3/30/2021: Virtual Reality: Did You Know You Already Run a Virtual Law Firm?
Most lawyers think of 'virtual law practice' as an all-in sort of thing.
Either you're completely virtual, or you're not virtual at all. Only, that's not the case. Even virtual law practices intending to be totally virtual don't ever really get there. For one thing, law firms (due in part to jurisdictional limitations) are almost always physical entities, in some sense, even if the physical entity is a home office and the physical network is a limited number of local referral sources. So, at least in this day and age, it's almost impossible to be completely virtual.
And, that notion changes the complexion of this entire conversation. If a virtual law practice doesn't have to be totally virtual - what percentage does it have to be virtual? 95%? 92%? 47%? 3%? The fact of the matter is that it is really hard to define a virtual law firm, which opens up the definition, rather than closing it.
So, if you use an internet-based email service, like Gmail - are you running a virtual law firm? And if you use video conferencing - are you running a virtual law firm? What about epayments? And, signatures? What about a combination of all these things?
The real truth is that nobody knows; and so, your virtual law firm is entirely what you made it, whether it's a lot virtual, or a little virtual.
Now, isn't that an empowering thought?!
3/23/2021: Change the Channel: Get Your Social Media Profiles Up and Running
Modern law firm consumers seek out and engage with law firms in new ways. Younger law firm customers, especially, look less and less to other persons for referrals -- which in-person referrals have traditionally driven law firm revenue -- but, they’re not necessarily searching exclusively on Google any longer, either. With the rise of mobile search, many modern legal consumers are performing ‘in-app’ searches for professional services -- such that, if they want to find a lawyer, they’re going direct to LinkedIn, or Facebook, or Twitter, etc. So, if your law firm is still focused exclusively on Google search ranking, and paying lots of money for privilege of ranking (kind of) highly, it’s time to consider the expansion of your marketing efforts.
Not that it’s ever been a good idea to focus on just one outlet for marketing your business. It’s made sense to diversify before; but, it’s getting to be paramount now. So, if you haven’t yet even set up social media profiles, it’s past time. If you have set up social media profiles, and don’t post to them, or engage with your followers, it’s high time you got going. Much of marketing is remaining top of mind to potential clients and referral sources, and a slow and consistent drip of content and information is the best way to stay top of mind. Social media is just one channel for publicizing your expertise; but, it’s becoming an increasingly important one.
3/16/2021: New Hire: How to Find Good People
You know what they say: good people are hard to find. And, if you run a business, you know that it’s true.
The most difficult hurdle to law firm growth is staffing up. Managing people is definitely tough; but, so is hiring the right people in the first place. The good news is that hiring well can be a learned skill, too, just like becoming a good manager.
-Build a candidate profile. Most lawyers just draft a job description (or have someone else do it), and that’s that. But, that doesn’t give you a complete picture of what you want; it’s just a snapshot of what you need. You’re more likely to find the perfect candidate if you have a notion of what that person looks like. Drill down to specifics.
-Go back to school. Hiring from your alma mater makes sense if you’re local. But, even if you aren’t, or it’s not, posting job descriptions through local colleges, universities and law schools is a great way to get vetted candidates. And, law schools, especially, are more than happy to work with you to send you an excellent candidate, if you reach out.
-Choose wisely. Hiring is not about getting as many job applicants as possible -- in fact, that’s what sucks about hiring. So, make an effort to get the targeted candidates that you really want. Start by building a candidate profile. But, you can also test attention to detail by requiring certain components in an application, e.g. -- a writing sample; if it’s not submitted, the job applicant is dropped. Another way to thin the herd is by utilizing filtering tools in the job search engines you select.
3/9/2021: Spring Clearning: How to Make Better Choices About Legal Technology
First question: Do you have a law firm budget? If you answered ‘yes’ — then, good for you! You’re one of the few, the proud.
Second question: When did you last review your law firm budget? Okay: now, I can’t be sure of what your response is, but I’m pretty sure I don’t like it.
The next (first?) time you review your budget, take a close look at the line items for technology. Chances are you’re paying too much. If you’ve still got lots of hardware, you’re paying for it, and its maintenance. If you’re not utilizing cloud-based technology, can you flatten your costs? Do you use everything you have, or is there software that’s on your books that’s not on your mind? Where do you need legitimate upgrades, and when are you buying new shiny objects, just to have them?
Technology overhead can make or break a law firm. Too many unnecessary costs, and you begin to teeter over. Too little overhead, however, and you’re likely inefficient. Finding the right mix of technology is not an easy thing to do, and Googling gives you tons of options, but not necessarily experienced guidance.
That’s why it’s important to reach out to experts, when you want to tweak your law firm technology program.
3/2/2021: The Others: Networking for Referrals from Non-Lawyers
Last time, in this space, we addressed the fact that attorneys can exercise ‘the nuclear option’ on any case referral, at any time: they can keep it for themselves. That’s why it’s so valuable to also network for referrals from non-attorney professionals, who have to find a lawyer to deliver referrals to.
But, if you’re comfortable networking with other attorneys, but not non-attorneys, these strategies should help:
-Just as you should find lawyers with complementary practices areas to refer cases to, and to be referred cases from, you should find non-lawyer professionals with complementary business models to refer business to and to get business from. So, if you focus on motor vehicle accidents, it helps to know someone who runs a body shop.
-Endeavor to make presentations in your local community that will draw potential clients and potential referral sources. If you have not yet developed your reputation in the local community, consider partnering with a local stakeholder, like a town library, to promote your event.
-Use MeetUp.com to find local groups and events based on interest areas. There may ongoing local meetings chockful of referrals sources, that you didn’t even know about. This may include specific interest groups that you hadn’t thought of on your own as viable referral sources.
-Create and use specific elevator pitches focused on the members of the professional group you’re trying to infiltrate. The pitch you use on lawyers is not going to work here.
-Make sure you track information about your networking efforts. Working backwards can help you to figure out your best lead sources. So, use a customer relationship management software to archive information and lead sources and the percentage of leads you close, and make better decisions about your marketing strategy.
2/23/2021: The Nuclear Option: Why It's Dangerous to Rely Exclusively on Other Lawyers for Referrals
Lawyers tend to congregate together. This is as much a fact of lawyer life, as it is a fact of professional life. Once you’re embedded in a career, you start to develop friends who do the same work that you do, and you generally prefer quality hang with colleagues, since you speak the same language — Latin, in the case of the attorney. In many ways, this is a completely defensible approach — unless it consumes the work life of a professional, at which point: let me introduce you to the lawyer who only networks with other lawyers!
There are ways to talk yourself into this arrangement, for sure:
-Our practice areas are complementary.
-I need this for my professional development.
-For the love of God, he knows what sua sponte means!?!?
And, that’s all fine... to a point. But, when you start to rely on other lawyers exclusively (or close to exclusively) for referrals, then you’re playing the most dangerous game.
You see, lawyers can execute what I call ‘the nuclear option’ — meaning that they can always co-opt a potential referral for themselves. Think about it: If a plumber has a potential referral of a legal case for you, they literally (not figuratively) cannot take on that client. They’re prohibited from finalizing an estate plan without a law license; and so, they have to find a lawyer for that lead, whether it’s you, or someone else. Not so for the lawyer. Even if a lawyer generally practices in another area of law, that attorney can take the lead that would have been yours, for his own, at any point before he delivers it. If he does so, instead of referring out the case, he’s exercised ‘the nuclear option’ (so far as you’re concerned), and kept it for himself. And, therein lies the danger of relying too heavily on other lawyers as referral sources. And, it’s worse the more referrals of a certain type you acquire from another attorney. If another lawyer sent you 12 divorce cases last fiscal year, why couldn’t she just start practicing divorce law herself, or hire someone to take those cases, so she gets a greater percentage of the revenue? And then, what if that lawyer’s referrals represent 20% of your business over the course a year? You’ve just been cut off at the knees. Your electrician ain’t gonna do you like that. Mostly because he can’t.
And as more and more lawyers enter the marketplace, and as clients willing to pay traditional law firm rates continue to dwindle, competition will only become starker, and more leads will stay in-house.
If there was ever a time to diversify your referral marketing palette, it’s now.
2/16/2021: Double Play: The Simple Math Behind Law Firm Growth
You’ve heard the phrase often from busy lawyers, law firm owners particularly: ‘If only I could clone myself’. It’s wishful thinking; but, it gets to the heart of the one barrier to law firm expansion that you can’t fake: In order to grow your business, to scale it . . . you have to hire.
Of course, that’s a hard thing to do, especially for solos, who’ve never had an employee before, or who have only used contractors previously. Lawyers, even lawyers who have started their own businesses, tend to be highly risk-averse. They crave safety, surety, over all else. But, there’s not a whole lot of surety in expanding a business. And, that’s mainly why it’s so difficult for attorneys to move forward on this score. Since most law firms bill on an hourly basis, the only way to increase your revenue beyond a certain point is to increase the numbers of hours you can bill, and there are only two ways to do that: become more efficient (so you can do more work in less time) or hire staff (so you can have more people working more hours).
Adding staff is necessary to scale your law firm, but to do so effectively, you need to know how much each person who works in the law firm makes for the business. The simple math is that this doesn’t work unless each person you hire is a profit center for you. But, taking the leap is important, because you’ll not know (kind of for sure) how much value a particular type of employee (associate, paralegal, bookkeeper, etc.) has, until you hire one. So, when you hire an associate, set a number of billable hours that reflect a certain amount of revenue, establish a personal overhead figure for that associate, and then track the viability of numbers. Realize that, as an associate’s skill level increases, they’ll work faster, and produce more revenue. Understand that, as you add modern technologies and efficiencies to your business, everyone (including your associate(s)) can work faster, and that you can reduce overhead per staffperson. If you can arrive at a profitability number for an associates for years 1 through whatever, you’ll have a good sense of how much money your firm is making for every hire you bring on. Do that for each position within the law firm, and you’ll be hiring intelligently, and more regularly.
2/9/2021: Space, the Final Frontier: Office Space Options Continue to Proliferate for Attorneys
A decade ago, lawyers had just one option for office space: a traditional lease. That’s a costly option, of course, and can be a barrier to entry, especially for young lawyers, looking to start new law firms. It’s also a scary, long-term commitment, potentially for up to five years, for any law firm. Fortunately, there are now more office space options than you can shake a stick at.
Due, in large part, to the rise of cloud-based technology, lawyers can now work at home, exclusively. Modern consumers care less and less where attorneys work, and that means that lawyers don’t need an expensive downtown address, in the way that they used to need an expensive downtown address. Instead of an office lease, you can get your mail in a big city to acquire a big city address, and talk to your clients via video conferencing. . . . And, get them to sign documents using esignature tools. . . . And, have them make payments via credit or debit cards, online. The point is that, perhaps the biggest reason you don’t need an office anymore is that you don’t need to hold in-person meetings anymore, if you don’t want to.
Of course, the flexibility of modern office space options means that you can meet your clients and colleagues only when you want to or need to meet them. Most coworking spaces operate in multiple locations, so that you can access multiple locations for your single subscription rate, as your needs require. Even if a coworking space is not your bag, more and more traditional law offices are renting space (in order to support their expensive, traditional leases), which gives you the cache of an old school law office, without the old school cost.
A mix of working from home and working out of a coworking space or an office share is the most cost-effective way for today’s small firm lawyer to house a law practice.
2/2/2021: Defensive Lineman: The Solo Smartphone Solution
If you’re a solo lawyer, it doesn’t make sense to invest in a phone system. But, you don’t want your clients to have your personal phone number, either. What if they start texting you?
So, what’s a thrifty solo lawyer to do?
Enter Google Voice, which is the answer to your prayers . . . if the answer to your prayers is finding a better way to answer your phone when your clients call. Google Voice allows you to ‘mask’ your personal phone number, while still receiving calls at your personal phone. It’s free; and, it takes less than a minute to setup. All you have to do is create or sign into an existing Google account, select a phone number, and you’re good to go. Then, publish your new Google number, and get calls at your smartphone, without ever revealing your personal phone number.
If you’re a solo attorney, Google Voice is a tremendous alternative to taking calls via your personal phone; but, it also offers a number of significant, additional advantages. (1) You have access to visual voicemail through your Google Voice account. (2) If you’re not near your phone, you can take calls via Google Hangouts -- which is Google’s free video conferencing software. (3) You can receive and respond to texts via your affiliated Gmail account, which also serves as an archive for client texting records -- something lawyers have traditionally had a really difficult time managing.
One word of warning: if you call out from your phone, and want your Google Voice number to appear on the recipient’s phone, you need to place that call through Google Hangouts or the Google Voice app -- otherwise your personal phone number will appear. So, don’t spend all that time and energy protecting your privacy, and then blow it in one fell swoop.
If that voice in the wilderness calling out to you is Google’s, answer.
1/25/2021: Way Outside: How to Rebuild Your Law Firm Practices
Attorneys seeking inspiration or advice on reconfiguring or revising their business practices often seek out colleagues or friends for advice. Most attorneys maintain other attorneys as colleagues and friends. So, when they’re seeking business advice, they’re getting it from other attorneys.
There are a couple of problems with relying on that strategy, however. The first is that law firm managers tend to rely entirely on their own experience. If you ask them what to do in a specific situation, they will invariably say: ‘Well, this is how we do it . . .’ But, there is no one size fits all model for law firms, which means that lawyers should refer to various scenarios, before determining which option works best for them. (And so, that’s a good conversation to have with a law practice management consultant *AHEM*, who regularly speaks to different law firms, to gauge their perspectives.) The second problem with that strategy is that law firm owners are generally not business gurus. When lawyers say that other attorneys are great lawyers, what they mean is that the referenced attorney is great at practicing substantive law. But, how many attorneys do you know who are marketing gurus? Or technology whizzes? Exactly.
That’s why it pays for lawyers to seek outside opinions when revamping their law firm practices. Find somebody who is a marketing guru, or a tech whiz. Many of those folks promote themselves online, and so offer a good deal of basic, free advice. That’s a great place to get started. It also helps to look at other industries for inspiration:
A lawyer friend of mine was once revising his website, and he was looking for other law firm websites to base his redesign on; but, he told me they all sucked. So, he set out to determine which set of professionals had the best websites. He decided that it was architecture firms, and so built his law firm website to look like an architectural firm’s website; and, it was one of the most unique and resonant law firms websites I have ever seen.
1/19/2021: Persons of Interest: Modern Staffing Options Abound for Law Firms
Business growth is what everybody wants; but, it’s not easy to manage. Managing people brings with it new duties, and added headaches. Of course, it’s the only way to scale your business beyond yourself.
Fortunately, for law firms owners, there are more staffing options now, than you can shake a stick, even if you’re not ready to make the move to hiring an employee.
Many expanding law firms choose to engage contract attorneys, who can make their own hours, and are often experienced enough to manage their own worfklows. These folks don’t require benefits, or a salary. For contract attorneys, the advantage is that they can make their own schedule, which works well, for moms who want to be home with their kids, for example. Law firms using contractors are advantaged because of the cost savings -- in addition to salary and benefits, you’re also often saving office space and technology costs. Law firms with enough definable specific needs can hire contract attorneys to work in a very defined niche, which really means that you can have specialists surrounding your practice. If you’re interested in a more formal arrangement than the one you would have with a contractor, you can try an of counsel relationship, which would allow you to co-market with another law firm. In addition to the obvious cost savings advantages related to hiring contractors, there is the marketing fodder you get by working with highly qualified lawyers with deep subject matter experience.
And, these benefits don’t just extend to other attorneys. If you can become comfortable with managing a distributed workforce, you can hire the best staffpersons wherever they are. Cloud software also makes it easier than ever before to add or eliminate access to essential law firm management tools, and to stay on top of what’s happening with remote workers.
1/12/2021: Brand Aware: Logo Development for Law Firms
Review some law firm logos, and you’ll probably find similar characteristics: prominent use of gavels and/or columns; the logo design will likely be based on the first letters of the last names of the name partners; and, the color scheme will probably be blue/white or gray. What I’m trying to say is that pretty much every law firm logo is the same.
In a massively competitive market, like legal, that’s a bad thing, because when you’re scraping for business against every other estate planning law firm in your neighborhood, every little differentiation point helps.
So, let’s talk about the potential benefits of a new logo for your law firm: It can set the color scheme for your branding, including for website creation or redesign. (What if -- gasp! -- your law firm logo color scheme was not blue and white.) It can encapsulate important elements of your business in a more visceral way. (Amazon’s logo has the smile in it for a reason.) It is another link in your brand awareness campaign, and creates something memorable for your customers (and more importantly) your potential customers, who have another foothold into your business.
But, don’t just take my word for it, this is one of those things you have to see to believe. So, why not try a logo design/redesign campaign, and see where some thoughtful tinkering will get you -- you may start thinking of your law firm, and its services, in a whole new way. If you’re hiring someone to design a website, they’ll probably throw in logo design for free (in part, because it helps them to set the parameters of what the website should look like); but, if you’re not engaging that larger project, you can throw short money at a logo design contest on services like 99Designs or CrowdSpring, to see a bunch of options that might coalesce into an improved vision of what your law firm is and means.
1/5/2021: Trinity: The Three Software Tools Modern Law Firms Run On
If you’re a lawyer, law firm software is everywhere. Make one online search for the term, and you’re caught up in the vortex of SEO -- you’ll be served law firm software advertisements wherever you go online, from now until the end of time. I get how that can be annoying -- but, the point remains that law firms using the right software are more efficient, and make more money. So, it’s all kind of like that little voice in your head that tells you not to have the cheesecake -- obnoxious, yet bitingly correct.
So, even as you know you should probably be upgrading your software stack, it’s tough to swim through all of the sales pitches, and to wade through the multitudes of options available to you.
Fortunately, I’m here, to deliver you the answer you crave, to the question that keeps coming up: What software do I need to run my law firm?
A modern law firm should base its software program on three primary tools: productivity software (email + calendar, document storage), law practice management or case management software (a relational database to organize everything in one place) and an accounting program. Your productivity software and your accounting software should integrate or sync with your law practice management software. You should only be using cloud versions of these systems, in order to increase your flexibility, flatten your costs and increase your data security. And, if you need help setting up these systems or choosing between them, you should ask for help.
This is your lodestar for the future of your law firm technology platform.