In “Why Lawyers Really Struggle for Work-Life Balance,” I listed six steps to building a practice that runs smoothly and allows you to have a life: 1) acquire better management skills; 2) implement better technology; 3) create and install better systems and procedures; 4) develop better teams; 5) build better market focus; and 6) deliver better legal services. In this post, we’re delving into what the first of those steps involves.
Let’s Talk Management
If you “just want to do the law,” I have bad news. If you’re in a small firm, you have a business. The law isn’t your purpose, it’s also your product. The purpose of your practice is to allow you to have a good life. If management is last on your list of priorities, you’ll struggle with revenues and personal income, and suffer long hours and stress — all those things that make the legal profession potentially deadly.
Or you can decide to learn how to manage it well and prosper, both professionally and personally.
Good practice management entails five specific areas:
- Your finances
- Your team
- Your marketing
- Your clients
Here’s the truth: If you don’t manage your time, everyone — and everything — else will. Let’s look at the list of self-management problems.
Cellphone communications with clients. Giving clients your cell number is like saying “you’re welcome to stop by my home anytime.” So if you value your personal life, don’t do it. Simply tell them: “The best way to reach me is on my office number or by email. Cellphones are not secure communications, so I keep mine for personal use only.” Any client who won’t honor that will be trouble in other ways. Cellphone communications are also harder to track for documentation and billing.
Text messaging with clients. You should never text with a client. It’s bad for business and your personal life. But if you can’t resist, or have the type of practice that requires it, make sure you never text anything that could be remotely construed as legal advice. Texting encourages knee-jerk rather than thoughtful responses, and these abbreviated messages are seriously prone to misinterpretation. If you insist on texting, limit it to non-legal responses such as “let’s set an appointment to discuss that.” Once you open that door, though, expect midnight text messages.
Phones in general. When the phone rings, it immediately controls our priorities. So when you’re in production time, with a client or in a team meeting, put your office phone on DND, and turn your cell off or give it to your assistant. Tell your family that if it’s an emergency and they get voice mail, to call the office.
Email. We’ve become like Pavlov’s dog with our inboxes. The bell rings and we’re off. Email is one of the biggest distractions and time-wasters. Have your assistant triage your email, then schedule two times a day to deal with the remainder. Turn off your email until you’re ready to review it, or at least turn off the messages notification.
Returning calls. Interruptions are a primary source of lost billable time, so try to take only scheduled calls. Have your team schedule calls to be returned in a designated time block so you can deal with them when you’re ready, rather than allowing a call to interrupt you from other tasks. It also makes it far easier to track billable calls.
Your time. Studies show you are far more effective if you “batch” like tasks. Set aside specific times on your calendar for doing legal work, marketing, meeting with your team, returning calls, responding to emails, and attending client meetings. Use the power of your calendar to help you stay focused. Scheduling blocks of time to work on specific matters also facilitates tracking billable time.
Social media. Lose the addiction. Simply avoid it during your workday. If you’re using it for marketing, do it during your scheduled marketing time. At the least, schedule time to do it, and don’t allow it to distract you.
Managing Your Finances
If you do your own books, stop. Hire someone trained to do them. When you’re doing the books, you’re not doing billable client work, or marketing to get it, or going home to your family. If you can’t afford to pay a bookkeeper, you should be using your time to market instead of hiding out in the books. Besides, you’ll probably save enough in late charges to justify the cost.
If your assistant does the books, get them trained on the proper software and review their work weekly. Employee theft — or disastrous incompetence — can be deadly.
One of the biggest problems with doing your own books is maintaining your trust accounts — often, even to the extent of depositing or withdrawing funds in a timely manner. Trust account problems have lost more than one attorney their ticket to practice. (See “Would You Pass a Trust Account Audit?”)
Managing Your Team
The moment you hire your first team member you’re a manager.
- Is your team clear on roles and responsibilities?
- Do you have job descriptions?
- Are you fully utilizing them by delegating everything they can do so you can focus on legal work and marketing?
- Are you over-utilizing them — giving them work they’re not qualified to do, overloading them with too much work, or using them as a buffer for clients you don’t want to deal with?
- Do you wait until everyone is working at 150 percent capacity to hire, then hire cheap and cheerful rather than more expensive but more qualified and valuable?
You can’t build a great practice without enough great team members, and without learning to be a good team manager and leader. And yes, there’s a big difference between the two.
Managing Your Marketing
Most attorney marketing is MBWA: marketing by wandering around. Doing whatever, whenever time permits. And it often comes last, because it’s what you least want to do. So build a plan. Personal marketing — to referral sources, prospects and former clients — is still highly effective and cheap. It’s not rocket science. There are only four rules:
- Talk to the right people. Create a database of your clients and referral sources, and reach out and touch them regularly to achieve top-of-mind awareness.
- Build trusting relationships. Be helpful, interesting or informative in your communications. People won’t hire or refer to someone they don’t trust.
- Make sure they know what you do. Sure, they know you do wills. But do they know you handle real estate matters? The biggest reason clients don’t return for other services is that they’re not aware their lawyer handles that kind of thing! In the same vein, simply telling people you’re “a lawyer” or have “a general practice” isn’t useful information.
- Keep in touch consistently over time. Our lives are busy and memories are short. If I haven’t heard from you in a year, chances are I’ll take my business to the lawyer I just talked with or received a communication from. Stay in touch. Stay top of mind.
Managing Your Clients
Too often, lawyers allow clients to manage and manipulate them. Good client management starts with client selectivity.
- Will they pay their bill? Get a retainer or partial payment upfront. If they resist or try to bargain, stop. As noted legal author Jay Foonberg says, “It’s better to NOT do the work and not get paid.”
- Will they be reasonable to work with? Respect your advice? Treat you and your team courteously? Miserable clients create miserable lawyers and staff. They’re the first ones to file a grievance or malpractice suit. Don’t accept or tolerate abusive clients. Life’s too short.
- Is the work within your skill set? Many a malpractice claim has stemmed from taking the wrong work.
In addition, effective initial client education is critical to a good client relationship and getting paid. Understand that most people don’t have any idea how the whole attorney thing will go, so they get nervous and distrustful. If they’re not told how the process will look, they’ll make it up for themselves — and you get to be wrong.
There is a specific structure for good client education and intake. It should explain the process, detail how clients will be communicated with, offer an estimate of the timeline, and explain each team member’s role and other specifics of the relationship.
Your retainer agreement is a critical part of that education. Does it further a good relationship or frighten with legalese and obtuse language? New clients should leave happy they hired you, not worried and confused.
Next in part three of our work-life balance series: How to implement better technology.
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