Berkshire Hathaway Purchases Nebraska’s Largest Law Firm

Omaha, Nebraska, June 22, 2019 – Just weeks after passage of the highly controversial American Bar Rules Reform Act, Warren Buffet, widely considered to be the nation’s most savvy investor, made a surprise announcement of the $28.6 million purchase of his company’s primary legal counsel, the Omaha firm of Barnhart, Short & Andressen, which has nearly 100 attorneys and five offices in three states.

Buffett issued an unusually detailed statement concerning his future plans. “The legal profession has historically been the last of the “guild” professions, and has until now managed to resist consolidation. We see an immense opportunity to modernize the delivery of legal services with operational, management and functional changes, and ‘consumerize’ the delivery of a host of legal and other professional services at both the individual and business levels.”

The Berkshire Hathaway announcement is widely seen as the first shot in a major restructuring of the legal profession facilitated by the surprise passage of the 2019 American Bar Rules Reform Act. That Act generally followed the 2016 Canadian legislation resulting from a 2014 Report, “Futures: Transforming The Delivery Of Legal Services In Canada.”

The Canadian legislation itself was closely patterned after Britain’s 2007 Legal Services Act, which legalized non-attorney ownership of law firms and so-called “multi-disciplinary practices,” meaning a single entity which delivers a variety of services such as legal, accounting and medical under one roof. Passage of the British and Canadian legislation engendered an unanticipated major economic upswing that attracted the attention of U.S. investors and legal entrepreneurs, who led the sometimes bloody three-year fight in Congress for the bill’s passage.

The unexpected announcement from Berkshire Hathaway echoes the company’s 2014 purchase of a major auto dealership group, and the subsequent major consolidation of the new-automobile sales marketplace. Today Berkshire Hathaway controls nearly 30% of the automobile dealerships in the U.S., having driven more than 600 independent dealers out of business.

Editor’s Note: We welcome your comments. Click on the comment balloon to right of headline.

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.

Is Your Social Media Too Social?

Bad news for many of you who have dived whole-hog into social media for marketing, from a recent Wall Street Journal article:

“Businesses are looking more critically at social media and its influence on the bottom line. A majority of respondents in a Gallup survey said that social media had no influence at all on purchasing decisions.”

Another study quoted in the article says that consumers trusted a whole laundry list of other advertising more than that in social media.

Ta-da-boom. So how well have your prodigious efforts with social media worked? How much new business has it generated? At the end of the business day, that’s all that counts. That’s the only relevant payoff. “Likes” only count in, er, horseshoes or something.

Another snippet from the article: “Fans and follower counts are over. Now it’s about what is social doing for you and real business objectives,” says Jan Rezab, chief executive of Socialbakers AS, a social-media metrics company based in Prague.

Not that far – in fact danged close – to what I have been saying for years in CLE programs and to clients about personal marketing, and about social media. It’s about the relationship, stupid. And that’s my basic rule #1 of social media: it’s not about the body count. 

Here’s a personal experience I had with a LinkedIn group. I’m a member of several groups of small firms & solos, practice management, et cetera. I got a notification of a new post in a practice management site which turned out to be an announcement to the world of some firm adding a practice area. Blatant publicity, no value delivered to the members of the group. And, being the cantankerous and obstreperous soul that I am, I responded with an acid put-down for, essentially, violating an implicit trust relationship. Were they relationship-building? Hardly.

This happens millions of times every day across social media. And this blunderbuss approach is exactly what’s creating the large and growing disenchantment and incredulity.
So here’s my basic rule #2 of social media: talk smart. Always say something that others will be interested in, or find helpful or valuable. It’s about creating trust and respect. Have you ever looked for comments from a particular person on a group thread because they always seem to have valuable insights or suggestions?

Now, that said, of course when I comment I always try to slide in some subtle plugs for my marketing and practice operations advisory services, or retreat facilitation or succession and transition planning support (kinda like that) when I post an article or a comment. But I always do it inside the communication of some information that I sincerely believe will be of value or help to my readers. Like this.

And here’s my basic rule #3 of social media: “Get closer.” Seek to draw people closer in relationship. Respond to people making positive or thoughtful comments on your posts or those of others. Don’t be the web equivalent of the guy or gal working the room – the one everyone sees coming and tries to avoid. Be the one they want – and like – to communicate with. Just like in real life.

Interesting factlet: the rise of social media has created a mini-boom in the printing of personal note cards.

Really? Old-fashioned paper delivered by snail mail? How primitive, yes. But how personal, how sincere. Think about it. How long does even the most laudatory e-mail stay on your desktop? 30 seconds? A minute? And how about that handwritten, hand-stamped note card? Days, maybe even weeks.

So, your social media work should have a “get closer” strategy. Put out valuable, insightful, thought-provoking information designed to encourage dialog. When that dialog occurs, respond to the respondents. Try to create a stronger relationship with the relatively few who engage.Make the conversations as two-way as possible.  And aim for moving the conversation beyond the social media stream, toward a direct e-mail conversation, or – heaven help us – an actual phone conversation. Because if you’re trolling for clients – or even referral sources – out there, eventually it should entail an actual direct conversation of some type.

The old referral marketing adage still applies, even here. To attract clients – or referral sources – you have to build —

Know – they have to know you exist, and know what you do

Like – they have to feel in some way positive about you. Your posts have to have the flavor of someone they’d like to talk with, not someone who sounds superior or overly critical or negative. It’s just human nature.

and Trust – the social media communication has to create some level of trust that you know what you’re doing.

Next, how much time are you spending on social media, and exactly how many prospects is it generating? My basic social media rule #4 is “measure it.” Measure it backwards and forwards and sideways. How much time are you spending? Where? What sites or activities are generating the most interaction – comments, responses, challenges? How many prospect inquiries are you receiving by e-mail or website inquiry or – heaven help us – by phone? Do you have a process in place to track activity, responses, interactions, prospect contacts, and signups? The concept of continuous improvement, or statistical quality control (“kaizen” – what Toyota and a good portion of the Japanese economy runs on) contains a core principle: you can’t manage what you can’t measure.

Finally, my basic social media rule #5: Make a budget. No, not a dollar budget (at least not for social media) but a time budget. Because social media can be addictive. We can spend far more time than we planned in wandering about the web seeking to see and be seen. So use your kaizen to identify where to focus, how to focus, and when. Use your time wisely and with focus and purpose. As I always say in my marketing seminars, stop doing “MBWA” – marketing by wandering around.

So here’s the full WSJ article that got my motor running. If you’d like my thoughts on marketing that works, dig around my blog here, or go to my website,  or just call me at 407-830-9810.

Yeah. Call. Don’t e-mail or text or find me on LinkedIn. Just call. Remember – it’s all about the relationship.

Why You Need a “Lie Detector for Your Email”

The Wall Street Journal today had a much-needed article – take it as a warning – about how to, as the sub-head said, “read between the lines” to spot lies in your e-mails.

The scary part is that we need this training. We really need it.

The article reflects what I’ve been saying for years in my CLE programs: 80% of communication is non-verbal. Digital communications are convenient, but by their nature, incomplete. Some choice bits from the article:

“Experts say that the vast majority of our interpersonal communications involves body language – gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice. Take these intangibles away, as we do with digital messages, and we are left with far fewer clues as to what is really going on.”

And here’s an especially juicy one: “Research shows people tend to be suspicious of information they receive online but override their suspicions and trust the information anyway.”

Whew. Even lawyers? The original paranoids? Yes. Unfortunately.

Missing from the article was information from earlier studies that have shown people are more willing to lie, tell half-truths and obfuscate in emails or text messages. Even people who wouldn’t do it to your face.

My urgent advice:

First, when you have a client who ONLY wants to communicate by email, and won’t talk to you in person or on the phone, be suspicious. Very, very suspicious. And expect some difficult – and too often messy – surprises.

Second, simplify your digital communications to avoid humor, sarcasm, implications – in other words, reduce your communications level to that you’d use with a 5-year-old. Simple. Facts. No chat.

Third, read it over before you send it to see if there is anything that might be misconstrued.

Fourth, never – let me repeat that – NEVER – give anything that could be construed as legal advice in a text message. Your clients pay you not just for your legal skills but your “careful and thoughtful consideration” of every aspect of their matter. And text messages encourage reactive thinking. So, while I suggest (in vain) that attorneys do not communicate with clients via text messages, at least consciously keep it to non-legal, purely procedural stuff like confirming a meeting. Never express an opinion in a text message.

Fifth, always have your radar up with all incoming communications. Expect that there will be incomplete communications, intentional or unintentional obfuscations, half-truths, omissions. Expect that they and you will likely misinterpret something somewhere.

And finally, whenever you feel uncomfortable, unclear, confused with any incoming communication, seek deeper communication. Pick up the phone. Meet with them personally if possible. Because if email communications aren’t sufficiently communicating everything to both sides, more email isn’t likely to help. Eyeballs work best, voices are the next best choice.

Remember that for some clients, a grievance or malpractice suit is an easy answer. But it won’t be for you. You need to arm yourself against a problem you may not sufficiently understand. So read the whole article. And heed its – and my – advice.

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.

You’re Losing Money Big Time.

The average law firm is incredibly inefficient and wasteful. Why? Because they make too much profit. If that sounds crazy, let me explain.

ABA and bar association statistics say that the average sole practitioner/small firm profit margin is between 45 and 55%.  Contrast that to the average grocery store margin of one or two percent. With such a razor-thin margin, grocery stores are constantly focusing on efficiency, profitability, increasing sales, increasing customer loyalty – everything to make sure that slender profit margin doesn’t turn to a loss.

Law firms, not surprisingly, generally operate on slop. A few unbilled hours here, a few uncollected dollars there, a little staff inefficiency, little extra expense for services, and, as former president Lyndon Johnson used to say, “a few billion here, a few billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money.”

(Do you know how to calculate your TRUE profit margin? Ask me.)

Before we get to the details, let me share a few big principles.

First: if you want to grow your practice, first you have to be willing to grow your skills in managing it.

It hardly needs to be said. Attorneys hate to deal with the “business” side of the business. Most suffer from the “I just want to do my work” syndrome. Staffing, firm administration, expense management, accounting, all take a major back seat to “getting my work done.” As a result, attorneys tend to live in a highly disfunctional business environment.

Becoming a better manager starts with the attorney himself or herself. Personal efficiency, organization, productivity. The ability to focus and get things done. Next, they need to know how to create and manage an efficient team. Develop the right team and the right team structure, and build an effective system for delegating, supervising, and managing.

Second: doing legal work is not the primary purpose of your practice. Altruism and idealism aside, the first purpose of the practice is to allow you to have a decent life. If it doesn’t do that, your ability to take the best care of your clients is endangered. Delivering legal service is your product – how you accomplish that primary goal. If you find that offensive, try working the next year for free and see how that works for you.

Third: your most important role in the practice is not doing your legal work. It’s making sure there is legal work for you to do. Marketing. Sorry, all you idealists and ethicists. And by the way, personal marketing has always been ethical. Sales and solicitation are not.

Fourth: most attorneys have never been trained (or have wanted to be trained) in good business practices. Enough said.

Fifth: any change is uncomfortable. Many great changes have been avoided or discarded because the initial process of change proved uncomfortable. As Arnold Palmer once said, “in order to play golf well, first you have to be willing to play it badly.”

Over the next weeks, I’ll offer my thoughts and advice on the following areas:

How to build more powerful initial prospect conversations. The easiest place to start in getting new clients is in increasing the percentage of your prospects who become clients. We’ll talk about how to create the most powerful impressions and communications so that more prospects hire you. Conversely, will examine why and when to say “no.”

How to create stronger initial client relationships. Most clients leave your office without any clear picture of what will happen from then on. In other words, and some level of fear. What are the keys to ensuring a better ongoing client relationship?

How to reduce your accounts receivable through better client communications. More than 55% of all attorney grievances relate to poor communications. What must you do to make sure that the relationship stays afloat and doesn’t crash and burn?

Happy clients mean happy receivables. How do you get there consistently?.

How to increase the efficiency and work quality of your team. Do you have the right team? Are they all working as efficiently as possible? Are you managing them effectively?

How to expand your client base without significant cost. The most successful attorneys are masters at developing a strong base of referrals, and a powerful public reputation. You can be too.

Stay tuned.

15 Minutes of Silence: Can You Do It?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal posed a critical question worth considering.
A CEO of a highly successful company was challenged by a friend to sit still for 15 minutes in complete silence and inactivity. And he bet him $15,000 that he couldn’t do it.
And he couldn’t. “I never expected it to be so hard,” he said. “I found myself reaching for my Blackberry every minute. I couldn’t shut down.”
Could you? And why does it matter anyway?
Our technology has changed the very fabric of our lives and relationships. At the core, we have given everyone else the ability to control our time – to interrupt and become our immediate priority no matter what else is going on at the moment. And worse – we’ve become addicted to it. We crave it, just like the CEO.
Again – so why does that matter?
Because of the hundreds of studies on focus and concentration that universally agree: when we are frequently interrupted, our efficiency and productivity drop, and our ability to deliver quality work is compromised. Most lawyers don’t have five minutes without an interruption by their technology, their staff – or their own ADD thoughts – no less 15.
And for lawyers whose time is their treasure and their reputation is everything, decreased efficiency and quality issues are life and career-threatening.
Not that lawyers are turning out poor quality work. It’s just that it is taking them longer to deliver that quality.
Is it no wonder that the average lawyer is spending 50, 60, 70, even 80 hours “at work,” whether that be in the office, in the car, at home or on vacation (ever spent a vacation in your hotel room working?).  Technology isn’t the only culprit. Lawyers are notorious for having no personal boundaries and working constantly. Technology is simply making that spectacularly worse.
Most lawyers, when challenged about allowing technology to control them, will respond with “but my clients expect me to be available to them!”
Sure. Because you told them you would. Or worse, because you didn’t tell them anything about how you would work together – so they got to decide for themselves.
Here’s a communication I strongly suggest you use with your next new client:
“One of the most important things you have hired me for is my wisdom and my careful consideration of every aspect of your matter. For that reason, I have taken several steps to insure that I can always deliver that.
First, I have set aside time during my day, from — to —, when I am uninterruptible except for emergencies, so that I can focus on my work for you and others, and provide my best service. So if you call during that time, you may speak with my [associate /paralegal/assistant], or you can leave a message for me, and I will respond within 24 hours.
Second, I do not respond immediately to e-mails, because I want to carefully consider any question or information you may offer. Instead, I review my e-mails periodically, and respond carefully.
And third, I do not text, because texting encourages reactive responses, and that violates my principle of thoughtful and careful consideration.”
Basic principle here. Your time is your treasure. If you don’t take control of it, everyone else will. And if they do, you’ll be working at night, on the weekends, and in your hotel room while the kids are at Disney.
Radical. Retro. But it could save your life, your practice, maybe even your marriage.
Oh. And by the way, here’s the link to the article. I didn’t offer it up front because I knew – A.D.D. you – that you’d follow that shiny thing even before you read the article.

Are We Multitasking Our Ethics?

Hope you read that great article in the September/October issue of Law Practice – “Churn That Bill, Baby! Overbilling in Law Firms.”  It brought to mind another looming problem of ethics and integrity that has gone virtually unnoticed in the profession.

I spend approximately 4-6 hours each day on the phone in my role as practice advisor to my various attorney clients around the country. As such, it’s important for me to be highly attuned to vocal clues which tell me where my client is mentally – tired, depressed, excited and energetic, reluctant, inattentive. Each nuance immediately affects the vector of our conversation for that day. At the beginning of each call, I actually close my eyes so that I can be totally focused on “reading” where my client is for our call.

And increasingly I have noticed one particular tendency – “distracted.” When I query, the answer is, almost always, something like “oh, I was just reading an e-mail,” or “I just got a text from my [son, wife, client] and had to respond.”

For too long I have dismissed it as “just the usual” because attorneys are notoriously ADD. But I can’t anymore, because it suddenly hit me – if they’re doing that to me, they’re also doing it to their clients, their colleagues and even their friends and family.

Multitasking has always been an issue – or, even more, a reality – in the legal profession. But it has now escalated to a dangerous level. Our technology has far outpaced our biology.

What your clients are buying is not simply your time. It is your wisdom, your experience, and most of all, your careful consideration. And a 1987 Harvard study on focus and concentration found that, when you are highly focused and experience an interruption, it takes from 7 to 11 minutes to return to that highly focused state.

So my question is – when you are talking on the phone with a client and also texting and glancing at a brief and motioning to your assistant, and your attention is divided – are you giving your client your best? Can you be fully listening – fully present – for what might suddenly be a critical conversation? An even more telling question: would you do this if the client were sitting in front of you?

And in that respect, are you charging your client for all of that time, even though pieces of it have been devoted to other work? If so, why? And if not, how in the world can you possibly record appropriate time for all the various work you touched while purportedly working for that client?

The answer, from my experience, is that either attorneys don’t try to capture (i.e., lose) the time, or at some point they add in a “farkle” amount to various client bills to account for the dozens – maybe hundreds – of times that a few moments of their attention was on that matter. And that, my friend, is writing fiction. Lying to your client.

And the bigger question — is our techno gadget society reducing our focus on doing our best work, and in the process, compromising both our personal and financial ethics?

A modest suggestion for all of my ethical colleagues in the profession. Notice the time you are NOT focusing on your client or your work. Resolve to change your modus operandi. When you are on the phone with a client. Commit to being fully present for the next conversation. Give them the focus and attention – and level of wisdom and skill – they are paying you for. Silence your cell. Put your office phone on DND. Close your e-mail window. Listen. Focus. Give your client your absolute best, and your most honest and accurate bill.

It’s not only the ethical thing to do. It’s the RIGHT thing to do.

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.

What Software Do You REALLY Need? REALLY? – Part Two

That Shiny Thing
Case management software is often that shiny thing that attorneys think they need. Kind of a status symbol, or a miracle solution to a chaotic operation. I can’t count the number of firms I have worked with where they have a full (and very expensive) complement of some type of CM software, and also had all the frustrations I listed in the previous post. And my assignment was (surprise!) to bring some order to their operations.

There are two important things to understand before making the decision to install any kind of software.

First, things will get worse before they get better, even when you do everything right. People hate change, many people hate computers and software, and many will resist purely on principle. So expect resistance at the beginning – it’s normal – until people realize the system is here to stay, or until they’re required to use the new system enough that it becomes the “new normal.”.

A warning. If you have a group of “immovable objects” for staff – people who you allow to make their own rules (often people you feel are so indispensable that you can’t afford to offend them, or who are the only people who control certain information), it just ain’t gonna work. By the way, if you have such people, fix it or prove they’re not indispensable. Fire them. Never allow yourself to be held hostage by a staff member.

Second, there is no magic bullet. No software, no training can make up for poor management. Supposedly, you are considering software because your firm is growing. If so, something else must grow: your skills in the art of management. The downfall of most attorneys is that they simply “want to do legal work” and consequently ignore the fact that they have a business to run and a team to manage. They want to simply close the door and go to work. As Michael Gerber says in his book the E-Myth, to succeed you must work ON your business, and not simply IN it. So, if you’re planning to institute software, be sure to institute better management skills along with it.

What Did Your Careful Study Tell You about Your Firm’s Software Need?
Are your needs mostly about complex document assembly? If so, that’s not case management, that’s document management. Case management software will seldom provide this ability, so don’t go looking for CM when you need “DM”.

Are your needs  mostly about time & billing? If so, again you don’t need full case management software. And please don’t go there. You will be buying more than you need, and paying more than you need, and wasting most of your cost. Even the ABA gets the issues confused. They have a table of comparisons of what they say is time and billing software, yet 80% of what they list is case management software with T&B capabilities.

Are your needs are more about communications? That is, contact management and database marketing – case management software is once again overkill. Look to the area called “contact management” software, otherwise known as “CRM”, customer relations management software. Nearly all CRM has valuable capabilities you can use in your practice, such as merge forms and e-mail management.

So When Do You Really Need Case Management Software? Really?
That’s the next post. We’ll get there. I promise. And after that – my jaundiced views on just what software to choose.

DON’T DON’T DON’T Use Free Email Like Google, Yahoo, MSN

Just received my third spam e-mail this week from a friend who uses the free Yahoo email service.

If you value your professionalism – if you value your ethics, and the security of your client communications, DON’T use free e-mail because there is absolutely NO security, and your contact list and the contents of all your e-mail is in the cloud for anyone who wants to grab it.

You DON”T have to have a website to have a secure email with your own domain name. It’ll cost you about $7 a month plus the cost of buying your own domain name, which is a one-time charge of maybe $6-12. If that’s too expensive, maybe you’re in the wrong business.

It’s easy. Here’s how.

Go to http://www.godaddy.com/. Find the “All Products” link at top left. Click on it. A menu will drop down. Click on “Email.” Another menu will pop up. Choose “Business Email.” Another page will pop up. Choose the center one, “Business Email.” When you do, yet another box will pop up which will urge you to upgrade to unlimited e-mail. Do it. You’re now up to a grand total of $6.99 per month for a complete e-mail interface, unlimited e-mail storage, 10 email addresses and a shared 10-user calendar. Or stay with the basic.

If you don’t have a domain name, you’ll need one, so follow the second option through and find one that works for you. Add another flat fee of maybe $6-12.

Finally, now that you have your own domain name, bite the bullet and create your own website. if you have even basic computer skills, you can do it yourself, or turn it over to your 13-year-old relative. But you do need one, now that you have your own web address for email, because as soon as the recipient gets your e-mail and sees the domain name, they’ll try to look you up. So you’d better be there.

The fact is, you really, REALLY REEAALLY need a website, especially if most of your business comes from referrals. Because increasingly, when someone gets your name from a referral source, they’ll check you out on the web before calling. So, if you don’t have a website, there are who knows how many people who DON’T call you, even though someone referred them to you.

So. A stealth way to push you to get a website – as part of FINALLY getting safe, secure email.

If I can offer any further thoughts, shoot me an e-mail at dustin@attorneysmasterclass.com.

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.”

Maybe You Don’t Need Case Management Software – Really.

An Opinionated View in three (or maybe more) parts

First the Disclaimer
These are my personal opinions, based on twenty-something years (it’s the only way I get to be “twenty-something”) of experience with solos, small and mid-size firms. Since I haven’t actually used any of these programs on a daily basis, I will not assert that every detail is technically correct. My view is through the eyes of my oft-frustrated clients.

Also important to note: as a business advisor to law firms, I regularly advise firms on operations, and because of that, I have made the decision to not affiliate with any CM provider. I don’t get paid by anybody to recommend software. So, here are my thoughts, and any bias is directly from the school of hard knocks.

So What Is the Case Management Software Anyway?
There are three main functions of “case management” software.

1. Time and billing – essentially an accounting function. Some don’t have actual billing, but do provide mechanisms for time tracking.

2. Document, activity, and deadline management. This is the heart of case management software.

3. Contact management. Keeping track of contacts and how they relate to cases, and creation of a database for purposes such as conflicts and marketing.

A fourth function which is rarely included in case management software is document assembly, which can be important to particular practice areas such as estate planning and business transactional  work. But don’t confuse this with case management software. It’s either a different animal, or an expensive upgrade to case management.

“Let’s Start at the Beginning, It’s a Very Good Place to Start” (with apologies to The Sound of Music)
So, the place to start is by identifying exactly what your current problems and obstacles are, and what you want to be able to accomplish, before you go shopping for anything.

How Purchase of Software Goes Horribly Wrong
There are five not very complicated reasons why a firm’s good intentions – and a big bucket of money – turn into a house of horrors.

First – they don’t do their homework. They don’t thoroughly research exactly what they need, don’t study the various offerings carefully, don’t do a “test drive,” don’t get adequate references, and consequently they buy the wrong software.

Second – they don’t buy official training, assuming that they can figure it out for themselves, so people are frustrated, misuse or don’t use the software, and start using “workarounds” to avoid it.

Third – they don’t buy an ongoing support and maintenance contract, depriving everyone from good troubleshooting and support, and often resulting in major downtime for the system, and consequent loss of productivity. Some software vendors seem to actually penalize clients who attempt to use the “per call” services instead of buying the more expensive support agreement, and end up with horrendous response – days or even weeks – for troubleshooting.

Fourth – they don’t document procedures in order to standardize the way the software is being used, and to provide an easy guide for new employees.

Fifth – they don’t place a senior partner or administrator in charge of its implementation, and use, and don’t enforce correct use.

The result? An amazingly high level of regret, teeth gnashing and blame for attorneys responsible for making the decision to buy software. While clearly, some software is better and easier to use than others, the real issues are the above. Even harder to use software will be more satisfactory if those five implementation problem areas are addressed. I have encountered literally dozens of firms which have highly capable software of various sorts that they have essentially discarded in frustration, because they didn’t properly address the implementation and operational issues.

So don’t be attracted by the shiny thing some software vendor dangles in front of you. Software decisions and implementation must be addressed in a very careful, thoughtful, and responsible way, or disaster will be the result.

Next Post: What Software Do You REALLY Need? REALLY?

The Rise of the Walmart Lawyer

First came the Legal Grind. Then came Chicago’s Legal Cafe. What’s next?  A prediction.

Walmart – or some other Mart – will contract with LegalZoom or an equivalent to re-sell their service, buying it wholesale and selling it retail. They will then place hungry, young, otherwise unemployed lawyers in small cubicles next to the bank & the tax preparer cubicles, paying Walmart wages, to await customers needing a will or a lease or some other simple legal work. The lawyer will briefly interview the customer to determine their need, then find the appropriate form on LegalWhatzis, help the client enter information and print the document out, and offer a brief explanation of the document. The customer (note – not “client”) will then whip out their debit card and pay Walmart for the LegalWhatzis service plus a service markup – with a voluminous disclaimer printed on the cash register receipt.

And, as Inspector Clouseau would say, voila! The customer has bought a LegalWhatzis document. Has a lawyer-client relationship has been established? Walmart has made a profit from re-marketing LegalZoom. Enter the Walmart divorce, the Walmart will – courtesy of LegalWhatzis.

Hyatt Legal Services, eat your heart out. And Bar Associations get ethics heartburn. Who is liable for malpractice? Walmart, the young hungry lawyer, LegalWhatzis?

And wither the young hungry? Double shifts in the sporting goods department and free chili dogs at the snack bar?

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.

Trust Accounting & Credit Cards – A Potentially Combustible Pair

Colleague Peggy Grueneke, in her blog lawbizcoo, explains how the new IRS regulations concerning credit card acceptance create a very nasty web of ethical, financial and legal  traps for law firms. Accepting credit cards is increasingly important for all attorneys, but these new regulations create a level of complexity that could stop some from doing so. Clearly the new regulations come from the retailer point of view (users are all labelled “merchants”) and never considered the issues of trust accounting and retainers. An absolute must-read. if you’re out of compliance you could also be out of luck.

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.”)