You Won’t Need an “Emergency Plan” for Your Practice if You Have A “Growth and Success” Plan In Place

Susan Carter Liebel just posted an article on the Solo Practice University blog – a powerful and meaningful story that every sole practitioner needs to read and heed: “Emergency Planning – Thinking About the Unthinkable.”

But – in my opinion it doesn’t address the underlying issue. The best attorneys don’t need an “emergency plan” because they have built a FIRM with systems, procedures and team members who know – because they’re working on – everything that’s going on – every client, every file. Maybe it’s only one well-qualified paralegal/assistant, or maybe its a sharp associate and several team members. With this, another attorney can walk into the practice and have all the tools necessary to keep it moving and keep clients safe. In fact, even when the attorney is not there – whether for an emergency or a vacation – that good team is taking care of clients and watching over the practice. The solo-solo or the solo with only an untrained clerk don’t have anyone besides themselves who know what’s going on in the practice. They may have lists and stack of files, but most usually all the critical information is in their head.

As Michael Gerber said in “The E-Myth,” if nothing gets done when you’re not present, you don’t have a business – you have a job.” And there’s another issue. The attorney with no team has an absolute limit on his or her firm’s growth, because they have an absolute limit on their time and energy. And their family often has a limit to their tolerance of an absent spouse or parent.

So the greater truth is that the better kind of “emergency plan” is really a plan for growth and success – and the possibility of having a personal life. I just did a 10-minute video titled “The Almost Lone Ranger Syndrome”  that addresses exactly this issue. I just don’t address it as an “emergency plan” issue.

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.

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.

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.