Planning for Law Practice Improvement

Failure and SuccessThe first month of the New Year is already more than half over, but even if you haven’t started, it’s not too late to plan to make this the best year yet. You can still set things in motion to move your practice to the next level, work more effectively and attract the clients you want this year. Here’s how:

Do a year-end review

First, take inventory of your practice. The only way to make changes, to grow or to move forward is to first accept what is; before you can start thinking about making improvements, you need to know where you stand now.

Take stock of last year’s goals:

  • What goals (whether written or not) did you have for your practice last yer? Did you want to finally get some systems in place? Explore a new practice area? Create better relationships with clients or attract a higher caliber of clients to your firm?
  • How well did you meet those goals?
  • What benchmarks or other documentation do you have in place to determine whether or not you met your goals?
  • What made you successful or unsuccessful in meeting this year’s goals? What do you need to continue doing, and what do you need to change?
  • What resources do you need to make those changes?

A general review of the past year can help you to see areas ripe for improvement:

  • What clients/practice areas were the most/least profitable over the past year?
  • Who are your best/worst clients, and where do they come from?
  • What new strategic alliances/referral sources have you cultivated in the past year? What new relationships would you like to create?
  • How many new clients retained you over the past year? How much new business did you receive from existing or former clients?
  • How well did you follow up with new contacts this year? Did you use a system for keeping in touch with potential, existing and former clients? How effective was that system?
  • How up to date and effective are your marketing materials (business cards, website, blog, newsletter, brochure, email campaigns, seminars/presentations, etc.)? Do they accurately reflect who you are and what you do for your clients? Even more importantly, do they accurately describe your clients and their needs, wants and concerns?
  • How large are your receiveables and what can you do to reduce them?
  • How often did you convert prospects into clients over the past year?
  • Are you using staff, outside sources and vendors effectively, or could you delegate better?
  • What improvements have you made in your practice over the past year for the benefit of your clients? What can you do to knock your clients’ socks off in the future?

If you already have good systems, records and documentation in place, you may be able to obtain reports containing this information from your computer system in a few clicks. If not, you may want to consider a systems overhaul to make this information easier to obtain in 2014, as it can be invaluable.

For example, if you know where your business is coming from and you aren’t getting the kind of business you’d like, you may want to explore where the ‘less desirable’ business is coming from. If all of your “bad” referrals are coming from the same place, you may need to re-educate those referral sources; if your referral sources don’t know what your ‘sweet spot’ is, they can’t refer you the best clients. Similarly, if your marketing materials are not effective, accurate and timely, if they are attracting clients that you don’t want, you’ll want to revisit your marketing materials.

Choose three main goals

Now that you know where you are, you can start setting the wheels in motion to make improvements by setting goals. But don’t make the mistake of setting too many goals or goals that are too large. Although you may have a long list of things you wish you could do in your practice, a long list can quickly become overwhelming. Instead, choose three main areas you’d like to improve in your practice over the next year.

Choose the three goals that you think will have the most impact, or that are the most urgent, and focus all of your time on those three goals. Even with only three goals, there are going to be lots of little action steps to be taken in order to reach them. Anything that doesn’t work toward those three goals should be sidelined or put on a list for the future so that it doesn’t distract from your focus.

When you set a goal, estimate how long you actually think it’s going to take to accomplish that goal. Then build in some additional time for unexpected obstacles and inevitable delays.

Write down the list of your three projects and keep it posted somewhere you can see it and be reminded every day.

Create a plan

Write down the purpose of the project, the principles (why?) behind the project, and your vision of the outcome. Brainstorm ideas for strategies to achieve the outcome. For example, if one of your goals is to increase your client base by 20% over the next year, your strategy might include targeting a new industry and/or increasing your online marketing efforts.

List the steps required to pursue each strategy. These might include identifying industry needs, researching potential clients, or developing online content. Be as specific as possible.

Armed with all of this information, you can create an action plan. The action plan should identify specifically what you are going to do, who will be responsible for doing it, how will it be done, how you will follow up, when each item should be completed, who will supervise each action, and what mechanisms will be put in place to determine compliance.

Schedule time now

Intentions don’t create results – only actions do. But some of the most important actions never make it to your schedule because they don’t have built in deadlines or aren’t directly tied to client matters or revenue. Often these are the very actions needed to achieve your goals. To avoid this problem, once you’ve outlined the goals, strategies and action steps, take out your calendar and schedule time now to get moving on your plans.

Decide now when and how often you’re going to work on each of your goals and block the time on your calendar, keeping in mind the amount of time you’ve estimated to complete the goal. Schedule the individual action steps as appointments just as you would schedule client appointments.

Don’t leave another year to chance. Make a plan now to take action on your goals, but stay flexible. Regardless of how well you plan, obstacles may arise, the market may change or new opportunities may come to light. Keep your plan flexible by building in time to periodically review your goals and the progress of your action items and make any adjustments necessary.

(A version of this article appeared in the January 2014 issue of The Nassau Lawyer.)

What Working Women Want

In honor of International Women’s Day, take a look at this infographic LinkedIn put together based on its survey of “What Women Want”:

LinkedIn Infographic What Women Want

What Women Want

For even more information about the survey, check out LinkedIn’s slideshow presentation on What Women Want at Work.

What Message is Your Firm Sending About What it Values by What it Measures?

I read an interesting article yesterday morning from CRMGuru.com by David Rance, a UK consultant who helps organizations become more customer-centric. The article was entitled The Madness of Metrics: Be Careful What You Measure, and it got me thinking, once again, about law firms.

Take a moment and consider what it is that your firm measures. Where is the emphasis? Is it on the firm’s stated values, or are your measurements actually in conflict with those values?

Rance’s article opens with a story about a customer service call center whose manager was concerned about response to correspondence received by the call center. The manager instituted a program whereby all unanswered letters were counted at the end of every month. He was surprised to learn that there were no unanswered letters several months in a row. This was particularly surprising since he had observed stacks of letters on desks in the department. He learned accidentally that the reason the monthly count was low was that the employees gathered all the letters at the end of the month and sent them to another department. They were returned to customer service in about a week, but they were out of the department at the time the count was performed.

This may seem like an extreme example, but many law firms fall into the same trap – they make benchmarks for employees to meet, and employees find ways to meet the ‘letter’ of the benchmark, rather than the ‘spirit.’ Billable hour requirements are one obvious example: associates are told that they must meet a particular number of billable hours per year to qualify for a raise or bonus, or perhaps even to stay employed. The lawyer is now focused only on meeting the billable hour requirement. The firm can pontificate endlessly about client service, mentoring, or other activities that they’d like to encourage, but those statements fall on deaf ears. Why? Because the firm is measuring billable hours, not client service, mentoring, etc.

Rance’s article points out the importance of aligning metrics with your firm’ s declared vision. This is an essential point, and one often missed by law firms. If the metrics and measurements are not aligned with the vision and values of the firm, the firm’s stated values cease to exist, and the things that are measured become the defacto ‘values.’ Of course, aligning metrics and vision requires your firm to have a declared vision in the first place. Establishing a powerful vision and lasting values for your firm is an essential component in being successful.

I read a quote recently (I can’t remember the author, unfortunately) that said, in essence, that the only things a leader cannot delegate are establishing a vision and objectives – unless that person wants to give up being the leader. The essence of leadership is establishing the vision and the goal, and inspiring others to follow. As Michelle Golden and I discussed in our posts last week, a firm’s culture is only as good as its communication. And that communication must include clarity about the firm’s real vision and objectives. 

But the most effective communication is often indirect; it isn’t what the firm leaders actually say in a meeting – it’s all of the other communications which have a much larger impact, both on employees and clients. It’s what the firm does on a daily basis. And most importantly, it’s what the firm does when there’s a difficult choice to be made.

The true test of leadership is how well the leader sticks to the established values when sticking to those values means a sacrifice in another area. If the firm values client service, sometimes that means sacrificing some profit to be true to the value – whether by turning away clients the firm can’t handle unless they reduce the level of service, or by going the extra mile for a client in another way.

Ultimately, the rewards are greater when the firm does stick to its values. As Rance says, satisfied customers lead to long term loyalty and value. So make sure that your firm’s metrics and measurements are reflecting the firm’s true values.

Immediately after pressing ‘save’ on my previous post, I came across two interesting posts by Ron Baker on the VeraSage site. His first post, entitled, “Human Capital, Not Cattle”, discusses the ways that professional firms forget that they need ‘knowledge workers’ more than those ‘knowledge workers’ need them, that firms should act as ‘lightning rods’ for talent, and that the true fate of any firm rests on qualities like passion, desire, innovation and creativity – qualities that are not generally part of a firm’s ‘metrics.’

The follow up post, “But Wait, Professionals Aren’t Knowledge Workers” explores the opinion that most firms are really filled with ‘factory workers’ rather than knowledge workers – that it is really the management (leadership) of the firm that determines whether a firm is filled with knowledge workers. He says,

When you consider the metrics used by most firms to measure their team members, they all come from the Industrial Revolution’s command-and-control hierarchies (realization, utilization, billable hours, etc). Yet as I discussed in my posts on The Firm of the Past and The Firm of the Future, the metrics we use to measure a knowledge worker’s effectiveness are woefully inadequate.

Both posts are must-reads. Together, they reveal the current state of most firms: focus on inputs, costs, and effort, filled with factory workers, and the factors that will make a difference for firms of the future: emphasis on value, individuals, innovation, creativity, and autonomy for knowledge workers who are passionate and self-motivated.

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Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

Success Is Not A One Person Sport

I have to credit my friend and business coach, Leslie Malin for the title of this article – it was the title to an article in her E-zine and it brought up so many great thoughts related to managing and marketing a law practice that I had to share it.

I do a presentation on mistakes lawyers make in managing and marketing their practices, and Leslie’s title relates to a lot of them. So many lawyers think they have to do everything on their own and be all things to all people, not realizing that they’re just shooting themselves in the foot. I don’t know if it’s the way lawyers are educated or the type of people that gravitate toward the law, but that tendency to try to ‘prove’ that they can do it all is pervasive.

Believe me, I’m not knocking lawyers, being one myself, and I know I have this tendency also -trying to do everything myself and having trouble asking for help. Or being afraid that nobody else could possibly do it as well. Maybe the problem isn’t just lawyers, it’s our society as a whole. Perhaps it’s that American individualism that prevents us from realizing that it’s relationships and community that are the true keys to success. 

Although I do believe that everyone is responsible for their own career, whether they work as a solo, in a firm, in the public sector or in a corporate environment, being responsible for your career includes knowing when, where and how to ask for help. For some, that ‘help’ comes in the form of hiring staff or other employees. Sometimes, it means giving up the idea of trying to do everything yourself and hiring and training other to do the work, and, most importantly, trusting them to actually do it. Unfortunately holding so tightly to everything and believing that you have to control every detail can have a negative effect on the bottom line of your practice, not to mention morale of your associates and staff if they feel they’re being micromanaged.

Other solutions to the ‘one person sport’ syndrome may include outsourcing work or hiring a ‘virtual assistant.’ It may mean banding together with a group of attorneys to discuss issues that relate to your practice. Realizing that trying to do everything alone doesn’t work may lead to hiring a coach or a consultant to help you sort out technology, accounting, marketing, or other aspects of your practice so that you can do what lawyers are meant to do – practice law and provide clients with solutions.

Speaking of clients, forgetting that the clients, and not the lawyers, are the crux of any law practice, is another way that many lawyers try to make success a one person sport. No lawyer can be successful without clients – particularly happy, paying clients. To get the clients to come in the door requires that lawyers focus their marketing message on the client’s needs and on the benefits the lawyer can provide to the client, rather than focusing solely on the lawyer. Sometimes, that may mean turning down or turning away work, regardless of how difficult it may seem. 

Trying to be the one lawyer who can represent everyone often leads to an impression of the ‘jack of all trades, master of none.’ Accepting that you can’t be all things to all potential clients can lead to strategic alliances with other firms that have expertise in areas your firm lacks, and can result in strong referrals. For solos, rather than fearing that someone else will ‘steal’ clients, it’s worth it to remember that having a backup can be invaluable.

It occurs to be that the reference to sport is particularly appropriate while the Olympics are ongoing. Although many of the athletes are competing as individuals, none of them got where they are alone – they all have coaches, trainers, other athletes with whom they train and compete, and support of all kinds – physical, emotional, mental and financial. 

Even for the Olympic gold medalist, success is not a one person sport. Take their cue and build your own ‘team’ of supporters who can inspire you and each other to ‘go for the gold.’

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Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

Is Poor Communication Undermining the Culture at Your Firm?

Michelle Golden’s Golden Practices blog contains a great post entitled, “If Internal Communication is Poor, Can You Still Have A “Great Culture?” She warns that firms that take their ‘great culture’ for granted are playing with fire. She lists seven ways in which firms undermine their ‘great culture’ by failing to communicate personally with people about important things:

  1. Notifying people by memo or e-mail about their colleague, even manager, having been “let go”
  1. Relying on the informal gossip chain to replace formal presentations of “state of the firm” or goals, visions, and other important news or changes
  1. “Leakage” of preliminary information (often by owners to select team members) about pending policies, pending raises or bonuses, or other critical economic information, such that a mention or two to friends means pretty soon the whole firm “knows” — often it isn’t even final so the info may be wrong(!)
  1. Rolling out new programs or policies by memo or e-mail with no formal presentation to personally introduce it, frame it with appropriate background information, answer questions, and create enthusiasm
  1. Not telling people (hopefully publicly!) that they have done a great job
  1. Not telling people privately AND constructively how they could do something better
  1. Telling people anything personal, corrective, or negative by e-mail (and cc’ing others is a very, very bad idea)

I have a few more failures of communication that undermine what would otherwise be a great place to work:

  1. Not communicating with the firm about new hires (and not being prepared for their arrival)
  1. Not telling people that a program, initiative or policy has been abandoned (possibly due to lack of enthusiasm or appropriate communication in the first place — see #4)
  1. Promoting someone or changing their job description and failing to clearly communicate the change to others on the team – particularly where the change involves a change in authority or chain of command
  1. Not communicating the ‘big picture’ to the whole team – failing to let people know how their role contributes to the whole, not informing the team of the results of an engagement or not reporting feedback from clients

and to make it an even dozen:

  1. Not listening (this could be a list in itself!) – actively discouraging input or acting in a way that sends a message that the other person isn’t valued (not being ‘present’ for the communication – answering emails, doing paperwork or taking calls during the conversation or meeting, having side conversations, or focusing on the intended response rather than being open to another point of view)

Take a good look at the way your firm communicates, and make sure you aren’t ruining what would otherwise be a ‘great culture’ by making these mistakes.

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Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

Considering Client Service as Part of Employment Reviews

Dan Hull’s What About Clients blog focuses on increasing the level of service lawyers provide to their clients.  Dan’s firm has a performance evaluation system which has recently been re-vamped to include specific focus on client service. (Their system also includes ‘top down’ evaluations, but also ‘bottom up’ evaluations – something missing from many law firms, but that’s a topic for another article). 

Dan says,

“We talk about real service every single day, almost as if it were a substantive area of law practice. It’s a running conversation. But if are serious about building and keeping a “client service culture” at Hull McGuire, we need to underscore them in every performance review.”

Well said, Dan. As I’ve said in the past, law firms can’t expect their employees – whether attorneys or other staff – to take firm initiatives seriously unless the firm makes a real commitment to those initiatives. That means compensation and advancement need to be based on the values that the firm espouses. Otherwise, they aren’t really values. 

If the firm says it values client service (as every firm must, if it expects to survive), each individual must be evaluated based upon whether they are living up to the firm’s client service standards. When performance evaluations and compensation systems focus on nothing but billable hours, it’s no wonder that associates and staff don’t strive for better client service. Rewarding those who provide excellent client service – in all its forms – is bound to get employees more engaged in delivering that service.

More firms should follow Hull McGuire’s lead and incorporate the firm’s stated values into performance evaluations and compensation systems. 

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Already a subscriber? Want to learn how I can help you? Learn more about the products and services I offer by clicking here.

Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

How to Attract and Keep Superstars in Your Firm

Worried about great lawyers or staff being lured away by the competition? Read on to find out the best ways to keep your best employees loyal to your firm.

I was reading one of my daily newsletters, Early to Rise, and came across an article by Michael Masterson which addressed exceeding your potential by surrounding yourself with superior people. Masterson relayed the story of a young woman who was succeeding brilliantly at her company, but wanted to leave. When he asked her why, she said that although her boss was a wonderful person and an excellent businessman, she had ideas to expand the business and make it more interesting, but her boss rejected all of her ideas because he had a particular way of doing business. Frustrated and sure that she could make a difference elsewhere, she decided to leave. I can understand that, having experienced it myself. And so can a lot of people who are dynamic, committed, and innovative.

As Masterson says in his article, the ‘superstars’ don’t often leave because of money. Sure, money is often a factor, and law firms, like businesses, need to ensure that their top performers are paid well. But, for most high performers, interesting work, personal and professional development, and a chance to contribute to the firm in a meaningful way often mean far more than the paycheck alone. 

Masterson’s advice on keeping superstars:

  • Invest in your top performers.
  • Continually weed out the weak performers and replace them with stronger ones.
  • Treat your people well by giving them what they need – which sometimes means being tough, but always means being fair.
  • Give your best people lots of good work to do.

Finally, Masterson suggests asking yourself these questions, and re-evaluating your priorities if you answer ‘no’ to any of them:

  • Have I hired anyone in the past few years who is as good as or better than I am?
  • Am I willing to have someone who is smarter than I am work for me?
  • Would I give a superstar employee the chance to demonstrate his superiority?

Sometimes it’s a leap of faith to allow a superstar to shine, particularly if that superstar might outshine some of those that are already at the top. And law firms often fear that allowing a superstar more responsibility, more ways to shine, more access to clients, more free rein will give them the tools they need to leave and perhaps to take some of the firm’s clients with them. But the greater risk is in preventing these top performers from doing challenging and complex work, and from putting their ideas into action. That virtually assures that they will leave. Not only are you likely to lose a superstar, but by consistently treating your superstars that way, you’re likely to attract less of them in the future

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Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

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    <p><strong>P.S.  Found a mistake or a bug?</strong> If there's anything that bothers you about this site,  I want to know! Send me an email at <a href=

Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!