Lawyers: Hire a staff that shares your values
February 11, 2014
This article is part of a series to help busy lawyers recruit, train and manage a great team. If you have suggestions or questions, please contact me.
Law school taught us how to argue a point effectively, research court precedents and write compelling court petitions, but it didn’t offer most of us any actual business training — chiefly, how to hire and train employees for the law firms we would one day own or manage.
One of the biggest traps we can fall into as business owners is hiring staff members in a panic.
The following scenario might sound familiar:
A key staff member either quits unexpectedly or must be fired by you or your office manager. The crucial work this person did daily is going to pile up quickly. Most of it cannot be parsed out to other staff members. Clients will be phoning soon asking for progress reports. Important court filing deadlines are looming. And, of course, you have no viable candidates to replace this person because you haven’t been actively recruiting in preparation for staff turnover.
This is usually when many lawyers will quickly throw up a Craigslist ad full of high expectations for minimal pay. They sift through a barrage of emailed replies from desperate job seekers and proceed to interview and hire the first person who listed any work experience in a law firm.
Fast forward a few months or a couple years. Rinse, repeat. It’s a vicious cycle. I want to help you avoid this. To collect and keep a great team for your great practice, you need a foundation of values and skills to build upon.
First, let’s define what I mean by values. These are a person’s — or a firm’s — principles or standards of behavior, the internal compass about what’s good, right and important.
A fundamental value that many firms and individuals follow is The Golden Rule, — treating others as you would like to be treated.
When I set out to build a great team, I evaluate candidates on values such as integrity, accountability, work ethic and being a positive thinker. But, of course, because every team member is different and brings a different compass to the table, frustrations are bound to arise.
As the owner or managing partner of a law firm, you can deal with myriad problems, or frustrations, on a daily basis. These might include:
- My staff doesn’t show up on time. This directly eats away at productivity and profitability.
- They don’t listen. Communication isn’t just talking — it’s listening intently so there is no doubt about what is required.
- They don’t care about their work. If they don’t care, it will show, and the firm will suffer in the long run.
- They have no work ethic. If they’re on Facebook half the time, how are they going to meet deadlines?
- They don’t help each other. You can’t build a successful team without teamwork.
Note the distinction I’m making here. These aren’t problems with an employees’ skills, these are all related to an individual’s values.
To avoid these common frustrations, you must lay out what’s important to you and the firm. Clarify what really matters and educate your team about it. When that’s done, periodically grade your team to see who gets it — and who doesn’t.
Of course, great values alone won’t build a great team and a great practice. You need people with great skills, too.
Skills are, simply, the ability to do a task well, or expertise in a certain aspect of work. Some examples of skills I need in my great team are:
- Customer service. At the most basic level, we have to meet customers’ needs to be successful.
- Software expertise. Simply knowing how to use Microsoft Word is not an advanced skill. In today’s business environment, proficient use of standard office programs is expected. Test applicants on those programs. For expertise, I look for applicants with experience using CRM (customer relationship management) systems, document drafting software and writing spreadsheet formulas.
- Accounting accuracy. This is how we keep score.
- Drafting documents. I want staff members that can draw up documents, always making sure they double check their work against my notes.
The best thing about skills is that they can be trained. I can take a worker with great values and train her with the skills I need to build my great team.
Next time, we’ll talk about how you, as the owner or managing partner, can be a great part of your team.
I hope this information was useful to you, and if you have a specific case or a question, don’t hesitate to contact me.
Lawyers: Why Dominate Your Market?
October 10, 2013
Why would you want to play a bigger game than what you are currently playing? Who needs the effort, right?
And, why would you ever play such an outrageous game as something called “Dominate Your Market” workshop?
One of the biggest traps that stops great law firms from growing is the trap of relative success. The partners look around and see that no other law firm is doing what they do. None of their competitors market as well, practice as well, treat their employees as well, or make as much money as they do. They think: “We are, without a doubt, the best in our marketplace. No one comes close.”
They attended a CLE program as a participant or as a speaker and thought, “Wow, I am the smartest attorney in this room. No one can touch me.”
They see themselves as the best in comparison to anyone else. They don’t need help. They just need to show up and smile.
In my experience, once this occurs, all growth stops. The ball game is over. The trap of relative success has been sprung, and this firm has hit a plateau of comfort.
This trap owns them now. They will never see it as the collar it is around their necks. Their growth is now leashed, and that chain is short. As long as the trap of relative success owns them, they will slowly but surely lose their spot in the market place. Of course, they will never see this coming. They are blinded by their own brilliance.
This why you we at Atticus say lawyers should always play for market dominance. If you are always playing to be the best at all times, then no one can catch up to you. You must always set stronger and hungrier goals — the type that motivate you to always play at your best level.
Nothing is worse than a lawyer that ran out of goals. You must always be playing to be bigger, stronger, more profitable, and never ever think you are the prettiest firm in the room.
If you’re interested in taking your relatively successful law firm to new heights, then I encourage you to check out the Dominate Your Market workshop program. It meets quarterly, provides members access to our top coaches (me included) , an inspiring peer group of high-achieving lawyers from around the country, and access to Atticus’ enormous bounty of practice management resources and tools.
If you don’t yet qualify to join the program — it’s not for everyone — then you should know that Atticus offers a number of other workshops that will help your law firm reach its tipping point to success — The Practice Builder, The Practice Growth Program and Rainmakers.
If you have any questions about Dominate Your Market or any of Atticus’ coaching programs, contact me.
2 Quick Fixes for Your Law Firm’s Cash Flow Crisis
August 12, 2013
I’m going to keep this short and sweet. There are two overlooked ways to improve cash flow at your law firm.
A cash flow crisis is a sure fire confidence crusher. Whenever I’ve started working with a law firm suffering a cash flow crisis, I’ve found there often were two simple, overlooked ways that they could have alleviated their money problems.
- Raise prices. I know that asking for more money might appear counter intuitive. However, in a non-contingency firm, raising the firm’s rates for fixed fee and hourly work is a quick and easy way of raising cash flow. Take a hard look at what you and the rest of your firm currently charge. What services are you giving away for free? Where are you doing work at discounted rates? Where could you immediately start raising prices today to improve your cash flow?
- Get all the money up front. Sure, I know you require a retainer and none of your clients ever fail to pay it. Yes, I know you collect half now and half later — or whatever way you get paid. However, in my experience, very few lawyers tell the truth about this. They say they get all their money up front. But if you push them past their initial hemming and hawing, they’ll finally admit that on most cases they do not get paid up front. If you want to improve cash flow, then get ALL of your money up front before you start work. You may have some clients balk, but in my experience 80 percent will pay up front. After a little bit of time, 100% will pay up front.
Try both of these ideas and let me know how they work.
4 Things Case Management Software Must Do
July 9, 2013
I am often asked if I can recommend a case management software system.
These lawyers want to know: Should it be cloud-based or server-based? Which one is best? Which one is cheapest? Which one will my staff not hate? Which one will do my work for me? Which one will sync with my smart phone, tablet, car and brain?
In my practice, I switched five times over 20 years to five different systems for several different reasons.
In the end, I really don’t think it matters which one you choose provided that it does four critical things for you:
- It must link your emails to the appropriate electronic case matter. If you receive an email relating a case, with one mouse button click the case management software needs to save the email into the client file so you can track what went where and when. This must be simple and fast. For example, I talked to a four partners at a small firm that were using Outlook. Their “system” to save an email was to print it out (seriously!) and then put it into the client’s paper file. (I am still nauseated by this example. I could send both of my kids to college on the money this firm wasted). There are many wonderful case management software systems that will match emails directly to aclient’s profile or case matter. If you don’t have one, ask yourself: Will my amount of emails increase or decrease over the next five years?
- It must link or save a client’s documents to their electronic case file. My practice went paperless in 2001. Was it perfect then? No. Is it perfect today? No. But, if we are looking for an old client file, it is so much easier to do a search on an electronic system than to climb into a storage unit. (It is amazing how many times I could not remember the exact spelling of a client’s name — or the exact name of the document file I needed — but I performed an electronic search using a few keywords … and … bingo! The file was found and I seemed psychic to my client).
- It must be easy to learn. If it’s not, none of the firm’s lawyers will learn it and the staff will work around it. I don’t care if has the coolest features cut and dice data a thousand different ways, what matters is whether your law firm team can learn to use it. Does the system offer free training, including online videos? I used to be a Time Matters fan, but that product went from market leader to market laggard rather quickly. It became costly to train employees on how to use it.
- It must have an easy way to track the staff’s activities. Many systems can track when a phone call came in and when it was returned. Some can help you manage your staff by measuring how long a task is outstanding and provide a way for you to delegate “to-dos,” tasks, reminders and projects.
Still not sure? The American Bar Association published a comparison guide of many of the leading case management software vendors.
I hope my thoughts here have helped you consider new ways to grow your practice and improve your life. As always, if you ever have any questions or suggestions for this blog, contact me.
Keeping Up Momentum After a Law Firm Retreat or Workshop
June 14, 2013
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So, you just attended the most amazing law firm workshop ever! You took copious notes. You’re inspired, feeling innovative and charged up. On the plane ride (or car ride) home from this law firm retreat, you feel ready to break down any barriers that kept your law practice stifled and struggling. Your brain is bursting with ideas to market to prospective clients, improve a document drafting process, or reorganize client files.
Good for you.
Trouble is, you’re returning to an office brimming with distracting interruptions, booby-trapped with unplanned meetings, and occupied by a frustrated staff that’s ready to punish you for your selfish absence by dumping all the new problems that popped up while you were gone — kerplop – right onto your desk.
You’ll be back to a frustrating square one position, putting out fires, fixing mistakes and flailing to keep on top of an ocean of “urgent” emails that must be read and voicemails that must be returned.
It’s crucial to keep the momentum alive, or all the money and time you spent away from your desk will be wasted. You’ll lose traction, confidence, and any hope you felt when you attended the workshop or retreat.
To get the most out of the next workshop or retreat that you attend, I have three important recommendations for you:
First, and this is the most important suggestion, block off an implementation day or a half day on your calendar on the first day you return to the office. After that implementation day, you should set aside perhaps two hours a week to work on the project ideas that came out of the session.
When you sit down to register for that next great legal workshop, look at your calendar. If the first day that you return to the office is blank, quickly block off the entire day as busy. If there are already appointments, delegate your assistant to reschedule those calls and meetings. If a court date can’t be moved, then pick the very next day for your implementation day.
Explain to your assistant that you absolutely cannot be interrupted during that day. No client appointments. No staff meetings. And absolutely no “Mrs. Jones is on line two and wants to talk to you for a few minutes.”
Second, during this implementation day, schedule another one about 90 days out. This can be a mini-retreat for you and your key assistant or law partners. I recommend doing this out of the office, keeping you away from distractions while you review progress from the first 90 days and set new goals for the next quarter.
I want you to create good habits, and future planning is crucial to your practice’s growth. Do you want to be back to square one every 90 days with the same uncompleted goals, or do you want to mark off your team’s progress so that you can move on to greater things and greater revenue?
Third, name a project manager for each project. One person can oversee several projects, but I want you to pick someone other than you or other attorneys at your firm.
“Oh no,” you say. “I’m a control freak, and I simply can’t fathom handing over the reins to anyone on my staff.”
You’ve got to trust the people you’ve hired with at least some of the responsibilities to grow the practice, or they will never grow as individuals professionally. Keep them out of the loop, and you are risking that they will look elsewhere for those challenges.
What’s my other reason for saying lawyers should not be the project managers? Well, I think the most successful lawyers chiefly focus on two things:
- production work — so that they can fulfill promises to clients
- marketing — meeting with referral sources, clients and prospective clients
Everything else is secondary. You, as the attorney, should not be doing all the initial footwork on choosing your practice’s new email marketing service, buying a new document scanner, or inputting a client’s information into the CRM system.
Assigning someone on your staff the role of project manager can help foster a feeling of ownership in the firm’s success and a huge sense of accomplishment when the task is done. This person will hold team members accountable for fulfilling their responsibilities in finishing the project — even you.
I hope my thoughts here have helped you consider new ways to grow your practice and improve your life. I have some great worksheet tools for setting goals and managing projects that I’m happy to share with you. If you’d like a copy of “My Top 10 Crucial Goals” or “My Great Quarter,” email my project manager, Mike Wells, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As always, if you ever have any questions or suggestions for this blog, contact me.