Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm – Sir Winston Churchill
There are fifteen steps that, if followed precisely and in the correct order, will guarantee your small town law practice will be a successful, profitable enterprise. Unfortunately, the last person who knew what these steps is also the only person on record to have found a way to successfully transmute lead into gold. So, rural entrepreneur, you will have to be satisfied with these few suggestions to ease your way between failures.
Get paid up front
I cannot claim credit for this – this is, after all, Foonberg Rule #1. Discussing fees and collecting a retainer is the first of many difficult conversations you will have with clients, but it is something that must be done and is necessary if your practice is to thrive. It is far easier to get paid up front than it is to try to collect when all is said and done. If you aren’t collecting fees, you are doing pro-bono work and that is simply an expensive way to fail slowly. Develop a reputation for providing quality service at a reasonable price and most rural clients are not going to quibble about the price; but they also aren’t going to volunteer to pay it either – you’ve got to ask.
Give it everything you’ve got
This is more than just a reminder about working hard, in a small town there is little distinction between the profession and the professional – what you do is part and parcel of who you – so accept that you are going to be a lawyer 24/7/365 regardless of what your office hours are. Until you are established as a community fixture, you and your business are going to be evaluated, weighted and measured. You are going to be always building your reputation, so give this endeavor everything you’ve got and use every skill you have. After you are established as a community fixture – you’ll still be a lawyer 24/7, you and your practice will still be evaluated, weighted and measured, and you still have to maintain your reputation, but at least now folks will have funny stories about the day you… to tease you with – this is a good sign, it means you’ve been accepted.
Stick it out
The bare facts are that half of all businesses fail in the first five years of existence, you are going to take losses initially, and It is going to take time to build your reputation, your referral network, and your client base so, prepare for the long haul. Watch your cash flow, consider alternate sources of income if necessary and, when things get tough, don’t forget to call on your friends, mentors, and your local equivalent of lawyers helping lawyers. Remember, you are always only one phone call from having a good month.
Be observant and learn about your small town and your potential clients, is this a place and are these people where innovation is welcome or should tradition be your watch word. Never assume that your idea of innovation is the same as your small town’s. Never assume that innovation will be welcome, but then again, never assume that just because something has never been done it can’t be done.
Invite people to…
If you are going to build your business, you are going to have to meet people – people who will be your mentors, your referral sources, and your clients and in most small towns any sort of outreach, after the Welcome Wagon has dropped by, is going to be up to you. So invite people to lunch, to a ball game, to an open house. Get out there and meet folks.
If you can locate in your small town’s version of “downtown”, preferably along it’s equivalent of Main street. Downtown where “local” business congregate – the big box stores, franchise chains, and other “foreigners” tend to sit along the fringes of a small town convenient locations from which to sell to, but not be a part of, the town. In a vibrant small town, downtown is where people meet, where festivals are held, and where things happen. People drop into downtown businesses but simply shop at the ones on the fringe.
Working out of your home is going to take some prep work – check zoning codes before you hang out that shingle. The thing to remember is that rural folks value their privacy and the formal trappings of an office, so the last thing you want to do is give the impression that you work at home. So, keep your office and home separate – the ideal situation is to have a separate entrance and a separate phone line, the minimal situation is to teach your family to answer the phone in a professional manner and try to locate your office immediately off the front door. People will tolerate the occasional child-related emergency, but general interruptions should be kept to a minimum.
Invest in your practice – first and foremost never spend before you earn and, during those profitable months, set aside a portion for rainy days. Having a nest egg will carry you through those slow times.
Invest in the business experience of your practice. The business experience is the reality your clients perceive and feel when doing business with you; those visceral, emotional, sensory cues that assault your client from the moment they walk in to the moment they leave. It is what becomes associated with your brand, what forms the foundation of that oh-so valuable word-of-mouth marketing, and what creates value in the client’s mind. Your brand only has two functions: to give your pride in your practice – to afford you the ability to point to something and say I created that, and to remind clients (and potential clients) of the business experience you provide. Here’s a quick and dirty example – if you really want to investigate the concept of the business experience, read Clued In by Lewis P. Carbone – your practice is all about alternative dispute resolution, so you hang out a shingle as Smith’s Dispute Resolution, “resolving disputes peacefully”. There’s your brand, its all about you. Now think, what type of experience should a client have when they walk through the door – what emotional and sensory cues do they need to feel that here is a place of sanctuary, a place where their problems will be resolved with a minimal amount of conflict, a place where they are safe? Perhaps you pipe classical etudes into your waiting room, provide comfortable chairs that cradle your clients, mildly scent the air with lavender, and decorate in warm colors. Perhaps you meet with your clients in a room equipped more like a living room – arm chairs and end tables, a box of tissues discretely near-by – to discuss their matter over tea and biscuits. Get the idea?
Invest in technology, technology is the great equalizer – it can keep your costs down, allow you to get more done, and generally be leaner, meaner, and quicker than your competition and more responsive to your clients. The downside of technology is that it can eat your operating account for lunch without belching and come back looking for more. At the beginning invest in the minimal amount of equipment necessary – usually something along the lines of a computer, a scanner, a printer, some form of backup system, and perhaps a smartphone – and add the toys only if they provide a significant return on your investment – as a reformed technoholic I know how hard this can be, but this really is one of those areas that can have an effect on your bottom line; it is your choice whether it is positive or negative. When it comes to software a basic office suite, an accounting program, and law practice management application should see you through the early days.
Invest in yourself – create a comfortable workspace, separate from where you meet clients, for yourself; you are going to be there for many long hours. Here’s one place to think outside the box, you don’t have to go desk chair and desk with a return route on linoleum. There are standing desks and walking desks, ergonomic chairs and stools, shag carpets and persian rugs. Consider covering those blank walls with art work or covering that empty window sill with plants.
Deal with gossip
In a business sense, gossip is one of your better marketing tools – it’s free, it’s direct, and it’s fast. The trick is to make sure that it is accurate. So, if you are going to do something gossip-worthy be open and above board about it. Remodeling your office? Let the local newspaper know about your plans, leave the door open and take the time to talk to those who drop by – not just about what you do, but about the history of the building (if it’s an old one), the history of the town, their family, etc; take the time to make connections. Receive an important award? Have an open house – not to talk up the fact that you won an award, but to have a community event to mark an important event.
Have regular hours
Folks are going to want to know when they can catch you in, but regular hours does not have to, nor should it, mean 9 − 5 Monday through Friday. In fact, you may be better off with hours outside those traditional “banker’s” hours. From a client’s point of view, that 9 − 5 schedule translates to the loss of a half-day’s pay. Think about evening hours or weekend hours – sure they will be a bit inconvenient for you, but they will make your clients’ lives easier.
Don’t wait for clients to fire you
When you start getting that sinking feeling that this particular lawyer-client relationship is going south is the time to fire the client – ethical obligations permitting. There are some client-lawyer relationships that just don’t work and poor working relationships yield poor word of mouth. It is far better to rip the bandage off quickly than let things fester. Sure, you’ll have one dissatisfied client, but by concentrating on your good clients, your ideal clients you’ll have more, many more, positive voices out there working for you.
My mother drew a distinction between achievement and success. She said that ‘achievement is the knowledge that you have studied and worked hard and done the best that is in you. Success is being praised by others, and that’s nice, too, but not as important or satisfying. Always aim for achievement and forget about success.’ – Helen Hayes