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American Bar Association - Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice

 

Vol. 16, No. 1

When Times Are Tough

Features

 

Are You About to Flatline?

The careening U.S. economy in the past year has left many small and solo practices feeling uncertain about our ability to survive in this tempestuous business climate. How can we best serve our existing clients, attract new clients, and make a living when all around us businesses both small and large are foundering?

Take a cue from the health care industry, and give yourself a well-practice checkup! By examining a few of our methods, we can assess our professional health and apply some preventative medicine to stay healthy.

We’re professionals, but we’re also small businesspeople. Perhaps the worst failing of law schools is that they provide virtually no training that prepares us to run a business. Sure, we learn “The Law,” but most law schools provide precious little information on how to deal with the day-to-day issues of running a law office.

If you don’t have a formal business plan, think about at least preparing a budget that will give you a road map to how your income relates to your expenses. When we plan for purchases instead of buying supplies and equipment sporadically, we better understand what we need to break even and, hopefully, realize a profit.

By looking into how other small businesses (because, face it, folks, that’s what we are) manage to succeed in these tough times, and examining service-oriented companies in other fields, we might gain valuable ideas for running our law practices. By reevaluating how we provide client services, and by making refinements to provide those services more effectively and efficiently, we can find the key to more financial security and a more fulfilling legal career.

It’s all about relationships. Making our clients feel valued goes a long way toward building loyalty that will reward us with return business and referrals. If we pay attention to the signals our clients send us—note what seems to trouble them most and when their expectations may be out of touch with reality—we can explain why their concerns or expectations may be legitimate or unfounded, how the legal system will work in their matter, and how long the process may take. An informed client usually translates to a more satisfied client.

Today, when people are used to seeing complex legal issues resolved in the space of a one-hour teledrama, it’s easy to forget that our standard procedure is new and often confusing to our clients. A few minutes spent up front explaining how long it will take to get their projects done, or their cases through each stage of the litigation process, can save both you and your clients a lot of heartburn down the road by helping them know what to expect (which often translates to fewer frantic phone calls to our offices).

One thing it’s taken me some time to learn is that it’s always better to overestimate how long a project or case will take than to provide an overly optimistic view of time from start to finish. If you produce results before they’re expected, you’re a miracle worker; if you get sidetracked with other urgent work or court delays and fail to finish by your estimated date, you face a disappointed client. Set your deadline and add time: a few days if it’s something finite, a few months if it’s a litigation matter.

Consider breaking your timeline into stages for your client. “This is when you can expect a first draft from me. Then when everyone has signed off, this is when I’ll have the final version of the complaint/agreement/letter.”

Little things can mean a lot. Something as simple as making appointments for phone calls can be a big timesaver. There’s little as irritating as phone tag that continues for days. Let your clients know when you first meet that you will return phone calls at set times on set days, then follow through. It lets your clients know that not only is your time valuable, but you value their time as well (and it will deflect unwanted calls when you’re busy).

Before you meet with a client, whether in person or by phone, take a few deep breaths and collect your thoughts. If you look/sound calm and composed, it will put your client at ease. If your client is overly emotional, keep your own frustrations in check and be as reassuring as possible. Responding in kind will only escalate the drama.

Try having a printed agenda for every meeting, and provide it to the client ahead of time if possible. Even if there are only three agenda items, it shows that you’ve given your client consideration before the meeting. If you have an intake questionnaire (you should have some form of this), modify it as necessary and provide it to your client before the meeting so that most standard information is already in hand when you meet. It saves time for both of you and shows again that you value the time you spend with your client.

If you’re meeting on your turf, consider at least offering a beverage and a light refreshment (such as bagels or Danish in the morning and fruit or cheese and crackers in the afternoon or evening). Many times clients see you on a break from work, or at the end of their working day; providing them something that keeps their minds off their stomachs can improve their concentration and make your meeting more pleasant.

Consider innovative billing arrangements. Even those of us fortunate enough to practice during law school with real clients in legal clinic settings had limited exposure to one of the more tedious (to us, though not to our clients) aspects of practice: billing. I’ve spent a good deal of time in the past year reinventing (or perhaps a better term would be reimagining) my practice to provide better value to my clients as well as make better use of my time.

One of the things I’ve done is to eliminate time-based billing for all new clients. I’m working to eliminate it with my existing clients as well. Flat rates and fixed fees based on specific criteria and triggers will free you from clocking everything you do and give your clients the comfort of knowing in advance what they’re to pay.

Consider: would you want a doctor’s surgical bill to be based on the length of the procedure? Would you patronize an upscale restaurant that doesn’t include prices on the menu? Why, just because it’s the traditional billing method, should we as legal professionals charge for our time rather than base our charges on the value to the client?

In many ways, time-based billing awards our own inefficiencies (the more time we spend, the more we bill). It’s hardly fair to expect someone to pay for our distractions or inexperience, since the more experience and concentration we bring to a project, the faster we’ll complete the work.

It’s hard initially to get out of the time-billing mindset. Initially, I tried to base my pricing on how much of my time I thought it would take to deliver a service. But that means nothing to a client. Value-based pricing may result in a lower return for some work than if you billed on an hourly basis, but it also provides greater rewards when, because of your particular expertise, you can resolve a troublesome issue for your client quickly and cleanly.

When we relate our fees to what we achieve for our clients in both tangible and intangible savings, and when we explain charges to our clients in that context, client satisfaction often increases, along with our productivity. And more productivity equals increased income opportunities for us!

Make the effort to use plain English. This is one area that never ceases to amaze my clients: they can easily understand the documents I prepare, be they pleadings or contracts. One client, looking over the operating agreement I drafted for his startup limited liability company recently, remarked, “Wow! There’s no ‘whereas’ or ‘herein’ anywhere in this!”

It’s especially obvious where clients have previously worked with attorneys who don’t work in plain language. They come away from our meetings with a sense of awe that their issues can be resolved using language they can easily grasp. There’s an almost shell-shocked look in their eyes as they say, “Gee—this is so much simpler than I thought it would be!”

Set the tone for your legal writing as if you were speaking to a judge: slightly formal but still conversational. If you can’t comfortably read a sentence aloud and sound as if you’re talking with someone, you’re probably using at least some arcane and redundant language that’s better left out.

Keep your sentences simple and use active voice as much as possible. Organize your work so that similar terms or related passages appear together

Avoid Latin legal terms like the plague! If you can’t translate something into standard English, you have no business including it in a document.

An ounce of prevention . . . As Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel put it, “tryin’ to keep the customer satisfied” is a worthy goal. One unhappy client spreading that sour feeling around your locale can torpedo your practice. Conversely, happy clients translate to continuing relationships, good word-of-mouth, and more business. That’s marketing that no money can buy.

So here’s to your practice’s health! A little preventative care can keep it running smoothly well into the future.

Jan Matthew Tamanini is a solo practitioner in Harrisburg, PA, concentrating her practice in business, nonprofit, and government law and estate planning. Contact her at JMTLaw@plainenglishlaw.comor visit her Web site at www.PlainEnglishLaw.com.

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