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Practice Corner: Taking a Look in the Mirror: An End-of-Year Wrap-Up for the Solo or Small Practice

by Daniel DeWoskin, trial attorney
Jill Sheridan, paralegal

A goal without a plan is just a wish. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-1944)

As practicing attorneys with unfathomably busy schedules, we have many such goals that are mere wishes, just aspirations that we have the very best intentions of praying will someday come true. As the year winds down and many of us enjoy the few days when our clients, opposing counsel, and the court staff all for once are not keeping our phone lines jammed, some of us choose to take a very deliberate and analytical approach to what we do operationally in our office. We assess what has worked well for us and may continue to do so, as well as what has not worked so well. We will determine whether or not some of our approaches can be retooled or whether they should simply be scrapped once and for all.

Let’s be honest, we became lawyers so we didn’t have to do business, right? The end-of-year wrap-up certainly seems a lot like business. If you’re a solo practitioner, partner, or part of a small firm, it may be time to face the reality that you are running a business. The business is only as successful as the people who work within it. Planning and evaluating what operational aspects of your office are efficient and effective can be tedious, but so can engaging in practices that worked well a decade (or even three to five years) ago but have since become redundant or otherwise unnecessary.

I realize that I am speaking very generally, but that is because in my discussions with my colleagues, it is apparent that none of us run offices that operate even similarly in most circumstances. Take any given office share with four or five attorneys and I would bet the farm that I can show you differences in software management, case management techniques, client organization, and any other methodology that relates to the practice of law.

Regardless of our individual preferences or those of our respective offices, one fact remains true for almost all of us: we grow accustomed to the ways in which we do things. What is familiar to us is comfortable and allows us to get through our days without fear of trying something that may jam us up or throw any sort of chaos our way. Not a single person among us has that kind of time to spare. So, even if there are better ways or practices, better technology, as attorneys, we will likely wait until our current methods actually do us some harm or cause us some embarrassment before considering new approaches.

What many of us fail to realize, myself included, is just when that harm or embarrassment takes place. I am notorious for being blind to the fact that, given the ceaseless demands for my time, inefficient practices are often as costly to my practice as failing to determine what my needs are in the first place. Most of us who have any participation in the operations of our firm have had to compare pricing for our legal research, our marketing, our case expenses, or any one of a million other such questions. Sure, we get competing bids, but how many of us actually revisit this issue annually to find out whether or not we are paying for things we don’t need? If you are at all like me, this is the sort of thing you will concede is important to do . . . at some point.

Here is what we know, or should know: 2012 is not going to be filled with all the free time to finally tackle these tasks that 2011 just did not provide the time to do. Unless you are considering semi-retirement (whatever that could possibly look like), 2012 will be at least as hectic as 2011 was. In the years when you may have noticed a lull in your practice and profitability, it can almost always be attributed to a failure to properly manage aspects of marketing that otherwise round out the ebb and flow of referrals and client intake. If this statement seems to oversimplify or marginalize how we lawyers operate, just know that you already may be making excuses without looking at the factors at work.

It’s time to be really honest with yourself and your practice. Ask yourself the honest questions:

Do my current practices get me to where I need to go?
Do I know where I want my practice to go?
How can I best get there?

These three questions are a good place to start in brainstorming for the next year. When you sit down to really put some thought into this, make sure you have a pen and paper in front of you and start to think critically about your advertising, your networking, and your marketing. If you believe these are all the same thing, you really have to take a cold, hard look at where you have been investing your time and money.

As it relates to your advertising, have you been asking people how they found you? If you haven’t, how do you know how effective your advertising efforts have been? The answer is that you cannot know without asking. All of the feedback you may get from your SEO technician will likely not address who has found you and ultimately hired you and who has found you and moved on, or perhaps called and then moved on. These efforts take time, but they take less time if you have the right systems in place to gauge the effectiveness of your advertising at the proper time.

This article began with a statement about goals. Networking is an aspect of our practice that ends for most of us just being pie in the sky. We think about it, we talk about it, and none of us ever would call it a waste of time. Yet, so few of us make the effort to network effectively. You may go to local bar association luncheons. You may go to other extralegal meetings for groups in which you are involved. However, if you are like me, it is easy to sit at the same table and never meet a new person at these meetings. It is safe and comfortable. In fact, the first thing I often do at a bar luncheon is to find the familiar faces and catch up. This is not networking.

How can this be addressed? Easy, just pay attention and know when you are failing to make new points of contact. One approach that does not even require a face-to-face encounter is LinkedIn. You could set a goal of 10 new connections per week. Maybe only five. The numbers will work for you if you put in the time, as long as you make sure to add only quality contacts; that is, contacts that will further your business in some way or another.  Don’t just connect with random strangers – find and connect with those people you aspire to send referrals, or from whom you wish to receive referrals. Furthermore, the more regularly you put in the time, the more fruitful your networking activities will prove to be.

This is an area of your business that requires not only periodic analysis, but perhaps even perpetual analysis. What is your “brand”? Do your clients know all of your practice areas? What makes you different? How do your clients perceive your business? How does your office represent you? Once again, this requires diligent communication with clients, other lawyers, and anyone else who comes into contact with your practice. How others view your firm or you as a lawyer involves everything from your choice of business card to how your office answers the telephone.

There are countless ways to consider this issue. You may start by running a Google search on your name or your firm name. See if there is information on the web that you were not aware of and that you can either address or amplify, depending on the quality of the information. You can also speak with others to learn new things about how they view your firm. Very few firms, even the ones that pay large amounts of money to create their brands, will really put in the time and follow-up analysis to determine if the brand created is actually effective and the brand they want.

If none of the things I have addressed in this article apply to you, then you are doing a fantastic job and are well ahead of the curve. If none of this applies to you, you are probably the sort of person who is reading this article just to make sure you have not missed some amazing pointer that could enhance your practice even more. If that is you, I am envious and I wish I was just so enthusiastic. For the rest of us, do not be intimidated by the size of the task. Take it slowly and maybe start by spending 15-20 minutes brainstorming on some of these things.

Finally, I highly recommend reading Michael Gerber’s book, “The E Myth for Attorneys.” It is an excellent book that will give you simple ideas on how to look at your practice as a business, which it is, regardless of our inherent refusal to see it as one. Gerber’s book is very accessible and set up in a way that is not likely to make you feel overwhelmed. I encourage you not to think of these tasks as New Year’s Resolutions for your practice, but instead as new ways to make your worklife better, easier, and less stressful. I wish you the very best for 2012.



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