In this GAL Radio interview, Peter Olson of SoloInChicago.com offers some great down-to-earth advice for anyone considering going solo. If you're already in the solo game, Peter offers some wonderful tips about common hurdles you will face, how to market your services for success, client billing options, client communications, alternative fee arrangements and how to compete against bigger firms. Here are my favorite quotes from the Peter Olson interview:
- If you are concerned about your ability to run a business, get a legal practice management coach.
- You need good people skills, and to understand marketing and pricing of services.
- Use newsletter marketing to current clients, former clients, and current and former sort of referral services, other professionals, real estate professionals, bankers, and really other attorneys as well.
- Well, I do have support staff, that’s one thing. I mean, I do have a legal assistant. To me it would be hard to function without at least a staff person or two.
- we’re starting to use Basecamp with some of our newer clients and get that as part of our website. Instead of shooting out letters and emails, essentially we’re putting updates out on a protected internet service that people can just look at instead of sending carbon copies of letters and what not.
- 80% of my practice, I would say within the domestic relations part of my practice, still probably three quarters of what I am doing is a traditional billable hour. I know a lot of people pooh-pooh that these days ...
Listen or read the transcript of the interview below. Thanks to Peter Olson for participating in this GAL Radio Interview.
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Damien Allen: Good afternoon, and welcome to GAL Radio. My name is Damien Allen, and joining me today on the telephone is Peter Olson of the Olson Law, LLC, in Chicago, Illinois. Good afternoon and welcome to the program, Peter.
Peter Olson: Thanks for having me.
Damien Allen: It’s a pleasure to have you today, sir. You have the soloinchicago.com blog where you offer down-to-earth advice for legal entrepreneurs in the Chicagoland and around the world discussing the trials and trepidations of being a solo practitioner of the law. How long have you been practicing law, Peter, and when did you decide to go solo?
Peter Olson: I’ve been practicing law for just over eight years, a solo practitioner for nearing five years. I’ve had the entrepreneurial bug probably going back to law school. Frankly, there was something where right out of law school, I partnered up with an older attorney friend of mine who was kind of nearing retirement and very strongly considered and almost went through with this kind of buying out his practice, sort of purchasing a developed practice and taking that over. So, you know, right from the get-go it was something that appealed to me. Long story short, some of the dollars and the fine print didn’t work out with that set-up, but I definitely had the itch right from the get-go. So about three years after becoming a licensed attorney in Illinois, I hung my shingle, so to speak.
Damien Allen: What are your areas of practice?
Peter Olson: I primarily would be whether you describe it as family law attorney representing people in divorce matters, parentage cases, adoptions, representing kids and stuff like that within people who are fighting over custody, child support, parenting time. Some of those things do get a little dicey sometimes, but I also find that they’re meaningful, important issues in peoples’ lives which appeal to me. Even though I don’t wish it on my marriage or my family, I have found it just more meaningful, than say, you know, some of things back in the day when it’d be let’s sue each other for ten, twenty thousand dollars, and that to me gets pretty root, whereas some of the issues related to the custody and the family relationship are very meaningful issues and I think, unfortunately sometimes the emotions boil over, but at the core, I am attracted to the meaningfulness of the issues in that practice area.
Damien Allen: What do you think some of the biggest hurdles are for practicing law as a solo?
Peter Olson: Tough question. Just that your torn and pulled in so many directions and conversely, well not conversely, in addition to that, the business skills. I would guess, I don’t know what the percentage might be, but maybe somewhere in the range of more than half of your law school graduates. I am sort of your squishy liberal arts graduate whose strengths are and were in my undergraduate background was in history, and so I have strength with hopefully communication, my writing skills, and those sorts of things that I think definitely translate well to the very specific legal practice skills. But on the flipside, I did not have and don’t have any background prior to starting my practice in terms of running a business, small or large. My experience going back to college, and I did work actually for a few years between undergraduate and law school, and I was a reporter on Capitol Hill in Washington, and I was high school social studies teacher. So, I just don’t think those things are actually decent training for being an attorney and going to court and the legal writing and such, but I still feel a little bit behind on the just running a business, marketing a business, selling your services, selling myself and just the business administration, working with staff, managing people - I don’t find that hard. I think a lot of that’s just sort of good people skills, but really understanding marketing and pricing of services is something I think I struggled mightily with in the early years, and I would say those are weaknesses and/or those are things I definitely seek outside help on, notably maybe sort of a legal practice management coach which I’ve recently begun to work with because I just don’t find…frankly, I think a lot of attorneys are weak at that and because of that, a lot of the CLE programs and such that I’ll attend and that you’ll see put on by bar associations by other attorneys, it’s sort of like an echo chamber where the weaknesses that I just described, the business marketing weaknesses, aren’t addressed because other lawyers are poor at them too.
Damien Allen: Peter, how is your marketing client selection as a solo set up?
Peter Olson: Right now in Year 5, my bread and butter is how do I and what am I doing currently to effectively market to this number of people that’s probably now somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 people and small businesses who fall in the categories of current clients, former clients, and current and former sort of referral services, other professionals, real estate professionals, bankers, and really other attorneys as well. That is the category, I think, you really need to nail. Frankly, lately what I’ve been doing, I mean, two or three things, attending kind of a networking breakfast every week where it’s 10 or 20 people, frankly, mostly non-attorneys, but insurance people, bankers, and just getting to know those different spheres of influence because those are people who are bringing referrals to us. I’ve been using an email marketing program now where essentially every month we’re doing sort of playing to my strengths as somebody who does have professional, both as a lawyer, but otherwise a writing background. I would say that’s a strength of mine. Just doing a real quality email newsletter through Constant Contact that we’re sending out to this bunch, and like I said, I don’t have the correct number sitting here, but 500 to 1,000 people every month, just keeping us top of mind. To me, those are the two big chunks. I’m still part of different bar association referral services. Surely we have a website and are doing some things social media wise, but I think the adage of just comparing how easy is it for you to get new business from people who know you, either as former clients or referrals sources who know you well and personally versus even some of the more high tech, you know, the Google Adwords and social media things, that’s still to me, you’re in the category of trying to retain a people who don’t even know you versus focusing on the people who do know me already. So that’s really where I hang my hat, and to me that’s how you get more of this sort of fast and exponential growth that I’m feeling like were having almost really as we speak, because that group of former clients and referral services is now getting to a pretty large point where between that group and then their spheres, of say, 100 people or something whom they know, that’s starting to be a big group of people and a big group of potential new business for me.
Damien Allen: As an entrepreneurial solo practice, how do you model your billing communications with your clients? How do you improve that?
Peter Olson: How do I improve our billing communication?
Damien Allen: Well, billing, in general, communications with your clients? If someone is asking for a status on their case or if they are looking for an update on what’s going on?
Peter Olson: Well, I do have support staff, that’s one thing. I mean, I do have a legal assistant. To me it would be hard to function without at least a staff person or two. I guess a short answer would be email these days, trying to use, we haven’t fully gone to this but we’re starting to use Basecamp with some of our newer clients and get that as part of our website. Instead of shooting out letters and emails, essentially we’re putting updates out on a protected internet service that people can just look at instead of sending carbon copies of letters and what not. And quite frankly, lastly and maybe most importantly, is fairness of billing is still critical at so many levels that, I think, when I see attorney bills sometimes that people are missing out on. We’re doing that every month. I’ve worked at firms that didn’t send out bills every month, but we’re doing that every month, and the level of descriptiveness in your billing, a bill is a bill but maybe even more importantly it’s a critical communication device. I mean, the ducks of my client bills I think a lot of people would chuckle at. Quite frankly I get compliments on them from clients and even judges sometimes when we’ll be bringing a fee petition or something, just due to the thoroughness, because you have to cover yourself on the billing side, but even at a non-adversarial front. That communication and thoroughness in bills is great for the pure communication value of the bill, because that is something that every client is getting every month. That’s not something they’re going to say something like Peter give me a case update or something. Every month my assistant is sending out x number of bills that’s going to describe everything that’s gone on with a client’s case that month.
Damien Allen: And are all your cases modeled after a billable hours, this much for this much service, or do you blend that in with alternative billing or a flat fee billing?
Peter Olson: All of the above are used, though, I must say in the domestic relations field where I spend, let’s say, 80% of my practice, I would say within the domestic relations part of my practice, still probably three quarters of what I am doing is a traditional billable hour. I know a lot of people pooh-pooh that these days, and maybe another couple chunks, what we’re doing more than a flat fee billing is essentially on things we do so frequently and we know the amount of time and work involved, for example, maybe a motion to modify child support or something. Something you’re doing a lot of, somebody’s income changes and support might change. We frequently are capping fees to give us a little bit of an incentive to control costs and be efficient and, that’s something to the degree I would say I’m critical myself on. I’d like to go more flat fee and control costs, and almost back to what we started with, one of the problems with the domestic relations field, you do have such an emotionalism and just, to me, because of the raw emotions and the way people tend to attack one another sometimes to be frank, it’s really hard to estimate costs, because unfortunately you do get a lot of frivolous garbage sometimes, and I’m not filing that stuff, but a lot of times you still have to deal with it even as the opposing lawyer.
Damien Allen: Well, in your opinion and experience, Peter, what can an attorney do to level the playing field as a solo practitioner versus a law firm?
Peter Olson: Number one, I think there is almost a little bit of an over emphasis. I mean, most cases, big firm/small firm, to me is a lot more perception than reality. In the family law field, at least in the Chicago market, the real big firms aren’t even in that field. A big firm to me in my mind for family law in the Chicago area really still I think the biggest one in the Chicago area is about 40 or 45 attorneys, and more or less, it’s a field where you are competing with smaller firms, but generally I would encourage sole practitioners, and here’s kind of the long about answer to the question is to have relationships whether formally as of counsel attorneys who are of counsel positions with your firm or more informally as contract attorneys with your firm. Because once in a while you do get the cases, what I would call maybe the sort of the big paper cases. It’s not like, I mean, the court and the trial and this kind of thing. That’s not a big deal. It’s just when you get dumped on big chunks of legal discovery and stuff like that. You do want to either have a legal assistant/paralegal who can handle that stuff or have some attorney sort of on call, so to speak, who can help you out in those situations and even a caveat, and that’s another critical issue beyond the small firm / big firm kind of evening the playing field sort of thing, is one thing you do deal with is just the inevitable sickness/vacation issues as a sole practitioner. You got to have your little, I don’t know, for me it’s just, it’s not a huge group of people, two to five people who I have good relationships with who can handle stuff for me when I’m gone. Certainly my goal as a sole practitioner, it is to kind of grow my own business and sort of the entrepreneurial stuff, but it is not to be chained to my desk and to not take vacation. And I hear in some of the list services and stuff online with attorneys who, I think they mean this seriously when they say they don’t go on vacations and stuff. To me, that’s just sort, that’s got your work life backwards if that’s what your life is like as a sole practitioner because that’s certainly not my goal. My goal is to frankly be in control of things where I can be out more rather than having two weeks of vacation with some employer kind of thing.
Damien Allen: Well thank you very much for joining us today, Peter, and sharing some the trials and trepidations of being a solo practitioner of the law.
Peter Olson: Thank you, Damien.
Damien Allen: We’ve been speaking with Peter Olson of Olson Law Firm, LLC in Chicago, Illinois. You can check out more of Peter’s down-to-earth advice for legal entrepreneurs in Chicago land and around world at www.soloinchicago.com. Thank you very much for listening to GAL Radio. My name is Damien Allen. Everybody have great afternoon.
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