Management Assistance Program
Reading for Law Practice Management
By Jim Calloway
Lawyers haven’t always begun their careers by enrolling in law school. Before there were many law schools, a period of study under a lawyer or judge (a practice then called “reading the law”) was required, usually followed by an oral exam. The standards for these apprenticeship admissions were occasionally unevenly applied in some states or regions. After 1870, law schools began to emerge, offering a more comprehensive path to becoming a lawyer. Diploma privilege also emerged with graduation from law school, resulting in automatic bar admission in some states. Diploma privilege peaked in the early 1920s, and today only one state, Wisconsin, still has diploma privilege admission.
There’s never been a reading course of study for law practice management. In the 1920s, there were not many operational differences between running a law firm and running an accounting firm or insurance agency. Secretaries typed, filed papers and answered phones. Today’s law firms, however, have many distinct operations. Among these are protecting client confidentiality, checking for conflicts of interest, trust accounting, electronic filing and managing records, updating processes to reflect changes in the law and many others. The Association of Legal Administrators is an important organization for professionals managing law firm operations.
The American Bar Association’s Law Practice Division and other ABA entities publish many books each year on law office management and technology. This month, I’d like to focus on a couple of popular books for lawyers that focus on running a law firm from the client side of the equation.
LAW IS A BUYER’S MARKET
Law is a Buyer’s Market was published by Jordan Furlong, a well-known Canadian law firm consultant, in 2017. Mr. Furlong opens the book by noting that sometimes when the law comes to your door, it is something to celebrate, like a business expansion or the adoption of a new baby. But more often, the law comes to the door as an irritant, like being served with a suit against you. As we all can appreciate, legal troubles and challenges can be profound in nature. Mr. Furlong notes:
From the poorest family to the richest corporation, the impact of the legal system usually disrupts – and frequently shatters – the normal flow of life’s events. It lies heavily on human hearts and looms darkly over business prospects, until such time as the shadow it casts can somehow be resolved and removed. Often, when law comes to the door, it’s a serious complication or a damaging setback, placing people and companies immediately into a deficit position.
A number of lawyers have told me how tough it is to be a seller of legal services these days, and I’m sure they’re right. But on more than one occasion, I’ve felt like responding, “Really? Maybe try being a legal services buyer sometime.” Try being a person or family or business that gets accosted by and dragged into the opaque, arcane, and sometimes ruinous legal system. Because that’s pretty hard, too.
In the best possible circumstances, a legal services buyer pays a lawyer to advance an opportunity or facilitate an investment. But in most other circumstances, buyers pay a lawyer a lot of money to resolve a problem that they don’t fully understand and for which they never asked. The best they can hope for is a return to square one – a restoration to the status quo ante, minus dozens of hours and thousands of dollars. If you’re a lawyer and you’re not fully cognizant of this fact, then you’re missing out on information that can give you not just the empathy to help these buyers, but also the advance warning to prepare for what’s coming our way.¹
The delivery of legal services has traditionally been a seller’s market because rules put in place to protect the public and guide the profession have also limited competition. Mr. Furlong has focused his consulting practice on larger law firms, and these firms were the first to feel the shift from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market. Businesses wanting to reduce their annual legal spend hired more in-house lawyers. Sometimes the general counsel’s office would handle some routine legal work internally and was often tasked by their employer to reduce how much they paid outside law firms annually. So, the corporate client now had experienced negotiators on their side of the equation.
The status quo, understood by all lawyers, was to handle the legal problem perfectly, leaving no proverbial stone unturned to come up with the best legal solution to every problem. As many readers have personally experienced with their business clients, the new focus was on doing the legal work correctly but at a lower cost. Corporate clients also began reducing the number of outside law firms they used. There can’t be a better expression of the change from a seller’s market than a big client dropping outside counsel they had retained for years purely as a cost-saving measure.
I must note that the growth of the internet has also impacted individual consumer clients similarly. While referrals are still important for law firm marketing, people tend to look up things for themselves online – and it’s not just looking for lawyers to hire online. Possible alternative solutions to their problems are also revealed because of their internet searches. Some of these are accurate and many are not, but it’s important for every lawyer to appreciate that when you interview a potential client today, they are not only considering whether you are the proper lawyer to handle their legal matter but also whether some of the nonlawyer solutions they have seen online might serve them better.
Mr. Furlong has made electronic versions of Law is a Buyer’s Market very affordable. The Kindle version is only $2.99. He has also made a free PDF version of the book available for download. If you are a Kindle user, you will likely prefer that format. If you would like to hear some of Mr. Furlong’s thoughts instead of reading them, he was a guest on our Digital Edge podcast Aug. 26, 2021. The topic was “The Rise of Re-Regulation in the Legal Industry.”
THE CLIENT CENTERED LAW FIRM
Several readers are likely familiar with the book The Client Centered Law Firm: How to Succeed in an Experience-Driven World by Clio CEO Jack Newton. Mr. Newton gave a presentation on the subject matter of his book during the virtual 2020 OBA Annual Meeting. That presentation was viewed by over 900 OBA members. The Amazon description of his book sums it up well:
The legal industry has long been risk averse, but when it comes to adapting to the experience-driven world created by companies like Netflix, Uber, and Airbnb, adherence to the old status quo could be the death knell for today’s law firms.
In The Client-Centered Law Firm, legal technology expert Jack Newton offers a clear-eyed and timely look at how providing a client-centered experience and running an efficient, profitable law firm aren’t opposing ideas. With this approach, they drive each other. Covering the what, why, and how of running a client-centered practice, with examples from law firms leading this revolution as well as practical strategies for implementation, The Client-Centered Law Firm is a rallying call to unlock the enormous latent demand in the legal market by providing client-centered experiences, improving internal processes, and raising the bottom line.
The reviews of this book were extremely positive. Let me dispel one myth: You don’t need to be a subscriber to Clio or any other particular technology tool to benefit from this book. It is about people – your clients and potential clients. He weaves data from Clio’s annual legal trends reports with observations from his own experiences as a client and from many legal industry observers to create a compelling narrative. For example, consider his five values of the client-centered law firm. These are:
- Develop deep client empathy,
- Practice attentiveness,
- Generate ease with communication,
- Demand effortless experiences and
- Create clients for life²
I’m certain the last point sounds great to many lawyers who tire of constant marketing efforts. But these values ring true. If you were to hire someone to help you with an important matter, wouldn’t you want them to be empathetic, attentive and easy to communicate and work with?
Mr. Newton also notes that technology is still important:
Technology isn’t the main driver of what it means to run a client-centered law firm, but it’s a critical part of it. And a world where legal consumers expect Amazon-like experience, running a practice with a pen and legal pad no longer cuts it.
But tech without process – and tech without a client-centered mindset to guide its use and implementation – is just another shiny tool that staff and/or clients won’t use. Technology needs to fit into the processes that are designed to provide good experiences and solve clients’ problems – and you’ll need to practice attentiveness to work out what those processes are. If tech doesn’t fit, that’s okay. The solution needs to work for your clients.³
This book is quite affordable as well. The Kindle version is $14.95, and the paperback edition is $19.98.
A CHALLENGING LEARNING EXERCISE
It’s no secret many lawyers prefer practicing law over closely managing their business operations. Many lawyers have found themselves named the managing partner by default rather than selecting that as a career path. We have seen many more medium-sized law firms hire full-time law office administrators. These positions are always important, but they are particularly needed when the lawyer-managers want to continue practicing law and serving clients.
None of this material I’ve cited is intended to offend those in the legal profession; however, a few may well take offense at some of the pointed observations and challenges cited by these two authors. Rather than being offended, I hope you will accept some challenging material for its potential to change your life and your law practice.
There are many good things about being a lawyer. But one thing you can’t do well is put yourself in your clients’ shoes, particularly those clients who have never hired an attorney before. Luckily, there is an easy way to remedy that: Ask your clients. Ask them what was good about the attorney-client experience. Ask them where improvements could be made. Meanwhile, I hope you have added one or both of these books to your spring reading list.
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, email@example.com. It’s a free member benefit.
- Furlong, Law is a Buyer’s Market, Prologue page xviii
- Newton, The Client Centered Law Firm, Chapter 6
- Newton, The Client Centered Law Firm, Page 110
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal — February, 2022 — Vol. 93, No. 2