Change Is Good—When It’s Strategic
By Kevin Chern
The legal profession is changing. You’ve probably heard that phrase, or some version of it, a thousand times over the past couple of years. It’s true, and so is the equally common assertion that those attorneys who understand and embrace the change will have a significant competitive edge in the near future. Too often, though, these exhortations come in the context of a sales pitch and gloss over the “understanding” step. Change is inevitable. New technologies, changing mindsets, and evolving consumer demands are creating new imperatives and new opportunities. But that doesn’t mean that every change is a good one, nor that the wave of the future that attorneys can’t afford to miss includes every new strategy and technology available.
What you really need isn’t just to be aware that changes are coming or to be open to change, but to assess the new opportunities that are available to you now and make realistic decisions about which will save you time, save you money, help you reach a broader client base, allow you to provide better client service, or help you meet other concrete goals for your law practice.
Direct Benefits to Your Law Firm and Your Staff
The most obvious and easily measurable benefits to look for are the direct benefits to your firm: the changes that cut your overhead or reduce the staff time involved in day-to-day operations while maintaining or increasing productivity.
New technology can often increase the efficiency of your practice, freeing up your time and staff time for direct client service, increased marketing activities or just to get you home in time to have dinner with the family. But that’s only true if the technology makes it faster and easier for you and your staff to get the job done. When evaluating new technology, ask questions like:
- Will this allow us to cut back on the number of different processes and programs we’re using and so decrease time required to change gears, transfer information, and otherwise duplicate efforts?
- Is it easy and intuitive for me and my staff, or will we have to invest a significant amount of time in learning and getting used to the system?
- Will it automate or partially automate processes that are currently labor-intensive, like preparing invoices?
Don’t make a decision based on a vague impression that a product could save you time and effort: look at how much time you’re currently investing in those tasks and assess exactly what you can expect to gain.
Making cost comparisons among law practice management products and services can be difficult and confusing, because the variety of offerings available and their rapid evolution means that there are few apples-to-apples situations in your pricing process. With monthly subscriptions, annual updates, add-on charges for tech support, answering services measuring volume differently, and a host of other considerations, you may have to grab a pencil or pop up the calculator on your desktop to figure out what’s truly most cost-effective for your firm. Some things to consider beyond the advertised price include:
- Is the cost one-time or recurring?
- When you make a one-time purchase, is it complete and long-lasting, or will you have to pay for upgrades and tech support to keep the software working smoothly?
- What existing expenses, including labor costs, would the new technology or service allow you to eliminate?
Even after you’ve crunched those numbers, remember to consider the longevity and adaptability of the product and whether or not you’re going to be locked in to a long-term contract or required to make a significant investment up front. One thing that’s certain about the evolution of legal technology and law practice management support is that it’s not complete: make sure you’re investing in solutions that can grow with you or allow you the flexibility to move on as your options expand and your needs change.
Solving an Existing Problem
New technology, services, or processes should solve existing problems for your law firm, whether those problems come in the form of time wasted in day-to-day operations or missed opportunities. Although some of those problems are near-universal, others will be specific to your practice. For example, in some law areas, accessibility can make or break your business. If you’re a criminal defense attorney, many of your callers will have a sense of urgency, and will keep moving down the list making other phone calls if someone doesn’t pick up your telephone immediately. And many of those calls may come after hours. In that circumstance, having a remote receptionist answering your telephone 24/7 and interacting with the prospective client in a way that makes him feel like he’s taken a productive step can be critical to keeping new business coming through the door. If you represent primarily financial institutions that keep regular business hours and tend to research and interview attorneys in some depth before making a selection, that instant accessibility may be less important to cultivating new business.
- Do we have a problem this technology or service can solve?
- Could this technology or service solve a problem we haven’t been aware of, but that is slowing us down or hindering our growth?
- Is this product or service the best and most cost-effective way to solve that problem?
Benefits to Your Firm Through Benefits to Your Clients
Technology can help expand your client base in many ways: it offers new options for marketing your practice, allows you to provide certain types of services across a larger geographical area, and provides opportunities for improved client service that will set your law firm apart and encourage repeat business/referrals and more. Again, it’s important to assess your options in terms of what will benefit your practice and your client base, not just what generally sounds like a good development. Taking advantage of new opportunities to expand your client base and stay ahead of the competition means understanding the needs of your client base, both stated and unstated.
Building Your Client Base
Evolving legal practice management can help you grow your client base in three key ways: reach more prospective clients, increase the range of clients you’re able to serve, and provide something extra that draws repeat business and referrals.
New methods of reaching potential clients might include Internet marketing options, using social media, offering webinars and ebooks, or any of many other emerging marketing strategies. Expanding your prospective client base might involve creating flexible options that are workable for a wider range of consumers; for example, if you frequently get calls from prospective clients who are willing to pay for your services but can’t afford full representation, you might increase revenues by offering unbundled services to expand your client base into that sector. Ask questions like:
- Will this help me reach an untapped sector of my existing market, and do so cost-effectively?
- Will this help me serve clients who aren’t currently part of my market in a way that’s profitable for my firm?
- What kind of return on investment can I expect and how will I measure it?
Improving Client Service
Improving client service is good for your clients and probably makes your day-to-day interactions more pleasant and your work day less stressful, but it’s also a means of increasing repeat and word of mouth business. For example, if your clients often complain that they don’t know what’s going on with their cases, a web-based portal that allows you to share case documents and updates with clients as they’re entered might help you solve that problem without investing additional staff time in helping clients feel better attended to. Ask yourself:
- Will this change address a concern clients have voiced?
- Will this solution make the client’s experience smoother and more pleasant, make him feel more in the loop, or otherwise improve his overall interactions with our law firm?
- Will it make those improvements in a way that’s time-efficient for me and my staff?
Be sure you don’t limit your analysis to those issues your clients have raised in the past; there are many ways in which you can improve client service and the overall client experience that may not even be on their radar—and if you can solve the problem before they ever perceive it, all the better!
Technology, changing consumer demands, economic realities, and other factors are changing the legal profession, and those who warn that attorneys who don’t get ahead of the curve will find themselves left in the dust are correct. Just remember that getting ahead of the curve means plotting out your direction and making educated decisions, not simply embracing every new possibility that arises.
Kevin Chern is president of Total Attorneys, a leading provider of marketing and practice management services to small law firms, serving solo attorneys and small law firms nationwide. Previously he was managing partner of the country’s largest consumer bankruptcy law firm. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, websites, and blogs, and he frequently speaks about legal technology and marketing across the country. For more tips on how you can market your law firm, check out his blog.
© Copyright 2011, American Bar Association.