5 no-nos for small-firm owners

Lawyers are all too familiar with the daily to-do list. Unfortunately, what frequently happens is that matters not on the list sneak in and end up reordering these important tasks, wrote Frank T. Lockwood, author of “Run Your Firm Like a Business,” in a recent issue of GPSolo magazine. To combat this behavior, here is a “to don’t” list from Lockwood, who practiced law for 30 years and retired at age 57.

  1. Don’t answer the phone.

    The fastest way to lose control of your schedule is to answer the phone every time it rings, Lockwood said. Some lawyers believe that answering the phone avoids stacking up the callbacks you’ll have to do anyway, but that is simply not true.

    All calls to a firm fall into one of three categories, and how each call is handled depends on the category:

    · Calls regarding current cases
    · Calls from prospective clients
    · Miscellaneous calls, such as salespeople or friends

    Most calls regarding current cases are status calls and can be handled by an administrative assistant or paralegal. If the subject of the call is beyond the capability of the paralegal, he or she can take a message or refer the call to your voicemail and assure the client that you will return the call as soon as you can.

    Calls from prospective clients can be of indeterminate length and may drag you into the abyss of free legal advice (see No. 2) or result in you being too abrupt to satisfy the caller. The better approach is to have a trained assistant answer all calls and be prepared to ask the caller a few key questions, the answers to which will either qualify or disqualify the caller from consideration as a potential client. These questions should be designed to determine whether the case fits into your firm’s work profile, and if it does, the assistant may set up the prospective client with an appointment to see an attorney.

    An administrative assistant can also handle miscellaneous calls, and personal calls can go to your smartphone number.

  2. Don’t give free legal advice.

    Lawyers should always charge for the first consultation and communicate that to the prospective client in advance, including how much that charge will be. Acceptance of the consultation fee “qualifies” the prospective client and moves him or her one step closer to becoming a firm client. A prospective client who fails to recognize the value of an attorney’s services, or who can’t afford to pay for the initial appointment, has just disqualified himself from being a client of your firm. This little extra step before you rush into an attorney-client relationship may save you a great deal of time and money dissolving an unproductive relationship later on. Conversely, the prospective client who recognizes that good attorney service has value and is willing to pay for that value is the type of client you want for your firm.

  3. Don’t call clients to collect money.

    The attorney or firm owner should be the last person to call the client to try to collect fees. As an attorney who cares about his clients, you may too easily empathize with their financial woes and accept almost any excuse for not keeping the account current. You are too close to the clients and unable to exercise objectivity in attempting to simply support the clients in keeping their agreements.

    An employee skilled in talking to clients should be scheduled to discuss balances owed at various times each month. This should be as organized and consistent as sending out the monthly invoices. The employee should be prepared to answer the client’s questions, whether financial or case-specific, before any decisions or feedback from the attorney is needed.

  4. Don’t pay your bills late.

    Your office manager or administrative assistant should have your bills scheduled on the calendar and automated each month. Paying bills on time can give you a great deal of leverage in your dealings with vendors, landlords or anyone else you pay on a regular basis. At times when you need extraordinary service or favors, you will usually find yourself on the top of their priority list of customers.  
  5. Don’t be too accessible.

    Should you be accessible to your hardworking staff? Yes, but not always. Much like the college professor who has office hours, the small-firm owner should do everything possible to exert control over his or her schedule. Letting the staff know that you are not to be disturbed when working on a case is critical to efficient workflow and billing. Closing your office door is a good start. Emergencies notwithstanding, you should communicate when you are available for walk-in communication and when you are not. If you don’t control your schedule, it (or others) will control you.

For five more things a small-firm owner should never do, see the full GPSolo article.

GPSolo magazine is a publication of the ABA Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.