My briefcase is broken. It has been broken for several years. I think it broke a few months before I went solo in 2009. One of the two latches does not click to close. I still use it every day.
I have not fixed my briefcase yet. At least a half-dozen times, if not more, I have passed the store that I know can quickly and easily fix it. On my way to court and on my way back, I walk by, thinking about going in and getting it fixed, once and for all. I never stop, though, and I really cannot say why.
Last year, I bought two new ties during the 2011 holiday season. I added a yellow one and a red one to my very slow-growing wardrobe. As a gift, to make three new additions, I was given a blue one. They are the only three ties I wear right now.
I mix and match my three new(er) ties with the three active suits I have in my wardrobe. I could use another suit or two or three. I will get them, soon enough. For some reason, I have not yet, and I cannot really say why.
I am building a law practice. It is a growing one that was built from scratch. When I first started, four years ago, I did not have a calculated and well-thought-out business plan in place to follow and guide me as I built it, and one day hoped to grow it. I was laid off from my previous job, so I did not have time to make one. So far, so good.
Besides the obvious credit to trusted colleagues who I seek out for advice, I have been guided mostly by my own instinct, my own heart and what I feel is right. My instincts told me from the very start that there might be some occurrences and cookies crumbling that I would not be able to control. From the beginning, though, there were a few things about the practice I felt like I could control. I have made every effort to control what I can, and have identified a few key components of the practice that I remain committed to, because I think they are most important to the success of this endeavor.
The most important component to achieving success in running a law firm is to be responsive to everyone you interact with professionally. At times, many times, actually, this is easier said than done, and I in no way claim to have a perfect record here. It is hard when you have 20 clients to call back, five or six potential new ones and a host of others waiting for your returned phone calls. That is an inevitable part of the practice, though, because every client’s case is an emergency to him or her. However, I go to sleep at night knowing that I try my best to ensure that I am getting back to everyone as soon as I possibly can, even if it’s longer than the expecting party may want, and that any delays are explainable — the reality of a litigation practice — and somewhat, if not entirely, justified.
I always strive to be better at this aspect of the practice. I was out to lunch with one of my mentors and referral sources who told me about the 15-minute rule, which requires new business leads to be called back within 15 minutes. I told him that sometimes, with a busy litigation practice, doing so is not so easy. I then looked at my email account on my phone, saw I received a new lead and asked him if he minded if I made a call. He smiled and said go ahead.
Another aspect of the practice that is crucial for success as a solo is mastering the knowledge of the facts of your clients’ cases. This is really no different from being a good lawyer anywhere you practice. I spend a lot of time at the beginning with new clients because it saves me time later.
This component of the practice came with some surprises when I first opened shop. In handling my first few cases when I went out on my own, I was surprised with how often counsel appear for court not having a very basic understanding of the actual facts or allegations of the matter at hand. A few weeks ago, I was in court against an adversary who told me the case I was handling was a nuisance to his client. In the same sentence, he told me he did not even read the case or know what my client was claiming happened to her. We had a hearing before the judge five minutes later. I told myself from day one that I will try my best to know the facts of my case more than my adversary. Sometimes, I am pleasantly surprised how that is not such a difficult feat to accomplish.
I felt from the beginning that it is important to know when to show confidence, on the one hand, and when to be confident but not necessarily show it, on the other. Outwardly, while senior members of the bar have described my venture to start a firm at 31 years old as "gutsy," I never forget that I was, and still am for another few years, at least, a younger lawyer in many people’s eyes. I never want to come across as overly confident, arrogant or a "know-it-all" at my age. No matter the case I am handling or how it goes, I try to never forget that those eyes that still view me as a younger lawyer belong to clients, judges, referring attorneys and others, who, frankly, have some influence on how my firm performs. I am surprised with how many of our colleagues in our age group forget or do not realize this important point.
On the inside, however, it is an entirely different story. You need all of the confidence in the world to do everything associated with starting a law firm and running a law practice. It is just a secret confidence that you do not necessarily have to share with anyone on an everyday basis.
I really believe that being very organized, and having systems in place to ensure your organization, contributes to the success of growing as a solo. Starting and running a law firm is so much harder if you are disorganized. Trust me that very simple systems are sufficient, as long as they work for you.
Take, for example, how I handle referrals. It is a very basic system that I began using from day one, and it managed to get me to where I am today, with computer software programs to assist and eventually take over. But before I had the software, or the money to invest in it, my system was ridiculously simple. I created it myself and it worked.
I used a legal pad to record every single referral or intake that I received. Each referral or intake received one line on the legal pad. On that line, I included the person’s name, the referral source, the referral’s phone number and email address, and a symbol from a system that I created that tells me whether I accepted the case, rejected the case, left a message or was unable to contact the referral.
I start fresh at the beginning of each month and mark from the previous month those that require follow-up and those that were signed up as clients. Doing it on a monthly basis has allowed me to track trends. It was interesting to notice the number of referrals are usually higher in March, April, September and October and lower in January, August and December. This was obviously nothing fancy, but it worked for me and helped me keep track of information that otherwise would have been overwhelming.
Finally, as a shingle hanger, I have tried to run the business with common sense, a clear direction, a sense of purpose and an eye toward the financial implications of every decision. I did not need many new suits, briefcases, cars or fancy pens to get started. I still do not need that stuff. Success here is measured, over time, by small tangible objects, services and upgrades that help keep me grounded as we grow.
After year one, I bought a refrigerator for the office. After year two, we retained a professional shredding company. After year three, the water cooler arrived, and we offered gym memberships to the other lawyers. And after year four, in what I recognize was long overdue, I upgraded my phone systems from a very archaic, simple (but functional) system to a more advanced, albeit expensive, professional office system — one that actually plays some music when you are placed on hold. As silly as it sounds, these are some of my proudest accomplishments. ???One day soon, I think I am going to buy some new suits and ties. When that day comes, I am pretty sure my wife will tell me that it is about time. Fixing my briefcase is a different story, though.
Part of me wants to be able to look at that same broken briefcase, in about 50 or so years, as a symbol — a reminder of where I was when I had little, and what I hopefully became through hard work and a commitment to the very simple but crucial principles above, as well as a belief in myself.
When all is said and done, and I am far removed from my days as a young lawyer, about to close up shop and retire from the practice of law after what I hope to be a long, healthy and fulfilling career, I want to be able to grab my still-broken briefcase I took to work every day for more than half a century, look at it, smile and be grateful that I stayed grounded all of those years.
While I cannot say whether I will be wearing one of the same few suits and ties I currently own, I do know that my same briefcase, whether I end up fixing it or not, will always serve as a reminder to me of the decisions I have made early on that will lead me where I go. •
David Koller is the founder of Koller Law, where his primary practice areas consist of employment litigation and counseling and commercial litigation. He can be reached at 215-545-8917, email@example.com or through his website, www.kollerlawfirm.com