Like many lives, businesses, and cartoon pirate-ghost ships, some law firms listlessly float with no rudder, taking few risks, not reflecting on issues like why the firm exists (the assumption being that it exists simply to make money, silly!), and taking no risks. This is not the right approach. Just as your life needs a plan, your new and growing law firm needs a plan. And just as in life, if you chart a course to get somewhere meaningful, you’re well on your way to your dreams and lesser goals even if you fall short. You need a plan for that to happen.
The great thing about law firms — until they become large law firms — is that they can exist to serve particular needs of their constituent attorneys and staff, and of the communities they serve, that extend beyond profit, and no matter how unique or peculiar those needs might be. If you’re starting a law firm and your only goal is to make Scrooge McDuck money, I think that’s great — for you. Not for me, but good for you. I knew this kid on our high school football team in Miami who I always thought was spoiled by his parents and not smart enough to enter community college and then to hold down a job assistant-managing a Chili’s. But, by pure happenstance, I saw online this morning that he’s now the founder of one of those personal injury law factories that exists only to generate high incomes for the owners: ads on TV, 35 hot “legal assistants” who actually do all the work. Good for him. I bet he is tonning it.
But, unlike a publicly-traded corporation, we can create our law firm for any purposes we want. At our firm, for instance, we have opted to prioritize representing a wide variety of clients, from all walks of life, alongside the executives, professionals, and companies we normally represent. You may want to prioritize a firm culture that promotes the elusive “work-life balance.” Perhaps you are a Biglaw refugee and your goal is to work at home and never add even a paralegal so you can make just enough to cover the basic bills and spend most of your time writing songs and backpacking in Montana. Whatever your goals are, cool.
But sit and think about what those goals are at the beginning, write your conclusions down, reflect on and write down how you will get there, and revise often. If we are not intentional about those purposes, we may not get anywhere at all. I’ve even seen large firms that, withstanding all their corporate retreat “firm planning” boondoggles, fall victim to that malaise. They never evolved in their market, and uncomfortably and slowly expired.
Before I started Terpening Law, I put pen to paper and prepared a detailed plan for how I wanted the firm to look in the future, and what its values and goals were at the time I started the firm.
My initial list included:
- Serve a large spectrum of the community by finding time for Court-appointed, reduced fee, and pro bono clients alongside the CEOs, CFOs, doctors, lawyers, and businesses we mostly represent.
- Be a traditional, old-school firm that exists to counsel, provide guidance, and help people to resolve disputes and live harmoniously with each other.
- Actually go to court and try cases, rather than fearing trials like many lawyers these days.
- Unwavering commitment to work product that excels any law firm’s work product, even the largest and best firms in the country.
- Be the highest-quality litigation boutique in the Charlotte area, capable of doing excellent work in all manner of challenging litigation, and grow to the 10-15 top-notch litigators necessary to do that within five years.
- Make money (duh!) for myself and help my clients thrive too.
- Et cetera.
I revised that list over time. For example, I painfully came to realize that it is easy to grow by adding litigators, but “top-notch” litigators who fit in with our goal of excellence are hard to come by. Particularly “top-notch” litigators who want to take a chance on a fledgling startup law firm. In my rush to grow the firm by adding what I regarded as enough lawyers and staff to properly handle the most difficult litigation, I made personnel and hiring mistakes. So I have revised the plan. We are still trying to evolve into the strongest litigation boutique in town, and we need to add people to do that, but I have learned that it is more important to get the right people on board, even if that means slower growth. As a corollary, I have learned that most of our growth has to come by training and promoting from within — that’s the only way we can be sure that every lawyer and staff member at the firm does things our way, to our standards, and with our level of dedication. Your approach and your results may vary, depending on what your other goals are.
Your vision, your plan, your mantra — whatever you call it, the terms are legion — informs everything your firm winds up doing: how it markets and the message it sends to those outside the firm, how you train people, how you treat people, how you do your work. By “you” I mean the firm and everyone in it. Taking the time to develop your plan and revisit it often will simplify all of these other tasks and keep you focused on both the big picture and what is important. Be creative and be bold. But most importantly, be something. Have a plan so your firm can be something, and can be something that is unique and different from all the other somethings out there.
Will Terpening, Charlotte, Dec. 2019.