By Ally Kennedy, Founder Amiga Lawyers
When we start our law firms we not only lawyers, we are the CEO's. One of the main reasons many lawyers struggle when they hang out their own shingle is because they do not want to handle the business side of the firm. We use the words "law firm partner" and have somehow distinguished that in our minds from being business owners, which is what we are. Many lawyers say, "I just want to do the work, I do not want to worry about the other stuff." Here's the hard truth: if you own a law firm, you are an entrepreneur and you must run your law firm as a CEO of a company instead of an associate attorney in someone else's firm. Here are tips on how to manage running your firm like a businesswoman instead of an employee.
1. Know Your Finances
In order for your business, your law firm, to succeed, you must get a grasp on finances. You have to know how much is coming in each month and how much is coming out. Here are some key questions that you need to be able to answer:
How much are you earning each month in:
- New Contracts
- Monthly Payments
How much is owed to your firm on all outstanding contracts?
What is every single expense that you have?
What is your breakeven point each month?
If the thought of answering these questions stresses you out, take a moment to take a deep breath. (Seriously… Breathe in for 5 and out for 5.) Everything is okay. Just because you do not know the answers to these questions does not mean that you will never know them. Take on each question one-by-one, and break it into digestible parts. For example, if you do not know how much you are making in consultations each month, start a spreadsheet or even write it on your whiteboard to be able to keep track.
The reason that this is important is because you must know the bare minimum that you need in order to be able to make it through the slow months. Also, this information helps you in goal-setting and tracking future revenue streams.
"You've got to spend money to make money!" That is my husband's rallying cry to me whenever I am hesitating to invest in something for my business. This constant reminder has pushed me out of my comfort zone and into profits. If you're at a crossroads, trying to decide if you should invest in a tool to make business better and easier, let go of fear and take the crucial step to grow your business.
For example, I found an incredible virtual bookkeeping service called Bench.co, and it costs $129.00 a month. I hesitated about it and wrestled with the decision in my head about whether I should make the investment. "I can just do it myself," I reasoned. However, keeping the books stressed me out tremendously. I did not know what would be the technical category for each expense. God forbid I get in trouble with the IRS. I took advantage of a free month-long trial, and it changed my life. Now, I upload my bank statements each month and just review to make sure that everything is in the correct category when my bookkeeper gets back to me. By letting go of my fear to invest in a monthly charge, I was able to earn more money and be more streamlined in my business. I am not an affiliate of Bench but I do love them. If you give them a try, be sure to say I sent you!
It was also a hard decision to hire on a full time legal assistant, but my workload has already d
Other investments that have changed my business are:
- MyCase case management system
- Fijitsu ScanSnap
- Dropbox storage
- Bilingual answering service from OfficeSense. (This is my favorite of all. I cannot more highly recommend Office Sense: www.officesense.com. They have changed my business tremendously. They text and email me messages, and allow my staff and me the flexibility to call back whenever it is right for us. They have plans that start as low as $29.00 a month. )
- Virtual Assistant for billing
Each payment toward these tools and people are an investment in my firm and in myself. Now I can spend more time on doing the work that I enjoy doing.
3. Hire Smart
When deciding to take on a new hire, there are all of the traditional factors to consider such as previous work history and education. Sometimes those criteria can actually be limiting. We can cast our nets a bit wider to find people that maybe do not have the 4-year college degree, but who would nevertheless still be an asset to your team. The best legal assistants I have ever had do not have a college degree. They have something better: synergy, positive attitudes, willingness to work and learn, and a deep pride in their work. It is not enough that someone meets criteria that you can check off on a list. You possibly spend more time with your coworkers than your spouse and your children, so that work relationship needs to be supportive and productive.
A big pitfall when starting a company is that it can be an opportunity to "help out" family members or friends who need a job. The help can quickly turn to resentment when you feel like you are doing that person a "favor" and they are not living up to your expectations. That person may feel like he can be lax because he is your best friend or your cousin or whatever the situation may be. Of course there are some setups out there that work when it comes to close friends and family, but there should be a bright line rule that every single person that you bring on your team supports your mission and your goals. If someone is slowing you down, regardless of who he or she is, it affects your business and your bottom line.
4. Determine your Ideal Client
Ideal client does not mean "perfect person," rather it means taking a look at your strengths, your weaknesses, your likes, and your dislikes to allow you to directly target the right clientele. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What types of cases do you love?
- What populations do you like to serve?
- What foreign language strengths do you have that appeal to a certain people?
In determining my strengths and my ideal client, I decided to take an alternative look at my cases and clients to see what types of cases I was attracting to my firm. I looked to my current and past caseloads and my Facebook followers (of over 3,300 people) and asked myself the following questions:
- Are my clients mainly male or female?
- What is their average age?
- What are their principal legal needs?
- What legal issues are they facing (such as criminal history)?
- What is their family structure?
- What language do they speak?
When asking myself these simple questions, I found a whole new way to market my firm. I realized that over 90% of my clients are middle-aged, Mexican men. They are undocumented, married, and on average have 3 children. They are looking for a way to "get a work permit." This helped me decide where my time and money is best spent in terms of cultivating new clients. For example, I now do no marketing in English. I run my Facebook page and all of my direct client marketing in Spanish.
Each of us has a different niche and market, and it is a matter of finding yours. You can break it down even further than I have here (for example, I know of a colleague who has created the niche of gay and lesbian Adjustment of Status applicants. That is the only type of case he does. Another colleague does almost exclusively I-601A waivers and nothing else), but it gives you a starting point.
5. Take Time to Learn
Law school did not teach us to be businesswomen. In my experience in working in firms, I can say that most lawyers are not great businesspeople. Your state's bar likely has a lending library that offers books specifically dedicated to how to run a law practice and best practices. It may be worth checking out a book or two to get an idea. Most bar associations also have a practice management division where you can turn for assistance and support. In addition to law firm-based resources, pick up some business books on management, financial planning, and the like. You need to educate yourself so that you can build a strong foundation as your firm builds.
I have started offering one-on-one sessions with solo practitioners to help them create more profitable and uplifting work environments. If you are interested in knowing more, email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
About your Ally in Life, Business and Law:
Alexandra "Ally" Kennedy is a national award-winning attorney and the founder of AMIGA Lawyers and Alexandra Kennedy Immigration Law.. After becoming a mother, and in a matter of 3 months, Ally transformed her practice from earning in pesos to earning 6-figures and she is passionate about teaching attorneys how they can do the same. Ally empowers lawyers to be the CEOs of their law firms with her weekly blog, webinars, and conferences where she teaches step-by-step how to do the work they love while running a profitable legal business. Ally lives outside of Seattle with her partner and their 5 children.