Never in a million years did I imagine starting my own law firm. I did not view myself as courageous enough to take that step or believe that I had an entrepreneurial bone in my body. I went to law school because I thought it would be the “safe” path to a stable, stimulating career. My vision was to practice health law in a large law firm, make partner, and then eventually retire a happy, satisfied, and seasoned health lawyer.
I didn’t plan for, or expect, bumps in my law firm journey. As naïve as that may sound, bumps that tug at the very core of your inner being don’t usually happen until you actually start down a path. After I started down the law firm path, I felt a tug in my gut telling me that I was meant for something different. I didn’t notice it most of the time because I was extremely busy trying to achieve my goal of making partner. But when things quieted down just enough, I felt uneasy and unfulfilled. But I didn’t know how to address it, so most of the time I just ignored it.
After I made partner, the tug was still there. I decided to take an in-house position, thinking that would satisfy my restlessness. It didn’t. Then, one day, an idea popped into my head and from that point forward refused to leave. The idea was to start my own law firm and serve clients in the health and wellness industries. I loved the wellness community and had difficulty serving those clients in a larger law firm; most wellness clients are start-ups and have limited financial resources to afford large law firm bills.
Against the advice of wise mentors, I took the leap. Logically, the move made zero sense. I had just started my in-house position, and I lacked the financial capacity to be risking a new venture. None of that mattered. The tug was too strong. Seven years later, I can say I am very happy I listened to that tug. My law firm, the Center for Health & Wellness Law LLC, is thriving, and best of all, I no longer feel the tug, at least with regard to my legal career. That tells me I’m in the right place.
Lessons Learned Since Going Solo
Against that backdrop, here are some lessons I’ve learned since going solo, to share with my fellow lawyer friends, especially those who may be feeling their own tug.
1. Going solo isn’t as scary as it may seem. When I first took the plunge, people told me that other “entrepreneurs” would come out of the woodwork to help. They were right. I encountered so many attorneys who were willing to give me tips on making my new venture work. You might be surprised how many people are willing to help you.
2. Lawyers are lucky when it comes to overhead. The legal profession has very little overhead compared to other professions. For example, licensed healthcare providers often must invest in things such as equipment and specialists (for example, medical coding and insurance claims specialists) that we lawyers just don’t need. As a result, if we decide to strike out on our own, we don’t have to invest in a lot of overhead. It’s amazing how many free legal resources exist, and with the ability to conduct virtual meetings, having an office outside your home is often unnecessary. Lower practice costs mean more flexibility in what you can charge (and make) as a solo practitioner.
3. Being solo doesn’t mean you can’t work with other lawyers. It is not uncommon for solo practitioners to band together to help out one another. In fact, having a network of other solo practitioners complement your legal expertise is a great way to offer your clients a similar experience to a “full-service” law firm.
4. Being solo frees up conflicts. One of the biggest hurdles I faced when working for a larger law firm was getting a new client through a conflicts check. The larger the firm, the more likely there will be a client conflict. Often, these conflicts are not obvious, and it is not until after you get the client in the door that you learn of the potential conflict. Depending on a lot of factors, some political and some not, you might not be able to do work for the client. When you are a solo practitioner, you know at the outset whether a potential client presents a conflict. You are in control, and there are no hidden agendas. It can feel quite liberating, especially if there are certain potential clients you must continually turn away.
5. Solo practitioners are entrepreneurs. Perhaps lawyers don’t use that term to describe themselves, but they are certainly familiar with the term “rainmaker.” Rainmakers are nothing more than entrepreneurs who generate legal business. As a solo practitioner, you need to generate legal business. So, if you weren’t doing it at a large firm, you will need to do it as a solo. See the next lesson for how to make rainmaking a bit easier.
Against the advice of wise mentors, I took the leap. Logically, the move made zero sense.
6. Rainmaking is easier if you find your circle. People in your circle or community need very little convincing that they need you and what you have to sell. They are bound together by a similar perspective or purpose. As their lawyer, you need to tap into your circle’s perspective and purpose and show them that you and your services are the solution to their problems. I used to think that it was best to succinctly describe my services when marketing to potential clients. But after going solo, I now believe it is best to first find your community and just talk to them.
This point is critical enough that it deserves an example. As law firm associates, we were taught to create an “elevator pitch” that would grab the attention of potential clients. The people who trained us assumed we knew our potential clients and instead focused our attention on describing why our services were “unique.” The trainers encouraged us to think of traits that set us apart, such as we were committed to supreme client service, we were passionate about our clients, we were there for our clients at all times, we invested in knowledge and delivered reliable legal services, we solved clients’ problems. I could go on. The trouble with that approach is that it does not set you apart from other lawyers. Every lawyer says that. Clients must get sick and tired of hearing it, frankly. I know I do.
Once I went solo, I felt like I was free to find my own way of marketing. My first task was to identify an area of law that interested me and the people those laws affected. I knew I was interested in health care, as I had been practicing it for almost 10 years. Healthcare clients such as health systems and insurance companies have plenty of legal options. I was also interested in wellness. So, I attended a few wellness conferences and soon learned that wellness professionals were yearning for legal resources.
I wrote a book on workplace wellness law, and the American Bar Association published it, which helped me grow my business. I called up wellness associations and asked to speak at their events. They were more than eager to have me. Soon, my name was circulating within the wellness community as a go-to legal resource. I didn’t have to sell the superiority of my legal services over other options. All I had to do was show up at these events and show I cared about their concerns. Which I did.
7. Even if you don’t go solo, you still need to find your community. What worked for me as a solo can work for any lawyer who is trying to create a book of business. Don’t waste time trying to chase the same potential clients everyone else is chasing and giving them the same pitch everyone else is giving. Find a group of clients no one else sees and connect with them. Market your legal services by delivering timely content on issues your community cares about. Write a book or a blog for them if you can.Launch a podcast or offer to speak to them, and explain the law in ways that will resonate with them. You can only do that effectively once you get to know them. So start getting to know them.
You need to tap into your circle’s perspective and purpose and show them that you and your services are the solution to their problems.
8. Even if you don’t go solo, you need a personal brand. Having a personal brand may mean telling your story and making yourself vulnerable. Doing this might seem uncomfortable to lawyers. But sharing who you are as a person can be more of a draw to potential clients than your technical knowledge about the law. I found this to be especially true within the start-up community. This goes back to really understanding the people in your circle. People who start businesses are by nature risk takers. That means they have faced adversity and failure. If you can’t relate to those experiences as a lawyer, you will have a tough time truly connecting with your clients. Clients want connection, and they get it through your personal story and brand.
How can you build such a brand? Open up. Share your ups and downs. Take a risk. Create something new. Blog, podcast, write a book, start an organization, and so on. In the age of social media, having a personality and a personal mission is increasingly important to clients.
9. Follow your “tug.” If you are feeling unfulfilled on your current path, talk to someone about it. Voicing your restlessness, and finding ideas that may tame the restlessness, are the first steps toward achieving your purpose in life. Your tug is trying to lead you toward joy and fulfillment. Once you experience that, most of the other things you thought you cared about, such as money or status, lose their importance. Life is about finding purpose and joy.
Entrepreneurship is one way to satisfy the tug. Maybe it’s for you, or maybe it’s another adventure. Regardless, stop ignoring your tug. Follow it. You will be so glad you did.
» Cite this article: 94 Wis. Law. 49-51 (May 2021).
Meet Our Contributors
What was a significant experience in your legal career?
About 10 years ago, one of the cases I worked on went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The day of oral argument, I traveled along with my colleagues, most of whom were men, to the courthouse.
Before leaving the office for the courthouse, we were told to leave our bags because they were not allowed inside. When courthouse security asked for my identification, I didn’t have it; it was in my purse, back at the office. My male colleagues had no issue, however, because they carried their IDs in their pockets.
This disparity stayed with me and inspired me to create Pursesuitz Pocketwear to tackle the pocket disparity between women and men.
Barbara J. Zabawa, Center for Health & Wellness Law LLC, McFarland.
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