Rjon Robins- Who Helps Start and Save Law Practices- Shares Some Much Needed Advice in Today’s Economy
By Noha Sidhom • January 19, 2010•Superwomen JDs and What You Can Learn From Them
But before all of that, Rjon tells us despite graduating from lawschool, passing the Bar Exam with a very impressive score on his first try and then interning for a federal bankruptcy judge, when he first started his own law firm he fell flat on his face. Because "...after all they teach us how to practice law, not how to run a law firm in law school." "What grade did YOU get in YOUR law practice management & marketing class back in lawschool?" he asked me rhetorically to make the point. I follow Rjon onTwitter (@rjonrobins) and I have downloaded all kinds of free law firm management & marketing samples from his websites and I asked Rjon if he would be willing to share some of his thoughts regarding several topics I know I see a lot of lawyers talking about these days.
Do you think a bad economy is a good time or a bad time for a solo practitioner?
A down economy is always good for a smart solo practitioner. First of all let’s remember that there is still a lot of money in the economy. The Fed can reduce the money supply but your bank balance is still your bank balance. So the money didn’t “disappear”. It’s just that not as much of it is being spent nowadays so it’s less conspicuously-present. But it’s out there. And it’s in the hands of people who WILL spend it. They’re just being more thoughtful about how and why they spend it.
This is good for solos including many of my own Members who a few years ago wouldn’t have been seriously considered by some great clients who were “committed” to the big or medium firms or the clients who might have even had a long-standing relationship with another solo lawyer. But now the clients are reconsidering all their expenditures. And so many of my solo members are having a field day picking up business they might never have been considered for before the pencil started getting sharpened in a lot of board rooms and homes. That’s not to say we’re seeing less profitable work coming out of those clients. They’re just open to learning about their options. It’s not like those clients just suddenly stopped having to find solutions to their problems, ways to protect themselves and/or take advantage of opportunities. All of that’s still happening.
One of my interviewees who has her own practice talked about her start and how she was told that big clients are institutional clients, they hire a firm not an attorney. How do you think a solo practitioner can overcome this?
First of all based on my own experiences and those of the thousands of solos I have coached, consulted with and my own Members around the Country in every different practice area and niche you can probably imagine, I would respectfully disagree with the premise of your question. In point of fact there are lots of great institutional clients employing lots of great solos in just about every industry you can imagine. Some directly, and some indirectly.
Here’s what I mean... At the end of the day there are real live human beings making the decisions about which lawyer or law firm to hire to solve their problems. There is no such thing as an “institution” making that decision. It’s a person. And that person has a set of problems he or she faces when hiring a lawyer or a law firm. Admittedly their set of problems may be different than those faced by a real live human being who does not work for an institution. But the feelings and emotions of the decision makers work the same way. And they’re naturally going to want to make the best choice possible for themselves.
So when you’re selling legal services to a person in that position you have to be prepared to solve two and often it’s two different, sometimes even conflicting sets of problems. One being the problem you’re there ostensibly to solve for the “client”. The other being the one you’d better be prepared to solve for the decision-maker who doesn’t want to be blamed for hiring the wrong lawyer. So you overcome that with proof and protection. Proof comes in the form of your past performance in your niche. "If you want the very best lawyer sitting next to you it’s only going to be one lawyer’s butt in that seat next to you when you’re getting grilled. Not their whole firm."
Now on a rational level that makes a lot of sense. But you have to also appreciate that there’s another less politically-correct conversation going on in the decision-maker’s head that goes something like this, "Well, I could go with the lawyer in whom I have the most confidence to protect the institution or I can go with the lawyer who I can’t get blamed for hiring even though I think s/he’s less likely to win." At the end of the day the decision maker is usually going to choose to protect themselves. So knowing this, instead of trying to convince a bureaucrat to take the chance that you could solve BOTH sets of problems you might take a walk on the wild side and suggest a solution that includes you being the lead counsel and bringing in a big firm "for support". That way everyone’s happy. And you can even cultivate a relationship with the big firm which may bring you back into other cases where yours is the best butt to put in the seat.
How many years of practice or what level of experience do you think one should have under their belt in a particular area before starting their own practice?
This depends a lot on the practice area and previous life experience of the lawyer. For some highly-technical practice areas I’d encourage a lawyer to stick around a firm and watch all the mistakes they make for a couple of years before going out on your own. And take full advantage of all the learning opportunities available by making it a point to find out what the Legal Administrator and CFO are busy doing all day long. So many lawyers waste the best parts of working for a big firm because they fail to appreciate that it’s a business and the business is being run by someone, usually the Administrator and CFO not the lawyers who are busy practicing law.
But for most of the practice areas most lawyers think about going into I don’t see any reason you can’t start a successful law firm straight out of school and be cash-flow positive in about 90-120 days with a little pre-planning. The key is to pick a niche and take it upon yourself to fill the big gap that exists in most lawyers’ education about the business of running a law firm. Which it’s not your fault that it’s there. But it’s there.
Also, The more narrowly-defined your niche the less there will be to learn & the fewer different law practice management and law firm marketing systems, policies and procedures you’ll have to learn, refine and contend with. Plus it’s A LOT easier to market a niche practice than if you’re out there committing door law. I know a lot of people call it "practicing" door law as in, whatever comes through the door. But having been a Law Practice Management Advisor with The Florida Bar’s Law Office Management Assistance Service (LOMAS) and having being sent into so many law firms to find & fix so many law practice management mistakes that escalated into Bar Disciplinary actions I call it "committing" door law for obvious reasons.
What was the most valuable lesson you learned during your tenure at The Florida Bar?
J.R. Phelps is the Godfather of Law Practice Management Advisors. He literally created the very first State Bar Law Office Management Assistance Service program in the World back in 1980. And anyone who knows anything about small law firm management and small law practice marketing knows that we all owe J.R. a huge debt of gratitude. I was lucky enough to not only be recruited to The Florida Bar’s LOMAS program by J.R. but in the years since I left to create my own programs we’ve remained close friends and we speak often.
I suppose you have to know J.R. to appreciate this but the MOST valuable lesson I learned from my tenure at LOMAS is a piece of advice he shared with me from his own days working on a farm mucking stables, "You ought not learn anything the second time a horse kicks you that you shouldn’t have learned the first time he kicked you." I’ve always applied that advice to the lawyer’s experience running his or her own law firm to mean that being an attorney you should be smarter than to knowingly put yourself through the school of hard knocks where you have to learn so many painful, costly and embarrassing law firm management lessons over & over again. Not when there are so many great resources available to help you.
What inspired you to go out on your own?
Lack of options. I ended up in an intensive trial advocacy course in law school and that opened the door for me to get a for-credit internship at The U.S. Trustee’s Office which together meant I realized at the start of my 3rd year that with a little creative lobbying of the Dean I could graduate in two & a half years instead of three. But that didn’t leave me time to look for a job or go to all the career days on-campus.
So there I was with my law license in hand, no job prospects but I knew how to market so that’s what I did and ended up with a lot of people who wanted needed my help. I was just figuring out how to build the bicycle as I was riding it downhill. But I was riding in the dark. And it was raining. So I got banged-up. If I knew then what I know now I certainly would have invested more time in educating myself about how to start a law firm and how to manage a law firm ahead-of-time.
What do you think is the biggest problem with the legal profession today?
If I had to pick "the" biggest problem with the legal profession today I would have to say it’s the billable hour. You know for a group as smart and as respectful of precedent and tradition as we lawyers are supposed to be, the legal profession has a surprisingly short memory of our own history. A lawyer practicing law as recently as only about 60 years ago wouldn’t have even recognized the term "the billable hour." Because in our more than one thousand year history as a profession lawyers, and later law firms, never used to bill by the hour. We billed based on value.
It was a mutation of a consulting concept in the 1960’s that infected our industry with the notion of selling time instead of selling solutions. It’s like feeding meat to a cow. Of course it’s going to get sick and feel bad all the time and produce sour milk. Evolution didn’t prepare it to eat meat. Cows are supposed to be vegetarians. The quickest way to solve most of the problems in a small law firm is to wean it from the billable hour. Unfortunately some of the larger law firms have begun to mutate and only time will tell for how many generations they’ll be able to survive. But it’s that mutation why so many of the lawyers who work for some of the worst of the hourly billing law firms are so unhappy. And believe me, happy lawyers make more money.
Do you think your methods work for all practice areas and why?
C’mon what do you expect me to say? Of course I think my law practice management and law firm marketing methods work for all practice areas! But seriously, they do. And the reason I think so is because I’ve seen them work for no-exaggeration thousands of lawyers in more different practice areas and niches, and sub-niches within those practice areas than I could have ever even have imagined could exist when I started all of this back in 1999. Seriously, there are maybe a handful of other lawyers who have worked with as many small law firms and solos as I have. And I happen to know who all of those lawyers are because we all learned from the Master, J.R. Phelps.
What causes these law practice management and law firm marketing methods to work for all these different practice areas is physics. Just like physics is why, under the hood, the engines of all automobiles work by essentially the same set of principles. I like analogies. They help me understand things and reduce complex problems and processes down to their essential elements. Every gasoline combustion engine in the world from your Mercedes to your lawnmower operates on fuel, air & spark. Every diesel engine from your high-end Mercedes to a common commuter bus substitutes pressure for spark. If your car or truck or boat or lawnmower isn’t running properly, it’s one of these elements not some mystical force no-one understands or can do anything about. It’s always just going to be a problem with the fuel, air or spark or pressure if it’s a diesel.
It’s the same thing with a law firm. There are only six levers that are going to control how much money you make, how happy your clients are with your firm, how happy the lawyers and the staff are, and how likely or unlikely the firm is to run afoul of the Bar Rules. And it doesn’t matter what practice area you’re in. Of course in non-profit and governmental law firms we make a substitution for one of those levers just like diesels depend on pressure instead of spark to ignite the fuel.
How do you think that law schools should change their third year curriculum to incorporate law firm management?
Simple: Include it.
Just having law firm management on the curriculum validates it as a legitimate topic of conversation worthy of consideration by every lawyer. That alone would be a huge improvement. You know the reason the then-president of The Florida Bar appointed J.R. Phelps to create a Law Office Management Assistance Service in the first place is because there’s been a fairly steady rate of bar grievances over the past 50 years or so that obviously trace their roots back to a lack of law practice management experience and training of lawyers.
During the years I studied the statistics it was about 54% of the bar grievances filed against Florida lawyers that had their roots in poor law firm management & law firm marketing skills. Not a lack of ethics, or lack of candor or disinterest in being the best and most professional lawyer they could be. I can tell you anecdotally based on my relationships with other law practice management advisers around the Country and even in Canada & England that Florida’s statistics are not an anomaly.
Most lawyers who run afoul of Bar Rules do so because of utter ignorance when it comes to the practical realities of running and marketing a law firm and it’s inexcusable for law schools to maintain a Pollyanna attitude that all their graduates have to do is "be great lawyers" and somehow everything else will just take care of itself. Not when they see the same statistics I see and know for a fact that more than 50% of the attorneys in the United States are solo lawyers.
Let me ask you, how are you supposed to be the best lawyer you can be and do right by your clients in the real world when your law firm is out of control, is hemorrhaging money, you’ve never been taught how to use your trust account as the law office management tool it was meant to be, you waste hours every day reinventing the wheel on low-value and tedious tasks and your clients and staff are walking all over you like a doormat but since you’ve never learned how to market your law firm effectively you have no other choice but to take their shit? Of course this is a rhetorical question. Now do you see why I coined the phrase "Happy Lawyers Make More Money?"
You had an email back in April of 2007 from a gentleman who was being forced out of his firm because he wasn’t a rainmaker. He asked how long it would take to generate income as a solo-practitioner. Since a lot of folks don’t start their own practices until they run into such situations, I think that’s a common question. How long do you think it takes to get up and running on average?
I have a 12 step system that I take lawyers though it in 90 days called "How To Start A Successful Law Firm In 90 Days Or Less." If you’re not wasting time on a bunch of politically-correct b.s. that doesn’t work in the real world and actually ends up hurting your clients; and if you’re not wasting time trying to reinvent the wheel at every step or trying to replicate my 15,000 hours of experience in a never-ending quest to collect and make sense of the tidbits of information out there from a million different sources; and if you can avoid the distractions of seeking-out and trying to follow conflicting advice from a bunch of different lawyers who may or may not know what they’re doing in the first place and whose success may or may not be reliably duplicated with a proven system. If you can avoid all of that non-sense then you can go from about "O" to cash-flow break-even in about 90 days in most practice areas.
What is the biggest change you have seen in the legal profession since you started your career?
The pace of the practice of law. When I started very few law firms had websites. Lawyers were still actively debating the subject of email as an "if." Most lawyers and clients had cell phones but it wasn’t assumed you would be available anytime, anywhere and because rates were so expensive and coverage was still very spotty if someone called you on your cell phone it must have been important so you both got down to business. And we didn’t have wireless internet access anywhere so when you were away from the office you really were away from the office and clients, prospective clients, judges, and opposing counsel understood all of that because it was the same way for them.
You know a lawyer who is 65 years old today in 2010 was born before the electric typewriter was invented. Today we have smart phones. But human beings are still biologically pretty much the same creatures we were a thousand years ago. Obviously these technological and societal changes are affecting every industry and every profession but since the industry and the profession I’ve dedicated my life to is the legal profession I would have to say that the biggest change I’ve seen is the pace of the practice of law. Which to get back to your first question, change tends to be good for solo lawyers. It certainly has been for my Members.