A revolutionary new trend is happening in the legal profession that goes beyond the traditional partnership model of law firm governance involving sole practitioner at the forefront. It’s not uncommon these days to find a solo owner of a small law firm seeking to build his or her organization without a partner. More and more lawyers are finding that solo ownership has its benefits, and with the right help, can result in a highly successful and profitable firm.
The foundation of most traditional law firms was built on the premise that “two heads are better than one,” or in most cases, “several heads are better than one” leading most attorneys to partner with another attorney of equal stature to build a firm. Some of this may be built out of fear as most attorneys are schooled solely on how to practice law and seldom receive any training towards managing a business. Instincts in most cases would dictate that it’s better to find someone to share the burden and the responsibilities with and someone to bounce ideas off of. But with the right business mindset, a deployed staff and the ability to delegate the management of day-to-day operations, being a solo owner can be a wise choice.
The biggest challenge facing a solo owner is the constant need to develop innovative ways to streamline productivity and improve the firm’s bottom-line, while at the same time, maintaining a proactive leadership role in the firm. This can sometimes be a daunting task for even the most organized and focused leaders. To help keep things in check many sole business owners seek advice from an outside source to help reel in any dangling management issues that can get lost in the day to day shuffle. Often referred to as coaching, this strategy has helped firms gain objectivity and ultimately improved productivity, profitability and organizational focus.
Law firms rely on coaching to help steer the firm so that, in this case, the solo proprietor can focus on practicing law. Juggling between clients and playing the dual role of practicing attorney and managing attorney is a difficult task and having someone else to help steer the firm has proven helpful for many solo owners. Gaining a different perspective from an outside source, or a coach, helps keep the business running in a straight line and helps keep them from getting caught up in the day to day operations of the office.
One example is Karl Truman Law Offices based in Jeffersonville, Indiana and Louisville, Kentucky. Karl Truman has been working with a professional law firm management consulting firm for the past two years. The law firm was established 14 years ago, specializing in plaintiff personal injury cases, and has grown through innovative thinking and a proactive approach to client service, marketing and the implementation of technology. Karl Truman, sole proprietor of the firm, took the first step of seeking assistance when he felt the need to re-evaluate the structure of his firm. While things were going great and the firm had already been using innovative management strategies, Mr. Truman felt the need to seek an objective opinion towards the direction the firm had taken over the course of the years and to help plan for the future.
At the time, the firm was made up of Mr. Truman, one other attorney, three case managers and a couple staff members. “I felt a need to seek outside assistance of a law firm practice management consultant to evaluate the organizational work flow of the firm to assess how the duties and responsibilities of my staff, and myself, had been allocated. While office operations seemed to be in order from an internal perspective, seeking the advice of a management consultant has proven to help smooth out any bumps in the system,” said Mr. Truman.
In August of 2000, Mr. Truman met with Dr. John W. Olmstead, Jr., a legal-management consultant based in St. Louis, Missouri, to establish a consulting/coaching relationship. Since then, the two have maintained a monthly schedule of coaching sessions that have allowed Dr. Olmstead to virtually become part of Mr. Truman’s firm. Together they have undergone a management review of the firm and developed a series of business strategies designed to help guide the firm towards a set of identified and established goals.
In the early stages of the relationship Dr. Olmstead conducted a management review which entailed two full days of interviews with Mr. Truman and staff, an on-site evaluation of the office infrastructure and a comprehensive review of all management and operational aspects of the firm. What he found was a strong sense of loyalty and respect among staff towards Mr. Truman but unclarified goals for the future of the firm.
Based on his findings, Dr. Olmstead established a list of the firm’s strengths and weaknesses and presented an overall review of the firm’s management model. The management review revealed many things to Dr. Olmstead that has helped him in steering the firm toward increased profitability and better communication. “When I initially met with Mr. Truman and his staff, there were many mixed feelings about the direction of the firm. I got a sense that Mr. Truman was trying to do too much and not delegating tasks that could be passed on to staff members” said Dr. Olmstead. “My first instinct was to develop job descriptions outlining duties and responsibilities of the office staff so everyone would be clear on his or her duties and responsibilities.”
Following the presentation of the management review and integrated business plan, Dr. Olmstead began to model coaching sessions around the “needs” and “wants” of the firm.
Initially, Dr. Olmstead and Mr. Truman conducted bi-monthly coaching sessions where they would conference by telephone to discuss the status of the firm and work towards establishing a home base for any unsolved or newly established issues. Each session involved identifying a list of action items for both Mr. Truman and Dr. Olmstead to accomplish prior to the next conference call. Today, most of the initial recommendations have been implemented and the coaching sessions occur only once a month as a way to keep up with monthly activity reports and to assess the success of the implemented programs. By staying front and center, the coach is able to keep the coachee focused and motivated.
“I found having someone to provide me with deadlines and action items for office related issues helped me not only stay better organized but also helped streamline my own productivity,” said Truman. “By the advice of my coach, I outsourced payroll and other financial and administrative responsibilities which gave me more time to be a leader in the firm and concentrate on practicing law.”
Coaching has provided many benefits to Karl Truman Law Offices. One of the main reasons that Mr. Truman decided to seek outside advice was he continually found himself doing too much around the office and was afraid that it was affecting his ability to stay focused. Things such as payroll and administrative accounting are time consuming details that can often times be outsourced or delegated. Through coaching, Mr. Truman was able to restructure the responsibilities within the firm and remain focused on management issues that fall within his areas of newly defined responsibilities.
Marketing is an essential process for practicing law successfully in today’s competitive environment. However, since the process involves numerous sub tasks and requires a long range focus, it is difficult to get started and virtually impossible to accomplish during the typical distracting workday. Karl Truman Law Offices had been utilizing several marketing techniques including billboards, yellow pages, direct mail, radio and print ads. The firm also proactively sought to improve service and implement new strategies by undergoing market-focused client surveys, which is a very effective marketing tool underutilized by most firms.
Since working with a coach, Karl Truman Law Offices have established new leadership, increased productivity of its employees and practicing attorneys, increased revenues and improved communication within the firm and with clients. The firm now has two practicing attorney in addition to Mr. Truman and nine employees. Each employee has established an understanding of their own tasks and responsibilities as well as a broadened appreciation of client and attorney relationships. Sometimes it only takes a different perspective of someone like a professional coach to shed light on ways to improve or enhance a law firm. By implementing a forward mindset, employing the advice of a coach and mentor, applying technology to mainstream day-to-day operations and taking a proactive approach at marketing, Karl Truman Law Offices have developed a guidepost for navigating its way through the 21st century.
Laura Leckrone is Senior Account Executive for the Hauser Group, Inc., based in St. Louis, Missouri. Laura@hausergrouppr.com
John W. Olmstead, Jr., MBA, Ph.D. is a Certified Professional Consultant to Management and the president of Olmstead & Associates, Legal Management Consultants, based in St. Louis, Missouri. The firm provides organizational performance, management, leadership development and marketing advisory services to law and other professional service firms. Dr. Olmstead is the Editor-in-Chief of “The Lawyers Competitive Edge: The Journal of Law Office Economics and Management,” published by West Group. He also serves as a member of the Legal Marketing Association (LMA) Research Committee. Dr. Olmstead may be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional articles and information is available at the firm’s web site: www.olmsteadassoc.com