The most common system used to operate a small law firm is what I refer to as the “reactive system.” This is not really a system but rather an evolving way of processing business to accommodate the law firm owner’s perceived needs as these needs arise and change. This article discusses a better—and proven—approach, which I refer to as a “proactive system.” This approach worked beautifully for my firm and allowed us to outgrow and out-produce all our competitors.
Most lawyers have a pretty clear idea of the parameters they use to describe clients or cases acceptable to their firm. If they don’t, they will never be able to develop an effective system of evaluating prospective clients and cases. All their decisions will be ad hoc, and the ramifications of such decisions will be unpredictable.
But do most law firms develop a system to weed out potential clients that do not fit into firm parameters? No. The traditional method of client selection is to answer every phone call that comes into the firm (or, worse, not answer every call) and direct that call to an attorney who needs to evaluate whether the caller and the caller’s case fits into the firm’s parameters, while simultaneously promoting the firm as the best choice to handle that case. The attorney responsible for taking this call begins giving away unplanned, valuable time and potentially improper legal advice based on an inadequate set of “facts” presented from a biased and possibly emotional person. This is all occurring during the time when that attorney’s priorities, set days or weeks ago, are now disrupted for this random call.
In most law firms, if the attorney who is best suited to evaluate a case on the spot and impress the potential client is busy, a message is taken. Then, at some time within the next 24 to 36 hours (one hopes), the attorney will return the call. In the meantime, most clients, especially in the areas of family law, criminal defense, and even personal injury, are on their way to calling and/or retaining one of that firm’s competitors.
There are even worse scenarios. How about your law firm’s phone being answered not by a live person but by voice mail, similar to that of United Airlines or Chase Bank, and providing callers with a selection of choices when they don’t have a keypad available on their phone (welcome to the “smartphone”)? Or the scenario of having the phone answered by an associate in a divorce mill whose income is determined primarily by the revenue she produces, who already feels underpaid, and who may never know if she is wasting her time on the phone. Selection of the attorney in this type of “system” is either by rotation or whoever is available. In these types of firms, associate attorneys compete with each other and hence are unwilling to share their cases with others for fear of losing control over—or income derived from—the case. There is no better way to produce predictably poor results than this chaotic approach to the practice of law.
All these “systems” have one thing in common: They are reactive. That is, they attempt to control the unpredictable flow of potential business by building accommodations that usually prove to be equally as unpredictable in their effectiveness and results. This is no way to run a law firm. It’s like continually patching leaks in a dam that is structurally unsound. Wouldn’t it be better just to build a new dam?
There is a different way: being proactive. Because you have a good idea of the ideal client and case your firm desires, why not create a system designed to identify and select those cases and clients from the random inquiries and reject the rest? Rather than trying simultaneously to analyze a case and promote your firm over the phone, how about first designing a set of questions that can be asked of a caller, the answers to which will qualify or disqualify the caller as a client of the firm? By using this approach, you don’t need an attorney to talk with the client because your trained employee will be asking the questions and writing down the answers for your review and approval. You will also not be rearranging an attorney’s priorities every time the phone rings and missing a potential client because the attorney cannot get back to the client for three days. Rather, you will have moved the potential client one step closer to becoming an actual client while arranging the desired consultation without ever interrupting an attorney.
Once the trained employee determines that the case and potential client fit into the firm’s parameters of desirable cases, he or she can schedule an appointment with an attorney. No missed opportunities, no free advice, no lost billable time, no lost client to the competition. In the meantime, additional, more detailed information or documents can be provided to the firm before the initial meeting with an attorney. Doing this can further assist the qualification process.
Once the initial consultation date arrives, the attorney will be in a much better position to evaluate the client and the case, and the client will be much more comfortable in selecting your firm once she has been inside your offices, rather than having to depend on her intuition solely derived from a strange voice over the phone. This approach makes much more sense.
The initial consultation is another lawyering skill that can and should be developed over the years. The important components of the consultation are: charging for it, identifying all potential legal issues, listening more than talking, not over-promising results, and presenting a well-written retainer agreement to clearly define the attorney-client relationship. If all the above have been accomplished, you will have a reasonable client who can pay for your services and a case with merit. The next step is to manage the new case.
Being proactive means that you set out to “plan your work and work your plan,” to paraphrase an old efficiency adage. How do you do this when the plan or strategy may change from time to time? It’s easy: You review and revise that plan as needed on a periodic basis. At my law firm, we did this once a week. That notion may seem shocking—do you really have time to review every one of your cases every week? Well, if you do not review your cases often enough, if you don’t add to that review some objective, additional perspective, you will have others setting your schedule for you, you will be reacting to what opposing counsel has forced you to do on his or her timetable, and worse, you will inevitably be under some time crunch between other set deadlines or priorities.
So, when is the best time to do a case review? When it’s not needed. This way your goals and workflow can be generated and scheduled according to your or your client’s schedule and in plenty of time to work around other, more imminent deadlines.
The attorneys and paralegals in my firm met every Friday to review all our cases. That’s right, all our cases. Granted, many cases were moving along and needed no additional thought or scheduling. This would be acknowledged, and we’d move on to the next case. New cases would be stripped down to their bare essentials to ensure no issues were missed in the initial consultation. They then were reassembled in an orderly fashion, with tasks assigned and deadlines set for each task. It was in this manner that we would stay weeks and months ahead of our cases and opposing parties. If done efficiently without much deviation or tangential discussion, we could get through dozens of cases in a couple hours. Friday mornings turned out to be the best time to schedule these meetings. Any rush jobs still had time to be finished before the weekend, and any additional planning for next week’s schedule could be started early, or at least not left for the last minute. Thoughts and suggestions from attorneys not involved in cases were welcomed.
All assigned tasks were recorded during the meeting by administrative staff and distributed to each lawyer or paralegal attending the meeting. All work could be sorted and sub-sorted according to client or employee or date for personal individual workflow purposes.
This weekly case review meeting became so efficient that I frequently allowed employees to leave work a few hours early if they were caught up on their work. Let me tell you, there is no better motivation for employees to stay current or ahead of their work than some free time off, especially before the weekend. It also allowed me to go golfing without guilt or resentment from my employees—a truly win-win situation, which leads to my final comments.
Employee Selection and Motivation
None of the above systems will work well if you haven’t hired the right employee for the right job, paid a sufficient salary to get good employees, and provided a positive environment in which your employees can thrive. Pay the most you can afford in order to attract good, skilled employees. Cutting corners on salaries or bonuses is penny wise and pound foolish in this business. Have your prospective employees interviewed by professionals if you don’t have the requisite skills, and have them present a finalist or two for you to interview. Have the finalist tested to make sure he or she is the right fit for the particular position you are filling. You don’t want a talkative, disorganized person doing your bookkeeping and billing, for example.
Once the proper candidate is selected, it is your responsibility to communicate exactly what is expected from the employee (a detailed job description, updated periodically, usually accomplishes this) and to set up a clear evaluation system so the employee will know from the beginning how his or her job performance will be viewed and compensated. That’s it! Once employees truly believe that you support them in doing their job in the best, most efficient manner possible, you will have devoted employees who are motivated to build their skills for the betterment of the firm.
Both client selection and case management are “lawyerly” skills that can and should be improved over time. Employee hiring and motivation and other foundational systems have little to do with lawyering and more to do with good business practices. These practices include marketing, timekeeping and billing, and other management skills needed for any business. (For more on these skills, see “Low-Cost (or No-Cost) Marketing for Lawyers” and “Tasty Solutions for Timekeeping, Billing, and Accounting.”) The higher the skill level practiced by you in these areas, together with a tightly practiced system that avoids “ad hoc” law practice, the more successful you will be.