Interviewed by Kenny Matuszewski
Kenny: Where do you work?
Christian: I work at the Law Office of Christian Blume. Recently, I developed an assumed name for my firm called Blume Law, for branding and marketing purposes. I have no employees and have been on my own since October 2018.
Kenny: What do you practice?
Christian: I practice real estate law, business transactions, and some litigation. However, I keep litigation to a minimum. My real estate practice includes representing home buyers/sellers, property investors, and property tax assessed value appeals on residential property.
Kenny: Why did you decide to start your law firm?
Christian: I used to work for the City of Chicago, where my practice included real estate law and litigation. Specifically, I represented the Department of Buildings. I wanted to move away from litigation, and I also missed owning my own business. My past experiences as a business owner got me into the legal profession in the first place, so it made sense to go down that road again. Business owners face legal issues all the time, so owning my own practice would allow me to not only help myself but also my clients and colleagues.
Kenny: Did you use any particular resources when starting your own law firm?
Christian: I learned to rely on free resources for the most part. One resource, in particular, that was very helpful was the CBA. It has a Solo/Small Firm Practitioners Committee. The Committee focuses on the issues small and solo firms face and gives the owners of these firms a chance to talk about various issues in their practice. Before I went solo, I went to a committee meeting, and the advice I received there confirmed my decision to go solo. I have enjoyed that committee so much that I have referred work to fellow committee members.
Kenny: Should solos start as generalists, or should they specialize in a particular practice area right away?
Christian: When I started my practice, I started by practicing just about anything with little limitations. I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted to focus on, but I knew I enjoyed property law. By starting broadly, I learned what I liked specifically about real estate and business transactions. But if I could go back in time to when I first started, I would have been more focused on specializing in real estate law.
The important thing I would tell younger attorneys considering going out on their own is that if you’re not sure about your practice area, be open-minded. Law is a service industry, and clients have a wide range of problems. Further, not all clients have legal problems or ones that are narrowly defined. You can offer value by helping clients solve problems. By doing so, you’ll figure out which parts of your practice are profitable, sustainable, and enjoyable.
For marketing purposes, a narrow practice helps when directly reaching out to clients or networking with other attorneys. If you say you practice everything, other attorneys will not know when to refer you clients.
Kenny: How do you balance your legal work with running a business?
Christian: Another attorney once told me that any time I spend actually practicing law is time that I’m not building my business. I don’t completely agree with that philosophy, but when you’re in the weeds of legal work, you’re not networking or building contacts. You’re just servicing existing clients. But one thing I’ve found is that the amount of time I spend on legal work ebbs and flows. One week, I may be slammed with a lot of legal work, which means I have to put my marketing efforts on hold. Others, I am able to focus on my business and marketing efforts, which I greatly enjoy.
Kenny: What do you do to generate business?
Christian: I try to market my practice at all times because it’s important to do so. Even if you’re not a solo, attorneys still have to focus on building business. By doing so, you create your own value, make a lateral job search easier, increase the odds you’ll make partner, or even form your own firm. Solos are forced to do build up their business right away, while lawyers at firms often don’t do any business development until it’s too late. So while it’s important for all private practice lawyers to work on business generation, solos are forced to from the onset.
While I try to market a lot, my overhead is also limited. Luckily, I’ve had a marketing/branding client that has helped me with some aspects of graphic design, I can’t hire an outside firm to design my website or logo, so I’ve had to get creative. Over the years, I’ve learned how to use several website platforms, such as Wix, GoDaddy, and WordPress. GoDaddy is better for SEO, while I use WordPress for my blog. WordPress has great features and add-ons that can help increase traffic to both my blog and my firm’s website. It shows statistics, including the number of views an article gets, and where my readers are located. Using these statistics is a great way to determine the type of content my readers want to read. If a particular article gets a lot of hits, I write articles related to that topic, which leads to more hits, and ultimately, clients and referrals.
The interesting thing about my blog is that people from all over the world read my articles. For example, my most-read article is about a change to a law made in 2018. The law relates to the cottage food industry, which allows people to sell home-made food from their own homes. Even though I wrote less than 600 words for the article, it still gets a lot of hits. After a quick Google search, I found that my article is right near the top of the results for the cottage food industry. Since not many people write about this particular topic, so people keep coming back to my article.
Blogging is something that I enjoy because I’m forced to take the time to put my thoughts down on paper. While vlogs and 1- to 2-minute YouTube videos are rapidly growing as marketing tools, I find that I can do a lot more with a blog. When you’re speaking or having a conversation, you tend to not be as deliberate with the words you say compared to when you’re writing. The short time frame for a video also makes it difficult to discuss topics requiring a lot of time to fully understand.
Law school classmates have also sent me clients or potential clients. Having a large firm doing work for a small business is cost-prohibitive for many clients, and they often don’t have the flexibility to alter the firm’s fee arrangements. As a solo, I have the flexibility to create the fee structure that best fits the client’s situation. This allows my practice to grow with the business. If I can’t help someone who calls, I’ll happily refer them to another attorney; if there’s no one in my network who I can refer to, I then send them to the CBA, which has a Lawyer Referral Service.
In general, I’m not a big fan of the billable hour and only do it if I need to know exactly how much time I spend on a project. Even then, I cut down the fees I charge when I bill. Usually, I do flat-fee or contingency packages, in order to give transparency to the client. These packages don’t shortchange my value, provides a benefit to my clients and offer more flexibility. If I need to focus on something, I don’t have to worry about the potential costs of a billable hour.
Kenny: Before law school, you owned your own business. How does that previous experience help with your practice today?
Christian: Owning my own business beforehand made things a lot easier. It helped manage the uncertainty and anxiety associated with starting a business this time around, and I already had experience with accounting, marketing, and tracking revenue and expenses. Without my previous business venture, I would have been much more hesitant to go out on my own.
Kenny: You have also served as a Co-Chair for the YLS’ Real Estate Law Committee in the past. Why should solos get involved in bar associations?
Christian: Solos generally have the flexibility to get involved with organizations and committees. Organizations are also a great resource for networking. At the CBA, I’m able to meet other YLS members and lawyers, so they know what I do and eventually, refer business to me. Being involved simply adds value to your practice.
Because I have neither strict demand on my time nor a billable hour requirement, I’m able to enjoy the comradery of the YLS and the CBA’s Solo/Small Firm Practitioners Committee. For the latter committee, we share stories and give each other advice, which we can’t do in our offices. Getting out of the office is also a great thing to do to help you mentally as well.
While I appreciate the virtual content various organizations have developed, the pandemic and my 2 toddlers have prevented me from attending many CLE events. Even though the events are offered via Zoom, I find that they offer limited benefits. During a virtual presentation, only 1 person can communicate at a time, and your ability to have a private conversation with someone else is limited. I enjoy in-person meetings because I can learn a lot during the meeting, but also have the opportunity to talk to other attorneys before and after the meeting. Once a Zoom meeting ends, everyone immediately logs off, so I’m not able to ask fellow attendees or the speakers follow-up questions unless I have their contact information.
Kenny: What is one thing you wish you knew before you started your own law firm?
Christian: The biggest challenge I faced starting my solo practice was managing the lawyer-client relationship. It was a struggle to determine when to fire a client or terminate the attorney-client relationship. As a new solo, you work on the matter, even when the client stops paying you or treats you poorly. While this is something that tends to only be learned in the trenches, it’s far better to terminate the relationship early on rather than drag it out.
It’s also important to establish the boundaries of communication with your client. Set your expectations out early on in the relationship and let them know the hours you take calls, so you don’t dread seeing their phone number when they call. While I may answer my phone or emails after hours on a few occasions, I try not to make a practice of it. Most clients understand and avoid calling during off-hours, but there are always emergencies or things that come up at the last minute.
Kenny: Why should younger attorneys go solo?
Christian: One thing that a member of the Solo and Small Firm Committee told me is that while you might have second thoughts before going solo, you will enjoy it and find it fulfilling. Due to COVID-19, a solo practice gives you the flexibility to change what you do and how you use technology. It’s easy to adapt to the ways of the world as a solo practitioner. It also allows you to exponentially learn more about your practice and yourself. While I’ve only been in solo practice for a year and a half, I know way more now than I did before. I’m sure that I’ll be shocked by how little I knew at the start in a few years.
A lot of people decide to go solo because they don’t like their boss or like being told what to do. What they fail to realize is that because we are a service profession, your clients then become your boss. No matter what, you’re going to have to answer to someone, whether it be a judge, client, or boss. You’ll deal with difficult people no matter where you go or what you do, so a decision to go solo should not be based on the hope that you’ll never have to deal with a prickly personality ever again.
While you still have to deal with difficult people, the beauty of being a solo is that you have the flexibility to choose the clients you work with, which you might not get at a law firm. If you think you can’t work with a particular client, you can find someone else who can. While revenue might suffer in the short-term, if you spend 80% of your time on only 20% of your clients, you are not able to spend any time working on issues that you enjoy or fully appreciate your practice.
Christian Blume is the Co-Chair of the CBA Young Lawyers Section’s Real Estate Committee. He is a trusted legal advisor that helps businesses and individuals protect and pursue their interests. His practice focuses on real estate and business law (particularly, transactional and dispute resolution).
Prior to establishing his private practice, Christian worked as an Assistant Corporation Counsel for the City of Chicago Department of Law. He represented the City of Chicago and prosecuted municipal code violations in numerous cases.
He graduated cum laude from The John Marshall Law School and served as the Managing Editor of The John Marshall Law Review. He also graduated from the United States Air Force Academy, where he majored in Economics. Prior to law school, Christian owned and operated a small business. As a small business owner, he came to appreciate the many legal struggles and issues start-ups and small businesses face.
He currently lives in Lincoln Square with his wife and two small children. Christian enjoys travelling, yoga, reading and spending time with his family in his spare time.