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Little Big Firm

By February 9, 2011November 14th, 2020law practice, websites

My primary goal for my solo law firm practice is pretty unsurprising: I want to handle client matters better than I could if I were in a larger firm.

Handling client matters mostly involves use of my knowledge and skill as an attorney, so there’s no reason why I can’t meet my primary goal. And it’s not hard for people to believe that I can.

My secondary goal is a little harder for people to accept, and to many it seems outrageous: I want people to believe that my firm has all the resources of a larger firm. In other words, I don’t want people who deal with me in my law practice to think “yeah, he’s a solo and that’s why he can’t do xxxxx as well as a large firm.”

While this second goal might seem like unattainable folly to many, it’s actually not that hard. Technology has made it pretty easy, and fairly inexpensive.

First let me start with where I save money and don’t waste resources: I don’t have a fancy office that I pay a lot for, and which requires a long-term lease. I have a great office at home, and one in local co-working facility. The co-working office is downtown, and gives me access to several conference rooms and the use of a color printer. My business mail goes there. The cost is minimal, and I’m on a month-to-month arrangement. So, my office is pretty much the only thing that looks vastly different to the outside world, but it still has all of the things that any lawyer would need.

If I weren’t paperless then I’d probably have lots of boxes and maybe the co-working space wouldn’t work for me. Or if I had several people who worked for me then maybe it wouldn’t work. But I’m paperless so I don’t need lots of storage space, and I don’t need people to move boxes of paper and find documents for me. I can manage a lot of information very efficiently without help, and without expensive space.

Now, let’s examine how the outside world encounters me and how my firm appears in comparison to a large firm.

Phone calls

When people call my business line they are greeted by a very nice receptionist. She has received extensive training on telephone etiquette, probably more training than many large firm receptionists receive. The only days that my receptionist isn’t available to answer my phone are major holidays. There is no “sick day” issue. If it’s not a major holiday my phones are answered professionally every time someone calls.

Many solo lawyers don’t want to pay for a receptionist, or even an answering service. I feel like it’s an expense that’s worth it; after all, my goal is to appear to outside callers as having the same resources as a large firm. Plus, my receptionist isn’t that expensive given the high-touch service that is provided. My receptionist is a service called Ruby Receptionist, which is to say a virtual service based in Portland, Oregon. They have a pool of highly trained receptionists who are all available to answer calls based on preferences that I prescribe.

If a prospective client calls they gather preliminary information and relay it to me before they transfer the call. If I’m in the office they contact me there; if I’m out they contact me on my cellphone. The caller probably assumes I’m in the office, or that my secretary simply connected them to my cellphone (which probably impresses them). The folks at Ruby Receptionist will even make return calls for you if you want.

What do I pay for this service? About $200 a month, which is well worth it. If I change my mind I can cancel at anytime. No long term contract, which is key to my operation (and never possible for large law firms). The way I see it, I’m working at a major advantage over large law firms here.

Secretarial & administrative assistance

I type my own documents for the most part, but occasionally I’ve needed some outside help preparing my documents. I’ve tried various services, and can safely say that—if you look around—there are folks who can do as good a job as any large firm secretary, at least when it comes to simply typing and formatting documents. When I first went solo I used a service called Speak-Write, which charged about a penny per word to type documents. They give you a phone number and you can call in and dictate and within about an hour (sometimes less) they’ll email you your document in Word or Wordperfect format.

Even though I do a lot of my own “secretarial/administrative” work, it’s nice to know that—in a crunch—I can engage the services of LegalTypist when I need to. They’re professional and understand the demands of the legal profession as well as any full-time secretary of office assistant I might hire. But I don’t have time to train new employees, so this service is perfect for solo and small firms.

Paying for top-notch secretarial and administrative help only when you need it is the way to go. Large firms can’t do this, and never will. But they have no advantage over me.

Website & email

I’m not practicing any more so my firm website is inactive. But if you’re practicing you need a decent website. Some lawyers who have wonderful style in every other aspect of their professional and personal lives overpay for kitschy websites, which almost certainly haven’t been updated in over five years.

Every lawyer should have their own web domain name, and should pay the minimal cost needed to host a basic website. Having your own domain costs about $20/year at most, slightly more if you have a few domain specific email addresses. And you should have an email address like (as opposed to

All you need for a website is a basic site that looks decent. The words are more important than the pictures, and you should explain what you do and help potential clients feel at ease and want to call you so you can help them solve their problems. Make sure your site works well on a mobile phone, and put YOUR phone number in a prominent place to make it easy for people to call you.

Anyway, the point is that large firms tend to overpay for websites because their committee-driven decision process ensures that they’ll pay excessively to get a professional website. Small firms and solos can easily get the same thing at minimal cost.


Every lawyer should have some good photos that they can use (1) on their website, (2) in promotional materials, or (3) for speaking engagements. Everyone knows someone with a decent digital SLR, and if you know someone who knows how to take portraits you can get some decent pictures this way.

And it will come as no surprise that I favor having a blog, and using social media. But there is no point in dwelling on this. People who read this blog regularly probably already grasp the benefits of tools like blogs and LinkedIn etc. People who don’t grasp that sort of thing can still present a professional firm visage. I will note that most large law firms now blog and use Twitter, often not very effectively.

Your published documents

As a lawyer your documents say as much about you as your website and your attire in court. Poorly written documents can’t be disguised by swank formatting, but I’m assuming you know how to craft words. If you are a good writer then why wouldn’t you want your documents to herald your professionalism through elegant style? Big firms have word processing departments with people who can help them create a “document brand,” if you will.

Many large firms have gotten so confused by technology and bogged down by committee-malaria that they’ve lost their ability to uniformly produce well-formatted documents. If you want to do a better job than most law firms (including the large ones) get a copy of Matthew Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers and apply the principles he illuminates in that book. He even tells you exactly how to set up your word processor to get the professional look he describes.

Butterick is a professional design guy who attended Harvard and then went to UCLA law school. He’s picky about design, but in a practical way. For example, he tells you how to get a great looking letterhead with just a basic laser printer and some decent laser paper. One bit of advice I took from him: I paid for some special fonts that I use in my letters and pleadings. I guarantee my pleadings and correspondence are as good (in many cases, better) than anything that the large firms are cranking out.


Large firms own lots of technology, and they pay people a lot of money to maintain it. A small firm or solo lawyer can do a lot with off-the-shelf technology, although it does require know-how. Fortunately for me, when I was working at the big firm I spent time learning how to use copy machines, fax machines, and computers. As a solo lawyer this puts me at a huge advantage over 80% of the lawyers I come across.

The practice of law is—in many ways—an information processing enterprise. The lawyer who can gather key information quickly, and then process it efficiently (at a reasonable cost to the client) will do better in the long run than his or her competitors. Large law firms have no advantage whatsoever when it comes to technology; if anything technology is a hidden trap. Lawyers who believe that they don’t need to know much about technology in order to make good decisions are dangerous to their clients.


The days of wine and roses are over for large and semi-large law firms. They’ll innovate to ensure their profit stream stays high, but not to deliver better services at lower cost. Frankly, they can’t lower their costs. They’re locked into long term contracts, and bound to expensive administrative systems.

A friend of mine at a mid-sized law firm lamented the other day that their costs were well over 50% of total billings. In other words, the firm pays something like 65 cents in expenses for every dollar they collect. Firms like that are stuck in a rut that runs to the edge of a cliff.

A small or solo firm can do the same or better quality of work as a large firm, and it can present an outward appearance that’s as professional or more professional. The solo/small can accomplish this at not very much cost. I know because I’ve done it.


  • stune huet says:

    Yup Pal, I have quite agreement of your opinion that every lawyer should have their own web domain name, and should pay the minimal cost needed to host a basic website as it will be beneficial for them too though I think lawyers should thought about the fact. Thankful write up from you dude, I appreciate of your concept!

  • Aimee says:

    Great blog Ernie. I work for a small 3-attorney firm. We are relatively light on our feet and have employed many of the concepts you suggest. What brought me here in the first place is I am looking for advice on time tracking software. We currently use Quickbooks and a really old version of PC Law (which the lawyers really, really like for tracking their time). Problem is that it is cumbersome to use for everything else and has resulted in dual accounting systems. I’d like to find a good replacement for PC Law that integrates with QuickBooks. Any suggestions from you and your followers? Aimee

  • Ernie, What a great post and well said on so many topics and levels! I’m going to provide the link on the Solo Practice University Facebook page for my readers.

  • Erin says:

    Silly question….what fonts did you buy and recommend to others? I am a bit of a font-nerd.

  • Bradley B. Clark says:

    Great post, Ernie.

    I gave a presentation last year to my local chapter of the American Inns of Court (Austin, Texas) about leveraging technology as a small firm practitioner. One of the highlights of the presentation was an explanation of how I use Basecamp to manage my cases in collaboration with my clients. It’s just another example of how I am implementing technology to meet your primary goal.

    Yours truly,

    Bradley B. ClarkTwitter: @bradleybclark

  • Ronin Vladiamhe says:

    As a self-employed IT Technician, I help/have helped plenty of legal professional with their technology needs. The points you make, mirror the ones I have mentioned to small firms and solo practitioners. It is nice to read, from an attorney’s point of view, that knowing the technology is just as important as using it. I agree with Ms. Wilson, your post would make a great jump-off whitepaper for small firms and those attorneys looking to go solo.

  • Katie Wilson says:

    What a great post, Ernie! I bet you could even make it into a whitepaper.

    Thanks for including Ruby Receptionists in your recommendations as well! We’re thrilled that our friendly, professional virtual receptionists are able to make such an impact in your firm!

    Warm regards,

    Katie WilsonRuby Receptionists

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