Christopher McKinney

October 16, 2021

You Have to Choose

When you open a solo or small firm there is a choice that must be made in order to be successful. Are you building a deep expert practice or a legal services business?

Both types of practices are valid. Both are needed in the marketplace. Both can serve clients’ needs well. And both can lead to financial success.

But they are very different types of practices.  And you really can’t be both. You have to choose.

A deep expert practice is centered around the lawyer as a high-level, knowledgeable expert. The expert spends the majority of their time focused on honing, practicing and improving their craft. They look to outsource to others everything that isn’t related directly to their craft. They don’t want to spend their time dealing with marketing or HR management issues.  So they pay to have someone else handle that.

Their growth as an expert can be slow at first. It might take years. But they hold to the model and put in the 10,000 hours or whatever it takes to truly become an expert in their particular legal niche. Ultimately this work builds them a reputation as an expert in the field. Clients seek them out based on their reputation even if their marketing isn’t very good. They have word of mouth. They get a lot of referrals. They command higher than market fees because they can provide an extremely high level of expertise. They often work on fewer matters than average attorneys but those matters may be more complex and financially rewarding than average legal work.

The other route is that of the legal entrepreneur. The entrepreneurial attorney seeks to build a business that provides high-quality legal services at scale. Often the ultimate goal is to build a business that could be sold one day. Typically this type of practice will focus on work that is vitally important to the client but is perhaps fairly straightforward as legal work goes. Entrepreneurial lawyers focus their efforts on growing the business, on marketing, and on building out staff and systems. They are building a firm that produces high-quality legal work on a repeatable basis. The entrepreneurial lawyer is more a business owner than an expert or craftsperson…and that’s the way they want it. Their goal is to achieve higher volume while maintaining quality. As the practice grows, they will spend less and less time practicing law and more and more time running the business. Ultimately, they may step out of performing legal work altogether in order to focus all of their efforts on managing and growing the business.

Both of these models can work. I know lawyers who fit into each of these molds. They are very successful. But they spend their time doing very different things.

I also know a lot of lawyers who are not doing very well because they haven’t been able to bring themselves to choose which type of practice they want to build. They try to be a little bit of both. They want to be an expert lawyer but also spend much of their time running and expanding their business. It doesn’t work. 

The road to a successful practice diverges in the woods. If you try to walk down the middle and keep an eye on both paths you will likely fail and become lost in the forest. 

You have to choose.

Chris McKinney is an a lawyer in San Antonio, Texas. He primarily represents workers who have been injured at work, sexually harassed, or wrongfully terminated from their jobs.