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Managing Up

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: Tools for Law Firm Growth

By Erik Mazzone

Staying profitable as you grow is all about systems and scale. Start by ensuring you have technology tools that support your law firm’s growth.

law firm growth

Some years ago, I knew a lawyer who had started and grown his firm. The firm grew up to 10 or so lawyers and then had shrunk back down to just him and one other person. When I met him, he was in the process of building his firm back to its previous size.

Since I was a young lawyer interested in practice management, he shared his theory on firm growth: “Once you get big enough that everybody can’t fit in the car to go to lunch together, it’s the beginning of the end.” It was a bit tongue-in-cheek but also contained a kernel of honest reflection.

To Grow, Your Tools, Skills and Management Practices Must Evolve

As they say, what got you here won’t get you there.

Firms grow because the founding lawyer is good at several different competencies (marketing, legal work, financial discipline and so on). As the firm grows, the founder gets stretched further and further until at some point she can no longer personally do all the things she did to make the firm a success in the first place. At that point, she either finds a way to change the way things get done or, like the lawyer I had lunch with, she finds herself at the beginning of the end.

Choosing the Right Tools for Law Firm Growth

Growing your law firm while maintaining profitability is all about systems and scale. It’s about making sure you have the right tools to support growth, the right processes and procedures, a scalable client acquisition strategy, and a plan for expanding and managing your team.

In this article, I am going to highlight some of the tools that you will want to consider adding as you prepare to grow your firm.

Practice Management Software

I’m going to assume that many of you already have practice management and time and billing software. So, I am not going to spend much time on this other than to say: If you don’t yet have and use practice management software in your firm, that needs to be your first step.

There are lots of great options available, but here are a few tips to get you started thinking about it:

  • Think of your practice management software as a platform, the central hub for your firm’s technology that will hook into your other critical tools. Look not just for features included in the software but for integrations and interoperability.
  • Think about your practice management software as a 10-plus-year investment.
  • Kick the tires hard on reporting options — no firm is going to scale effectively without a robust set of reporting features so you can keep tabs on your growing enterprise.
  • If you are already in a practice management software and it works, stick with it. There is a huge tendency to peer over the fence at greener grass. Resist.
  • If you are already in a practice management software and it legitimately is not getting the job done (or is being wound down and lacks support, etc.), I’d strongly urge you to find an implementation partner before you choose a new software. Changing tires while the bus is rolling is significantly more complicated, and it will not be money wasted on finding a consultant to make the process smoother and easier.

Intake and CRM

Many of the excellent practice management software programs have a fully integrated intake feature or the ability to add it as a module. It’s worth doing. As you prepare to be less hands-on in every single part of running your firm, you need to be able to put systems into place that reduce friction, create standards and delight potential clients.

For many firms, a growth bottleneck is the intake process; you have worked hard to develop your reputation and secure valuable referrals. When those referrals take the step to actually contact your firm, they need to be wrapped into a well-designed and managed system that treats them well and doesn’t let them fall through the cracks.

The intake capabilities combined with the practice management software will also allow you to use them as a CRM (customer relations software). As you start to button down your intake and sales process, keeping good data about calls, consultations, retention rates and so on will make it much easier to engage in rational, data-driven decision-making.

(Related: Read “Tech Tips: Best Advice for Improving Client Intake”)

Document Automation

Once your firm has taken the time to set up and use practice management and intake software, you will have client data that is (hopefully) only being entered (typed) into the database once. Each time you add additional information to the client’s file, that additional data represents the opportunity to save labor and reduce errors in producing documents. The way to do this is via document assembly or automation.

Again, several of the major practice management software programs include document assembly tools. If yours does not, it can be worth engaging a legal technology consultant to help you build your library of fillable forms and connect them to your practice management software.

Document assembly will help your team get more done in less time with fewer mistakes. It’s a lot of work getting the fillable forms put together and the team trained on the system, but once you do, it can be a win for clients, your team and the firm.

(Related: Read “Document Automation 101: Techniques You Use Today Without Spending a Dollar” by Erik Mazzone)

Asynchronous Communications

One of the lessons of the pandemic is that business can be interrupted, substantially and for long periods of time. Smart law firms have retooled in the years since to maintain strong business continuity plans, so if need be, all the professionals can work from anywhere they have a laptop and an internet connection. That’s been a great change in some ways, but it has created some challenges in maintaining team culture.

Similarly, a challenge with law firm growth is that as the team expands it can be harder to build and maintain the firm culture. Interactions that happened effortlessly with a small team need to be proactively created and maintained.

A Slack or Teams channel for the firm with several side discussions channels for discussing cases, blowing off steam, discussing weekend plans and so on can be a great way to build team culture asynchronously and from a distance.

Process Documentation — SOPs

In the dark ages of law firm management, it was not uncommon for there to be, somewhere deep in the dusty crevices of a law firm’s back room, an overstuffed (and underused) binder marked “Firm Standard Operating Procedures.” Don’t get me wrong; I am not denigrating establishing and recording procedures and processes. On the contrary, it’s an essential part of growing a law firm. Without well-established and documented procedures, your firm will never achieve any uniformity or consistency in its service.

Happily, the world has moved on a bit past giant SOP binders. There’s a lot of process documentation software out there now. Sweet Process and Process Street are two strong contenders worth considering.

(Related: Read “Ready to Scale: Add More SOPs Before You Add More People” by Karen and David Skinner)

Delegation

This last item is not necessarily a tool for law firm growth, but more of a change in mindset: To grow your firm, you have to accept you can no longer do everything yourself. Some pieces of the operation must be delegated.

The more your firm grows, the more your competencies need to evolve from “getting it all done” to “getting work done through others.”

This is a big change for a lot of lawyer-entrepreneurs and, frankly, a challenging one. But it’s also essential if you want to grow your firm.

Or you could just try taking a really big car to lunch.

Image © iStockPhoto.com.

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Erik Mazzone Erik Mazzone

Erik Mazzone is a law practice management advisor, writer, speaker and adjunct law professor. As a consultant, he works with individuals and organizations to help them use technology and strategic business practices to reign in chaos, build systems, and grow their practices in smart, sustainable ways. Previously, Erik served as Senior Director of the North Carolina Bar Association Membership Experience and Director of the NCBA Center for Practice Management. He writes and speaks widely on legal technology and practice management, in North Carolina and throughout the country. Follow him on Twitter @ErikMazzone and on LinkedIn.

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