Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

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Mar 12, 2006


Lawyer Career Change

Question:

I have been practicing law for ten years and I feel that I am in a rut. I am working for a firm and the relationship is no longer working out for me. I don’t have enough time for my family. My kids are growing up fast and I don’t have enough time to enjoy them. I need to make a change. Where do I start?

Response:

A balanced personal and professional life is becoming more important to everyone. Time is a precious commodity. You should:


  • Develop a personal life plan and career/practice business plan.
  • Develop skills in time and money management.
  • Define what is important to you and define your personal-professional life boundaries.
  • Enjoy life and get involved in activities other than the practice of law.
  • Take charge of your quality of life – it is your responsibility.
  • Obtain training in the business of law.
  • Become entrepreneurial – think like a business man.

    Begin by conducting an inventory of your personal and professional life. Start with your personal life. Identify your personal and family goals. Then move on to your professional and career goals. Develop both a career plan and a business plan for your practice. Some of the decisions that you will have to consider are:

  • Should you go with another firm or start your own practice?
  • Should you work for a large firm or small firm?
  • Should you go to work for a corporate law department or a governmental agency?
  • Do you need additional training or education? Should you get a LLM or a MBA?
  • Where do you want to work?
  • What type of work and working environment will make you passionate about your work?
  • For whom do you want to work? What type of law firm? What type of clients?
  • Do you want to be a partner in a law firm?
  • How much of a balance do you want to maintain between your career and home life?
  • How important is money? How much do you want or have to make?

    Once you have defined your personal and professional goals you can formulate your action plans as to how you will get there and incorporate them into to career/business plan.

    John W. Olmstead, Ph.D, CMC

  • Aug 02, 2004


    Law Firm Brainstorming and Focus Groups

    Question:

    We have a successful practice but need to do a lot of things differently to move to the next level. How can we generate some momentum and ideas?

    Response:

    Why not use a few brainstorming focus groups and do some brainstorming.

    We find that many firms either don’t engage their people or don’t know how to engage their people. Untapped ideas are in the heads of your attorneys and staff. Using brainstorming focus groups and brainstorming techniques can help the firm improve decision making and tap these ideas.

    Brainstorming focus groups are not just another firm or staff meeting.
    A focus group consists of  (1) people with similar characteristics, (2) that provides qualitative data, (3) in a focused discussion, (4) to help understand the topic of interest. 

        Size

        There groups are typically composed of five to ten people, but the size can range from as few as four to as many as twelve. The group must be small enough for everyone to have an opportunity to share insights and yet large enough to provide diversity of perceptions. When the group exceeds a dozen participants, there is a tendency for the group to fragment.

        Purpose

        Brainstorming focus groups aren’t decision making groups or committees. They are used to generate ideas. The actual decisions are made after all the brainstorming focus groups are completed, not in the individual groups. The brainstorming focus groups are used to gain understanding about a topic so decision makers can make more informed choices.

        The Brainstorming Process

        Brainstorming is a technique whereby individuals or groups generate large numbers of ideas or alternatives relating to a decision without evaluating their merits. Listing alternatives without evaluating them encourages group members to generate ideas rather than defend or eliminate existing ideas. Evaluation occurs after a large array of ideas has been generated. Principles for brainstorming include:

        Moderating the Discussion

        Consider using a moderator team: a moderator and a recorder. The moderator is primarily concerned with directing the discussion, keeping the conversation flowing, and taking a few notes. The recorder, on the other hand, takes comprehensive notes, operates the tape recorder, handles the environmental conditions and logistics (refreshments, lightening, seating, etc.), and responds to unexpected interruptions.

        Recording the Discussion

        A recorder should be appointed and all ideas obtained in the brainstorming focus group should be recorded by either tape recorder or written notes. Written notes are essential. Often ideas are initially listed on flip charts and later converted to written notes. The note taking should not interfere with the spontaneous nature of the session. Notes should be as complete as possible.

    John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

    Nov 10, 2003


    Most Important Marketing Activity in Law Firms

    What is the most important marketing activity neglected by law firms?

    Response:

    Maintaining an ongoing relationship with existing clients. It is much easier and cheaper to obtain additional business from existing clients than to recruit new clients. Yet, many law firms take their clients for granted. Whether your clients are individuals with single matters or institutional (business) clients, it is critical to demonstrate to maintain ongoing contact and effectively manage the relationship. Consider:

    John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

    Sep 02, 2003


    When Should a Firm Consider Coaching for Their Attorneys

    Question:

    When should a firm consider coaching for their attorneys?

    Response:

    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

    Aug 31, 2003


    Law Firm Training and Use of Technology

    Question:

    We recently implemented a new computer system and spent a lot of money on initial software training. However, our attorneys and staff must have forgotten everything they learned. It seems that they are only using a fraction of the software’s capabilities.

    Response:

    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, law firms do not give employees time to practice and experiment.

    Research on memory and retention shows that upon completion of a training session, there is a precipitous drop in retention during the first few hours after exposure to the new information. We forget more than 60 percent of the information in less than nine hours. After seven days only 10 percent of the material is retained. Most memory loss occurs very rapidly after learning new information. Your employees can improve their memories by:

  • Engaging in rehearsal/practice.
  • Scheduling distributed practice.
  • Minimizing interference.
  • Engaging in deep mental processing.
  • Emphasizing transfer.
  • Organizing information.

    Skills become automated through practice. The more we perform a set of actions, the more likely we are to link those actions into a complete, fluid movement that we do not have to think about. With enough practice, employees can become fluent in many different physical and mental skills.

    Provide your attorneys and staff with time to practice and experiment. Schedule lunch and learn programs. Provide ongoing training in small bite size chunks relevant to the needs of the firm in a just-in-time fashion.

    John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

  • May 11, 2003


    Are More Law Firms Engaging in Strategic Planning

    Question:

    Are more law firms engaging in strategic planning? Have the results been successful?

    Response:

    According to a recent survey conducted by the Legal Marketing Association (LMA), 59% of the responding law firms (ranging in size from the largest to 45 attorney firms) have formal written strategic plans. Smaller firms have a much lower experience. In our experiences with smaller law firms we are finding that fewer than 15% have formal written strategic plans. I consider success to be achievement of measurable results as evidenced by achievement of the goals and objectives outlined in the plan and actual implementation of action items. Lawyers and law firms seem to do better at planning than they do at implementation. Larger firms usually are more successful in implementation due to availability of management resources, leadership and functional governance. Smaller firms tend to have problems with implementation. In fact, we frequently recommend that a firm address other management issues prior to engaging in strategic planning. If a firm is having problems implementing day-to-day operational decisions the firm will not be effective in implementing strategic planning initiatives.

    John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

    May 11, 2003


    Deployment of Technology in Law Firms

    Question:

    How are law firms doing with deployment of technology? What are your thoughts?

    Response:

     Law firms are spending lots of money and making substantial investments in technology. However, many are simply automating old processes and ways of doing things that no longer make sense. Law firms needs to begin using technology to enable the firm to implement new processes and ways of serving clients. Obsolete practices and procedures should be discarded.

    John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

    May 10, 2003


    Changes That Will Have the Greatest Impact Upon the Legal Profession

    Question:

    What changes do you believe will have the greatest impact upon the legal profession?

    Response:

    The continued impact of the Internet and globalization of business. The Internet is making the world smaller, introducing new markets and competitors, and having a direct impact on what legal services are offered and how they are delivered. Legal services are, and will continue to be provided electronically over the internet. This will cause increased commoditization of some forms of legal services. This technological revolution fueled by the Internet has placed us in the midst of the biggest transformation of civilization since the caveman began bartering. Business is going to change more in the next ten years than in the last fifty. We have become a self-help nation and more self-help legal services are on the horizon. Within ten years the legal profession will be dramatically changed and reinvented. According to Tom Peters, a leading management consultant, only one in ten lawyers (in roles as we now know them) will left standing in ten years. During this period of transformational change it will be imperative that lawyers discard the status quo, embrace change, and define and take charge of their future. Failure to do so will result in the same fate as the medial profession.

    John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

    Nov 13, 2001


    How To Use Current E-Business Websites to Improve Law Firm Profits

    Question:

    How can the new technology help law firms improve profitability?

    Response:

    What Does Your Law Firm Need From the E-Marketplace: More Clients, More Business, More Income?
    Electronic business to business web sites can now offer law firms the opportunity for quicker, cost effective and, more targeted client contacts. They basically do all the marketing and business aspects of client contacts while lawyers are able to do the legal part. They are geared to provide the following:

    Shifting From The Old Legal Business Paradigm to The New Legal E-Market Paradigm
    Everyday we read about or directly experience the rapid changes that occur in law firms, professional careers, and business cycles. Change is occurring more and more quickly! Today you see law firms downsizing, going out of business or merging with other law firms. You also observe professional lawyers experiencing a significant decrease in their income or sometimes leaving the profession and entering other career fields. Therefore, it becomes incumbent upon you to keep abreast of the changes that can critically effect law firm practices.
    Comparing the old legal business paradigm to the new E-Market paradigm brings out the painful and positive realities facing many law firms today. Look at the differences below.

    Factors of Old Legal Business Paradigm Factors of New Legal E-Market Paradigm
    1. Advertise in phone book & other media 1. Web site distributes your services 24/7
    2. Costs of a full time office staff 2. E-Market does much your office work
    3. Have files full of papers 3. Become a more paperless firm
    4. You bill your clients 4. E-Market bills your clients
    5. You collect from your clients 5. E-Market collects from your clients
    6. You deposit money into bank account 6. E-Market electronically transfers funds

    You can quickly see that the old legal business paradigm is more labor intensive and costly to maintain. On the other hand E-Markets are more accountable, productive, reliable, and cost effective. They provide you with more time to practice law and less time managing office problems and costly office staff (not to mention rapid staff turn-over rates and required training). At the very least E-Markets should become a necessary adjunct to your practice because it can require minimal input from you with greater payoff.

    Do You and Your Staff Have The Basic Computer and Internet Skills Necessary to Meet the 21st Century Business Challenge?
    Below is a short assessment of both computer and Internet literacy.

    1. 1. Can you type at least 25 to 35 words a minute?
    2. Do you own or have access to a computer that is at least two years old and has current software for word processing, business charts and graphs, billing software, etc.?
    3. Do you have satisfactory access to the Internet by a phone line, T-1 line or DSL?
    4. Are you satisfied with your current online Internet carrier so you have minimal disruptions when you get online?
    5. Do you have an E-mail address where clients can reach you?
    6. Do you feel comfortable sending E-mails with document attachments to other lawyers and your clients?
    7. Can you open a PDF files using Adobe Acrobat Reader?
    8. Can you zip and unzip files?
    9. Do you have at least several years of experience searching the web for legal information you need?
    10. Are you comfortable asking basic questions about your computer or using the Internet when you are experiencing problems and do not know the solutions?
    11. Can you teach other lawyers or clients how to use a computer?
    12. Can you teach other lawyers or clients how to navigate the web?

    Being computer literate is a necessity today. It is a new skill that must be attained by all professionals in order for them to be fully functional in their jobs and at work. They can be handicapped by not being computer literate and as a result be unable to meet the demands of the E-Markets and business to business relationships.

    New Professional Skills and Competencies Needed By Today's Lawyer
    To maximize and optimize your opportunity as a successful lawyer in a law firm you will need to add these skills to your existing skills.

    What It Takes to Create a Successful Law Firm Practice
    In a few words, it takes…awareness, planning and follow through to begin to expand and improve your law firm. Most human beings talk a good game about being successful, but very few ever succeed. Our society teaches us to talk about ideals, but very few live up to the expectations of our words. Human nature is such that we want and expect the best; we work for mediocrity, and settle for very little. Once we establish old antiquated habits, it becomes extremely difficult to convert to new updated habits; that is because the old habits served us well during a specific time frame, but new habits need to be adopted to serve us during current times.

    Creating and Reinventing a More Successful Law Firm for the 21st Century
    It will take both the understanding of the new business model, and the implementation of current computer technology to be able to use the power of the Internet to your advantage. Below is a list of action plans that you need to address:

    1. Bring in new computers with updated software that can be used by your law firm (some companies are giving their employees, as a benefit, computers for personal use to become familiar and comfortable with them).
    2. Get a provider that you can depend on when you need to get online.
    3. Provide your law firm staff with the training to use the equipment at a maximal level (this usually means 60 to 80 hours of training over a six to twelve month period, and you can also improve employee loyalty and morale).
    4. Check out current web sites for lawyers and law firms that emphasize business to business activities that will suit your law firm's business needs. (A list is provided in the next section of this article).
    5. Most importantly give yourself permission to ask "dumb" questions about computer technology and using the Internet. You will quickly find that many other people are asking the same questions as you.

    A Current List of E-Marketplaces for Your Review Check out the different E-marketplaces listed below. See which ones best fit with your law firm's needs and business plan. These sites are very consumer friendly and willing to answer your questions.

    iBidLaw.com -a web site that plans to go after big-ticket assignments. It is still under construction at the time of this writing.
    eLawForum.com-a global business to business web site where corporations seek outside counsel by posting an RFP. Fee structures, whether fixed, contingency, or hourly, are stipulated by the corporation.
    LegalPath.com-a web site that offers business to business exchange based on corporations seeking outside counsel. It currently focuses on smaller assignments in three areas: work-medical malpractice, insurance defense, and debt collection. Law firms are part of the registry and can gain visibility with prospective clients.
    LegalMatch.com-The web site connects lawyers with people. Lawyers can review cases in their practice area and location and inform desired clients of their professional interest.
    Lawcommerce.com-This web site is an online center for the legal profession to access. You can access forms, checklists, agreements, locate CLE training and research cases.
    Niku.com-This web site helps law firms to become more competitive by exploring the full power of the Internet.
    FirmSeek.com-This web site allows potential clients to submit an RFP and law firms can view these and respond to them. You can do legal research, get legal forms, and look at law firm rankings as well as see professional activities for lawyers.

    Predicting The Future Labor statistics and experience tells us that professionals, including lawyers, will change jobs many times and careers several times in their lifetime. What does this mean for lawyers and law firms? Basically it means that you must constantly reinvent yourself and your law firm to stay abreast of future change.
    Allow us to speculate for a minute about the future. From now till the year 2020 we are able to predict with a certain amount of confidence some of the following changes lawyers may experience in their jobs and careers.

    Possible career changes where you can become a:

    1. teacher, instructor or professor,
    2. businessperson or join a business firm,
    3. legal software developer,
    4. a legal consultant for software,
    5. free lance writer, author, or columnist,
    6. politician.

    Possible job changes:

    1. help others in your law firm to learn financial software,
    2. teach others in the law firm how to effectively use legal software,
    3. develop a web site for your law firm,
    4. compose articles for your web site, or publish them in the law firm newsletter or law firm journals,
    5. train lawyers in your law firm how to improve their use of current technology,
    6. work part time for a business to business web service,
    7. be the main marketing person for your law firm,
    8. develop your law firm's business plan,
    9. become a mentor and coach to others in your law firm,
    10. become an expert in global business to business relationships.

    It becomes quickly evident that E-markets and E-business have a very profound effect on what lawyers will be doing in the future. Practicing law is only one option among many possibilities.

    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 tvenardos@olmsteadassoc.com.

    Nov 13, 2001


    The Organizational Lifeblood for Law Firm Profitability – Active Coordinated Communication

    The Organizational Life Blood for Law Firm Profitability:
    Active Coordinated Communication
    By Dr. Thomas J. Venardos

    A Viable Way to Address Profits in Your Law Firm

    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:

    1. Sharing all information, data, and goals with everyone-both internally and externally.
    2. Being available to answer any questions asked by others.
    3. Informing others, in a totally honest way, that your answers and possible solutions to problems are based on facts and not biases.
    4. Building human trust using your reputation by making ethical decisions.
    5. Using face to face communication as your primary communication method.
    6. Correcting mistaken assumptions quickly.
    7. Overriding mistakes with positive solutions.
    8. Creating a legitimate and visible position for a communicator role at the highest level with total support from senior partners and staff.

    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:

    1. Find someone in the firm, or hire someone, who is very comfortable with expressing themselves in written and spoken fashion.
    2. They should demonstrate clear, effective writing skills.
    3. They should be competent on the computer and with the Internet.
    4. Your clients and others in the firm should think highly of them.
    5. Involve a person who is very familiar with new technology and who is good at learning and using it, because they will have a different way of thinking that can benefit your law firm.
    6. They must be assertive and speak up when they are challenged.
    7. They need to be able to measure all the results of active communication in the law firm.

    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 tvenardos@olmsteadassoc.com.

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