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Getting Clients

Nine Ways to Think Differently About Your Practice

By Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

Finally, law is beginning to shift: new business models, intriguing new ways of delivering legal services, emerging markets driving new demand.

But what does it all mean for your law practice? A few things going forward: 

  • You will have more, different and growing kinds of competition (ouch!).
  • The demand to keep changing up how you do things will persist.
  • Feedback from clients and potential clients should carry more weight.
  • You’ll always be working on your business and finding better ways to meet your clients’ needs and wants.

If you want to stand out, it’s time to build some new skills — and a fresh mindset. 

Shifting Into a New Creative Gear

Imagination and innovation have come to the bar and come to stay. Here are nine ways to shake off tradition and start thinking differently.

1. Sit somewhere else. Truly, it could be something as simple as moving your desk to the other side of the room that will alter your perspective. Take an afternoon away from the usual routine to work in your client’s space. Change the lighting on your desk. Work at home in your kids’ playroom for a while. Anything that changes your environment can help spark some new ideas.

2. Compare notes with colleagues. Get past the feeling that you “ought” to know how to do everything yourself. It’s just not possible. You’ll be surprised what crops up when you compare business challenges with other lawyers in similar practices. They may be in your firm — or practice elsewhere. Eliminate competitive conflict concerns by gathering people from similar practice settings but with different practice focuses. And remember, this isn’t about copying others as much as it is about stimulating new ways of thinking about your own business issues. Meet for coffee, visit their offices or organize a monthly lunch club to coach one another on business practices.

3. “Borrow” from other professions. As unique as you may think the legal profession is, there is much to be learned from other professions. Next time you are cooling your heels in your doctor’s waiting area, ponder what about their office systems might work in yours: Should first-time clients be completing forms for initial input to their file? How about client portals to access confidential information? Don’t limit this pondering to the professions. Believe it or not, there are things about online consumer services, professional sports and academia that may shift your thinking out of its usual rut.

4. Observe consumer behavior. This is a great way to switch up your methods. Are you experiencing a growing number of grumpy phone conversations with clients who have just received their bills? Ask yourself what you can do to prevent that (instead of whining about having stingy clients). Are people always late for appointments? How can you help them remember upcoming meetings? Are more clients asking for short forms of a usually bespoke service? Sounds like an invitation to package a service and market a flat fee! Observe your own particular pain points as you go about your business, then ask how it could be better.  

5. Eliminate the sure thing. Anytime you hear yourself (or others) saying something like, “Well, we’ve always done it that way!” that’s an invitation to innovate. And the correct answer is, “What if we didn’t?” “We’ve always asked clients to come to our office to sign their will packets.” What if you didn’t? What if they signed electronically with you on the phone? “We’ve always used a lawyer to draft the first version.” What if you didn’t? Could a legal assistant draft it for your approval? You get the idea. It can be a lot of fun (and productive) to attack those sacred cows.Getting Clients Digital Edition Now Available

6. Take a break. Free your mind. Make it part of your best business practices to schedule downtime for yourself. Even the most productive machine needs maintenance. Your brain benefits from spending time doing nothing in short and long stretches of time. Go for walks. Play squash. Take every other Friday afternoon off. Start work now on next year’s international vacation. Plan a sabbatical. Play.

7. Collaborate with others — brainstorm. I come up with my best ideas while talking with others. They say there are no new ideas, just the intersection of two (or more) existing ideas. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I do know that matching two random ideas can breed some mighty interesting ones. Pull a team together to work on tough problems or dream up a new direction for your firm. Some people don’t feel as safe as others when thinking in a group. If you’re working with introverts, clearly describe the problem in advance, then suggest everyone bring their ideas to a meeting to share. Advance notice can help.

8. Let ideas find you. Sitting down to think hard about doing something differently is rarely productive. All the really great business ideas presented themselves to minds willing to consider them: eBay, Dropbox, Airbnb … the list is long. Instead, work hard at keeping an open mind and learning to recognize a good idea when it hits you.

9. Be silly. For more than 50 years, Chicago’s Second City has been a training ground for some of the best comic minds in the industry — John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Mike Myers, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey and many more. Its B2B unit, Second City Works, uses these same methods to help companies and nonprofits increase creativity, collaboration and teamwork. The next time you are working on a puzzle or creating something new, try their drama game, “Yes, and!” This classic improv game teaches the value of accepting each other’s ideas and demonstrates the value a little lightheartedness can bring to any problem.

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Categories: Collaboration, Daily Dispatch, Getting Clients, Innovation
Originally published July 17, 2017
Last updated October 1, 2018
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Merrilyn Astin Tarlton Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

Merrilyn is the author of “Getting Clients: For Lawyers Starting Out or Starting Over.” She has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She is a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, an LMA Hall of Fame inductee, and a past President of the College of Law Practice Management. Merrilyn was a founding partner of Attorney at Work. 

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