategy, workflow procedures, and every other aspect of your professional life— and that’s also the disadvantage. Some solo practitioners quickly find themselves overwhelmed with running their business and working longer hours for less money than they would at a larger firm, whereas others thrive. The difference is that while the former tries to ‘wing it’, the latter has carefully devised systems and strategies for all aspects of their professional life, which allows them to spend the bulk of their energy on being a lawyer rather than managing their business– in other words, serving clients, and getting paid for it. No successful solo practice is exactly like any other, but some general rules apply for maintaining work-life balance when you’ve hung out your own shingle.
Your first task as a solo practitioner is to find clients, especially if you aren’t bringing any with you from a previous position. They won’t just come to you, especially if you’re in a competitive location and/or legal specialty. A proactive marketing plan is absolutely essential. Your specific marketing strategy will vary depending on your particulars, but one general rule applies: don’t do it yourself. Instead, hire an expert legal marketing company. It’s an investment in you and your firm’s success. Don’t look at it as an expense.
Every aspect of marketing requires a professional level of skill for success, and chances are, if you’ve been busy training to become a lawyer, and then practicing law, you don’t have the background or experience to also be a professional marketer. You’ll shortchange yourself if you don’t seek help. Anyone can place Google Ads, for instance, but it takes a lot of rigor and strategy to build a successful and cost-effective Google Ads strategy for a new business. If you try to manage it yourself, you’re likely to spend a big chunk of your time and only achieve middling results, whereas a strong marketing agency will know exactly how to position your firm and maximize the results of a campaign.
Similarly, the internet is full of solo practice websites with slapdash design and/or a generic look via a website builder like Squarespace. This can be a real liability for your online legal marketing, since your internet presence will generally be a potential client’s first perception of you, and they may already have a conscious or unconscious predisposition that they might not get the same level of professional service from a solo practitioner as they would from a larger firm. If your website does not look as professional, especially in comparison to the website from a larger firm around the corner you’re competing with, this concern may be amplified. That’s not to say you need a particularly slick or feature-heavy website, as this guide explains. But, you also shouldn’t design it yourself.
It’s best to think of hiring a legal marketing agency as part of the start-up costs for your solo practice, rather than something you will do when your revenue increases. You’ll ultimately grow your firm faster if you choose an expert, experienced legal marketing agency, despite the initial investment of cost. Just as importantly, you’ll maintain a better work-life balance by not having to sink your time into less-effective marketing and branding efforts on your own that will likely end up costing you more.
The big advantage larger firms inherently have over sole proprietorships in terms of bringing in new business is that more lawyers mean more professional connections, which in turn generate more referrals for the entire organization. You’re just one person, so the only professional connections you have to begin with are your own.
That’s why it’s important to tap into existing referral networks. This may include participating in local civic organizations such as your city’s Chamber of Commerce. You should also try to build referral networks with other solo practitioners and small firms in your area with complementary specialty areas.
Membership in a service like Clio Referral Network can maximize your results from referrals while minimizing the time and energy you spend cultivating them. It’s one way to even the ‘playing field’ between you and your larger competitors without spending all your time chasing down leads.
You might think that, as a law firm of one, you don’t need to spend time optimizing your client intake system or procedures. After all, when there aren’t multiple lawyers or departments to coordinate across, the only attorney to keep ‘in the loop’ about a potential new client is you. That is the wrong approach. We all have finite brain space and bandwidth, and maintaining a reasonable work-life balance depends on conserving and maximizing what’s on our mind at any given moment of the day. What’s more, finalizing an arrangement with a potential client often takes a fair amount of personal contact and ‘hand-holding’; as a sole proprietor, you don’t have anyone to delegate that function to. You don’t want to lose a potential client because you’re too wrapped up in a matter for another client to return a call or email promptly. And, you don’t want to lose an opportunity with a prospective new client by entrusting the process to inexperienced administrative staff.
Therefore, having a client intake system in place is arguably more, or at least just as important for you as a solo practitioner than it is for larger firms. What this means in practice varies depending on your circumstances, but, again, it’s important to have a system in place instead of dealing with it ad-hoc. This can include use of the array of legal tech and other tech solutions available such as automated follow-up emails, online intake information gathering, and so forth. Also, using a CRM (customer relationship management) software solution is also imperative to a solid intake process. The key is to figure out what works for you, and then stick to it. We put together a guide on how to automate your practice for success you can find it here.
Clients who choose to work with solo practitioners generally do so because they see advantages in having a more personal connection to their lawyer than they would get at a larger firm. That’s one of your ‘superpowers’ as a solo practitioner, so you should use it. Somewhat ironically, new technology allows you to leverage this personal touch to a wider effect.
Specifically, as a solo practitioner, you can offer basic legal services to your clients through implementation of a legal subscription plan. This encourages those clients to come to you for routine services which you can provide with a personal touch, rather than the more anonymous feeling and generally higher price point of larger firms. And a predictable monthly retainer tends to be a smaller pain point for many clients than hefty sporadic bills with hours they may view as inflated given the routine nature of the services. This is also a tremendous way to achieve long-term growth with a stable source of revenue every month.
Legal service subscriptions particularly make sense for solo practitioners because they lead to higher rates of client retention, which in turn means less effort and time spent cultivating new clients. Particularly in smaller cities, we expect to see this trend grow among solo practitioners with SMB clients who have consistent legal needs such as employment contracts, purchase and lease arrangements, and similar requirements. Here’s ONE400 CEO Allen Rodriguez explaining the ins and outs of legal subscription services versus hourly fees.
What’s more, subscription services tend to reduce client turnover by reducing the time and energy necessary to replace previous clients with new ones— which is especially important for solo practitioners seeking work-life balance.
Unlike larger firms, a solo practice generally doesn’t have an army of paralegals to perform routine and (relatively) low-skilled tasks such as document review, prior art searches, and so forth. On the other hand, as a solo practitioner you also don’t have a large organization to support via billing every hour possible. Depending on your speciality, there are software and technology packages that can minimize the time you need to spend personally on these and similar tasks. Constant innovations in AI are making this kind of tech more easy and effective all the time. Here’s a good resource to get started thinking about how you can use these tools in your practice.
This may sound obvious, but it’s worth discussing. As a solo practitioner with no other attorneys to delegate tasks or clients to, you will at times find yourself with several matters on your desk for different clients. The human brain is not great at handling more than one complicated issue at once, and studies show that we all underestimate the negative impact multi-tasking has on our work output and quality. Studies suggest that trying to do more than one mental task at once can reduce our overall brainpower by around 40%.
The good news is that, as a solo practitioner, you have a lot more control over the specifics of your schedule than most other lawyers — another ‘solo superpower’ you should use. There are a number of potential strategies for arranging your schedule. For instance, in his book Deep Work, Cal Newport recommends ‘batching’ tasks throughout the day via a pre-planned schedule — by reserving a given chunk of time for responding to emails, rather than replying to them or even checking your inbox as they come in, and so forth. This also allows you to block out distraction-free time and energy for working on the more complicated and taxing matters your clients bring to you, and what’s more, helps preserve work-life balance so that you aren’t responding to emails or performing other tasks late into the evening.
It goes without saying that you want to make sure your clients are satisfied with their experience, and will return next time they require legal services. Gestures that might seem a little hokey coming from a larger firm— such as holiday cards— can be very effective in this regard for solo practitioners. The ‘personal’ touch can actually feel personal when you’re a solo practitioner. That’s yet another one of your many solo practitioner superpowers — so make sure to use it. A little bit of effort in that regard will increase your client retention rate, saving you time and energy in the long run, and helping you achieve a better work-life balance.