Which Comes First: The Firm or the Client?

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If you're an attorney thinking of going solo or starting your own small firm, there are two basic approaches you can take to starting your business.

One approach is to go and get the clients first. Make sure that you first acquire the promise of work and build from there. The other is to build the structure before worrying about sales. Get the staff, get the facility, get whatever you need and only then go searching for clients.

Which approach is best? Personally, I like to look at the revenue aspect of the equation first. In other words, go and get the business, then worry about how you're going to do that business.

Why? Because business doesn't exist by itself. You first have to have a customer. You have to have a client. You have to have an engagement before you have a business. So my own orientation is to get the client first. Once you've got the promise of revenue coming in, you can look at some of the expenses.

After all, if you decide to build the structure of your law practice before building the client base, you'll be spending money before you're making it, which doesn't bode well for long-term financial success. Some expenses include, but are not limited to, rent, insurance, library and staff.

Of course, if you concur and deicide on the client-first approach, the issue is how you are going to get that client. Begin that process by asking yourself some basic questions:

  • If you are moving from an existing firm to a smaller firm or solo practice, who will hire you? Have you thought about a target market to which you can offer specialized service?
  • What clients do you currently retain, and what is the policy about maintaining their business going forward?
  • In what practice areas do you want to work? Do you want to expand your scope for larger appeal, or contract it to offer more targeted service?
  • Who do you know?
  • What industry expertise do you have that you can focus on in an easy way — sort of low-hanging fruit — to get started?
  • What are the marketing tactics that you can employ most effectively and least expensively in order to get the business coming in the door?

Naturally, your choice of approach will depend on your own psyche and experience. Mine is by no means the rule. You may feel that to present your firm as a finished product, set up just the way you always envisioned it (or as close to it as you can afford), is the key to attracting clients in the first place, and that the investment is worth the risk.

But my own predilection, based largely on my advisory experience, is to look at the revenue-earning side of things before all else. When I'm working with my clients in a coaching environment, I first try to figure out what their comfort zone is; once I know that, I can give them advice geared to their own bent. They, not I, dictate where the potential business relationship will go.

The idea of a nicely finished firm to put on display for potential clients may be top priority for some, but personally, I don't want to incur expenses before I can guarantee the revenue to cover them.

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