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Reality Check 2: Growing a Law Firm? In This Economy??

Susan Cartier Liebel

Your clients need legal help more than ever, but are less able to afford it. In Part 2 of the Reality Check series, Susan Cartier Liebel discusses 9 ways to keep your solo practice growing in 2022.

In Reality Check Part 1: In 2022 Your Clients Won't Be Able to Afford Your Services, we discussed the state of your clients' income and why they won't necessarily be able to afford your services. But telling you what they can't afford isn't going to help your legal business in 2022 and beyond. We also discussed how clients' legal needs are ever-present but just mismatched with what the majority of lawyers are offering in terms of affordable legal solutions, especially in the long term. Hopefully, in this post we can address some of the ways you can build your practice in a manner which marries your clients' needs with what they can afford and your professional goals as a solo/small firm practitioner.

How can you create and grow your practice while still delivering quality legal services to those who have an income that is either stagnating or in decline due to unprecedented inflation? 

1. Improve the client experience:

This may seem obvious but it is the single most under-utilized tool every lawyer has available to them. Most often a lawyer will simply say they don't have enough time. But the truth is, you MUST MAKE the time and you won't make the time until you realize its incredible value. Even if your potential clients have less money to spend on legal fees, they still have legal needs and must spend some money to resolve their issue. Clients are being sought out by all lawyers and offering impeccable client service, from the major basics like competent representation and immediately returning phone calls, to finessed (and efficient) touches such as lending the client use of an iPad during lengthy PI cases, a $10 Happy Birthday gift card to Dunkin Donuts or a graduation gift for a client's child, is critical. You want to increase your clients' confidence in you and showcase what they can consistently expect. Great client service keeps clients happy and generally forgiving when there could be a small legitimate reason for their unhappiness. 

A perfect non-legal example is I needed to buy my son a bathing suit out of season. I needed it immediately but really didn't want to pay for expedited shipping. It was my fault. I waited too long. I did an internet search and Zappos came up first. I had heard about them and their extraordinary customer service but this was my first experience. I called to see if they had expedited shipping and was waiting to get shell-shocked for this privilege. Instead, when I asked the expedited shipping costs the customer service representative said we offer free shipping and I'm happy to offer you expedited free shipping as an upgrade (without my even asking). She then proceeded to handle the whole purchase, waiting patiently as my son studied the monitor to pick out which suit he liked. Without any fuss or muss the transaction was concluded. When I needed another item, she went to their sister site, 6pm.com, and walked me through another purchase and basically acted like a personal shopper online. She not only didn't rush me but guided me through the site, offered possible ideas on what might make a good purchase and suggested I ask 6pm.com for free expedited shipping as well. I'm now a huge fan of Zappos. They knew I could go to countless other places online but they converted me instantly. Competition be damned. I may look elsewhere for comparison but I'm always going to go there first and determine if the incredible customer service is ultimately worth spending a little more to be treated so well. 

2. Provide information freely so your clients can make an intelligent and informed decision.

When clients are counting their pennies they will do an abundance of research to be confident in their purchase. The first place they will go is online. Legal fees are considered big ticket items by most people. Even if they are referred by a friend, potential clients are going to go online to see what they can dig up to help them in their selection process. Lawyers sell information for a living so be sure to guide potential clients to places online where they can learn what they need to know about you. This includes relevant social media profiles like LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, even TikTok, review sites, publications, teaching gigs and more. Offer up that white paper on the divorce process. Provide videos on FAQs about DUI in snippets on the same social media sites, not just your website. Do so before they even ask. Be sure to have a very well developed and informative web site which becomes one stop shopping for the potential client and her friends. Remember, 80% of the basic 'how-tos' for handling a legal problem are already available online. 

So, don't be stingy with the information you provide on your website or on Facebook or Instagram, not just about you but most importantly about how you can help them. And remember, Facebook and Instagram are more intimate, most likely the same sites where you talk about a football game you attended or your last vacation. The remaining 20% of what a client needs, is what a skilled practitioner has to offer and where a lawyer's true value lies - the ability to decipher what a prospective client needs to know based upon their unique situation and then guiding them through the process as either sherpa or advocate. That's how you will earn your money. 

3. Create a client loyalty program.

Now you don't want to run afoul of rules governing referrals. This is not about discounting services to one client if they refer you to another. This is creating an incentive so clients will keep returning to you for their own legal needs. In a typical lifetime a person will have a variety of predictable needs, home sale/purchase, landlord/tenant issues, bankruptcy, creation of a will, DUI, divorce, probate, a personal injury claim, creating a business, etc. Of course, you're not going to necessarily provide all those services. But imagine if you could get your client back in the door to at least give you the opportunity to represent them by offering them an automatic discount off of future legal services they will need. Then if you need to refer it out, you can discount your referral fee so your client still gets the benefit of the discount you promised. The logic behind this is if clients have less dollars to spend on legal services, getting them to hire you more often will be the key to keeping your practice on solid financial ground. 

If you have a practice such as trusts and estates, it makes perfect sense to have an automatic process of notification for when a will or trust needs to be reviewed. Why not have them prepay at a discount so they've already paid for the service and guarantee they will come back for additional services? This takes the concern of another legal bill out of the equation for the client and gets your client back in the door with not just an update which has been prepaid but quite possibly another legal matter. You get more money up front, too. Some may say, 'I would never prepay'. That's okay. But there are many who would just not to have the headache or expense later on, kind of like an extended warranty of your car. 

4. Upgrade your technology and office processes.

Staying married to 'the way you have always done it' may seem smart because you know the process and there is little visible out-of-pocket expense. But it ends up being extremely costly in the end in both time and money because if you are falling down on state-of-the-art efficiency you are not competitive and you may unwittingly no longer be doing your due diligence. You need to do a technology audit and figure out how law practice management technology, upgraded computers and operating systems, tablets, a virtual receptionist, online appointment systems, virtual law office technology, online payment systems, and even scanning can save you money, time, and your labor.

5. Find ways to trim your costs.

I mentioned technology but there are other ways to trim costs professionally including reconfiguring your overhead, your suppliers, your association dues, CLE, business travel. Perhaps it's time to renegotiate your lease. Get rid of that monster leased copy machine, reduce your paralegal to part time if they are not increasing your income. None of it is fun but when you have lower overhead you have more flexibility in pricing your services. Done correctly you can lower your overhead, lower your fees and actually take home more of each dollar than before. 

When the pandemic sent everyone home to work it opened up the world of online court conferences, mediations, client meetings and more. And many, many, many clients and lawyers liked it. What a 

great way to trim your costs by keeping it this way. And if you need to meet with a client, rent an inexpensive shared office space. This is a far better option for our changing times and it cuts a tremendous amount of cost each month. Let your staff work virtually. They are happier, too. And a happy staff makes a happy lawyer. 

This, however, doesn't just apply to your professional expenses. This applies to your personal life, too. Don't just do a cost-efficiency and technology audit of your practice. Do it for your personal life. The more you can trim all around (not because you are a beggar but because it's just plain smart), the more flexibility it will give you in both arenas. It can alleviate a lot of the financial stress and be quite liberating allowing you to have more creativity with how you design your practice and even where you set up shop.

6. Repackage your services.

You hear about unbundled legal services. You hear about just providing forms to clients. Have you considered creating different levels of services (not quality)? Let's say you are a divorce attorney. Many of your potential clients can no longer pay full fare providing a $10,000 retainer and no end to accumulating fees. Creating a tiered program of services doesn't mean you no longer take these full fare cases. It means you offer full fare services (as described above), a la carte services (represent the client on discreet legal matters during the course of their predominantly pro se representation) and self-help services (offering a single initial consultation and provide/review court forms with instructions and/or advice on how to proceed as a pro se so the client isn't wandering in the wilderness). Many of your clients will upgrade to hiring you and you don't have to turn anyone away. Lawyers are starting to explore this option with greater enthusiasm as the courts are making it easier for attorneys to be retained for discrete portions of a case and supporting unbundled services. They are no longer forcing attorneys to stay in a case beyond what is agreed to between the parties. (Always check with your jurisdiction, though.) And honestly, if you aren't willing to explore other options beyond full representation, there are plenty of others, including non-attorneys, who will fill the need. 

7. Reach outside our borders.

Even though incomes are declining in the U.S., developing countries are seeing incomes increasing. Finding a practice area or segment of a practice area which allows you to engage potential clients overseas can have you sidestepping some of the issues facing your colleagues and keep your business flourishing. This takes some serious thought but it is eminently doable. If you have a connection to a country or ethnic group see if you can find a legal issue which is going unaddressed or under-addressed for this segment of the market. If you don't know a second language, look to our neighboring countries or English speaking countries. An example: working with U.S. citizens expatriating to Costa Rica, Belize, Panama. Many are retirees. They have all kinds of ties to the U.S. but need help navigating the process and potential legal issues. Help non-U.S. citizens from one select country purchase real estate within the U.S. or vice versa. Put on your thinking cap. Opportunities are there. One interesting resource to get your juices flowing is the Small Business Administration’s Office of International Trade. While not dealing specifically with law firms, it can certainly introduce you to the process.

8. Niche. Niche. Niche.

Competing on price is seldom the best business model. However, you can eliminate the tensions with pricing if you are the go-to-lawyer for a nuanced or new area of law. If you can find an interesting niche, you will always have a client base for your legal services. How do you find a niche? You can read several posts on the topic here:

As the world changes even more opportunities present themselves. Imagine being the lawyer groups seek out to help them stop drones in their neighborhood. One of our faculty, Scott O'Sullivan, took on one PI case for Vibrio Fulnificus Food Poisoning and is now the go-to lawyer nationally. Another lawyer I met was hired by a client who knew he enjoyed ham radios. The case involved antenna zoning. He did one case and became known as the 'antenna zoning lawyer'. It happens that simply.

9. Take advantage of free or low-cost marketing with new online platforms

"Customer (client) behaviors are becoming more fragmented, so small-business owners [need to embrace] multichannel selling. Simply having an e-commerce site (your professional website) isn't enough; you [need to find] efficient ways to expand your presence, including integrations with various shopping feeds (online legal platforms) and other outlets that can reach more (clients) consumers." ~ Small Business Predictions for 2022 

This isn't just about free marketing. It's about a very broad online presence. Some of the platforms you can now pursue provide back-office management tools, bill collection, and more at low to no cost. LawTrades, Pearl.com, JustAnswer.com, are just a few. They are springing up like weeds in an unkempt garden. They all have some value if you take the time to investigate. With some of these platforms you will have to decide your level of comfort doing Q & A and some of them even pay you for Q & A. The bottom line: the more you capitalize on their broad reach and desire to conquer the world, the better chance you have of capturing the eyes of potential clients. 

10. Take Credit Card Payments.

This may seem so obvious today. Not only are credit card payments more convenient for potential clients. but an abstract pledge of payment in the future is very different from parting with physical cash. Clients are more inclined to pay your retainer or outstanding fees faster when they are not immediately parting with cash and can simply 'put it on their card' to be worried about later. Technology allows you to collect payments virtually, on your smartphone, on the courthouse steps. Offering this convenience is smart business and allows clients to manage your fees in a way which is most comfortable for them while you get paid faster and in full. 

These are just some of the ways you can attract and keep great clients in this rocky economic climate. What do you think?

Susan Cartier Liebel

Susan Cartier Liebel is a lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, Founder & CEO of Solo Practice University®, the only online educational and professional networking community for lawyers and law students who want to create and build their solo/small firm practices.

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