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.

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?

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.

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.”)

What Makes Clients Really Want to Pay Your Bills?

Heated discussion on Lawyerist.com about sending effective bills. Couldn’t help but add my two cents worth here.  

Most attorney bills, with their point-somethings and cryptic billing program-generated phrases, are horror stories that stress clients out and invite challenges. ”3.2 – conference call with opposing counsel. 1.4 research and writing of response. .5 – client telephone discussion.” It’s enough to make them crazy – and often does.

When a client opens your bill, they want to know two basic things: what did you accomplish for me this month, and how much are you charging for it? The bare bill, even one with a nice cover letter, doesn’t really tell that.

The solution is a “progress report.” Grab the detail bill and translate it into client language. “In August we made significant progress toward an agreement. We had several positive discussions with opposing counsel and have resolved some key issues…”

Let them know what you actually did for them. Not the process and the time it all took – but how you’re moving their matter toward resolution. Then, instead of the laundry list of point-somethings, give them a simple summary bill. Attorney hours 12.3, paralegal hours 8.2, miscellaneous charges $147.50, with a “total charges for month” line below. And at the bottom, “detail billing on request.” Unless your client is a sophisticated user of legal services, few will ever ask for the detail, because you actually answered their real questions: “what did you do for me this month, and how much do I owe?”

If your client is sophisticated you still send the detail. But the “progress report” is always a powerful idea that will help you maintain more positive client relationships – and get you paid more quickly.

Costco Has Some Wisdom for Lawyers

Costco is one of the nation’s smartest companies. Even their Costco Connection magazine, which began as advertising flack, has evolved into a publication whose every issue provides value and insight to its members (along with a lot of advertising flack).

Last month’s edition has an article entitled “Top Five Mistakes Small-Business Owners Make” that hits attorneys dead center, and re-states some of the key points I have been teaching my clients and firms for twenty years:

1. Not knowing why customers buy
2. Offering a transaction rather than an experience
3. Being the answer (wo)man
4. Allegiance to how it’s done
5. One-dimensional thinking

I encourage everyone to read the Costco Connection article first, and over the next few days I’ll provide my own legal spin on each.

“Top Ten Causes of Malpractice” Article Hits Home

My recent article “Of The Top 10 Causes of Malpractice & Grievances – 8 Are Sloppy Housekeeping!” has been reverberating around the web thru LinkedIn, Twitter and e-mail at a far greater volume than I ever expected, especially my comment on the all-too-typical lack of control of open files. I’ve lost count of the times I have forwarded my Case Manager Form to worried attorneys.

So I’ve decided to follow up in three ways. First, I will deconstruct the half-day seminar I have been conducting around the country,Ethics and Managing Risk in the Law Firm into small bites, and post them right here over the next few weeks.

Second, I will offer a free 30-minute coaching call on key areas of concern to the first 10 people who send  an e-mail request to me at dustin@attorneysmasterclass.com.

Third, I will again offer my Case Manager form, which provides a simple way for attorneys to track & manage the work, to anyone. Just e-mail me a request to the above address.

And stay tuned. If you’re not one of the first 10 requests, I’ll extend the offer again with each bite of my risk management program, so try again next time.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.