Fixing the Race to Make Partner

footraceMore firms are having problems finding and retaining good associates. One Atlanta firm, Fisher & Phillips, has gotten proactive about saving their considerable investment in their associates. They have created a new program that lays out the criteria for making partner early in the life of an associate – mainly originating work – then giving them the tools and training to meet those criteria.

“We’re trying to set them up to succeed,” Managing Partner Bert Brannen said In the Atlanta Daily Report story. “It’s a very intentional way to guide people through the evolution from summer clerk to fully functioning first year partner with more business than they can service on their own.”

Attorneys Master Class offers a similar program to its firms. Read about it HERE.

The Fate of the Corner Store Is Coming to Small Firms – Soon

So what did happen to the corner store? The short answer is it became the 7-11, the Circle K – or it went out of business. Most did the latter.

The legal blogosphere is filled with speculation and news about the happenings of biglaw in the legal revolution – but about 63% of lawyers in private practice are in firms of 3 or less. So what’s the future for the little guy?

What if you could suddenly benefit from national advertising – a powerful website – group health and malpractice insurance, and a continuing feed of business that would alleviate your need for marketing?

Sound like joining a big firm? Well, yes – but no.

The legal revolution that has brought about “Alternative Business Structures” offering a range of services beyond legal, and “Non-Lawyer Ownership” of law firms in Australia and Britain are blossoming with creative examples of exactly this revolution. One is a British legal franchise called Quality Solicitors. There are currently over 200 British law firms – some top ones in smaller communities – under the brand.

In Britain, financing for such endeavors is coming from outside the profession. And while that’s not yet permitted in the U.S., it doesn’t have to be for the franchise model. A few wealthy attorneys could fund it. And my bet is that it’s already in the works.

But, you say, “no way – the franchise model has been tried, and hasn’t worked very well.” You’re right – but that’s the past. The world – and technology – has completely changed the game.

LegalZoom has created a no-lawyers model with thousands of fill-in-the-blanks-online forms. They didn’t even need lawyers – although they have since expanded, to capture the market at the next level, of those who really do want to talk to a lawyer. And of course, the web has become the first place a majority of consumers look when choosing a lawyer. So when they Google “lawyer” and see a website that talks candidly about cost, it has their attention. The Quality Solicitors website headline is “When it comes to bills, we don’t like surprises either.”

Then it uses “artificial intelligence” to help the client determine what type of services they need, then puts them in touch with the appropriate attorney in their area. And right there, for the world to see, are prices. Reasonable – and note at the right, with a “clear price” guarantee.

Politics isn’t the only place we’re seeing a consumer revolt. LegalZoom has proven that.

So what can you do to solidify your market position? What can you learn from Quality Solicitors?

First – like it or not, price rules for consumers and small business.
The savvy consumer knows the difference between a straightforward problem or issue and one with a host of “if’s, and’s and buts.” Larger corporations, not yet so much. But even that is changing. Savvy in-house legal counsel increasingly know how to take advantage of a highly competitive marketplace.

The fact is that hourly billing is a relatively new concept that began in earnest in the 1960’s. Before then, most everything was flat-rate priced. (if you want the full story of how that change came about, give me a call.)

So, you’re thinking I’m going to say “flat rate pricing,” but you’re wrong. The answer is actually a sophisticated version of that, called “unit pricing.” Your agreement – and heck, maybe even your advertising (a la Quality Solicitors) has specific “flat rate” prices for stages, or levels, of work, with an open end hourly rate if needed. For instance, in estate planning:

Simple will with components A, B, and C:              $750
Additional if D is needed:                                         $300
Additional if E, F & G are needed                            $900
If H is requested                                                      $1200

Likewise, in litigation, pricing might look like this:

Review of matter, development of strategy,
Filing of initial suit (includes up to five client meetings)                     $3,000 – $5,000
Additional meetings                                                                           $400
Deposition fee (travel billed separately), per deposition, per day     $1000
Trial preparation                                                                                $5,000 – $9,000
Trial, per attorney per day                                                                 $3,000 – $5,000

This is an admittedly simple model with numbers that may not fit for you. But the concept is important. Specific prices for specific, well defined (in writing) types or stages of work. The client should be able to see what they can expect to pay for each stage of the work, and so they can make better decisions based partly on the dollar consequences.

Yes, even when your work is carefully unit-priced, sometimes your time will be more than the fee involved. But you’ll prosper on the law of large numbers rather than on each matter. And after all, what better way to drive innovation and efficiency (which the legal profession has never, until recently, had to deal with) than having to analyze past work to identify better methods or better pricing?

The traditionalist objection to this “cost-based” decision tree for the client is “The client might stop me from doing something important because of cost! They’ll be telling me how to practice law!” Yep, and yep. My answer to that is to yell “IT’S ALWAYS THE CLIENT’S CASE, NOT YOURS!” and to remind the attorney of their first and foremost duty in the client relationship: advice and counsel. If the client decides not to take the advice (which should, needless to say, be documented in a letter or email), then it’s ultimately the client’s decision. How’s that really different than today’s real life?

Second: Make sure your website does its job for you.
What does that mean? First, it means acknowledging that it’s a web world. Even if most of your business is referrals, know that most of those prospects, after they were given your name, went to your website to check you out. So, no website? Really? Then you’re missing out on lots of clients who searched for you, couldn’t find you, and didn’t call. Crappy, creaky 1999 website? Ditto.

So. Give in to the reality that you should pay a design expert to create an impactful, compelling website that attracts viewers to become clients. Because it’s no longer your business card. It’s your front door. Need a referral? Call me.

And if all of your business is referrals, and most people find you on the web by typing in your name (your website statistics can tell you this), maybe that’s all you need.

If most of your business comes from strangers – walk-ins, in traditional terms (remember where your front door is), then make sure your website has all the bells and whistles that make Google light up and want to rank you highly in the listings. This is the first part of what the geeks call “website optimization,” and it’s a job for experts – which doesn’t mean your brother-in law the computer programmer, unless he has at least three recommendations from law firms. There’s a science to picking a web designer who can do both great design and great “organic” optimization. Happy to provide the details. Call me.

Next step – decide where you want to appear on the list when the consumer does a search for “family lawyer” or such. Several options here. You can pay Google to list you at the top of the page, in as many jurisdictions as you can afford.  You can pay a web magician to get you listed at the top of the next group of “unpaid” listings (an arcane and less than perfect art – again, do your due diligence). You can buy a “pay-per-click” ad in the far right column that you only pay for when someone clicks on it to go to your website.

All of this means that, finally, you have to have a marketing budget of reasonable size – 10-15% of your budgeted gross revenues at least. Some for your web works, and some for your other marketing. Many personal injury firms spend far more than this.

Third – do your own marketing.
That means advertising where necessary, and most importantly, personal marketing – building and maintaining relationships with your referral sources – in other words, paying attention to the Parieto Principle – the old 80-20 rule that says 80% of your business will come from 20% or your (you name it – efforts, contacts, expenditures).

The still-true fact is that the best business comes from referrals – other professionals (especially your fellow attorneys), former clients, and personal, social and business contacts. And that’s at all levels, right up to the top of the profession. CEO’s don’t Google “corporate lawyer.” They ask their fellow CEO’s or their CFO or accounting firm for a referral.

And referrals are, by far, the cheapest source of business. So, like it or not, you have to be extremely active with relationship-building. And particularly if you are in a smaller community, you have to be ubiquitous – a “leading citizen,” known and respected by all. Be seen, involved and active in as many places as possible. That in itself won’t make you rich, but turning all of that into a systematic, efficient and results-oriented personal marketing program will. If you need some pointers here, give me a call.

The final truth. . .
Consumer law is going away from the traditional practitioner to the LegalZooms, the RocketLawyers, the franchises, the do-it-yourself forms on the web. The lawyer’s hold on the lower levels of the legal system is slipping fast, as the web offers more and more choices and opportunities. Yes, those choices may not always be the best, but sometimes, the consumer only needs a Kia, not the Bentley we want to sell them. And remember that it’s always the consumer’s choice, not ours.

. . . And the larger solution
Move up the ladder, away from the simple to the more complex work, whether that be corporate or high net worth individuals or successful entrepreneurs, where needs are more complex and nuanced, where matters and their solutions are unique, and where long-term relationships – those “trusted advisor” relationships exist between client and attorney.

Or get ready to buy a franchise.

Do You Have a Pending Website Disaster? Here’s How to Avoid It

Just called up a colleague’s website to find it was trashed with error messages, the result of an unsuccessful attempt to switch IT providers.

Here are some of the most important lessons that I have learned from working with many clients in website development, updates and transitions:

1) If you plan to contract with a provider, first, get the name of the program it is to be developed with. Today, the safest – and most common – program websites are developed in WordPress. If your developer is not using it, move on to one who does. This is the vehicle that makes sure your website it’s completely portable, and your developer can’t hold you hostage.

Second, get a written development agreement that specifies total costs, maintenance costs, hourly rates for changes, and certifies that the website will be 100% portable, with a dollar-specific penalty clause if it proves to be otherwise. It should also specifiy that you own full rights to everything created.

2) Make sure that you own your own domain name. You’d be surprised how many un-techy people hand the whole thing over to a web developer and later discover they are trapped because the developer both owns the domain name and has created a non-portable website.

3) Schedule someone in the office to do a monthly test of every piece of the website, including menu bars, linked documents, contact forms (actually submit a contact form each time to make sure they show up in the appropriate in-box) and out-links.

5) Make a (marketing) schedule to add and manage content on at least a quarterly basis, if not more often. Static websites fall off the search engines; frequent changes keep its ranking up.

6) Think carefully if they’re trying to sell you a blog with the site. If your plan is to post legal stuff, don’t. Nobody but your competitors cares about the legal stuff. Your prospects and clients won’t read it. If your plan is to do articles with daily relevance to your target market – say, senior issues, community issues or business issues, good for you.

But think beyond content to commitment. Blogs are only good marketing when they are constantly fed – ideally weekly, at least every couple of weeks, and you work to build subscribers, or have a regular procedure to push out notifications to a larger list. And unless you are deeply committed, you will almost inevitably stop, or at least slow down, and it will become a burden.

And if you plan to hire a ghost-writer, check with your Bar counsel first. Some Bar associations require that such materials have to be written by the lawyer personally, and labelling someone else’s work as your own is an ethical violation.

Finally, if you’re really committed to a blog, don’t use the web developer’s blog. Most are restrictive and not blogger-friendly. Use a true WordPress blog, either directly at https://wordpress.com/website/ or through one of the facilitators like GoDaddy.com.

So. If the above cautions have you nervous – or if the whole idea of creating – or taking charge of – your website or starting a blog seems daunting, just shoot me an email at dustin@attorneysmasterclass.com or give me a call at 407-830-9810. always happy to share my thought and help however I can.

Here We Go Again – The Busy Trap is Stopping Lawyers From Riding the Wave

There is a rising economic wave – yet many lawyers’ practices are full. They’ve suddenly become too busy to grow their practices. I haven’t encountered this since before the crash. Lawyers who a year ago were out hunbig-waveting for business are now hiding out, trying to get their work done, and ignoring their marketing.

Smart lawyers who see the wave coming get out their surfboards. They start asking “how do I need to evolve this practice to take advantage of the rising market?” Dumb ones put on their life jackets and just try to stay afloat. Their mantra is “I’m too busy – I don’t have time to market!”

So, a blunt question: when is the best time to fish? When the pond is dry, or when it’s been re-stocked?

The firms that will survive and prosper are led by forward-thinking managing partners who monitor their attorneys’ workloads and proactively intervene to provide more support, more resources, and practical training on team management. They help attorneys evolve from worker-bee to a true legal CEO.

But the reaction of most firms is to hunker down. “We don’t need more help – it’s too expensive. The harder we work, the more profit we take home.” As a result they burn out their team, increase turnover of good team members, and miss the opportunity for spectacular growth.

Is your firm hunkering down in the face of a growing economy, or is it seeking to ride the wave?

If you’re in hunker down mode and want out, let’s talk. Call me at 407-830-9810.

A Cautionary Tale for the Small-Firm Lawyer In the Fall of Dewey

An astounding relevation in the article “Judgment Day” about the fall of Dewey LeBoeuf, in the February ABA Journal.

“…Many partners asked a lot of questions about the firm’s accounting in the years leading up to the firm’s demise. They did not always receive complete responses, and the pattern was that the partners would get busy on client matters and not follow through.”

As the X-ers say, OMG. Many of the smartest lawyers on the planet were too busy doing their work that they failed to get a clear picture of how the business was working.

The message for small-firm lawyers is simple. Never get too busy working that you aren’t making sure the business itself is healthy. What does that look like?

  • Tending diligently to your marketing. Making sure you have a strong business network and that new clients show up regularly, and that no client represents more than 25% or your revenues.
  • Managing the income stream: making sure all billable team members are billing at least 3 times their base salary or draw by recording hours diligently and pushing down non-billable work.
  • Making sure billings go out promptly with client-friendly explanations, then maintaining a close eye on receivables
  • Maintaining strong client relationships – not becoming so immersed in “the work” that you ignore the client who brought it.
  • Managing overhead. Reviewing financials (or having a professional do so regularly) to ferret out unnecessary expenses.
  • Being highly selective with client intake, and letting the bad clients and bad work that sneaked in go quickly.

I was recently called into a firm of 5 partners and eight associates to do an operations analysis to discover they had nearly $3.5 million in receivables on the books. Nothing short of catastrophic management from every side: managing new intake, managing billings, managing AR, and managing the attorneys who were (still) creating this mess.

Lawyers were taught the law, not the business, and that too often means they ignore the dull, dry business side they don’t feel comfortable with in favor of the legal side they know. And in doing so, they can kill their practices.

If you’re not willing to be the financial manager, pay a CPA to guide you. If you’re not willing to be the operations and team manager, hire a firm administrator to do so. 

Most small firm attorneys will say “I can’t afford that.” but they can afford to spend sometimes as much as half their time doing the non-billable work of managing the store – and doing it badly – while losing the opportunity to do more billable work and more marketing.

The logic here is counter-intuitive. Spend more money to hire the right people – and end up making far more than the expense, creating a more stable business – and living a less stressed, crazed professional life.

If you need advice on how to turn your ship more directly into the winds of growth, call me at 407-830-9810 or email me at dustin@attorneysmasterclass.com  Always happy to offer my thoughts. 

Read the complete article “Judgment Day” in the February ABA Journal HERE.

Sams Club Makes Legalzoom a Member Benefit

I predicted the further commoditization of legal services in a recent post, “The “Walmart Lawyer” Has Arrived.” Now Walmart has gone beyond its Canadian experiment with Avvo and rolled out Legalzoom nationwide. Just as I predicted.

This from today’s edition of The Florida Bar News:

“Legal Zoom did more than 1 million wills last year. It’s now a benefit for members of Sam’s Club, whose stores may eventually have lawyers on site. Avvo, which started as a lawyer rating service, now links a potential client to a lawyer every eight seconds and is setting up a service where anyone can speak to a lawyer for 15 minutes, for $39.” Read the full Florida Bar article HERE.

What is the bigger picture here? Bar associations, starting with the ABA, have so badly failed their profession that thousands of lawyers are inevitably – and in many cases, not even gradually – losing their ability to make a living at the law. Bar associations are tragically far behind the curve in serving the needs and interests of their members. The very organizations which used to protect entry to the hallowed portals of the law and keep legal services expensive, are now at the back of the pack, trying to react to the fast-moving world of business.

Futurists such as Richard Susskind in “The End of Lawyers?” and Jordan Furlong, in scores of far-seeing posts on his blog law21.ca (and occasionally myself) have been laying it all out in chapter and verse for years.  And Bar associations have done essentially nothing – at least nothing substantive – to respond. They have been re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

The next big challenge for Bar associations – to which they will fail to rise – is the rising tide of transformation in the profession in Australia, Britain, and soon, Canada – multi-disciplinary practices, non-lawyer ownership of law firms, and more – as outlined the the Canadian Bar Futures Report (an absolute must-read). Bar associations will dither and quibble until the questions become irrelevant, as outside forces take over.

As I and scores of others have predicted, the bottom half of the market for legal services – the “commodity” half (where a great percentage of most attorneys live) is going away, or becoming commoditized to the $39 level now offered by AVVO.

The top half – where legal services are more complex and problems and solutions more unique – can survive, but only by taking dramatic steps to re-invent how they accomplish and deliver their services. For they too are coming under immense pressure from corporate clients who are no longer tolerating the “black hole” approach to billing. Pfizer fired one of the first shots here as early as the mid-2000’s. They announced that they were spending nearly half a billion dollars a year on legal services, and were firing half of their law firms and requiring the rest to provide services on a flat-fee basis. Thousands of companies are following suit.

The solutions? The “legal project management” approach, in whole or in part. As currently taught, it is aimed at mega-matters, and is far too complex for many practitioners (just like much case management software). But focus on internal capacity and efficiency – building strong, efficient and fast-moving teams – is essential to safe navigation of the future, even at the “bespoke” level of the law.

To survive attorneys and law firms must take heed of the principles I put forth in my “Heirarchy of Value of the Attorney In the Practice.”

First and most important – marketing – making sure we have clients to serve. Without clients, the attorney’s skills are irrelevant.
Second – client relationships – making sure the client is being well served (by the team), is happy with the work, speaks well to others about the attorney, and comes back with more work.
Third – Creating the strategy and direction – the roadmap – for the matter. I call this the “wisdom” piece.
Fourth – leading the team to get the result. Leading, not doing it all.
Fifth – the high-level legal work which no team member can do. This hearkens back to the strategy, but also means key client meetings, depositions, hearings, mediations, and trial. This is the neurosurgeon approach. He or she has a team that provides all the initial work, preps the patient for surgery, and often even does the initial opening. The neurosurgeon does only that part of the surgery that no one else can do. And when they’re done they leave the team to close and complete the surgery.

If you’re looking into the face of a rapidly changing marketplace and could use some input, call me. Always happy to offer whatever advice I can. 407-830-9810.

More rants – and more solutions – in coming posts.

Maybe Marketing Isn’t Your Problem!

In many areas of the country, the market is heating up, and when that happens, the biggest danger isn’t necessarily lack of marketing – it’s the fact that attorneys have only so much time and capacity to get the work done – and when they’re on overwhelm, they’re not marketing to capture all the additional work that’s available.  And even worse, they’re not able to deliver the best service to their current clients.

So, marketing isn’t necessarily your biggest obstacle. It might be your CAPACITY AND EFFICIENCY. And how do you increase it?

“Systems, Sorta Systems,”  part four of my video series  “Seven Ways Good Law Firms Lose Money,” discusses how poor systems – or poor use of systems – can seriously hamper a firm’s growth. It’s just 10 minutes long, and it’s worth circulating to every attorney.

The larger issue here is that the profession is moving in the wrong direction – shrinking support rather than increasing it. Steve Jobs didn’t stay in the garage building computers – he assembled a team to do almost everything he was doing, except the most important parts – the ideas and the leadership – what I refer to in the legal profession as the “wisdom” piece. When the attorney is using their time doing work that could be done by an associate, a paralegal or an assistant, they are not operating at their highest value. They have a practical ceiling on how many files and how many hours they can work – and how much time they have to make sure more business comes in.

There is a mistaken belief that technology can substitute for team. Only partly true. The lawyer without a team but with great technology has simply raised their ceiling, not removed it. And in the process they have trapped themselves inside the machine.

As Michael Gerber put it so succinctly in his book “The E-Myth,”  “if no work gets done when you are not present, you don’t have a business – you have a job.”

The path to an unlimited practice is paved not with Ipads and software, but people, systems, procedures – but most of all, great leadership and great management – of which the legal profession is in short supply. Almost every day, I help lawyers expand the

Don’t miss “Systems, Sorta Systems,” or any of the first four parts:

“A Checkbook Mentality”
“Technicians In Charge”
“The Almost Lone Ranger Syndrome”

And of course, call me if I can help Always happy to talk, no charge. 407-830-9810.

The Rising Schizophrenia In Our Profession

Much has been written recently about the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots in this country. There’s clear evidence that, while the rich are getting richer, the middle-class is increasingly being squeezed, and a large percentage of them are heading for lower middle or even lower class financial status.

It’s the same in our profession. Some attorneys and firms are enjoying boom times, while an increasing percentage are struggling financially. (Read Susan Carter Liebel’s recent post 80% of Americans Can’t Afford Your Legal Fees”). For some the issue is how to cope with overwhelm – that is, how to increase capacity and efficiency, and take maximum advantage of boom times. For others, the issue is, literally, professional survival: how to attract sufficient business to stay afloat.

The solutions for both situations are radically different. But the root issue is the same: attorneys must break out of more traditional thinking and take dramatic and, yes, often risky, steps to change direction.

The “haves” of the profession must literally rethink who and what they are. Most are still stuck in the traditional “technician” role, simply working ever harder as more work comes in. The road out for them is reinventing their role – from “doing it, doing it” to creating, leading, and managing teams. Without this change they are actually limiting their ability to grow even more because they are working at – and usually even beyond – their capacity. These fortunate attorneys have even more work available to them – if they only had time to market and the capacity to handle more work. Where I have helped attorneys evolve from do-er to team leader, dramatic revenue increases have followed.

For much of the rest of the profession – the comfortable middle class and those who are struggling – the issue is more visceral: how to survive and thrive in a dramatically more competitive environment, and one in which the price and value of basic legal services is collapsing.

For them rethinking is about marketing. They must move from “marketing by wandering around” and living in hope to tight and aggressive focus on target markets, and evolving their services from general to more niched and specialized. In effect, they must identify and own specific “small towns” – that is, special interest communities – where they can become highly visible and preeminent. And this tight focus must also incorporate Web, social media and even advertising. But the result is dramatic: stabilized and increased income, and a strong, long-term position as the “go to” attorney in their specific “small towns.”

For both groups, there is a road up and out of their present positions. And for both, it starts with a new answer to the question “who am I as a professional?”

Call me if I can help.

The Biggest Mistake New Lawyers Make

Kudos to my old friend Nerino Petro and his co-author Jocelyn Frazer for the tour-de-force article “The GPSolo Guide to Opening a Law Office,” in the Jan-Feb GPSolo Magazine. As always, information-packed and extremely valuable.

Except for the missing piece. How does the new lawyer attract the business that will feed them?

The mistake looks like this: “I wanna practice criminal defense.” Or maybe “I wanna practice personal injury” or “I wanna practice estate planning.”

It’s lovely that they wanna practice whatever. But the more relevant question is – how can they create a successful practice? Too many new lawyers set up an “Iwanna” practice without a careful look at the market, and end up driving a cab.

The basic question is – who are you going to sell your services to, and what are you going to sell? The traditional approach is “whatever I can to whoever will buy.” that makes them a snowflake in a sandstorm.

In my workshops and in working with my individual clients, I assert that the secret of success in today’s chaotic marketplace is “niche and target market.” In other words, the most successful attorneys identify a target market – hopefully one that isn’t already owned by other attorneys – and identify the needs of that market. And they market themselves and their services in a manner designed to clearly create a distinction between themselves and others. In the (paraphrased) words of a groundbreaking book from way back in the 70’s titled “Positioning: the Battle for your Mind” the game is to identify a position – a distinction or uniqueness – in your prospect’s mind that is not already occupied – or in today’s world not crowded – then own that position (niche).

So, to get started in your practice in the most powerful way ,start out by identifying a group that you can get your arms around. A target market with clear boundaries and marketing avenues. For instance, I helped a client in Chicago whose ethnic background is Serbian to identify the (painfully obvious) target market for her, and then helped her own it. She is now the “go-to” lawyer for a community of over 35,000 people. A small town that is plenty big enough to keep her busy – and successful.

So what does this look like for the brand new attorney? It begins with some serious due diligence. First, a detailed study of the demographics of your area. What specific religious, ethnic, professional, business, social or other groups – that is, potential target markets – are present in your area? There is an unending list in most cities: Christian, Muslim, Brazilian, French, Sportsmen, preservationists, union members, farmers, truck drivers, square dancers, Kiwanis members, college and law school alumni associations, opera society members, and so on, ad infinitum. Second, identify a significant target market which which you have some connection or affinity. Are you Italian-American, classic car enthusiast, triathlete or birdwatcher? Third, get seriously involved and connected.

Why? Because of some basic human psychology. Who do we like? People who are like us. So, even if you’re a stranger, once you step into a group of people who share something, you are immediately a friend – and that means someone they trust more than they would trust a stranger.

And it’s also because of another factor. Consumers in general have no way of deciding whether you are a good attorney or not. Instead, they will tend to make their buying decision on instinct. “Really liked her.” “felt good about him.” Now, if they’re sophisticated buyers of legal services it’s different. But in general, your first step in getting business is connecting with people who have a reason to like and trust you.

Next, you want to make sure they know you’re a lawyer – not by “selling,” but by storytelling. Everyone gives you the opportunity to educate them – they say “haven’t seen you in a while – what’s new with you?” or the like. The perfect opportunity to relate a story about some interesting legal problem or opportunity you’re helping someone with. And in the process accomplish what I refer to as “under the radar” education. Often the result of one of these stories is the response of “gee, I didn’t know you did that!”

Then – and this is where my usual advice differs – you want to position yourself as the “trusted advisor” rather than the estate planner or criminal defense lawyer or whatever. This is the advice I usually give to my clients in small towns. You need to position yourself as the “go-to” person that people reach out to first when they have a problem, giving you the opportunity to either help them directly or advise them on where to get help. So, in small towns the lawyer can still specialize – but they have to be the first one people call for anything, so they can take what fits, and also maintain their “go-to” image by advising them on where to go for the help they need. And by the way, that puts them in a powerful position of referring business to others – and building a refer-back network.

So, even if you’re in Chicago, when you’re with your affinity group you’re essentially in a small town. And you need to develop the “go-to” reputation just as though you were in Beemer, Nebraska.(And I actually have a client there – one who will, with my support, within a few short years essentially own the Nebraska farm family “affinity group.”)

So, this new position you’re developing as the “go-to” lawyer in your affinity group allows you to, early on in your career, not only develop business more effectively, but also begin to focus your practice. As your profile grows and more people come to you for help, you can become choosier on what you take and what you refer out. And, as your practice takes flight, you can now expand into other target markets or focus on building a more public presence, attracting a wider audience.

And from another point of view, it’s a chance to connect with people you like – people who are like you – and develop your practice in a far more enjoyable way. Maybe this won’t be your forever market, but it will be a powerful way to get started.

So, don’t make the mistake too many young lawyers make: marketing by wandering around. Find your affinity group. Get involved, get high profile by taking a leadership role – and attract business from people you like.

PI Attorneys: the Revolution is Upon Us

The revolution I have been predicting for years is upon us, led by the nation’s largest personal injury firm, with 270 attorneys, based here in Orlando, but with tentacles across the nation.
An article in the May 16 Orlando Sentinel reads as follows:
“John Morgan, founder of Morgan and Morgan, is expanding the firm’s focus on commercial contingency litigation – taking a case in which a business is suing another business but only getting paid by the client if that client wins.”
And if you think it’s a tentative commitment, think again. “Morgan said he’s planning to add fifty lawyers in the commercial trial area over the next five years.”
Why? For several reasons. First, he is seeing personal injury work declining due to greater regulation and legislation. “A few years ago, nursing home cases were 20% of our business, but that’s down to 1% now.”
Second, because auto accident cases are dropping due to technology that is making cars safer.
Third, my issue, which he doesn’t mention, is the tide of young attorneys coming into the PI marketplace willing to take most anything, discount their fees, and too often spend big dollars on advertising. Then often go out of business.
I work with personal injury firms around the country to help them make their operations more efficient and their marketing more productive. But in every case, I see the train a-comin’. In some areas it’s a long way off, but in others such as Orlando and Miami and Atlanta and Chicago and Boston and New York, it’s already in the station. Firms are spending more and more on advertising and getting less and less in return. The pie is indeed shrinking – or at least, getting harder to cut – while those trying to cut themselves a piece are wall-to-wall.
The game is changing. Contingency commercial litigation is a relatively new animal with huge potential, and the smartest firms will follow Morgan’s lead – ahead of the crowd. It doesn’t mean that you stop what you’re doing and switch, only that you start investing your current profits into creation of a new department, and the development of a new market profile. In fact, I’m helping several firms do this as we speak. Call me if I can help.

Do you REALLY Need Case Management Software? No You REALLY Don’t, If — Part Three in the Case Management Series

Nalini Mahadevan replied to my LinkedIn post asking for experiences with case management software, and it inspired me to add a chapter in my on “Do You Really Need Case Management Software” Series. She asked “What CRM software do you recommend? I thought CRM needed a professional install.”

Thanks, Nalini, for a perfect segue into the next part of my ramble.

First, let’s distinguish between “CRM” and “CM” software. “CRM” means “customer relations management,” otherwise known as “contact management.” It does exactly what it says it does – manages people. It’s used by sales people, schedulers, and millions of people who need to keep track of, and in communication with, lots of other people. You can think of CRM as the old Rolodex on steroids. Good CRM provides the following functions:

  • A database of contacts with all relevant contact information such as name, phone, e-mail address, etc.
  • An e-mail center (not Outlook) integrated with the contacts, for easy electronic communication, and tracking of e-mails in and out.
  • Template and merge forms capability, for easy writing of letters, memos, forms, and all sorts of documents.
  • Database management – that is, the ability to parse and sort and organize your contact list so that you can communicate with highly specific groups, such as all family law attorneys in firms of less than five in zip codes between 602000 and 623000. Good CRM has built-in software to organize and shape your database.
  • Document organization The ability to link other information such as PDFs, photos, etc. to a specific contact file.

“CM” or “case management software,” is a similar but considerably different animal. It’s about managing matters. In other words, it’s “matter centric” rather than “people centric.” To badly mangle Shakespeare, “the matter’s the thing.” It accomplishes all of those things I outlined in my first post of this series, and has the ability to set up automated procedures to calendar important items. For instance, it can be programmed, whenever you utilize a certain template document, to calendar a reminder or a statute a specific time period afterwards. One of the most important strengths of case management software is its ability to connect and organize large amounts of disparate information, from documents received, to documents sent, e-mails in and out, discovery information, title or medical documents, etc. etc.

So. First stop in the quest: do you need to manage large amounts of information, deadlines, communications, appointments, etc. on a large number of files? Or is your biggest priority communications with clients, former clients, referral sources and other professional contacts? In other words, is your priority more in the realm of marketing and communications with people, or managing complex matters? To put it even more simply, are your priorities people or matters?

An estate planning attorney who does mostly simple documents and needs software mainly to book appointments and send and receive e-mail and track conflicts does not need case management software. They can create a library of template forms in their CRM, and will find the calendaring and e-mail modules in CRM perfectly satisfactory. In short, all of their needs can be accomplished neatly with a vastly less expensive contact management software such as ACT!, Chaos, Maximizer, Goldmine, and literally dozens of others, both locally installed and on the cloud – some of which are actually free. Here’s a link to one website which offers comparisons among just a sampling of the most popular CRM.

Beyond the difference in expense, there is another perhaps even more important difference. Most “CRM” is intuitive, easy to use and often has inexpensive mobile apps, while most “CM” has a perilously long learning curve, is complex and requires constant user discipline and attentiveness. Which means, unfortunately, you will need an enforcer and will experience a great deal of resistance and reluctance from others – and even, quite possibly, yourself.

So. The answer to my question, “Do You Really Need Case Management Software – Really?” For some the answer is “No!” Emphatically no. Really.

And Nalini, regarding your question concerning professional installation, you are right. “CM” does require professional install, and often hardware upgrades, and certainly contract support both for the technology and the users. More expense and more complexity. No wonder so many attorneys, staff and firms grow quickly to hate their CM. See my first post of this series.

Finally, I welcome all  comments from case management vendors, happy and unhappy CM and CRM users and colleagues. Let’s get a good fistfight going here. I can take it.

Next post I’ll get down and dirty and dissect specific CM software. Promise.

Four Good Reasons to ALWAYS Do a Non-Engagement Letter

Made an offhand post to the ABA GP Solo LinkedIn group the other day. THought it was worth sharing here. 

When a prospect doesn’t hire you, should you send them a non-engagement letter? But of course. Here are my four reasons to do so.

The first reason is obvious – to have a track in your file that says you notified the person you were not representing them. That’s just good risk management, and most malpractice carriers love it when you do that.

The second is about professionalism. Someone considered putting their well-being in your hands. That’s an honor that deserves a “thank you.”

And the third is that thing called “marketing.” Part of the letter should detail how else you might be able to help them or someone they know in the future.

And the fourth follows the third. They should now be added to your marketing database for future contact (you DO keep in touch with past clients and prospects, don’t you??). By the rules of ethics, once someone has asked you for information, there are no barriers to future contact. It’s no longer considered “solicitation.” You can send them your firm newsletter (please don’t – they’re usually boring as H–) or better, devise some good and positive ways to communicate with them that they receive as positive, helpful and useful.

Those last are numbers two and four of the four fundamentals of personal marketing: build trust relationships, and stay in touch consistently over time. In other words, create “top of mind awareness” so that, next time they have a problem, they think of you first.

Oh, and it’s never a good idea to prejudge or assert anything about a case or the prospect in the letter. You could easily be sued for giving bad legal advice (after all, you didn’t get to the discovery, did you?) or defamation of character. So it’s best to simply say “I am not able to represent you at this time.”

GPSOLO Touts “Niche and Target Market” – Finally

I felt somehow honored (or at least vindicated) by the current issue of GPSOLO magazine, the publication of the small firm and general practice section of the ABA. The cover headline shouts “Niche Practices,” and the article is titled “Building a Niche Practice: Go Small to Go Big.” For the section whose charge is seemingly to represent the “general practice” attorney, such a cover story is a remarkable admission.

The article starts with some obvious statements: “it’s no secret that the legal marketplace is in turmoil… In this competitive environment lawyers must distinguish themselves from the competition in order to claim a bigger piece of the pie. One way to do this: build a niche law practice.” Duh.

For a decade I have been preaching that most lawyers look through the wrong end of their telescopes.  They look from the perspective of the 20th (or perhaps 19th) – century world — “this is what I do and here I am.” Or even worse, “I’m a lawyer, what do you need?” They should be asking “who is my target market, and specific services do they need?” “Anything for everyone” isn’t a target – it’s a plea.

Most consumer-level  legal work is rapidly being commoditized and is leaving the legal profession. Software, LegalZoom, RocketLawyer and hundreds of other web services offer consumers a wide range of cheap (though not always good) alternatives. The only long-term road to legal success is abandoning the commodity market and moving into the “value” areas, focusing on specific legal expertise that is highly valued by a clearly-identifiable segment of the sophisticated buying marketplace.

How do you “niche” and “target market?” There are two very specific ways. The first is the obvious: developing or focusing on a specific area of your expertise, identifying the market which most needs that service, and finding avenues to reach it.

For instance, I have helped an estate planning attorney in a state with complex pension rules dramatically expand their practice by positioning them as “the teacher’s pension protector.”  In another case, I helped a personal injury lawyer position themselves strongly in the parent and education community as the “child injury lawyer.”

The second route is less obvious. How the consumer perceives you  — as a commodity or a “value” lawyer — depends not so much what service you provide, but on the buyer’s perception of your special value to them. When a prospect is referred to you, someone they trust has identified you as having special – or at least higher – expertise than strangers from the phone book, or services from LegalZoom. In a very real sense, your referrer has actually “branded” you with that prospect. This ratifies the importance of personal referral marketing, which I have always emphasized in my seminars and my coaching.

The day of the “GP” lawyer is passing. Too many young lawyers, unable to find jobs, are hanging out their own shingles and taking whatever they can find — becoming the new (and legally dangerous) generation of “GP” lawyers. The smartest lawyers are moving up the food chain, identifying their niche and target markets, and prospering.

Lies, Damn Lies, and (Legal) Statistics

Here’s my follow-up post dissecting the very interesting survey by Altman Weil on how corporate legal counsel make decisions on hiring lawyers. So here it is.

In my first comment, I gleefully dissed social media, which ranked a non-existent zero on a 1-10 scale. Now I want to take my comment back – sort of. Let me step back a couple of steps and explain why.

Much of the survey was related to a legal counsel’s perceptions of a lawyer or firm. In that venue, social media is definitely off their radar. Don’t expect corporate legal counsel to want to be friends on Facebook, or on your Twitter feed. That said, social media  does play an important part in their perceptions – but second-hand. Someone they trust – who IS on your twitter feed and is a friend (virtual or otherwise) referred them to you. In other words, wisely executed social media, which builds and maintains your referral network, can be very valuable indeed. So, social media ranks a “0” for corporate counsel. But quite possibly it DID get you the client – because of social media one step removed from that counsel.

“Demonstrated understanding of your business/industry” was the top-ranked issue with 9.6 out of 10 points. Again, I don’t imagine too many legal counsel do raw research on the web to find the right attorney. Rather, they first go to others in their industry, other lawyers, or other related professionals for recommendations. Only then, when they’ve gotten a couple of recommendations, they may do some research into the background of those lawyers. But the recommendation comes first, then the check of history & track record.

Same goes for the issue of “directory listings, traditional or online,” which ranked a paltry 3 out of 10. These fall into the same category as websites. The primary purpose of a website – at least for higher-level attorneys in more complex areas – isn’t so the attorney can be found in a Google search for “securities lawyers.” In fact, you really don’t want that type of call. Rather, it’s for VALIDATION – for a more valid prospect to check out a lawyer who has already been recommended. So, directory listings and websites both aren’t big factors – unless you don’t have one.

Why didn’t “personal contact: visits / phone calls / personal notes” rank higher than a 6? Because of a dichotomy. Those things, done too early in a relationship, are usually off-putting. Done judiciously after a reasonable level of relationship has been established are valuable. So essentially “cold” calls would probably rank in the minuses. And calls, cards and visits from “friends” would rank maybe an 8 or 9.

One item I didn’t mention in my last post was “Direct mail / email communications about a firm” which ranked a dismal 2. Why – or better said, why do you really need to ask? Because we are all so overwhelmed by e- and regular-mail that anything that is not strongly and directly relevant to our needs at the moment is viewed as simply annoying. The lesson here is to handle such communications with utmost care. Does it pass the urgency test – “you really need to know this” or just the our-gency test – “we really want you to know this.” If it’s the latter, ditch it.

Enough for now, a bit more later. In the meantime, I highly recommend you peruse the Altman survey and chew it well.

(No) Surprise – Clients Still Hire Lawyers the Old-Fashioned Way

A new survey of corporate chief legal officers by Altman Weil offers considerable food for thought – and marketing. Highlights, on a 0 to 10 (median) scale:

  • Social media isn’t on their radar – a 0 rating. How much time are your people spending on it?
  • Demonstrated understanding of their industry is critical – the top (9) score.
  • Referrals (8), personal contact (6) and demonstrated expertise(6) are still king.
  • Free seminars & training for the company’s legal department (3) are useful but not deciding factors.
  • “Branding” as full service (4) and participation in industry events (2) helpful but again not deciding
  • Websites, brochures & advertising surprisingly low (2) on the list
  • Direct mail & e-mail communications about the firm (2)
  • But the biggest surprise is the ranking of social media (0) and invitations to sporting and social events and dinners – (0).

So what are you doing right & wrong? Before you decide, look for my next post, which will attempt to deconstruct the survey and address the many unanswered questions of this surprisingly simplistic survey.

Ten Tips for a Successful Practice

The profession is going through an upheaval and shakeout of unprecedented impact. Some futurists predict that as many as a third of the lawyers in practice today will have left the profession within the next five years. How will small firm & solo attorneys need to change their thinking to stay viable? Some of my thoughts —

1. Learn from change, don’t resent it. Ask yourself “what is the opportunity here?”

2. The past ain’t coming back. Move forward or be left behind.

3. Embrace technology. It’s not a choice. Every old dog can learn new tricks. As Yogi  Berra once said, “first ya gotta wanna.”

4. Hire or keep a strong right arm. Without it you don’t have a practice. You have a job.

5. Attracting work is just as important as doing it. Get over it.

6. Develop a clear identity. General practice is not an identity. It’s a plea.

7. Three (okay, four) key words to remember that will help you stay alive: focus, niche and target market. You can’t survive trying to sell everything to everyone.

8. Be highly visible and active in your own and your target market’s community. You won’t be found by prospects if you are hiding in your office.

9. Your worst enemy is inertia, not your competition.

10. Think beyond this month’s billings. Without a roadmap to tomorrow you are living in yesterday.

Extraordinary Client Service – How It Translates to More, Better Business

Colleague and Legal Project Management Guru Pam Woldow of the Edge Group just posted a tale of client service as experienced at the Trump International Hotel. Her story, when considered seriously by attorneys and firms, can literally mean more, better business.

In working with my clients I emphasize the “Prospect to Client Continuum,” about how each touch, from first mention by a referral source to website impression, how the phone is answered, how they are greeted and treated when they come in, and especially how they are treated by the attorney – add up to a series of experiences that either increase or decrease their trust. And that translates to whether or not they hire you.

The truth is that most consumers, save the very sophisticated, don’t know how to evaluate whether or not you are a great lawyer. Instead, they will make decisions based on what others say about you (referrers) and how they “feel” about you. “Really liked them,” and “felt good about them” will be their reason for hiring. Conversely, “just wasn’t comfortable” or “we just didn’t seem to click” will be their reasons NOT to hire you (or sometimes even “too full of herself”). Those sentiments are the unconscious result of either great service, as alluded to in Pam’s post, or not-so-great service, as delivered in many offices.

Most lawyers think clients come in for the law, because of their “process” perspective. In truth, no client really wants an attorney or a “process.” They have a problem or opportunity, and the lawyer and the legal process are actually the obstacles they have to get through to get what they really want – a solution or a win. It is up to the attorney to deliver an overall positive “experience” and not just a “process.”

Then, great service continued throughout the representation adds up to bills that are paid faster, greater client cooperation (due to greater trust), and more client referrals. Yes, even if the outcome of your representation wasn’t the hoped-for one, so long as you have built their trust through great client care.

Every day, the profession is seeing more competition from every direction. It’s time we as a profession focus on service, not just process, because it’s the way the world outside the law works, and what consumers expect – and deserve.

Tips From an Old Friend In the Field

Long-time friend and client Jason Studinski, one of Wisconsin’s leading trial lawyers, has not only survived but thrived after the Wisconsin “off the cliff” experience when Governor Scott Walker managed to pass tort reform within 90 days of his election. A few years ago, BW (before Walker) I advised Jason in very successfully re-inventing his PI practice. He took that experience into the battle, re-inventing himself once again after the personal injury “cliff.” I recently asked Jason to share his insights on how he did it.

Jason: “There have been seven points that I have identified in the last three years concerning my approach to marketing.”

1. Relationships are everything.  We have worked hard to find new referral sources and shore up existing sources. (Cole: Jason fully understands and wields the power of relationship marketing.)

2. Get free press instead of paying for it.  We are going to be doing more press releases. (Cole: Jason harnesses the daily thirst of the press for copy.)

3. Recycle my marketing materials.  If I do a talk on a subject, I try to find additional venues for that same talk.  I try to turn the talk into articles.  I try to find talk radio for the subject too.  I will be posting all of this on our website as well. (Cole: Jason regularly uses the “three cushion shot,” re-purposing his work to leverage  the power of his marketing.)

4. Make use of part-time folks for purposes of marketing. (Cole: leverage your marketing with systems and people – lots of talent available cheap – if you know how to harness and direct them.)

5. Take advantage of the new visibility opportunities of social media. (Cole: Yup.)

6. Hyper-niche.  General practice no longer exists – even if you say I generally practice personal injury.  Niche. (Cole: two new keys to building a successful practice: NICHE, which allows you to identify and reach a specific TARGET MARKET(key two) efficiently, rather than trying to reach everyone.)

7. Say no. Now more than ever it is critical to say no to bad work or work that simply doesn’t fit.  We have to leave behind a scarcity mentality and adopt more of an abundance mentality.  This means that instead of taking work on that we don’t want or can’t do efficiently, we should say no – and spend that time on marketing and building the business. (Cole: SELECTIVITY means you don’t get overwhelmed with lots of work on low-value matters, so you can spend more of your time in high-value areas. “Busy” doesn’t always equate to “successful.”)

What Makes Clients Really Want to Pay Your Bills?

Heated discussion on Lawyerist.com about sending effective bills. Couldn’t help but add my two cents worth here.  

Most attorney bills, with their point-somethings and cryptic billing program-generated phrases, are horror stories that stress clients out and invite challenges. ”3.2 – conference call with opposing counsel. 1.4 research and writing of response. .5 – client telephone discussion.” It’s enough to make them crazy – and often does.

When a client opens your bill, they want to know two basic things: what did you accomplish for me this month, and how much are you charging for it? The bare bill, even one with a nice cover letter, doesn’t really tell that.

The solution is a “progress report.” Grab the detail bill and translate it into client language. “In August we made significant progress toward an agreement. We had several positive discussions with opposing counsel and have resolved some key issues…”

Let them know what you actually did for them. Not the process and the time it all took – but how you’re moving their matter toward resolution. Then, instead of the laundry list of point-somethings, give them a simple summary bill. Attorney hours 12.3, paralegal hours 8.2, miscellaneous charges $147.50, with a “total charges for month” line below. And at the bottom, “detail billing on request.” Unless your client is a sophisticated user of legal services, few will ever ask for the detail, because you actually answered their real questions: “what did you do for me this month, and how much do I owe?”

If your client is sophisticated you still send the detail. But the “progress report” is always a powerful idea that will help you maintain more positive client relationships – and get you paid more quickly.

The Legal Balloon Goes Pop

Another story in the ABA Journal predicting the already  in-progress turmoil and diminishment of the legal profession.

One thought that always rattles around in my head: the profit margin of the average business is, in a good year, 20%. Grocery stores operate on a margin of 2-3%. Law firms operate on an average profit margin of 45-55%, yes, even the pretty good local and solos. Let’s not talk about the margins for some PI firms.

The legal profession has never had  a focus on efficiency and process because of its immense “slop” factor. Even poorly-run, inefficient firms could make barrels of money because they were keepers of the secrets, gods of the law. But technology and the web is stealing the bottom layer, at the same time as hordes of young lawyers are wandering homeless, willing to do whatever work they can find for whatever the client will pay.  And you’ve read, I’m sure, about how technology is now being used to do the kind of complex discovery that associates used to do – and better than they did, because computers don’t get tired or distracted – and also the massive analysis of contracts and agreements to identify key issues. Like all technology, such is now being brought down to the retail level and being made available to smaller firms.

Frankly, all of this is why today I am working with more attorneys and firms than ever – not simply on “marketing” or “operations,” but on transformations – rethinking firm directions, structures, target markets and niches.

The profession is in the process of deflating — until 80% or more are operating like businesses, with similar margins. Law firms in general have no idea how to do that, and senior lawyers will be horrified to see their share of that 45-55 percent profit disappearing.

Law is becoming an business, an industry – at least 80% of it is. And yes, one with high standards. But no longer a high priesthood. And only a few sharply focused superstar lawyers and firms will be left making those amazing profit margins, while thousands of others will be joining the middle income brackets, or less.