October 2018 | First Focus

How to be a better lawyer in just a few minutes a day

Lawyers are notoriously busy folks, but Jeremy W. Richter wants them to give him five minutes of their day to become better at what they do.

Richter does that in his new book, “Building a Better Law Practice: Become a Better Lawyer in Five Minutes a Day,” where he contends that reading about one topic per day, “over about seven weeks, at the time cost of about 0.1 hours per day, you will have collected dozens of strategies for developing an efficient and collaborative practice that will set the foundation for good relationships with your clients.”

“I do believe our profession is best served when more of us deliberately improve our craft, but selfishly my job is made easier when opposing counsel are good at their job.”

Richter practices civil defense litigation in Birmingham, Ala. He writes a law blog at www.jeremywrichter.com (and yes, he has a tip about writing a blog, too).

The book is divided into four parts: managing clients and creating collaborative relationships; practice considerations for your practice; improving your skills and managing your caseload; and developing yourself and your practice, and includes tips on everything from getting paid to improving efficiency to managing your caseload to improving your legal writing, Richter allows the reader to focus on just one strategy for improvement a day.

YourABA caught up with Richter to find out more.

Why do you think a lawyer can build a better practice in just five minutes a day?

Whether we are reading books or articles, listening to podcasts or the radio, lawyers need to be consistently availing themselves to new ideas, business strategies, marketing tactics or just sources of inspiration. These can either come in short form or long. With constant inputs, lawyer can continually improve themselves and their practices and expand their horizons.

Did you write this book for a particular type of lawyer?

I wrote this book to be a source of practical and implementable information, tactics and strategies for lawyers to help with various aspects of practice. I think of it as a “devotional for lawyers,” a daily reader that gives you one idea a day that can help you out. Lawyers are busy. And many lawyers won’t take the time to read a large book. But if they get something practical to improve their skills or their business in just a few minutes, that may be something they are more inclined to read.


Richter tip: How to gain new clients

It’s a familiar but true idiom: People do business with people they know like and trust. According to Anthony Iannarino’s “The Lost Art of Closing,” turning a stranger into a new client involves building trust, creating value, collaborating and delivering exceptional results. To accomplish this, you have to understand the challenges your would-be client is facing and try to help him solve his problems. Think about adding some value, such as ideas and advice, for your potential new clients before requesting a commitment. Become “others-minded.”

Adapted from “Building a Better Law Practice: Become a Better Lawyer in Five Minutes a Day”


Where should a lawyer put most of his/her efforts in building a better law practice?

The fundamentals. For young lawyers, you have to develop good knowledge of your practice area(s), which often takes time to learn beyond the hours that are billable to clients. Then you need to implement systems that will help you stay organized, manage your caseload and communicate regularly with clients. Of course, for solo practitioners, they have the harder task of operating a business on top of practicing law, and if they don’t understand the business of law, their practice will not likely succeed.

What are some of your practical tips for getting paid by clients?

It depends. Different types of practices need to undertake different strategies to make sure they get paid. A personal injury attorney needs to make sure her firm’s name is on the settlement check along with the client, because if it goes into the client’s bank account first, the lawyer is never going to see her share of the money.  For firms with individual and small business clients, get a retainer up front, because if you are only billing your clients after the work is done, you are going to end up doing a lot of work for free. For those who have an insurance defense practice like mine, the client gives you billing guidelines with which you have to be compliant; a failure to comply with the structure you’re given will result in you not getting paid, regardless of the quality of the work-product.


Richter tip: Why storytelling is essential to trial attorneys

Preeminent attorney Steve Heninger says: We can’t successfully force feed facts and opinions. We have to find a way to connect with the universals we think are present within a jury.

A good story should strike a nerve with jurors that make them want to retell it. It has to have sticking power that drives the hearer to retell it in her own way, filtered through her own values, and what has struck her as important. We have to find elements that are contagious and intersect with a common ground that we feel is reasonably probable with this specific jury.

Adapted from “Building a Better Law Practice: Become a Better Lawyer in Five Minutes a Day”


You recommend that lawyers turn to Stephen King for writing guidance. Why is that?

We should be reading great writers of every ilk. The more we read, the more we absorb and intuit what great writing consists of, what it sounds like, and most importantly, what it omits. We cannot become great, or even good, writers without being voracious readers.

Stephen King’s “On Writing” is part memoir and part writing guide. It contains some useful tactics to help all writers improve their craft. And since a significant part of what most writers do is write it is an excellent resource for us. But Stephen King is not the only writer to provide a valuable resource on improving the writing craft; others I have found helpful include Anne Lamott, Jeff Goins, Joanna Penn and Shawn Coyne.

I recommend that lawyers read broadly in whatever interests them. Read for pleasure, but also be analytical as to what makes for enjoyable and consumable writing. The same components that make for good fiction and non-fiction also make for good legal writing.


Richter tip: When to stop arguing your point with a judge

Restraint and situational awareness is key. Look for cues in a judge’s body language. When a judge begins to regularly nod his head in agreement with your points, it’s time to wrap things up. 

Adapted from “Building a Better Law Practice: Become a Better Lawyer in Five Minutes a Day”


The legal profession has a well-documented problem with wellness. What’s your advice for how to deal with the stress and anxiety of being a lawyer?

We must make a point of taking time for our own physical, emotional and intellectual well-being. Lawyers often treat their work as more important than themselves, but this is a well-trodden path to destruction. It’s important to find meaning in things outside our vocation and pursue those things, whether it’s family, faith or creative outlets. I recently heard entrepreneur and former attorney Shawn Askinosie say, “If we can find some meaning in our lives, we're going to live longer, be more joyful and be more pleasant to be around.” Certainly, the issue is more nuanced and complicated than this singular idea, but I think having a purpose outside the scope of our work is foundational to maintaining our well-being.


Richter tip: 8 steps for a happy client

  1. Maintain contact – Your client needs information and your assurances.
  2. Answer and immediately issue discovery
  3. Engage in aggressive motion practice, as needed – Your client needs to know she is a priority and you need the proper responses to best represent her.
  4. Make an early evaluation of liability and potential damages – This is key throughout because your client is attempting to evaluate risk and set reserves.
  5. Conduct an early analysis for resolution strategies – Positioning cases for early resolution may not positively affect your billable hours, but your client will be happier and happy clients keep sending work.
  6. Present a balanced view of a case’s strengths and weaknesses – Sugarcoating your analysis may lead to false expectations that lead to doubt and mistrust.
  7. Provide a proposed budget – Aids in sound decision making.
  8. Explain tactics and procedural issues – Your relationship with the client should be collaborative because your interests are aligned. 

Adapted from “Building a Better Law Practice: Become a Better Lawyer in Five Minutes a Day”