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.

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 “Walmart Lawyer” Has Arrived

Back in January 2013 I wrote a post predicting “The Rise of the Walmart Lawyer.”

The rise has begun.

My prediction was that Walmart would contract with young lawyers who would then utilize an online legal document generation program like LegalZoom – and offer advice on which pre-packaged legal documents the consumer needed.

It’s begun in Canada, and not quite the way I predicted. The reality is actually more radical. Axess Law, a new-wave Toronto firm, is now offering “bespoke” legal services from a tiny rented space in the front of several Walmart stores in the Toronto area, with an eye to expansion. And they’re actually using their own proprietary documents and software akin to LegalZoom, more Canada-specific, and not quite so “canned” as LegalZoom

What makes them different?

Price, of course. Simple wills $99, notary services $25. And a carefully limited range of services. More complex work is referred out.

Business model: volume. The traditional law firm model was based on scarcity, which no longer exists – one of the reasons the profession is in trouble.

Accessibility: drop-by and drop-in service, no appointment necessary. Hours – 7 days a week, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. They say that the hours of 5-8 are their busiest – just when other legal offices are closed.

How are you changing to deal with the future? If you provide a “commodity” level of services, you are in danger. If Walmart does it, are Target, Kohls, Kroger, Walgreens and CVS – in partnership with hundreds of other new-form law firms –  far behind? You need to read the full article. It’s one of the waves of the future – but not the only one.

If you’re worried about your future – contact me. Let’s talk.

 

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.

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.

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?

(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.

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.

 

Of The Top 10 Causes of Malpractice & Grievances – 8 Are Sloppy Housekeeping!

The Florida Bar Law Office Management Assistance Service, and its Director, my friend Judy Equels, a while back shared some startling statistics with me as we co-developed a legal risk management program.

I’ve often said that most good lawyers are terrible business managers, and these statistics prove just that: of the top 10 most common malpractice & grievance issues, the top 8 are NOT LEGAL BUT OFFICE MANAGEMENT related – AND HIGHLY PREVENTABLE through instituting of basic operations systems and procedures. They are:

1. Failure to manage time/procrastination
2. Failure to docket – identify/document deadlines
3. Failure to manage information
4. Failure to obtain client consent
5. Failure to file documents timely
6. Missed or unresolved Conflict of Interest
7. Poor communications with client
8. Failure to follow client instructions
9. Inadequate discovery/investigation
10. Failure to know/apply the law

How do you know if you’re at risk? If your answer to this basic question: How many  files do you have open right now is – “uh, about. . .” If you don’t have a daily handle on how many, what you’re currently doing in each, and the deadline for its completion – you could well be headed for the cliff. At the very least, you’re losing too much sleep worrying about what you might have missed in that pile of files on your desk

Don’t ignore this major sign of potential disaster. If you would like a copy of my simple tool, the Case Manager Form, just shoot me an e-mail at dustin@attorneysmasterclass.com and request Form TP-04.