Debra L. Bruce 2015-10-26 11:23:48
Just Do It Six traits of the successful legal solopreneur. Sometimes lawyers in solo practices get so focused on honing their legal skills that they don’t recognize themselves as entrepreneurs. A solo lawyer has to be a “solopreneur”—one who pilots the enterprise while also producing the legal services the firm sells. In a 2013 commencement speech at the University of Minnesota, entrepreneur Steve Blank said: Great grades and successful entrepreneurs have at best a zero correlation. … You don’t get grades for resiliency, curiosity, agility, resourcefulness, pattern recognition, and tenacity. You just get successful. Those qualities are also essential for a successful solo legal practice. Resiliency. All lawyers need resiliency, but solos need an added dose because they usually don’t have a lot of staff to delegate their problems to or partners to share the responsibility with. Practicing law requires overcoming failure almost daily. There are people out there who actually get paid to get in our way, find our mistakes, and make us look bad. We never get everything we want in negotiation. In the courtroom, we win some arguments and we lose some. We use lots of technology, and some aspect of it malfunctions or befuddles us almost every day. If we weren’t resilient, we couldn’t make it through the week. Curiosity. Many lawyers have to consciously develop and maintain this trait; our attraction to the black-and-white finality of the law tends to stifle curiosity. Life and the actual practice of law rarely fit neatly into the black or white spaces, however. Even when the law clearly applies to the situation at hand, we have to deal with someone who claims otherwise. Curiosity helps us better understand our clients’ needs and goals. It allows us to find a new and acceptable path to get them what they really want. Curiosity helps us uncover the clue that unravels our opponent’s case, and it makes room for compassion, which softens the resistance that blocks the resolution of conflict. Curiosity leads us to innovation that reveals an unconventional winning strategy or opens up a whole new market for our law practice. Agility. We need agility to develop a new theory when it turns out that our client’s version of the facts wasn’t exactly accurate. It takes agility to quickly trim expenses or find a new market when the economy takes a nosedive or new legislation renders some aspect of our practice untenable. Our mental agility lets us literally “think on our feet” before the judge. It helps us switch gears from drafting a complex instrument to answering a client’s question on an unrelated topic when the phone rings. A solo’s agility allows him or her to adopt new technology or embrace new trends that create competitive advantages against larger firms. Resourcefulness. When you have personal responsibility for the success of the firm, you find ways to make things happen. We find free or less expensive avenues to conduct legal research and manage administrative tasks. We figure out how to resolve minor technological glitches because we don’t have full-time IT staff. We unearth and hire employees who can juggle a lot of balls, or we liberally engage outsourcing and virtual assistants. We broaden our range of knowledge and develop mutually supportive relationships with solos in other practice areas because we can’t just walk down the hall to ask our partner a question. We learn how to make the coffee, unblock a paper jam, electronically file a document, balance the budget, and manage personnel. Pattern Recognition. Most of us recognize patterns unconsciously. It’s what helps us suddenly discern what the other side is trying to hide from us. It guides us in choosing the argument that is more likely to persuade a particular judge. When we engage in pattern recognition consciously, we can identify the pivot point of a recurring problem. More importantly, we can use pattern recognition to predict the future. In 2009, many lawyers experienced a painful decline in their practices. Which firms rose above their competition by using social media to reach potential clients? Who started developing expertise in advising clients on how to handle the legal issues emerging from social media? Solos led the charge. The pattern was readily visible and even had some clarions announcing it, but only a small percentage of lawyers recognized what was coming. Tenacity. Solos have tenacity. That’s what it takes when problems, roadblocks, breakdowns, and disappointments are inevitable, and you’re the one who has to steer the enterprise past them. Sometimes tenacity and faith in our vision may be all that gets us through. Those who lack tenacity wind up leaving the practice of law or resign themselves to working in an environment where they trade autonomy and control over their destiny for increased security. That’s not wrong. It’s just not entrepreneurial. I close with some wisdom for all solopreneurs from the illustrious entrepreneur and scientist, Thomas Edison. He counseled, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” DEBRA L. BRUCE is president of Lawyer-Coach (lawyer-coach.com), a law practice management training and coaching firm. She practiced law for 18 years and has been a professionally trained executive coach for 15 years. She is a past vice chair of the Law Practice Management Committee of the State Bar of Texas. Bruce can be reached at (713) 682-4353 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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