By Jim Hart, Esq.
Ten years ago this fall I started my first law firm. I’m turning 40 next month and now, after ten years of practicing mostly family law, I’m doing the unthinkable…
I’m switching practice areas.
The History of My Law Practice
My first firm started out as a criminal and family law practice. I chose criminal because I had been a public defender for the previous year, and it seemed logical.
Why family law? The attorney who shared space with me referred me a case and it seemed like an easy way to get lots of clients… which it was.
Unfortunately, I realized fairly quickly that I didn’t necessarily like family law. Even though my practice was growing (I hit close to $300,000 in revenue by the end of my second full year in practice as a solo), I quickly realized that this was a practice area that I wanted to get out of.
There was only one problem with that… After you start practicing in a chosen area for any period of time, you become branded as the lawyer that handles “those” cases. This is true of your friends, referral sources, and other lawyers in the community.
That happened to me.
My fear, and the fear that I suspect a lot of lawyers go through when they contemplate changing practice areas, was that I wouldn’t have enough new clients to pay the bills, and my old clients would all fire me when they heard that I was switching practice areas. Not to mention, it would be difficult to get new clients from both practice areas because of the lack of focus in my practice.
So what did I do?
I plodded along and dabbled in other practice areas, hoping that one would miraculously become the next “big thing” for me, and I could seamlessly close out the family law practice.
I did a little personal injury work on an exclusively referral bass. Later, I built a decent workers comp practice. Both of these practice areas could have sustained me and kept me from going back to family law, except for two glaring problems with running a plaintiff’s practice.
The first major challenge was cash flow. In my experience, the settlement checks were too irregular and too unpredictable. I know that if I had held out long enough, this would have become less of a problem, but frankly, I did not want to float the firm for 18-24 months while a plaintiff’s personal injury practice got going – whether I did this by managing family law cases or otherwise.
The second challenge was the very possible likelihood that the legislature would change the law to cap or even eliminate attorneys fees. (North Carolina is a contributory negligence state already, so this is not outside the realm of possibility). Building a law practice is hard enough without the constant fear that the government will pull everything you’ve worked so hard for out from under you in the blink of an eye.
At one point, I considered leaving the practice of law entirely. My practice was miserable. I had built a business that I didn’t enjoy – even though it provided a very nice lifestyle for my family (I have a wife and three kids currently).
About three years ago, I took stock of where I was, and where I wanted to go. I realized that my biggest true passion was in building a successful law practice, not the day-to-day practice of law. (At least, not the day-to-day practice of family law).
Legal Marketing Made Easy was Born
So I started a website and podcast called Legal Marketing Made Easy about two years ago. My goal with that website was (and is) to help other lawyers become extraordinary by building successful businesses that just so happen to be law practices. I wanted to share what was working for me and hopefully give some other lawyers inspiration to start and build something truly remarkable.
There was only one problem, which I alluded to previously – I hated my own law practice.
So here was the dilemma I faced… How do I teach other lawyers how to build a practice when I myself couldn’t stand what I was working on everyday? It got so bad for me that I actually stopped actively marketing for new cases. No blogging. No networking meetings. No marketing lunches. All the things that I preach in Legal Marketing Made Easy I wasn’t doing. (Fortunately, I have lots of automated systems in place that kept bringing new clients to the firm, and kept the phone ringing, regardless of my efforts… or lack thereof).
I actually stopped actively marketing for new cases. No blogging. No networking meetings. No marketing lunches.
This lead me to pull back on Legal Marketing Made Easy – I stopped the podcast, at least until I could get my own law practice, and life, together again. I felt like a fraud. If I couldn’t even follow my own advice, how could I expect other lawyers to?
Finding My Passion
I’ve spent the last 12 months doing a lot of soul-searching about what I want – for my kids, my family, my law practice, and my life.
I started to focus on me and getting my act together. I started working out again. I changed my diet and dropped 30 pounds. I’m feeling better than I have in a long time.
Then I turned back to the law practice. And I decided that what I was doing wasn’t working for me and certainly wasn’t sustainable for our family. I had already dipped into a little bit of savings, and if something didn’t change, I would be dipping a lot more, with a lot more frequency.
So I started to consider what it was that I am passionate about and build a law practice around that. Building businesses is my passion. Talking to other business owners and helping them to protect and build their own businesses gives me energy and motivates me everyday.
With that in mind, Hawthorn Law was born – a law firm dedicated to helping online businesses protect their intellectual property and build a sustainable business on the internet.
This is my passion. This is my love. Now, as I approach 40, I feel like a young lawyer straight out of law school all over again. I’m more excited about my law practice now than I have been in almost 10 years.
What’s even more exciting? This gives me a second opportunity to continue sharing what’s working for me through Legal Marketing Made Easy.
What’s the takeaway here?
If you aren’t happy with being a lawyer, as many lawyers aren’t, make sure it’s not the lawyer thing that you don’t like. It is entirely possible that what you really hate is the type of law that you are practicing.
If you are spending every day in criminal court – would you rather be doing transactional work? If you are an estate planning lawyer, would you much rather be conducting jury trials? If you are working at a large law firm, are you craving the freedom that comes from building your own law practice?
I didn’t hate being a lawyer – I love it in fact. I just hated the type of law I was practicing.
So regardless of your age or how long you have been a practicing attorney, keep moving forward. Find your passion. Build the practice of your dreams. You can do this.
Just because you are turning 40, there is nothing that says you can’t change your practice area.
Jim Hart is an attorney, entrepreneur and podcaster. He is the founder of Hawthorn Law, a law firm that helps online businesses to protect their intellectual property. He also blogs and podcasts about how to build an exceptional law practice at Legal Marketing Made Easy.