Every Solo or Small Law Firm Practitioner’s Trifecta of Panic
Owning and successfully operating your own business is no small feat. Along with hanging your own shingle comes a slough of worries, cares and concerns that plague your days and trouble your nights. This experience is even more intense if you are running a solo or small law firm. You don’t have the luxury of a partner or a team of partners. The success or failure of your practice relies primarily, or at least heavily, on you. As a result, there are a unique set of anxieties that accompany owning a small firm that bigger businesses and firms may not encounter, or at least not on the same level of intensity. The trifecta of panic and anxiety that haunt any solo practitioner or small firm include the following:
The Dry Season
The “dry season” refers to those months that are particularly slow. These months are often predictable, mainly occurring during the holiday season or winter months. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Sometimes the dry spell sneaks up on you and the panic begins. You spend sleepless nights wondering how you will make payroll or if you will even be able to keep your doors open. It’s the same story every time: whether or not you know the dry season is coming or not, you lose weeks of sleep, chew your nails to the bone and maybe even sprout some gray hairs as you wait to see if you will survive the proverbial drought in revenue and your bank account.
The Inevitability of Change
You know how the saying goes. The only things that we can rely on in life are death and taxes, right? Wrong. Change is the only other constant in life. As ironic as this sounds, it doesn’t feel ironic when that change brings instability and a sense of panic to your office. Regardless of whether you are a solo practitioner or managing a small firm with one or two others lawyers, you rely heavily on your support staff. Sometimes your office manager, receptionist or paralegal becomes your lifeline in the workplace and you can’t even begin to imagine what will happen if he or she were ever to leave. Alas, that day will come sooner or later. The standard rate of office staff turnover is typically every two years. You might be lucky to keep integral staff for longer, but one day they will move on to further their own personal or professional lives and you will be left feeling bereft, wondering how you will ever operate smoothly on a day-to-day basis again.
The Long Silence
Whether or not you are having a great month for revenue or not, one of the greatest anxieties that solo and small firm practitioners agonize over is the silence of an office brought about by a lack of client calls and consultations. You could be having an incredible month and still lay awake at night agonizing over the fact that you are not scheduling meetings and signing clients because you know that this can spell disaster and plunge you into a dry season in no time at all. This sense of panic follows you into the office each and every day, leading you to check your phone lines, your emails and your schedule repeatedly until you feel you are about to lose your mind and are left racking your brain for what you are doing wrong.
There is a Light at the End of Your Anxiety-Filled Tunnel
Anxiety and worry are a common and unavoidable part of being human. These emotions are accelerated when you are running your own business. Despite the overwhelming sense of drowning and loss of control that such anxiety can cause, if you plan to succeed in your enterprise, you have to get control of your fears. Fortunately, each of the three major anxieties listed above have attainable solutions.
First, if you are having a slow month, or “dry season,” you can reduce your sense of panic by making sure you have a comfortable reserve fund cushioning your bank account. As you have probably noticed by this point in running your business, these spells are often short-lived, but being proactive and planning ahead financially is sound business practice. You have to choose for yourself how much in reserve funds you want to lay away, but a good suggestion is to have a minimum of three months of payroll and business operation costs stowed away just in case.
Second, there are two things that you can do to try to slow the tides of change and turnover in your office personnel. The first of these is that you can work to build a strong rapport with your staff. Get to know them as more than just workers. Find ways to connect with them and to let them know they are valued members of the team. Create reasonable incentives that will help them not only enjoy their jobs, but that will also encourage them to do their jobs better and wish to remain.
Unfortunately, no matter how amazingly you manage to build the sense of camaraderie and teamwork in your office, key people will eventually leave. You can prevent a sense of loss and panic when this happens by making sure you have created organized systems and procedures that a new employee can easily pick up. Have your office procedures written down in a manual and provide structured training that will lead to a smooth transition in workplace turnover.
Third, when the silence descends on your office, don’t become paralyzed with your panic. Use this time to continue strategies that you know work: marketing and networking. Call contacts and referrals. Spend time working on your blog or website. Pour yourself into your practice so that when the silence breaks, you have built up a store of resources that will help you eradicate future periods of slow business. Doing nothing gains nothing, so just do something rather than wait for your phone to ring!
Take Control or Be Controlled
The longer you practice, the more familiar you will become with the patterns of feast or famine in business. I can speak from experience on surviving this pattern. I’d like to say there is a way to break the cycle, but there really isn’t, so you are really left with two choices: take control of your anxiety or let it control you. If you do the latter, you will not be in business long. The anxiety will paralyze you and your practice. Instead of letting this become your story, take my advice gleaned from my years of experience: face your fears head-on and use them as a source of motivation that challenges you to be better and defeat your sense of panic. Turn your anxieties on their heads by challenging yourself to conquer your fears and find ever new and better ways to prevent dry spells, office turnover and long silences, or when you can’t prevent them, overcome and plow through them.
Jared Pierce hung his own shingle right out of law school and has spent every minute since then discovering the joys and difficulties of chasing success. Anyone who has ever met Jared will tell you h