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Solo and small firm lawyers can’t afford to take a stick-your-head-in-the-sand approach to dealing with this economy. If you’re in denial, you’ll likely perish. If you want to survive—and who doesn’t?—get moving on this to-do list.
1. Review and revise budgets. And take a second—or third, or fourth—look at your expenses. Most of us can survive fairly well by cutting out extras for a while.
2. Take your staff into the situation. Create a “we’re all in this together” attitude, both to ease concerns and keep productivity and client service standards up. But be honest as you go. Also talk with your family about your practice and get their buy-in, letting them know that household budgets may need to be slimmed down. Again, create a “we’re all in this together attitude” to reduce the pressure on you until better times return.
3. Dust off your marketing and business development plan. If you don’t have one, develop one ASAP to focus on attracting clients to your firm. The plan must be specific and be followed. Make it your mission.
4. Focus on rekindling relationships with other lawyers and business acquaintances who might refer business to you. It’s difficult for most of us to refuse a free lunch, so use that to build a referral group.
5. Provide the best client service in your community. You want to hang on to good clients. Treat them well and train your staff to be especially courteous and attentive to client needs.
6. Look at the resources offered by your bar association. Many bars, for example, offer free online legal research that could significantly cut your costs. Also find opportunities to effectively manage your MCLE dollars while still keeping your skills sharp. Many bars now offer solo and small firm conferences where you can earn all your credits for the year at a bargain rate. You’ll also be able to network with other lawyers for referrals and find a support system of other solo and small firm practitioners.
7. Look for new opportunities. There are likely good, maybe even great, opportunities to refocus your practice to bring in a whole new group of clients. Educate yourself in the areas where you see opportunities. But resist the temptation to take on clients with matters outside your area of expertise without first building up your knowledge base.
8. Resist the lure of taking on clients that you know will bring you tremendous headaches and likely not pay you for your services. Reserve the time you might spend working for free for an ungrateful client to instead build referrals, market your practice, or improve your skills for a hot new area of practice that you’ve identified.
9. Offer clients the option to pay via credit card rather than becoming their banker. It’s always good advice to get your money up front, but even more so during these times. Watch any accounts receivables carefully. Review receivables on a weekly basis so that you can spring into action early.
10. Consider moving away from the billable-hour approach. Many clients resist what they consider a “blank check” billing method, especially in this economy. Alternative billing options may give you an advantage over other firms.
11. Get out in your community to offer assistance to charitable and civic organizations where you may develop relationships with a whole new group of prospective clients. Network in the business community, too. Consider offering seminars on hot topics of interest to civic groups during these times.
12. Take the time to visit clients at their businesses, when appropriate, to stay involved and show support. A bit of hand-holding during turbulent times can build tremendous client loyalty.
13. Use the slower times to implement office systems or procedures that you haven’t otherwise had the opportunity to address. Then when times improve, you’ll be ready to go. Take extra time to learn new technology to improve your efficiency and skills.
14. Keep an eye out for opportunities offered by the government stimulus package for small businesses. You may be able to replace that worn-out furnace in your building with a significant tax break and save money down the road with a more efficient system.
15. Consider doing contract work if times are truly slow. Talk to firms that have downsized and now have a slim workforce. Also, consider doing work for clients on a limited scope representation basis, especially for those who have legal needs but limited means.
Linda Oligschlaeger is Membership Services Director for The Missouri Bar, where she assists with law practice management needs.