Sept. 7, 2011 – As great as “being your own boss” sounds, actually being your own boss as a solo or small firm practitioner can be a daunting task. As Green Bay attorney Sarah Malcore put it, “we solo and small firm attorneys must wear a lot of hats.”
Despite the juggling act, attorneys like Martin Ditkof, who practices from a home office in Brookfield, says solo practice is an amazing way to go. But the path of professional solo or small firm success is not without bumps and bruises.
Asked about the most difficult or frustrating aspect of solo or small firm practice, several Wisconsin attorneys say information technology and office management issues can eat up valuable practice time. Cash flow problems can occur when clients don’t pay or don’t pay on time, and insurance coverage can be a hassle. In addition, personal emergencies or conflicts can be more stressful with no colleagues to cover, others say.
Appleton attorney Jennifer Lee Edmonton sums up a general dilemma of solo practice, which is “having to know both the business aspects of starting and operating a business … as well as being able to focus on being a lawyer.”
Nevertheless, economic downturn is forcing more and more attorneys to take the solo route. In fact, the National Association for Law Placement reported that 5.5 percent of new law school graduates started a solo practice in 2009, up from 3.5 percent in 2008.
That’s the biggest one-year jump since 1982, the last time the Milwaukee Brewers won the division pennant. In 2010, that number jumped to 5.7 percent, the highest number in 13 years.
So what can lawyers, who aren’t trained to be business-minded in law school, do to be successful in the business of solo or small firm practice?
Breaking the myth
Karin Iwata, a business coach for E-Myth Worldwide, says lawyers and other professionals, although educated and highly skilled “technicians,” often need guidance to be good “managers” and “entrepreneurs” at the same time.
“In general, professionals are all about doing the technical work because that’s what they are trained to do," Iwata said. “But a business needs the ‘manager’ and the ‘entrepreneur’ perspectives to put all the pieces together.”
E-Myth, short for Entrepreneurial Myth, was founded by Michael Gerber more than 30 years ago. That myth concludes that most businesses don’t reach their potential because owners don’t think like entrepreneurs. E-Myth principles are geared to assist people, like lawyers and physicians, who have technical training, but few business skills.
Iwata will deliver a three-hour workshop entitled “Building Your Prototype,” and a plenary session on techniques for solving frustrating business challenges at the upcoming Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference (WSSFC), Oct. 27-29, at the Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells.
“Most small businesses are started by people who have an expertise or a skill,” Iwata said. “The false assumption is that the expertise will carry the business. The E-Myth perspective addresses the gaps that exist between the expertise and what’s required to actually run a business well.”
Filling the gaps
Wisconsin Solo & Small Firm Conference
When: Thurs.-Sat., Oct. 27-29, 2011
Where: Kalahari Resort, Wisconsin Dells
Cost: Cost of attendance is $199 for State Bar members (early bird special), $249 after Sept. 30. Students and Ultimate Pass holders attend free of charge.
Visit the WSSFC home page to view the full schedule and to register.
The lawyer is trained to be a lawyer, to research, write, and communicate. The lawyer is generally not trained to manage employees or maintain office infrastructure to support accounting or billing needs, information technology, or records management.
Practice management resources and mentors can help attorneys fit these pieces together, offer advice on technology and ethics, billing and other practices, but Iwata says lawyers should still step back and learn the big picture of entrepreneurship.
Juggling these aspects of the business enterprise without a strategic plan can take its toll, according to Iwata. But even for those with an already successful business model in place, new perspectives can help the business forge ahead, and lead to more personal freedom.
“The E-Myth paradigm can help solo and small firm practitioners run the business instead of allowing the business to run them,” Iwata said. “It’s about getting the business in the condition it needs to be in so you can focus on the parts that you enjoy, like practicing law.”
At the WSSFC, Iwata will introduce the “Seven Centers of Management Attention,” a business model that allows practitioners to assess the big picture before developing strategies with the “technician,” the “manager,” and the “entrepreneur” in mind.
“What we generally hear from most professionals is that there’s a sense of relief after attending an E-Myth workshop,” Iwata said. “Because they realize it isn’t their lack of business acumen, they just needed practical strategies to put the pieces together.”
Her “frustration process” presentation will help solo and small-firm practitioners identify the underlying conditions that lead to frustrating issues, and provide techniques for solving them.
Other speakers at the WSSFC
Jerome Mayne was an aspiring finance professional who climbed to a chief executive officer position before FBI investigations landed him in prison for mail fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering.
Now a motivational speaker, Mayne tells his story to help practitioners make the right decisions, using humor along the way. “Everybody thinks that when a guy goes to prison there’s always one thing that always happens,” Mayne revealed in a recent presentation. “I’ll just tell you right now, there’s no big guy named Bubba, alright. His name is Bradley.”
And in her presentation, the “POWER of Self,” motivational speaker Judy Meyers will teach practitioners tools to maintain a (P)ositive attitude, (O)rganizational skills, a (W)illingness to succeed, (E)nthusiasm and energy, and the ability to build and maintain (R)elationships.
“Within our own beings, we have the power to be what we want to be and do what we want to do,” said Meyer, a Dale Carnegie franchise owner and motivational speaker for more than 20 years. “So how do we motivate ourselves?”
Meyer will provide the motivational support necessary to help practitioners set and fulfill goals. “Ultimately, apart from the economy and all the obstacles we face, we are in charge of our own destiny,” Meyer said. “This interactive program will allow lawyers to take charge.”
More information on WSSFC
The WSSFC will also host many presenters in substantive areas of law, practice management, quality of life, and technology. Visit the WSSFC home page to view the full schedule and to register. Cost of attendance is $199 for State Bar members (early-bird special), $249 after Sept. 30. Students and Ultimate Pass holders attend free of charge.
By Joe Forward, Legal Writer, State Bar of Wisconsin