Solo practitioners and small law offices know that understanding the law and knowing where to find the law is only 50% of practice. The lawyer must also be the marketer, the paralegal, the accountant, the auditor, and the customer service representative, all of which involve skills that are not taught at most law schools. When these administrative tasks impact an attorney’s ability to provide quality services, that business is having a “practice-attack.”
When I started my practice five years ago, I needed to first find resources and mentors to help me establish a solid foundation upon which my (hopefully) wildly successful practice would be built. What I discovered, though, is that you don’t just need to think about the administrative and operational side of things when you start; it’s a continuing requirement for a solo practitioner. And as my practice continues to grow, in addition to being on top of the most recent policy updates, I also need to ensure I’m on the cutting edge of technology and business procedures.
The first step in building a successful law practice is to develop a firm understanding of your state and local bar rules and requirements. The second step, as an AILA member, is to review the wealth of information provided by the AILA Practice Management Committee, including articles and weekly tips on practice structure, current technology, and best practices for establishing an immigration practice.
As a business owner, it is equally important to actively seek growth and networking opportunities. That means stepping out from behind the computer and attending AILA conferences and events where you can learn about the latest in immigration law and practice and build a support group of like-minded peers. A simple change in office efficiency picked up at an AILA event or from an AILA colleague can lead to higher income and better work-life balance.
Consider the engagement letter. As a solo practitioner, I’ve found that the difference between a productive attorney-client relationship and one that falters is a simple, well-written document describing the terms of service. When expectations and the scope of engagement are set from the beginning and both parties have a clear understanding of who is responsible for what, and the expected time frames, it is rare that the client will end up frustrated and disappointed with the services provided. Laying the groundwork with a proper engagement letter is critical, whether you’re seeing your first client, or your five thousandth client.
If you’re new to solo practice, or feel like too much of your time is being sucked away by practice-attacks, you won’t want to miss the AILA Solo and Small Firm Practice Management Conference, to be held December 8 and 9 in Orlando, Florida. I’m honored to speak on two panels, where among other things, I will draw a blueprint for establishing a client relationship, growing a small practice, and managing challenges presented by government agencies.
Much like a heart attack, a practice-attack can be avoided by taking the proper precautions, which means making sure you have the best tools and systems in your office and periodically checking in with experts in the field to make sure you are up-to-date on the latest procedures and technologies. But you don’t need to recreate the wheel! Take advantage of opportunities to learn from your AILA colleagues to ensure your solo career doesn’t fall prey to avoidable practice-attacks.
Written by Allen Orr, AILA Secretary