Flying Solo: How to Find Success Starting a Practice from Scratch
Recently, I spoke with Aaron Hartley of Hartley Law Office, LLC in Dayton, Ohio. Aaron is a successful solo practitioner focusing on divorce and family law. We talked about how he started his solo practice from scratch, advice for finding success on your own, and his thoughts on client acquisition.
Family Law, Father’s Rights and Solo Practice
When speaking with Aaron, it is clear that he is passionate about family law and father’s rights – his sole area of practice. It stems from personal experience. Aaron experienced his own divorce just prior to beginning law school and, like many of his clients, was confused and frustrated with the process. After his divorce, Aaron knew that he was going to focus his talents on guiding others facing the same challenges he had overcome.
“During my divorce, I was young and I lacked the knowledge to know what you do in these situations. Not knowing how I was going to get through my divorce and stay a part of my kid’s lives was scary,” he says, “The process is exhausting. It is mystifying. So as soon as I went to law school, I knew I was going to do family law so I could help others in a similar situation.”
In 2009, Aaron completed law school, passed the bar and launched his solo career. “I always knew I wanted to be my own boss, so I started my solo practice from the basement of my parents’ home. I have never practiced for anyone else or with anyone else. I did it all on my own,” he says.
When starting out, Aaron turned to his previous experiences and skills to propel his practice forward. Fortunately for him, a background in sales, finance, accounting, and IT helped lay the foundation for confidently addressing the business and administrative aspects of managing a successful solo practice.
“I always knew I wanted to be my own boss, so I started my solo practice from the basement of my parents’ home. I have never practiced for anyone else or with anyone else. I did it all on my own.”
Client Acquisition and Online Marketing
A frequent challenge facing many solo attorneys is the task of maintaining a steady stream of quality clients. Aaron has used different techniques to attract clients over the years, but he has found online marketing to be the most effective.
When Aaron first launched his practice, he faced the same big problem that so many new attorneys face, finding clients. Aaron jump-started his practice by joining an appointed counsel list to acquire clients. These were mainly criminal cases – not what he was really looking for. But as his practice took off, he was able to be more selective about the types of clients he accepted, “After about two years, I stopped accepting work that was not family law related,” he says.
Aaron also turned to online marketing early in his practice, “When I first started practicing, I went towards the web. I used all sorts of things and quickly figured out what works. I also got signed up with FindLaw fairly early in my practice.”
Although he was experiencing favorable ROI with FindLaw, in time Aaron chose to reevaluate his budget and his own online marketing. “At some point I said, you know what? I can do all of this stuff cheaper, and I did. I owned the internet in Dayton, Ohio for a couple of years. I showed up twice in the organic search results, and was the number one local listing for about 64 ‘money’ search terms that I was tracking.”
But even success came at a price. Aaron found his online marketing required a lot of effort to continue delivering results. “It is a full-time job,” he says, “I don’t want to have to worry about the latest algorithm changes, or how Google local listings have changed this week.”
Aaron made the decision to come back to FindLaw when his local Client Development Consultant, and long-time friend, reached out, “Mike reached out to me, and I was like, you know what, I’m tired. I’m tired of constantly having to watch. I’m good at it, but I would rather just be an attorney and focus my time on being an attorney and not on being a web guy.”
Drive and Dedication as Keys to Success
Aaron’s solo practice is thriving. He credits this success to having a certain intensity and drive to succeed. When asked what advice he would give to attorneys considering starting their own solo practice, he said, “Be willing to be broke. Build your practice and be intense about it. Don’t do it unless you are committed to it 110%,” he says, “You’ve got to maintain a high energy level and intensity. You’ve got to work 60, 70 hours a week, sometimes 80. You’ve got to do what it takes to continue to push the envelope. The trick is to always push forward. If you take one step back, take two steps forward.”
Over the past eight years, Aaron has come a long way since those first days in his parents’ basement. He currently employs an assistant, a paralegal, a full-time runner, and a part-time IT specialist. He also plans to expand his firm’s practice areas by bringing on another attorney in the near future, “My practice has grown to the point where I need to bring somebody in that does criminal cases and probate work because I’m too busy doing my own cases.”
When offering advice to prospective or current solo attorneys, he says “You’ve got to take baby steps and be smart about starting your own practice. It’s so important to keep monthly overhead low and to monitor your cash flow. That’s why I started out in my mom and dad’s basement. You’ve also got to invest in equipment, processes and software to run your practice. And you’ve got to make sure to pay yourself.”
“You really have to be fearless and have the drive to go solo. It takes a special breed. It takes an intensity and drive to constantly push the envelope and grow.”
By starting out with a lean overhead and minimizing the number of contracts he entered into, including office space, Aaron was able to avoid the common cash flow pitfalls that some attorneys experience when starting out with no established client base.
Patience, drive, and intensity have paid off in Aaron’s practice, “It is just a part of what you have to do from the business and administrative side,” he says, “The way that I did it was to do small, incremental steps over the years. You really have to be fearless and have the drive to go solo. It takes a special breed. It takes an intensity and drive to constantly push the envelope and grow.”
Thankfully for him, his staff, and the families he has helped over the years, Aaron wouldn’t have it any other way.
Have any words of wisdom for attorneys thinking about flying solo? Please share in the comment section below!