When my law firm went remote in early March 2020, client work continued at a brisk level, prior to a period of significant reduced demand. At first, the process of getting things done using new tools and different resources was daunting. Though nothing “keeps me up at night,” I can attest that the first few months of COVID were stressful. As time went on, I established new routines—some tested and scratched, and others adopted permanently. Though my transactional practice slowed for a very short period, ultimately it was maintained and is now on a steady increase, with greater volume expected than pre-2008 Great Recession levels. I am fortunate to have practiced law with the same outstanding firm since 1988. Over the years, there have been some clients I was fortunate to inherit from predecessor firm members; however, most clients have not been dropped into my lap. Looking back, I recently asked myself, how have I been able to gain, and maintain, clients through many different (and occasionally extreme) economic times? I have concluded it is through commitment to two key professional practice principles.
Early on, I realized that the residential real estate practice I was originally hired for would trend toward commodity, and that even if our state bar allowed lawyers to maintain their monopoly, competition would increase over time. This has been the case, and I am fortunate to have transitioned to a more bespoke transactional practice. The first principle I am committed to is that I understand I cannot compete with everyone, but instead will serve fewer clients, creating greater relationships and striving for mutual professional life commitment.
Second, I am committed to providing excellent service. Realizing that is an easy thing to say (or perhaps state on a firm website mission statement), I believe there are some specifics to this type of commitment leading to exemplary client service. I suppose only my clients can really say if I have achieved this level of client experience.
Having a Purpose
Do you have a personal professional mission statement, consistent with the overall mission of your firm? If not, you should, even if your firm does not have a true mission to be consistent with. It will be difficult to do any of the other steps I suggest unless you know who you are, what your professional purpose is and who you are meant to serve. If you have no idea how to develop or describe a personal mission, I recommend “Creating Effective Law Firm Vision and Mission Statements” by fellow Law Practice author Allison Shields Johs. This publication is not just about law firm vision and mission, but helpful to individual lawyers in need of purpose and focus.
Staying on Mission
Once you know your mission, with discipline you will be able to do two things: (1) analyze if your time expenditure is consistent with getting you where you want to be, and (2) say no to perceived opportunities that will take you off mission. During the lengthy COVID shutdown, differences in both client demand for services historically provided and opportunities in substitute areas of practice have probably caused most of us to adopt off-mission activities. I resist calling these bad habits or time-wasting diversions, because the COVID experience was something none of us could have ever imagined, one that we hope is once in a lifetime. I’ve observed that for some it was a wake-up call to a completely different life or professional mission. Even so, for many, adopted or increased off-mission time and resource-consuming activities may now be a more prevalent aspect of life than ever before. Having a mission, you can analyze how time is being spent and develop disciplines to get rid of, or at least minimize, those activities that are unnecessary diversions from the mission. Having a mission, you can also be disciplined enough to analyze opportunities that come along and politely decline each that does not, in some clear and demonstrable way, move you further along your mission path. This does not necessarily mean you have to send every non-mission matter out the door. If you’re in a firm with other lawyers, it might be a perfect chance to learn, or practice, the all-important discipline of delegation. For a further analysis on why you should learn to “just say no” at appropriate times, see my Managing column titled “The Power of ‘No,’” in the March/April 2014 issue of Law Practice.
From the first year I started practicing law, I have used to-do checklists. Almost weekly, I review, rewrite and prioritize a checklist of pending matters. I know that many people use Microsoft Outlook mail as their priority list. At times I become too busy (in my own mind) to maintain my checklist system, and instead default to reliance on Outlook. When that happens, I invariably find that some items will become buried, and especially important client matters slip.
For myself, I still maintain a handwritten to-do list. I know that is old school, but the technologically advanced tools available have never been able to stick for me. My point, however, is the same regardless of method: Make a written list, check it regularly and continue to adjust based on priority. For a more in-depth look at checklist systems for everyday practice, consider reading Checklists for Lawyers by Dan Siegel, Pam Myers and Molly Gilligan, published by the ABA Law Practice Division.
Finally, having a list of things to do and prioritizing them does not ensure client satisfaction. In many cases, several listed items will have the same critically important priority. The most important step is to take action and learn the critical discipline one might refer to as “juggling.” Building client relationships over the years, I have come to realize that all clients put their own matter at the top of my list, but not all clients are as demanding (or in some cases, impatient) as others. Because of that, the discipline of juggling includes keeping the client informed of process, creating mutual understandings regarding timing, knowing when a client requires interim progress reports or product and understanding the harm done by procrastination. As a leader, I have observed that many attorneys who make to-do lists prioritize them based on what they like to do. That practice suggests a problem with their understanding of mission and the importance of staying on it, as I described. Another common problem is the lawyer who insists on fully, and perfectly, completing every individual project before adding or doing any work on another. The result of these practices is that a very different level of satisfaction may be reported in client surveys for the same lawyer, depending upon which client is asked. A most important aspect of achieving comprehensive client satisfaction is learning how to feed each client the appropriate level of communication, progress reports, and partial and completed product or service, as well as juggling this client-specific level among the level needed by each and every unique client with a work item on the list. Tactically, taking action also includes establishing client feedback systems to ensure that activity leads to satisfaction; however, an in-depth discussion of these systems is beyond the limited space of this column.
Most practicing lawyers believe there is simply not enough time to get “it” all done. They believe they are busy, and in fact they are. However, with an understanding of purpose, and the discipline to stay on mission by following these principles, I believe practicing lawyers can better define what “it” is, achieve satisfaction for all the clients they serve and have it in their own professional lives as well.