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Going solo? Treat your small firm like a business

Sometime this year, if all goes as planned, North Kansas City will see the birth of “The Iron District” — a cluster of shipping-containers-turned storefronts. Shoppers will be able to sample cuisines and browse the wares of various vendors — and they will have Adrienne Haynes, in part, to thank.

That’s because the Kansas City attorney is helping prospective vendors with certain legal aspects of launching their businesses.

Adrienne Haynes. Submitted photo

Adrienne Haynes.
Submitted photo

Since founding the SEED Law firm in 2015, Haynes has helped small companies get a legal footing. In the process, she has learned various lessons about how lawyers like her can get a business footing — and recently shared those lessons with attendees of the Missouri Bar Solo & Small Firm Conference on June 6 at the Margaritaville Lake Resort Lake of the Ozarks.

Haynes graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law in 2013 with an emphasis in entrepreneurial law. Despite several attempts, she did not pass the bar exam right away, so in the meantime she set up two entities: a business consultancy called the SEED Collective and an incubator called the Construction Business Institute, which she said sought to connect contractors to timely, practical business education from industry experts.

“I’m an entrepreneur by love and by necessity,” Haynes said. “My family has to eat!”

After passing the bar in 2015, she set up SEED Law. It now includes Haynes and three other attorneys; all have practices of their own, but together at SEED, they offer a strategic business package to clients.

The decision to name the firm “SEED,” she said, came from her desire to nurture the dreams of startups in her community and protect them legally so that they could grow. She decided against using her own name for the firm for two reasons. First, she planned to share the firm with other attorneys and wished to avoid the logistical hassle of a constantly changing brand. Secondly, she observed that many startups don’t go by the founders’ names (Facebook, for example, is not called “Mark Zuckerberg”).

That entrepreneurial mindset formed the basis of the primary piece of advice she imparted at her presentation: Treat your solo or small firm like the small business that it really is.

When hanging out your shingle, she said, draw up a true business plan. Ask yourself who else is working in your practice area, how your firm will be different, and whether there is enough demand to sustain your own firm.

“People think a business plan is an antiquated document,” she said, “but it has helped me.”

After you take the plunge, she said, don’t skimp on technology. Attorneys striking out on their own won’t have much back-office support, so they’ll need all the help they can get.

“I talk to lawyers all the time,” she said, “they’ll leave a big firm and it’s tough because that system was built for you. To build your own system takes real research and patience.”

Haynes said it’s important to recognize what you’re not good at and to find a tool to plug the gap. For example, she said, she uses document-assembly software to build forms and checklists so that she can minimize errors in her pleadings.

She told the audience about several “helpful behaviors” for developing and maintaining client relationships from a solo or small firm. These include documenting each relationship with an engagement letter; being proactive about sending matter updates; staying on top of billing; and seeking feedback for improvement. She also cautioned against several “not so healthy behaviors,” such as using too much legalese with clients and being unclear or inconsistent with your pricing model.

“One of the most common things I hear from entrepreneurs is they don’t reach out because they aren’t sure what it’s going to cost,” she said. SEED Law’s solution is simply transparency: They tell a potential client how they bill without the client having to ask.

Overall, Haynes said, aspiring solo and small-firm attorneys should honor both the legal and business side of their ventures. On a regular and even annual basis, Haynes said, it’s important to revisit your business model, and be honest about what’s working — and what’s not.

“Don’t just work for your business,” she said. “Work on your business.”