I went to vote Saturday at 7:20 a.m. I left with my “I voted” sticker at 12:39 p.m. When you stand in line for five hours, even a person like me has to pass the time by speaking to someone. After skimming through the morning paper and making a futile attempt to find something interesting on Twitter or Facebook, Jeff asked me a simple question: “What do you do?”
In the backdrop was typical polling place activity. There were signs everywhere. Many candidates had a half-dozen signs in a row at the entrance to the polling place. Apparently one sign isn’t enough anymore. The candidates were in all smiles, “asking” for votes, while the candidates’ shills designees were begging for votes by lying to everyone about everything saying they were a “mom,” or “not a politician.” People who didn’t even know the candidate were wearing their t-shirts and shoving palm cards in voters hands, and a long line of voters — some knowledgeable about the issues, and others not having a clue — were just waiting make their decision official.
It was like the internet, live.
On one side, there were people looking to make a decision, on the other, a bunch of people wanting to be “hired.” The one common thread was that the candidates wanted to make sure each person in line knew they, and their campaign, were there. The difference was how they did it….
I know that having people answer your phone or type documents for you is part of the past and a sure path to extinction, but for those that actually employ people and are looking for ways to better that relationship, read on.
Like many lawyers, I’ve been through receptionists and secretaries. Some left for school, or other jobs, and some left because they had a different concept of the truth, or the meaning of “9:00 a.m.”
I have three rules for office staff: never lie to me, never try to fix a problem without telling me about it, and be on time. When I hire a receptionist, I put a telephone on the conference table and say that “this is the most important thing in this office.”
The relationship between lawyers and staff has a built-in tension — they help you make money, but are usually paid a very small percentage of what you make. They know that. Yes, they aren’t as educated, they’re not licensed, and they shouldn’t expect to make what you make, but the premise remains. Your secretary or receptionist opens the mail and sees the checks, takes the credit card information, gives out the wire transfer information and gets the confirmations, and knows what kind of money is coming in. They are helping you run your practice so you can make money, and they need to be treated that way….
Last week, I focused on the stupidity of competing on price as opposed to competing on quality and service. And I understand, young lawyers believe all they have is the ability to compete on price. More experienced lawyers believe they have to compete on price because today’s clients don’t care about anything but price.
You can convince yourself of anything. As for price, convince yourself of this — continue to compete on price and you’ll spend your career becoming the cheapest lawyer in town.
Now let’s talk about using the competition as a resource….
A plumber once told me, “There’s price, quality, and service — I can only give two. Pick which ones you want.”
In the service business there are those that focus on beating the competition the easy way — price. Quality and service are often assumed by unknowing clients who believe that a $500 lawyer is going to offer the quality and service of the $5,000 lawyer (sometimes that’s true). You find out your “competition” quoted a flat fee of $10,000 for the representation, so you’ll do it for $7,500.00. You’ve determined the client is only hiring on price, and you’re good at price. You would never think to tell the client that your fee is $15,000.00. You don’t feel confident in your quality or service, nor that the client cares. You’re just trying to compete at the lowest common denominator.
Focusing on the competition is a waste of time. I see it over and over again. A group of lawyers start a niche and there is a standard fee no matter who you hire. Then some young broke stud jumps in and charges $20 less. A few years later, everyone is charging 60 percent less. No one is making money, except those that aren’t focused on the competition….
As lawyers, we often look past obvious signals when we’re about to get a new client. The client comes in, decides to hire “me” (yes, me!), and pays. What could be bad?
That the client showed up an hour late with no excuse or apology, or spent the hour with you talking about how his friend’s case worked out, or the opinion of his cousin who is a lawyer in another state is of no matter. We have a new client, a new check, and that’s all that we need.
I believe in the philosophy that sometimes the best client is the one you turn down. I’ll end a meeting after 10 minutes because the client’s expectations are only met through unethical behavior or by going to see the wizard. Or after meeting with the client, I’ll decline representation because even though the client can pay, I believe I’m not a good fit in terms of the client’s needs as far as time outside of the representation. Of course, then there’s the high fee you quote a client you just don’t want to represent who says (oops) “OK.”
Then there’s the client where everything seems great, until the day after you are retained….
From the time of my first column here, I’ve received emails from readers. Thoughtful people, both lawyers and non-lawyers, critical and yes, thankful, have offered (even using their real names) their suggestions, comments, lists of typos and grammar issues, and questions.
Questions like these:
1. Is it worth going into the field of law right now, or has the oversaturation of the market made building a solo practice or finding a decent firm position an almost impossible goal? Many of the writers on legal blogs (names of legal blogs deleted as not to upset my boss Lat) make it sound as though one would be foolish to enter the profession in any capacity.
2. If you had to make a decision between a tier three school with a full tuition scholarship, or $100k of debt to attend a “top 14″ law school, which would you choose?
If you’re one of the few left a lawyer that believes success and enjoyment of the practice of law may involve more than just sitting at home with some computer equipment and an internet connection, here’s a list of people, yes, real live people, that have been important in my practice:
1. The Accountant.
No, not your father’s accountant, but an accountant that has a few years on you and experience with lawyers. You know, someone like you that is building a business but in another field. I know, you have Turbo Tax or some other software you can type some numbers into on April 14th, but that’s not the reason for an accountant. Your accountant should know where you are financially and where you want to be. He should be someone you meet with at least twice a year and discuss your whole financial picture. Your accountant should be listening to the details of your finances, your thoughts about business, and giving you advice — not just putting numbers in to an 1120-S or 1040.
2. The Financial Advisor.
No, not the guy calling you with a “tip.” Find someone who is a certified financial planner that has been at the same brokerage house for over five years — not just someone with over five years’ experience. (Cue the blowback from financial advisors who find this advice bad for business). Why? I like someone that knows the philosophy of their firm and has some knowledge of their money managers. And I know, you have no money to put away or invest in the market, but if you build that great LinkedIn profile to start making money, you should. Maybe some advice from a financial planner will put you in a position to have a few bucks to put away, and soon enough you’ll have a killer defined benefit program. (I learned about defined benefit programs from my financial advisor.) Oh, and my financial advisor often sets up lunches for me to meet other professionals.
Who else should be essential to your law practice?
Before I provide some advice on client relations that will be deemed “totally wrong” by some and “good advice” by me pretending to be anonymous, I wanted you all to know that I bought a wireless printer that allows me to send documents from my phone, wherever I am, to my printer at my office. Although I currently have no use for this feature in my law practice, and haven’t in 17 years, I hope this puts me in better stead with those of you that think I hate tech.
Now let’s talk about clients, for those of you that have some.
The core of running a practice is machines and toys clients. That you are able to do competent work for clients doesn’t matter if you are not versed in the retaining and retention of them. The retention of any client starts at the initial contact, not when they come to your coffee shop office with a check. For those of you who have practices where you never meet with clients, your initial contact with them (unless it’s them using your website as an ATM to buy documents) is even more important.
While you may be in a position where the client is only calling you, most clients are calling several lawyers. Regardless, you are now auditioning for the job. That audition begins at the very moment you first speak to the client, or the person calling for the client….
An article came out this week musing on solo practice from resident tech tweeter Niki Black. I felt bad there were no comments, so I thought I would write one.
From Black’s article: “Nowadays, however, it’s much easier to launch a solo practice with a minimal up front investment. All that’s really needed is a small amount of savings, a laptop, a smart phone, and an Internet connection.”
There you have it. We’re done here. All you basement-dwelling “my law school screwed me over by lying to me” bitter and broke lawyers now have the golden ticket: a few bucks in the bank, a quick trip to Best Buy, and voila — a solo practice is born. You heard it here — “[a]ll that’s really needed” is… tech!
And let’s not get into other necessities, like opening an operating and trust account, incorporating, learning the proper way to pay yourself and the IRS, securing appropriate insurances (life, health, disability), maybe having an address to receive mail that isn’t your parents’ house, figuring out how to properly organize and store client files that aren’t in the precious “cloud,” and understanding your state bar’s advertising rules.
I’m sure there are a few dozen other things I’ve missed, but hey, you can only handle so much, right?
Hardly ever Every so often an interesting email comes across a lawyer listserv. The good ones are hard to find in the middle of, “Does anyone know a really fantastic and also really cheap lawyer in (some town no one’s heard of where there are no lawyers or courthouses) for my friend who got fired for being late 16 times but he says he was discriminated against,” or, “I know this question has been asked before (every week) but….,” or, “What is the best printer for a lawyer with no practice?”
And then there’s Solosez. This is the listserv for solo practitioners that has all the answers, except to many of the lawyers there who believe it is evidence of the end of the profession. Every once in a while I see an email from Solosez, sent by a young solo who wants to show me evidence of why they may off themselves. (Note: As a result of this disclosure, there will be an email on Solosez reminding members not to forward any evidence that what I’m saying is true emails to Brian Tannebaum anyone.)
Recently, in a moment of rare honesty by a lawyer, a solo wrote to tell fellow Sezzers (I did not make that up, they actually call themselves this) that they had failed at solo practice….
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When Chintan Panchal decided to leave a global BigLaw partnership to start his own firm, he could only hope that he would face the high-quality problem of firm building that many had cautioned him about. Focused on the uncertainty surrounding of a new firm launch, he decided to tackle staffing needs, IT challenges, and financial planning requirements after he had built up his legal practice.
Panchal Associates LLP–a corporate/finance and outside general counsel boutique–was quickly off to a great start. Clients and matters were flying in the door, and Chintan soon had a team of lawyers and staff with a variety of operational needs. To continue building an excellent team and provide them with a competitive benefits package, to expand his physical presence to include a European practice and additional partners, and to scale his operations and IT capabilities to support this growing enterprise brought with it demands of time, money, and expertise. Chintan knew he needed help.
“With the assistance of NexFirm, we have upgraded the capabilities of our firm to meet, and in some cases exceed, the standards we were used to at our former BigLaw firms. Operationally, we can now attract and service clients we didn’t have the bandwidth to support in the past, and continue to build our team with the best and brightest legal talent in the industry,” said Chintan Panchal, adding “It has worked out quite well in our case; NexFirm is an essential partner for us.”
The holiday season is upon us, and yet again, you have no idea what to get for the fickle lawyer in your life. We’re here to help. Even if your bonus check hasn’t arrived yet, any one of the gifts we’ve highlighted here could be a worthy substitute until your employer decides to make it rain.
We’ve got an eclectic selection for you to choose from, so settle in by that stack of documents yet to be reviewed and dig in…
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