Her Homework: Law Practice
Solo lawyers of all stripes know that a successful practice requires wearing many hats: rainmaker, problem solver, janitor and hand-holder among them.
Danielle Colyer adds one more—teacher. Colyer teaches at Jones College Prep, a magnet high school in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood. She is also the single mom of a grade schooler and runs a busy real estate law practice from her home office.
“After my daughter is in bed, I sit down with my files and spend a few hours reviewing contracts and title searches, writing letters, … etc. On nights when I am caught up on that, I do some marketing,” says Colyer.
Colyer went to law school, she says, because she burned out trying to teach uninterested students.
After graduating, she was offered her current “dream job” teaching law to motivated high school students. Around the same time, she found herself a single parent and knew she needed to supplement her teacher’s salary to provide for her daughter.
In 2003, she learned to do real estate closings—practicing first on a buy-sell project for her mother. “I knew Mom wouldn’t sue me if I screwed it up,” she says.
Now in her fourth year of solo practice, she estimates she closes about 100 deals a year—a significant increase from the early days.
“When I started, I made maybe $5,000 that first year. … Now,” she says, “I can pretty much equal my teaching salary, and the practice is still growing.”
On her lunch hour, Colyer may drop off documents at a title company. Closings that require her presence are scheduled for after school. Her big season is summer, when most residential real estate transactions historically take place. Because of her school vacation schedule, she is available for midday closings, subject only to child care availability.
During the week, an assistant works from Colyer’s home office to keep documents flowing for the 15 or so open files she juggles at a time. The assistant is invaluable, says Colyer, since much of the work involves making phone calls and sending form letter requests for documents.
“Things were a lot more hectic before I had an assistant. I used to spend my break time in the teacher’s lounge making one call after another. It’s doable, but it’s harder,” she says.
Even though her law practice is taking off, Colyer intends to keep teaching, for the love of it and for the benefits, such as health insurance and pension.
In May, Colyer opened a second office, leasing space from a law firm in Chicago’s southwest suburbs. Another assistant will work at that location, which Colyer hopes will double her firm’s revenues this year.
“Having that local address is an asset to gaining clients in that area. It gives me a local connection, and gives me work and meeting space near where many of my clients live,” she says.
She markets by making contact with dozens of real estate agents each year and spreading her business cards around.
Colyer sees her law job as primarily about customer service. She knows that clients can get stressed about real estate transactions because their homes are their biggest assets. Calming their fears while dealing with all the paperwork keeps her and her assistants busy, but she wouldn’t have things any other way.
“In residential real estate, word of mouth is your marketing bread and butter,” she says. “The more I can smooth the way, the more likely my clients will send their friends and relatives to me.”