Grow Yourself, Grow Your Business

I started my law firm in February 2017. As I approach that anniversary again, I have some reflections on the lessons I’ve learned over the past seven years. 

First, some background. Early in my career, I worked at two large NYC firms (i.e. BigLaw). My experience at those firms is a story for another day, but if you want an idea what that life is like, others have a more recent tale to tell. 

After leaving BigLaw, I spent more than 10 years at a litigation boutique. My colleagues were incredibly good to me over that decade, teaching me a lot about how to be an effective lawyer. They supported me when I needed to get my feet underneath me after the death of both of my parents, and then when I got married and had a baby. But I reached a point where not only had I learned everything they had to teach me, I knew that I needed and wanted something else for my next chapter. I spent about a year figuring out what I wanted to do (while still working full time) and, ultimately, decided I couldn’t see myself working for someone else anymore. Also, having worked for people who had started their own law firms, I figured it couldn’t be that hard. 

To a certain extent, I was right. It wasn’t that hard. However, in some ways, I was really, really wrong. I hadn’t fully anticipated the amount of reflection and introspection required to not just build something, but to build something that works for me and my clients. I believe the lessons I learned are worth sharing because they apply not only in the context of a small law firm, but to anyone trying to develop a client base. 

First, I am not for every client, and not every client is for me. This has probably been the hardest thing for me to learn and an area where I’ve repeatedly failed to take my own advice, although I keep trying. I’ve slowly learned to interview potential clients so I can decide if they’re people I want to work with and, most importantly, to say no to those I think aren’t going to align with how I work and what my firm is about. 

Why does this matter so much? Working with clients who aren’t a good fit can feel like a chore. It’s a drain on my time and energy and, I suspect that no matter how hard I try, these clients are going to be disappointed with my work. It’s not a formula for success, especially considering I get about 99 percent of my business from referrals. I know there will be attorneys better suited for the people I turn down, and I do my best to help those potential clients find them. 

Of course, no one can always pick and choose clients. Like everyone else, I need to make a living. But screening clients carefully is critical regardless of your field, and this holds particularly true for what I do — commercial litigation. I frequently have adversaries who think that the best way to litigate is to be incredibly unpleasant (generally, it’s not, but that’s a subject for another post), and I don’t need to deal with this and a difficult relationship with a client at the same time, especially when a part of my job is sometimes to deliver bad news to the people I represent. Of course, this isn’t to say that my relationships with clients are all sunshine and flowers and unicorns who poop rainbows. The nature of the litigation beast is that sometimes things are going to get tense. All part of the job. However, focusing on working with simpatico clients is a north star that has been incredibly helpful, and has gotten me to a place where I work more and more with people I respect and trust — and who respect and trust me. 

A second key lesson I’ve learned is to make time for the uncomfortable and the unpleasant. In my experience, to run a successful business you’re going to have to do some things that are difficult or you don’t enjoy. For a long time, what I hated more than anything was marketing myself. I felt I had no idea what I was doing and I was really afraid that someone out there on the Internet was going to criticize my marketing efforts. As I look back, I realize this self-doubt was something I picked up at one of the firms I worked at previously, but that too is a story for another day. 

Because of this, for the longest time I would start every day intending to write a blog post, a newsletter, or something for LinkedIn, but because I found this marketing work so uncomfortable it was all too easy to push it aside in favor of other, less unpleasant or less scary things. Then, when I blew it off I would get frustrated with myself and feel bad about not doing the work. Suffice it to say, this was a pretty awful spiral that I do not recommend. 

My solution began with recognizing the pattern, then blocking out an hour in the middle of each day to devote to growing my firm (I’m writing this during this time). Do I use this hour wisely and productively every day? Of course not. But do I use it wisely and productively more often than not? Yes. This doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of feeling uncomfortable doing things to market my firm — I still am — but it does make sure I don’t avoid it. 

Stay tuned for more and let me know if there are any business development topics you’d like to see me talk about. I know we can all benefit from an exchange of ideas.