Told Ya So – Small Towns are the Next Big Thing

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

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

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

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

New GP Solo Succession Planning Article Now Posted

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

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

Are You Building a Legal Business – Or a Job?

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

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

What’s the distinction?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Older Lawyers Subsidizing Failing Practices While Younger Lawyers Are Homeless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.