Prior to taking the leap and hanging my shingle, I was possessed of the notion that going solo required a tremendous capital investment. This vague notion, which I don’t think is uncommon, kept me from even seriously considering the possibility of striking out on my own for a number of months. Over time, however, the power of this idea was slowly eroded as I became aware of more and more resources that could be leveraged for little or no money.
Eventually, I came to the realization that it doesn’t take a huge investment in equipment, technology, or office space to be a successful solo attorney, and that’s a large part of what gave me confidence in my ability to be successful. So in the interest of breaking down barriers to entry, I’ve compiled this list of the various resources, techniques, and strategies that I use, as well as my comments on each of them. Use them in good health, and please suggest others you know of in the comments.
You don’t have to be on LinkedIn, but it’s an excellent idea. Of all the social networking sites, LinkedIn is by far the most professional, as it’s basically a more expressive version of your resume. I find it works best to use this site to connect with people that you already know and have a relationship with, so for me it’s a tool to solidify and capitalize on those relationships I already have, not build new ones. Also, like all social networking sites, this gives you an immediate web presence, and will likely be one of the top two or three sites to come up on a Google search of your name. This is invaluable if you don’t already have a website, and if you do have a website LinkedIn increases the search engine visibility of your site by linking to it.
Facebook is, by contrast, the least professional of the social networking sites. I recommend keeping your personal page private and shielded from the public, while creating a fan page for your firm. By sending an invitation to friends and family to then become a fan of your firm, you’re basically sending out a free, informal announcement letter to a lot of potential referral sources that already think highly of you.
Twitter can be whatever you want to make it, but I find that it’s a good medium for digital networking. The key, I think, is to keep things professional (no tweets about what you’re eating for breakfast) and to make sure that you’re giving. That is, link to interesting and relevant legal news articles, blog posts, court decisions, etc. Use it to update people on your firm developments, practice areas, and other social media presences. The benefit, of course, is name recognition and reputation building within the legal community.
This site, in my opinion, is underutilized by attorneys and is therefore a site where you may stand out a little more. Again, it’s free to set up and maintain a business profile and it’s one more place where people can find you or confirm that you’re legitimate. I haven’t had much luck deriving actual business from here, but any increase in web presence is a good thing.
This is a site that I actually have gotten calls off of. Using Google Local you can set up a free profile for your business and pin it to a particular location in Google Maps. I work from home and use a PO box, so I pinned my location to a major intersection near my house. This allows people in your particular neighborhood to find you more readily and makes you especially easy to find if they’re searching on their phone or otherwise through Google Maps.
There’s a lot of debate about the virtue of Avvo and their attorney rating system, but in general I think it’s a valuable site to be a part of. Once you’re admitted you can “claim” your profile. In essence, this is like an attorney specific LinkedIn, except that it’s made for clients who are looking for attorneys.
You can increase your presence on the site by answering questions in your particular practice area. I think this can be a valuable exercise if your answers are more than just naked advertisements for your services. Be careful though, you don’t want to give legal advice specific to the particular question because you necessarily won’t have enough information to make a responsible legal determination and you don’t want to commit malpractice or violate any ethical rules. In general, I think it’s best to offer up general information about the area the question addresses, point out that no legal judgment can be made without more information, and recommend that the questioner consult an attorney. By doing this you avoid any possible pitfalls, you demonstrate your knowledge, in a particular area, and you build some good karma by helping inform people.
WordPress is the standard by which all other blogging applications are judged. Obviously extremely useful for blogs, you can also use it to create a free, rough and ready website. No knowledge of HTML or website design is needed, and you can have WordPress host the site for you (you don’t pay for webspace). Most webhosting companies also let you install wordpress on your hosted site, so you can use it to create a blog or a website even if you’re paying for your own hosted space.
This is another free blogging tool. I don’t think it’s quite as robust as WordPress, and thus you may not want to use it to create a stand-alone site.
This is just another free profile that you can fill out to increase your web presence. I don’t know much about its efficacy, but my thinking is that anything you can get on Google is a good thing.
- Business Cards – VistaPrint
I used VistaPrint for my business cards because it was the cheapest option I could find and you could do everything online. Total cost for 250 cards using a custom design on the front and back was under $30, though you can go cheaper if you use one of their stock designs. Overall, it’s cheaper and more professional than getting the sheets you can print on yourselves.
Letterhead doesn’t have to be fancy, but I think you have to have it, it just lends too much credibility and professionalism to what you’re writing not to use it. That said, making letterhead is as simple as coming up with a really basic design that encompasses all of your info and putting it in the header on a Word Document. It’s easy, it’s fast, it’s free, and it looks good.
I think that printed return address labels are another inexpensive item you can utilize to increase the professionalism with which you present yourself to the outside world. Again, these don’t have to be fancy, they just have to be there and have your information on them. You can buy a sheet of return address labels at Staples and then download the Word template to print them out.
- Announcement Letters
Announcement letters are another cheap way to get yourself out in the community. Basically, the idea is to announce the opening of your firm to other attorneys, delineate your practice areas, and solicit referrals. I also used mine to offer my services up for contract work and brief writing. I live in South Boston, so I just targeted mine to other solo and small firm attorneys in my neighborhood. This way, I was able to use my letter to discuss our shared connection as members of the same community. It also kept my costs down because I didn’t have to worry about blanketing the whole city.
I’ve had pretty good results with Google AdWords. Essentially, it’s a service that allows you to post ads on Google search results pages and various websites. You bid for clicks and you’re allowed to control where, when, and how your ad gets posted. What this means is that you can target your marketing very narrowly and in so doing control your cost and ensure some return on investment. As an added bonus, most webhosting plans include a free $50 AdWords credit, so you can try it out for free and see if it’s something you find value in.
Free Practice Management
- Toggl – Time Keeping
It’s web based, it’s desktop based, and it’s phone based. Also, it’s free. If you need a really cheap way to track time by client and project, this is it.
This is by far the tool that I use the most in my practice. You get a dedicated, local phone number that will ring to any phone you want, and you get a fairly sophisticated answering service. All for free. I have it ring to my phone cell phone. When the call comes in, the caller id works just like normal. If the call is coming into my Google Voice number, a recorded message will prompt me to press 1 to answer the call when I pick up the phone. This means I always know when it’s a client calling, and I can use a specific, more professional greeting.
If you’ve got a website, you need Google Analytics. By inserting a small piece of code into your website you get access to all the web statistics you could ever want.
These free tools allow you to submit your site to Google (hugely important), submit a sitemap (so Google can read your site more easily), and track any errors that Google may have in reading your page or changes that Google would suggest you make. In other words, if you want your site showing up in Google, you should use these tools.
I haven’t used this myself, but a free alternative to Microsoft Office is certainly worth a look.
- Evernote – Free (Ad Supported), $45/year (no ads)
This is a great application that you can use to tag, copy, keep track of, and search anything on your computer, anything on the internet, and anything you encounter out in the world with your camera phone or voice recorder. Then it makes it accessible from anywhere.
- Dropbox – Free up to 2gb
This is the tool that brings you into the “Cloud.” Basically, cloud computing allows you to upload documents to the internet securely and access them from anywhere. With this free service I can access all my client documents on my computer, on my phone, or from any computer connected to the internet.
- eFax – $16.95/month
Much cheaper than a dedicated phone line and fax machine if you already have a scanner. Outgoing faxes are sent via a web interface or a desktop application and incoming faxes come to you in PDF form through email.
These full featured practice management suites may be a bit of overkill if you’re just starting out, but they’re indicative of the tremendous advances in practice management software that are currently taking place. Both leverage cloud computing and both come highly recommended. They’re worth taking a look at if only so you know what’s out there when it’s time to expand.
If you’re reading this, then you likely know that there is a world of attorneys willing to give free advice out there, and that much of this advice comes in the form of blogs. I read legal practice blogs in much of my free time, and much of the information I’ve presented here has at one time or another been given to me by the authors of those blogs. So I highly recommend investigating the world of legal blogs, my favorites can be found in the blog roll in the right hand column.