Managing a law practice takes time, and many lawyers find it stressful. Managing your practice successfully is more likely with four key ingredients: goals, confidence, passion and focus.
Goals guide a law student’s efforts toward good grades and a first job. Serendipity and mistakes may be the reasons you find yourself where you are in your career today, but goals enhance the value of chance and the likelihood that you will learn from your mistakes.
Goals begin with an idea. Perhaps you have been thinking about how nice it would be to own your own firm and be your own boss. Or you may be dreaming of a steady stream of clients asking for your help who are willing and able to pay for it.
When you take an idea and distill it into a specific and measurable aim, you give yourself prompts for what to do and indications of how to measure your progress.
Carol, a partner at a large regional firm, was feeling the pressure of declining billables year over year. When we first start working together, she told herself that her goal was to have book of business of $1 million by the end of the year. I asked her to describe the clients in that book: the industries they were in, the problems they had that she could solve, and the decision-makers with the power to hire her. Answering these questions transformed Carol’s idea into a specific and measurable goal to connect with the right decision-makers and to know what to say when she met with them.
Having direction and prompts for personal action led her to consider where she could meet these people and the conversations she would need to have with them before they would be ready to hire her. Transforming a wish into a specific and measurable goal gave her a way to identify specific actions and measures of progress. For the first time ever, she said she felt motivated and positive because it was clear what she needed to do to succeed.
Confidence helps clear your mind to respond effectively to conflict. It opens up different options for what to do, how to execute, and when to act. Over the past year, several lawyers have asked me if they should start a solo practice or avoid the fear of being alone in a new venture by first finding a partner. Confidence is what makes it possible to rationally consider the answers.
Tim has a solo practice as a criminal defense lawyer. He came to talk about a downward spiral that had taken hold. After a successful career working at a small firm and four and a half years on his own, he felt burned out. He had lost a few appeals and was still feeling the sting of a client complaint, even though it had been dealt with and resolved in his favor.
He lost confidence in himself and his ability to help clients. This obscured any vision of success and undermined the resilience needed to bounce back from the inevitable and eventual losses in court, and it led him to obsess about having another client complain to the Board of Bar Overseers. Asking for help was the first step forward.
Do something that you would do regardless of whether you can make significant amounts of money. Passion builds optimism, and together they motivate people to put in the time and hard work needed for success.
Periodically, ask yourself how you feel about your work. Which aspects inspire your passion? Is it working with clients? The strategy? Legal writing? Or something else? Whatever it is, find ways to feed your passion. The more you feed it, the more you’ll feel it, and the more motivated you will be to do the work that is necessary to succeed but is less enjoyable.
It’s difficult to market effectively if your practice is too broad. If you think about your practice as commercial litigation, how will prospective clients know if you can help them and their business with a collection issue? If you offer criminal defense, estate planning and family legal services, how will prospective clients decide that you have the time and expertise to help them when their marriages are falling apart?
Focus in your practice will lead you to talk about your practice in ways that lead prospects to decisions to hire you, while messaging that you are a jack of all trades will lead prospects to decisions that you are a master of none.
Focus is your choice about where not to direct your attention. It’s easy to get distracted by the myriad demands of a busy practice and feel overwhelmed with the amount of legal and administrative work. Avoid paying constant attention to fears, regrets and worries. Instead, redirect your focus to your goals and the changes you want to make in your life. Even OCD patients can, with self-talk, redirect their behavior. If they can do it, so can you.
Pay attention to the changes in your life that you want to make. The more you focus on them, visualizing what you need to do and how to do it and pondering what will be different and better when you have made the changes you want to make, the more likely you’ll focus and follow through.
Susan Letterman White works with lawyers and law firms on leadership, performance, marketing and business development. She is the principal consultant at Letterman White Consulting. She practiced employment law for more than 20 years.