“Ethics and Managing Business Risk In the Law Firm”

On July 26-27 I’m conducting a very important seminar in Greenville & Columbia, South Carolina. “Ethics and Managing Business Risk In the Law Firm” is a risk reduction program with a major marketing training component, because I believe a high percentage of malpractice and grievance problems occur due to insufficient income, which compromises the attorney’s ability to deliver the highest quality work and can tempt good attorneys to misuse client funds.

A catastrophe or a serious error can completely destroy a legal career. Too many good attorneys have gone down in flames because of lack of preparedness for a disaster(and they come in a wide variety, from natural to employees or even partners), or lack of income. Because of its importance, it qualifies for 3.0 South Carolina MCLE credit hours, including up to 3.0 LEPR credit hours.

If you’re anywhere close, I encourage you to attend. You can register at http://bit.ly/IZRt6n. If you would like a copy of the handout, e-mail me at dustin@attorneysmasterclass.com

Told Ya So – Small Towns are the Next Big Thing

WSJ had some “breaking news” about some midwestern law schools who are telling their graduates to look again at the small towns, and are actively setting up internships in such communities. (See “New Lawyers, Seeking Jobs, Are Advised to Think Small)

The gist of the article is the revelation that, while in big cities the legal profession is eating its young (see June 19 WSJ article “Only 55% of 2011 Law School Grads Had Full-Time, Long-Term Legal Jobs), smaller communities are hurting for legal talent. Seems that the number of lawyers in more rural areas has actually decreased, and those that are left are disproportionately older and transactional. And many of them would like to transition their practices but don’t have any candidates.

Been saying that to my audiences for several years, based on experiences with several brilliant and insightful clients. One, Ethan Vessels, some time back purposely moved to Marietta, in the remote southwestern corner of Ohio, next to Parkersburg West Virginia, and has built a very productive and satisfying contingency practice based on old-school techniques of building relationships and leadership in the community. A powerful benefit: a great lifestyle in a beautiful smaller city. Another, Bill Steffens, is on the other side of the coin with a truly great practice in Broken Bow, Nebraska. Says Bill “I wouldn’t trade my lifestyle here for any big city you could name.” But he has had trouble attracting a successor.

The Lifestyle Benefit
Even if you’ve been in practice a while but are seeking a less stressful practice and/or a saner family lifestyle, do some serious study about your state’s smaller communities. The stats are in your favor – and the payoff could be bigger than you imagine.

Sometimes the Best Marketing Advice is the Simplest

Most attorneys know the best business comes from referrals. So – are you keeping in touch with your referral sources?

Do you have a comprehensive list of your best referral sources, and are you referring to it regularly to make sure you’re keeping those relationships warm & friendly?

Do you have a system to make sure you identify the source of every prospect, and to make sure that every referrer is acknowledged and thanked?

When you refer to others, do you have systems to make sure you let them know you’re trying to help them?

Do have a system to ask happy clients to let the referral source know they’re happy?

Basic marketing habits like these are the foundation of more expansive marketing plans. Without them in place, you could be losing big time, because of referrers who feel unappreciated, who don’t know you’re trying to help them, and who aren’t getting feedback from those they referred.

And by the way, note the word “systems” in each. “I do that some” isn’t a system, and means that you also DON’T do that a lot. Marketing, like the rest of your practice, should be systems-driven rather than attorney-driven. It’s the distinction between having a practice and having a great legal business.

If you could use some help in putting the systems in place, or learning what to say when you reach out to touch a referral source, give me a call at 407-830-9810.

Here Comes New Pricing – With a Vengeance

A revelation in the revolution – one Biglaw firm has begun aggressively value pricing AT THE HIGHEST VALUE END.

Holland & Knight  is now actively encouraging their top attorneys to offer clients a variety of pricing options – and giving them latitude in how they do it – and leaving traditional hourly rate structures in the dust.  This from a firm that, less than a year ago, was requiring its top attorneys to actually increase their hourly rates, and was resisting alternative pricing. Today they are open to essentially allowing attorneys to make deals with clients, to preserve the relationship and build new ones.

And even more interestingly, H&K is currently one of the financially healthiest firms out there, with almost no long-term debt and little short-term debt. Admittedly they have made some tight – and realistic – decisions on draws and compensation (The anti-Dewey approach), but clearly they’re  doing their best to stay ahead of, or at least on, the curve.

Kudos to a Biglaw firm that has decided to lead rather than grudgingly trying to hold the line.  But a warning shot over the bow of boutiques who have been the innovators.

Have You Watered Your Referral Sources Lately?

The rainy season is upon us here in Central Florida after a very dry winter. Suddenly everything in our yard that was dry and struggling is lush and green and blossoming.

Just like my landscape, healthy relationships require nurturing. If you’re intent on maintaining productive and blossoming relationships with those who help you feed your family, you have to honor my fourth and last rule for effective referral marketing: stay in contact consistently over time.

It’s not about “sales.” It’s about genuine relationship. Think about that personal friend who never seems to reach out to you, even though you regularly initiate contact. after a while you’re likely to give up, cross them off your list.

It’s the same with referral sources. Say “thank you” with a phone call, personal note or e-mail when that referrer sends you a prospect (even if they don’t hire you). Periodically reach out just to reconnect and find out what’s been happening in their lives, as a friend would. Keep the relationship warm.

After all, relationship marketing is, in the end, about building and maintaining an extensive group of friends who you enjoy connecting with, and who are happy to help you be successful. If you don’t, they are likely to forget you and refer to someone else, or even worse, proactively cross you off their referral list because they feel unappreciated or forgotten.

FYI, here are my four simple rules for relationship marketing, each of which, of course, has considerable detail behind it. But the basic concepts are simple:

1. Talk to the right people.
2. Build honest relationships
3. Make sure they know what you do and who you work with.
4. Stay in touch consistently over time.

It ain’t rocket science. But it does require focus, consistency and, most importantly, background systems and structure to achieve maximum efficiency and leverage.

 

Law Firm Brinksmanship, or the (Approaching) Death of a Practice

I recently heard a story on NPR about Whole Foods ceasing sales of many types of fish because they are overfished and in danger of disappearing. My first thought was that humans, as a species, are culturally conditioned to brinksmanship. We push everything to the very edge, then when it starts to hurt too much, we pull back and change things. Hopefully not too late (see “warming, global).
“Brinksmanship” led me to another unpleasant thought. In the last several weeks I have had to tell three attorneys that “this practice can’t be saved.” Not because they weren’t good lawyers; not because there wasn’t demand for their practice areas, but because they had ignored the signs of changing times. All three were in similar situations: precipitous drops in revenues, and out-of-pocket subsidies over too long a time while waiting for “things to return to normal” and doing little or nothing to increase their marketing or refocus their practices.

Unfortunately, things are normal – the new normal. All of them had exhausted nearly all their personal monies and couldn’t sustain the six months or a year it would take for them to re-think, re-direct and rebuild their practices. They had gone over the falls and were trying vainly to figure out how to swim back up.

A Measure and a Warning
IF – your practice revenues have dropped more than 20% for two quarters in a row –
IF – you have been waiting for “things to return to normal” –
IF – you have been subsidizing your practice from your second mortgage or IRA or kids’ college funds —

DON’T WAIT ANOTHER DAY.
Take action NOW –
— Pore through the articles & tips on my blog.
— Find everything you can on Bar websites about marketing.
— Join the ABA Law Practice Management Section and delve into the voluminous archives of Law Practice Magazine.
— Find the websites of other law practice development advisors & glean everything you can.

Then – STOP GATHERING INFORMATION AND SWIM LIKE CRAZY.
Your most important job is NOT (and never has been) “doing the law.” It’s making sure there is law to do – in other words, marketing. So start DOING rather than worrying about what to do. If you need some direction, call me.

Don’t play brinksmanship with your future.

Older Lawyers Subsidizing Failing Practices While Younger Lawyers Are Homeless

Three years ago I offered a succession planning program to Bar associations around the country with the warning that there was a crisis looming on the horizon relating to the aging of the profession. It was greeted with yawns. Now the subject is plastered all over the covers of scores of national, state, and local Bar publications.

Unfortunately, neat and tidy “transitions” are not in the cards for huge numbers of solo and small firm attorneys.

In a recent presentation to a malpractice insurer I observed that I am seeing a growing number of previously successful older lawyers who are now subsidizing their  failing practices with their retirement funds, until both the attorney and the funds are exhausted, and the attorney surrenders.

While this tragedy is in process, there are literally hundreds of young homeless lawyers who would be willing – no, enthusiastic – about teaming up with the senior lawyer to revitalize the practice, and gain the mentoring and direction of the older lawyer.

As I see it, the issue of  “transition,” as it’s neatly referred to, is really an issue of professional life or death for those at both ends of the career spectrum.

My friend Jordan Furlong, in my mind the most accurate and thoughtful of the futurists, in his blog Law21: Dispatches from a Legal Profession on the Brink  http://www.law21.ca/ quotes some truly frightening statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. He reads the statistics in this way: “over the course of this decade, 440,000 new law graduates will be competing for 212,000 jobs, a 48% employment level.” This while literally thousands of senior attorneys are trying – and failing – to land their practices safely and retire.

Yes, certainly many are in the “commodity” areas of practice that are being killed off by the likes of LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer. But many are in higher-value areas, and simply have not kept up with new marketing methods or, frankly, the die-off of their best referral sources. Many others are in smaller communities – where I believe the best opportunities still exist for newer attorneys to find a good income and a wonderful lifestyle – because in those areas “goodwill” (that is, reputation and connections in the community) still has value.

For thousands of younger attorneys who are struggling to survive in a raging sea of competition and change, the opportunity to team with a senior lawyer with reputation, skills and connections would be a godsend.

There are a lucky few lawyers who will be able to “sell” (or whatever their Bar associations call it) their practices for some amount of money. But there will be more, far more, whose successful careers will come to a sad end, as T.S. Eliot put it, “not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Watch this space. Over the coming months I will be providing more information to both sides of the aisle. I will also be working  in conjunction with Bar associations across the country to help senior attorneys make more successful transitions, and help younger attorneys connect with them, and work together for the benefit of both.

When Good Isn’t Good Enough

Being “a good lawyer” should be enough, right? Wrong.

Most people, unless they’re sophisticated and frequent buyers of legal services, don’t know how to evaluate the quality of a lawyer. In fact, they tend to assume that most lawyers are “good” lawyers. So if your main message, is that you’re good at what you do, you’re just one of the mooing herd.

What makes a prospect sit up and say “you’re the lawyer for me!” ??

A distinction. An affinity. A connection. Not just a “family lawyer” but a family lawyer specializing in divorces with special needs children. A business lawyer who grew up in the family business. A plaintiff lawyer who lost a family member in an accident. A business lawyer who speaks Serbian or Farsi or Korean.

“But – what about all those non-[your distinction here] people who might be clients?” OK, so how do you market to “everyone?” Ah, that’s the ticket. Let’s flip that over. So how do you market to the [Korean] [Iranian] [Serbian] [parents of autistic children] community? Easier. Now you can put your arms around a specific group of people, organizations, media, and even community leaders.

Four words to remember if you want to be more successful. Distinction. Affinity. Niche. Target market. Okay, five words. To cut you out of the mooing herd.

 

Tips for Guesting a Radio Show

How can you get yourself on a radio show? Easier than you realize, because they’re hungry monsters, so their hosts are often looking for good guests.

This morning I received an e-mail from a client who had been invited to speak on one, asking for some tips. Here is my response:

  • Be yourself, friendly, comfortable, casual, as though you were sitting around a table with friends. You are.
  • Listeners can hear a smile – or a frown. Stay friendly and pleasant. Don’t get too serious.
  • Avoid legal language. Tell stories, talk about people, their frustrations and problems and how you helped. Not what documents you drafted or what statutues were involved.
  • Talk to the host, not the audience. Most “sponsored” radio shows have tiny audiences, so don’t expect a rush of business. The most important person you are talking to is the host, who can likely refer you business frequently. So be a good, interesting guest, and make the host look good. You’ll get invited back.
  • By the end of the program, make sure you have told enough stories so that people know what you do, who you work with, and that you’re good at it.
  • Make sure they know how to reach you – phone and e-mail addresses.

Someone you know – or would like to know – has a radio show. Call them and offer to help them out.