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January 01, 2020

Bring Your 'A' Game

Applying lessons from athletes to perform your best as a law firm.

Catherine Sanders Reach

Lawyers must continually hone their skills in the practice of law, learning and adapting in an ever-changing landscape of statutes, regulations and opinions. That need to continuously improve is not unlike that of athletes and sports teams—even if they reach the pinnacle of success, athletes must strive to again achieve that mark the following year. In the meantime, their competition does not sit idle, as they too must practice and perfect their abilities to stay competitive.

In much the same way, law firms must also commit to continual improvement of their business practices. Practice management skills, procedures, tools and techniques are the essential means for firms to perform to the best of their ability and to effectively and efficiently serve clients while seeking to be profitable and achieve work and life satisfaction.

In Training

Athletes have a variety of ways to improve their strength and ability, and many of the tools they use have not dramatically changed over the years. However, while they may still use weights to increase muscle mass, the way they use these tools has changed as they find smarter and more efficient ways to exercise.


Law firms also continue to use basic technology tools, such as word processing, email and law practice management applications every day.  But are they using them well? Learning how to best use these tools allows firms to make sure they are performing effectively every day.

For instance, while word processing has remained much the same for many years, there are functions that a lawyer can learn that significantly improve the process. The basics are easy, but using Microsoft Word Styles to control document formatting effectively opens many other opportunities for templating, automating tables of contents, manipulating sections of text and more. A lawyer can still write a memo without using Styles, but learning how to master their power can allow the lawyer to focus on content creation instead of fighting with the automatic formatting. Training can help unearth these powerful features, but maintaining a mindset of exploration will also help lawyers find better ways to do their job.

Many firms have invested in technology such as practice management applications but do not use all available functionality. They could take a page out of the playbook of most successful athletes who study how to optimize their equipment for maximum impact. Law firms that have invested in technology but haven’t studied how to improve their processes don’t see anticipated returns on investment and are then disappointed in the software. Changing how a lawyer or firm works is as essential to improvement as what they do.

Sports equipment changes and improves, as does the technology available to lawyers. It is incumbent on lawyers to take advantage of these enhancements. For instance, collaboration features have vastly improved, including using the cloud to provide multi-author editing in real time. Many lawyers still default to emailing a document for editing and review. Learning to use collaboration tools does not mean that the lawyer must give up control.  If they understand all the options available, such as allowing commenting but disabling downloading or changing of the document, they may maintain control while benefiting from the collaboration.

No Wasted Movement

Effective athletes study efficiency to ensure no movement is wasted. Automation technologies available to law firms can have a similar effect. Document assembly tools continue to improve and can greatly reduce errors and improve efficiency. To be sure, a period of study and commitment can help document assembly live up to its promise. The initial time getting set up and the complexity of automating documents can be intimidating. Ultimately, though, it will improve your game.

Technology already in use may help eliminate wasted movement—if you take the time to utilize it. While a number of lawyers use products with the option to track time contemporaneously and generate a bill by simply pressing a button, many still write out their time on spreadsheets or on paper and then have it entered at the end of the month. This is wasted time and movement.

Automation tools are another prime example of technology that is available but underutilized.  In addition to document assembly, which has become more common, many types of automation tools can help improve workflows and processes—if you commit to using them. First, examine where you are wasting movement. Are you re-keying client information into your documents? Failing to follow up on potential client calls because you don’t have time? Waiting for a client to sign a fee agreement? Delaying scheduling appointments because you need to wait to get back to your office to check your calendar? Failing to update your social media pages? Waiting to get paid while a client cuts a check and mails it to you?

Automating workflows is often as simple as identifying where the process breaks down. Applications like Flow, IFTTT and Zapier can help connect your existing software to automatically add a new client to your email newsletter list; auto respond to contact form inquiries with a link to an online scheduling tool; turn emails into tasks; add a time entry for a call; and so much more. Automation can help lawyers focus on practicing law rather than administrative tasks.

By the Numbers

Athletes in many sports—including but certainly not limited to running, swimming, bicycle racing—are not only competing with opponents but are also in competition with themselves to beat their own best times. In a law firm, you may track time to bill clients, but you should also be improving your efficiency by improving your time. Doing so opens opportunities for alternative billing arrangements, to focus efforts on client engagement and improvement, or to engage more time and effort in mentoring.

How do you improve your time? Identify and document how much time you spend on what and then focus on possible ways to reduce that time. Lawyers and law firms should look for opportunities for process improvement, to create and follow efficient procedures, and to embrace project management techniques.

The Oakland A’s famously studied the numbers to improve their wins. They used that data to play smarter, not harder, and change the outcomes. They reduced reliance on instinct and instead focused on the math, aka “moneyball.”

In order to learn from the numbers, lawyers and firms must first capture them. In firm management, systems like timetracking, billing, accounting, practice management and knowledge management can capture data. Tools from spreadsheets to more complex dashboards can help turn those numbers into statistics, which can then help determine probability. Decisions based on metrics and probable outcomes can be implemented and improved over time as firms gather more data and continue to analyze it.

Law firms are beginning to take advantage of artificial intelligence as a product by providing self-learning systems to guide clients through scenarios and decisions to reach a desired outcome. Machine learning needs large data sets, but small firms can still take advantage of tools that leverage artificial intelligence. Legal research has become a significant example for using AI to enhance natural language search and citation analysis to reduce time and improve reliability. Other areas being impacted by artificial intelligence include document review in discovery and contract review.

Of course, not all predictability based on AI has been embraced. In France, it is illegal to engage in judicial analytics, using statistics and machine learning to predict judicial behavior. These tools must be used intentionally and deliberately. Lawyers need to understand enough about the technology and the underlying data sets to assess whether bias is built into the outcomes. Artificial intelligence can only distinguish a Chihuahua from a blueberry muffin if it is given the right context and the coding to know that it should. If the AI has not been given enough information or the underlying data is weighted, it will keep learning and compounding bias and discrimination. Lawyers need to know enough about this topic to assess if outcomes are being applied that are illegal or unethical.

Get Your Head in the Game

In sports, the game is often as much mental as physical. The pressures to succeed, to be the best and to win take a mental toll. Lawyers experience similar stresses. Commitment to mental health is as important as physical health. Lawyers experience burnout, substance abuse, depression and anxiety at a high rate; in fact, at rates higher than the general population and many other professions. 

Like athletes, however, lawyers are not conditioned to admit defeat or ask for help. They suffer in silence, and many feel like admitting mental health problems makes them vulnerable. Recognition of these issues has reduced the stigma and has generated more opportunities, and more incentive, to get help. Lawyer wellness and well-being are topics that are being examined and embraced by the profession. Meditation, mindfulness, work-life balance, yoga and other techniques are being increasingly taught to lawyers in addition to traditional continuing education.

Hey, Coach

In football, the name of the coach is often as well known as the players—the success of the team is directly tied to the skills of the coach. As the coach, your law firm or practice group looks to you to call the plays and build the team. This includes being involved in hiring, mentoring, and sometimes firing lawyers and legal professionals. This is not a job to be taken lightly. The success of the team relies on a strong foundation. Commitment to onboarding, training and evaluation will help ensure a strong team. Lawyers should recognize their role as coach and seek to educate themselves on how to effectively create a team that works individually and as a unit.

Your Fans

Sports is big business. Huge amounts of money are spent on salaries, facilities and operations. For sports franchises to succeed, they must create and reward paying fans. Sound familiar? Law firms must attract and retain clients. They must have fans not only among their clients but among other lawyers who are willing to refer clients to them. In order to accomplish this, firms must focus not only on their marketing but also on the client experience.

Despite often having an established fan base, sports franchises must keep this fan base and grow it. This can be achieved, in part, through marketing. Law firms, even venerable ones, must continuously and effectively market. Marketing must reach the people where they are—through radio, TV, video, audio, websites and online reputation. 

Your firm should establish what marketing success looks like and establish metrics to evaluate your efforts. You need to do market research in order to know how to target the message and what media delivery channels resonate most effectively for your practice areas. What do people need? You can seek to understand your clients better through building client personas. You may find that you can create a niche practice or market an aspect of your practice to reach new clients. Marketing efforts don’t always need to be expensive, but they will either cost money or time. Identifying your desired outcome and knowing your budget will help you make the best marketing decisions.

Once a client decides to engage with your firm, their experience is of vital import. Are you easy to contact? Are you prompt in setting up an initial client interview and subsequently letting the client know whether you will establish a relationship? Do you have a video or time line that explains how the process is typically approached for their matter? Are you explaining the litigation time line and challenges in language a client—particularly a client under stress who may not be processing as well as usual—will understand?

Every interaction between a potential client and a lawyer or firm is an opportunity to make or lose a fan. A firm may overlook factors that affect this experience. For instance, how are your phones answered? Does the receptionist sound brusque or impersonal? Are voicemails responded to quickly? Is your office clean, is parking convenient, were the directions on your website accurate? Think about the last game you attended. What would have made your experience better? Your perception may have been marred by long lines to get in, a stale overpriced hot dog or an out-of-order restroom. Whether or not your team won, the experience may mean you are not in a hurry to return and will content yourself with watching the highlights on television.

Do you survey your clients to find out about their experience? It may be difficult to hear, but it is better for them to tell you than to share their dissatisfaction with others. How well did you communicate, what could be done to improve services, how likely are they to recommend your services to others? More and more, businesses are requesting feedback to seek to change and improve. It is rare to take a flight or rent a car without being asked to complete a survey about your experience. Your insurance company may ask you how they are doing. Even hospitals and doctors are surveying patients to learn about their satisfaction with the experience, not the outcome. Take cues from these other industries!

Bad Behavior

One reality in sports is that there are bad actors. Those who will cheat. Who break rules. Who dope, and find ways to take advantage of trust. In the practice of law, you handle information that has tremendous value, and there are those who want to use that information for their own gain. They may be in your firm or outside of it. In sports there are watchdog organizations and internal controls to help reduce the threats. Your firm needs education and systems to reduce cybersecurity threats, as well as internal threats such as embezzlement and inadvertent disclosure of confidential information. Law firms can get help from IT and outside organizations, including your state or local bar’s practice management advisors, to put best practices in place to reduce risk and recover from the inevitable exposure of information. Law firms need to ensure that internal staff and external consultants are well educated on firm policies and procedures, as well as maintaining constant vigilance.

Revolution and Evolution

In August 2019, Simone Biles changed gymnastics forever. She successfully and beautifully performed a double-double off the balance beam. At that moment, she redefined the Code of Points. She was also the first woman to perform a successful triple-double in the floor routine in women’s gymnastics.

The next generation of lawyers will be delivering legal services and practicing law in a way we can hardly predict now, forging new paths and blazing new trails. But, like Biles, their education must enable them to meet tomorrow’s challenges and give them the footing to create and define success in law practice. It is the duty of the legal community to help reformat legal education to prepare these next generation lawyers, to encourage their growth and resiliency, to remove barriers and attitudes that may hold them back before they can define what’s next in the practice. This will require taking a hard look at structure, curriculum and learning outcomes as well as helping law students learn new skills. Law schools will need to create more interdisciplinary opportunities to help the next generation of lawyers solve for tomorrow’s complex client needs. The regulatory framework for lawyers will also need to be addressed to see where the code may create barriers to entrepreneurial endeavors and innovation. It is unlikely that Biles thought, “Well, I can’t attempt this move, it isn’t in the point system.”

Bringing Your ‘A’ Game

How can you learn to improve your performance and compete while staying mentally fit? ABA TECHSHOW 2020 is the one-size-fits-all solution to this daunting prospect. Regardless of how good you are, you will find education, resources and products to make your law practice better. Robust educational tracks, workshops, community engagement and social activities will give you the chance to recharge, refocus and walk away with new tools, or a renewed commitment, to engage in continuous improvement. Athletes know that they can always improve, knowing that the bar for excellence is constantly moving. In the dynamic and ever-changing practice of law, law practice management education can help you meet and beat your best time.

Sidebar: Level Up with ABA TECHSHOW 2020

by Heidi Alexander and Catherine Sanders Reach

Now in its 34th year, ABA TECHSHOW continues to meet you where you are, regardless of your level of sophistication, with tools, resources and innovation to take your knowledge and use of technology in law practice to the next level. Come to ABA TECHSHOW 2020 and you are guaranteed to learn something new.

ABA TECHSHOW always tackles the most forward-thinking concepts as well as basic technological skills. This year, you can look forward to sessions on topics related to maintaining well-being, preparing your firm for future changes, employing analytics and data in practice, advancements in artificial intelligence and its application to the legal industry, automating your practice for efficiency, attracting clients and managing the client experience, litigating and courtroom technology, securing your data and much more!

While ABA TECHSHOW is at its core about technology, we are excited to create space to address a number of related and essential topics that impact the legal profession, such as the decline in lawyer well-being, diversity and inclusion, modern client demands, as well as advancements in legal education and innovation in law practice.

ABA TECHSHOW brings together lawyers, legal professionals, educators, judges, law students, entrepreneurs and more to learn from each other and make lasting personal connections. Back this year are our Meet Up groups that will convene throughout the conference, allowing attendees to discuss everything from specific technology related to their practice areas to women in legal technology and innovation in practice. You’ll also have the opportunity to kick back in our EXPO Hall lounge and chat with experts about new developments in legal technology and how their products are helping lawyers succeed in their practices. Always a crowd pleaser, don’t miss the Start-up Pitch Competition and Start-Up Alley to learn about the newest legal tech products on the market. Finally, connect body and mind by participating in our 5K run, yoga sessions or peer support groups.

Finally, we promise a year of fun with our Riot Rebels Luncheon and a fantastic Thursday night reception. What better time to celebrate some of our leaders and rebels in innovation and women in legal technology, as well as catch up with friends and meet new ones.

Join us this year at ABA TECHSHOW 2020, and you’ll be well on your way toward leveling up your practice!

Catherine Sanders Reach

Catherine Sanders Reach is director of the Center for Practice Management at the North Carolina Bar Association. Formerly she was director, Law Practice Management and Technology for the Chicago Bar Association and the director at the American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center. She served on the ABA TECHSHOW Board from 2007-2009, 2014-2016, was co-vice chair in 2019 and is co-chair for 2020. [email protected]

Heidi S. Alexander

Heidi Alexander is the deputy director of Massachusetts Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, where she helps lawyers build healthy and sustainable law practices. She is the co-chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2020. [email protected]