Managing: Which Comes First: the Savings or the Service?

Volume 38 Number 4

By

About the Author

Jennifer Ator is an employment litigation attorney and mediator at Hankins & Ator PL in Miami Springs, FL. She often speaks and writes about practice management issues and is a member of the ABA LPM Publishing Board and LPM Council.

Law Practice Magazine | May/June 2012 | The Time Management IssueThe million-dollar question: Is it better for your business to cut costs or to spend a little more to improve service? Maybe we should be looking for ways to ultimately cut costs—even if it means spending a little now, with the benefit of improving service to clients.

I attended a focus group last year, and the members got into a very interesting discussion about this. Some were champions of spending to improve efficiency, while others were skeptical and thought that if you were going to cut costs, you should not be spending to do it.

Cutting costs does not always mean spending less money. A businessperson has to think about the return on investment, i.e., how much it costs to cut costs. Not surprisingly, the conversation came around to technology, but there are other ways to cut costs with the benefit of improving service.

IMPROVE TIME MANAGEMENT.

Improving time management, or cutting out time wasters, is a bare-bones way to cut costs. The financial cost to improving time management is nothing, while the benefit is really something.

Avoid the phone and the email inbox. Nothing is more distracting than an interrupting phone call or an inbox on our screen that looks like a cash register tape that just keeps getting longer all day. Admittedly, you can’t avoid them forever, so you have to build in time to review your inbox and respond to your phone calls. A bonus for setting aside time to do these housekeeping chores is that your clients will come to know that you respond at a certain time each day and will understand and expect to hear from you around that time. I suggest setting aside either right after lunch or before the end of the day to respond to phone calls, tame your inbox, and review and plan or delegate response to your mail.

Taming your inbox is another chore that is as necessary as breathing in the 21st century law practice. You are not alone; I have actually been to seminars on this subject. The first step to taming your inbox is to make sure that you empty it each day. I am not going to lie—the seminar did not stick with me; I am barely a D student in inbox management. Right now, I have 7,205 emails in my inbox, and that is just my business email address. But I do know that it is next to impossible to go backwards, so you need to start today and make sure your daily email inbox is empty every single day going forward.

Here’s how: One, create folders for your clients, organizations and personal items, and move the emails into folders and then delete all garbage. In the old days, we called this sorting, filing and tossing. Another way to tame your inbox is to save each email to an electronic file, whether the message is in email format or in the more practical PDF format, which is easier to search.

DEPEND ON THE EXPERTS.

The wonderful thing about being a lawyer is you get to learn about different things all the time. However, too many lawyers parlay this love of learning into a driving need to understand everything there is to know about everything. Seriously, would you roof your house, change your engine and remove a beehive from your yard? Some things should be left to the experts.

In your law practice, you should not be filing your own taxes, fixing your own computers, analyzing the best way to keep your data safe, answering your own phone, handling recruitment of employees, drafting your own employee handbook, fighting your own traffic ticket (or your mother’s traffic ticket) or cleaning your own windows.

And as a bonus, the nice thing about building an iPhone contact file full of experts is that those experts are not going to be able to handle your practice area either. Building a relationship with other experts often translates into quality referrals that make your business grow. Think of it as the circle of life from The Lion King.

TECHNOLOGY IS YOUR FRIEND.

In this day and age, when technology is growing and changing by leaps and bounds, the first thing that comes to mind when improving efficiency is improving technology. This is not something you should go at alone. Remember to depend on the experts.

That said, it can be one of the most expensive ways to become efficient. Even though technology is becoming more cost-effective, there are still many gadgets out there that can be like that proverbial red herring in the latest motion for summary judgment. Again, an expert is the best person to keep you on the straight and narrow.

A perfect example happened to me last week. I was talking to my partner about a new laptop she bought. I could also use a laptop. I asked what she purchased and she explained that it was a MacBook Pro with the maximum upgrade in speed and memory. My first reaction was pleasant surprise and, “Wow, what a sweet computer.” Previously, I did not have much luck selling the Mac office. I have been working with our IT people to move our office toward the Macintosh platform by creating an environment that allows us to use both Macintosh and Windows platforms. 

My second reaction was not as positive. Only days before, I was talking to our IT expert about a laptop and familiar with my love for the Macintosh, he suggested that I get a MacBook Air. Knowing what we do and how we do it, he said it would be more than what I would need, would be reliable and was light and economical. Of course, what can I say to my colleague short of, “Wow, you should have asked our IT guy before you bought it”? This is a perfect example of using your resources wisely, especially the intelligence at your disposal.

I’m sure my partner would say that the top-of-the-line laptop was amazing, wonderful and fulfilled all her needs—and I am sure it does. And she can afford it, so if she wants it, that’s OK, too. After all, my husband has HBO as an add-on to cable television, and while even he will acknowledge that he does not need it, he really likes having it. But when you are buying for your business and are centered on the bottom line, you have to consider what you really need.

While I don’t think lawyers should become experts, they should invest in knowing enough about technology to make it work for them. One of my favorite conferences is the ABA TECHSHOW, presented by the Law Practice Management Section. The return on investment, both in time and money, is remarkable. Unlike some continuing legal education seminars, I never leave TECHSHOW thinking anything other than, “That was awesome, and look at all the ways I can use technology to save money.”

In addition, LPM has a plethora of books and CLE programs on using technology to make your practice more efficient. From the “Lawyer’s Guides” to the yearly Solo and Small Firm Legal Technology Guide, from Google for Lawyers to the “One Hour” series, the publications arm of the Section is on the cutting edge of technology. There are many tech-based CLE programs offered by the Section as well. They are offered not just live but online and through MP3 downloads—yet another example of technology making life and business easy and efficient.

I don’t have the answer to the million-dollar question, but I can tell you that there are things you can do to control costs: Be a good time manager, leave some things to the experts and stay current on technology. If you are going to be successful at being efficient, remember to apply all three.

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