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January 27, 2019

Law firm growth requires some business smarts

Practicing law is a noble profession. Every year, thousands of students are trained in law schools to become attorneys. Growing and running the business of a law firm, however, is a completely different process.

Chicago attorney Kerry Lavelle, who runs a firm with 31 lawyers, has written books on the subject. He recently held a panel on the topic at the American Bar Association 2019 Midyear Meeting in Las Vegas titled “The Business Guide to Law: Creating and Operating a Successful Law Firm” sponsored by the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.

Lavelle outlined the importance of running the law firm as a business and understanding the difference between working “in” your business and working “on” your business. Lavelle says that working “in” your business entails practicing your craft, being a technician of the law that advocates and advances a client’s interest.

Working “on” your business requires setting aside time to think strategically and figure out where your firm may be deficient. It entails getting away from the practice of law.

Generating new business and finding new clients is obviously the key to success and growth. Lavelle stresses the need to use leads to get that first phone call. He is absolutely opposed to answering any legal questions during these calls. They are solely for arranging a first, in-person meeting.

Leads can come from many different sources and Lavelle recommends using all of them. First and foremost, he touts the necessity of having a professional website that has quality, and frequently-updated content. Using social media (Lavelle advises selecting two platforms and doing them well).

In addition to the modern sources such as internet searches, Lavelle also talks up the usefulness of more traditional methods such as the yellow pages, radio ads and billboards. He also points out the importance of getting out in the community, getting involved in public speaking, networking and neighborhood projects to let people see you and learn what you are about. Of course, referral sources are one of the best ways to develop leads.

Getting leads is only the first part of the process of generating new clients. Once you get the lead and have the initial phone conversation, converting the lead into a paying client is key. Lavelle says that the client must “like you, trust you, and believe you can help them.”

Once you land a client, Lavelle stresses that it is incumbent to become what he calls a “5-tool attorney.” He says that these are the tools you need, and in this order:

  • A+ level work: If you’re not a great lawyer, clients will most like look elsewhere.
  • Meet billing goals: Lawyers sell their time and services. They must accurately and fairly conduct billing practices.
  • Get out of the office: You need to go to bar associations, community events and the Chamber of Commerce to be seen and to find new clients.
  • Mentor younger attorneys and new associates: In addition to being the right thing to do, it also helps the business stay healthy and grow.
  • Add value to firm management: Being critical to the growth of the firm adds to your importance to the firm.

Lavelle also advises that attorneys become “Law Office MBAs.” This means adopting a business-like approach to marketing, human resources, client complaints, pro bono work and financials. Tracking analytics in all these areas will keep you ahead of any problems that may arise.

Billing and collecting is an area where Lavelle says it is critical to stay aware and current. Lawyers in his firm record billing hours as often as twice a day and he is a big proponent of keeping contemporaneous and detailed records of your time worked. Lavelle also suggests timely billing and concentrating on the 30-day delinquent payment list, so clients know that you are serious about getting paid.

Goal-setting is important to growth and for tracking progress. Lavelle is a fan of setting long-term goals.

Lavelle believes in developing a “cult-like culture” for his law firm. He says lawyers know what they do, and how they do it, but that they need to understand “why” they are doing it. You need to set up core values for your firm, whatever you believe they should be, and then make sure the world knows it. It is your brand, the purpose of your law firm, and when you find the right values, staying true to them will ultimately result in growth and success.

Lavelle has written two books published by the ABA. “The Business Guide to Law: Creating and Operating a Successful Law Firm” and the recently-published “The Early-Career Guide for Attorneys: Starting and Building a Successful Career in Law.”