How to Grow a Law Practice Sustainably

Written by Teresa Matich11 minutes well spent
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Kevin Vela started his law firm, Vela Wood P.C., in January 2009. Since then, he’s grown his firm to 14 attorneys, and increased revenue by at least 40% each and every year.

Many lawyers would love to see that sort of law firm growth for themselves, but it can be difficult to know where to start—How do you get more clients? How do you scale your operations? What strategies are worth investing in, and which ones are you better off avoiding?

For Kevin, answering those questions was a bit easier than it is for most lawyers. His unique background in business, finance, and marketing helped set him up for success when starting his own firm—Kevin has worked for both Fortune 500 companies and startups, so he knows what lawyers need, and what it takes for a business to be successful.

We spoke with Kevin about his experience growing a law practice, his lessons learned, and his tips for success, with the hope that his experience can help inform how to grow your law firm.

We’ve organized his thoughts into two sets of tips: The first covers law firm marketing, while the second covers considerations for scaling a law firm.

Sponsor events to get in touch with your target clients

When Kevin first founded Vela Wood, his approach was practice-area agnostic. He was doing litigation, family law, corporate law, and more, but when he got involved in a few real estate deals, he found he liked the investment side of things and decided to focus his firm on startups.

After that, Kevin set out on a mission to make his firm known for that focus. “I decided I really wanted to focus on startups, and to do that, I started reading, attending, and sponsoring everything I could in my area that was related to startups,” Kevin said.

For example, Kevin would attend startup events or read about startups on local websites, and if there was a hackathon, happy hour, or other tech event scheduled, he’d reach out to the organizer to ask if they were looking for sponsors.

“Within a year or two of just sponsoring some events, taking an active interest in the community, and letting it be known that this was what our law firm wanted to focus on, we started to become one of the go-to firms in town for startups,” he explained.

Beyond brand recognition, Vela Wood has also gained plenty of clients through its sponsored events. “Just about every time we sponsored something we’d walk out with people’s business cards,” Kevin said.

Now, Kevin’s firm has grown to the point that it’s starting to work more with investors and venture funds and less with very early-stage startups. As a result, he invests less in these types of events, but he’s still involved in the local startup community.

Position your brand with care

Carving out a legal niche can be a powerful way to differentiate your law firm from the competition. Kevin definitely took that approach with Vela Wood, but he was also careful not to pigeonhole his business—he’s positioned his firm as business-focused rather than purely startup-focused.

Jumping into startups definitely helped to create a niche practice area for us and to create a brand reputation for us. We are definitely known around town as the venture guys, and a lot of that’s about positioning.

You wanting to position yourself [carefully]. For example, if you’re known as just the startup guy, then you might be eliminating any consideration from investors or funds for using your firm. We’ve positioned ourselves as the venture guys, so we’re about 80% company focused, but we also represent a handful of funds—about 20% of our venture work is fund work.

Invest in SEO

If you’ve read a lot about marketing your law firm online, you’ve likely heard plenty about the importance of a well-designed law firm website that is search engine optimized. Search engine optimization, or SEO, should definitely be part of your law firm growth strategy, and Kevin confirms that it’s worked for his firm—his website brings in more incoming leads than he knows what to do with:

If you Google ‘startup firm in Dallas,’ or if you Google ‘small business corporate M&A corporate attorney’ if you’re in Dallas, we’re going to come up first or second every time. People finding us this way go to our website. They like the website, and they ask for more information on us. So we are in this position where we’re getting more incoming leads than we know what to do with.

So how did Kevin do it? He invested in help from an SEO professional as soon as he started his firm nine years ago. “He promised he could get me top rankings and he did, so he’s been my SEO guy for nine years,” Kevin said.

In short, Kevin outsourced a task that he was not an expert at, and he’s seen incredible results. He also knows that SEO is an ongoing process—the Vela Wood website has been overhauled three times, and every time Kevin wants to make a minor change, he runs it by his SEO specialist (or his web designer) to ensure the change won’t negatively impact his site’s SEO.

Tip: Before you hire an SEO specialist for your law firm, make sure you know these 10 Signs Your Legal SEO Specialist Sucks to make sure you’re working with the right person.

Add new employees before you absolutely need them

Many solos or new law firm owners struggle with knowing when to hire their next employee. However, Kevin pointed out that if you wait too long to make absolutely sure you can afford another lawyer, hiring may be more stressful than helpful.

He believes it’s better to be proactive by focusing on getting more clients in tandem with hiring more people.

I always believed that I could go sell more business if I had to, so I added people when I felt the time was right, not when we absolutely needed them.

I think if you get in a position where you’re so stressed and you’ve got too much work on your plate and you’re at the point where you have to add someone, you’re really just adding something else to your to-do list that you don’t have time to do. So I’ve always tried to be a little bit more proactive.

Look for ways to save on space …

If you’re looking at how to grow a law firm (or any business, for that matter), one of the biggest input costs is real estate. In the United States, office space in big cities like New York can cost over $100 per square foot.

This can be an even bigger problem if you rent a larger office in advance of hiring more employees—it can be hard to justify the cost of space you’re not using.

Kevin had a clever solution to this problem: Negotiating pro-rated rent:

When we moved into our current office in Dallas, I signed a long-term lease, but I negotiated the first five months rent-free. That was very helpful, because I could not afford the rent when we moved in, but I knew that if I got into an office and I had a little bit more space, I could take on a few more clients and build the business up.

When he opened his Austin office, the team was a bit smaller, so Kevin took a different approach:

In Austin, we started in a co-working space. In every major city, they have these things. Not only did that make it really easy from a rent perspective, but given the type of work we do, we were able to pick up a few [startup] clients there as well.

… But invest in the tools you need to grow

While it’s important to look for places to save your law firm money, Kevin stressed that investing in the right tools is critical for growth—and that a larger up-front investment could actually save firms money in the long run.

There was a point in time when every four months, I was replacing a computer because I kept buying $400 computers [that kept breaking]. If I had just bought a $1,200 computer in the first place, and let that thing run for two or three years rather than the four months that I was getting out of a $400 computer, I would’ve saved money and time.

Don’t be afraid to outsource

Kevin reiterated another piece of common advice for lawyers growing firms—don’t be afraid to outsource.

Outsource whatever tasks are not your core competency. Once you get past about five people it probably doesn’t make sense for you to be doing your bookkeeping or your I.T. internally.

For example, Kevin has a bit of an I.T. background, so when a computer broke at his law firm, he’d end up spending two or three hours fixing it.

“That was just not cost efficient,” he said. “I could bring in an IT guy for $35 an hour to do the same thing.”

In short, as Chelsea Lambert says, “you need to ‘fire’ yourself from the jobs that rob your law firm of revenue.” Do the math before you decide it’s cheaper to take care of a task yourself.

Spend time mapping out your processes

Kevin has been successful at growing his firm fairly deliberately over the past nine years, but there’s one piece of advice he would give himself if he could go back in time:

“I would’ve mapped out what I wanted my internal processes to be like,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s even possible to convince someone who’s starting their business on day one to do this, but I would have mapped out my onboarding processing, my billing process, my file structure, my client delivery process, and all sorts of different things. I would have spent more time mapping all those things out.”

Why? Because adding in structure and process can be much more difficult later. For example, Kevin’s firm changed its file structure when it switched from Dropbox to NetDocs, which has been helpful from an organizational standpoint, but has definitely added an expense for his firm.

“I’ve got to pay someone [to clean this up]. One of my staff spends about a third of her time doing nothing but cleaning up our internal filing structures, which is a mess that I created.”

If you know you want to grow your firm in the future, try to spend some time coming up with processes for the areas mentioned above, as well as any others you can think of. It’s a big time investment early on, but it could end up saving you a lot of time and money down the road.

Use technology

It should come as no surprise that as a law firm focused on things like startups and venture funds, Vela Wood has invested in plenty of cloud-based technology. Kevin says this gives his staff easier access to firm files, since these tools can be accessed from anywhere.

“All my attorneys have a laptop, and as long as they’re connected to the internet, they can do whatever they want,” he says. “[For document storage], we used Dropbox for a long time, but we recently switched to NetDocs. Our CRM and our time billing system is online, I use Xero for my accounting, and that’s all online. And my attorneys use Gmail as our mail server, so they can access that from anywhere.”

Kevin also uses Clio to manage his practice. As his firm grows, he likes the fact that it doesn’t take much of his time to onboard new staff. “What’s great about Clio is I bring in new people, there’s no instructions on how to use it. It’s super intuitive.”

Vela Wood has two offices for now, but as the firm continues to grow, cloud-based tools will help the business scale across different cities.

“I know if I want to scale to a third or fourth office we can do it very quickly, and Clio’s a big part of that,” Kevin said.

Law firm growth is within your grasp

Growing a law firm might seem like a daunting task, but with a little foresight and a lot of confidence and grit, it can be done. What worked for Kevin may not work for every firm, but there are certainly several useful lessons that are applicable to any law firm: Invest in quality tools, don’t wait until you’re almost burnt out before you outsource tasks and hire staff, and hire a professional to help you optimize your law firm website.

Start there, and you’ll be on track to create a successful, growing business.

About Kevin

Kevin Vela is a founding partner of Vela Wood, a boutique law firm based in Dallas, Texas that focuses on startups, small businesses, and venture financing. Kevin was named a 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 Super Lawyers Rising Star, was honored by D Magazine as a Best Lawyer in Dallas, and is a Texas Bar Foundation Fellow, an honor granted to one third of 1% of Texas attorneys. Kevin is a founding member of The Dallas Angel Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to connecting entrepreneurs with angel investors in Dallas, and co-manages the Dallas based venture capital fund Blossom Street Ventures. Kevin regularly writes about startup and small business issues on the VW blog.

Categorized in: Business

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