GPSolo Magazine - July/August 2004
Put a PMA on Your Team
I t’s another day at the office. I plant myself in my chair and face the computer monitor on my desk. The phone rings. I grab my cordless headset, loop it into position over my ear, and lift the receiver of the phone to connect the call. The voice in my earpiece sounds hollow—it’s someone using a speakerphone: “I have a question—I’m not really sure who to ask, but I’m hoping that maybe you can help me. . . . I saw your tip in the E-Blast, and I was wondering. . . .”
Lawyers ask me questions. They ask me on the phone and in e-mails. They approach me after speeches and even at parties. What do they ask? They ask about managing their law practices. They ask about choosing new software and hiring personnel. They ask about ethics and advertising. They ask how to start a law practice. They ask how to finish one. They ask me if there’s a better way to do what they’ve been doing for the last 30 years.
Suddenly, I feel like Dr. Frasier Crane. “Go ahead,” I encourage the caller, “I’m listening.”
Why do they ask me? Because I am a PMA—a practice management advisor. It’s my job and my pleasure to help them. Some questions are easy; I’ve heard them so many times, I could answer them in my sleep. Many questions aren’t so simple, but I usually know where to look for an answer or whom to ask. It’s a pretty cool job. The lawyers feel like someone at their bar association helped them (hence, they are getting their money’s worth), and I get a good feeling from being the person who helped.
What They Didn’t Teach You in Law School
The majority of lawyers who get in disciplinary trouble or sued for malpractice aren’t criminals. Rather, the problem that got them in trouble usually relates to how they manage their law practices. Often, they lack training in the management and administrative functions of a practice. Many of them would run their practices more efficiently and effectively if they just knew how. It doesn’t help that most law schools teach students little or nothing about how to run the business of a law firm.
Solos and small firm lawyers have an especially tough row to hoe. These days, it’s not unusual to see a sole practitioner with no staff whatsoever, tackling administrative duties single-handedly. And for those lawyers who don’t practice alone, there can be other problems. I talked to one lawyer whose partner refused to accept using computers, and another who discovered his paralegal was practicing law without a license. Unfortunately, in most cases, the solos and small firm lawyers have no one to turn to for good advice.
These circumstances, combined with a desire to change the public’s somewhat negative perception of lawyers, led many bar organizations to recognize that lawyers have a critical need for office management advice. And so the concept of practice management advisors was born.
What Is a PMA?
There are approximately 20 practice management assistance programs in the United States and Canada, staffed by one or more PMAs. The PMAs are a small group of men and women from diverse backgrounds. Some are lawyers; some are former legal administrators or consultants. Some PMAs are bar employees or work for the state bar as independent contractors; others are employed by professional liability insurers. All are dedicated to the common goal of helping lawyers practice law better. PMAs are experts, advisors, research analysts, listeners, advocates, facilitators, ethicists, and technologists. The programs they oversee are known by different names, but the key words to remember are “management” and “assistance.” Many are known by acronyms, such as PMAP, LOMAP, LOMAS, or MAP.
No matter what they are called, they share the same objective: to assist lawyers in improving their law practices. As J. R. Phelps, director of the oldest such program, the Florida Bar’s Law Office Management Assistance Service (LOMAS), says, “having a PMA program is the ultimate member benefit.” “And let’s not forget,” adds Steve Gallagher, former PMA to the New York State Bar Association, “the public benefits, too.”
How a PMA Can Help You
“The practice management advisors are dedicated to helping lawyers help themselves, by providing resource materials and telephone consultations, offering educational programs and, in some states, conducting in-office management audits. The services are usually free, although many programs charge a small fee for in-office visits or management audits.” (From the Practice Management Advisors’ Page, www.pmapage.org.)
What lawyer couldn’t use some help? And solos and small firm lawyers, unlike their colleagues in the big firms, have to do it all. As one sole practitioner said to me, “I wish all I had to do was practice law. Instead, I’m settling disputes with my employees and worrying about ordering toner cartridges.”
Information clearinghouse. What can PMAs, mere mortals, do to solve the seemingly insurmountable problems lawyers face in the “business” of their law practices? Plenty! For starters, most PMAs see their position as a clearinghouse for information. We constantly sift through information—online, in books, at seminars, and in journals—to find what is most helpful for lawyers. (Sometimes I feel like a blue whale, swallowing an ocean to find plankton.) It is our mission to inform lawyers about new methods, technologies, and resources.
One of the most popular resources offered by many PMAs is a lending library. Some are quite extensive, including hundreds of books, videotapes, and audiotapes. The majority of the books in my bar’s lending library are ABA publications, including Jay G. Foonberg’s How to Start and Build a Law Practice, Ed Poll’s Attorney and Law Firm Guide to the Business of Law, and Theda C. Snyder’s Women Rainmakers’ Best Marketing Tips. When a lawyer first contacts me about opening an office, the lending library is at the top of my list of resources, along with checklists and forms.
When one attorney decided to open a solo practice in a small town in South Carolina, she first visited the state bar offices to see what resources were available. She borrowed books from the bar’s lending library, and we discussed software and hardware options. I was then able to follow up our conversation with e-mails containing links to other reference information available free on the Internet.
One year later, this lawyer contacted me again. Her first year had gone so well, she wanted additional resources to enhance her practice. “There were two other lawyers who opened a practice in my town around the same time as me,” she told me. “They had been in other practices in town, but I had been away for four years. They were shocked at how quickly my practice grew compared to theirs.” She gave partial credit to PMAP, and the books on marketing she read from the lending library.
As PMAs, it’s a never-ending process to reach out to bar members to provide information they need, in as many ways as possible. All PMAs participate in a listserve where we share ideas and ask one another questions. We write practice tips that we post on the Internet and in e-mails. We manage listserves for members, send blast e-mail newsletters, write articles, teach continuing legal education seminars, offer computer-training classes, meet with local bar associations, and host web pages. Some PMAs have developed statewide solo and small firm conferences. (Missouri hosts the largest in the country, with more than 650 attendees.) A few PMAs even teach practice management in law schools.
Practice management advice. One thing I’ve learned being a PMA is that every lawyer is different and each lawyer’s situation is unique. We determine what assistance each lawyer needs on a case-by-case basis. Our goal is to be a one-stop resource for effective management techniques for members. This covers all aspects of law practice management, including business practices, office management, personnel management, risk management, marketing, practice forms, firm start-up packets, and more. We try to supplement the business and organizational needs of lawyers’ practices at start-up, winding down, and in-between.
My state is one of the latest to create a PMA position. Some programs elsewhere offer on-site risk management visits and office consultations for a small fee. My program is a free service for members, with most requests from lawyers handled by e-mail or phone. Occasionally, a lawyer will drop by the bar offices for an in-person consultation.
Sometimes, the lawyers who contact me just want a sympathetic ear to listen to them. This is especially true of lawyers in small towns, where the last thing a lawyer would want to do is ask a competitor for advice (and expose his or her own weaknesses). I learned early on that many of the lawyers who contact me just want to hear another person confirm what they are already thinking. Or they just want to be sure they haven’t “missed something.” They want to know that they aren’t alone out there, that there is someone they can go to when they need help.
Since becoming a PMA, I’ve noticed some surprising things. One is that the women lawyers who contact me usually have a support network of friends and colleagues they regularly ask for advice. Women lawyers are more likely to approach me with a very specific need. The biggest surprise to me (all kidding about men not wanting to ask for directions aside) is that men are a lot better at asking for help than I would have thought. Their questions tend to be far broader, leading me to think that maybe they aren’t as likely to seek help from their friends or colleagues.
Technology advice. By far, most of the questions I’m asked concern technology. This is partly because I tend to focus on technology in my articles and e-newsletter tips. But a large part of it seems to be that lawyers in small firms don’t have good technology resources. While the lawyers in the big firms have skilled computer technologists on hire, lawyers in small firms are likely to be relying on their secretary’s teenage son, “who is quite good with computers, really!”
An attorney starting a new solo practice in South Carolina recently contacted me because she “wasn’t normally a very technologically savvy person,” and she wanted specific advice on what to purchase for her new office. As she put it, “I just want to turn on my computer and have all the stuff work.” A year later, she thanked me for being a “midwife of sorts” to the birth of her practice.
I spend a lot of time talking to lawyers about their technology needs. I also spend a lot of time reviewing new technology, talking to software vendors, and taking it out for a test drive myself whenever pos-sible. One recurring problem faced by lawyers in small practices is finding reliable technicians to work on their computers. When lawyers tell me that their firm has a “computer guy” with whom they are happy, I now ask for the computer guy’s name and number. While I steer clear of making actual recommendations about products or services, I don’t have a problem passing along that kind of information to an attorney who needs it.
It Sounds Great! How Do I Find Out More?
So, how can you find out if your bar organization has a practice management advisor? Well, you could call them and ask. It’s not always possible to tell by looking at your lawyers’ desk book—perhaps your state bar does not have an official PMA program, but it may have a department that offers similar services. Another option is to look at the Practice Management Advisors’ Page (www.pmapage.org) to see if there is a program in your area.
Lastly, if your state bar is interested in starting a program, the PMA Committee of the ABA Law Practice Management Section has written a planning guide, which can be found at www.abanet.org/barserv/content/pma.pdf.
“Well,” the caller continues, “you’re probably going to laugh—or be horrified—but we’re still using Windows 95 on our computers,” the caller pauses, waiting for a gasp from me. Instead, I say, “I’m not here to judge. I’m here to help.”
I’m a PMA. I’m here to help.
Courtney Kennaday is a practice management advisor for the South Carolina Bar. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.