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Four Steps to Surviving the New Normal

By Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

It gets to be a bit much, all the chatter about the legal profession changing at the speed of light. Even if it is transforming into something quite great — I know, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t — it seems nearly impossible to figure out what to do about it in your own law practice. Particularly if you can hardly keep your head above water with the old normal practice of law.

Come Prepared to Compete

Let’s cut to the chase and identify what you ought to be doing now if you want your business of law to be thriving in 10 years, or five, or even one year from now. Here’s your to-do list.

1. Kiss hourly billing goodbye. You can’t keep bleeding money and clients just because you don’t want to be bothered crunching the numbers. Gone is the time when you could simply reach over and click on the game clock as soon as you started talking/thinking/writing — then flip it off and write up the bill when you were done. If you want to do it differently — and you do, right? — you need to know your facts: How long does it generally take you to do this sort of thing? How quickly can it be done? What if you got someone else to do it? Do you have reusable work product that relates to this? What does it really cost you to provide an hour of your services? (Overhead? Salaries?) Get a firm grip on your historical and ongoing financial data — there are great apps and systems that will do it for you. Make it your business to get up to speed on emerging pricing strategies for legal services. Experiment. Learn. Apply.

2. Focus on what your client thinks is valuable. Truly, you can’t figure out how to charge for something until you figure out if that “something” is what your client wants. Sure, it may seem obvious when a new client says, “I want to sue them!” But what she really wants might be one or several of many things:

  • Revenge
  • Sympathy
  • Confirmation she’s in the right
  • Information
  • The trial experience in full
  • To scare “them”
  • To punish “them”
  • Compensation
  • An estimate for how much it will cost

Any temptation to skip the intake step where you focus on fully understanding your clients’ needs can land you in deep trouble here. Your typical client is a consumer willing to pay for what he values. That means there could be trouble getting them to pay for what you think they want or should want. Don’t assume. Ask. Remember who’s the boss: your client.

3. Spend your time only on things that require a lawyer. Hand off everything else. Again, release that death grip you have on hourly billing. Whether you admit it or not, it can get a lawyer focused on making the work last a long time rather than getting the job done. Once you’ve changed your frame of mind to appropriate fees based on what the client values, you will find yourself in a world that rewards savvy thinking about how to get tasks accomplished — and how you push those tasks down to accomplish them in the least-expensive way. Junior lawyer? Check. Paralegal? Check. Secretary? Check. Limited License Legal Technician? Check. The client? Check. Artificial intelligence? Check. You have a whole arsenal at your disposal when it comes to getting things done well, quickly and profitably. Delegate wisely and no longer will you need to sell every second of your life in order to make a profit.

4. Diversify delivery methods. If I can download incorporation papers without leaving my desk, sign a final divorce decree in the Barcalounger while watching “NCIS” reruns, assess the value of my wrongful termination suit over breakfast and upload evidence documents to my lawyer while riding the train to work … why would I want to drive to your office to meet with you? It’s an issue of convenience as well as price, which happens to be a growing issue of competitiveness. There are lawyers out there providing services to their clients in ways that are more convenient and cheaper by far than what most lawyers ask of their clients. All things being equal, given the choice between convenience and not — between less expensive and more — which do you think a client will choose? Yep. So isn’t it time to get creative?

Merrilyn Astin Tarlton is Partner/Catalyst at Attorney at Work, a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, a member of the LMA Hall of Fame, and a past President of the College of Law Practice Management. Follow her on Twitter @AstinTarlton.

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Categories: Daily Dispatch, Law Firm Billing, You At Work
Originally published March 2, 2015
Last updated May 5, 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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