Solo by Choice: A Conversation with Carolyn Elefant, Part 2

by Sara Crocker on August 16, 2011

Yesterday, we posted the first half of our conversation with Carolyn Elefant. In the second half below, Elefant discusses social media, marketing tips, and more in advance of her keynote at Hanging Your Shingle.

Solo in Colo: For established solos, how can they continue to evaluate and improve their practice?

Carolyn Elefant: It is always harder for someone who is established because you do tend to fall into a rut. That’s why I find that belonging to a listserv is always very valuable because it’s something that helps you keep track of trends and going out to a conference where there’s a new speaker talking to see if you’re staying up-to-date with things like technology.

Then in terms of other metrics, you just want to see if you’re continuing to grow in your area. Measure metrics like number of referrals – a measure of success might be 2 percent of your cases come from referrals and in the next year it was 40 percent. That’s an indicator that your name is getting out in the community, or you’re getting invited to different events or asked to serve on committees. Different things like that can help you know if your firm is on track.

But, a lot of it also has to do with your own milestones. There are some solos who are perfectly content to be completely solo and not have any assistance or anybody working for them. Their metric would be very different from somebody who knows that in three years he wants to have an associate and in six years wants to have another partner.

Solo in Colo: You note on your blog, which was one of the first of its kind, that your firm has had an email since 1994 and a website, which you coded yourself, since 1995. What sparked your interest with the Internet and what about it continues to hold your attention?

Carolyn Elefant: Part of it is my husband is in the technology field, so I did have someone who showed me what was out there. But the reason it captured my attention was because it was an opportunity to keep costs down and to make money. When I was in law school, in 1987 after my summer associate job, I bought a Mac. There were probably two or three people in my class who had computers. I used to do résumés for people because back then you had to go to a Kinko’s and pay $50. I was able to do these résumés and cover letters for people for much less. The technology that I saw, especially in my practice area in energy, all of the services, everything is so expensive. Going to a conference, even back then, could cost $750, and that was just for the conference. I just saw technology as a way to get my name out and to keep the costs down because I just didn’t have money to spend on those things.

I stay interested in it now because to me it’s a way of sharing information, it’s a way of communicating, it’s a way of having interaction. It’s an antidote to the sometimes-isolation of solo practice.

Solo in Colo: What is the most interesting tool or trend you’ve recently seen in social media, particularly among lawyers?

Carolyn Elefant: I think that Twitter is probably one of the most generally useful and most highly undervalued social media tools. Its purpose changes all the time, but as a source of information and being able to stay on top of things if you follow people who are in your area who put out interesting information, it’s almost like somebody is hand-picking news stories for you. It’s a very, very quick way to stay up to date with the news really for almost any practice area. I find it’s a new purpose – originally when Twitter started it was, ‘what are you doing now’ and it was just chit-chat. Now it really has become a very important source for information that is available all the time.

The other trend that I think is very important for solos is the mobile trend – being able to have so much productivity with a combination of your phone, or an iPad, or a laptop – you can really pretty much take your practice on the road and that is putting pressure on solos to of course be up-to-date all of the time, but it also is giving them more flexibility.

Solo in Colo: What is your response to lawyers who are tech-averse?

Carolyn Elefant: It depends. I certainly am not an advocate of having the latest and greatest technology if you can’t figure out a way to use it. Let’s say you’re in a remote practice area and your clients don’t have Internet access, you may have to put Yellow Pages ads in the newspaper.

At the same time, I would still say to look at your practice and see if there are areas where technology can free you up or help you serve your clients better. That really should be the driving force. If you’re completely technology averse but you have clients who want to email you, you really should make it your business to at least figure out how to use email. If you have a practice where clients are calling you 24/7 and always asking for you to send updates on the status of their case, and then if they can’t get in touch with you and they get annoyed and you can’t afford an assistant, you may have to figure out or have somebody figure out for you how to set up a client portal where people can check this information for you, if that’s what your clients demand. If you’re tech averse that’s fine, if it doesn’t bother your clients. But if there’s technology that can better serve your clients, I think you have an obligation to learn how to use it.

It also depends on the stage you’re in in your career. Even though you may not be using tech now, things will change in 10 years.  If you’re somebody just entering the field and you’re not using email or you don’t have a way to take credit cards online, you have to ask yourself if you’re serving the desires of your clients and also how long you’re going to be able to stay up to speed without having the tech.

Solo in Colo: What are some tips that readers of your blog have offered that you thought were helpful or interesting?

Carolyn Elefant: I definitely do get a lot of neat tips from readers. Brian Pedigo has a pickup truck that he used to drive and I guess his wife was telling him a lawyer shouldn’t be driving a pickup truck, so he repainted it himself and put his face and his phone number and his address on it, so now it’s an eye-catcher. I thought that was a really interesting way to repurpose something. There’s another attorney, named Cindi Matt in Minnesota, who had hoped to do some work in a coffee shop, so she put a decal on her laptop showing her office location. Most recently I posted a link to Gabriel Cheong’s website. He developed a fee calculator at his website and that was something that’s really neat that I would even consider doing. He charges mostly flat fees, but the fees of course are not the same; it depends on the type of work and the complexity of the matter. He’s got this neat fee calculator where you can input those factors and come up with a fee based on them. I thought that was a really neat way to let people know what your fees are and at the same time become more familiar with the different aspects of the case.

Please note: the interview has been edited and condensed.

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