Management Assistance Program
Planning the Year Ahead: Being Nice as a Strategy
By Jim Calloway
Rarely can I write something believing 100% of readers will enthusiastically agree. But we are all done with 2020. It is time for a new year.
Some lawyers have practices that hum in December, often trying to close deals before the end of the year. Others tend to have things slow down as clients either focus on the holidays or decide they shouldn’t open a new legal front until the new year. Partners in law firms want everyone to continue billable activities and finish the year financially strong. But partners also focus on collecting receivables. If the legal fees are a deductible business expense to the client, a lawyer would be almost negligent not to point out that paying the firm’s bill in full this year lets the client deduct the expense this year, right? Holiday giving and celebrating drives much economic activity in December. It’s not as if people give gift certificates for pre-paid legal services.
This year New Year’s Eve falls on a Thursday. Many years ago, I learned some larger law firms have a special practice when New Year’s Eve falls on a Saturday. They dispatch a few from the accounting department, often the CFO, to scan the Saturday mail for checks from clients. They deposit those and apply the firm’s partnership formula to generate and mail additional partnership bonus checks. Depending on the haul from the mail, these checks can be somewhat small, but they represent additional firm profit earned during the calendar year – even though the partners will not receive them in the mail until the new year. Solos and those in smaller law firms operating under a cash basis for tax purposes would be more likely to let the money sit in the mailbox over the holiday weekend and let that be the first revenue of the new year. Note: this is not tax advice to the reader, just reporting on my observations.
December is a traditional time to plan and focus on the next year. That is a more challenging endeavor this year with more uncertainly ahead to begin the year. Today we urge lawyers to be more data-driven and look at their past performance, and yet, 2020 has been an atypical year – to understate the case. Firms should make revenue and expense projections, but there are many uncertainties ahead.
While there are undoubtedly many things your firm could focus on to improve in 2021, I will suggest something a little different in this article. Let’s talk about doing some nice things that make good business sense.
Almost every negative adjective I have in my writer’s toolbox could be attached to the year 2020. So many people are frustrated, tired, angry, depressed and experiencing many other challenges. For the next 60 days, including the holiday season, I suggest your law firm focus on being nice, kind and sympathetic, particularly to those who matter the most for your firm’s success. Many firms are already doing this, but it doesn’t hurt to intentionally make an extra effort.
Every law firm is different. But most would acknowledge some part of their success is due to three groups of people: clients, referral sources and staff.
Most of your days are spent attempting to serve and satisfy your clients. What would be something nice and “special” you could do that the clients would notice? Some law firms are setting up “client only” online document repositories. These could be accessible to every client with an ongoing matter with the firm and those who have concluded a matter within the last six months.
The contents of the repository could include papers written by lawyers in the firm about common legal questions and issues. Legal self-help forms could be included. I understand many lawyers reading this will immediately think of potential liability and conclude they would never give a client a form to use themselves. First, I see negligible risk in posting statutory forms in a more convenient location for your clients as opposed to them searching across the internet (you do need to calendar to check the form periodically to make certain it hasn’t been updated). I also see limited risk in posting some other self-help forms with your client and your client repository. One can use disclaimers and explanations to limit potential liability, including such blunt language as, “If you fill this out on your own, you’re on your own. If you’d like us to help you, contact us.” I must note a client of the law firm who consciously decided to do something themselves using a form instead of consulting their lawyers may not be the most attractive plaintiff, but a discussion with your professional liability carrier may also be in order. That is just one idea. There are many extras one could do for clients. The reason I mentioned this kind of client portal is it is low impact on the lawyer’s time after it is set up.
Even if your style is old school, like printing the law firm name and address on 2021 calendars to give away or sending fruit baskets to clients, you will never have a better opportunity to do something nice for your clients during a time when they may really appreciate it.
If social distancing has meant you have not stopped by a referral source’s place of business to chat or taken them out to lunch recently, now is the time to think about doing something “special” for those individuals who regularly send you referrals. This might be an appropriate gift, or it might just be catching up on a phone call with someone you used to talk to more frequently.
If your firm represents small businesses, have you thought of putting on your own “seminar” for them? Small businesses are still coping with many COVID-related challenges. You might schedule a briefing. It is also relatively simple now to record a video (with retakes if necessary), review it, post it and send out a link to a Special End-of-Year Briefing from Smith & Smith Law Firm.
Referrals have always been important for a healthy law practice. Even in a time where an increasing number of potential clients are turning to the internet to search for a lawyer, good referral sources are more important than ever before in my judgment. When a potential client gets your name from someone they trust, the confidence level they approach you with is much higher. Not only should you try to contact your referral sources and do something nice for them during the next few months, but calendar regular outreaches during the next year. Another item for next year is considering how to expand your referral sources. That planning will differ greatly depending on the firm, its location and practice areas.
If you have great people on your team, your professional life is easier. I’m sure most readers appreciate that and express their appreciation to those who work for them how important they are to the law firm’s success. They are experiencing a challenging year just like everyone else.
The end of the year is a traditional time for gifts or bonuses to staff. If one of your holiday traditions is an office holiday party or staff luncheon, you may consider whether this year is one where a cash bonus is more appreciated and appropriate. In smaller law firms, lawyers tend to work with all others in the firm frequently. Larger law firms operate differently. But in a time of uncertainty, every signal their efforts are appreciated and their employment is secure will be appreciated.
I still urge smaller law firms to consider using a virtual reception service, at least for a few hours a week. If your phones are being answered at lunch by a person, you have an advantage over those firms that put an answering machine on during lunch. This is particularly true if you have given the virtual reception service your schedule and empowered them to schedule appointments for prospective clients on certain types of matters. But some days, it is good to let everyone take an hour, free from telephone interruptions, to complete a project. An external virtual receptionist can be a huge asset if an unexpected absence occurs. Your team can be the basis of your success, whether you work in a small law firm or a larger one. Take some time to make sure they know you understand their importance.
There are many other considerations in planning your law practice’s future. Many lawyers know their online marketing needs to be improved. As an ongoing business concern, revenues and profitability are always a critical matter. I talk with many lawyers each week about proposed technology upgrades and workflow improvements. But it is always good to be nice, and doing some “extra” nice things for those important to your future success is a good business practice as well.
Mr. Calloway is OBA Management Assistance Program director. Need a quick answer to a tech problem or help solving a management dilemma? Contact him at 405-416-7008, 800-522-8060, jimcatokbar.org. It’s a free member benefit.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal — December, 2020 — Vol. 91, No. 10