Lawyers’ Greatest Fear: Chaos

The ABA did a survey recently to identify what lawyers were most concerned about in their practices. The (not unsurprising) answer was “chaos” – in other words, a fear that their practice is out of control, and consequently, something terrible might happen to a matter – and to them.

I agree wholeheartedly with the ABA’s conclusion, and was inspired to write an article, which Attorney@Work is publishing as a three-part series. I detail what I see, from my 20+ years of experience working closely with hundreds of firms, are the reasons, and offer some practical solutions.

HERE is the first installment. And by the way, if you’re not a subscriber to Attorney@Work, you should be. A daily dose of good stuff.

The Fate of the Corner Store Is Coming to Small Firms – Soon

So what did happen to the corner store? The short answer is it became the 7-11, the Circle K – or it went out of business. Most did the latter.

The legal blogosphere is filled with speculation and news about the happenings of biglaw in the legal revolution – but about 63% of lawyers in private practice are in firms of 3 or less. So what’s the future for the little guy?

What if you could suddenly benefit from national advertising – a powerful website – group health and malpractice insurance, and a continuing feed of business that would alleviate your need for marketing?

Sound like joining a big firm? Well, yes – but no.

The legal revolution that has brought about “Alternative Business Structures” offering a range of services beyond legal, and “Non-Lawyer Ownership” of law firms in Australia and Britain are blossoming with creative examples of exactly this revolution. One is a British legal franchise called Quality Solicitors. There are currently over 200 British law firms – some top ones in smaller communities – under the brand.

In Britain, financing for such endeavors is coming from outside the profession. And while that’s not yet permitted in the U.S., it doesn’t have to be for the franchise model. A few wealthy attorneys could fund it. And my bet is that it’s already in the works.

But, you say, “no way – the franchise model has been tried, and hasn’t worked very well.” You’re right – but that’s the past. The world – and technology – has completely changed the game.

LegalZoom has created a no-lawyers model with thousands of fill-in-the-blanks-online forms. They didn’t even need lawyers – although they have since expanded, to capture the market at the next level, of those who really do want to talk to a lawyer. And of course, the web has become the first place a majority of consumers look when choosing a lawyer. So when they Google “lawyer” and see a website that talks candidly about cost, it has their attention. The Quality Solicitors website headline is “When it comes to bills, we don’t like surprises either.”

Then it uses “artificial intelligence” to help the client determine what type of services they need, then puts them in touch with the appropriate attorney in their area. And right there, for the world to see, are prices. Reasonable – and note at the right, with a “clear price” guarantee.

Politics isn’t the only place we’re seeing a consumer revolt. LegalZoom has proven that.

So what can you do to solidify your market position? What can you learn from Quality Solicitors?

First – like it or not, price rules for consumers and small business.
The savvy consumer knows the difference between a straightforward problem or issue and one with a host of “if’s, and’s and buts.” Larger corporations, not yet so much. But even that is changing. Savvy in-house legal counsel increasingly know how to take advantage of a highly competitive marketplace.

The fact is that hourly billing is a relatively new concept that began in earnest in the 1960’s. Before then, most everything was flat-rate priced. (if you want the full story of how that change came about, give me a call.)

So, you’re thinking I’m going to say “flat rate pricing,” but you’re wrong. The answer is actually a sophisticated version of that, called “unit pricing.” Your agreement – and heck, maybe even your advertising (a la Quality Solicitors) has specific “flat rate” prices for stages, or levels, of work, with an open end hourly rate if needed. For instance, in estate planning:

Simple will with components A, B, and C:              $750
Additional if D is needed:                                         $300
Additional if E, F & G are needed                            $900
If H is requested                                                      $1200

Likewise, in litigation, pricing might look like this:

Review of matter, development of strategy,
Filing of initial suit (includes up to five client meetings)                     $3,000 – $5,000
Additional meetings                                                                           $400
Deposition fee (travel billed separately), per deposition, per day     $1000
Trial preparation                                                                                $5,000 – $9,000
Trial, per attorney per day                                                                 $3,000 – $5,000

This is an admittedly simple model with numbers that may not fit for you. But the concept is important. Specific prices for specific, well defined (in writing) types or stages of work. The client should be able to see what they can expect to pay for each stage of the work, and so they can make better decisions based partly on the dollar consequences.

Yes, even when your work is carefully unit-priced, sometimes your time will be more than the fee involved. But you’ll prosper on the law of large numbers rather than on each matter. And after all, what better way to drive innovation and efficiency (which the legal profession has never, until recently, had to deal with) than having to analyze past work to identify better methods or better pricing?

The traditionalist objection to this “cost-based” decision tree for the client is “The client might stop me from doing something important because of cost! They’ll be telling me how to practice law!” Yep, and yep. My answer to that is to yell “IT’S ALWAYS THE CLIENT’S CASE, NOT YOURS!” and to remind the attorney of their first and foremost duty in the client relationship: advice and counsel. If the client decides not to take the advice (which should, needless to say, be documented in a letter or email), then it’s ultimately the client’s decision. How’s that really different than today’s real life?

Second: Make sure your website does its job for you.
What does that mean? First, it means acknowledging that it’s a web world. Even if most of your business is referrals, know that most of those prospects, after they were given your name, went to your website to check you out. So, no website? Really? Then you’re missing out on lots of clients who searched for you, couldn’t find you, and didn’t call. Crappy, creaky 1999 website? Ditto.

So. Give in to the reality that you should pay a design expert to create an impactful, compelling website that attracts viewers to become clients. Because it’s no longer your business card. It’s your front door. Need a referral? Call me.

And if all of your business is referrals, and most people find you on the web by typing in your name (your website statistics can tell you this), maybe that’s all you need.

If most of your business comes from strangers – walk-ins, in traditional terms (remember where your front door is), then make sure your website has all the bells and whistles that make Google light up and want to rank you highly in the listings. This is the first part of what the geeks call “website optimization,” and it’s a job for experts – which doesn’t mean your brother-in law the computer programmer, unless he has at least three recommendations from law firms. There’s a science to picking a web designer who can do both great design and great “organic” optimization. Happy to provide the details. Call me.

Next step – decide where you want to appear on the list when the consumer does a search for “family lawyer” or such. Several options here. You can pay Google to list you at the top of the page, in as many jurisdictions as you can afford.  You can pay a web magician to get you listed at the top of the next group of “unpaid” listings (an arcane and less than perfect art – again, do your due diligence). You can buy a “pay-per-click” ad in the far right column that you only pay for when someone clicks on it to go to your website.

All of this means that, finally, you have to have a marketing budget of reasonable size – 10-15% of your budgeted gross revenues at least. Some for your web works, and some for your other marketing. Many personal injury firms spend far more than this.

Third – do your own marketing.
That means advertising where necessary, and most importantly, personal marketing – building and maintaining relationships with your referral sources – in other words, paying attention to the Parieto Principle – the old 80-20 rule that says 80% of your business will come from 20% or your (you name it – efforts, contacts, expenditures).

The still-true fact is that the best business comes from referrals – other professionals (especially your fellow attorneys), former clients, and personal, social and business contacts. And that’s at all levels, right up to the top of the profession. CEO’s don’t Google “corporate lawyer.” They ask their fellow CEO’s or their CFO or accounting firm for a referral.

And referrals are, by far, the cheapest source of business. So, like it or not, you have to be extremely active with relationship-building. And particularly if you are in a smaller community, you have to be ubiquitous – a “leading citizen,” known and respected by all. Be seen, involved and active in as many places as possible. That in itself won’t make you rich, but turning all of that into a systematic, efficient and results-oriented personal marketing program will. If you need some pointers here, give me a call.

The final truth. . .
Consumer law is going away from the traditional practitioner to the LegalZooms, the RocketLawyers, the franchises, the do-it-yourself forms on the web. The lawyer’s hold on the lower levels of the legal system is slipping fast, as the web offers more and more choices and opportunities. Yes, those choices may not always be the best, but sometimes, the consumer only needs a Kia, not the Bentley we want to sell them. And remember that it’s always the consumer’s choice, not ours.

. . . And the larger solution
Move up the ladder, away from the simple to the more complex work, whether that be corporate or high net worth individuals or successful entrepreneurs, where needs are more complex and nuanced, where matters and their solutions are unique, and where long-term relationships – those “trusted advisor” relationships exist between client and attorney.

Or get ready to buy a franchise.

Here Comes the Revolution – How to Hold On to Your Team Stars

Seven people have passed the exam to be the nation’s first “legal technicians” in Washington state. A quote from the ABA Journal article by Debra Cassens Weiss:

“Washington is the first state with a program to allow limited license legal technicians (LLLT’s)  to help litigants prepare legal documents and provide advice on legal procedures without a lawyer’s supervision.”

And a second story, this time from the ABA itself: Legal technicians may partly own law firms in this state; is ban to nonlawyer ownership crumbling?

The short answer is a resounding YES. The dreaded “ABS” (alternative business structures) which allow non-attorney ownership of law firms, which is already in place in Australia, Great Britain and is coming soon in Canada, has now been breached in Washington State, sans blessing from the ABA.

And if your reaction is “it’ll never catch on,” you’re dead wrong. Oregon is close to following suit. California and New York are considering. Florida is taking a look.

A recent article in the New Jersey Law Journal titled The New World of Outside Investment in Law Firms” has an enlightening comment about the traditional resistance to change – the “law is a profession, not a business” argument:

“There is a hoary battle cry we always hear when having these discussions: “practicing law is a profession, not a business.” That started in the late 19th century when lawyers began to establish a professional identity and adopted the Victorian scheme of professionalism from England. At its core was the tension between the ascendant commercial classes and those who considered themselves better than merchants and above the fray. Many of them practiced law as a gentlemanly profession, but relied on their family money to pay the bills. Few of us today have trust funds. If we don’t bill, we don’t eat. That sounds pretty commercial to me.”

The article also discusses a seminal event – the first law firm in Britain to do an IPO. Well worth reading.

The licensed legal technician trend, like the “nurse practitioner” and “physician assistant” waves that are sweeping the medical profession, is coming to a state near you. And it will affect you in the following ways:

First – unless you’re willing to lose that outstanding paralegal, be prepared to re-think and re-structure how your practice works to keep them – and their revenues – inside the firm. Don’t worry about losing your under-performers. They’ll stay as long as you let them collect a paycheck.

Second – get ready to completely re-imagine and re-design your operations, marketing, client relationships and fees – before your competitors do – to take full advantage of this new category of legal service professionals. Because the toughest of those competitors will. You can implement a good part of this re-design right now on a practical level, before the revolution comes to your town. Frankly, much of the legal profession has been doing this for decades – we’ve just disguised it well.

Third – Get used to not supervising the person who used to be your paralegal. It will be a separate profession with its own standards and procedures. Although in Washington State it is still entwined with the Bar, the state Supreme Court actually created a separate LLLT Board to oversee it. Soon that board will operate in parallel with, and not beneath, the State Bar. Watch for the emergence of a parallel “bar.”

Fourth – expect to find yourself directly competing with one or more LLLT’s. They no longer have to work under the supervision of an attorney. They can – and will – open their own firms. But they will not be admitted to represent clients in court (yet).

Fifth – if you have one or more outstanding paralegals, be prepared to enter into new relationships with them. Many of the best will want to be partners with you – or if not with you, then with another attorney – likely your direct competitor.

Sixth – like it or not, your world is about to change. Read CNN’s commentary The Fall and Rise of Lawyers.

And finally, if you’re worried about your future direction and could use some help drawing a roadmap to your future, call or text me – 407-830-9810 – or shoot me an email – dustin@attorneysmasterclass.com.

 

Do You Have a Pending Website Disaster? Here’s How to Avoid It

Just called up a colleague’s website to find it was trashed with error messages, the result of an unsuccessful attempt to switch IT providers.

Here are some of the most important lessons that I have learned from working with many clients in website development, updates and transitions:

1) If you plan to contract with a provider, first, get the name of the program it is to be developed with. Today, the safest – and most common – program websites are developed in WordPress. If your developer is not using it, move on to one who does. This is the vehicle that makes sure your website it’s completely portable, and your developer can’t hold you hostage.

Second, get a written development agreement that specifies total costs, maintenance costs, hourly rates for changes, and certifies that the website will be 100% portable, with a dollar-specific penalty clause if it proves to be otherwise. It should also specifiy that you own full rights to everything created.

2) Make sure that you own your own domain name. You’d be surprised how many un-techy people hand the whole thing over to a web developer and later discover they are trapped because the developer both owns the domain name and has created a non-portable website.

3) Schedule someone in the office to do a monthly test of every piece of the website, including menu bars, linked documents, contact forms (actually submit a contact form each time to make sure they show up in the appropriate in-box) and out-links.

5) Make a (marketing) schedule to add and manage content on at least a quarterly basis, if not more often. Static websites fall off the search engines; frequent changes keep its ranking up.

6) Think carefully if they’re trying to sell you a blog with the site. If your plan is to post legal stuff, don’t. Nobody but your competitors cares about the legal stuff. Your prospects and clients won’t read it. If your plan is to do articles with daily relevance to your target market – say, senior issues, community issues or business issues, good for you.

But think beyond content to commitment. Blogs are only good marketing when they are constantly fed – ideally weekly, at least every couple of weeks, and you work to build subscribers, or have a regular procedure to push out notifications to a larger list. And unless you are deeply committed, you will almost inevitably stop, or at least slow down, and it will become a burden.

And if you plan to hire a ghost-writer, check with your Bar counsel first. Some Bar associations require that such materials have to be written by the lawyer personally, and labelling someone else’s work as your own is an ethical violation.

Finally, if you’re really committed to a blog, don’t use the web developer’s blog. Most are restrictive and not blogger-friendly. Use a true WordPress blog, either directly at https://wordpress.com/website/ or through one of the facilitators like GoDaddy.com.

So. If the above cautions have you nervous – or if the whole idea of creating – or taking charge of – your website or starting a blog seems daunting, just shoot me an email at dustin@attorneysmasterclass.com or give me a call at 407-830-9810. always happy to share my thought and help however I can.

Are You An Excitement Addict? What Is It Costing You?

The wonderful Susan Carter Liebel just posted a great article on the Solo Practice University site about entrepreneurial addiction – people who are serial entrepreneurs and love the creation process better than the implementation process, and get bored with established routine. Such entrepreneurs, inside or outside of the legal profession, are the life blood of a vibrant country.

I want to shine the spotlight on another, more troubling addiction that seems to be rampant in the legal profession. Excitement. It’s an addiction that typically takes a toll on the attorney’s practice, clients, family, and eventually themselves.

And make no mistake, it’s a true, medically-defined addiction. The more accurate term is “adrenaline addiction” because of the fight or flight hormone produced that is designed to speed us up when danger approaches.

A caveat here. A good, committed attorney will usually experience a consistent amount of stress in their daily practice. Being able to function well in stressful situations is a valuable trait. But for some, the stress either accelerates because of lack of understanding of how to manage and grow a practice, or sometimes because, in a real sense, they crave more of it.

The adrenaline-addicted attorney lives constantly on the edge. Always late for meetings and appointments, drives fast everywhere, never has enough time to do any forward planning to avoid the next crisis or to stay out of chaos, so chaos continues to reign. They are often at odds with judges and opposing counsel. They almost invariably have high staff turnover. They drink copious amounts of coffee or caffeine drinks. They cannot be separated from their mobile devices or their e-mail – 24 hours a day.

And tellingly, they also often have high receivables, because they often have poor judgment on client intake, are short on client responsiveness, and never find enough time to follow up on receivables. As a result, difficult, no-pay clients occupy significant time in their practice and their finances, creating yet more chaos. And in another sense, clients who are uncooperative are another chance for exciting conflict.

For the adrenaline addict, order, predictability, and procedural days are not exciting, but chaos and crisis are. Being late for appointments, arriving at the last minute in court, verbal jousting with frustrated clients and opposing counsel are. Even having high receivables is exciting in a negative way. After all, stress is the first cousin to excitement.

Many attorneys who profess frustration and stress about their practice are, unknowingly, excitement addicts.

Some are naturals. A common cause is growing up in an alcoholic family, where constant volatility and unpredictability created an atmosphere of fear and excitement, and a need to be hypervigilant.

And some were simply trained by the legal profession to be so. How does that occur? They may have begun their careers in firms where the workload was so overwhelming that they were always behind, and the management so overbearing that they were always under fire. In this atmosphere, young attorneys come to believe that high stress and constant crisis are normal components of a successful practice. And when they open their own firms or move to a less demanding and stressful position, they unconsciously go about creating the familiar – even though unpleasant – atmosphere.

How does the adrenaline addict feed their addiction? By –
Taking in difficult clients that, at some level they know will be a collections challenge.
Taking too many clients, so that they will always be overworked and under organized.
Not investing sufficient time with cases to strategize, schedule, get the work done, and build strong client relationships.
Not having sufficient support team, or even worse, not effectively utilizing their support team.
Viewing every encounter, from client to opposing counsel to judge, as opponents to be outsmarted and vanquished, rather than collaborators in the legal process.
Drinking 3 or more caffeinated drinks daily
Frequent offensive driving behavior, such as tailgating, speeding or road rage
Constant scheduling of appointments, meetings and events with little down time in-between, and always on-the-go
Frequently causing drama between him or herself and others, or knowingly putting him or herself into stressful situations

And the result?
For the practice –
• An attorney and staff who work long hours inefficiently and at a high level of stress
High staff turnover
High client dissatisfaction and resulting high receivables
Periodic grievances and even occasional malpractice suits
Damaged professional reputation
Financial struggles

For the attorney’s personal life –
Relationship turmoil, alienated children and family
Broken promises
Potential or actual health problems
• Lots of high-risk sports and activities
Other addictions, such as alcohol, gambling
Overspending, credit card debt, impulse buying, financial problems
Lots of toys quickly discarded

If you see a bit of yourself in any of this and want to make it different (and there’s the rub – it’s a hugely difficult addiction to give up), I’ve provided some useful reading below. And I’d be happy to chat about how I might help you change that behavior into others that promote a healthy practice and a healthier life. Give me a call at 407-830-9810.

Some useful reading:
Can You Be Addicted To Entrepreneurship? – Solo Practice University
The ACOA Laundry List of Traits, Trait 8 – Excitement
The Painful Reality of Adrenaline Addiction
How to Overcome Adrenaline Addiction: Tips From A Former Addict
Adrenaline Self Test
Are You Addicted to Your Own Stress?
ADDICTED TO ADRENALINE?

Here We Go Again – The Busy Trap is Stopping Lawyers From Riding the Wave

There is a rising economic wave – yet many lawyers’ practices are full. They’ve suddenly become too busy to grow their practices. I haven’t encountered this since before the crash. Lawyers who a year ago were out hunbig-waveting for business are now hiding out, trying to get their work done, and ignoring their marketing.

Smart lawyers who see the wave coming get out their surfboards. They start asking “how do I need to evolve this practice to take advantage of the rising market?” Dumb ones put on their life jackets and just try to stay afloat. Their mantra is “I’m too busy – I don’t have time to market!”

So, a blunt question: when is the best time to fish? When the pond is dry, or when it’s been re-stocked?

The firms that will survive and prosper are led by forward-thinking managing partners who monitor their attorneys’ workloads and proactively intervene to provide more support, more resources, and practical training on team management. They help attorneys evolve from worker-bee to a true legal CEO.

But the reaction of most firms is to hunker down. “We don’t need more help – it’s too expensive. The harder we work, the more profit we take home.” As a result they burn out their team, increase turnover of good team members, and miss the opportunity for spectacular growth.

Is your firm hunkering down in the face of a growing economy, or is it seeking to ride the wave?

If you’re in hunker down mode and want out, let’s talk. Call me at 407-830-9810.

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.

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.

Sams Club Makes Legalzoom a Member Benefit

I predicted the further commoditization of legal services in a recent post, “The “Walmart Lawyer” Has Arrived.” Now Walmart has gone beyond its Canadian experiment with Avvo and rolled out Legalzoom nationwide. Just as I predicted.

This from today’s edition of The Florida Bar News:

“Legal Zoom did more than 1 million wills last year. It’s now a benefit for members of Sam’s Club, whose stores may eventually have lawyers on site. Avvo, which started as a lawyer rating service, now links a potential client to a lawyer every eight seconds and is setting up a service where anyone can speak to a lawyer for 15 minutes, for $39.” Read the full Florida Bar article HERE.

What is the bigger picture here? Bar associations, starting with the ABA, have so badly failed their profession that thousands of lawyers are inevitably – and in many cases, not even gradually – losing their ability to make a living at the law. Bar associations are tragically far behind the curve in serving the needs and interests of their members. The very organizations which used to protect entry to the hallowed portals of the law and keep legal services expensive, are now at the back of the pack, trying to react to the fast-moving world of business.

Futurists such as Richard Susskind in “The End of Lawyers?” and Jordan Furlong, in scores of far-seeing posts on his blog law21.ca (and occasionally myself) have been laying it all out in chapter and verse for years.  And Bar associations have done essentially nothing – at least nothing substantive – to respond. They have been re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

The next big challenge for Bar associations – to which they will fail to rise – is the rising tide of transformation in the profession in Australia, Britain, and soon, Canada – multi-disciplinary practices, non-lawyer ownership of law firms, and more – as outlined the the Canadian Bar Futures Report (an absolute must-read). Bar associations will dither and quibble until the questions become irrelevant, as outside forces take over.

As I and scores of others have predicted, the bottom half of the market for legal services – the “commodity” half (where a great percentage of most attorneys live) is going away, or becoming commoditized to the $39 level now offered by AVVO.

The top half – where legal services are more complex and problems and solutions more unique – can survive, but only by taking dramatic steps to re-invent how they accomplish and deliver their services. For they too are coming under immense pressure from corporate clients who are no longer tolerating the “black hole” approach to billing. Pfizer fired one of the first shots here as early as the mid-2000’s. They announced that they were spending nearly half a billion dollars a year on legal services, and were firing half of their law firms and requiring the rest to provide services on a flat-fee basis. Thousands of companies are following suit.

The solutions? The “legal project management” approach, in whole or in part. As currently taught, it is aimed at mega-matters, and is far too complex for many practitioners (just like much case management software). But focus on internal capacity and efficiency – building strong, efficient and fast-moving teams – is essential to safe navigation of the future, even at the “bespoke” level of the law.

To survive attorneys and law firms must take heed of the principles I put forth in my “Heirarchy of Value of the Attorney In the Practice.”

First and most important – marketing – making sure we have clients to serve. Without clients, the attorney’s skills are irrelevant.
Second – client relationships – making sure the client is being well served (by the team), is happy with the work, speaks well to others about the attorney, and comes back with more work.
Third – Creating the strategy and direction – the roadmap – for the matter. I call this the “wisdom” piece.
Fourth – leading the team to get the result. Leading, not doing it all.
Fifth – the high-level legal work which no team member can do. This hearkens back to the strategy, but also means key client meetings, depositions, hearings, mediations, and trial. This is the neurosurgeon approach. He or she has a team that provides all the initial work, preps the patient for surgery, and often even does the initial opening. The neurosurgeon does only that part of the surgery that no one else can do. And when they’re done they leave the team to close and complete the surgery.

If you’re looking into the face of a rapidly changing marketplace and could use some input, call me. Always happy to offer whatever advice I can. 407-830-9810.

More rants – and more solutions – in coming posts.

Maybe Marketing Isn’t Your Problem!

In many areas of the country, the market is heating up, and when that happens, the biggest danger isn’t necessarily lack of marketing – it’s the fact that attorneys have only so much time and capacity to get the work done – and when they’re on overwhelm, they’re not marketing to capture all the additional work that’s available.  And even worse, they’re not able to deliver the best service to their current clients.

So, marketing isn’t necessarily your biggest obstacle. It might be your CAPACITY AND EFFICIENCY. And how do you increase it?

“Systems, Sorta Systems,”  part four of my video series  “Seven Ways Good Law Firms Lose Money,” discusses how poor systems – or poor use of systems – can seriously hamper a firm’s growth. It’s just 10 minutes long, and it’s worth circulating to every attorney.

The larger issue here is that the profession is moving in the wrong direction – shrinking support rather than increasing it. Steve Jobs didn’t stay in the garage building computers – he assembled a team to do almost everything he was doing, except the most important parts – the ideas and the leadership – what I refer to in the legal profession as the “wisdom” piece. When the attorney is using their time doing work that could be done by an associate, a paralegal or an assistant, they are not operating at their highest value. They have a practical ceiling on how many files and how many hours they can work – and how much time they have to make sure more business comes in.

There is a mistaken belief that technology can substitute for team. Only partly true. The lawyer without a team but with great technology has simply raised their ceiling, not removed it. And in the process they have trapped themselves inside the machine.

As Michael Gerber put it so succinctly in his book “The E-Myth,”  “if no work gets done when you are not present, you don’t have a business – you have a job.”

The path to an unlimited practice is paved not with Ipads and software, but people, systems, procedures – but most of all, great leadership and great management – of which the legal profession is in short supply. Almost every day, I help lawyers expand the

Don’t miss “Systems, Sorta Systems,” or any of the first four parts:

“A Checkbook Mentality”
“Technicians In Charge”
“The Almost Lone Ranger Syndrome”

And of course, call me if I can help Always happy to talk, no charge. 407-830-9810.

The 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.

The “Walmart Lawyer” Has Arrived

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

The rise has begun.

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

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

What makes them different?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

PI Attorneys: the Revolution is Upon Us

The revolution I have been predicting for years is upon us, led by the nation’s largest personal injury firm, with 270 attorneys, based here in Orlando, but with tentacles across the nation.
An article in the May 16 Orlando Sentinel reads as follows:
“John Morgan, founder of Morgan and Morgan, is expanding the firm’s focus on commercial contingency litigation – taking a case in which a business is suing another business but only getting paid by the client if that client wins.”
And if you think it’s a tentative commitment, think again. “Morgan said he’s planning to add fifty lawyers in the commercial trial area over the next five years.”
Why? For several reasons. First, he is seeing personal injury work declining due to greater regulation and legislation. “A few years ago, nursing home cases were 20% of our business, but that’s down to 1% now.”
Second, because auto accident cases are dropping due to technology that is making cars safer.
Third, my issue, which he doesn’t mention, is the tide of young attorneys coming into the PI marketplace willing to take most anything, discount their fees, and too often spend big dollars on advertising. Then often go out of business.
I work with personal injury firms around the country to help them make their operations more efficient and their marketing more productive. But in every case, I see the train a-comin’. In some areas it’s a long way off, but in others such as Orlando and Miami and Atlanta and Chicago and Boston and New York, it’s already in the station. Firms are spending more and more on advertising and getting less and less in return. The pie is indeed shrinking – or at least, getting harder to cut – while those trying to cut themselves a piece are wall-to-wall.
The game is changing. Contingency commercial litigation is a relatively new animal with huge potential, and the smartest firms will follow Morgan’s lead – ahead of the crowd. It doesn’t mean that you stop what you’re doing and switch, only that you start investing your current profits into creation of a new department, and the development of a new market profile. In fact, I’m helping several firms do this as we speak. Call me if I can help.

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.

Are We Multitasking Our Ethics?

Hope you read that great article in the September/October issue of Law Practice – “Churn That Bill, Baby! Overbilling in Law Firms.”  It brought to mind another looming problem of ethics and integrity that has gone virtually unnoticed in the profession.

I spend approximately 4-6 hours each day on the phone in my role as practice advisor to my various attorney clients around the country. As such, it’s important for me to be highly attuned to vocal clues which tell me where my client is mentally – tired, depressed, excited and energetic, reluctant, inattentive. Each nuance immediately affects the vector of our conversation for that day. At the beginning of each call, I actually close my eyes so that I can be totally focused on “reading” where my client is for our call.

And increasingly I have noticed one particular tendency – “distracted.” When I query, the answer is, almost always, something like “oh, I was just reading an e-mail,” or “I just got a text from my [son, wife, client] and had to respond.”

For too long I have dismissed it as “just the usual” because attorneys are notoriously ADD. But I can’t anymore, because it suddenly hit me – if they’re doing that to me, they’re also doing it to their clients, their colleagues and even their friends and family.

Multitasking has always been an issue – or, even more, a reality – in the legal profession. But it has now escalated to a dangerous level. Our technology has far outpaced our biology.

What your clients are buying is not simply your time. It is your wisdom, your experience, and most of all, your careful consideration. And a 1987 Harvard study on focus and concentration found that, when you are highly focused and experience an interruption, it takes from 7 to 11 minutes to return to that highly focused state.

So my question is – when you are talking on the phone with a client and also texting and glancing at a brief and motioning to your assistant, and your attention is divided – are you giving your client your best? Can you be fully listening – fully present – for what might suddenly be a critical conversation? An even more telling question: would you do this if the client were sitting in front of you?

And in that respect, are you charging your client for all of that time, even though pieces of it have been devoted to other work? If so, why? And if not, how in the world can you possibly record appropriate time for all the various work you touched while purportedly working for that client?

The answer, from my experience, is that either attorneys don’t try to capture (i.e., lose) the time, or at some point they add in a “farkle” amount to various client bills to account for the dozens – maybe hundreds – of times that a few moments of their attention was on that matter. And that, my friend, is writing fiction. Lying to your client.

And the bigger question — is our techno gadget society reducing our focus on doing our best work, and in the process, compromising both our personal and financial ethics?

A modest suggestion for all of my ethical colleagues in the profession. Notice the time you are NOT focusing on your client or your work. Resolve to change your modus operandi. When you are on the phone with a client. Commit to being fully present for the next conversation. Give them the focus and attention – and level of wisdom and skill – they are paying you for. Silence your cell. Put your office phone on DND. Close your e-mail window. Listen. Focus. Give your client your absolute best, and your most honest and accurate bill.

It’s not only the ethical thing to do. It’s the RIGHT thing to do.

Do you REALLY Need Case Management Software? No You REALLY Don’t, If — Part Three in the Case Management Series

Nalini Mahadevan replied to my LinkedIn post asking for experiences with case management software, and it inspired me to add a chapter in my on “Do You Really Need Case Management Software” Series. She asked “What CRM software do you recommend? I thought CRM needed a professional install.”

Thanks, Nalini, for a perfect segue into the next part of my ramble.

First, let’s distinguish between “CRM” and “CM” software. “CRM” means “customer relations management,” otherwise known as “contact management.” It does exactly what it says it does – manages people. It’s used by sales people, schedulers, and millions of people who need to keep track of, and in communication with, lots of other people. You can think of CRM as the old Rolodex on steroids. Good CRM provides the following functions:

  • A database of contacts with all relevant contact information such as name, phone, e-mail address, etc.
  • An e-mail center (not Outlook) integrated with the contacts, for easy electronic communication, and tracking of e-mails in and out.
  • Template and merge forms capability, for easy writing of letters, memos, forms, and all sorts of documents.
  • Database management – that is, the ability to parse and sort and organize your contact list so that you can communicate with highly specific groups, such as all family law attorneys in firms of less than five in zip codes between 602000 and 623000. Good CRM has built-in software to organize and shape your database.
  • Document organization The ability to link other information such as PDFs, photos, etc. to a specific contact file.

“CM” or “case management software,” is a similar but considerably different animal. It’s about managing matters. In other words, it’s “matter centric” rather than “people centric.” To badly mangle Shakespeare, “the matter’s the thing.” It accomplishes all of those things I outlined in my first post of this series, and has the ability to set up automated procedures to calendar important items. For instance, it can be programmed, whenever you utilize a certain template document, to calendar a reminder or a statute a specific time period afterwards. One of the most important strengths of case management software is its ability to connect and organize large amounts of disparate information, from documents received, to documents sent, e-mails in and out, discovery information, title or medical documents, etc. etc.

So. First stop in the quest: do you need to manage large amounts of information, deadlines, communications, appointments, etc. on a large number of files? Or is your biggest priority communications with clients, former clients, referral sources and other professional contacts? In other words, is your priority more in the realm of marketing and communications with people, or managing complex matters? To put it even more simply, are your priorities people or matters?

An estate planning attorney who does mostly simple documents and needs software mainly to book appointments and send and receive e-mail and track conflicts does not need case management software. They can create a library of template forms in their CRM, and will find the calendaring and e-mail modules in CRM perfectly satisfactory. In short, all of their needs can be accomplished neatly with a vastly less expensive contact management software such as ACT!, Chaos, Maximizer, Goldmine, and literally dozens of others, both locally installed and on the cloud – some of which are actually free. Here’s a link to one website which offers comparisons among just a sampling of the most popular CRM.

Beyond the difference in expense, there is another perhaps even more important difference. Most “CRM” is intuitive, easy to use and often has inexpensive mobile apps, while most “CM” has a perilously long learning curve, is complex and requires constant user discipline and attentiveness. Which means, unfortunately, you will need an enforcer and will experience a great deal of resistance and reluctance from others – and even, quite possibly, yourself.

So. The answer to my question, “Do You Really Need Case Management Software – Really?” For some the answer is “No!” Emphatically no. Really.

And Nalini, regarding your question concerning professional installation, you are right. “CM” does require professional install, and often hardware upgrades, and certainly contract support both for the technology and the users. More expense and more complexity. No wonder so many attorneys, staff and firms grow quickly to hate their CM. See my first post of this series.

Finally, I welcome all  comments from case management vendors, happy and unhappy CM and CRM users and colleagues. Let’s get a good fistfight going here. I can take it.

Next post I’ll get down and dirty and dissect specific CM software. Promise.

What Software Do You REALLY Need? REALLY? – Part Two

That Shiny Thing
Case management software is often that shiny thing that attorneys think they need. Kind of a status symbol, or a miracle solution to a chaotic operation. I can’t count the number of firms I have worked with where they have a full (and very expensive) complement of some type of CM software, and also had all the frustrations I listed in the previous post. And my assignment was (surprise!) to bring some order to their operations.

There are two important things to understand before making the decision to install any kind of software.

First, things will get worse before they get better, even when you do everything right. People hate change, many people hate computers and software, and many will resist purely on principle. So expect resistance at the beginning – it’s normal – until people realize the system is here to stay, or until they’re required to use the new system enough that it becomes the “new normal.”.

A warning. If you have a group of “immovable objects” for staff – people who you allow to make their own rules (often people you feel are so indispensable that you can’t afford to offend them, or who are the only people who control certain information), it just ain’t gonna work. By the way, if you have such people, fix it or prove they’re not indispensable. Fire them. Never allow yourself to be held hostage by a staff member.

Second, there is no magic bullet. No software, no training can make up for poor management. Supposedly, you are considering software because your firm is growing. If so, something else must grow: your skills in the art of management. The downfall of most attorneys is that they simply “want to do legal work” and consequently ignore the fact that they have a business to run and a team to manage. They want to simply close the door and go to work. As Michael Gerber says in his book the E-Myth, to succeed you must work ON your business, and not simply IN it. So, if you’re planning to institute software, be sure to institute better management skills along with it.

What Did Your Careful Study Tell You about Your Firm’s Software Need?
Are your needs mostly about complex document assembly? If so, that’s not case management, that’s document management. Case management software will seldom provide this ability, so don’t go looking for CM when you need “DM”.

Are your needs  mostly about time & billing? If so, again you don’t need full case management software. And please don’t go there. You will be buying more than you need, and paying more than you need, and wasting most of your cost. Even the ABA gets the issues confused. They have a table of comparisons of what they say is time and billing software, yet 80% of what they list is case management software with T&B capabilities.

Are your needs are more about communications? That is, contact management and database marketing – case management software is once again overkill. Look to the area called “contact management” software, otherwise known as “CRM”, customer relations management software. Nearly all CRM has valuable capabilities you can use in your practice, such as merge forms and e-mail management.

So When Do You Really Need Case Management Software? Really?
That’s the next post. We’ll get there. I promise. And after that – my jaundiced views on just what software to choose.

DON’T DON’T DON’T Use Free Email Like Google, Yahoo, MSN

Just received my third spam e-mail this week from a friend who uses the free Yahoo email service.

If you value your professionalism – if you value your ethics, and the security of your client communications, DON’T use free e-mail because there is absolutely NO security, and your contact list and the contents of all your e-mail is in the cloud for anyone who wants to grab it.

You DON”T have to have a website to have a secure email with your own domain name. It’ll cost you about $7 a month plus the cost of buying your own domain name, which is a one-time charge of maybe $6-12. If that’s too expensive, maybe you’re in the wrong business.

It’s easy. Here’s how.

Go to http://www.godaddy.com/. Find the “All Products” link at top left. Click on it. A menu will drop down. Click on “Email.” Another menu will pop up. Choose “Business Email.” Another page will pop up. Choose the center one, “Business Email.” When you do, yet another box will pop up which will urge you to upgrade to unlimited e-mail. Do it. You’re now up to a grand total of $6.99 per month for a complete e-mail interface, unlimited e-mail storage, 10 email addresses and a shared 10-user calendar. Or stay with the basic.

If you don’t have a domain name, you’ll need one, so follow the second option through and find one that works for you. Add another flat fee of maybe $6-12.

Finally, now that you have your own domain name, bite the bullet and create your own website. if you have even basic computer skills, you can do it yourself, or turn it over to your 13-year-old relative. But you do need one, now that you have your own web address for email, because as soon as the recipient gets your e-mail and sees the domain name, they’ll try to look you up. So you’d better be there.

The fact is, you really, REALLY REEAALLY need a website, especially if most of your business comes from referrals. Because increasingly, when someone gets your name from a referral source, they’ll check you out on the web before calling. So, if you don’t have a website, there are who knows how many people who DON’T call you, even though someone referred them to you.

So. A stealth way to push you to get a website – as part of FINALLY getting safe, secure email.

If I can offer any further thoughts, shoot me an e-mail at dustin@attorneysmasterclass.com.

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.

Ten Tips for a Successful Practice

The profession is going through an upheaval and shakeout of unprecedented impact. Some futurists predict that as many as a third of the lawyers in practice today will have left the profession within the next five years. How will small firm & solo attorneys need to change their thinking to stay viable? Some of my thoughts —

1. Learn from change, don’t resent it. Ask yourself “what is the opportunity here?”

2. The past ain’t coming back. Move forward or be left behind.

3. Embrace technology. It’s not a choice. Every old dog can learn new tricks. As Yogi  Berra once said, “first ya gotta wanna.”

4. Hire or keep a strong right arm. Without it you don’t have a practice. You have a job.

5. Attracting work is just as important as doing it. Get over it.

6. Develop a clear identity. General practice is not an identity. It’s a plea.

7. Three (okay, four) key words to remember that will help you stay alive: focus, niche and target market. You can’t survive trying to sell everything to everyone.

8. Be highly visible and active in your own and your target market’s community. You won’t be found by prospects if you are hiding in your office.

9. Your worst enemy is inertia, not your competition.

10. Think beyond this month’s billings. Without a roadmap to tomorrow you are living in yesterday.

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.

The Legal Balloon Goes Pop

Another story in the ABA Journal predicting the already  in-progress turmoil and diminishment of the legal profession.

One thought that always rattles around in my head: the profit margin of the average business is, in a good year, 20%. Grocery stores operate on a margin of 2-3%. Law firms operate on an average profit margin of 45-55%, yes, even the pretty good local and solos. Let’s not talk about the margins for some PI firms.

The legal profession has never had  a focus on efficiency and process because of its immense “slop” factor. Even poorly-run, inefficient firms could make barrels of money because they were keepers of the secrets, gods of the law. But technology and the web is stealing the bottom layer, at the same time as hordes of young lawyers are wandering homeless, willing to do whatever work they can find for whatever the client will pay.  And you’ve read, I’m sure, about how technology is now being used to do the kind of complex discovery that associates used to do – and better than they did, because computers don’t get tired or distracted – and also the massive analysis of contracts and agreements to identify key issues. Like all technology, such is now being brought down to the retail level and being made available to smaller firms.

Frankly, all of this is why today I am working with more attorneys and firms than ever – not simply on “marketing” or “operations,” but on transformations – rethinking firm directions, structures, target markets and niches.

The profession is in the process of deflating — until 80% or more are operating like businesses, with similar margins. Law firms in general have no idea how to do that, and senior lawyers will be horrified to see their share of that 45-55 percent profit disappearing.

Law is becoming an business, an industry – at least 80% of it is. And yes, one with high standards. But no longer a high priesthood. And only a few sharply focused superstar lawyers and firms will be left making those amazing profit margins, while thousands of others will be joining the middle income brackets, or less.

 

“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.

“Ethics and Managing Business Risk In the Law Firm”

On July 26-27 I’m conducting a very important seminar in Greenville & Columbia, South Carolina. “Ethics and Managing Business Risk In the Law Firm” is a risk reduction program with a major marketing training component, because I believe a high percentage of malpractice and grievance problems occur due to insufficient income, which compromises the attorney’s ability to deliver the highest quality work and can tempt good attorneys to misuse client funds.

A catastrophe or a serious error can completely destroy a legal career. Too many good attorneys have gone down in flames because of lack of preparedness for a disaster(and they come in a wide variety, from natural to employees or even partners), or lack of income. Because of its importance, it qualifies for 3.0 South Carolina MCLE credit hours, including up to 3.0 LEPR credit hours.

If you’re anywhere close, I encourage you to attend. You can register at http://bit.ly/IZRt6n. If you would like a copy of the handout, e-mail me at dustin@attorneysmasterclass.com

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.

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.

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.