The Non-Tech Side of Starting Your Own Practice
by Michelle C. Harrington
With all the current technology, it is easier than it once was to start and maintain a law practice for reasonable costs and with a minimal staff. But no matter how technologically savvy you are, if you don’t develop good people skills and relationships, you will end up with a bunch of fancy gadgets and nobody to show them off to. I will leave the technology discussion to the Jim Calloways of the world and focus on the need for human interaction in developing your practice.
For a new practitioner or someone going out on their own from the umbrella of a firm, it will be necessary to gain experience, develop credibility, obtain clients, and keep clients and referrals coming. If you are an established attorney starting a new practice in an area that you are already experienced in, skip to “Gaining Credibility.” If you are a new practitioner or an established practitioner starting off in a new area of law, read on.
We generally don’t learn how to practice law in law school. We learn about the law, we learn about researching the law, we learn about analyzing facts and the law, we even learn about the practice of law to some extent — but we don’t learn how to practice law. We only gain that knowledge from seeing it done and doing it. As you start up your practice — before the phone starts ringing off the hook — take advantage of the open spots on your calendar and take yourself to the courthouse. Watch motions and trials in the areas you will be practicing. Make notes about what is effective for the litigators and what irks the judges. Follow up with the attorneys afterward if you have a question about the proceedings or a sincere compliment about something you benefited from seeing.
As important as meeting good practitioners and judges — if not more so — is meeting the judge’s clerks and bailiffs. These are the gatekeepers and the people in the know. Stop by and introduce yourself to them. Let them know you are a new practitioner or new to that area of law and you want to observe. Ask them if they have any suggestions on upcoming proceedings for you to view. With a few flips of their docket book pages they can recommend cases that will be instructive, interesting or downright entertaining because of the issues, an attorney or the combination of attorneys. They know where the drama lies.
The clerks and bailiffs are also fonts of knowledge when it comes to dealing with their judges. They are the go-tos when you have a question that starts out: “How does your judge prefer . . .” Anything from if she likes the court exhibits at pretrial to how she sets specific motions are generally topics the staffers can give you a heads up on. But when you visit them, make sure to bring along humility and sincerity. They deal with many arrogant, self-important people — don’t be one of them. They are schmoozed by world-class schmoozers who enable them to quickly spot insincerity coming through the door.
Another way to get valuable insight into your area is to contact an experienced attorney who has a good reputation in the community. Let him know that you are not looking for a job, but that you want to practice in that area and you would like to buy him lunch in exchange for an hour of his time chatting with you about his practice. A well-established attorney will not feel threatened by such an offer — you are not his competition. When I got ready to start my own practice, I contacted five such practitioners. Each one was willing to spend that time with me and give me helpful input. I developed rapport that allowed me to call and ask the occasional question later on. Four out of five actually sent referrals — I was charging less than they were and was able to be more flexible with clients by accepting payment plans and other options that the more established (read: less hungry) attorneys would not do.
Of course, watching and listening will only get you so far — you have to actually do it to figure out how it’s done. A great way to get some hands-on experience while you are waiting for the paying clients to come through the door is volunteering for one of the many great organizations out there that need help. Legal Aid can always use some extra lawyer hands to enable them to assist economically-challenged litigants regarding a plethora of areas of law. Trinity Legal Services is a faith-based organization that also needs attorneys in different areas of practice. If you know you want to work with families or children, Oklahoma Lawyers for Children is a good place to go volunteer. There is an abundance of other programs needing similar assistance that may be found through your county bar or the Oklahoma Bar Association. One of the nice things about volunteer service is that there are resources — human and otherwise — that are available to assist that you won’t have on your own. The results of helping someone who needs it while gaining valuable experience is its own reward. The relationships built with others in the organization, getting your name out there, and developing the heart to continue serving even after you are more tenured are bonuses.
Credibility and reputations are the result of a process and time. There are numerous things you can do to enhance both. One is to teach a class in the area you are interested in. While a law school may be the optimal venue for your skills and goals, there are only three in Oklahoma so the opportunities are limited. However, there are many other options available such as community colleges, universities with undergraduate law classes, business schools and online courses. Don’t limit yourself to positions that are advertised. Find out who the decision maker is with regard to hiring at the institutions you are interested in and make contact. If you know someone who is an adjunct, ask them what path they took — sometimes having a referral from another instructor at the same place is helpful. There are several added benefits to teaching. One is that you will probably be surprised at how much more you learn about your own area as you prepare to teach it to others. Other benefits are discussed later.
Affiliate yourself with groups and organizations that enhance your knowledge and allow you to network with other practitioners in your field. The Oklahoma Bar Association has sections in most areas of law. Many county bar associations have sections in some areas. Attending section meetings helps you stay current in your area, meet others already practicing in that area, and often exposes you to topical speakers and materials that might not otherwise be available to you.
Offer to speak. (If you just winced, you need to get past that discomfort. Take a course or join a local chapter of Toastmasters1 to practice.) Let teachers, civic groups, church groups, law committee chairpersons and continuing legal education (CLE) programmers know that you are available. Be creative with topics and gear them to your audience. For instance, a criminal lawyer may speak at a criminal law bar section meeting about a new statute, at a civic organization about illegal Internet scams people need to be aware of, and at a community college about uses of social media which may get users in trouble.
It is important to network with practitioners both in and out of your area of law. As previously mentioned, joining professional organizations and bar sections gives you the opportunity to meet and interact with attorneys and judges working in your own area. These connections are great when you need somebody to bounce ideas off of, field questions, share strategies and materials. This is the group that enables you to avoid recreating the wheel.
Some may say that “shy attorney” is an oxymoron. Yet in public groups we often hang out with the people we already know. When you attend meetings and CLEs, get outside your comfort zone and sit next to someone you don’t know. Introduce yourself to new members. Challenge yourself to meet at least one new person at events.
Mixing with attorneys and judges who work in different areas of law is also helpful. First, many types of law are inter-related and it can be educational learning more about the overlap. Second, the expertise of others can be a rich resource. For instance, family law attorneys deal with issues regarding their client’s property, taxes, potential bankruptcy, criminal activities, social security, employment benefits, workers’ compensation issues — you get the idea. Interacting with attorneys in different areas allows you to develop a go-to roster which will enhance your practice. Be accessible to be on their rosters. One of the best entities to join to enjoy this type of interaction is an Oklahoma chapter of the American Inns of Court. The mission of the that organization is to promote civility and ethics amongst attorneys. The Inns are structured to encourage interaction with attorneys from different legal backgrounds and different levels of experience from pupils (law students) to masters (being an attorney for more than 20 years) and everything in between. There are six Inns in Oklahoma.2
Other ways to meet and mix with diverse groups are to attend CLEs outside of your area, attend the OBA Annual Meeting and attend bar functions. Check out the committee options for the OBA3 or your local bar. Find one that is interesting to you, volunteer, and participate in a meaningful way.
Advertising and social media probably immediately come to mind. Both are options. Both topics can be found in other articles that address technology. Here we will focus on interpersonal ways to get your name out there.
Teaching a class in your area was mentioned above as a great way to develop credibility. Teaching in general is also a way to reach potential clients. I am not advocating taking on a teaching position so that you can solicit clients. I am telling you that when you teach a class in a topic that you have interest in — whether it is law related or hobby based — you are interacting with people who know you are a lawyer — often the only lawyer they know. If you are doing your job well, you are a lawyer that they have a positive impression of. When they, their friend or their family members have a legal need, your name will come to mind. [Caveat: don’t represent a current student if you are teaching a class that gets graded. After grades are in and they are no longer your student there would not be a conflict.]
In addition to the teaching institutions mentioned previously, vo-tech schools often have a myriad of opportunities for instructors teaching everything from computer classes to jewelry making. Some schools welcome new class proposals. I know one attorney who pitched the idea of a class to teach students how to play poker — he was hired to do it!
You get the same two-for-one benefit from some of your speaking engagements. No matter what group you are addressing or what your topic is, let the audience know at some point that you are an attorney in your specific field and always pass out your business cards with your contact information in case anybody has follow-up questions. Better yet, prepare a handout with points of interest that your audience will want to keep for a reference and make sure your relevant information is on that.
Join non-legal groups that you have a sincere interest in. Civic organizations like Lions Club, Rotary Club and the National Exchange Club4 allow you to participate in projects that enhance your community as well as enjoying a social component with individuals who may need, or know somebody who needs, your services in the future. Join groups that focus on a cause you believe in or a hobby you enjoy. I have gotten many referrals from my book club buddies over the years — in addition to reading some fascinating books I never would have chosen myself.
And the best way to get new clients? Treat your existing clients like gold. In this day of instant gratification where a two-minute wait results in much wailing and gnashing of teeth, businesses that treat their clients special and offer personalized services stand out.
Give clients your total attention during appointments — no assistants bustling in for you to sign documents or give you messages about other cases, no sneak peek at the cell phone that just dinged with the arrival of a new text. Consider giving them a folder labeled with their case style to store forms you want them to fill out as well as information that will be helpful to them. Communicate with them. Explain up front how long on average it takes to return calls so that they have realistic expectations and don’t feel ignored if you can’t get back to them the same day they left a message. Keep them in the loop — copy them on all ingoing and outgoing documents regarding their case. If there is a long lag time between activity on their case, shoot them an email to touch base and reiterate what the next step is. Make note of their birthday on your intake and acknowledge it if it comes up during your representation. Don’t make lame excuses for a screw up or time delays — own it, apologize and do better. At the close of their case, skip the form letter and send one that is personalized thanking them for using your services and wishing them the best. A client who feels he has been heard, that his attorney did the best she could in his case, and that he mattered as a person is a client who is likely to refer other clients.
This article includes ideas to interact with others in a way that will result in gained experience, enhanced credibility, networking opportunities and new clients. It is not intended to be comprehensive — there are entire books dedicated to this topic. The intent is to remind you that while technology is necessary, helpful and a great resource, other people are just as necessary, helpful and the great resources you need to help you build and maintain the kind of practice that makes a mom proud!
1. Toastmasters is an international nonprofit organization. Its purpose is to teach its members to learn or enhance their public speaking skills. There are 84 chapters in Oklahoma. To find one close to you go to www.oktoastmasters.org and select the “club directories” option.
2. There are two Inns in Tulsa (Council Oak/Johnson-Sontag American Inn of Court and The Hudson-Hall-Wheaton American Inn of Court) and four Inns in Oklahoma City (The Luther L. Bohanon American Inn of Court, The Robert J. Turner American Inn of Court, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg American Inn of Court and The William J. Holloway Jr. American Inn of Court.) Each Inn sets its own criteria for membership.
3. To find a list of committees, membership list and mission statements, go to www.okbar.org/members/commitees.
3. The National Exchange Club is a nonprofit organization which focuses on community, patriotism and service with a formal mission to prevent child abuse. There are seven chapters in Oklahoma: The Exchange Club of Edmond, The Noon Exchange Club of Edmond, The Exchange Club of Muskogee, The Exchange Club of Norman, The Exchange Club of Oklahoma City, The Downtown Exchange Club of Oklahoma City and The Exchange Club of Stillwater.
About The Author
Michelle C. Harrington is a solo practitioner whose practice is restricted to family law and guardian ad litem representation. She received her J.D. from OU in 1992. Ms. Harrington has been an adjunct professor at OCU School of Law since 1999 teaching family law and related courses. She is the author of Oklahoma Family Law Direct and Cross Examination, www.okfamilylaw.net.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal, October 6, 2012 - Volume 83, No. 26