Tips for growing your law practice

Issue February 2014 By Thomas J. Barbar

The Law Practice Management Section Council frequently organizes panel discussions, luncheons and seminars on the topic of "Growing Your Practice and Increasing Your Client Base." In furtherance of that topic, I have been speaking with numerous practitioners who have managed to increase their particular law practices in the last few years. I have met most of them for meetings in person and others I interviewed on the telephone. The focus topic I addressed with the 25 interviewees was how they managed to substantially increase their practices within the last few years. The interviewees were selected because they were either already known to me to have been practitioners who had substantially increased their practices within the last few years, or they were practitioners who had substantially increased their practices within the last few years and were referred to me for an interview for the purpose of completing this article on behalf of the Massachusetts Bar Association. The interviewees were also selected based on geographic diversity, practice areas and size of law firm. Practitioners interviewed ranged from sole practitioners and small firm members to mid-sized and large firm members. Their years of practice ranged from 10 to 30 years.

Hopefully, the following summaries from the meetings/interviews will provide us with some pragmatic, yet valuable tips to consider when we contemplate ways in which we may grow our practices. They appear in no particular order.

Support

Although some practitioners indicated this as a factor, one particular business litigator expressed that she credited the substantial growth of her practice to being at a point in her career where she required a larger firm to accommodate her support needs (administrative and technical support). Whether you consider this the leverage theory, the support staff theory, the chicken and egg theory, or something else, what this business litigator articulated was that she doubled her practice within a few years because she was at a point in her career where she did not feel that the small firm where she practiced could accommodate her burgeoning business litigation practice. Instead, she moved to a mid-sized firm where she had not only more associates available to work on her cases, but also, a sophisticated support and IT staff. In fact, her firm provides support on nights and weekends. She expressed that she is able to spend more time rainmaking now that she has the support her practice requires. She has been able to manage a higher volume of cases and has been able to obtain and retain more referrals from existing clients.

Support and Affiliation with Associations

Similar to the business litigator, other interviewees, in particular the estate planners and the immigration attorneys indicated that support was important, and in particular having a more experienced assistant attributed to their practice growth. Certain fields are more successful when an experienced assistant is more accustomed to the issues involved, the personal attention involved, the semantics involved and even the intricate paperwork involved. Estate planning and immigration are certainly in this category of legal fields. In addition, the estate planners and the immigration attorneys expressed that their affiliations in various associations provided them with substantial practice growth over time. Not only may they be considered recognized leaders in their respective fields because of their positions and involvement within this affiliation, but also they are able to obtain worthwhile referrals.

Trade Publications

Some interviewees attributed a growth in their practices to their participation or involvement in various trade publications. A business organization attorney indicated that he had written articles in business trade magazines specifically addressing some present and pertinent issues in his field. Each time an article of his was published, he would receive inquiries from potential clients concerning the specific matter. Many times, the potential client who was inquiring would become a client. Other times, the inquiring person would refer him clients. In turn, those clients would refer him more business. Other interviewees indicated this same result with their blogs. Although not publishing an article in a trade magazine, a blog may have the same effect by capturing someone's attention and possibly having that person become a client.

Succession

A couple of the practitioners interviewed mentioned that they were in the right place at the right time and took over practices from retiring attorneys. One attorney had always worked with the more senior attorney and the succession plan was very gradual, but later became very deliberate. The other attorney had worked with the more senior attorney and had later gone on to another small firm. Years later, the more senior attorney recruited the more junior attorney and approached him with the succession plan. The more senior attorney did not have a very experienced attorney working with her on cases, and at this point, the more junior attorney had developed a successful practice.

Attorney Referrals

One of the more popular reasons cited for practice growth was attorney referrals. Many practitioners indicated either that they still maintain strong referral relationships with colleagues from law school who usually practice in different fields of law, or that they have developed strong referral relationships with other attorneys over the years. Some attorneys mentioned that their shared office space arrangement promoted client referrals because their shared office space consisted of practitioners from various legal fields. This reason was cited for criminal defense practitioners, personal injury lawyers and family lawyers in particular. Not only was shared office space a factor expressed by many interviewees, but also the geographic location of their office itself seemed to be a strong factor regarding referrals. For example, some practitioners mentioned that either moving to a shared office space helped their practice grow, or moving their office entirely seemed to increase their client base. For example, this factor was mentioned by attorneys who had moved to office space with proximity to a courthouse or to a geographical region where they were obtaining more clients.

Specialty

Similar to the attorney referral feature was the specialty feature. Practitioners indicated that they had managed to maintain a strong referral base over the years because of their particular specialties. For example, a couple of the medical malpractice attorneys interviewed mentioned that their particular specialty areas within medical malpractice had largely assisted them with substantially increasing their practices within the last few years. A specialty within their field has allowed them to foster strong working relationships with experts and had provided them with successful records of cases. The civil litigators indicated that they managed to grow their respective practices by having specialties within the rather large field of civil litigation. Certain attorneys became more successful than others in certain areas of civil litigation and have been able to experience a burgeoning specialty practice.

Diversification

On the other hand, some practitioners mentioned that diversifying their practice, usually by bringing in other attorneys with other specialties to their firm, has aided them in substantial growth. For example, a couple of residential closing real estate attorneys who primarily maintain banks as their firm's clients expressed that they learned to branch out years ago by bringing in other attorneys to their small firm who worked in other fields in order to maintain a thriving practice when the real estate market is suffering. Together, they have all managed to maintain and achieve substantial growth overall.

Thomas J. Barbar is a principal with the Family Law Department at Deutsch Williams and concentrates in the fields of probate and domestic relations. Barbar is the former chair of the MBA's Law Practice Management Section Council and has been a panel participant and chair for probate and family law issues for the MBA.