Life in Solo & Small Law Firms is a Never-ending Game of Chess

April 28 2016 | Committees

Historically, the legal profession has been more adversarial than collaborative. However, both large and small firms are learning about the benefits of collaboration.  Collaboration can cause your solo or small law firm to grow and thrive, and an unwillingness to collaborate can be the demise of your practice.  Collaboration for solo and small firms is akin to a never-ending game of chess.  Some of the most seasoned solo and small firm practitioners can lose sight of the fact that, much like a game chess, the following strategies are critical to your success:

1. Everyone in your professional networks plays a role – know how to utilize your resources wisely. In chess, you have 6 different types of pieces on the board, each with specific rules on how they move and can be played in the game. In your practice, you will encounter many different people, organizations and resources. It is critically important to know the power, strength and capacity of each person in your professional network. Solo and small law firms should seek out opportunities to collaborate with other small, medium and large firms that can bring additional resources to the table, including support services, practice area experts and cross marketing/branding opportunities. Equally important is collaborating with providers of the types of wrap-around services that solo and small firm clients need, including financial institutions, certified public accountants and public relations/marketing firms.

2. You have to P.A.C.E. yourself. The longest game of chess lasted 269 moves and over 20 hours to complete. This is mainly attributable to the fact that chess requires to plan and strategize in advance of your next move. Some of the most skilled chess players plan their strategies dozen of moves in advance. Chess requires two things: strategy and time. Some might describe it as a marathon - not a sprint, and in any marathon you have to P.A.C.E. yourself. Successfully and efficiently operating your firm is just like pacing yourself for a marathon.

  • Plan – Anything that you are going to be successful at requires you to plan for it. Prepare a plan for how you will achieve your goals and determine what your personal measure for success will be.  Strategic planning requires collaboration with others – a planning team.  Why?  Because as a small or solo practitioner, you simply cannot foresee some of the challenges that await you.  Collaborating with your planning team and preparing a collaborative strategy is the first step to setting you up for success.  Also encourage your planning team to consider conducting a “collaboration audit” where you can identify and understand the ways your firm can work with others.  The book The Lawyer’s Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies: Smart Ways to Work Together (ABA Law Practice Management Section, 2008) is a great starting point. The book also has a companion blog (
  • Accountability – There is nothing that beats a plan, except an action plan! Surround yourself with individuals and organizations that will accept the challenge to hold you accountable to take action on the plan that you’ve developed along with help of your planning team.  Be sure to build in measurable objectives early so that you can carefully track your success and identify areas of weakness.
  • Condition – Conditioning is something that is critical to success. You have to condition yourself to not only reach those measurable objectives that you’ve set for your practice, but also to achieve sustainability.   Practicing in a small firm or as a solo practitioner is a grind – it is a marathon. Today, you may only be ready to walk a proverbial mile in your practice – but if you condition for a few years, you may build up the stamina for long hauls.  Be sure to network and collaborate with similarly situated professionals to stay informed on some of the on-going best practices for small and solo practitioners.
  • Expect – This is where the rubber meets the road. But, it is also where some people end up in a ditch on the side of the road! You have to expect anything and expect everything. On this road to success, you are going to encounter all kinds of red lights, bumps, road blocks, construction detours. You will meet all kinds of people who will intentionally give you wrong directions because they want to beat you to the destination. Have your GPS (that action plan and collaborative partners that we discussed above) readily available, and know that if you take a wrong turn, your GPS is programmed to help recalculate your route to get you back on course and to your destination.

3. Every square counts. This last principle is the simplest, yet the most powerful. In chess, every square counts. Every former co-worker, every connector, every job, every opportunity, every experience, every stuggle, every sacrifice, every tool counts. The challenge for small firms and solo practitioners remains grasping and understanding of how each square applies. Steve Jobs once said that you can't connect the dots looking forward - you can only connect the dots looking back. Many times we can't see how much these squares of prior experience are worth, but these squares are often tools of motivation, inspriration and success.

No collaboration – no checkmate!

Written by: Jade Russell, Solo & Small Firms Committee Chair  

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