By David Bilinsky and Laura Calloway
Tradition is extremely important to the law—and to law firms. It is so important, in fact, that devotion to precedent often engenders a fear of change that holds firms back from even minor innovations that would benefit them financially. But tradition and innovation need not be nemeses.
The idea of legal tradition, as embodied in the doctrine of stare decisis, is a fundamental underpinning of civilized societies. It allows us to create a set of rules to live by, to apply the rules in the same way to everyone (most of the time), and to proceed with a fair degree of certainty about what will happen if one follows a given course of action. Only serious changes in the way people experience the most fundamental aspects of life will result in a change in the rules. Drastic changes come slowly and infrequently.
Tradition can be good for law firms in the same way. It helps to create a sense of stability and provides a framework within which the firm's members are free to devote their full attention to practicing law. Yet at the same time, it can be a roadblock whenever the idea of change is introduced. "We do things this way because we've always done them this way," the firm members might say.
Thus, far too often, tradition and innovation have been viewed as enemies, each incapable of existing in the company of the other. This idea, that one must inevitably destroy the other, is so firmly rooted in the human psyche that there is even a word—misoneism—to express the hatred or fear of change or innovation.
So, is your law firm misoneistic? Okay, take a moment and be honest. If the answer might be yes, we'd like to give you a couple of not-so-radical ideas you might consider implementing that could have earth-shaking repercussions for your bottom line.
Part of the process of creating a business plan involves determining who your ideal target client is and how you will reach him, her or it. Yet after carefully deciding what type of clients they want to land, many lawyers will go into an initial client interview armed with only a blank legal pad. In other words, they do not have the tools to determine whether a potential new client really meets their "catch" requirements or should be thrown back.
If this describes you, then it's time to make some changes. You need to dedicate a little time to creating written client policies and intake forms that will help you weed out the clients and cases that don't fit with the business goals of your practice.
Set your policy in writing. State clearly and in some detail what kind of cases the firm will and will not take, including types of matters, dollar value and other limits the cases must meet. You should also include a prohibition on taking cases outside the policy without the approval of a screening committee or other approval mechanism. In addition, the policy should specify the requirement of a fee agreement and minimum retainer or cost deposit as appropriate.
From there, develop an intake form that mirrors your policy guidelines. In this way, you can make sure that during the initial interview, you ask all the right questions and get all the information needed to assess the case and client before finally making a decision to sign the client on.
Note that once you have your guidelines in place, you may find that you're not accepting as many new clients each month or quarter as you were before. Don't worry—this is a good thing. It simply means that, through more careful client selection, you're doing a better job of taking on the clients who fit within your business plan. Simultaneously, you're weeding out the cases and people who will cause problems or won't be profitable down the line.
Once you've carefully considered what business you're in and you know who is—and who isn't—your target client, you're more than halfway there. But what will you do about those whose cases you decline to accept?
While you may decide you need to toss back some "small fish," it doesn't mean that there can't still be a benefit for you, or that you can't be of service in some way to these folks. Here's the key: Spend a little more time finding out what types of cases other lawyers you know are fishing for in their respective practices. Use that information to develop a referral network to handle the cases that you need to spill from your nets. These cases may not be right for your firm, but they may well be ideal for another lawyer in your network. Help people find their way to the right lawyer and you benefit both the client and your professional colleagues (while also sharing in a well-deserved referral fee when appropriate under your jurisdiction's ethics rules).
But there's another shoal you have to navigate: Often you'll see a problem client coming. You know you shouldn't but you're tempted to take the case anyway because you think you need the work, or you simply don't like telling people that you can't help them. Stop. Listen to that inner voice, which more often than not is your "advance warning system" telling you of danger. You ignore it at your financial peril.
So, as a final tool in sifting out the wrong types of clients, you need to have a "turn-down" speech prepared. Determine what you need to say and rehearse your turn-down speech just as you would an opening or closing argument. When you can say it forward and backward in your sleep, with feeling and compassion, it will be much easier to avoid the cases you know you really shouldn't take.
Another way in which you can bring some relatively painless innovation to your practice is through reassessing your fee agreements and the value they can add from the client's perspective.
As we become familiar with the areas of the law in which we concentrate, we tend to forget that the legal process may be completely uncharted, and even very scary, territory for clients. Think, for example, of the trauma that may be involved in divorce or personal injury cases. Believe it or not, your fee agreement can play an important role in educating your clients, easing them through the steps in the process and, thus, creating a sense of security for them along with adding value to your services. Those are big benefits that can all be achieved with a little careful draftsmanship.
First, if you don't already have one, you want to draft a good, simple fee agreement that adequately covers each type of case you regularly handle. Ensure that it sets out—in black and white—the fee retainer and replenishment requirements to be met and maintained by your clients. It should go without saying that putting your fee requirements in writing is a huge step in ultimately getting paid. And as a fellow lawyer recently put it, "It is better to put the pen down and take an afternoon off golfing (or fly-fishing, for that matter) than to spend the time on a file for which you will never be paid."
But now for some real innovation: Supplement that fee agreement with a well-thought-out general chronology of matters of this same type. From that chronology, develop a frequently asked questions sheet to guide your clients through the process. Then, give the chronology and the FAQ to the client as part and parcel of your fee agreement. In doing so, you will create a sense of security for the client. Moreover, since you're probably the only lawyer who's ever given them hard-copy information they could take home and read over and over again in exchange for the retainer, your clients will think you are the most thoughtful and forward-thinking lawyer they've dealt with yet.
Plus, there are added benefits that you achieve with this type of fee agreement package, especially if you include information about the following:
In this way, you'll help prevent unnecessary phone calls that waste your time and your clients' money. Why? Because you have given them a ready reference for answers to questions that you know will be asked before they ever have to pick up the phone. You'll also avoid time-and-money-wasting disputes over fees and other issues because you started to shape your clients' expectations from the very beginning of the process.
Last but not least, you'll help clients travel through the legal thicket and come out the other side unscathed—and, as a consequence, they will be very, very happy to recommend your services to their friends and relatives.
Innovation doesn't have to be scary, and change in your law practice doesn't have to be bad. New policies and procedures need not erode the tradition you hold dear—unless, of course, that tradition is to simply go with the flow, regardless of what comes your way! Start today to think of small steps you could take to make practicing law more pleasant for yourself and your clients, and you'll be an innovator before you know it.