An Oldie and a Goodie: Empowering Law Practice Management Tips

Whilst strolling through the Internet one day, I came across this post by Peggy Gruenke at Attorney at Work. Twenty simple ideas that are timeless and critically important if you want your law firm to succeed. Here are a few of my financial-themed favorites with thoughts of my own.

Peggy’s five financial tips – greatly condensed

  • Write a business plan
  • Create a budget
  • Know your overhead costs
  • State your fee with authority
  • Bill early, often, and strategically

Money and goals

As the business owner, your goal is to see the big picture.  Who are you? Why are you unique? Who are you best equipped to serve? This is the purpose of a business plan, according to Peggy Gruenke.

My input? Don’t be intimated! Your business plan does not have to be a magnum opus. You can get it done in a few pages. Creating a business plan will give you:

  • Clarity about what you want to do
  • Control over your own fate
  • A strategy for staying organized and on track
  • Accountability
  • A way to measure and monitor your progress
  • A path to help you move forward

Want help? See my business plan checklist – originally designed for law students, but easily conformed to active law practices.

Budgeting and costs

Budgeting can be as simple as a basic spreadsheet. Track what comes in and what goes out. Don’t bother with incorporating prior years (unless you have a driving reason to do so). Just start now. Toward year-end use your 2018 data to create projections for 2019.

As Peggy says, “You should know (by heart) how much money you need to make to keep the doors open.”

To get started, revisit this article by yours truly, Dee Crocker and Sheila Blackford.  As motivation, consider this excerpt:

Every law office should have a budget. Without one, it’s easy to overspend and hard to plan for future purchases. Knowing your overhead costs will help you decide how much revenue you need to make and how much you need to charge to bring in that amount. Failure to budget can cause financial problems. Lawyers with financial problems may take on new clients who have money in hand, leaving the work for existing clients unfinished. This can lead to disciplinary complaints from clients whose work is not completed.

I guarantee that your monthly “budget to actual” report, which compares actual spending against budget projections, will become your new best friend.

Stating your fee with authority

When a prospective client tells you that Lawyer Smith is willing to do the same work for $2,000 less, tell the person kindly that he can then retain Lawyer Smith. When you reduce your fee, you will have lost the trust of your prospective client. Odds are, in time, that client will leave Lawyer Smith and retain you to handle the mess that Lawyer Smith made.

Set a fee and stick to it! I know this can be hard, especially if you’re new to solo practice. Know in advance what you propose to charge, don’t make it up on the fly. Be matter-of-fact, business-like, and deliver the number without hesitation. You’re always free to make adjustments with the next case, but don’t waiver with the client sitting in front of you. For help in getting started, see this post.

Bill early and often

When you are ready to bill, issue invoices as soon after the event as possible: “As each day passes after an event, the perception of your value is diminished. If you send out the bill even two weeks afterward, the client won’t perceive the value to be as high.” (Peggy’s words of wisdom.)

There is no reason you can’t deliver your final bill with transactional documents. Take advantage of the arc of client gratitude while it is still in your favor!

Looking for more billing tips? Check out this resource.

All Rights Reserved 2018 Beverly Michaelis

Credit Card Surcharges Revisited

Remember the Payment Card Interchange Fee Settlement?

Processing credit card payments is a fact of life for today’s law firm. So are costly surcharges – the fee assessed by your bank or credit card processor for the privilege of accepting this form of payment.

In 2015 – 2016, some Oregon law firms took the position that the Payment Card Interchange Fee Settlement (PCIFS) permitted them to pass on credit card surcharges to clients.  As a reminder, the PCIFS was a class action settlement among merchants, Visa, MasterCard, and other defendants. American Express and Discover were not part of the litigation.  Applying the conditions of the settlement to a service-based industry like the legal profession was always tenuous at best.

Regardless, using the PCIFS as a justification for passing on credit card surcharges became moot in mid-2016 when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded approval of the settlement.

The Post-PCIFS Era

If you’ve read my blog before, you know I’m an ardent advocate of absorbing credit card surcharges as a cost of doing business. This doesn’t mean watching money fly out the door without recourse.  It does mean you shouldn’t pass on surcharges as a separate cost item to the client.  Consider:

  • Assessing surcharges (or crediting clients for the net amount less fees) involves extra administrative and bookkeeping steps.  If you get the math wrong and the transaction involves trust account funds, you could face disciplinary action.
  • Firms who want to charge for credit cards often bill clients for postage, faxing, scanning, and photocopying.  These items already rate high on the client annoyance scale.  Pass on surcharges and that scale may tip.
  • Ethically, clients are not obliged to pay any cost to which they did not agree.  If you did not include the right to assess surcharges in your fee agreement, you cannot unilaterally pass on the cost after the fact.  Granted, you can fix this by modifying your fee agreement – but it isn’t necessarily advisable and may not be successful.  See OSB Formal Opinion 2005-97.
  • Fees can be adjusted to reflect this, and other, costs of doing business.
  • Surcharges are outright illegal in some states and capped in others.
  • Passing on surcharges may trigger compliance with Regulation Z of the Truth in Lending Act:

Passing the merchant fee on to the client or crediting the client for the net amount of the transaction only … may implicate Regulation Z of the Truth in Lending Act, 12 CFR §226.  As a result, you may be compelled to offer cash discounts to all clients and make specified disclosures to your clients who pay by credit card.  See CONSUMER LAW IN OREGON ch 14 (Oregon CLE 1996 & Supp 2000).  OSB Legal Ethics Opinion No. 2005-172.

As Before: Proceed at Your Own Risk

If you want to assess surcharges, do your own research and proceed at your own risk.

I leave you with these words of wisdom from LawPay, a popular credit card processor serving the legal profession:

While your state may allow you to pass on transaction fees to clients, think carefully before doing so. Potential clients will not expect a higher fee simply because they use a different form of payment. In today’s market the best practice may be to simply absorb these fees yourself as the cost of doing business.

All Rights Reserved 2018 Beverly Michaelis

Obstacles to Improving Workflow


I asked this question during the recent CLE, Best Practices for Client Intake, Engagement, and Workflow.  You may be interested in the results:

For those who don’t have the time

This is a hard one, and I get it. But nothing will change unless you make the time.

I don’t have a magic solution for adding a 25th hour to the day. I do know that if something is important enough, we make room for it. So if you’re motivated, start by looking for time on your schedule. Find two one-hour blocks, whether they are close in time or a month apart. Schedule appointments with yourself. Mark the subjects “Workflow:brainstorm” and “Workflow:prioritize.” Commit to making the first time block outside the office. Leave your smartphone and other devices behind. Grab a legal pad, a pen or pencil, and go. Visit your favorite coffee shop or sit in the park.

Brainstorm

During the first time block, make a list of all the functions in your office that you’d like to improve. Dream small: “I wish saving email to the client’s file was easier,” or dream big: “We need a better conflict system.” Don’t rule anything out. Just let the ideas come and go until the hour is up.

prioritize

Your goal during the second time block is to prioritize. This can happen in your office IF you commit to working distraction-free. This means no phones, no checking email, no interruptions by others. You are in an appointment, albeit with yourself. If the temptations are too great, leave. As before, don’t bring devices.

Pull out the list of ideas from your brainstorming session and start marking what is most important: first, second, third, and so on. If you’re in your office, type up the list. If you’re out and about, take a moment when you get back to do so.

Investigate

Schedule another one hour appointment on your calendar. This third time block will be devoted to investigating options for the number one priority on your list. Google is your friend. Look for online reviews from neutral, authoritative sources. The ABA Legal Technology Resource Center is a good starting point. Check out blog posts that come up in search results. Ask colleagues by posting to a listserv. If you have an IT person, get their input. Ask staff. Depending on how complicated your first priority is, you make have to block out more time for this step. However, there are definitely some small-scale functions that you can reasonably investigate in an hour’s time.

Keep going: implement and master

Sticking with your number one priority, make a decision on which option you want to pursue. Schedule out more appointments on your calendar to implement the option. Then wait. Live with your new technology or process a while. Be prepared to make adjustments. When you are comfortable and feel you have mastered the new workflow, move on to priority number two and repeat the steps above. My point: you can find the time and you can make the time. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.

Procrastination

We sometimes procrastinate about improvements we know we should make because we feel overwhelmed or have trouble accepting change. Hopefully the approach outlined above will help you overcome these concerns. If after the brainstorming session you are worried that your priority list has nothing but large-scale items, consider reaching out for expertise. Ask colleagues for referrals to IT or other consultants. Consider using the practice management team at the OSB Professional Liability Fund. You don’t need to do it all, and you don’t need to do it alone. There is help. It may be that you would benefit by blocking out time for a second brainstorming session. Use this appointment to identify three things that are important to you that you can realistically accomplish in the next twelve months. Save your original list, but table it for now.

The Payoff

You can do this. Remember, if you are overwhelmed pick the top three things you know can be accomplished in the next twelve months. Save your other ideas, but table them for now.

Stay motivated! Improving workflows will make your life easier by eliminating unnecessary, repetitive steps. This will reduce your stress and free up more time. Who doesn’t want that? And with three or more successes under your belt, I know you’ll want to keep going.

All Rights Reserved 2018 Beverly Michaelis

 

The Best of 60 in 60 from the 2018 ABA TECHSHOW

It’s hard to categorize the annual “60 in 60” tips session at ABA TECHSHOW because it could be anything – useful websites, new apps, career resources, gadgets, editing and proofreading tools for lawyers, or anything else the panelists find that we can’t live without.  Below is a sample of what was covered this year.  For the complete list, view my story on Wakelet.

The short list from 60 in 60

  • TimeFlip – a battery-powered cardboard polygon that uses an app on your smartphone to track time spent on meetings, phone calls, email, and other tasks.
  • Dryver – the mobile app where you can hire a driver starting at $15.95/hour to drive you around in your own car.
  • Ceev.io – the free Chrome extension that uses your LinkedIn profile to create a resume. Here’s mine. Choose from four themes, nine accent colors, and five different fonts at no charge. Unlock more options for $10.  My tip: also consider Strikingly, which allows you to create a website using your LinkedIn profile.
  • The Noris digital pencil from Staedtler – an electromagnetic input pencil that feels like your old #2, looks like your old #2, and works with Samsung smartphones.
  • Sideways Dictionary – a site that demystifies tech babble like “sandboxing” or “honeypot,” which have nothing to do with kids playing or bears eating honey.
  • PerfectIt – an intelligent editor and proofreader with a special style sheet specifically designed for lawyers. $99 a pop, integrates with Microsoft Word. Check out the free trial.
  • Flow-e – an email and task management platform combined to transform your inbox into a highly visual task board (Kanban style) or Sanebox, which automatically filters unimportant email out of your inbox (works with Gmail, Office 365, Apple iCloud, etc.).

There’s so much more … like how to create your own digital medical exhibits

Hopefully I’ve tempted you. Check out the complete list from 60 in 60!  Where else will you learn how to validate websites, determine if your passwords have been compromised, use private browsing, convert your blog into a podcast, check Google trends, or mute calls using your Apple watch?

All Rights Reserved 2018 Beverly Michaelis

Postscript

For more summaries of 2018 ABA TECHSHOW tips, advice, and resources for lawyers, see my main Wakelet page.

Engagement Letters Are Your Friend

Today, I’d like to share a recent post from our friends at NW Sidebar about the importance of engagement letters.

In Cox v. Alliant Insurance Services, Inc., 2017 WL 4640452 (E.D. Wash. Sept. 19, 2017) (unpublished), the plaintiffs sought to disqualify the opposing law firm based on a conflict of interest. One of the plaintiffs argued that he was a former client of the firm on a substantially related matter, necessitating the law firm’s withdrawal.

The plaintiff’s contact with the firm was as a representative for a corporation.  In concluding that no attorney-client relationship existed between the plaintiff and the law firm, the court relied on two key points:

  • The law firm and corporation executed a written engagement agreement that identified the corporation (and not the individual) as the client in the matter.
  • The plaintiff failed to introduce contradictory evidence, i.e., he could not point to any communication or action by the firm which expanded the attorney-client relationship to include him individually as a client.

Read the full post here.

Lessons Learned

As we discussed in the CLE, Limiting Exposure to Conflicts, identifying your client and clarifying the client’s status (prospect, current client, or former client) is paramount to conflict screening and limiting your potential liability. The single best tool at your disposal? Written engagement, disengagement, and nonengagement letters – all of which are available at the Professional Liability Fund website.

But the law firm in Cox didn’t stop at the engagement letter. Firm members were also consistent in their actions toward the corporate representative. There was no evidence of emails, correspondence, or other communication supporting that the corporate representative was an individual client of the firm.

The moral of the story? A solid engagement letter is a small investment to make in the realm of thwarting conflicts and liability. Even better: maintaining consistency in your corporate communications.

All Rights Reserved 2018 – Beverly Michaelis