General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

A service of the ABA General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Law Trends & News

Practice Area Newsletter

American Bar Association - Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice

Winter 2009

Vol. 5, No. 2

Practice Management

 

The Six Systems Every Small and Solo Firm Law Practice Owner Needs for Maximum Business Success

I went to law school because I thought becoming a lawyer would mean helping people and making a difference in their lives. However, upon graduating and going to work for a big law firm, I quickly realized that my idealistic dream was far from the practical reality.

My job, as an associate at one of the best law firms in Los Angeles, consisted mostly of pushing paper and billing hours. I spent almost all of my time creating documents from forms—meeting with people occasionally so they could sign those documents, but rarely would I ever expect to see them again. And, compared to most of my associate colleagues, I had it great. At least, I got to meet with people every now and then.

I was disappointed by the transactional nature of the practice of law. Where were the relationships I had dreamed about when I was in law school? They were nowhere to be seen in the big law firm life I was leading. I thought if I started my own law firm, I could have the real, long-term relationships with clients I had longed for when I studied my heart out through law school. Giving up the security of the big law firm paycheck was hard, made harder by the fact that I was the family breadwinner and had a stay at home husband and two kids at home. But I thought it would be worth it if it meant I would finally get to be the lawyer I’d always wanted to be. And I knew that each year I waited, it would only become more difficult to make the leap.

After only three years at the big law firm, I did it. I started my own law firm. It was great—and hard! I had limited financial resources and had this idea that clients would be lined up outside my door. Surprise! They weren’t. I also thought that everyone who came in to meet with me would say yes and hand over a check. Surprise! They didn’t. Pretty quickly, I felt the stress of failing, letting down my family, and running out of money. I remember one day walking down the hallway of my office and praying, “Please God, please, let there be a day soon when I no longer worry and wonder where my next client will come from.”

I had to find a way to get a steady stream of new business and clients coming through my door. I sought out other lawyers who appeared to be successful. I joined organizations and listserves, and I asked a million questions. I began observing and learning—taking in everything I could. And, I followed what they did. The good news? I began to bring in clients! The bad news? Half of them left without engaging me, sometimes after spending up to four hours with me, just so I could hear them say they had to think about it or they weren’t sure.

Then, if I did engage them, there was so much work to be done and quite often I couldn’t stay on top of things. Mistakes were made. I was constantly reinventing the wheel. And while I was busy getting the work done, I wouldn’t have time to keep marketing, and suddenly I’d realize my pipeline was empty again. It felt as if I was constantly starting over at zero. I was beginning to hate my law practice. It was draining the life out of me, and I was so tired.

As I looked around at the lawyers I shared my rented office space with, I realized they were all on this same marketing merry-go-round and cash flow rollercoaster. They were working six or even seven days a week, driven not by the managing partners (they were the managing partners!), but by their lack of business processes and systems.

As I looked out 10-15-20 years, I could see that if I kept doing what I was doing, I was on a road to nowhere. I wasn’t building anything I could sell. I had leapt from a secure job making a great six-figure salary into my own firm where I not only didn’t have relationships with my clients, but I also had all the stresses of a business and none of the rewards I had imagined—freedom, relationships, my own schedule. There was no end in sight. I finally came to the realization that other lawyers were not going to be able to teach me what I needed to know because it was time to turn my law practice into a real business. The only problem was, I knew nothing about running a business.


So, I started learning from real business people—people like Michael Gerber, Dan Kennedy, Seth Godin, Michael Dell, Richard Branson, Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey, Dave Dee, and many others you’ve never heard of. What I learned totally shifted my way of thinking. I started thinking like a business owner, and it opened my eyes to a new way of being that I had known was possible, but didn’t know how to make work. I finally realized that I could have a profitable lifetime relationship with my clients and build a real business that would support my family without working six or seven days a week. And I learned how to have really happy clients.

What I had been missing was systems. Every single business must be based on systems. If you don’t have systems, you don’t really have a business. I synthesized everything I spent two years and tens (hundreds?) of thousands of dollars learning into one clear thought: “If you want more freedom, more money, more happy clients, you need to think of your law practice as a law business and put in place these six systems.” Here they are:

1. Client Attraction

You need to have a system for attracting clients, but not just any clients: your ideal clients. If you go out there, like most lawyers do, and try to attract everyone with a checkbook, you will have a hard time with attracting clients. If instead, you do the opposite and get very clear about your ideal client and focus on attracting just that person with a marketing program that is both diverse and consistent, you will find that you will attract more clients than you can handle.

2. Client Engagement

You need to have a system for engaging prospects who call your office and come in for appointments. If you don’t, the time/money you are spending on client attraction is wasted because people who call your office or come into meet with you will not move forward.The secret to making this work is to follow a script and a system every time anyone from your office (including you) talks to anyone on the phone or in person.

3. Client Service

You can attract and engage clients all day long, but if you don’t serve your clients well, you will eventually burn out. When you have a streamlined system in place for serving your clients, you can turn them into raving fans who constantly refer their friends and family, which in turn makes your client attraction and engagement so much easier. This means making sure phone calls are promptly answered and returned and that the process of working with you is clear and understood by your clients. Here’s the key to this system: it can’t all depend on you. You’ve got to have a team in place to make this work. More on that below.

4. Client Retention

Having a system in place for retaining your clients is the key to your happiness and your client’s as well . This one awareness was the greatest thing I learned from the mentors and the biggest shift you can make in your thinking as a lawyer. You’ve got to have a system in place for keeping your clients for life—ongoing communication, a monthly newsletter at least, possibly a membership plan, and a plan for becoming your client’s lifetime advisor, the person they turn to whenever they have any legal needs, not because you are going to represent them on every issue, but because you can help get their needs met on every legal issue.

5. Managing Your Numbers

I know it’s not exciting, but as a business owner, you’ve got to be watching your numbers. If you’re not watching the right numbers, you are losing a lot of money . Every week, you should know how many calls you received, how many of those turned into appointments, how much money was collected, from whom it was collected, and who owes you money. You should be receiving a profit and loss monthly, a balance sheet, and a general ledger, and you should receive a report that tells you by the tenth of the percent how you are varying from your budget.

6. Team Accountability

Above all, you need to have a team in place. You cannot successfully do this alone. Now that does not mean you have to have a whole office full of employees. In fact, your “team” can be entirely virtual. But you do need people around you that can take care of things like answering the phone (you should never, ever, ever answer your phone or take a call that is not scheduled unless it’s an emergency), handling your calendar, sending letters, and so forth. The key, though, is that your team has to be accountable to a system, processes, and standards. And it can’t be a system they create, because they won’t. You have to give it to them and hold them accountable to it.

When you have these six systems in place, you can have the life you dreamed about when you started your own law firm. You can work less, make more money, help more people, and (most importantly) enjoy your business again.

To Your Dream Law Business,
Alexis Martin Neely

Alexis Martin Neely is the founder of the Family Wealth Planning Institute, a national organization headquartered in Redondo Beach, California, that is changing the way lawyers think and changing the way the American public thinks about lawyers. Contact Alexis at (866) 999-3974; Alexis@FamilyWealthMatters.com; www.LawBusinessSecrets.com; and www.LawBusinessRevolutionBlog.com.

© Copyright 2009, American Bar Association.