Told Ya So – Small Towns are the Next Big Thing

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

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

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

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

New GP Solo Succession Planning Article Now Posted

The July/August issue of GP Solo Magazine will feature a longish article by me on succession & transition planning, based on the program I have been conducting for various Bar associations  around the country. Just posted to my Articles page. You can read it first right here – Succession Planning for the 62 Percent.

Comments are welcome, and I’m happy to answer individual questions as well. Just e-mail me at dustin@attorneysmasterclass.com.

Sometimes the Best Marketing Advice is the Simplest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here Comes New Pricing – With a Vengeance

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

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

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

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

Have You Watered Your Referral Sources Lately?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Are You Building a Legal Business – Or a Job?

Every successful non-lawyer business transforms itself every few years in its continuing quest for growth. Small firms seldom do.

Law school stunted the thinking of most lawyers by telling them “you’re not a business person – you’re a professional,” inferring that a “business” was somehow slightly dirty and inferior to the professional firm. So most solo/small firm attorneys spend their careers working in “non-businesses.” They treat it like a job – come in, work hard, go home. They don’t plan for growth and change. They don’t plan for attracting new business – another legacy from law school – the “better mousetrap” theory of marketing – just do good work and clients will come. Even growth – hiring staff or associates – is resisted, and usually done only with reluctance, and resentment of the expense.

What’s the distinction?

It’s a job when the owner does all the work and is the center of everything, and when they’re gone, no business gets done.

The “legal business” has a”life” outside the lawyer. First, it has a clearly identifiable operating structure –

    • “Externalized knowledge” – forms, checklists, procedures for all phases of firm operations, from office management to basic legal processes and functions
    • An organized resource base of standardized “boilerplate” documents, letters, etc.
    • At least one well-trained, quality staff member who facilitates and supports firm operations
    • Technology adequate and fully functioning — a true network with server and backup, current (and legal) software and functional contact & client management and/or case management software
    • Effective case, file and client management procedures and systems

Second, it has an active and clearly definable marketing program, consisting of:

      • A complete and maintained client, former client and prospect database
      • A basic marketing plan and list of targeted organizations and activities
      • A documented base of active referral sources
      • An effective website and web presence
      • A documented list of firm marketing activities and organizational involvement
      • Professionally managed finances – financial & billing software, accrual accounting, and a fully functioning collections management system

Every week I talk to skilled, experienced attorneys who are somewhere in the middle or late phase of their careers and are still at the “job” level, who want to transition, sell – or just keep the practice from killing them. I have only two solutions to offer: quit the job, or evolve it into a legal business. A job has little sales value; the legal business has much.

If you’re one of those attorneys, maybe it’s time that you explored going over to the “dark side” – building yourself a business that works for you, instead of just continuing to work hard. The payoff is considerable – now, and in the future, when you’re thinking about transitioning.

Dinosaur Dewey Teaches the Profession Some Simple Lessons

Four lessons for the legal profession from the Dewey LeBeouf debacle:

Lesson One: Law firms are businesses, and need to be run like one. The old law school indoctrination that “you’re not a businessperson, you’re a professional” comes home to roost.

Lesson Two: Most lawyers, like doctors, are crappy business people. Great legal skills don’t equate to great business skills. The Dewey head cheese blithely gathered in other big-ego and big-reputation people like it was 2005 and the boom was on. He made outrageous promises that sank Dewey when they couldn’t deliver. The Executive Committee was even worse. They thought their role was to be the sounding board and implementer of the head man’s grandiose ideas, instead of what they were supposed to be: protectors of the corporate finances and manager of the CEO, not the other way around. A surfeit of bad business people.

Lesson Three: Today ain’t yesterday. It’s more like tomorrow. While big firms like Dewey follow old paths toward oblivion, hundreds of young firms, unencumbered by the structures and traditions of the past, are busy transforming hiring smarter, building more flexible, virtual structures, casting off the caste system, and learning how to profit by delivering great work at reasonable – and often flat – rates.

Lesson Four: Success comes from looking UP from your client’s perspective instead of  from the firm’s lofty perch DOWN. Ask Apple. Ask Google. Great businesses are customer-centered, not ego-centered.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t play brinksmanship with your future.

Older Lawyers Subsidizing Failing Practices While Younger Lawyers Are Homeless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Good Isn’t Good Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tips for Guesting a Radio Show

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

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

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

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

Lessons from the Northwest Woods

Every time I travel to teach, I end up learning something. Just returned from conducting “Managing Disasters and Risk in the Law Firm” in Missoula, Montana, and was powerfully reminded of what the REAL legal profession looks like.

The press – including most of the ABA press – is about the high-flyers – the big firms, the big money, the big cases. But 62% of the profession isn’t any of that. they’re one-ers and two-ers, guys and gals just out to make a living doing the unglamorous stuff that makes the country work. Wills, closings, divorces, traffic and DUI defense, property disputes, bankruptcies and business disputes.

The Missoula audiences, and the discussions afterwards were filled with them. But what shined through is something we often don’t notice in the day-to-day scuffle. Commitment. Idealism. Principle. The attorneys I met, young and old, radiated it, almost to a person. Out there where most are in jeans and boots, it’s a little more visible than in the big cities, where most wear the obligatory lawyer garb. In Missoula the realness shows through. The caring about our world and its people. How the next generations will live in the cities and in the environment.

Admittedly, living in that moment-to-moment breathtaking land, much more of daily life -and the practice of law –  is about protecting the environment and a livable future. But what swirled to the top of every conversation was an almost universal commitment to protect – something.

And isn’t that, at the end of a hard day, pretty much what the legal profession is about?

Oh, the Places You’ll (Fail to) Go: How Great Intentions Turn Into Great Disasters

Each time I’m called to conduct a retreat, I’m reminded that lawyers are great at lawyering, but often stink at anything relating to effective business operations. One recent “retreat,” actually an informal mediation in a year-old two-attorney merger, was typical.

Musing 1: The Shoemaker’s Children Have No – Common Sense.
Two plaintiff attorney “partners” had been working together as a “firm’ for over a year without anything in writing. No shareholder agreement. No compensation/origination plan. No shared responsibility for the credit line. No employment agreement. Now these two, who had started out as friends, were trying to sort out all the “I thought you” and “remember we discussed” and “I don’t recall,” “you owe me for…” and “I deserve…”

The result was predictable. Nearly all the optimism lost, fear and anger rising. On the verge of MAD – mutual assured destruction.

I was called in to see if this “partnership” be saved. After a tough day, we were able to work through most of the issues without bloodshed. But in the long term, even if the partnership proceeds, the friendship and trust will remain wounded – unnecessarily. All because they didn’t make it a priority to work out all the issues BEFORE moving in together.

Do YOU have a partner agreement & compensation structure, or just a handshake? “We trust each other” won’t be enough when big enough problems surface. Take time now to get it all in writing.

One partner dispute I remember from the distant past resulted in seven years of suits and countersuits. Worse than breaking a mirror.

Musing Two: Cancer Sometimes Masquerades as a Friend
The two above partners wanted to make it work. Unfortunately, one attorney’s longtime trusted right hand staff member didn’t want her world disturbed. Like a spoiled child, she subtly spread rumors, created dissension, and destroyed staff trust. Her sabotage and lack of cooperation was close to destroying the attorney’s trust in the incipient partner. Fortunately we were able to finally recognize the problem. If blind loyalty trumps a better future and staff is running the firm, it’s time for the attorney to turn in his diploma.

Musing 3: Succession Planning Isn’t for Wusses.
The purpose of the merger, such as it was, was to create a succession plan for the senior attorney. Unfortunately, it was approached in the same way as the “partnership.” No plan, no structure, no idea of what was needed to make it work – and a deep paranoia from the senior partner, even though the whole idea was his in the first place.

Succession planning isn’t for wusses. Attorneys who think they know everything too often end up failing miserably at the process. And both the senior and junior attorneys end up losing literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal income.

What we grudgingly cobbled together in the retreat worked for a few months. But presently the two are in a legal and financial struggle to the death, which will entail multiple lawsuits and mutual bloody clubbings in court.

If you’re looking toward a transition of any sort in your practice, doing it right takes planning and expert guidance. Anything less could be one of the most expensive mistakes you’ll ever make. Don’t do it blindly or ex post facto. Get expert guidance. Not sure where to find it? Call me. 407-830-9810.