Choosing a Practice Area

Last week I made an impassioned plea encouraging you to create a business plan.  A big part of the planning process involves selecting an area (or areas) of practice. Sounds easy enough, but is it?

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Don’t Choose a Practice Area Because…

Someone else said you’d be good at it, a law professor recommended it, everyone else is doing it, or family members and other influencers practice in the area.

Think About the Kind of Clients You Want to Represent

This step is often overlooked, but deserves your consideration.  Take time to reflect on who you want to serve, rather than what you want to do.

  • Do you want to represent businesses or individuals?
  • Start-ups, small family operations, or evolving companies who might need help with mergers and acquisitions?
  • Individuals?
  • Low income or high income?  Elderly? Young? Vulnerable?

Consider Client Characteristics

While it is possible for any client to display these characteristics, they do appear more frequently in certain areas of law:

  • Emotional (angry, fearful, crying, upset) – Family law, criminal law
  • Impaired or mentally ill – Family law, juvenile law, criminal law, poverty law
  • Distressed – Family law, criminal law, poverty law, personal injury, workers’ compensation, social security disability, products liability
  • Confused – Elder law, estate planning, probate, poverty law
  • Vulnerable – Elder law, juvenile law, family law, criminal law, poverty law
  • Demanding – business law, corporate, real estate, intellectual property

Do You Naturally Lean Toward Litigation or Transactional Work?

If you like ever-changing clients, taking risk, working under pressure, and constant challenge > you may be better-suited to litigation.

If you prefer working with repeat clients, minimizing risk, a steady workflow, and predictability > you may be better-suited to transactional work.

Let’s Play Match Game

What is your tolerance level for working longer hours?  Dealing with gray areas of law, high stakes, or deadlines?  These can also influence a practice choice.

Long Work Days

Working longer hours is often associated with family law and criminal law where emergencies occur in the evenings and on weekends.

Gray or Concrete?

If you don’t mind dealing in gray areas, family law, litigation, trusts, estate planning or immigration may be good choices.  If you prefer things to be more concrete, then consider regulatory law, tax law, or administrative law.

High Stakes

The stakes are higher in criminal law, immigration, and family law.  You will need a reservoir of resilience to practice in these areas.

Deadline Driven

Arguably, this is just about every area of law but litigation reigns supreme when it comes to deadlines.  If you are organized, manage workflows well, and have good time management skills you’ll do well in litigation.

Other Stuff

I should also forewarn you that any area of law where your fee is contingent, like personal injury, means an unpredictable pay day.  Honestly assess whether this is something you can handle financially.

The Informational Interview is King and Queen

Doing informational interviews with other practitioners in an area of law that interests you is – without a doubt – one of the best ways to narrow down your list.  Not sure who to approach?

  • Ask for referrals or suggestions from your first level contacts – people you know personally.
  • If your first level contacts don’t know anyone in the area(s) of law that interest you, ask them for names of other lawyers who might know a practitioner in that area.  Keep asking and pursuing leads.
  • If you don’t know anyone who knows anyone who might know someone who practices in an area that interests you, start reaching out to known experts.  Bar groups – state, local, and specialized – are organized into sections and committees, usually by different areas of law or subspecialties of law.  Who are the leaders of those sections and committees?  Who speaks at CLEs for the various bar-related groups?  Who writes articles in bar group publications? Who writes chapters for OSB BarBooks?

A Formula For Cold Calling

There is an art to cold calling.  (And by the way, a call is generally better.)  Here are the steps:

  1. Do your homework first.  Visit the interviewee’s website.  Look her up on LinkedIn or other social media sites.  Run a Google search.  Read what she’s written.
  2. Review steps three through six below.  If you find cold calling intimidating, rehearse a few times before you pick up the phone.  This will be helpful if you end up leaving a voicemail.  Better to spend time practicing beforehand than to fumble and mumble in your recorded message.
  3. When you reach out, be clear from the beginning that you are not seeking a job and this is not a request for a job interview.  Rather, you are interested in the area of law the interviewee practices and would like to learn more.
  4. Briefly explain why you are reaching out to this particular interviewee. For example, you read her article in the Bar Bulletin, noticed she spoke at at CLE, saw that she wrote the chapter on XYZ for BarBooks, etc.  (To state the obvious, this is where the homework comes in.)
  5. Be respectful of the interviewee’s time.  Spending 60 minutes with your subject would be optimal, but may not be possible.  Let the interviewee know that you are looking for 30 to 60 minutes of their time and stick to whatever time limit you agree upon.
  6. Consider extending a breakfast or lunch invitation. Everyone has to eat.
  7. Prepare for your informational interview.  If necessary, repeat step one in greater depth.  You should come to the meeting with a list of questions you would like the interviewee to answer.  In fact, you may want to have some questions written down before you even pick up the phone and extend the invitation.
  8. Send a handwritten thank you note by postal mail after your meeting.

If you encounter a gatekeeper – receptionist, paralegal, assistant, secretary – bend over backwards to be polite, thank them for their time, and do your best to leave a complete, but brief message.  Make sure the gatekeeper understands you aren’t cold-calling for a job interview.

You might wonder:  why can’t I just shoot off an email?  You could.  And it may work. But remember: your interviewee is busy and already buried in email.  Your message may not get read or may get caught in the spam filter.

Experience shows that calling and following up by mail is more effective.  Both are more personal than email and require more effort – which doesn’t go unnoticed. Calling means the staff person or lawyer to whom you speak can hear your tone of voice.  Your gratitude and appreciation come across in a way that email can’t match.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017

Postscript

What should you do if you leave a message and don’t hear back?  Don’t be discouraged. The majority of people you reach out to will be gracious and understanding.  Move on to someone else in the same practice area.

I Don’t Want to Create a Business Plan!

I get it.  I really do.  They involve work and you’re busy.  And if you’re not trying to sell someone on why they should give you money to start or grow your law practice, why would you bother?

Because, my friends, every once in a while you should be selfish and do something for yourself.

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Six Good Reasons Why Every Lawyer Can Benefit from a Business Plan

Everyone can benefit from the business planning process, especially startups.  But existing businesses need a vision too.  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

For associates in law firms, creating an annual business plan is the only way to build a successful strategy for bringing in business – something all associates are expected to do sooner or later.

For partners, annual business planning is likely to be more about reflection: now that I’m an experienced lawyer with a book of business at XYZ Law Firm what do I want to do? If the answer is: make a lateral move, creating a business plan will likely be required.  If the answer is: something else entirely, then time spent reflecting and planning will help you ferret that out.

Why Lawyers Don’t Write Business Plans

Aside from the obvious excuse that creating a business plan is time consuming, you may also perceive it as too difficult.

But there is an even better reason not to write a business plan.  If you don’t put specific goals and objectives on paper you can’t fail.

Here’s What You’re Really Missing Out On

The problem with avoiding failure is that you also set yourself up not to succeed. And you miss out on the other benefits that go along with creating a business plan.

Create a Direction and Lower Your Stress

When you know what you want to do, where you want to go, and how you’re going to get there (the specific objectives included in your plan), it lowers your stress level. There is no more floundering or misdirection.  Having a plan means you’re back in control.

Doing What You Want to Do For People You Want to Work For Means Reduced Exposure to Liability and Ethics Complaints

There’s a huge difference between practicing door law because you’ve always done it versus purposefully choosing a niche.

The door law route exposes you to greater risk of malpractice claims and ethics complaints.  Keeping up with a few areas of law is hard enough.  Trying to keep up with five or ten is bordering on ridiculous.

Imagine instead that you are working in one area, or a handful of areas, that you know well or can master.  With a focus, you can target clients deliberately and work for a client base that you truly want to represent.

You’ll Also See Gains in Efficiency, Money, and Resources

You are a resource.  Your staff is a resource.  Spend your resources on meaningful, designed goals.  This is what creates efficiency.  And with efficiency you can’t help but save money.  Or at a minimum, experience a better return on your investment.  You know it, you can see it, you can measure it.

Business Plan Checklist and Resources

If I’ve convinced you, contact me.  I’m happy to send along my business plan checklist and a list of resources for creating a plan.  Do what you want to do.  I am.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017

Marketing and Client Development in Three Easy Steps

Have you set goals for your law practice?

 

From a big picture perspective, all three choices are valid.  What they lack is a reasonable chance of success.

You can greatly improve the odds of achieving your goals by taking these three simple steps:

  • Create measurable goals
  • Write your goals down!
  • Be accountable

Create Measurable Goals

If your goals and objectives aren’t measurable, how will you know if you succeeded? It’s easy to say “I want to grow my client base,” because this statement can mean so many different things: you want to increase revenues, open more client files, or start taking on clients in a new area of law.  Perhaps keeping your goals fuzzy is a way of feeding a tendency to procrastinate or avoid identifiable failure ….

If you want to grow your client base, start by articulating what this means to you.

Let’s say your goal this year is to increase new client retention by 10%.  Start by assessing your success in converting clients (new clients interviewed vs. new clients who retain you as their lawyer).  If your conversion rate is less than 75%, it is time for introspection and some retooling.  What issues are you facing?

  • Do you need to bolster your confidence? Finding support through peer groups or counseling may make a big difference.
  • Perhaps you need to learn more about a specific area of law so clients are assured of your knowledge.  Contact the Oregon State Bar and Professional Liability Fund. Access OSB BarBooks, download PLF Forms, attend CLEs, join Bar Sections, and read pertinent publications.
  • Maybe you can benefit from polishing interviewing skills or learning more about client needs?  Find a mentor, reach out to colleagues, search this blog for posts on client relations and marketing – there are a ton of resources available in this area if you ask.  It may be as simple as observing your mentor or asking her to sit in on your client interviews (screen for conflicts; get client permission).

Identify the challenges – there may be several – then dial down.  Create a series of measurable steps to help you achieve your goal of increasing client retention by 10%. Be concrete and set time limitations.  Here is an example:

Action steps

Continue developing additional specific, measurable steps you can take to improve client retention.

Write Your Goals Down!

If you don’t mind a success rate hovering around 43%, then talking or thinking about your goals is a good way to go. If you prefer to do better than that, write your goals down.

Putting pen to paper (or fingers to a keyboard) is an inescapable part of making your goals more real, concrete, and achievable.  You can improve your chances even more by keeping your goals visible: a sheet kept on your desk, a series of post-its on a bathroom mirror, or saving a screen grab to your desktop or mobile device.

The act of writing is, in itself, a process of mental transformation.  If you don’t believe me, just Google “why is writing down goals important?” and scan through the myriad of results.  Here is the best explanation, IMHO.  By the way, science backs this up.  Writing down your goals and sharing them with a friend will increase your rate of success from 43% to 62%.

Be Accountable!

Being accountable to others is success on steroids!  The Dominican University of California conducted a study on strategies for achieving goals.  By including the additional step of sending a weekly progress report to a friend, 76% of study participants accomplished their goals, or were at least half-way there, in a four-week period.  Wow!

So if I write a text or email to a friend,

“Hi Sheila, I’m setting goals for my law practice this year.  One of my objectives is to read the OSB Family Law BarBook cover-to-cover by June 1.  I need you to hold me accountable for getting this done.  Can I send you weekly progress reports?”

and my friend holds me to my promise of sending weekly progress reports, there is a 76% likelihood I will follow through? I’m on board!  Naturally you can buddy-up on this idea:  find a colleague with whom you can exchange goals and weekly progress reports.  You will both benefit by holding the other accountable.

Getting Started

Get underway with the process of goal setting, marketing plans, and business development by accessing the great resources available on the PLF website.  Choose Practice Management, then Forms. Under “filter by category,” select “Marketing.”

All Rights Reserved – Beverly Michaelis – 2016.

 

 

 

 

Turn Over a New Leaf through Better Client Management

The New Year is an opportunity to do things differently.  Why not resolve to improve client management?

Lesson One

The first lesson in managing client expectations is that some folks should never become your clients.  Become a “red flag” spotter.  Screen potential new clients with these questions in mind:

  • Who referred the new client?  The quality of the referral source can speak volumes (best client ever: you’ve got another winner; client from hell: run for the hills).
  • Are you taking the case because the new client is a friend or family member?  If this is the only reason, it isn’t good enough.
  • Are you overlooking a potential conflict?  Be especially wary when representing multiple clients, who are almost never equally situated (though they may argue with you).
  • Is the client lawyer shopping? If you are the third lawyer the client has consulted, one or more of the following is likely to be true: the client has no case or a bad case; the client is perpetually dissatisfied; the client doesn’t have any money; the client is purposely trying to conflict you out of representing the opposing party.
  • Does the client have a bad attitude toward lawyers or other professionals? Proceed cautiously if the client’s feelings seem disproportionate. A client who sees conspiracies around every corner can quickly become a nightmare for you.
  • Is the client pursuing the matter on principle without regard to cost? Unfortunately, proceeding on “principle” is sometimes a masquerade for vindictiveness or revenge. A client who seems to be pressing on this point a bit too much won’t be very amenable to settlement and may not be willing to cooperate on simple tasks like scheduling depositions or cooperating with discovery requests.  This client’s motive is to push the other side’s buttons with the side effect of irritating you.
  • And the list goes on.  Learn all the red flags.

Lesson Two

The second lesson in managing client expectations is to think about your practice from the client’s point of view.  Perfectly good clients with decent cases can turn into clients from hell if they feel their expectations aren’t being met.  Avoid this trap:

  1. Be realistic about potential results.  Depositions, discovery, and your own investigation may reveal that your client’s “perfect case” isn’t so perfect after all. It is better to be a bit conservative than to give clients false hope.
  2. Provide accurate timelines. This is easier for transactional lawyers than litigators. Television and movies make it appear that conflicts can be resolved in one, two or three hours, leading clients to believe their case will be a sprint to the finish. Prepare your clients for a marathon.
  3. Talk about fees and costs up front.  Money will be on the client’s mind, so address it early.  Whatever arrangement you make, be sure the client understands exactly what is required of them.  If you bill hourly and provide the client with an estimate or budget, keep a close eye on the numbers.  If it becomes obvious to you that the work can’t be finished for the specified amount, speak up right away.  Always stick to your billing schedule and get invoices out on a timely basis so clients know where they stand financially.
  4. Establish turnaround times for phone calls and emails.  The best approach is to set aside a specific time of day to return calls and reply to messages.  If your schedule allows, you can do this more than once per day.  For example, upon arriving at the office, around lunch time, and again at the end of the day.  If you are a busy trial lawyer running a solo practice, it may be more reasonable to inform clients that you will respond within 48 business hours to calls or emails.  By letting clients know when to receive a response, you manage their expectation that all communications are “instant.”
  5. Inform clients about extended absences.  If a trial or other commitment is going to keep you out of the office for an extended period, change your outgoing voicemail message and consider sending an email blast so clients are prepared.
  6. Use staff effectively.  Some lawyers postpone hiring an assistant because they believe they can’t afford staff.  In turn, these same lawyers spend valuable billable hours performing clerical tasks.  Before you write off the idea of hiring someone, do the math.  Odds are the billable time you recoup from delegating nonbillable tasks to a full or part-time staffer will more than pay for your employee.  Staff can help you respond to the barrage of emails, phone calls, and client requests while keeping an eye on deadlines and getting work product out the door.  Improving responsiveness and timeliness makes for happier clients.
  7. Keep clients informed by transmitting all incoming and outgoing work product.  Clients want tangible results, but we work in a business where there isn’t much to “show”  that clients can put their hands on.  Documents are an exception.  Keep them flowing.
  8. Review all open files at least once in any 30 day period.  Your best option to is create a recurring task or reminder in your calendar or practice management software for each file.  When a new file is opened, part of your file opening procedure should include setting a revolving reminder or tickler to review the new file.  If you don’t have tickle dates for each of your existing files, generate a client list and begin scheduling recurring 30 day reminders for each file.  Try to spread the file review process over the entire month so you aren’t overwhelmed on any one day. Creating a reminder or tickler system means you are less likely to forget about files.  Use monthly reminders as a starting place for delegation and as a prompt to contact clients with a status report. When you stay on top of your files and provide regular status updates, clients feel like you are engaged, involved, and care about their case.

All Rights Reserved [2016] Beverly Michaelis

 

 

The Year in Review – Top Posts in 2015

Thank you loyal readers!  As 2015 comes to a close, here is a look back at the year’s top posts:

Working Effectively – Time Management, Staffing

File Management – What to Keep, What Not to Keep

Marketing, Business Development, and the Attorney-Client Relationship

eCourt

Fees – Getting Paid, Finances, Credit Cards, Trust Accounting

Security

Technology – Macs, TECHSHOW, Office 2016, Windows 10, Paperless, and More

Potpourri

[All Rights Reserved 2015 – Beverly Michaelis]