Management Assistance Program
Your Law Firm Upgrade
By Jim Calloway
Businesses today find themselves in what seems to be a never-ending process of improving, upgrading and experimenting with changing their business operations. Many of these changes are spurred by technological advances. The internet changed the way many businesses operate. Historically speaking, not that long ago, businesses had no computers and employed many typists working on manual typewriters.
Law firms, like all other businesses, have had to change. We’ve moved from debating whether it is professional for a lawyer to have a computer on their desk to almost every lawyer having a computer on their desk that they use daily. And who knew how habit-forming mobile phones would quickly become?
The challenge with law firm upgrades is, as I have noted before, that it often seems like trying to overhaul an airplane engine without landing the plane. Law firms have deadlines to meet and projects to complete. It is very challenging to pause operations even for a day, much less several days.
If a law firm would list all the changes the lawyers and staff want to make, combined with the changes they need to make, it would likely involve a time commitment of weeks of projects.
Lawyers were early adopters of office technology. Fax machines were a miracle that saved the firms much in delivery and courier expenses. Word processors and computers allowed editing of documents without having to pay someone to retype the entire document on a manual typewriter. It was a great disappointment to many lawyers to learn that computers needed to be replaced much more frequently than manual typewriters.
Sometimes, IT upgrades are caused by problems. Law firms cannot have the network “going down” regularly, and no one has the patience to watch the hourglass spin, waiting too long for something to load. But that can result in not addressing the changes, aka upgrades, that are important but not urgent. And let’s not kid ourselves. Change is usually difficult, and change management is challenging as well. For some additional reading on this topic, see “10 Beliefs That Get in the Way of Organizational Change” from the Harvard Business Review. One of the most interesting misconceptions is that change must take place slowly. Sometimes, it has a better chance of success if it happens more quickly. And, of course, deferring non-urgent needs often results in the problems becoming an emergency, often at what seems to be the most difficult time.
Desmond Tutu is credited with saying, “There is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” Massive projects will seem less daunting once you break them down into several tasks and then prioritize those tasks. So I have a suggestion. Instead of looking at all the things you would like to upgrade, pick one or two and set a goal to accomplish the task within six months – by July 1.
IMPROVING CLIENT SERVICES
Improving client services is an area ripe for improvement in many law firms. This does not mean you are not doing legal work well. But the expectations of clients have changed from the days of mailing a letter and waiting several days for a response. My October 2023 Law Practice Tips column, “Providing Exceptional Customer Service,” covers many aspects of improving the client experience.
Maybe it is time to install a client portal, or better yet, start developing the processes to use the client portal provided in a subscription package you already have. Maybe it is about improving standard communications sent out during the representation.
One essential first step is to ask everyone who works in your office if they have noted any periodic client complaints in any area of representation. It also may help to survey a few clients whose files have recently been closed to see if they have any suggestions.
LESS TASKS AND MORE PROCESSES
What we used to think of as tasks, we now must think of as processes. Lawyers and other law firm staff complete many tasks each day. But efficiency today requires that we think of tasks as linked. This is a first step toward automation, but it will yield benefits today. Here’s a simple example: One appears in court to get an order signed, and a follow-up document must be filed within 10 days. The deadline is docketed, and a few days before the due date, someone gets assigned to draft the document. An improved method would be that the first draft of the document has been completed by office staff and/or automated procedures a day or so after the hearing and is ready for the lawyer’s review. Automating these processes is often accomplished in practice management systems with their workflow features.
ESTATE PLANNING FOR LAW FIRMS
Larger law firms have an advantage over smaller law firms and solo practitioners when covering for a lawyer who unexpectedly dies or becomes disabled. There are lawyers who are available to step in and are motivated to take care of matters properly. In addition, they have staff to assist. A solo practitioner or a two-lawyer firm does not have those resources. A solo practitioner with only one staff assistant may be better positioned than a solo practitioner with no staff. But even then, no matter how loyal the assistant is, someone must guarantee to pay them, and other firms may reach out to offer them employment. So heirs cannot count on months of staff assistance.
The small firm lawyer should designate a lawyer to step in in these situations. Staff (or a family member) should be trained to go through the files to make certain the lawyer isn’t involved in any of them. The successor lawyer should not be given access to those files. The OBA provides a great free resource for assisting you with this. It is called the Planning Ahead Guide: Attorney Transition Planning in The Event of Death or Incapacity (A Handbook and Forms). Just log in to MyOKBar and select Attorney Transition Planning Guide from the list on the right side labeled MyOKBar links.
Are you underutilizing an asset with your signage? Law firms practicing in office buildings have few options for signage. But if your office is located on a busy street, you might want to review your signage. I have seen many law firms’ signs with small letters and various shades of brown or tan lettering on a dark background, which becomes very difficult to read after dark. Are there municipal restrictions on signage, or can the letters on the building be larger? Consider having the office phone number on your signage. Have you considered lighting the sign during the evenings? And even though you may know people who can create signage, hire a professional. This may sound expensive, but compare the costs to a nearby small billboard or advertising on a bus stop bench.
Like many marketing efforts, the return on investment for this effort will probably never be identified. It’s unlikely a new client will volunteer that they hired you because they liked your signage. But a lot more people in your area will know where your law office is located just from lighting efforts. And this one should only take a few weeks to accomplish.
IMPROVING YOUR ONLINE IMAGE
The law firm website is still the basic tool of online marketing. Although something else will likely be needed to drive sufficient traffic to the site (e.g., setting up your free Google Business profile and some social media marketing). Your website needs to be updated regularly, including adding new profile pictures of all attorneys.
Today’s wisdom, based on studies, is that it is fine to tout the attorney’s credentials, education and accomplishments if your target audience is corporate general counsel. But if you are seeking clients in the people law sector, you will improve results if the focus of the website is the most common legal problems your firm addresses and your approach to empathically serving clients.
Another interesting item from recent studies is that potential new clients often leave phone messages that are not returned by the law firm. With all the effort and expense law firms invest in marketing, it is hard to understand how they fumble the last step. Set up processes to make certain your firm is not guilty of this marketing mistake. If lawyers are not available, a trained senior staff member should return these calls within 15 or 20 minutes, offering to schedule an initial consultation in the office or a phone appointment with a lawyer within a few hours.
FIRM MISSION STATEMENT OR MOTTO
What is the primary purpose of your law firm? Certainly, all law firms should be about serving clients’ best interests in a profitable way. But what makes your law firm unique, and what common traits do your lawyers share?
This may sound a bit philosophical, but I have had lawyers report that determining their mission statement was one of the lasting benefits of a law firm retreat.
In private law practice, the goal is certainly to make money. A mission statement or motto provides aspirational guidance for other goals beyond profit. These may inform marketing or other law firm operations. Maybe a goal is to support local community projects or to do other projects that advance improvements in the law relating to your primary practice areas. If your extracurricular projects require volunteer time, then select a project where everyone would enjoy working on the project. A law firm motto is not required. Many firms already have one. They just haven’t formalized it.
Some of the above suggestions may give you ideas for your law firm’s upgrade. Or they may not. A discussion with all employees and lawyers may yield better ideas. But as a business owner, you have to regularly invest time in improving your law business operations because those improvements are one important way great law practices are built and thrive.
Mr. Calloway is the 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 or email@example.com. It’s a free member benefit.