Why Are They So Successful and Not Us?!?!
Common Traits of “Successful” Law Firms
What characteristics do successful firms share? I am asked this question often and while some new “must do’s” necessarily evolve with changing times, many of the characteristics are long standing, proven essentials for any success story:
- Regular firm-wide and individual “health checks” are conducted to identify all strengths as well as areas needing improvement. These assessments must be done carefully. Rushing through an audit process just for the sake of getting it done will result in costly oversights and sloppy results. Such checks must also be comprehensive, conducted with brutal honesty and with your imaginary thick skin on!
- Firm leaders value and APPLY the Business of Law. Their decisions on behalf of and in the best interest of their firms reflect this. They keep up with the latest resources and lead with a professional, business-minded spirit rather than one entrenched in traditions that no longer make sense in today’s world.
- Risk management safeguards, systems and procedures are taken seriously and complied with by all attorneys and staff. It’s inexcusable in our profession that some of the leading causes of malpractice have remained the same for decades (e.g. confidentiality breaches, lack of documentation, conflicts of interest, clerical errors, unauthorized practice of law, embezzlement by long term employees, etc.).
- Excellent client service is a top priority every day and not merely as a discussion topic at annual retreats. Clients of successful firms don’t have to ask for updates because they are kept informed regularly and their calls and emails are answered promptly. In addition, employees understand clients are to be treated respectfully and thoughtfully — period. Bottom line: Successful law firms consistently offer first class client service that goes beyond their clients’ expectations. And, all firm attorneys set an excellent example of client service extraordinaire for their employees to witness every day first hand!
- Creative fee structures are the norm while hourly billing is used only when no other options make sense. From a client’s perspective, the multiple unknowns arising from a billable hour fee arrangement can foster distrust, confusion and downright shock when the bill arrives. When these destructive feelings surface, the very foundation of the attorney-client relationship is weakened and it can be quite challenging to re-establish a healthy, trusting relationship.
- Marketing the firm goes far beyond speaking engagements, unique websites and business cards, ads and the like. It is a daily – make that hourly – endeavor by all attorneys and staff via even the smallest of actions — our telephone and email etiquette, our upbeat attitudes or by offering memorable, energized responses when asked what a firm or an attorney does (e.g. “I’m a litigation attorney.” vs. “I have the privilege of serving as my clients’ courtroom voice and helping them over their legal hurdles as economically, quickly and painlessly as possible.”) Social media on the firm’s behalf is not done sloppily or without a plan, but rather with carefully thought out policies and guidelines in place and the appropriate persons overseeing all such activity.
- Staff selection, training and supervision is not a “shoot from the hip,” do-it-quickly kind of process. It is taken seriously and implemented by properly trained employees with the necessary management, interpersonal and resourcefulness skills.
- Specialty areas/niches of practice are developed by all attorneys. Quality is sacrificed when we attempt to do it all or otherwise over-extend ourselves. Become recognized (and valued) for having expertise in specific practice areas or sub-practice niches.
- The best technology tools that assist the firm in achieving its goals efficiently are chosen carefully and with the appropriate expert guidance. All attorneys and staff must learn and use technology that’s right for their firm. Compliance is mandatory. To allow noncompliance by any one wastes money spent on equipment and software and reaps rampant inefficiency, poor leadership and many more “costs.”
- Creating and using written strategic/action plans (a/k/a “cheat sheets” or law office road maps) for the firm and employees is standard operating procedure as are budgets and non-dormant accountability policies. Firm plans (long and short term) are invaluable and greatly up the odds of achieving goals sooner than later — if ever. Employee action plans go beyond traditional job descriptions by defining in detail what is expected of individuals in addition to their normal responsibilities (e.g. learning new skills, attitude adjustments needed). True accountability for noncompliance with firm policies, systems and procedures is sorely lacking in too many law offices. Why go to the trouble and expend the effort to create how to plans for firm goals if there are no consequences whatsoever for noncompliance? “Sanctions” can be tiered so that lighter consequences are the levied first with severity levels increasing if the problem persists.Yes, changing our habits and traditional ways of doing things is not easy. It requires positive “can do” attitudes and strong leaders setting consistently strong examples of compliance and the courage to change.Too many firms, unfortunately, expend costly time creating plans that are never implemented much less actually incorporated into the firm’s culture. What an enormous waste of time and intellectual capital this is. Remember a ship with every crew member paddling hard — but in different directions — is a ship that is fated to remain circling endlessly and never reaching its destination.
One last reminder follows with a focus on the word “successful.” Success does and should mean different things to each of us. We must avoid (at all costs!) defining success in society-driven or traditional terms. Instead, we must define it to fit our personal and our firms’ goals. To some, success equals higher profits, salaries, bigger homes, etc. To others, success means being able to practice within one’s passion areas of law while maintaining a healthy quality of life. As attorneys, we must know (and market) what distinguishes our firms and ourselves from others, ensure our actions (vs. mere words) are in sync with our goals and do those things that will help us achieve our definition of success.