We’re welcome back guest writer Hillary Vaillancourt to talk about starting your own law practice during an uncertain economy.
I have been thinking about starting my own law practice for well over a year now. It’s kind of a joke among my friends, because all throughout law school and even when I worked for other attorneys, I couldn’t understand why someone would want to hang their own shingle.
But, as a new mom, I really wanted a job that offered as much flexibility as possible. And, I wanted to work in a career where I could help people and do it my way.
Working for someone else wasn’t checking either of those boxes.
In February 2020, after a difficult experience at a private law firm, I made the decision to strike out on my own as a solo practitioner. I had no idea that a few weeks later due to COVID-19, my state (New York), would be completely shut down and my job considered non-essential.
When I first started, I had several new clients, many of whom were small business owners. Once the stay-home order was issued in New York, numerous clients were in a similar situation as me…non-essential and watching their savings disappear.
I received several emails from fellow business owners telling me they could no longer afford to pay for the estate documents I had drafted for them.
It didn’t take me long to figure out I had to do something different or my practice would be very short-lived.
The first thing I did was get rid of anything that was not completely necessary to my practice. I recently added a second phone line. I’m licensed in two states, and I wanted a phone number in each state.
But, when my business was suddenly facing extinction, I quickly nixed the second phone number. I can add it back later. For now it’s simply not necessary.
I looked at other finances as well. My husband and I give what we can to charity every month, but we made the difficult decision to stop those automatic donations for now until we felt confident we could weather this storm.
I was fortunate to be able to defer most of my student loans for the next few months as well.
By making these tough choices and thinking strategically about our finances, we were able to lower the amount I needed to bring in each month to cover our housing, utility, and other necessary bills to only $300.
One benefit of this unfortunate and uncertain time is it’s forced me to get absolutely clear on the mission of my law practice.
When I first went out on my own, by word of mouth, I secured several new clients right away. It was all honestly a bit by accident. As soon as the stay-home order was issued, however, I didn’t receive another client call for two weeks.
I started looking at my projections for the next few months wondering if I didn’t get any more clients, how was I going to pay my bills?
That’s when I knew I had to get the word out about my law practice in a different way. To do that, I had to know exactly who my ideal client is, where to find them, and how to communicate with them.
Once I did that, I began networking online strategically. Within two days I had secured another client.
I belong to several list servs and Facebook groups for female attorneys and attorney moms. One subject that constantly came up at the start of the pandemic-related business closures was how to diversify our practices.
There is good reason to expect bankruptcy law to be a boon in the coming months as sadly many businesses are forced to close. Some attorneys speculate family law will be a big money-maker. In fact, attorneys currently practicing family law have reported being extremely busy helping to referee custody disputes during the stay-home orders of various states.
If you practice an area of law that is obviously going to be hard-hit (like business law), perhaps changing the practice areas of your firm may help. It doesn’t mean you can’t ever practice business law again. It just means you’re finding a new way to serve clients for now.
As a solo practitioner, it’s usually a good idea to have an alternate income anyway. A financial planner friend of mine also teaches as an adjunct at a local university. He said when his business was just getting off the ground, teaching is what paid the bills. Once his financial planning business was thriving, teaching was extra income his family could use for vacations.
Now, however, many of his clients are also in a tight financial spot. Fortunately, he still has teaching to pay the bills during the pandemic.
The pressure of knowing I need to bring in new clients in order to pay my bills can sometimes be overwhelming. It’s one of the reasons I was reluctant to give up my nice, steady paycheck. But, the best antidote to the stress is to hustle, hustle, and keep hustling!
The more I market my firm, the more I get the word out, and the more I see the positive results of retaining new clients, the less stress I feel about making ends meet. In one week of targeted and free marketing, I’ve retained four new clients.
Who knows how long this situation will go on, but hopefully by getting clear on your ideal client, where to find them, and how to market effectively to them, you can retain more of them. And, if your ideal client is normally someone who is especially hard-hit right now, think of practice areas you can add to your firm that will help keep you afloat.
Hang in there! Lawyers are tough, and you can get through this.