Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Welcome to the Year of the Snake.13 Law Practice Resolutions for 2013

I would like to extend a Happy New Year to all of the readers of the Nutmeg Lawyer.  I am surprised at how fast time seems to fly.  It feels like just yesterday I was standing on a podium receiving my law school sheepskin.  Suddenly, I am approaching my eighth year of practice.  So why do I feel like I am still new at this law thing?  

According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2013 is the year of the snake.  As such, I believe it should be a great year for attorneys, car salesmen, contractors, and DMV employees.  The new year is also a great time for new year resolutions that are invariably broken.  Each year I promise to hit the gym, clean up my office, write the great American novel and learn Italian.  Each year my promises fall by the wayside.  As the saying goes, "This year will be different"

In the grand scheme of things, eight years of practice is a drop in the bucket compared to the long stellar careers of attorneys that may be a bit longer in the tooth.  Nevertheless, here is a few tips I managed to pick up in my own practice.  You may disagree with some of them.  You may find others to be utterly brilliant and insightful. (OK maybe brilliant is overstating it a bit.) With that said, here are 13 tips that you might want to consider for your own law practice:

(1)  Always hand out two business cards.  The recipient will now have an extra to give to a friend as a referral.

(2) Make a habit of walking through your office each morning. Play the part of a prospective client. Are your waiting room magazines out of place and outdated?  If you have a receptionist, is his or her desk a mess?  When you sit down, can you see clutter from the vantage point of the client.  Are there stacks of files in view?  A cluttered office may give off the impression that your firm is unorganized and likely to misplace files. 

(3) Pay attention to your support staff.  How does your secretary answer the phone.  Does he or she simply say "Law Office" or do they mention the firm's name?  How do they greet clients when they walk in the door?  In my own practice, we instruct our staff to greet clients followed with a "somebody will be right with you.  Can I offer you coffee, tea or cappuccino?"  I actually purchased an easy to use cappuccino machine that uses a disc system.  Sounds goofy, but you would be surprised at the effect something so simple has on clients.  (It has also made our staff a bit more productive.  No more trips to Starbucks).  In addition to our magazine selection, I also purchased a Kindle Fire for the waiting room.  We offer it to more tech savvy clients with pre-selected magazines already downloaded.  Perhaps a bit novel, the response has been tremendous.  It's the kind of thing that clients will share with their friends.   

(4) The longer you practice, the easier it is to forget that this may be your clients first exposure to the judicial system.  They may not know that even though their summons indicates 9 AM, the judge won't come out until 10:30. They may not know what courtroom to go to, whether they need to sign in, or what they need to bring to court.  It's good practice to walk your client through the process to put them at ease.  For example, many solo practitioners need to hop from court to court. Let the client know that they shouldn't freak out if they don't see you right at nine.  

(5) Pay attention to the way you communicate with clients.   Do you update them with progress letters or phone calls?  Even if nothing is happening on a case, it is good practice to check in with your client.  The biggest source of grievances is often lack of communication.   
(6)  Make an effort to schmooze a little more.   Familiarity can breed business. When you go to the bank, do you use the drive-thru window or do you go inside to speak with the tellers?  I make an effort to do the latter.  Believe it or not, it has generated business from the bank with real estate closings, powers of attorney, wills and other matters.  I also chat up barbers, dentists, auto repair guys, doctors, Mormon missionaries, clerks, court marshals, police officers, contractors.....really anyone who has the misfortune of crossing my path.  You get a hair dresser on your side and you will be in business for years.  

(7)  A limited budget doesn't have to limit your advertising.  There are several websites that list your information for free that allow you to update your profile.  Utilize them.  Add your phone number and website.  Find your profile on avvo.com and claim it.  Add your contact information and accomplishments.   Consider writing a column for a local newspaper.  Give seminars.  Start a blog.  Social media is also free.  On Facebook, I have made it a habit of updating my location every time I go to court. It is a not so subtle reminder that I am a lawyer and that I practice in court houses across the state.  Friends and family can be a great source of referrals.       

(8)  In my opinion, articles about your firm are always better than paid advertisements.  Local daily newspapers need to fill copy.  Use that to your advantage.  If you have something going on, let them know.  If you are giving a seminar at the local library, see if you can get the paper to write a story about it.  If there is a big crime story in the paper and you are a criminal defense attorney, let them know you are available for comment.  Celebrating your firm's tenth anniversary.  Let them know. Clients won't hire you if they don't know you exist.

(9)  Dress to impress.  You don't have to spend a fortune on upgrading your look.  Even an old suit can get a new life with a trip to your local tailor.  A well put together attorney will give you a look of confidence and success.  Your clients will appreciate it.

(10) Make it a practice to trust your gut.  A few years ago, fellow blogger Norm Pattis wrote a piece on what he dubbed "the heebie geebie test" when dealing with potential clients.  I took the advice to heart.  Whenever I failed to follow this advice, I regretted it tremendously.  It's that feeling in your stomach that the person sitting from across your desk is going to be a pain in the res ipsa loquitur.  For a solo practitioner, this can be tough to follow.  Let's face it, it can be tough to turn down a fee when you have bills to pay. Nevertheless, a problem client can wind up costing you more in the long run.  These are the clients who want to sue for the principle of the matter.  They may come to your office with binders full of laminated "evidence.  Such clients can be the source of great stress and will suck time that can be devoted to your caseload.  A red flag is that they have had other attorneys before you.  If you are willing to take a risk, you might want to consider calling any earlier attorneys to see what ended their relationship.

(11)  Creating a business plan can help map your path to success.  Think about what you want out of your law practice.  What are your goals?   What do you want to accomplish?  Do you want more clients?  Do you want more time to spend with the kids?  Do you want to increase your bottom line? In addition to keeping you on track, a good business plan can help you get financing.

(12) Consider investing in law practice management software.   Our firm has experimented with a variety of programs from Amicus Attorney to Rocket Matters.  For our small firm, we found a great fit with Clio.  The program is very affordable compared to others.  More importantly, it is cloud based and is consistently improving upon itself.  Clio integrates seamlessly with Google Calendar.  I love that my secretary can schedule something in the office and it is immediately updated on my smartphone as I trod court room hallways.If I need to get info or a document on a particular client, I don't need to call my secretary to look for it.  I can get the info right on my phone through Clio.  We are now a more organized and efficient law office which allows me to put in less hours at work.

(13)  The practice of law can be a stressful thing.  It behooves you to relax once in awhile.  I make an effort to take a few weekend jaunts throughout the year.  I find it clears my head and gets me motivated to trudge onward.  Some rest and relaxation can also stir up your creativity.  Some of my best ideas come to me when I have a little time to myself.


Cliff Tuttle said...

The Nutmeg Lawyer is back! Goodbye writer's block!

I had no idea that you are in your eighth year of practice. By the end of 2013, I'll have put up 40 of them. After all that, I couldn't give better advice and, truth be told, I haven't followed nearly as much of it as I should.

I think I'll go blog about it.


Adrian M. Baron said...

Thank you Cliff. I wish you a prosperous New Year