Whenever you spend a bunch of time with a group of people (like your family … ahem), you’re bound to become annoyed with them, at least some of the time. I have worked closely with solo and small firm lawyers for years now and I need an outlet, frankly.
I can limit screen time for my kids if they piss me off, but there’s nothing I can do when trying to change the tactics of certain wayward lawyers — save for moral suasion, of which this writing is a part.
As always, the idea is not solely to critique and cajole but to find a better way forward. (Ever since I turned 40, I’m figuratively telling everyone to get off my lawn. What the hell happened to me? I’m turning into this guy.)
This rundown of 10 annoyances should be nitpicking at its finest, as well as being the inverse of a lesser-known Beatles song:
1. The dash in your URL is not cute. I can’t stand this. Who puts a dash in a website URL? Oh, lawyers do! It’s hard to type — even if you’re using auto-complete (for email or web), you still need to type it in at least once. Also, it’s just plain ugly. I’d even go so far as to say it’s fugly. (Yes, I went there.) So, if you’re thinking about adding a dash before the “law” or something in your domain name, just buy a .law domain instead (now that they’re way cheaper). Or leave the dash out altogether — even if you have to pick a new URL.
2. Untie the bow tie. Seriously, why do lawyers still wear them? No one should wear a bow tie unless it squirts water. I mean, if you’re going for the pseudointellectual look, have at it; but, in terms of whether a client will hire you or not, your fashion choice is likely to turn off more people than it turns on. At this point, wearing a bow tie is probably as striking to the modern eye as wearing knickers — and you don’t do that … at least I don’t think you do.
3. Trade in for the trade name. I’ll never understand why more law firms — especially solo and small firms that need every advantage they can get — aren’t more keen on using trade names. For real, what inherent advantage is there in naming your law firm “Smith, Johnson, Wallace & Buttlicker, PC?” There is nothing worse.
First, it takes longer to build your brand. Even if you have a strong reputation in the field already, without a strong professional web presence, likely built via social media and content marketing, you gain no leverage online based on the use of names. It’s almost always better, then, to use a trade name. Something related to your practice, or something otherwise memorable. The most obvious useful consequence of that strategy is that you can immediately take advantage of terminology that your potential clients are more likely to search for. They’ll look for “estate planning,” if they don’t know Roy Hobbs, erstwhile estate planning attorney.
Also, using a brand name rather than, you know, your name, means the idea of your business exists separately from you. If you intend to sell your law firm, there is no better way to telegraph the fact that your business is built entirely on personal reputation — making it less valuable — than to actually inject yourself into the name of your business. Do you think Coca-Cola is worth as much if it’s called Jebediah Munson’s Cocaine & Sugar Juice? Well, there are several things wrong with that name, but you get the point. (I addressed this subject extensively in my latest Legal Toolkit podcast, “How to Name a Law Firm.”)
4. Business systems are for losers! No, wait, wait … business systems are for WINNERS! Solo and small firm lawyers are really cheap. In itself, that’s not an evil. I mean, I’m cheap. I’ve made tangwiches. It’s the way that cheapness is manifested that can create problems. If your business email, for example, ends in aol.com or even gmail.com, that’s not exactly professional. So, spring for a paid business account, and use your URL as your email extension. This will allow your brand to accrete, and also give you access to those additional features attached to paid email accounts. Consider, too, that the cost of cloud-based email, including Microsoft’s industry-leading solution, is next to nothing.
Continuing on in the same vein, a case management system and online accounting tools are better than one — or even two! — spreadsheets. In an environment where legal technology options continue to proliferate, there is no reason to jury-rig anything. The cost outlaid will be made up for in efficiency savings.
5. Help less. The dream of most active lawyers is to get themselves coddled. The majority of lawyers who stick with it really enjoy the practice of law. Their imagined best life is to solely practice substantive law, in a dimly lit cavern, somewhere on the Missouri line. Think about it: How much does your assistant handle for you? How about your paralegal? Your mom? (Sorry, that was a low blow.) Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t farm out everything you can, everything that is not substantive work. It’s just that the manner in which most lawyers go about this is flawed. (I told you I was nitpicking, which is made clear when I have to italicize something.)
Attorneys are often in such a rush to hand off things that they do too little research, and too little preparation, which tends to deep-six an operation before it begins. For example, when you’re looking for new technology, do you thoroughly vet the product or just google it once or twice? When you’re trying to assign work to your paralegals, do you take the time to explain what you want them to do? Do you build a workflow for specific projects? All in all, a little more effort on the front-end smooths the back-end. In other words, don’t act like an Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, fearing a solar eclipse that he does not understand.
6. Unpersuasive precedent. No one cares as much as you do about that case you found from 1843. It’s like talking to people about how you took a bad beat in fantasy football. If your personal relationships are suffering, maybe it’s time to leave work at work.
7. The Golden Record. Your affinity for writing things down is a problem. Not because paper is bad, or because writing things down is bad. The problem is, you’re probably not archiving anything you write down. And if you’re still leaving Post-it notes, they’re probably falling under a desk somewhere. In terms of your malpractice risk, not being able to locate important notes is a problem. Go nonperishable.
8. Con textual. Lawyers increasingly text with their clients, but many do not have a way to archive those text messages. And as I relayed just above: Anytime you fail to document, you fail to adequately protect yourself.
9. All-in. Lawyers, for a variety of reasons, fear turning down work. Perhaps because they’re afraid that the well will dry. (After a while, it probably becomes self-perpetuating, to an extent.) Or maybe they want to try new and different things on a recurring basis. (Yeah, that’s called “inefficiency.”) Anything that keeps you away from establishing some kind of niche will ultimately reduce the sharpness of your expertise, as well as deflate your potential for revenue.
10. Tomorrowland. Solo and small firm lawyers rarely plan ahead. “Long-term,” then, most likely resembles next month, if even that. What this means is that it is unlikely for law firms that remain transfixed by the moment to ever pick up an effective head of steam. It’s hard to make revenue goals if you don’t make revenue projections in the first place. Let alone retire, right? You want to retire, don’t you? Well, all the commercials say you have to prepare for that.
So, on that note, and as I was planning to do from the start, it’s time to retire this month’s column, just like Old Yeller.
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