The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many law firms to re-evaluate how they do business, a trend that’s opening up a wealth of opportunities for Derek Hawkins and his consulting practice, YouFirm Consulting.
Hawkins founded the firm in January to help solo practitioners establish and build their practices. He coaches attorneys on task automation, client management, social-media marketing and personal branding — discussing steps he has taken to succeed in his own private practice in trademark law.
“One of the main reasons I have my position at Harley-Davidson right now is because of the intentional personal branding I created for myself,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins joined Harley as trademark-corporate counsel in 2018 after five years in private practice. When he was solo practitioner, Hawkins had looked for clients mainly among owners of small and medium-sized businesses and their marketing departments.
He started finding client leads in everything from marketing conferences to online videos with industry-specific trademark advice and posts in online forums.
“In a really organic way, I was able to get access to people who were actually interested in my services, and I got on the radar of some trademark attorneys in other countries,” Hawkins said. “That got me in front of my current direct supervisor on LinkedIn because she had seen several of my videos that I had posted online.”
He now balances his full-time job at Harley with his desire to help solo practitioners build their own businesses.
The COVID-19 pandemic, in some ways, has helped him pursue clients for YouFirm. More time at home means Hawkins can work more on the firm’s branding and reaching out to possible clients.
“Now that we’re in an environment where face-to-face interaction is, in some places, not possible, everyone is evaluating how to conduct business,” Hawkins said. “COVID-19 and the subsequent quarantine has created an opportunity for attorneys to really take advantage of focusing on building their brand online and retooling their law practice so they can thrive in a digital environment.”
Hawkins recently spoke to the Wisconsin Law Journal about the advice he gives to YouFirm clients and his long-term goals for his business.
Wisconsin Law Journal: What kind of consulting are you doing for YouFirm clients?
Derek Hawkins: Automation, client management and social-media-marketing components have been the hot tickets. Client intake is a big piece of it — essentially tracking the lifecycle of how you acquire clients.
Within the last three to four years, I’ve noticed that it’s become a lot more commonplace for attorneys to be interested in software for case management and for automating scheduling and invoicing. There’s a shift that is in line with client perception. Clients are a lot more tech savvy, clients are a lot more knowledgeable now than they’ve ever been, and they expect more now. I think it’s causing larger law firms to re-evaluate the way that they provide services, both from a fee-structure perspective and how they’re operating the business.
WLJ: What does automating your practice look like?
Hawkins: When I was in private practice, I set up automation that would only have myself personally intervene two times. That would be having the conversation with the client and writing down my notes. Everything else was automated. I had an email marketing campaign that I set up where people could download some valuable resources from my website. Once they did that, they would drop into my email marketing software, and then I would constantly provide them with some valuable tips on trademark-related issues.
Once they decided to set up a call with me to have a consultation, the information that they give me during that call would get imported into my engagement letter if they decided to move forward.
That would automatically get sent to them, so I wouldn’t be involved in that process at all. They would sign the engagement letter. They would pay the retainer or the flat fee on their own. I then have case-management software to keep track of all matters for my clients.
WLJ: How much time can automation save a solo practitioner?
Hawkins: I would spend on a weekly basis anywhere from 10 to 15 hours on admin work. I eradicated that 10 to 15 hours entirely by automating. At the time, I think I was charging $300 per hour, and if you map out how much time I spent doing that, and it’s a non-producing activity, that’s a significant amount of money that I would consider a lost cause, especially for something I can automate.
The goal is to make sure attorneys are spending their time engaging in profit-producing activities, which I consider to be getting more clients, engaging in marketing, getting out there and networking, and building their brand both in the physical space and online.
WLJ: What should attorneys do to improve their online presence?
Hawkins: When I say social media marketing, it goes beyond just putting out some ads. It’s more about authentic engagement with the communities of who your purchasers are. The big part of that is the personal-branding component. What we help people do is make sure they have a presence online, make sure that presence is consistent, and make sure they’re engaging with a community of purchasers.
WLJ: What are your goals for YouFirm?
Hawkins: Long term, I have two goals: Changing the perception of solo practice as a career path for law students and equipping solo practitioners and small firms with the tools necessary to build a practice that can thrive in any environment.
It seems as if the perspective that some people have about solo practitioners is that they couldn’t cut it in Big Law, or maybe they didn’t get a big offer out of law school, so they just default to doing that. I want to flip that perspective on its head. It’s a very viable option and a fruitful one. You get access to experience at a partner level very early on in your career.
I want to equip attorneys with the tools for their potential practice that allow them to have the lifestyle they want. One of the things I struggled with, especially early on in my practice, was maintaining a work-life balance. I’m married and I have three children of my own, and I found myself sacrificing time with them to spend more time on my practice. What I really wanted to do was to build a business that could operate on its own without me, so that if I do need to step away for two or three weeks, I can do so, and when I come back, I still have clients that are being serviced.
The only way you can do that is by building a business that can automate some of those tasks without you.