Recently, IP Draughts read an article on the Law Society Connect website, in which a solicitor was complaining that large corporate entities didn’t instruct his small firm. He put this down to racism.
IP Draughts doesn’t reject that possibility, but he thinks back to his own experience of building a small firm over the last 28 years. He is conscious of the difficulty of persuading a large company to instruct any small firm, whatever the background of its lawyers. He offers the following comments and suggestions, while acknowledging that his background may have made it easier for him to succeed than someone with a different skin colour.
- Start with a client base. IP Draughts wouldn’t recommend starting from zero, with only a brass plaque, a desk and a computer. When he started, in 1994, he had already earned loyalty from some of the clients in the firm he previously worked for. Within 6 months of starting his firm, his top 5 clients had followed him. In some cases, those clients (or their subsequent employers) are still instructing his firm.
- Find a suitable niche, and demonstrate competence. We can’t all be good at everything. IP Draughts found that transactional work with a technology focus (particularly in the pharmaceutical sector) suited his mixture of skills and personality. He thought it was important to demonstrate to clients that they weren’t getting a second-class lawyer, so wrote a textbook in his field, and provided free, signed copies to key clients.
- Provide a personal and exceptional service. Over the years, clients have commented to IP Draughts that they appreciated his personal approach – in other words, engaging with them as people. This contrasts with some lawyers who seem to provide a rather aloof service. Separately, when building up his firm, IP Draughts wanted clients to think there was no loss of service levels from their decision to instruct him rather than a big City firm. So, he responded quickly to work requests, while also trying to train up his clients not to create unrealistic deadlines.
- Focus on the client’s priorities, while retaining integrity. Another positive comment from clients was that he was pragmatic and focused on the important issues, rather than over-lawyering every transaction. This may be easier to do if you are your own boss. At the same time, one needs to keep a weather eye out for two issues: (a) the client who is just looking for someone to blame if something goes wrong – an insurance policy rather than an adviser – such clients require careful handling and good file notes; and (b) one should not get so focused on a client’s wishes that one compromises one’s standards, integrity and independence.
- Find clients who gell with your approach. Some clients value a distinctive approach to advising and assisting them, while others are indifferent, and just want a standard service. An example of the latter is clients who put their business out to tender and mark the bids according to standard criteria. This approach rarely results in IP Draughts being chosen – unless the client is so loyal that they insist on using his firm.
- Focus on repeat business. It is usually more efficient to get more work out of an existing client than to find new clients. But be careful not to become too reliant on one client, as this presents a strategic risk if they are acquired, or the client contact changes, or they build up an in-house legal department.
- Take a long-term approach. It’s more important to build strong foundations than a flashy superstructure. This issue comes up in many decisions – eg choosing the right, long-term employees (and foregoing short term revenue that might come from choosing the wrong employee), in admitting quickly if you have made a mistake, and cutting the bill, or in standing your ground on a legal issue even if the client is pressurising you and may sack you.
- Don’t waste time. There are so many opportunities to waste time in your professional life. You may be invited to speak at conferences, or attend networking events, and be enticed by the business development opportunity. You need to have a clear plan on what works for you, and regularly re-assess whether the time you have spent has been a good investment. IP Draughts turns down large numbers of invitations, including for paid speaking where the organiser retains most of the profits from one’s time and expertise.
- Don’t waste money, or spend money you don’t have. As bad as wasting time, is wasting money on sponsorships, entries in directories, subscriptions, and the like. This may be cost-effective for large firms with a different business model. But for IP Draughts it has come directly out of profits and is often unlikely to show a business return. That’s not to say that he has never done it, but he takes a hard-headed look at opportunities of this kind. And of course, don’t spend money you don’t have. IP Draughts has struggled to understand why firms have overdrafts with banks – practising law is a simple business model, and it should be possible to do it without paying interest to financial institutions, or running the risk of financial ruin if you can’t repay the loan.
- Be sensitive on costs, but don’t undervalue your services. There may be good reasons to charge less than your time-recording software suggest you should – e.g. because you are building up a relationship with a client who doesn’t yet see what extra value you bring, or because you spent time in training or because you wanted to spend time on polishing text, which wasn’t what the client needed. But once you and the client have got to know and respect one another, there should be less need for discounting. Of course, some clients are always angling for a discount, and they need to be managed. Over the years, IP Draughts has gradually stopped taking on some types of client where the work is unlikely to be profitable. Your pricing should be competitive but not undersell yourself. You need to understand who your competitors are – are they large commercial firms, or high street firms, or in-house legal departments?