10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Practicing Law

10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Practicing Law

One of the challenges in drafting a "X things...." blog post is condensing your experience into a set number of X.  What follows is my best attempt to distill down 10 valuable lessons learned over 20+ years of practicing law.  My criteria was what strategies would have had the most impact on my career had I known and put them to use when I started practicing law in 1997.  

1.  Law Practice Business Model

The first is a painfully simple strategy.  There are only three essential elements to the business of a law practice:

  • Leads - This refers to a constant stream of potential clients. Without new clients, a business will eventually die, so it is vital that a law business attract a stream of new clients to replace the ones that are lost.

  • Relationships - Repeat business from quality clients is the foundation of a profitable law business. If your model does not attract repeat business clients, then you must focus your efforts on generating more and more new clients. Because attracting new clients is often more expensive and time consuming, many successful law business models focus on keeping existing clients happy and obtaining a stream of new matters from the existing client base.

  • Leverage (Leadership) - At some point in the development of a law business, the amount of work exceeds a lawyer's capacity or desire to do it. Leverage is your ability to create systems and processes to manage tasks, acquire tools, delegate tasks to employees, and scale your business by focusing on higher value work. This requires leadership skills development. Put another way, your ability to develop your leadership capacity acts as a ceiling on your law business.

It's easy to over complicate a law practice.  However, if you keep your focus on these three essential elements, you will have a significant step ahead of your competitors.  It's also true that your weakest element is the limiting factor on your business.  See Lesson #3: Law Firm Staffing, Part I and Lesson #7: Law Firm Staffing, Part III for a discussion of how collaboration can solve this problem. 

For more reading on this topic, I suggest Gary Keller's The Millionaire Real Estate Agent.  While not directly on point for attorneys, this book walks the reader step-by-step on how to create and scale a different type of professional service business.  Mr. Keller also built the largest real estate firm in the world, so he has quite a bit of credibility in this area.  

2.  Lead Generation for Lawyers

 For this lesson, I have a couple scribbles. The first is the lead generation funnel:

Law-Firm-Lead-Funnel.jpg

Here’s how I define the lead generation funnel:

  • “Targets” are companies that could be clients, but you have no contact information for a decision maker at the company. To convert a target to a lead, you need a contact. The best way to get a contact is through an introduction from a third party that knows both of you.

  • “Leads” are potential clients where you have contact information. Leads are either qualified or unqualified. Once a lead has been determined to be “unqualified,” it falls out of the funnel.

  • “Prospects” are leads that are qualified. I recommend making that decision early and using defined criteria of ideal clients and the type of prospects you are willing to entertain to become clients later. I further categorize prospects as either short-term prospect that you can close within 2 weeks or long-term prospects that require significantly more effort.

  • “Clients” are prospects that have completed your engagement process — conflicts check, signed an engagement letter, and paid a retainer.

At this point, you are likely wondering why I made this so complicated. The primary reason is you can waste a ton of money on marketing/advertising and generate endless unqualified leads. Measuring your success rate and ROI at each of these steps is essential to success in business development. For example, you may have done an advertising campaign that created 100 leads, 2 prospects, and 1 client. These numbers suggest that the message was aimed at the wrong audience, but your conversion rate was excellent (50%). Without measuring these KPIs you would have no idea where the campaign broke down other than you invested quite a bit of money to generate one client. However, if the amount you invested is less than the amount you would pay to get an ideal client, the campaign was a success. See Lesson #8.

The second scribble summarizes the three types of lead generation:

Law-Firm-Lead-Generation.jpg

Referrals” are leads provided to you by other professionals (Referral Partners) or through contact with your clients (Client Contact). I have heard others refer to this lead generation channel as “seeds” or “word of mouth.” Regardless of what you call it, this is one of the most effective, but time consuming lead generation activities. In fact, a good referral partner can be more valuable than a good client over time.

Inbound Marketing” is where you take an action that gets the attention of a potential lead and causes them to take an action. For example, if billboard advertising is your lead generation strategy, the billboard gains attention of passersby and calling a 1-800 number to provide contact information is the action. This is referred to as “interruption” marketing since your goal is to interrupt the attention of a lead. The Internet has disrupted this strategy. Now, you can write an educational blog post that focuses on certain keywords. Potential leads that are looking for insight on that topic will conduct Internet searches to find suitable content. With this approach, you are not interrupting a lead’s attention; you are simply answering their question.

Outbound Marketing” is intentional effort directed at meeting and converting known targets that you have predetermined to meet your ideal client criteria. This requires you to have an “ideal client” profile in mind. See Lesson #8. I find many lawyers haven’t done this exercise. Outbound marketing is the most time consuming of the three activities, but it also provides the greatest opportunity to grow your law business since you are targeting only ideal clients.

3.  Law Firm Staffing, Part I

 For this lesson, I include my third scribble that identifies the four different roles in a law business:

Law-Business-Roles.jpg

This model divides the four roles into two focuses — business development and service delivery. For service delivery, service professionals provide much of the technical work and act as subject matter experts (SMEs). A project manager leads a team of service professionals to deliver service on time and within budget, and otherwise meet client expectations. A “relationship manager” is responsible for the overall client experience, selecting the appropriate project manager for a matter, receiving feedback from the client, and if the project was successful, selling the client on additional, new projects. A “hunter” or “new client developer” is responsible for attracting new clients to the firm.

While this may seem complicated, it is straightforward. Knowing which hat you are wearing at a particular time is helpful. A dialog between lawyers regarding who is the relationship manager versus the project manager on a particular matter and where those roles overlap can lead to better client service.

Controversial Observation — In 20+ years of practicing law, I have never seen a lawyer simultaneously great at all four roles. The truly great ones focus on one or two roles and collaborate with others, who are naturally great at the other roles.

4.  Understanding People Have Different Communication Styles

As discussed in Lesson #3, lawyers face pressure to be good at all things.  Being an effective communicator can lead to significant increases in leadership capacity. In my experience, people fall into one of three dominant communication styles. Understanding yourself and your audience is essential to success:

  • “Rule Followers” like details in writing and time to absorb them. A best practice in working with a rule follower personality is to provide them with all the necessary details in writing (be certain it is accurate) in advance and schedule a time to go over the conversation. If you are one of the two personalities below and ignore this suggestion, you will likely lose the person in the beginning of the conversation.

  • “Bottom Line Oriented” communicators want bullet points. They don’t want to wade through a long, meandering memo that has no specific point. One of the best ways to communicate with this personality is to provide an “executive summary” toward the top of the email or memo with details to follow. Think in terms of a 140-character Tweet. If you are a rule follower or verbal processor and don’t observe these recommendations, you run the risk of annoying the bottom line oriented communicator with over detail or not enough organization to the conversation.

  • “Verbal Processors” make decisions through “talking it out.” If this doesn’t make sense to you, you are likely a verbal processor. One of the worst things you can do with a verbal processor is to problem solve or interrupt them during the processing phase. Best practice is to have agreement that you are “going to verbally process” before you “problem solve.” If you are naturally bottom line oriented, I recommend resisting your urge to get to the bottom line and focus on making time for the verbal processing.

So which style are you? What are the styles of your team members? As a leader, can you adjust your style to meet people where they are at? What are the styles of your clients? Opposing counsel?

Being able to recognize how others prefer to communicate and make decisions can lead to significant relationship improvements. For more on relationships, see my post Building Relationships Through Emotional Bank Account Deposits.

5.  Law Firm Staffing, Part II

 Warning — Another Controversial Statement.

As a group, lawyers:

  • Don’t want to be told what to do; and

  • Simultaneously, are bad micromanagers.

If you can break this frame in your law business, you will have a huge competitive advantage.

6.  Trust Your Gut

Just about every time I have not followed a gut feeling, I have regretted it.  This has been the experience with clients I wasn't sure were the right fit, engaging with potential clients, employees and making hiring decisions with new employees, and workplace collaborations.  

The best way I have found to open up more intuition and less thinking is to turn off your analytical brain.  Whether it is "sleeping on it," meditation, or shifting gears to a physical activity, opening up space allows your intuition to send you these important messages.  Listen to them.

7.  Law Firm Staffing, Part III

In the military, sports, and high performance business teams, a leader is only as good as his/her team.  Put another way, there are no low performing teams, just weak leaders.  Jeb Blount provides in People Follow You five “levers” of effective leadership:

  • Put People First

  • Connect

  • Position People to Win

  • Build Trust

  • Create Positive Emotional Experiences  

If you want to increase the "Leverage" element of your law business, you must increase your leadership capacity.  

Final point — remember as a leader, you are always on stage.  Put another way, you aren’t allowed the luxury of having a bad day because people are watching you and will make assumptions based on your actions and attitude.

Listen to my podcast for more information on law firm leadership: Leadership in Action Podcast Series: How to Rebuild Your Law Firm From Scratch

8.  Law Firm Marketing Fundamentals

Here are some basic points for an effective marketing and sales strategy for a law business.  

First, be clear about what you sell and who is your ideal client.  Entering your time, tacking on expenses, and sending a client an invoice is not good enough in today's competitive market.  Lawyers that deliver high value are always in demand.  To maximize value to a client, you need to focus on ideal clients for your business.  Trying to satisfy all potential clients (e.g., being everything to everyone) is a losing strategy.  

Second, what would you pay to engage with an ideal client?  Answering this question tells you how much to spend on marketing and advertising to attract leads that ultimately could become your definition of an ideal client.  Without knowing this number, you are at risk of wasting money on marketing or spreading it too broadly.  

Third, service businesses typically compete on either quality, service, or price.  Competing on all three pretty much guarantees failure.  I recommend picking one of the three and designing your law business around that quality.  This affects the business structure, pricing strategy, staffing, and marketing messaging.  Random acts of marketing can be very expensive.  

9.  Be You -- Do It for You

One of life's greatest tragedies is to be loved for someone you are pretending to be, not who you really are.  Private practice can be a competitive, full contact sport where success is measured in terms of trial wins, client origination, billable hours, etc. as a replacement for grades, LSAT scores, and university prominence for law school competition.  With all this pressure, it is easy for lawyers to lose who they are as they strive to be great at everything.  

As I wrote in Lesson #3: Law Firm Staffing, Part I, I have never seen anyone great at all aspects of the law business -- at least not without paying a heavy personal price.  In my opinion, the most successful lawyers are clear as to what they are great at it, who they are, and what they are not great at.  In other words, they check their egos, develop self awareness, and focus on their unique ability.  They also collaborate with others that have complimentary unique abilities to achieve a greater collective success than each could do on their own.  

Happiness is found in being you as opposed to pretending you are someone else.  See my post on What I Learned about Living from Nearly Dying for more on this topic.

10.  Most Important Leadership Lesson

We live in a left-brain dominated profession.  Think, analyze, discuss, analyze some more.  We also are driven to collect skills like writing, deposition taking, oral advocacy.  But as I have learned over many years of observing strong leaders, "being" is often more important than "doing" when it comes to leadership.  There are many axioms in this area like "strong leaders stand for something" and "a leader gets the organization that he/she deserves" to name a few.  My view is that if you want to grow your business, you have to start with developing your leadership capacity (being) because your being is a limiting factor on the organization.  I realize this is not as sexy as measuring billable hours, originations, and profits per partner.  But I also believe it to be a natural law similar to the law of the farm (you have to plant in the spring to harvest in the fall).  

From my experience, if you want to develop your leadership skills, I would start with developing your "being" or as some call it your "ethos."  As you intentionally develop your "being," you can develop a parallel path of skills development.  Chapter 1 "Establish Your Set Point" in Mark Divine's The Way of the SEAL provides an excellent discussion and set of exercises on developing your why, principals, passion, and purpose.  Commander Divine describes developing your being as "vertical skills" and doing as "horizontal skills" development.  I highly recommend his companion book Unbeatable Mind for a comprehensive plan for integrated personal development that is a foundation to leadership capacity.  Note Unbeatable Mind is internal development; The Way of the SEAL is about external deployment of the Unbeatable Mind skills.  

Below is my final scribble on vertical skills (being) versus horizontal skills (doing) for lawyer leaders:

Vertical-Skills-Versus-Horizontal-Skills.jpg

 I hope you have found this blog post helpful and welcome comments from readers.  

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In addition to Thriving Attorney, Darin M. Klemchuk is founder of Klemchuk LLP, a litigation, intellectual property, and transactional law firm located in Dallas, Texas.  He also co-founded Project K, a charity devoted to changing the world one random act of kindness at a time.  Click to read more about Darin Klemchuk's practice as an intellectual property lawyer.

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