Cover Story

The Secrets of Million-Dollar Solos

A correction has been made to this story.

Posted Apr 1, 2007 1:05 PM CDT
By G.M. Filisko

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Solo practitioners are a unique breed. It takes guts to strike out on your own and carry the burden of your success on your shoulders alone. Thousands of solos across the country meet that challenge every year and make a comfortable living while ably serving their clients.

Only a few, however, are able to put together that rare formula that propels their revenue beyond the million-dollar mark, year after year. Though the formula isn’t the same for every million-dollar solo, some ingredients are common to most.

They’re smart businesspeople who pay as much attention to building the financial blocks of a strong practice as they do to representing their clients well. They’re also very selective in taking on clients. And their passion for what they do is palpable.

Here, four attorneys who are the sole principal in a firm that generates more than $1 million in revenue annually reveal some of their secrets—how they’ve built their blockbuster practices, and how solos still striving for financial success can reach that milestone.

Don Keenan The Keenan Law Firm, Atlanta

Secrets: • Follow a philosophy • Compartmentalize employees • Use cutting-edge technology • Select cases wisely • Give back to the community

Don Keenan’s motto might be: Once a Marine, always a Marine.

When he was in his 20s, Keenan completed the U.S. Marine Corps’ officer candidate school, but while waiting to be shipped off to Vietnam, the Corps downsized. Keenan accepted an early discharge and headed off to law school.

Which might explain why, for the last 12 years, he’s modeled his firm, the Keenan Law Firm in Atlanta, on a book called The Marine Corps Way: Using Maneuver Warfare to Lead a Winning Organization. The book, cre­ated by two former Marines and a professor from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Busi­ness, details a management philosophy that stresses how to succeed with minimal resources in the fiercely competitive business world.

“I probably know that book inside and out,” Keenan says. “It’s about how a tiny force of 100,000 can go up against a force that’s 50 to 100 times bigger and win.

For a small plaintiffs firm that always takes on a force bigger than us, how do you win against those odds? This is how you do it and win every time.”

So far, it seems to be working for Keenan.

His firm, which specializes in representing injured children and their parents, has brought in 115 verdicts or settlements of more than $1 million, five of more than $10 million, and one higher than $100 million.

Compartmentalization has been key to achieving these successes, Keenan says.

The firm employs six attorneys and eight office staffers, and each person plays a distinct role. One attorney acts solely as an intake lawyer, initially screening all calls from potential new cli­ents. A sec­ond handles only depositions, while another spe­cializes in damages issues for all cases. A research and appellate lawyer and an operational manager round out the attorney staff.

“Everybody’s cross-trained because there can be overflow and vacation and sick times,” Keenan says. “But we’re very tight on the job descriptions.”

MAKE THE MOST OF TECHNOLOGY

Technology is also important, and the higher the tech, the better. Though Keenan admits he’s not a gizmo guy, the firm employs people who are, namely an information technology expert and an audiovisual expert. Their jobs are to make sure the firm is using the latest technology smartly.

For example, Keenan says, when the firm could not find an off-the-shelf case management system, the firm’s IT expert created one to the firm’s specifications.

And he believes his firm was among the first to buy a teleprompter, used by speakers creating training videos and witnesses practicing their own written answers to possible questions. The witnesses are videotaped for their later review.

“Most people are visual,” he says, “and if they see themselves doing something, it can become part of their DNA and becomes very natural.”

Keenan also boasts the firm is “right around the corner” from being completely paperless, and his staff has access to a top-drawer online law library.

The firm also has its own plane and pilot. Be­cause the firm boasts a national practice, which can include clients and matters based in small towns and other hard-to-reach places, Keenan “firmly believes” this resource saves the firm money.

To use the airplane, at least two staff members must be traveling—and most often, it’s more. Typically, they will fly to a city near their work assignment, rent cars to travel to their ultimate destination, then regroup to catch the plane back home to Atlanta.

Keenan also uses technology to connect with overseas workers who perform services for the firm in countries such as Australia, China, India, Ireland and Pakistan. “For about the last five years, all of our dictation has been dictated into an 800 number and returned to us in a Word document. This is the quickest, most efficient and least costly dictation I’ve ever had,” he says.

The firm also uses offshore workers from India, including American-licensed attorneys and doctors, for such tasks as depositions and medical records abstracts.

“It’s quicker, better—and much cheaper,” says Keenan.

Keenan does admit to some outsourcing misfires. Once, he hired workers in Ireland and Pakistan to provide referrals for callers who had matters that didn’t fit within the firm’s expertise. But Keenan found he was getting “spotty service,” including complaints that callers couldn’t understand the screeners’ accents.

Undaunted, he’s found another firm and will begin to outsource that function offshore again for callers whom Keenan feels “an obligation to get them to the right lawyer.”

PICKINESS PAYS OFF

Client selection, or “never putting too many logs on your wagon,” as he describes it, is the final element of the firm’s success. According to Keenan, 1986 was the last year the firm closed a file without a recovery. “Since then, for every single parent we said we’d ac­cept their case, we’ve been able to get a recovery for them,” he says.

That means the firm carefully scrutinizes every potential case. “Often, we do focus groups before we accept a case,” Keenan explains.

In 2006, the law firm evaluated more than 1,100 cases for possible representation and accepted only 14. The hardest part of running his firm, Keenan says, “is saying no to people who desperately need your help but you can’t help them because you’ve chosen to have an efficient, compartmentalized firm.”

That’s one of the reasons he created a charitable organization in 1993, the Keenan’s Kids Foundation. The organization is funded with an annual contribution of about $750,000 from his law firm.

After seeing repeated playground injuries that caused serious injury or death to children, Keenan had begun to question whether he was making a difference.

“At a point, you have to say am I part of the problem or the solution?” says the 54-year-old bachelor, who has no children himself.

“All I’m doing is cleaning up after the elephant. I’m having no input on seeing that no more children die. I was frankly becoming burnt out.”

An important mission of the foundation is to provide education on child safety, and it has just published a book written by Keenan called 365 Ways to Keep Kids Safe ($29.95 at balloonpress.com; all sales proceeds go to the foundation).

“I preach the gospel of doing nonprofit philanthropy in your law firm because it increases public awareness, and it’s the right thing to do,” says Keenan. “That’s what lawyers should do. I shouldn’t be the exception.”

J. Cheney Mason J. Cheney Mason, Orlando, Fla.

Secrets: • Keep expenses to a minimum • Don’t waste money on image • Do good work

J. Cheney Mason of Orlando, Fla., helps clients across the country with issues related to family law, entertainment law and civil litigation. But Mason’s first love is his criminal defense work. “It’s been a special thing to defend the rights of the accused and fight the government for 36 years,” he says.

Criminal defense is probably also the work that generates the most attention for Mason. He recently defended Nelson Serrano, a man convicted of four counts of murder whose months-long trial was featured on Court TV and Dateline NBC in 2006. Mason’s still smarting about Serrano’s conviction. “We expect a full reversal [on appeal] with a full acquittal,” Mason says. “I haven’t said that but one other time, and I was right then.”

A self-described “old country lawyer,” Mason’s business model is simple: “I keep my overhead to a minimum, and I don’t have a lot of flash,” he says.

His firm is lean—he has no employees—but he has the best office space and technology available because from the day he hung out a shingle, he shared expenses with other attorneys.

“I got a long-term lease in an office building and then brought in lawyers I respected for their integrity,” explains Mason. “I provided the receptionist, library and copiers, and rented office space and access to these facilities to the other lawyers. And we exchanged ideas and referrals. We’ve done it ever since. For a fraction of the cost, we have the amenities of big firms but don’t have the overhead.”

In the beginning, that approach also made it easier for him to learn how to work his varied caseload. “I had no problem calling someone and saying, ‘I’ve got this case. Can you help?’ I’d refer the case and stay on as co-counsel and learn,” he recalls.

KNOW WHAT’S NECESSARY

Today, Mason and his attorney tenants work in class A space on the 21st floor of an Orlando office building. And though they have completely independent practices, they all have trusted colleagues whose brains they can pick and to whom they can refer cases.

Mason scoffs at attorneys whom he believes waste money on their image. “I’ve been a mentor for many young lawyers for several decades,” he says. “Some are too concerned about their image early on, going out and leasing an expensive car so they can appear successful.”

He also thinks some lawyers spend more than necessary on what they think they need to practice law—but don’t. For example, he says, “they have unnecessary paralegals, and when they have something simple to handle in court, they take too many people with them.”

Ditto research assistance, Mason adds. When he needs something done but doesn’t have the time, he turns to a private research company. “I can employ these people at a substantially lower rate with a turnaround of one to two days,” he says. “Lawyers on the other side use two to three lawyers and bill their clients huge amounts of money to respond to what I got done in a few hours with a few phone calls.”

While the issue is more time-saving than cost-saving, he believes outsourcing research projects allows him to complete matters twice as fast.

That’s important because, while Mason may be pulling in a million dollars plus every year, he’s doing it all within a 40-hour workweek. He has logged the 60- to 70-hour workweeks in the past, but these days Mason is trying to spend more quality time with his wife, two children and seven grandchildren.

Yet quality remains paramount for a true solo like Mason. There will always be that client who has un­realistic expectations or who makes demands that are unfair, unethical or even illegal, he says. (“Don’t be afraid to fire them,” he instructs.) But generally, “you have to return phone calls and do the work when you’re supposed to. You can’t satisfy every client, win every case or make every client happy, but you can damn sure try.” In the end, he says, “there’s really no substitute for paying attention and doing the work.”

Roxanne Conlin Roxanne Conlin & Associates, Des Moines, Iowa

Secrets: • Use part-time and contract lawyers • Create a happy work environment • Work referral networks

Roxanne Conlin, 62, is a grandmother five times over who boasts of being the “most senior civil rights lawyer in Iowa.”

In fact, in 1969, she was among the first to try a case under the state’s civil rights act, and she was the second woman ever to become a U.S. attorney.

In 1982, she lost a close race for governor of Iowa, and she was the first female president of the former Asso­ciation of Trial Lawyers of America. She also conquered alcoholism, which she was forced to face after being arrested for a DUI in 1992.

Today, the firm she runs, Roxanne Conlin & Asso­ciates, has generated more than $1 million in revenue for longer than Conlin can remember—“many, many years,” she says.

Her firm focuses on “representing people who are hurt,” which means plaintiffs and sometimes classes of plaintiffs, in matters involving primarily discrimination, employment, medical malpractice, personal injury and products liability.

Conlin’s staff expands and contracts based on the firm’s workload. She typically has a nonlawyer staff of six, but that ballooned to 12 while she was at trial on a months-long class action that settled in February against Microsoft (the terms of the settlement haven’t been disclosed, but plaintiffs experts estimated $329 million in damages).

She has one part-time associate but also hired an­other two temporary attorneys.

They were former clerks at Conlin’s firm whose time as employees ended once the trial ended, and they handled “whatever the crisis of the moment” was, she says.

She rounds out the staff with six part-time law clerks who work 20 hours per week while attending law school and during summers.

SUPPORT YOUR STAFF

Though Conlin and her employees work hard, she tries to create an atmosphere that encourages people to come to work and perform at their peak. Which is why the office is friendly to both babies and pets. “Usually, we have a full-time baby at the office,” she says. “Right now it’s Ty, my receptionist’s son, who just learned to crawl.”

Conlin says the policy has probably helped reduce staff turnover. Her part-time associate has worked for her 14 years, and her administrative staffers have stayed as long as 30 years. “No one has ever left voluntarily,” she says.

The firm also has a saltwater fish tank, two office cats, frequent litters of foster kittens and a stuffed Santa bear collection. There’s even an aviary—an idea that came to Conlin when she saw one in the lobby of a hospital she was suing.

“I believe we’re the only law office with an aviary,” she says. And if that’s not enough, employees can bring their pets with them to work.

Conlin has found that animals in the office are a win-win situation, pleasing staff and also clients. The animals show clients that “we care about living things and about homeless animals, as well as others in need,” Con­lin says. And the occasional publicity has been nice, too—the firm was recently profiled on a TV newscast for fostering kittens.

Many of Conlin’s cases are referrals from other lawyers throughout the country, with whom she shares the responsibility for the case and the fee. She says she doesn’t market herself to other attorneys and attributes the referrals to her visibility—and “probably adequate verdicts.”

Conlin will likely be accepting referrals for years to come. Though she and her husband of 43 years enjoy their grandchildren and foster kittens at home, too, vacations away from the legal profession “aren’t really a priority for me,” she says.

“Most of the time, I love my life and my practice and don’t need to get away.”

John Coe The Coe Law Group, Seattle

Secrets: • Adopt effective billing and collection strategies • Use proactive marketing • Hire strategically

John Coe freely admits to having a secret weapon at his Seattle business and real estate firm, the Coe Law Group.

That secret weapon? His wife of nearly nine years, Michelle A. Coe.

Michelle Coe became the firm administrator in 2001 and began to change how the firm structured its operations. Her efforts helped her husband—the firm’s sole member and manager of the firm—complete his first million-dollar year. He has even earned the notice of Washington Law & Politics magazine, which named him among the state’s “rising star” lawyers.

“It’s not one great idea but a series of ongoing refinements in efficiency,” Coe says of his wife’s approach to running the firm.

One of the most important functions she improved was how the firm handles money.

She took over many of the financial functions that were once farmed out to an accountant, which saved money, Coe says. Perhaps more important, though, she helped the firm improve its collection efforts throughout the entire process, he says.

LET CLIENTS KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT

“We’re making sure clients understand our fee ar­rangement and making sure there’s a written fee agreement,” Coe says. The firm has also increased its retainer fees and hourly fees. Coe, who nearly always bills hourly (he handles a few tasks on a flat-fee basis), has raised his rates from $220 to $250 per hour since 2005, an amount he says is “probably right in the median for our experience and location in downtown Seattle.”

The firm has also increased its collections to 99.5 percent of annual billing, and it typically collects up to 90 percent of that within 60 days, all “without upsetting our clients,” says Coe. The firm reached those figures by letting clients know up front what to expect on their bills and by emphasizing the importance of its services.

“Sometimes, the legal bill is the last one that’s paid. We let our clients know that we’re helping them achieve the goals they’ve set,” explains Coe, “so that they not only value their time but ours as well.”

For instance, at intake, the firm discusses the expectations clients have for the firm, along with expectations it has of clients. It reinforces the message through detailed billing and regular communication, mostly by e-mail. “Lawyering is a lot like housework,” Coe says. “Peo­ple see the end result of a clean house but don’t see the work that goes into getting there. A detailed bill helps fill in that gap, and constant communication is key.”

Michelle Coe also studied the firm’s marketing efforts and expenses to determine what worked and what did not. For instance, Web-based marketing, such as advertising in Web-based directories, didn’t bring business in, but speaking engagements produced business through referrals. Coe found that for his firm, it was more efficient to target specific groups of individuals with the type of legal needs the firm specializes in. Says Coe: “I represent a lot of condominiums, so I started speaking to the local chapter of the Community Associations Institute. It does come down to word of mouth.”

While Michelle was implementing these changes, she also worked on finding an associate to add to the team. In 1999, Coe’s father, Harold B. “Buzz” Coe, helped found the firm, which then had three lawyers. He went into semi-retirement in 2004, however, scaling back his hours and giving up ownership and management. John took over, and today he heads the firm with three office staff and the firm’s new associate, Heidi J. Gassman.

Finding an associate who meshed with the firm took a year and a half, and it involved placing ads in multiple publications and interviewing lots of attorneys. But Coe says the work was worth the effort because Gassman’s contributions have already increased firm revenue.

“She has a great deal of experience, and her practice complemented and dovetailed with mine,” he says. She covers for Coe when he’s unavailable, and she’s expanded the practice with her expertise in litigation and in working with contractors and architects on the con­struction side of the real estate business.

After their first million-dollar year, Coe is relying on his secret weapon to help make 2007 another big year for the firm. Michelle’s position is one “that doesn’t generate revenue but is certainly worth the cost in the long run,” he says. “Because I have someone I trust handling every other matter than the practice of law, I can focus on marketing and working for my clients.”

Sidebar

When It’s About More than Money

For some solos, earning seven figures is the least of their concerns.

Five years ago, Jay Fleischman was at the pinnacle. He was the founding partner of a growing Manhattan firm with three lawyers and 12 staffers. He was making a damn good living—and working 15-hour days, seven days a week.

Then one day his law partner told him she would be taking an extended maternity leave, and he became concerned about how he’d handle the firm’s caseload minus one lawyer.

So he took a close look at the firm’s books—and how he spent his time. He realized he was spending more than half his work hours on firm management, and a huge chunk of revenue was being eat­en up by overhead and staff salaries.

Fleischman began to wonder if there wasn’t a better, simpler way to be a lawyer. “I wanted to go to work to earn a living, not just to feed the beast,” he says.

So he split with his partner, taking only the firm’s bankruptcy practice and one assistant. Within a year, he jettisoned even the assistant and instead began making better use of technology. He keeps only a small office in Manhattan for client meetings.

Ironically, because his overhead is so low, his take-home income has increased, although his gross is less than $1 million. But Fleischman points out that he had no way of knowing that. He made the switch because, he says, you can run your practice or your practice can run you.

Sheryl Schelin of North Myrtle Beach, S.C., understands that trade-off. Last year, Schelin quit a stressful job as counsel to her local airport authority and moved to take care of her ailing mother. Along the way, she and her husband decided to separate, leaving Schelin a single parent of a young daughter.

Schelin now runs a small solo practice, representing plaintiffs in employment discrimination cases. She limits her work-day to six or seven hours and spends the rest of the time caring for her family. “It became apparent that I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do while em­ployed by someone else,” she says.

Though she makes a bit less money now, she feels the trade of money for flexibility is satisfying beyond her hopes.

“I see ads all the time about ‘how to grow your business,’ and I keep thinking, ‘Doesn’t anybody but me wonder why?’ ” she says. “I challenge the assumption that bigger is better. Some­times, things are just the right size.” -- Margaret Graham Tebo

Correction

In "The Secrets of Million Dollar Solos," April (2007), page 39, Don Keenan's age is given as 50. He is 54. The article also suggests that Keenan, having completed his officer candidate his officer candidate school training, was waiting to be sent to Vietnam. Keenan, in fact, returned to school after finishing the program and would have been sent to Vietnam upon graduation, but the Marine Corps began downsizing in the interim.

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