February 18, 2020 Chair’s Corner

The Lawyer as Team-Building Entrepreneur

Richard A. DeMichele Jr.

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To grow your practice, implement a team-building strategy like those championed by entrepreneurs and CEOs.

To grow your practice, implement a team-building strategy like those championed by entrepreneurs and CEOs.

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Let’s face it. Earning a living as a lawyer is not easy. Earning a living as a solo or small firm attorney can be even more challenging. I have often said that owning a small law firm is the epitome of a high-risk business. Yes, I referred to the practice of law as a business and not a profession. Without starting the age-old debate, “Is the practice of law a profession or a business,” I will accept that in order to be successful in the profession of law, you must understand and implement some sound business practices.

Implementing sound business practices in your solo or small firm law practice can be challenging, difficult, and expensive. This may explain why most solo and small firm lawyers, either consciously or unconsciously, choose not to do so. But good business practices, when implemented properly, are crucial.

Lawyer as CEO

As a lawyer and owner of your firm, consider looking at your practice through an entrepreneurial lens. For a moment, take a step back and look at your firm as if you were a CEO and you never went to law school. Would the firm have a different culture or focus? Could you improve efficiencies with a change of process? Would you make changes to have better client loyalty and satisfaction? The honest answer to all these questions should range from “most likely” to a resounding “yes!”

Looking at your firm as an entrepreneur or CEO has its special challenges. First, you will want to keep in mind that providing legal services makes you a member of our profession. This means that lawyers are bound by our rules of professional conduct when acting as an entrepreneur or CEO. Consider implementing proven business strategies in your practice that are molded to conform to our professional responsibility as lawyers.

For example, the business world is focused on teamwork. Executives and business owners are constantly focused on growth. All CEOs are looking to grow revenue and profits, but the better executives are also focused on growing the non-financial performance of their companies. Growth in positive customer experience, customer satisfaction, and employee job satisfaction are all important growth areas for a company that truly wants to grow. The business world has learned that the way to achieve this kind of growth is through teamwork.

Law Firm Teamwork

If teamwork principles are used by the successful business executive, the successful legal entrepreneur should be focused on teamwork, too. Having a culture of teamwork in the modern law firm has many tangible and intangible benefits. Successful teamwork in a small firm brings about workload efficiency, stress reduction (for employees and clients), better client satisfaction, and ultimately increased firm profitability and growth while keeping down costs to the client.

The first step in bringing a culture of teamwork to the firm is ceding individual control over every aspect of the process. Given the traditional mind-set of attorneys, this can be very difficult. But revamping your legal team is not as difficult as you might suspect. If you have spent any time working in your office, you should know your employees’ strengths and weaknesses. Your goal is to assign office responsibilities to your staff’s strengths. If you determine that your clients need skill sets that are not part of your current office team, consider bringing in a new person who can help fill the void. If hiring a new person is not an option, consider training or retraining underutilized employees you currently have.

The Benefits of Teamwork

As you implement your teamwork strategy in your office, you should almost immediately notice several significant benefits. The by-product of collaborative responsibilities is improved communication between your team members. The members of your client-focused legal team recognize that they each have an important part in succeeding for the client. The operative word is “part.” Because no one, especially the lawyer, is solely responsible for the entire representation, all team members will need to communicate with each other. Improved team communication will inevitably lead to better client communication. Effective client communication is the most important aspect in delivering overall client satisfaction.

Teamwork reduces stress. Working alone can lead to feelings of isolation. This is especially true when one is engaged in lengthy and or difficult tasks. When the firm members work as a team, they share the responsibility, which eases pressure and tempers feelings of isolation. Ultimately, you will reduce team member burnout, which is always a concern in the legal field.

When you employ sound teamwork principles in a law office, you create an environment that leads to better problem solving. Clients come to you because they have issues that they are not equipped to handle themselves. By using teamwork in your practice, you leverage the creative capital of your employees to solve client problems, rather than just manage them. Each employee has his or her own unique creativity. By involving your entire team in a client’s issues, you increase the potential for a creative solution to the client’s problem. Be sure to encourage your entire team to challenge conventional thinking and celebrate creative ideas. This is especially true when the idea does not, at first, solve the client’s issue. It is the encouragement of creative ideas that leads to lasting and meaningful client solutions.

The true hallmark of teamwork is improved efficiency. When lawyers can deliver efficient legal representation, everybody wins. Efficiency brings lower cost to the client and increased profit to the lawyer, all without sacrificing quality. Assigning team members tasks that accentuate their strengths will prevent employees from spending time on tasks that they do not perform well. This improves job satisfaction and reduces frustration. Proper delegation ensures the work gets done faster and with much higher quality.

Make Teamwork Your New Year’s Resolution

At the beginning of every new year, most people set their New Year’s resolutions. These often are personal goals that involve lifestyle changes. For many, their New Year’s resolutions are long forgotten by the middle of April. Instead of setting your New Year’s resolution to lose weight, stop smoking, or connect with old friends, consider a New Year’s resolution for your firm and implement a legal teamwork strategy. You may be surprised just how much you and your clients will benefit.

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Richard A. DeMichele Jr. is the 2019–2020 Chair of the GPSolo Division. He is a shareholder with DeMichele & DeMichele P.C., a general practice firm in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, with an emphasis on family law, criminal law, and personal injury law.

Published in GPSolo, Volume 37, Number 1, January/February 2020. © 2020 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.