Dealing with Difficult Clients

Difficult conversationsIf you have been in practice for any length of time, sooner or later you’re going to get stuck with a difficult client, or at least a difficult client conversation. Uncomfortable client conversations can arise for multiple reasons. Sometimes those reasons have more to do with the client than with the lawyer, but every attorney-client relationship contains two players, so you need to be aware of the ways in which you might be contributing to the problem and the ways you can contribute to a solution.

Take on the right clients

The best way to deal with truly difficult clients is by not taking them on in the first place. That requires that you be able to identify potentially bad clients early – preferably before a retainer is signed so that you can avoid them entirely. Make a list of bad client warning signs to help you identify potentially difficult clients. (See this blog post for tips on identifying bad clients).

Pre-screen and pre-qualify clients by:

  • Asking the right questions
  • Educating clients about the legal process in general and your services in particular
  • Evaluating whether your firm is the right fit for the potential client.

Pay attention to what your gut is telling you when you first meet with clients – if your gut tells you the client is not right for you, don’t agree to the representation.

If you’ve already hired a client that isn’t the right fit, consider firing them.

Communicate value

To effectively attract and retain good clients, you must communicate the value of the services you offer. Know what is important your potential clients and be able to differentiate yourself and your service from the others in your practice area – not just when you’re trying to attract new clients, but throughout the engagement.

Relate your services to the benefits to the client. Everything you do should be based upon the clients’ perspective – what’s in it for the client? How does each of the activities you undertake advance the client’s goals or contribute to their desired outcome?

Manage clients’ expectations

It is crucial that you discover, and help shape, the client’s expectations at the outset of the engagement, and that you continue to manage them throughout the engagement. In her article, “How to Handle Difficult Clients,” in the July/August issue of Law Practice Magazine, Justice Carole Curtis notes that clients have expectations not just about results, but also about service, time and costs. If the client’s perception of ‘service’ is something more or different than what you provide, the client will always be dissatisfied, regardless of how good your work is. It’s your job to manage expectations in each of these areas.

For more tips on managing clients’ expectations, see my posts Tips for Managing Client Expectations on the Legal Ease Blog or Managing Client’s Expectations on Lawyerist.

Know your boundaries and set limits

Often confrontations arise when the unexpected occurs. You can reduce many common difficult client situations by being prepared and setting boundaries at the outset of the engagement. Clients who can’t abide by your processes or boundaries will often self-identify themselves, offering you the opportunity to explore the situation before a confrontation occurs or the chance to decline the representation. There’s no reason to tolerate an abusive client!

Provide excellent service

Keep the client updated about what’s happening with the case. Don’t make clients ask you for a status; be proactive and provide regular updates, even when nothing is happening.

If you need to make a staffing change on the file, give the client a heads-up; don’t wait until the client receives a bill with a new attorney’s name on it or receives a phone call from a new attorney in your office they don’t know. Always present your best work; even if it’s just a draft, it should be free of spelling and grammatical errors, typos and other problems. Always accompany copies of documents or decisions in the client’s matter with a plain language explanation of what the document is and how it affects the client’s case.

Recognize that the client may not always agree with the course of action you think is best. Explain how the different options might advance the client’s stated goals and give your insight about consequences and potential pitfalls, but remember that ultimately, it’s the client’s job to choose the course of action. Document these conversations or follow up in writing.

Under-promise and over-deliver, keeping the four areas of client expectation listed above in mind.

Bill appropriately

Often, client problems or complaints arise out of disputes about or confusion over fees. Don’t nickel and dime your clients by charging them for items that really constitute part of your overhead and should already be factored in to your fees. Make sure your fees are fair and reasonable. If there is a change in your budget, big expenditures that need to be made, or if unexpected costs arise, advise the client as soon as you become aware of the change; don’t wait until the funds have already been expended or simply add it to your bill without discussing it with the client first.

Obtain client feedback

A client that doesn’t complain isn’t necessarily a happy client. And even happy clients may have additional needs that you could address. Obtain feedback throughout the engagement and upon its conclusion and act on that feedback when you receive it.

Handling Difficult Client Conversations

Even if you have done all of the above, you may still won’t be able to avoid difficult conversations entirely. Even generally good or cooperative clients can become difficult at times, especially when you have to tell them something they don’t want to hear, or when they have a complaint.

Sometimes conflict arises because clients don’t feel understood. Even business clients have an emotional investment in their legal matter, and many legal matters have high stakes, affecting clients’ finances, livelihoods, businesses, or their very lives. If you can guide the conversation in a way that makes clients feel understood, the conversation will run much more smoothly.

When you find yourself in a situation that requires a difficult conversation with clients, keep these tips in mind:

Mirror the client’s concerns. Let the client tell you what the issue is, and then reflect it back to the client. This way, the client knows they’re being heard, and you ensure that you understand their issue.

Focus on the client. The key to resolution is concentrating on the client’s feelings and the client’s desired outcome, rather than focusing on yourself, the work you have already done, or additional work that may be required. For example, if a client asks for something in a rush, respond by first acknowledging the client’s sense of urgency and how it affects their goals – not by telling them how much work you have to do or why what they’re asking is impossible.

Lay the groundwork for bad news – and go slowly. Resist the urge to just ‘get it over with’ by blurting out the bad news all at once. When you know the client isn’t going to be happy about what you have to tell them, start out by acknowledging the client’s desired outcome or goals, introduce what you are going to discuss, or explain that there are a number of different strategies that can be employed to move forward with their matter. Be sure to give the client reasons for those options and for what occurred. After you’ve delivered the bad news, let the client know that you empathize with their position.

Acknowledge the client’s feelings. Acknowledging a client’s feelings by saying something like, “I can tell that you’re upset about this” will begin to defuse the situation. Don’t let yourself get emotional or allow the client to push your buttons and don’t argue with clients about their feelings, whether you believe they are justified or not; you won’t change their mind and you are likely to make the situation worse.

Let clients know that they’re not alone. If this particular problem is a common one, or many clients seem to be frustrated by the same thing (for example the Court’s delay in making a decision, or opposing counsel’s refusal to provide documents), let the client know that not only are their feelings valid, but that they have been expressed by others in the past. If you are similarly frustrated, let the client know; it can be a way of getting you and your client back on the same side.

Work toward a resolution based on where you are now. Once the client is calmer and you’ve acknowledged them, you can begin to gather information that can help you to reach a solution to the underlying problem. Offer the client options for resolution, even if you can’t meet their specific demand.

Focus on the positive. Instead of saying no or telling a client what you can’t do and why, tell them what you can do. Explain the options in terms of the client’s goals (i.e. because I know that you don’t want to drag this litigation out…” or “Since you want to keep costs down…”

Don’t retreat or get defensive – it only escalates the confrontation.

Get help. While these suggestions may seem simple, they’re not always easy to implement. Working with a coach or getting some client service training can help you develop the skills necessary to handle difficult client situations.

Need help identifying bad clients or weeding them out? Want some training on dealing with difficult clients? Contact me for a consultation.

A version of portions of this article originally appeared on JD Supra.  

 

Don’t Organize – Spring Clean!

A secret to happinessGretchen Rubin, author of the New York Times best-sellers Happier at Home and The Happiness Project proclaims that one of the secrets to happiness is:

Don’t get organized. 

It’s Spring, and that’s the time of year that many of us turn to clearing out the clutter, both at home and at work. Somehow it’s tolerable in the winter months when we’re hunkered down, but something about the warmer weather makes us want to strip down and create some room to breathe.

But for people who have the “clutter mentality” (another of Gretchen Rubin’s phrases), Spring cleaning means simply organizing, without tackling the first the crucial step – eliminating. Rather than evaluating what’s important to keep and what no longer serves, those with a clutter mentality will organize and simply  make things neat, without making the hard choices.

Fancy organizing tools – including technology tools – can be fun to use, but don’t let them become a crutch that you use to avoid making difficult decisions. Keeping things – or information – that you “might” need “someday” can be more of a distraction than it’s worth, especially if you can’t actually find it when you need it.

Real organization – and Spring cleaning – starts with clearing out – getting rid of anything and everything that is outdated or no longer useful. As Gretchen says, “If you don’t keep it, you don’t have to organize it.” Clutter prevents you from working efficiently by distracting you, covering up important documents or files, and by adding to anxiety and stress.

Getting rid of “stuff”

Clear away the physical clutter in your office. Most lawyers’ offices, whether those offices are inside or outside of the home, are clutter magnets, in part because they simply have too much to do during the day. But a periodic sweep through the office, keeping these five things in mind, should do the trick:

  1. Your office should only contain paperwork that you’re currently working on, supplies and files that you need on a regular basis, and  a few mementos that are meaningful. The rest is trash or should find another home.
  2. Keep only those items in your office that you need to take action on or that you need to refer to when doing your work – but if the item is for reference on a project you won’t be working on in the next day or two, file it to keep the clutter out of your office – and to prevent distractions from the task at hand.
  3. If you haven’t done so already, now might be a good time to consider going “paper-less.” Instead of worrying that everything might not have made it to the paper file, or playing file tag with others in the office who need access to the same documents, scan everything that comes in and file it right away into the matter’s electronic file. But even if you work with paper files, don’t use your office as a place to store them. Your office should contain on the files you’re actually working on.
  4. Create an automatic deadline for tossing certain items, like bar association publications or section newsletters. Often, they are available online and they’ll be easier to find (and read) that way than by wading through a stack of periodicals to find the article you think you remember seeing.
  5. Get control of the mail and email. When mail arrives, categorize it immediately, and make a place in your office for each category. If it’s mail that has a particular date, make sure the date gets entered into your calendar immediately. Outdated emails or emails that aren’t client-related should be deleted. There’s no need to keep thousands of emails in your inbox.

Eliminating Other Obstacles to your Practice

Clutter isn’t just piles of “stuff” or paper. Clutter comes in all shapes and sizes. It includes the nagging worries cluttering up your thoughts, the “dog” files that you never get around to working on (or that you know will end badly), employees (or partners) who are abusive, nasty, unproductive, or otherwise drag your firm down, clients who don’t listen to your advice or are impossible to please, and more. De-cluttering isn’t limited to physical things or piles of paper in your office. Put a real “spring” in your step by adding these to your “toss” pile:

Bad clients

Do you need another reminder? Bad clients drive out good clients. They drain you of energy and distract you from doing your best work for your best clients. Consider firing some of your worst clients (or letting your staff tell you which clients they think you should fire).

Bad or unecessary employees

If you have motivated employees that contribute to your firm and help make you successful, by all means, keep them – and take good care of them. But some employees are toxic and drag down the rest of the firm. If you  have employees that are abusive to staff, or clients, don’t pull their weight or are otherwise dragging you down, it may be time to bite the bullet and get rid of them.

Tasks and Procedures

Are you performing tasks you don’t need to do? Delegate more. Are some tasks being performed by multiple people, multiple times? Streamline your tasks so that the fewest possible people are involved in any particular task. When is the last time you reviewed your office procedures? Have some of your old procedures become redundant?

To-do list items

While I’m all for using lists, they need to be productive for you. A to-do list that contains too many tasks is overwhelming and unproductive. Make a “don’t do” list to help you drop unnecessary or unimportant items off of your to-do list. If you’ve been carrying a particular item on your list for a long time, reconsider whether that item is a priority for you. Instead of piling things onto your to-do list, schedule specific times to accomplish them and put them on your calendar.

Outdated services or practice areas

Re-visit your services: are there some services that have become outdated? Are you out of date or in need of a refresher course in your area of practice? Are there new areas of practice emerging that you would like to focus on? Are your clients’ needs being met with your existing services?

Keeping Up

Now that you’ve cleared out, I give you permission to organize what’s left. But don’t forget to do a periodic purge. Before you leave the office at the end of the week, take 15 minutes to do a quick pick up of your office – move out files or paperwork that doesn’t belong, get rid of any unnecessary mail or junk flyers, etc. Take a few minutes to review your calendar and tasks for the following week, and make a plan.

 

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.)

Two Time-Saving Apps for Lawyers

HourglassI hate wasting time, and I’m always on the lookout for ways to accomplish more in less time, to eliminate unnecessary steps, and generally to make my life easier so that I can concentrate on what’s most important. In this article, I cover two more of my favorite time-saving apps that help me to do just that. Those apps are LastPass, a secure password manager that lets me create strong passwords and gives me peace of mind, and SlideShark, the app that lets me easily view and present PowerPoint presentations seamlessly from my iPad.

 LastPass

Passwords. They’re necessary, ubiquitous and frustrating. The more we do online or through mobile devices, the more we need them. Some sites require a change in your password every few months.

Security experts advise that we should create unique passwords for each site, and that they should all be ‘strong’ passwords, containing numbers, letters (both upper and lowercase) and symbols. They’re not supposed to contain common words, significant dates (like your birthday, anniversary, your children’s birthdays, etc), or names of your children or pets, since (especially with social media), those are easy to figure out. And I don’t know about you, but a quick check of my various accounts, apps, etc. reveals that I would have over 200 unique passwords I would have to remember.

Yeah, right.

So what do most of us do? Use the same password over and over for several different sites, leaving ourselves vulnerable – if one site gets hacked and our password is compromised, it may compromise a lot of personal information – or use easy to remember passwords that would also be easy to crack if anyone tried.

I finally had enough of all of these passwords and getting concerned every time there was a news story reporting that some online service or platform where I had an account was hacked (like LinkedIn was last year), and I decided to do something about it.

What I did was get myself an account with LastPass. LastPass is a free service that you can download and set up in a matter of minutes, and it will free you from remembering passwords forever – with the exception of ONE password that you’ll need to access your LastPass vault which will contain all of the information about sites you log in to and the passwords associated with each.

When you log into a site, LastPass will ask you if you want to save the site’s information into your vault. You’ll also have the option of generating a new, strong password for the site (or for any new site you log in to). After the site is saved to your vault, you never have to remember the password. You can even set LastPass up to log you in automatically when you arrive at that site. Alternatively, you can simply log in to your LastPass vault to obtain login information for each site individually.

LastPass also alerts you to weak and duplicate passwords as you’re logging in to your accounts, so you can generate new ones immediately and update your online security for sites you’ve been using for a while (and that have those old, weak passwords that are easy to remember but leave you open to potential problems).

In your LastPass vault, you can organize your site and login information by putting sites into different categories that you create. For example, you might want to categorize some sites as personal and others as business, or some sites as shopping and others as social media. You can even make online shopping and ordering easier by creating Profiles within LastPass for your credit cards, or for different billing and shipping addresses.

When you register for an account, or are ready to check out and make a purchase, choose the Profile you want, and LastPass will complete the form in a single click. And LastPass uses the latest encryption technology, so your data is secure.

In addition to the free service which you would install on your main computer or laptop and that sits in your browser, LastPass has a premium option that costs only $12/year. The Premium service allows you to use LastPass across all of your devices by giving you access to all of their mobile apps for smartphones and tablets, whether you use iOS, Android, Windows Phone, or a combination, so you’ll always have the passwords and other information you need, wherever you are. And LastPass includes multi-factor authentication, providing you with even more security.

Of course, LastPass isn’t the only password manager out there – a recent New York Times article discusses LastPass and other password apps here.

SlideShark

Many lawyers don’t operate solely in the Windows or Mac worlds; instead, they use a combination of devices. Perhaps they have a Windows desktop, an Android phone and an iPad (like I do). Although I have a laptop, it isn’t always convenient to travel with the laptop, and sometimes I prefer to just carry my iPad. In the past, I felt that if I was doing a presentation, I had to bring my laptop because my presentations were all prepared in PowerPoint on my desktop computer. Although I could transfer those programs to Keynote to try to present them on my iPad, they didn’t always transfer properly – and my images would always have to be loaded onto my iPad separately in order for them to appear properly, making extra work for me — something I try to avoid whenever possible.

Then I heard about SlideShark, a free mobile app that lets me show my PowerPoint presentations from my iPad with no change in formatting and with all of the images intact. Even hyperlinks, video, graphics and animations work seamlessly when presenting with SlideShark. Now when I’m creating a presentation I don’t have to worry about whether I’ll be presenting from a laptop or from my iPad. I can simply create the presentation in PowerPoint and know that it will look the way I want it to look regardless of the device I’m presenting on.

Getting started with SlideShark was easy; I just installed the app on my iPad, and when I want to present to a client or at a conference, I upload the presentation into SlideShark and present. I can even annotate slides in SlideShark on the fly as I’m presenting. And if you’ve got remote attendees, you can even broadcast your slides on the web through the app.

Although I can’t edit a presentation in SlidesShark, that’s OK – if I find that I really need to make a change before a presentation and I don’t have my laptop, I simply log in to my computer in my office (I use the LogMeIn app for that purpose), edit the slideshow, and then re-upload it to Slideshark.

Although I use the free version, Slideshark also has upgraded options for individuals as well as businesses. A comparison chart of their products can be found here. The paid versions of SlideShark include options such as larger file uploads, secure data backup and ability to track views of shared slides. But since I’m not concerned about confidentiality of my presentations or sharing online (if necessary, I have other outlets available to me for sharing), the free version works just fine for me.

No more getting locked out of a site because I forgot my password, no more frustration trying to remember multiple passwords or fear that my passwords will be guessed by ne’er do wells, and no more needing to lug around my laptop to do a presentation (or manipulating a presentation so that I can show it on my iPad)…these two apps have increased my peace of mind and made my life a little easier — and all for free (or very low cost). What more could I ask for in an app?

Who’s Using Social Media?

Lawyers ask me all of the time whether they should get involved in social media platforms, and whether those platforms really do anything to help them build their practices or attract potential clients and referral sources.

When answering this question (or similar questions about any particular marketing endeavor), I encourage lawyers to first determine two things: first, what is their purpose or intended outcome (for example, do they want to get in front of a wider audience, have a platform for distributing content, build relationships with existing clients, or attract potential new clients, etc.?) and second, depending on that purpose, is the audience they are seeking involved in that particular activity?

If you’re seeking to target a specifically male or specifically female audience, for example, his infographic from InternetServiceProviders.org,  may help you to determine if your audience is participating on social media:


Social Gender Infographic

As I discussed in a recent post on Slaw.ca, if you have a business to business practice and in-house counsel play a role in selecting or retaining outside counsel, LinkedIn might be a good platform for you to consider. As I discussed in that post, the 2013 In-house Counsel New Media Engagement Survey revealed that more and more in-house counsel are influenced by blogs and social media, with LinkedIn’s “professional network” being the one they use most for their professional contacts.

Don’t forget that even if your audience is participating on a particular platform, you’ll need to ensure that your content fits with the culture of that particular site. It’s great to have an opportunity to communicate with your intended audience, but you’ve also got to make sure that your message will resonate, and not turn them off. For example, if your audience is on LinkedIn, don’t ignore the culture, which is one of professionalism and business-oriented discussion, rather than the more personal sharing that may occur on other platforms (such as Facebook, for example).

Using Evernote to Boost Productivity and Stay Organized

Evernote Logo

Evernote is online archiving and note-taking software (Evernote Web) that also has an app (iPhone, iPad, Android, iPod touch) and a desktop component for Windows or Mac.

Essentially, Evernote helps you keep your notes, links and information in one place, accessible from anywhere. But it’s different than programs like Dropbox which allow you to simply store documents – in Evernote you can create notes directly within the program or capture web pages (or emails) and then add annotations, tag for easy categorizing, sync across multiple devices and easily search – the program even lets you search text within a photo (especially handy for one of my tips below).

Sync and Offline Access

For me, sync and offline access are two of the best features of Evernote. I do a fair amount of traveling and I like to use that time to catch up with my reading. I often come across web pages or email newsletters that I don’t have time to read when I first find them.

I used to bookmark these items in my browser to read later or for reference for article ideas, blog posts, presentations, ideas for clients, etc. Now, instead of bookmarking them in my browser, I clip them to Evernote. Then I don’t need internet access to read them – I just sync the Evernote files on whatever device I’m taking with me (laptop, phone and/or iPad) and I’m good to go. I can even catch up on my reading in ‘no internet’ zones, like on the plane.

Notebooks

In Evernote, you can create as many notebooks as you want. You can even create shared notebooks and create or join public notebooks if you want to collaborate with someone else on a project or share ideas.

Tagging

I’ve found the tagging features in Evernote make it easy to sort and find what I’m looking for, regardless of which notebook I’ve placed the note in.

Adding Notes

There are many ways to add notes to your Evernote notebooks.

When you want to remember something, instead of emailing yourself a reminder, email it to Evernote using your own Evernote email. Use the @ symbol to identify which notebook you want the note to be saved in (or don’t identify, and it will save in your default notebook). You can even tag your email by including the # symbol and the tag. (Both the @ and # symbols need to be in your subject line). For example, send yourself an email to @John notebook #to do and the note will be added to your “John” Evernote notebook and tagged to do.

Create notes directly within Evernote by clicking on “new note.” Add a typed note, handwritten (ink) note, record an audio note or take a photo.

If you use checklists in your practice, you can create and save them in Evernote and easily keep track of where you are on a project and what your next step should be.

Have you ever done a brainstorming session or had a meeting using a whiteboard and wanted to capture all of the information there to review and refer back to? Take a photo of the whiteboard and save it into Evernote; not only will you capture an image of the whiteboard, but the words in that image will be searchable.

Evernote Web Clipper sits in your browser’s toolbar and lets you save anything you see online—including text, links and images—into my Evernote account with one click. Save whole web pages, only selected portions, or just the page url. Add tags and your own notes.

I use this feature for both personal and business pursuits – when I find a recipe I like, I clip it to Evernote and save it with tags for the main ingredients, occasion or whether it’s a main dish, side, appetizer, etc. I clip and tag articles I want to read, pages from clients’ websites and more.

If you have a small firm, you might consider using Evernote Business, which can help you to organize your firm’s information and give employees a central place to find information. You decide who has access to what notebooks, while your Personal notebooks remain private.

If you like writing with a ‘real’ pen and paper, Evernote has a special Moleskine Smart Notebook you can use to take handwritten notes. Then take a picture of the page with the Evernote iOS or Android app and it automatically becomes a new note in Evernote, and all of your handwritten text will be searchable.

(Note: you can do the same thing with the free Evernote app, but their Smart Notebooks are specially formatted so Evernote can more easily recognize your writing and what’s on the page.)

According to Lifehacker, Evernote Smart Notebooks are especially worthwhile if you’re interested in Evernote’s Premium service, which provides more upload capacity (the free version allows you to upload 60 MB of data/month; Evernote premium increases that to 1GB/month) and has some additional features. Each notebook ($25 for the small and $30 for the large) comes with three free months of Evernote Premium, which alone costs $15/month.

Although there are Premium versions of Evernote, there is also a free version (which I use) that has plenty of functionality. What’s not to love about that?!

Do you use Evernote in your practice? Let me know! Come on over to Legal Ease Consulting on Facebook and join the conversation!

EVERNOTE, the Evernote Elephant logo and REMEMBER EVERYTHING are trademarks of Evernote Corporation and used under a license.

Return to March 2013 Lawyer Meltdown Newsletter

Learning to Disconnect

UnplugWe all need to unplug at times – but it’s easier said than done

There are different schools of thought about whether being ‘connected’ all of the time is the best way to serve clients, and I’ve discussed this topic before when discussing use of the telephone, giving out cell phone numbers to clients, etc. But this week it hit home more than ever how disconnecting helps clients not just in the immediate moment (giving full attention to one client or one task instead of being distracted by the phone, incoming emails, etc.), but over the long term.

Many lawyers today wear their workaholism as a badge of honor of sorts, talking about the number of hours they work, the weekend nights they’re spending toiling away at their desks instead of spending time with their families, jumping out of their seats at a restaurant to answer a ringing cell phone, one-upping each other with the length of time that has passed since they’ve taken a vacation. As a practicing lawyer, it’s tough not to give in to that mindset. When I was with my old firm, I was working constantly, hadn’t taken a vacation in years, and was getting more and more frustrated because the harder I worked the more it seemed there was to do.

That’s really the key – there will always be more work to do. The phone will always ring. The email will keep coming in. The trade journals and bar association publications will keep being delivered. At some point, we just have to say, “STOP.” A burned out lawyer is no good to any client. Inadequate nutrition, poor concentration, bad sleep habits, lack of motivation, low energy, and that feeling of having too many people to give to and not giving enough to each person are all detrimental to your clients.

Rates of alcoholism, depression and divorce are higher among lawyers than the population at large. It should be clear that none of those three are especially helpful to clients. The morale of lawyers has declined, and many lawyers say they wouldn’t become lawyers if they had to do it again, and they wouldn’t advise others to become lawyers. Since we take our cues from those around us, it’s likely that our clients are suffering from this low morale as well. Low morale, energy and motivation certainly aren’t leading to creative thinking or problem-solving, either.

Many lawyers think that being ‘on’ 24-7 gives them more control in an out of control world. Competition is increasing at a steady rate. Lots of tasks that could only have been performed by lawyers in the past are being commoditized and ‘sold’ on the internet and elsewhere by non-lawyers. Price competition is fierce. Lawyers are at the mercy of judges and clients. Civility is decreasing and the environment is often adversarial. Lawyers have begun to accept sacrificing their entire lives to their work – for what? Is it worth it? In actuality, in the attempt to control everything, lawyers often sacrifice everything and still control nothing.

I’d like to think that my work – both online, in this blog and in the ‘real world’ will help lawyers prevent what I call “lawyer meltdown.” By finding more efficient ways of practicing, learning how to work better with employees, associates, staff, vendors and colleagues, tapping into vision and the reasons for becoming a lawyer in the first place, changing billing practices, focusing on the ‘right’ tasks and the ‘right’ clients, we can turn the legal profession into a happier, more relaxed place to be. Lawyers have a bad reputation, in part because of the pressures we place on ourselves and the resulting image that necessarily projects. Lawyers are leaving the profession in droves. It’s time to change all of that and bring life back into the law, keep good lawyers in the profession and serve clients exceptionally well at the same time.

Lawyer Assistance Programs have been established to help lawyers deal with problems such as alcoholism and depression, but it would be so much better if we could find ways to practice law that reduced or even prevented these problems in the first place. It may take a culture shift for the profession as a whole to get there, but each individual lawyer intent on avoiding lawyer meltdown is a step in the right direction.

The first step is to learn how to disconnect. Turn off the phone and get away from email for a while and really sit with the case, brief, contract, letter that you’re working on. Give the client your full attention when you’re with them or when you’re working on their case. Then get away and let things percolate. Let your brain work the way it’s supposed to, rather than forcing it to run from one task to another with no break. Sometimes the best solutions come when we stop thinking about the problem. The energy and perspective that is produced by disconnecting will take you much further than you could ever possibly go when you’re rushing from task to task, or trying to do three things at once. Do yourself AND your clients a favor – disconnect for a while.

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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 Get Motivated

See this article as it appeared in the May 2006 Law Practice Today on line publication of the ABA Law Practice Management Section: “How to Get Motivated”
http://www.abanet.org/lpm/lpt/articles/mgt05061.shtml

Do you ever have those days when you come into the office and, as soon as you see the piles on (and maybe even around) your desk, you’re paralyzed?  Is your ‘to do’ list so long that you don’t know where to start?  Are you just dreading facing yet another day at the office?

We all have days when it’s difficult to get motivated.  So here are some tips to help you get inspired again:

1. Do Something: The fact is that sometimes we just have to get started, even if we’re not motivated.  Staring at the piles and agonizing over the lengthy to do list only adds to the stress and anxiety that keeps you un-motivated.  Many times, the quickest way to get motivated again is to ‘just do it.’  Start with one pile and make your way through it methodically, only touching each item one time and taking action until that one thing is finished.  The sense of accomplishment usually kicks in and keeps you going – it’s the getting started that’s the tough part.  Writers will tell you that the most difficult part about writing is just sitting down and doing it – frequently when you just don’t feel like doing it. 

2. Do Nothing: And I really mean nothing.  Don’t stare at the piles.  Don’t agonize over the to-do list.  Don’t talk to anyone.  Don’t turn on the radio, pace around your office, get a cup of coffee, or make another list.  Just close the door, close your eyes and do absolutely nothing for 15 minutes.  If you’re not used to doing this, chances are that you’ll start fretting about what you need to do and all kinds of thoughts will begin racing around in your head.  Don’t worry about that.  Just recognize the thoughts and then let them go.  Concentrate on your breathing.  Fifteen minutes of nothing, particularly in the midst of a frenzied week or at the beginning of a long day, will do wonders for clearing your head and reducing anxiety so that you’re motivated to tackle even the most daunting challenge.

3. Get Moving: Got a bear of a brief to write, an opening statement to prepare, or an estate plan that requires some real mental gymnastics?  Getting your body moving will make those mental exercises flow more easily.  Take a walk, go to the gym or run around with your kids.  Your physical energy will get the mental energy flowing.  Lots of times, great ideas come in the midst of a physical activity.  Sitting at a desk, in meetings, in court waiting for your adversary, at a deposition or a closing for hours on end shuts down not only your body, but your mind.  Get your body moving and the blood flowing to your brain.

4. Carry a Notebook: Inspiration comes at the most inopportune times.  Capture those great ideas when they arise so that when you’re not as motivated you’ll have something to fall back on.  Always have a small notebook, some index cards, or something else to write on, as well as something to write with.  Sitting in the movie theater, driving in the car (wait until you’re stopped to write, though), taking a walk (see above), and those last few minutes before you fall asleep are often the times when the best ideas come.  If you have a pen and paper handy, you can preserve those great ideas and then get right back to what you were doing, without the anxiety that you’ll forget.  And they’ll be ready for you when you’re facing another day of work.

5. Create a Deadline: Often, the best ‘motivation’ is knowing that you have a filing deadline, a date on which you have to give the presentation, an appointment with the client to discuss their estate plan, or a court appearance.  But since not all tasks have built-in deadlines, sometimes we have to create our own deadlines.  If you’re facing the awesome task of clearing some space on your desk so that you can work again, setting a timer for 15 minutes can be a great motivator.  Often, once you get through that first fifteen minutes, you’ll be motivated to continue. If you’ve got a project that is important to complete, but not urgent, make it urgent by setting a deadline and writing it in your calendar.

6. Enlist a Friend: You can reinforce your deadline by enlisting a friend, colleague, or coach to help you.  When you tell someone else that you’re planning to do something by a specific date and time, it creates an expectation.  We don’t like to embarrass ourselves or let other people down. We’re much more likely to get it done so we don’t have to admit to someone else that we didn’t do it. 

Ask your friend, mentor, colleague or coach to keep you accountable by following up to make sure you’ve done what you said you were going to do, when you said you were going to do it.  Even an adversary can be a ‘friend’ in this context if you promise that you’ll have the discovery documents to them by a certain time, or you’ll be present for a settlement conference on a specific date. Create an appointment where one didn’t exist before, and you’re creating a built in deadline for yourself.

Coaches, colleagues, family and friends can also help motivate you by being sounding boards for your ideas, or just by lending an ear when it’s time to vent about the bad day you’re having, the pressure you’re under or the uncertainty you’re facing with a particular client or matter.  Sometimes we lose motivation after completing a big project.  Talking about your successes or your progress can be exceptionally motivating, too.  Don’t underestimate the power of sharing yourself with others to reduce your anxiety and get you back on track.

7. Turn On Some Music: This may not work in all situations in which you feel unmotivated, but it can certainly help.Music may ‘soothe the savage beast’ in you by calming you down if you’re anxious, but music can also raise your heart rate, get your toes tapping and lift your mood so that you’re ready to work.  And if you turn on the music and start dancing, you’ll be double motivating yourself.

8. Take a Vacation: Take a good, hard look at where you are, how much and how long you’re working, and when the last time was that you took a break.  Many lawyers confuse lack of motivation with pure exhaustion or burnout.  Everyone needs some down time, and if you haven’t taken a vacation in years, you’re routinely working around the clock and on weekends, motivation may not be the real problem.  Making a clean break from all things legal, even for just a few days, can bring you a fresh perspective and a whole new reserve of motivation.

9. Try Something Different: Maybe your lack of motivation is the result of pure boredom.  If you’re doing the same things, day after day, your brain turns off and tunes out.  We all need growth and stimulation.  See if there’s a project you can work on that would stretch your mind, challenge your knowledge, or force you to work on something different.  Join a new committee at the bar association or find a lawyer in your firm that practices in a different area of the law and see if there’s something you can help with.  Take some CLE courses in a different area of the law.
Doing something different may mean doing something different outside of your work life. Motivation for your work can return when you feel inspired by other areas of your life.  Volunteer, take a class, or learn a new skill.  Even reading books in areas or on topics you haven’t previously explored can bring new insights or inspiration.

10. Do Something for Someone Else: Again, this doesn’t have to be related to work, although it can be. You can volunteer at a free clinic, give a free seminar, take on some pro bono work, or offer to mentor another lawyer.  There are a million ways that you can be of service to others, whether it’s joining a community organization, helping at your local church or food kitchen, visiting an elderly or sick relative or friend, surprising your spouse by making their favorite meal or doing a chore they hate, helping someone move, taking your family on an outing that they want to take (as opposed to going where you want to go), or calling up an old friend you’ve lost touch with.  Doing something – anything – for someone else takes the focus off of you and often leaves you feeling better about yourself – and more motivated – in the bargain.

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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!

 

Too Much To Do, Too Little Time?


Why Your ‘Don’t Do’ List May Be More Important Than Your ‘To Do’ List

See this article as it appeared in the July 2006 Law Practice Today on line publication of the ABA Law Practice Management Section: “Too Much To Do Too Little Time?”
http://www.abanet.org/lpm/lpt/articles/mgt07061.shtml

By: Allison C. Shields

Another day, another five million things on the ‘to do’ list. Most days, nothing even gets crossed off the list because too many other things come up – phone calls, unanticipated client problems, a last minute emergency that “must” be handled today. And at the end of the day has anything of value been accomplished?

You think you’re organized because you’ve got a ‘to do’ list – you’ve thought about what you want to get done, and you’ve got it all planned out. But somehow it just never works out. The problem may not be your ‘to do’ list – it may be that you need a ‘don’t do’ list.

What’s a ‘don’t do’ list? It’s a list of the things you shouldn’t be doing, the things that could be delegated to someone else or outsourced. The ‘don’t do’ list also includes all of the things you completely let go – things that can be eliminated entirely (or eliminated for a specified time period).

We’re so preoccupied with how much needs to get done, and we’re always on the go, rushing from one thing to the next, to the next. And while we’re busy doing the first thing on our list, ten other things crop up, or we’re thinking about what we need to do as soon as we’re done with what we’re working on. It’s frustrating, exhausting and ultimately, completely unproductive.

Law school education trains lawyers to spot issues, but this issue spotting behavior isn’t necessarily the most efficient way to run a law practice. In fact, it often leads to “analysis paralysis” – every issue must be at least considered, if not addressed, and this hampers lawyers by creating too many distractions. In effect, the ‘don’t do’ list narrows your options so that you’re not overwhelmed by so many choices every time something new arises.

Having a ‘don’t do’ list lets you identify from the outset the kinds of things you don’t want to do, or just shouldn’t be doing because they distract you and prevent you from accomplishing more important tasks. If it’s already on the ‘don’t do’ list, it’s easy to immediately recognize it and move on to more productive endeavors.

How do you decide what goes on the ‘don’t do’ list? Anything that distracts you from the main goals that you want to accomplish belongs on the list. The ‘don’t do’ list can come into play in a variety of areas in your practice – in the choice of day to day activities, your selection of clients or matters, or even what matters you should respond to first.

I had one client who was the managing partner of a four attorney firm and felt it was her obligation to open the mail every day so she could be on top of what was going on at the firm. But the time it took for her to open and sort the mail was time away from her other, more valuable duties. When my client finally used her ‘don’t do’ list and gave the job of opening and sorting the mail to her receptionist, she reclaimed a lot of billable time. Now she can breeze through the already opened, date-stamped and sorted mail and still keep current.

Your ‘don’t do’ list may also include certain types of clients. A friend recently fired a client who was difficult from the moment my friend first met him, and she finally drew the line when he began treating her abusively. She’s added abusive clients to her ‘don’t do’ list. Now when she sees one coming, she’ll just say no. She won’t add to her stress level by dealing with clients that don’t respect her and don’t value her work. The money that client might bring in just isn’t worth it. She saved herself endless hours of worry and unproductive activity – because dealing with that abusive client was distracting, even when she was working with other clients.

Think about your strengths and weaknesses when making your ‘don’t do’ list. If you’re a great speaker but a poor writer, perhaps writing articles, motions, briefs, etc. should go on your ‘don’t do’ list. You can use a ghostwriter, hire a contract lawyer to do the writing for you, or give the task to someone else in the firm with excellent writing skills. Then you can focus your energies on trying cases, giving seminars or presentations, or other activities where you can showcase your speaking skills.

Some marketing activities may belong on your ‘don’t do’ list. One solo I know belongs to so many networking groups that he’s at a networking event every day, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day. That means he’s at his office late into the night, and every single weekend handling his regular work. As a long term strategy, this might not be the best for him or his family. Marketing and practice building are very high value activities for a solo to perform. But they’re only valuable if they are strategic – if they’re putting you in front of potential clients or leads, or if the groups or events are ones which you’re passionate about.

Saying ‘no’ is an essential part of your ‘don’t do’ list. Being unable to say ‘no’ to a request when you’re already overburdened is a mistake. If you’re unable to devote the time and energy necessary to a project or group, your participation can end up working against you by creating a negative impression. Evaluate which groups or activities will be the most beneficial to you (or to the people or causes you’re supporting). Limit your participation to the most valuable events or organizations. You can get more value for less time, energy and stress. If the things already on the ‘to do’ list are more important or more valuable, these ‘invitations’ belong on the ‘don’t do’ list.

Although we need to be responsive and accessible to our clients, a good ‘don’t do’ list might include particular days or times when you’re ‘off limits.’ Allowing constant interruptions of family or leisure time not only robs you of much-needed recharging and rest, but is a disservice to clients who are only getting part of your attention. The same goes for interruptions of important business or client-related activities. It’s rare that clients have a real emergency that can’t wait an hour or two for you to finish preparing your motion in limine or complete a meal with your family.

Practice areas can also be items to add to your ‘don’t do’ list. If your practice focuses on family law and a client brings you a medical malpractice case, or if you’re a transactional lawyer who has never seen the inside of a courtroom and you’re asked to try a case, turning down the case may be the right decision. If you aren’t well-versed in the particular area of the law, don’t have the time or resources to learn or don’t have someone to help you, you may be asking for more trouble than taking the case on is worth. Having a ready network of attorneys to whom you can refer cases in other practice areas so you know these clients are well taken care of can assure that you’re meeting your clients’ needs while still remaining true to your own goals.

Identifying the ‘don’t dos’ can be an effective tool for managing your time and reducing your stress. Knowing in advance what things you won’t do lets you move on quickly, without wasting additional time analyzing everything that comes to your attention.

The ‘don’t do’ list also reminds you to ask for help in the areas that aren’t your strengths, so you can focus our efforts on what you do best and what brings the most value to your clients and to your life. It allows you to let go of the idea that you can do everything and be everything to everyone. It’s a shorthand way of cutting through all of the clutter of what needs to be done so you can get back to providing great service to your clients.

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If you liked these articles, subscribe to my e-newsletter, and you’ll receive new articles in your in-box. The articles in the newsletter are not available to the public – the only way to see those articles is to receive the newsletter.

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!

 

Why It Makes Sense to Narrow Your Practice Areas

It may seem counterintuitive to narrow the focus of your law practice, but often establishing a niche practice brings you more, not less, business. 

Consider another professional practice – medicine. Would you rather see a doctor that may have seen only a few patients with your particular medical problem, or a doctor that deals with your particular illness or injury and successfully treats patients like you on a regular basis? The same principle can be applied to a law practice.

Having a niche practice or focusing your practice on a few practice areas in which you excel and can develop in-depth knowledge and skills will instill confidence in your clients. By establishing yourself in a niche, you’re more likely to get referrals from other lawyers. You may be able to collaborate with other attorneys in related fields on the specialized issues encompassed by your niche. 

Establishing yourself as an authority in a particular field brings more focus to your marketing efforts and helps create a more pointed marketing message with a specific target audience. Just because you focus your marketing or your practice on a particular niche doesn’t mean you are required to turn away clients in other areas if you’re equipped to handle those matters as well. Believe it or not, your focus may make you more attractive, even for clients that need services that technically fall outside of your niche, if you’ve established a reputation as a skilled lawyer in a related area. But I would advise lawyers to carefully consider whether sometimes it’s worth turning away some business to focus their energies or establish themselves as lawyers with ‘higher value’ practices.

Narrowing your niche too much can be a problem, particularly in the scenarios she discusses. Sometimes your narrow niche is your true love, the area of law that gives ‘meaning’ to your practice, and you also provide services to clients in other practice areas that can bring more money, or more consistent cash flow. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I think it’s far too common for lawyers to create a practice that’s too broad or encompasses so many practice areas that potential clients are left with the impression (particuarly for solos or small firms) that the firm can’t possibly be competent at all of them (or perhaps any of them). 

There may still be a place for generalists in the legal field, particularly in certain areas of the country. And large firms that provide services in many practice areas, with lawyers that practice in only a limited number of them, can certainly market those individual practice areas and develop sufficient skills to represent their clients well. But as a general rule, particularly in today’s marketplace with the increased competition and availability of information to consumers, spreading yourself too thin and trying to be a lawyer that can handle anything for anyone is counterproductive – for both lawyer and client.

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If you liked these articles, subscribe to my e-newsletter, and you’ll receive new articles in your in-box. The articles in the newsletter are not available to the public – the only way to see those articles is to receive the newsletter.

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 Take Control of Your Practice by Creating Vision and Mission Statements

See this article as it appeared in the February 2006 Law Trends on line publication of the ABA GP/Solo Section, “How to Take Control of Your Practice by Creating Vision and Mission Statements”
http://www.abanet.org/genpractice/newsletter/lawtrends/0602
/business/visionstatements.html

Many solos and lawyers responsible for managing their firms report feeling out of control or overwhelmed.  Even successful lawyers will admit that their practices grew almost by chance, rather than by design.  They don’t have a handle on how their clients are coming to them, or what their clients are really looking for.  They aren’t sure how to grow their practice, to take it in a new direction, to get better work or better clients.  They never sat down and thought about exactly what they wanted their practice to be, but they tell me their practice isn’t what they want it to be.

There is hope.  Stop to take stock of where you are and where you want your practice to be in the future.  After all, if you don’t know where you’re going, how are you going to get there?

The first step toward creating the practice that you want is by establishing the vision and mission, writing them down, and sharing them with everyone that works in your firm so that they are inspired by them.

The vision and mission statements  are the touchstone for everything you undertake, from strategic planning, marketing, management and practice building to recruitment, hiring and performance evaluations.  These two statements are important, concrete guides for the future of your practice.  Once the vision and mission are written and digested, the rest of your business activities, including the management and marketing of your practice, have a direction. 

With a mission statement, you have a guiding principle against which to measure each of its actions.  You can begin to craft your practice in a more purposeful way and create business plans which will bring the firm to its destination – the attainment of the firm’s vision.

What is a ‘vision?’
The vision is the statement of what you are building.  It describes the idea of your firm in a way that captures your passion for your business and inspires you.  It is the picture of what the firm wants to be in three to five years.  Although some advocate creating a vision with a much longer time-frame, with the pace of business today and the changing legal landscape, creating a shorter term vision can keep you inspired and won’t become obsolete before it is reached.

The vision should be specific and include items such as culture, the ‘feel’ and atmosphere of the firm, the intangibles that customers can expect, as well as the ‘harder’ or more tangible aspects of the business, such as number of clients, gross profits, number of employees, number of offices, number and types of practice areas, etc.

Crafting Your Vision Statement
The vision describes your dream for your practice.  Set no limits when initially exploring the vision statement – let yourself describe your vision in an expanded manner.  It may help you see possibilities you might not otherwise have recognized.  Spend some time thinking about it before editing down to what you think is realistic or achievable.  But remember when editing not to edit out your passion – that which makes you enthusiastic about reaching your vision. 

Questions to Consider When Creating a Vision Statement
Who is your ideal client?
What are your financial goals for your practice?
What will you or your firm be known for?
What services will you provide your clients?
What will your role be in the practice?
Where do you practice?
When will you need more space, different systems, more staff, more attorneys? 
Why are you practicing law?
Why will your clients hire you rather than your competition?
What will the culture of your practice be?
What are your beliefs and values and how will they affect your practice?

What is a mission statement?
The mission statement describes the firm’s current purpose, identifies the firm’s market, values and priorities.  It illustrates how the firm intends to achieve its vision and how it goes about the practice of law every day.  It answers the question why clients will hire you to represent them.

Spending the time creating the mission statement and obtaining input from others in the firm enhances ‘buy in’ from the firm, regardless of its size, and establishes a starting point for the firm’s forward progress.

Your mission statement will also be useful for your clients – it will convey to clients and potential clients the essence of your firm and the manner in which you do business.  The mission statement can be a powerful tool, both for strengthening the infrastructure of your business, and for attracting and keeping the clients you want. 

Crafting Your Mission Statement
The three keys to a mission statement are purpose, business and values. 

Purpose
What is the firm’s core purpose?  Your response to this question should be a concrete one, and it is truly the foundation of your whole practice, and especially your management and marketing plans.  Spend some time thinking about why your firm was created, what need it seeks to fill.  Why are you practicing law?  What do you hope to accomplish?  What are you committed to providing to your clients?

The purpose section of the mission statement should also provide some information about the firm’s basic management philosophy and ‘in-house’ style – does the firm want to be a small, boutique law firm, a large business, a family atmosphere, corporate atmosphere, etc. 

Business
Your mission statement should also address the business of the firm – the firm’s clients, practice areas and services provided.  Keep in mind that if your firm has multiple practice areas, it might make sense to keep your overall firm mission statement more general and craft separate mission statements for the different practice areas.

Do you have or do you want to develop a niche practice?  Who are the beneficiaries of your work? Who is your ideal client?  What are their demographics?  What are their problems or needs? What services do you provide to address those needs?

Values
The values expressed in your mission statement emphasize what you are aiming for, what the firm’s core priorities are – does the firm emphasize responsiveness over completeness?  Do you emphasize alternative dispute resolution over litigation?  Do you emphasize compassion versus aggression?  What is most important to the firm, and how do you want to be known?

Set Yourself Apart
To be effective, the mission statement should be unique to you and your practice and reflect your personality. 

The problem with many law firm mission statements currently in existence is the same problem lawyers frequently have with their marketing – rather than focusing on who the target audience is, and what their problems are, the focus is only on the firm or lawyer – their education, their skills, etc.  The mission statement, just like a good marketing message, must focus on the client – what their problems are, and how your firm solves their problems or meets their needs better or in a different way than your competition does. It’s not about you, it’s about them, and about being of service to them.

If you substitute the name any other law firm or lawyer that practices in your area of law in your mission statement, is it still true?  If it is, your mission statement is too vague.

For example, “To provide quality legal services and practical, effective solutions to individuals and businesses at a fair cost with a focus on client satisfaction” is an ineffective and uninspiring mission statement.  It doesn’t convey a sense of the firm’s uniqueness or culture.  It doesn’t communicate the kind of services the firm provides, to whom they are provided, or how.  This mission statement sets forth the bare the minimum level of service which all clients expect their lawyers to provide – effective solutions at a fair price. 

Tips for Writing Vision and Mission Statements

  • Be specific, but make sure that the mission statement doesn’t become a strategic plan.  The mission statement should be an enduring statement of the firm’s identity, and should not contain goals and objectives.  The specific goals, objectives and actions to be taken by the firm should be incorporated into a plan, but that should be separate from the mission statement. 
  • Use ‘we’ to emphasize the firm as a whole, and focus on the firm’s culture and strategies.
  • Make sure all of your employees can relate to the mission statement – that it inspires all employees to be their best and to work toward a common goal. 
  • Make it easy to understand – don’t use ‘lawyer-speak.’  Remember, many of your employees are not lawyers, and most (if not all) of your clients are non-lawyers!
  • A good mission statement fosters commitment, motivation, and inspiration.
  • Seek input from all levels of the organization – from the file clerks, receptionists, secretaries, attorneys, paralegals, etc.  This creates ‘buy in’ for everyone at the firm, makes them feel a part of the team, and provides different perspectives. 
  • After input is received, the mission statement can be written by an individual or a small committee composed of individuals sensitive to the entire firm’s viewpoints, and it should reflect areas of consensus.  But do not allow a large group to be involved in the actual writing of the vision and mission statements, as this approach often devolves into nitpicking about comma placement, etc. and accomplishes nothing. 
  • Set a deadline for completing the mission statement.
  • Circulate a draft of the mission statement before it is finalized for review and comment. 
  • When reviewing the draft, ask yourself: Does this accurately reflect my understanding of the firm and its business?  Can the partnership live up to this?  Can the individual attorneys live up to it?  Can our staff live up to it?  Can we operate by this on a daily basis?  Are we willing to measure everything the firm does by this?

A Final Word About Implementation
Writing vision and mission statements alone will not bring about change or reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed.  To be effective, implementation is essential.  Everything in the practice must be based upon and measured against the mission statement.  If a client, a project, a charity event, a case, or a method of practicing is not in alignment with the firm’s mission statement, the firm risks diluting the firm’s identity and power.

Just as any good trial lawyer knows not to make promises in her opening statement that she can’t keep, so every law firm should beware of crafting a mission statement which the firm is not prepared to act upon and enforce.  Don’t create expectations that you can’t or won’t live up to.  If you don’t believe your mission statement, why should your client?  If the partnership doesn’t believe it, why should your associates and staff?

In order to create effective and inspiring vision and mission statements, it is crucial to ensure that the firm leaders are in agreement. Do they all agree with the vision?  Do the partners agree on the direction of the firm, the types of clients the firm does and will represent, and the manner in which the clients are serviced?  Can all partners articulate and agree upon what sets your firm apart from the competition?

If you want to create a direction for the future of your practice, and a way of doing business that inspires you, your entire firm, and your clients, creating vision and mission statements are a good place to start.  Once you have a clear direction, making real progress toward your goals is much easier, and reduces that feeling of being overwhelmed.

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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!

 

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!

 

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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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!

 

Calculating Rates for Legal Services

The June 16, 2006 edition of the ABA Journal e-report included an article discussing how the Second Circuit set fees for one solo attorney. The case involved an ERISA claim where the attorney was successful in arguing that his client’s pension should not be reduced because of a break in service. The attorney based his proposed billing rate on the billing rate of six attorneys in larger firms that handled similar cases. The fee proposal submitted to the court was accompanied by affidavits from those six attorneys.

The District Court reduced the lawyer’s claimed hours for reasons including work on unsuccessful claims the Court deemed not sufficiently related to the main claim and record keeping which did not adequately separate ‘administrative’ from ‘legal’ tasks. In addition to the reduction in hours, the Court set the billing rate at $100 below the attorney’s proposed rate, citing the fact that the attorney was a solo, and therefore had low overhead costs.

The matter was appealed and remanded to the District Court where a second judge determined the solo’s fee based upon a ‘blended rate’ which the Court determined by estimating what a larger firm might bill for specific tasks if they were performed by attorneys with differing levels of experience.

The matter was appealed again, and the Second Circuit noted that, rather than creating a fictitious ‘blended rate,’ the attorney’s fee should have been calculated based upon the different tasks actually performed by the attorney. The Second Circuit also rejected the notion that a lawyer’s rate can be lowered merely because he or she practices as a solo.

The matter was once again remanded to the District Court for determination of the lawyer’s fees.

Although the ruling is a victory of sorts for solos because the Court recognized that an attorney’s status as a solo doesn’t automatically mean that lawyer’s fees should be less than those charged by a larger firm, it may also create more problems for attorneys whose fees are reviewed by the courts. Will the courts scrutinize every single task performed by the lawyer in order to determine the appropriate fee? It seems that reducing the number of hours for tasks not considered ‘legal’ tasks would be more appropriate than reducing the attorney’s rate. Notably, according to the article, the original District Court judge did both.

Since I’ve been discussing value-based fees recently, I’m curious how the courts might rule on value based fees. If a lawyer bases his or her fee on value to the client (where the method for calculating fees is not determined by statute), and quotes the client a fixed fee up front, will the courts uphold the fee, or insist on scrutinizing the particular tasks performed, regardless of the result or the client’s satisfaction/agreement to the method of calculating fees? Only time will tell.

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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!

 

Being There for Clients – How Available Are You?

Does providing excellent client service mean you have to be tied to clients 24/7?

Dan Hull, who writes the respected What About Clients blog thinks lawyers should be there for clients — 24/7. I agree with Dan when he says,

In the next decade, and even for high-end clients, more and more “cookie cutter” and fungible services will be outsourced and done by very smart and far more cost-effective workers and professionals in Bangalore, Taipei or Mexico City. Just wait. What’s left over will be specialty items and things clients need professionals and specialists to do at their highest levels of thinking and problem-solving.

This may very well be the ‘wave of the future’ for legal practices. That’s why lawyers need to differentiate themselves from the competition, whether that competition is down the street or across the world. It’s why lawyers have to focus more on what their clients really want, and on finding innovative ways to meet not just the needs and wants that clients openly express, but needs and wants that are below the surface.

Where I disagree with Dan is in the premise that providing your clients with the best service always means being available 24/7. For certain types of law practices, being available for your clients at all hours of the day and night, seven days a week might be necessary – a criminal practice comes to mind. If a client is arrested, they need legal counsel fast. And in that situation, if you’re not available, you might lose that client. And if your practice is international in nature and you’re dealing with clients in different time zones, chances are that you’re going to be available on a different schedule than someone with a purely local practice. 

Attorneys are not royalty, as Dan says. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that today’s marketplace or the marketplace ten years from now requires that attorneys be available to their clients around the clock. I’m sure that many will disagree with me, but being available around the clock may not be the best strategy for you or your clients, even if clients say that’s what they want.

It may seem like a radical point of view, but consider the possibility that being always available can diminish the value of your services. Although clients may say they want the cheapest lawyer, they really want the best representation they can get – they want the best value. Being the most available can undervalue your services in the same way that being the ‘cheapest’ can. As Dan Kennedy suggests in some of his teachings about marketing and running a business, nobody lines up to seek the advice of the old man at the bottom of the mountain. It’s the wise man at the top of the mountain that people line up to see – and that people make sacrifices to see.

I’m not suggesting that attorneys should make themselves unavailable merely for the sake of making themselves unavailable. But remember that your best clients are the ones that seek out your advice and that trust and respect you and your judgment. If you’ve built the right relationships with your clients and if you’ve positioned yourself in a way that takes advantage of your own unique talents and skills and you serve clients in a way that no other lawyer does, existing clients, and even potential clients, won’t be too eager to throw that away to take a chance on someone else merely because they claim to be available 24/7.

I’ve said before that sometimes being too available hurts both the lawyer and the client. Again, a lot depends on your individual practice, your practice area, and the client. But being too available can make the client too dependent on the attorney, and can unnecessarily inflate legal fees. It can be the cause of poor performance, distracting the attorney from the task at hand and from the client who’s looking for assistance. I’ve worked with and have personal relationships with attorneys that are available 24/7. Many times, their clients are unnecessarily demanding because they know the attorney is ‘available’ 24/7. Often, they’ve got high stress and high blood pressure, and they never really re-charge. That isn’t good for them, their families, or their clients. They may be ‘successful’ in that they make a lot of money, but is that the only definition of success?

By contrast, I know attorneys that restrict their availability, albeit for good reason. They explain to clients that when they’re involved in a trial (for example), they don’t take other client calls. The client can call the office and get assistance from someone else. If it’s a real emergency, the lawyer’s office is instructed when and how to contact the attorney, but the client isn’t given direct access. The clients respect this, knowing that when their case is being tried, they’ll get the attorney’s full attention.

All of that being said, depending upon your practice area, it’s a good idea to set up systems to ensure that there is a mechanism in place for clients to get to you if they have a true emergency. Dan says that, “no client worth keeping will abuse the privilege.” This may very well be true, but sometimes it’s tough to discern which clients are worth keeping from the outset. Giving all clients unfettered access to you at all times is, in my humble opinion, a mistake. Instead, if you’ve got a client with whom you’ve established a trusting relationship that goes both ways, feel free to give them access that you deem appropriate, and make sure they understand the uses of that access. 

If you’re working in a firm and can establish a system whereby a client gets immediate help from someone, and that you can be reached if necessary, that makes more sense than providing everyone with your personal contact information. Often, if a client trusts you, they’ll trust your staff and they’ll also trust your discretion about how a particular matter or problem should be handled, and by whom. Much of this is a matter of setting expectations with clients at the outset and establishing a good relationship.

Dan Hull contends that in order to be competitive, we have to ‘be there’ for our clients 24/7. I’m not sure that’s true, and particularly not in all practices. A lot of discussion about availability comes from a scarcity mentality – it’s based on the assumption that there aren’t enough clients to go around and that lawyers are all fighting over the same small pool of clients. But if you’ve positioned yourself in such a way that you’re providing service that others aren’t providing, being always ‘on call’ may not be necessary. 

I also disagree with Dan’s contention that not being available 24/7 is arrogant, spoiled and stupid – in fact, I think it can be good business, and that it can benefit both the lawyer and the client. 

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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!