Law Firms Are Ostriches, Says Georgetown Law Report

Ostrich ManThe just-released 2016 Report of the State of the Legal Profession from the Georgetown Law Center for the Study of the Legal Profession has some damning words for our supposedly best and brightest. Drawing a comparison to how Kodak went from market domination to crash after missing the market shift from film to digital, the report offers this tasty tidbit:

“The current challenge in the legal market is not that firms are unaware of the threat posed to their current business model. . .Instead, the challenge is that firms are choosing not
to act in response to the threat, even though they are fully aware of its ramifications. . . many law firm partners believe they have an economic model that has served them very well over the years. . .They are consequently reluctant to adopt any changes that could put that traditional business model at risk.

My observation: that’s only half the reason. The other half is that they don’t know what the &$@#* to change it to.

Read the full report HERE.

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.

How Do They Get Away With It? U.S. Firm Evades U.S. Non-Lawyer Ownership Rules

Non-lawyer ownership of law firms are still illegal in the U.S. even though they are now permitted in Australia, the United Kingdom and, soon, Canada. So how is a U.S. firm becoming a fully-licensed ABS (alternative business structure)? It seems they do it by putting “UK” after their London firm name.

LegalFutures, the UK-based legal blog, today reported that New York-based Cahill Gordon & Reindel just became the first U.S. firm to do so. (Last week they reported that Jenner & Block was the first but today retracted that.)

Cahill Gordon & Reindel’s ABS will have non-lawyer ownership, making it a true ABS. Their stated purpose is to expand their litigation offerings to clients in the UK and internationally. Why this requires non-lawyer participation in the firm’s ownership is still unexplained.

I have sent a query to the firm for more information. Watch this space.

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.

2015 Report on the State of the Legal Market – It Ain’t Pretty.

The Managing Partner Forum has just released its 2015 Report on the State of the Legal Market. And it’s not pretty. The most salient quotes:

“In the six and a half years since the onset  of the Great Recession, the market for legal services has changed in fundamental – and probably irreversible – ways …the legal market is now awash with new, non-traditional competitors that over time are likely to change the dynamics of the legal services sector in significant ways.”

“The regulatory barriers that for decades have shielded law firms from such competition are collapsing around the world and, even in countries like the United States where formal regulatory constraints remain largely in place, creative “workarounds” are proliferating. Clearly, a much more vibrant and competitive marketplace is emerging.”

“…There is now strong evidence that the U.S. legal market has segmented into discernible categories of highly successful and less successful firms, and that the performance gaps between those categories has been steadily widening.”

The shifting dynamics of the legal services market underscore the critical importance of law firms taking a strategic and long-range view of how their clients, their practices, their markets, and their competitors are changing. . . The resistance to change may also be rooted, ironically, in the very success that the legal industry enjoyed prior to 2008 and, by at least some measures, continues to enjoy today. We may, in other words, be victims of our own success.”

And more…

“Since the collapse in demand in 2009 (when growth hit a negative 5.1% level), demand growth in the market has remained essentially flat to slightly negative.”

“Demand growth in litigation. . . remained negative, as it has been more or less since the recession in 2008.”

“It is increasingly clear that the buying habits of business clients have shifted in a couple of significant ways that have adversely impacted the demand for law firm services.”

“…the major accounting firms again appear to be aggressively pursuing opportunities in the legal sector as well.”

Read the full report HERE

Need some advice on navigating your ship safely to the future? Some directions at http://www.attorneysmasterclass.com/ or http://www.legalceonow.com/ or  http://www.advancedattorneys.com/

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

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.