My partner and I just started our firm two years ago. We have one associate attorney and one staff member. As we grow our firm what should we keep in mind so we don't repeat some of the mistakes that I have seen in other firms that have not been successful?
I often refer to what I call the Basic Building Blocks of Successful Law Firms which are:
Lets take the first one – Partner Relations. This is the foundation (bedrock) of a successful firm. A successful firm has a healthy partner culture – a good marriage. In such a culture partners share common vision and purpose, respect one another, shoot straight with each other, and have difficult conversations and discussions when needed and deal with issues and problems. In many firms this is not the case and these firms often are characterized by the following:
Such firms are often doomed from the start. Firms that don't get this foundational building block right will build a firm on a shaky foundation. Before forming a partnership – go slow and get to know the other lawyer or lawyers and insure that the marriage makes sense, that you share similar goals and values, that you will be compatible, and you will be good partners. Once you have made the commitment – communicate, communicate, communicate and deal with issues in real time.
I will address each of the other building blocks in upcoming postings.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
I am a partner in a 14 attorney firm. Our bookkeeper has been with us for 20 years. We have a time and billing system, a separate bookkeeping system, and a separate database for clients, and something else for trust accounting. The other partners and myself do not know the name of the software that we are using, don't know how to access the software, and we have to ask the bookkeeper for any financial information that we require. We feel like "hostages". She gets offended when we ask questions. When we do receive information we don't know how to read or interpret much of the information. How can we get control of our firm back?
It is imperative that owners and partners in a law firm have access to financial information on a timely basis, understand the information, and use the information in a proactive way to manage the practice. We suggest:
The owner (or an appointed partner(s) in larger firms) obtain detailed training on the accounting software system(s) along side the bookkeeper when the system is implemented. In addition to general operation of the software, special training should also be obtained on intepretation and use of the management reports.
In your current situation – this may be a good time to consider upgrading your system and at that time obtain training on the new system, review the roles of all parties, and current procedures.
Insure that you have accounting controls in place and appropriate segregation of accounting duties.
Outline your expectations and requirements of the bookkeeper, meet with her/him, and communicate appropriately.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
We are a 17 attorney IP firm in the Southwest and I am the managing partner. We are having a lot of problems with poor attitude in the office, inadequate production, employee turnover, and we have recently lost a few key institutional clients. I believe that the core of our problem may be poor communication skills on the part of our attorneys? What recommendations do you have?
Poor interpersonal communications is often the root cause of many of the management problems that arise in law firms. Here are a few ideas for improving interpersonal communication skills:
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
How large should a firm be when it is time to hire an administrator?
There is no magic size. We just completed an engagement recruiting an administrator for a seven attorney firm. We also have law firm clients with over 40 attorneys that don’t have an administrator. I believe that an administrator, or office manager, is appropriate in firms of all sizes. It is a matter of attitude and commitment on the part of the partners and whether they are willing to delegate responsibility and authority to an administrator to run the day-to-day operations of the firm. The firm should start with a job description and then decide whether the firm is willing to delegate responsibility and authority. If not, the firm should not hire an administrator.
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
We are often asked about skill requirements for office managers/bookkeepers in small law firms. (Six attorney and under firms) Many law firms in the six attorney and under size have shared with us their frustration in staffing the billing and accounting function. Often their investment in computerized billing and accounting systems fails to yield desired results due to poor accounting and management skills. Many small law firms assume that legal secretaries also have requisite accounting and management skills. Our experience has been that often this is not the case. Training, skills, and work behaviors are often different. Bookkeepers/accountants and secretaries are different animals. Many small firms are better off creating a accounting/bookkeeping position and staffing the position with a qualified bookkeeper/accountant. For many firms under six attorneys that have fully automated the billing and accounting function and have distributed time entry, this is not a full time position. In such instances many firms have either recruited a part-time bookkeeper/accountant solely for the accounting function or have created a combined position of office manager/bookkeeper. This justified a full-time position. Look for the following skills when evaluating candidates. Professional training in bookkeeping and accounting fundamentals as well as management principles.
Question: I am the managing partner in a three attorney firm and am having problems with office staff members getting along. Office conflict is rampant. Any suggestions?
Response: You must begin by identifying some of the causes. Poor communications often can be the root cause of such problems. Interview each of your staff members individually and probe. What do they think? Is communications a problem? Are roles, duties, and responsibilities clarified? Lack of clarity can in these areas can lead to turf wars. You may want to design job descriptions for each employee and clarify roles, duties, and responsibilities for each employee. Conduct short weekly staff meetings to enhance communications. Use agendas. Take minutes of the meetings. Advise everyone of your expectations including all members working together as team members. Let them know that working together as a team is a performance factor that will be considered in performance evaluations and reviews. Conduct periodic performance reviews. Counsel and take action against problem employees. John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
Question: If a law firm could select only one area for future investment, where would you recommend that such investment be made?
Response: In their people – their intellectual capital. I am amazed at the minimal investment that law firms make in their staff. Law firms are in the knowledge business and their product is their intellectual knowledge. While law firms do invest in their attorneys, such is not the case with the staff. Although staff members are often on the front lines in dealing with clients, very few law firms are providing them with skill training in areas such as communication, marketing, client service, conflict management, effective writing and speaking, time management, computer applications, client complaint management, etc. By the way, attorneys need training in these areas as well. Why do law firms hire the cheapest talent they can find to fill the receptionist position when it is the receptionist who often has the initial contact with a new client. I find it amazing that firms spend huge amounts of money on advertising and marketing and they fail to invest in the other tools needed for effective new client intake. Small firms should consider assigning their receptionist the role of marketing coordinator with responsibility for assisting in the management of client relationships and the firm’s marketing program.
Question: I am a new administrator with my firm. I am also the first administrator that the firm has had. Do you have any suggestions as to where I should start? What are my priorities?
Response: As a first administrator you will face a dual challenge. You will have to justify the new position as well as yourself and your performance. You will be second guessed and partners will from time to time question whether a legal administrator was necessary or wise. There will be problems with role clarification. Suggest that you insist on a job description for yourself and a governance plan that outlines the authority and responsibility of the administrator, the managing partner, the executive committee, and the partnership. This will set the boundaries. On your first day at work suggest that you start by meeting with all of the personnel. Meet individually with the partners and associates and get to know them, their desires and hidden agendas. Initially conduct a get acquainted meeting with the staff and then meet with each staff member individually. Discuss their jobs and their duties. Ask for suggestions. Work with the bookkeeper and get up on the accounting operations as quick as you can. Learn the office computer system. Initially your two biggest priorities will usually be personnel and accounting. Read the minutes of firm meetings and office administrative files. If you are weak in accounting and computers obtain whatever additional training that is required. Join the Association of Legal Administrators and attend their meetings and conferences. Our firm provides skill transfer coaching and provides materials for new legal administrators as well.
When should a firm consider coaching for their attorneys?
The day to day stress of practicing law and serving clients leaves little time for focusing and investing in the future of the firm. When attorneys exhibit the following it may be time for a coach:
Training and skill development is not easy. Studies reveal that 90 percent of the people who attend seminars and training sessions see no improvement because they don't take the time to implement what they learn. Practices create habits and habits determine your future. Up to 90 percent of our normal behavior is based on habits. The key to skill learning is to get the new skill to become a habit. Once the new habit is well developed it becomes your new normal behavior. This requires practice. Unfortunately, attorneys do not have time to practice and experiment.
The coach's role is that of steward, facilitative leader and teacher. Law firms retain coaches to work with attorneys and staff, mostly on a personal level, to address problems involving lack of commitment, inertia, implementation, self-accountability and follow-up. Firms using coaching in many areas:
John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
A new generation of law firm lawyers need new tools to maximize profitability. These tools combine the marketing of the law firm services, reinventing the law practice, promoting business to business practices, having improved public relations, creating a new law firm structure, and developing goals that can be very powerful and profitable. The tool that can accomplish this is active coordinated communication.
The Problems That Exist for Law Firms What kind of information should be shared with internal and external clients? Who should receive different levels of information? Should you provide both negative and positive information to clients? Should you tell clients what they want to hear, or should you tell them what they need to hear? These are the basic questions facing management leadership in today’s law firms. This is why there is a need for consistent, up and down the chain of command, simple, active coordinated communication that can help improve profitability.
Basically all communication is “human communication.” This means communication speaks not only to the political structure of the law firm but to the personal and professional side as well. Listen to any conversation between two coworkers or two senior partners and you will hear comments that relate to law firm morale problems, fairness issues, exclusion from decision making, loyalty to the company, profit margins, as well as problems in using current technology.
Minimal communication, miscommunication, and no communication are the main factors that can cause law firms to stagnate. When these factors prevail, effective communication loses its influence. Communication is unable to be coordinated across and between practice group lines or to the clients outside the law firm. This essentially means effective communication is muffled and distorted at all levels. The best solution is to make communication a major priority so that it can be managed effectively and coordinated internally and externally. This takes leadership that is objective and not involved with rumors, willing to grow from mistakes made, and uses personal and professional incentives rather than threats or innuendo attempts to obtain desirable workplace results.
Reinventing the Law Firm Culture Positive change occurs when small steps are taken even though the big goal of reinventing the law firm culture is at stake. It begins with small successes that can be observed and measured and proceeds to a larger feeling of oneness, filled with accomplishments. It builds on itself and becomes important to everyone.
Below is the sequence for positive change:
The Case for Coordinated Internal/External Communication
In reality, lack of communication or confusing communication is a basic problem faced by most staff and professionals. It is the major issue to overcome. Therefore, it would seem natural to assume that the way to correct this is by having the communication enhanced by a member or team of members of the staff while giving it the highest priority in the firm.
Those responsible for communication would in turn be expected to assume the powerful role of sharing all the important and critical information that flows through and out the law firm. In essence they need to have:
Professional Traits Necessary for Enhancing This Kind of Role
In the eyes of those in the law firm a communication department of this stature must have many of the following professional traits: be credible with the public, be believable, have accurate information to share, be timely, have good professional judgment and wisdom, be sensitive to everyone they come in contact with, be accessible, And promote confidentiality. This is a tall order for any one person or group of people. But the result that it yields is greater than the sum of its parts.
The point is this, whenever you communicate law firm information, it concerns human elements. So it is important to represent the issues fairly with people in mind. There needs to be a separation of issues from personalities. Both positive and negative feelings should be taken into account. Finally there should be the realization that there are supporting and opposing opinions and perceptions that create innate conflict and must be dealt with by overcoming any potential human conflict.
Further, when coordinating sensitive information it becomes necessary to speak with one voice, simplify the message, and use a variety of communication tools. Every aspect of human relations should prevail.
Communication Tools for the Twenty First Century
Like newspaper, radio and television were communication tools for the Twentieth Century, so it is that computer technology is the newest tool for the Twenty First Century. Herein lies the potential success of the communicator.
Computer technology can be used for both internal and external communication. It is an efficient tool that has multiple uses: word processing, verbal, visual and auditory e-mail, information gathering and disseminating capabilities, monetary transaction ability, global influence and positioning, business to business relationships, record keeping materials production, creative materials development, distance education and career enhancement potential.
In turn this technology can be used as a mobile office which works best for those professionals on the go and who need to keep in contact with their office and clients. Therefore, active coordinated communication can be implemented nearly all of the time.
The Powerful Effects of Active Coordinated Communications The list below reflects how active coordinated communications can create more profits for law firms provided it is established in a professionally sound manner. It will take creative risks, planned directives, monetary support, time investments, a high learning curve, and innovative adopted business practices.
Creating a New Law Firm Structure: By creating this new active communications structure that oversees both internal and external activities, your law firm should generate a more consistent, meaningful and effective means of generating greater business. This kind of structure could in turn create the loyalty, security and growth your employees are looking for. Law Firm Objectives: These need to be established by all employees of the law firm, and should attempt to promote personal productivity, monetary aspirations, profit sharing, compensation issues, cost cutting measures, marketing strategies, and business practice skills. These shared objectives can then be communicated by everyone. Marketing Law Firm Services: This is a distinct plan for everyone to be involved in because marketing is such an important priority today. Active coordinated communications can enhance this practice via different activities: speaking engagements, newsletters, advertisements, a web site, television appearances, brochures, newspaper and magazine articles and, Internet business to business practices.
Reinventing the Law Firm and Law Practice: There needs to be a focus actively changing the way the law firm does business by establishing flat fees, using non-billable hours to work productively, offering ways to help clients keep costs down and, expanding practices by having other professionals make referrals.
Business to Business Practices: Begin to use legal resources on the Internet that deal with business to business issues like finding your law firm clients, putting out bids, allowing them to bill and collect for your firm, and marketing your firm on the Internet.
Improved Public Relations: Your active communications can lead to better public relations if you control what is said and how it is delivered to others. Your image can become valuable if you work on making it positive and more acceptable to others in the community.
Document, Document, Document: There is a critical need to measure what you are doing so that you can see any progress. This can be done by counting the number of activities each person performs in the law firm, counting increased client contacts and inquiries, reviewing accounts receivable and collections and, identifying cost cutting measures.
Can You Answer These Eight Questions in the Affirmative?
Unless you can answer at least six of these eight questions in the affirmative, there is room for improvement of law firm operations. Positive change begins with admission of the problems and proceeds with workable solutions that are openly discussed among everyone.
Where to Begin:
Active Coordinated Communication and Profitability Increase
The relationship between active coordinated communication and increased profits becomes clearer when hard data is gathered and analyzed. Examples where you may want to gather data are listed below:
The lifeblood of a law firm is how it effectively communicates from within. The sooner this is realized and made a reality, the quicker you will start to generate the results you want.
Dr. Thomas J. Venardos is an adjunct management consultant with Olmstead & Associates, Legal Management Consultants, St. Louis, MO, and President of Venardos Management Group, Organizational Performance Consultants, located in Las Vegas, Nevada. Dr. Venardos may be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.