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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rising Schizophrenia In Our Profession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call me if I can help.

Partner Compensation: Start Making Sense – A Riposte

Jordan Furlong just posted another thoughtful and perceptive Law21 blog post on law firm compensation that is worth your attention: Partner Compensation: Start Making Sense. Jordan is one of the profession’s deepest thinkers and most accurate futurists, and writes what is consistently one of the top 100 legal blogs and my personal favorite. I suggest you read it first, then come back here for my counterpoint. He and I most often agree on the principles, but not always on the details.

Jordan’s observation is dead on that compensation is the “third rail” and one of the fundamental reason why law firms are failing, splintering, and going through hugely disruptive times. They are failing because of inordinate and warped compensation structures, splintering because younger partners are increasingly unwilling to finance massive payouts to retiring partners, and experiencing huge disruptions as the more progressive of them attempt to right the boat and survive.

Here are my comments on Jordan’s three points –along with a general agreement on both his approach and philosophy.

1. Stop overvaluing sales.

Yes – this “most highly valued” area of business generation is overvalued, for the reasons Jordan suggests.

His solutions, while in the right direction, contain somewhat of a fatal flaw, which is calculating “profit” on which to measure sales compensation. This introduces a wildcard factor that can destroy the original intent, because profit is a number easily manipulated and subverted.

Rather, I suggest a simpler version. First, I completely agree with his declining compensation concept. But second, a simpler structure – one which is more easily calculable – is in order here: 15% of first-year revenues, 10% of second-year, 5% of third year, and at the fourth-year the client becomes a “house” account with no origination paid. The firm should also delineate the qualified practice areas of all attorneys, and require that work outside the originating attorneys practice areas be moved to a supervising attorney with the appropriate skills, and out of the hands of the originating attorney. This serves the firm’s purposes in diversifying the firm’s contact with the client, and frankly, keeps the unqualified originating attorney from billing inappropriate hours for “supervision” of work outside their expertise.

Jordan cites frequent cases of inordinate sales focus resulting from declining client service after the sale. This, however, is not really a sales issue, but a management one. Frankly, the biggest obstacle to an attorney developing a larger book is their ability – let me restate that – their skills and willingness – to manage work effectively. Most lawyers are either good technicians or good salespeople, but rarely good managers. This problem is exacerbated by the general trend of law firms to decrease leverage, which drives work that should be done at lower levels up to the attorney, and thus decreases their capacity to handle more matters. And an attorney who is already overwhelmed is not keen to increase their marketing.

There is a larger issue here as well: how the overall firm is operated. The medieval “guild” foundations of the profession create a curious and dangerous dichotomy: my clients are my clients to manage as I wish, but I deserve a big share of the overall profits of the firm.

The fact is that, in most firms other than mega firms, the originating attorney “owns” the client, and has complete control over their management, from indifferent client service to allowing receivables to languish.

As Jordan recommends, the firm should be “taking the temperature” of clients regularly, and the very issue of continued partnership should rest on the attorney’s commitment to high level of client service and satisfaction. In this respect, firms should be actively and aggressively training attorneys to be strong team leaders and managers as well as good salespeople and technicians. And as a corollary to this, firm should be building strong support teams around their strong salespeople, which dramatically increases their capacity to oversee (and thus originate) work. This is a concept which goes against the grain of the current trend in law firm structures and is, in my opinion one of the most short-sighted issues in law firms today. But it points directly to most law firms’ inability to create good managers or good management structures.

And finally, the firm, not the attorney, should own the receivables and manage them appropriately, and the firm should be primarily responsible for making sure a high level of client service is delivered.

2. Start properly valuing everything else.

The issues Jordan enumerates for valuing other elements of the practice are certainly valid. But most of these issues are difficult to quantify other than subjectively, which often assures that no one feels treated fairly. And those that are quantifiable create a considerable overhead burden, as well as much room for argument and discussion.

Yes, firms should value client relations, as measured by client surveys, and project management, as measured by timelines and budgets. Again, these fall into my belief in us of more objective measurements.

Legal marketing, however, is compensated through results – that is, originations – and need not be additionally valued. However, firms should provide marketing budgets and better, more practical staff support. Too often, firms hire marketing people who focus on big issues of branding and image, while failing to support the practical, “boots on the ground” efforts of the individual attorneys which actually generates most of the business.

Leadership activity is already measured and compensated by stipends for service at various levels of management. In fact, firms that fail to do so are insuring that those roles will be marginally exercised, resented, and badly managed. Smart firms not only provide stipends for management responsibilities, but consequent offsets of billable hour requirements.

Recruitment efforts should generally be outside the normal purview of the working attorney, and vested in, for instance a recruitment partner, who is compensated for this management role. There could well be some space to provide some type of “finder fee” for an attorney who refers in a successful candidate. The issue of longevity of that hire as a factor for that compensation isn’t valid, since it is largely outside the control of the finder, and too dependent on political and financial decisions of firm leadership.

Community support and participation, while almost an ethical requirement of attorneys, is really of two types. The first is the contribution of services – pro bono work or work donated to charitable and community organizations – and the second is community participation and leadership. While the first is somewhat quantifiable, the second is a hybrid of personal commitments and marketing.

Permit me a tangent here. One of the biggest failings of most law firms is inadequate recognition that each attorney has certain strengths and weaknesses, and brings specific values to the firm. Most firms expect all attorneys to fall into a single pattern – good sales skills and good technical skills. And in fact, offers of partnership are most often tied directly to originations.

Often, good “sales” people are bad managers (and sometimes even not such great lawyers), and should be required to utilize a strong “client care” team to deliver services and legal work.

Conversely, every firm needs, and should appropriately value, those who are good technicians, and therefore support the good salespeople in delivering service, but who are not good salespeople themselves. The best firms have the appropriate mix of both and the right structures to make it work. Great teams behind great salespeople create a very large funnel of work, revenue, and profit.

3. Stop paying partners to bill hours.

Jordan’s observation on the baffling partnership structure is dead center. Back in the 1990s large firms were experiencing a disturbing trend: associates were leaving large firms at an alarming rate. While the theory was that partnership was a reward, associates saw partners under more pressure and stress, rather than less. A Wall Street Journal article quoted one associate as saying that the competition for partnership was “a pie eating contest, the reward for which is more pie.”

Why this still exists is a complex problem, but one that stems from the fact that most attorneys still see themselves as technicians, not managers, and insist on staying on as players, long past the point that they should have been moved to coaching.

There are virtually no successful companies where the owners and founders are still on the assembly line making widgets. In the business world, the successful entrepreneur moves from inventor to technician to manager to leader, and eventually to passive owner or shareholder.

The foundation of this problem is laid in law school, which typically teaches two principles. First, just do great work and the clients will come: and second, you’re a professional and not a business person. Consequently, lawyers have no desire to become managers, and indeed, see it as abandoning their profession, and thus their identities. In other words, their identity is tied up with the work itself, rather than the business that does that work. In many firms, the person elected managing partner is the person who was not present at the partner meeting to refuse.

Too many firms perpetuate this approach and this model by undercompensating their leaders and burdening them with onerous “technician” requirements for billable hours. Just four years ago, I encountered a managing partner of a 55-attorney office of one of the top 20 largest law firms who was paid $50,000 for the role, while still required to bill at least $600,000 – and given the support of half an assistant to support him in fulfilling both roles.

Final observation. The revolution that has already come to Britain and Australia and will shortly come to Canada (www.CBA futures.org – a must-read) will, sooner than anyone expects, come to the United States. And when venture capitalists, investors, and strong business leaders begin to transform the profession, much, if not all of this, will change. Big firms will fall and splinter and merge like never before. Smaller firms with onerous partnership and buyout terms will disintegrate, leaving those senior partners expecting big payoffs looking at empty firm checkbooks. And many attorneys will find their expected career paths vaporizing. My last tongue-in-cheek blog post, “Berkshire Hathaway Purchases Nebraska’s Largest Law Firm” isn’t fantasy, but simply a news article ahead of its time.

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.

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.

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.