Management Assistance Program on www.OKbar.org

Planning for 2013

By Jim Calloway

Hopefully at some point during the last few months of 2012, the lawyers in your firm had a meeting or a series of meetings to discuss what your plans are for 2013. In larger firms most of the planning may have been done by a management team working with the firm administrator. But at some point, there was likely a meeting with, or communication to, all of the lawyers. After all, it makes little sense to have a game plan and not communicate it with the actual players on the field.

The lawyer in solo practice can call a meeting where he or she is the only attendee at most any time, and lawyers in a two- or three-lawyer firm often feel they are in constant communication and do not need a planning meeting.

But if you have not had your law firm 2013 planning retreat, January is still a fine time to do it, even if you only retreat behind a closed office door for a couple of hours. There is still a fair amount of instability overall in legal services and the short-term economic outlook. A law firm or solo lawyer has to hold planning meetings for the same reason that the successful lawyer keeps a daily “to do” list: you do not want to forget anything, and you have to set priorities.

So schedule some time for your planning meeting now, and even if you had one in December, maybe a follow up meeting is good.

To have an effective meeting, you must have an agenda. Your firm will have its own special challenges and issues on the agenda. But any law practice faces many similar issues.

Here are some items you might consider for your agenda:

FINANCES AND BUDGET

By sometime in January, you should have preliminary, if not final, financial numbers for 2012. Bonuses and partner’s final draws have all been decided. Now is a good time to look at what the numbers tell you. What did 2012 look like as compared to the last few years? Steady revenue growth is the goal, and huge revenue growth is the dream. But whether the numbers have positive or negative news, the most important analysis is about what is different this past year and what, if anything, should be done in response to that.

If your law firm does not produce sufficient financial reports for you to do analysis and make future decisions based on the data, you have established a new priority for 2013 — improving your financial reporting tools.

A law firm also needs a budget for the year. If the practice has just opened, that may be challenging, but even educated guesses are better than nothing. You can see how accurate your guesses are as the year proceeds.

As I tell the attendees at the Opening Your Law Practice programs, a budget is great if only to remind you that you allocated $75 a month for marketing when the Yellow Pages salesman hands you that agreement for $500 per month.

CLIENT DEVELOPMENT AND CLIENT RETENTION

Many lawyers hate the idea of marketing. So call it client development if that sounds better to you. Some fortunate lawyers with established practices say that they do not spend any time or effort on marketing. But many of these are actually natural marketers who develop business almost unconsciously. Most lawyers and law firms should spend about 5 percent of their time developing new potential clients and working to maintain some level of contact with past clients. This varies depending on what type of law practice you have and where your best clients come from. For some, it may be making the effort to attend county bar meetings and other lawyer gatherings because you mainly rely on referral from other lawyers. Others may use additional efforts. But every month, some effort should be spent on reaching out to future clients.

Clearly, that physical Yellow Pages directory delivered for free to every home will not be around forever. Every lawyer and every law firm should have an Internet presence. For most, this means a website with a domain name that belongs to the firm. Every lawyer may not have time or inclination to spend a lot of time marketing their practices through social media. But every lawyer wants someone who is trying to locate them to be able to do so by searching Google. If you have a poor or no website, that is a great project for 2013.

Do you reach out to former clients at least once a year? How do you do that effectively? Former clients may need future legal services and may also refer you new business.

OPERATIONS

Lawyers and law firm staff are often intensely busy. But the beginning of a new year is the perfect time to reassess how efficiently you operate. Where are the bottlenecks? What problems are encountered over and over? Ask your staff for their candid feedback and suggestions. Make certain they understand that you want them to speak freely because a lot of the bottlenecks may be related to how the lawyers handle things.

Do not try to change everything at once. Make a few changes and see if things improve. Even small law firms need to standardize their processes. With rare exceptions, the idea that two lawyers in the same firm should handle the same things in very different manners has to come to an end. Some of the most frustrated law firm staff I have ever talked with are those who have to set up new client files differently depending on which lawyer’s file it is. Those lawyers have to agree on a process that everyone can use.

TECHNOLOGY

I recall years ago when some lawyers viewed computers as something for the staff to use, but not lawyers. Now almost every lawyer has a computer at his or her desk. But lawyers often feel like they do not have time to learn anything new about technology.

Taking a day off for computer training is not effective for many lawyers or law firm staff. Who has the time? The typical computer class would include much that is never used in a law firm setting. How do you eat an elephant? As the old saying goes, the answer is “one bite at a time.”

Set a goal of having regular half-hour training sessions for everyone and make sure the lawyers all attend as well as staff. Every other month is a good initial goal. Focus on a small skill that everyone can immediately put to use so they retain the new skill. Give a bonus of a small gift card to someone who takes the initiative to put together a short class and teach it.

If your office uses Microsoft Word and does not use QuickParts, here is an idea for an initial training session. Gather everyone together around a nice big monitor and watch my Law Practice Tips YouTube video, “Fun with Microsoft Quick Parts." Then discuss how you can implement this to save time in your law office and develop a plan. The plan may be that staff sets up ten standard QuickParts on each lawyer’s computer (that would actually be used by the lawyer) to save time. This small “bite-sized” project may also help demonstrate the benefits of technology training.

TAKE A DEEP BREATH

It is sometimes hard to think of planning and improvements when there are many deadlines on client matters and client projects to be done.

Scheduling a planning meeting and determining some reasonable priorities is critical. I recall over a decade ago receiving an enthusiastic email from a law professor who had attended one of my programs where using Paste Special – Unformatted was one of the tips I gave. The professor stated that this tip alone may have saved him five to ten hours a week of editing material that was copied from another source.

Wouldn’t you just love to have just an extra two hours each week magically appear?

Mr. Calloway is director of the OBA Management Assistance Program. Need a quick answer to a tech problem or help resolving a management dilemma? Contact him at 405-416-7008, 800-522- 8065 or e-mail. It’s a free member benefit!

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- January 12, 2013 -- Vol. 84, No. 2