There is an ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” I think most would agree that things have gotten a lot more interesting for us in recent years. Many of our clients are struggling, which means that many of us or our colleagues are feeling the fallout. Whether you are thriving, struggling, or somewhere in between, here are some suggestions for improving both the quality of your practice and your life:
Turn Away Questionable New Clients/Cases
Resist the temptation to take marginal cases just because nothing better is offering at the moment. Even if times are slow, there’s no point in taking cases that aren’t worth your time or on which you are unlikely to be paid. Things could change tomorrow and if you’ve filled up your dance card with questionable or unproductive work, that just guarantees that you won’t have time to adequately work the marvelous new case which is just around the corner.
Weed Out the Current Bad Cases
The rationale for this is much like the prior point. Many colleagues have told me that they are very busy, but just not getting paid. Unless you know that the payoff is around the corner, that there will be resources to pay your fees at some time in the relatively near future, it is a bad idea to continue to work non-paying cases. You can’t abandon a client, but if they really can’t afford you, it is time to call them in and have a heart to heart talk about the realities of their situation and litigation budget. Chances are, if they can’t pay you now, most of them won’t be able to pay you later, either. Consider switching from full service to limited scope or getting out entirely if possible.
Send the Year End Thank You Letter
Review your case list for the past twelve months, focusing on the cases you closed. Single out the handful of cases/clients you really enjoyed and would like to have more of. Send them a letter saying that it is your custom and practice to periodically review your list of cases from the prior year. Doing so recently reminded you what a pleasure it had been to work with them. Tell them why (and not just because they paid you a lot of money). What made the relationship satisfying? Be sincere, tailor the letter to the specifics and only send letters to the few you can be genuinely grateful for. They will be stunned that you took the time to thank them and will remember you when their friends need a lawyer or need additional legal work themselves.
Spend Some Time Thinking About What You Want Your Practice to be Five Years From Now
If you have a little time on your hands (or even if you don’t), it is never a bad idea to spend some time thinking about how you would like your practice to evolve. Are there areas of your practice you particularly enjoy? Do you have specific talents and interests that could be turned into a niche practice? Areas of practice you’d love to transition out of if you didn’t need them to make payroll this month? Even an hour or two focused on these questions can have immense payback over time.
Go “Above and Beyond” for Your Best Clients
This is the time to make sure you really are giving your best clients top notch service. Competition among lawyers for the “best” clients is only going to increase in the future. Making sure that the level of service you give sets you apart from the competition is never a waste of time or energy. You will improve your competitive edge, your clients will be happy and they’ll send their friends to you.
Streamline Your Office Outflow
This is the time to take a good look at the fixed and discretionary expenses of your office. Do you really need all the space you have? Do you have an empty office where the broken printer goes to die? Clean it out and rent to a newbie. There are lots of unemployed lawyers out there who thought they’d be in a firm and find they have to try to make it on their own. Take a critical look at your office technology and how you use it. Do you really need a dedicated fax line when most of us do business by scanning and email? Review your library. Is there a set of books you didn’t use multiple times in the last year? If so, cancel the update service. You can always use the set at the law library if you really, really need something you can only get there.
This may not sound like a law office management issue, but it really is. Clutter usually consists of piles of things you meant to do but haven’t gotten around to. If there’s something you really do need to do, you’ll find it. When you find it, DO it and then put it away. Close the files you can. As you close the files, note which ones you particularly liked or detested and why. That will help you get clearer on what you want and will serve as a reminder when their clone comes in to interview you in the future. Put away any files you aren’t currently working on. You’ll feel better, you’ll identify things you need to do which are in danger of slipping through the cracks and when that wonderful new client interviews you, you’ll have an advantage over the other attorney they consulted who had piles of files all over the place. Clutter doesn’t make you look busy. It makes you look disorganized and unprofessional.
Everything cycles. Tough times are followed by prosperous ones. The practice of law is, by necessity, evolving in the face of changing client (and attorney) demographics, technology, economic challenges, evolving client expectations and competition from other providers. Use these times to clear out the dross in your practice, give some thought to what you want the future to hold for you professionally and streamline your practice. All of this will help you position yourself to pounce on the opportunities that are sure to be coming in the future.
M. Sue Talia is a Certified Family Law Specialist and a private family law judge. For the past fifteen years, she’s taught a popular workshop called “How to Have a Law Practice AND a Life.” A substantially expanded six hour version of that workshop has recently been recorded and is available for download at http://www.nexusbooks.com as an audio file. Information includes detailed topics such as Taming Your Office Outflow, Turning on the Income Spigot, and Slaying the Accounts Receivable Dragon.
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