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Coach’s Corner: Simple plan, simple question: What business are you in?

By ED POLL, Special to Lawyers Weekly

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A business plan can be simple or complex. Simple is better.

Years ago, my dad and I created a business plan for our food-processing company. In essence, it was a set of goals, what we thought farmers could grow for us (raw material) and what we thought we could sell (finished product). We did this informally and used it as a basis for creating contracts with the farmers.

When I practiced law, I was even less formal. Today, in my consulting and coaching, I plan who I want to work with (what type of lawyer and size of firm) and how much revenue I want from each of the areas of my practice. I find this to be very helpful in setting my focus and determining what I want to achieve.

Any law firm can make the same basic plan, on a napkin or a laptop computer. Determine how much it costs to offer your services, decide how much you want to earn and, if the figures don’t match, decide how either to lower your cost or raise your revenue.

You can base this on your own experience, use sophisticated software or buy any number of instructive books from the ABA, the Small Business Administration and many other organizations.

 Determine your goal – “what I want to be when I grow up” – then decide how you can best achieve that goal. The more specific you are, the more successful you are likely to be.

Until recent decades most lawyers aspired to be generalist practitioners and counselors. Today, of course, many lawyers have often esoteric specialties, some right out of law school.

There is tremendous learning required to be competent in any given area of practice. Can one lawyer maintain his/her competence in many areas at the same time? Can one truly be a general practitioner in today’s world, or must a firm be a group of specialists?

To answer these questions, a firm must answer one more: What business are you in? Is it the business of providing general legal services across a wide range of disciplines, or specialized services to answer specific client needs?

That in itself raises a full range of other questions:

  • Who are my customers?
  • Why do I want them – what challenges do they have that I find most satisfying?
  • What is my value to them – why do they call me rather than another lawyer?

To answer this last question, ask your clients why they hired you. The specific reasons they give will tell you what business you are in.

The lawyer most in demand provides services clients need. If your skills are no longer in hot demand, modify your practice area to adapt your skills to the needs of the clients.

If you’re in a small firm or sole practice, this might be more difficult to accomplish with less personal economic impact, but still possible. .

The point is, just as the best way to catch a fish is to go where the fish are, the best way to get a client is to offer the kind of services clients want. That determines what business you’re in … and what you want to be as a lawyer.

Editor’s note: Poll is the principal of LawBiz Management, a national law firm practice-management consultancy based in Venice, Calif. For more information, visit

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