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What Does It Mean To Be Successful?

By Warren Redlich, guest blogger

I'm honored to be asked to write a guest post for Smallfirmville. I run a small law firm in the Albany area.

One thing is on my mind at the moment about small firm practice: What does it mean to be successful?

On first hearing that question, many will think of hard work, long hours, studiousness, intelligence, and perhaps passion. These are helpful for those who want to be successful, and they are very important in order to be a good lawyer. But there are plenty of good lawyers who are not successful.

The general public thinks we're all rich. Those of us in the world of solos and small firms know that's far from true. We all know solid attorneys who work long hours but may never crack $75K in annual income. Breaking that down to hourly pay for the amount of time worked, they could probably make more in a variety of trade jobs that wouldn't require a six-figure student loan debt.

So what's the secret of success? It comes down to one word: Revenue.

Revenue drives the practice of law. You can be the best lawyer in the world, but your skills and experience are meaningless without clients to help. And if you don't have clients, you don't have revenue. Perhaps you can have clients without revenue, but that only works for a few trust-fund beneficiaries.

A lawyer who controls the revenue is in control. Lawyers who do not bring in revenue depend on those who do.

When revenue is hard to come by, firms panic. In the current economic meltdown we've even seen them vanish.

If you accept that revenue is important, that brings us to the next question: How do successful lawyers generate revenue?

The generally accepted wisdom is that if you do good work for your clients, then in the long run there's a good chance you'll get more work from them and they'll refer other business to you. And then you'll have steady long-term revenue. That's true to an extent. But for many areas of practice it is difficult for clients to determine the quality of the lawyer's work. The best criminal defense lawyers see many of their clients go to prison. The finest divorce attorneys will have many angry clients.

The real truth about that pearl of wisdom is customer service. If you talk to your clients, keep them informed, listen to them, return their phone calls and answer their questions, they will appreciate that you pay attention to them.

Unfortunately, that still assumes you had clients to start with. There's a chicken and egg problem. You can't do good work for your clients, nor provide them with good customer service, unless you have clients.

Maybe in the good old days you'd catch on with a firm and work for a partner who had steady revenue. You'd work hard and learn from the partner, and one day he'd ride off into the sunset leaving you with the practice. Except that doesn't happen much any more, and maybe it didn't happen all that much then.

So where does revenue come from? The first and most obvious answer is luck. I lucked into the revenue that sustains our firm. Having little work to do, and knowing something about the Internet, I started a fairly basic Web site for my budding solo practice. About two years later, after I had started looking for jobs, I suddenly Web site, calling, and then hiring me. I had revenue.

Others luck into revenue in different ways. Maybe it's some kind of networking or political connections. Or just stumbling into the right niche at the right time.

The second step, after you've lucked into a source of revenue, is maintaining and expanding it.

I did a fairly good job with what you're supposed to do - doing good work for the clients as well as providing good customer service. That may be enough for some kinds of luck. We get some repeat business and client referrals, but our areas of practice and client base are not going to generate enough business on their own. So we depend on the magic Web site.

It was important to understand where the revenue was coming from and why. Fortunately - luck again - I had the computer skills to analyze our Web site's traffic. We were getting a lot of visits to our Web site from people searching Google and Yahoo for phrases related to what we do. Over the past several years I have applied some of the keys to being a good lawyer toward being a successful lawyer. You may remember these from above: hard work, long hours, studiousness, and passion. I poured all of that into understanding "search engine optimization" and putting it to work for my law firm Web site. In doing so, I found other ways to generate more traffic to my Web site, and to turn more of that traffic into paying clients. And that turned a struggling solo practice into a growing small law firm.

One lawyer I know has lectured to lawyers and other relevant professionals consistently in his field for many years. He also writes "the book" in his field. I'm just guessing, but it probably all started for him with some luck - landing the right job, helping him develop the right skills, and then being asked to lecture once or twice. That luck was only the beginning. He's put countless hours into writing and lecturing. That seems to work for him, generating referrals from those who attend his seminars.

This is one critical break between good and successful. Many lawyers do not want to put the same time and effort into developing revenue that they put into doing good legal work. I sympathize with that attitude. I remember the early days of my legal career. I had a job where I just focused on doing good work for the clients. The company I worked for generated all the work and I didn't have to worry about revenue. It was bliss to an extent, but eventually I learned the hard way about the connection between revenue and power.

When I tell lawyers about building Web site, they don't want to put the time in. They want someone else to take care of it for them. It seems like lawyers feel that way about marketing in general. We try the Yellow Pages because someone tells us it will work, and we see others doing it. But it stinks. We hear about "Top of Mind Awareness" and try doing TV, radio or print ads. That might work for some, but for most of us it's just another waste of money.

You can't expect that revenue will just fall in your lap if you do good legal work. You have to work to generate revenue. And that's the secret of success. Hopefully I'll remember that.

Warren Redlich is a successful attorney in Albany, NY. You can learn more about him at http://www.redlichlaw.com or http://albany-lawyer.blogspot.com.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 14, 2009 9:11 AM.

The previous post in this blog was How I Landed My First Job And My First Client.

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