Being a sole practitioner doesn’t mean doing everything yourself

Share

In response to yesterday’s post about taking the day off, a subscriber asked, “So how does a sole practitioner disconnect on vacation and turn off the phone? I haven’t had a real vacation in 15 years”.

Of course the short answer is you just do it. You have someone else answer the phone, something you should always do, and you have some else talk to clients and prospective clients and take care of the office.

In other words, you have people.

Being a sole practitioner means not having partners. It does not mean doing everything yourself. You have employees or virtual employees or assistants and outside lawyers who handle appearances and other things only lawyers can do.

Yes, this does add a layer of complexity to your practice. You have to supervise your people, or supervise people who supervise your people, and you have to be comfortable with delegating work. But this complexity gives you something even better in return. It gives you freedom. You can take vacations. You can sleep late. You can go to the movies in the middle of the day.

Having people also allows you to earn more money. If you do things right, you earn enough additional income to pay your people and have more net income after you do.

But there are a couple of additional things you need to do to make this work.

First, you need to specialize. You can’t expect to be good at “everything”. Nor can you make a compelling case to prospective clients as to why they should hire you instead of someone who specializes in what they need.

The email I received asking the question at the top of this post ends with a list of the attorney’s practice areas, to wit:

REAL ESTATE

** Residential Closings
** Commercial Closings
** Short Sales
** Loan Modifications
** Reverse Mortgages
** Deed in Lieu of Foreclosure
** 1031 Exchange
** Escrow services
** Property Tax Appeals
** Foreclosure Defense
** Motions to vacate foreclosure sales
** Mortgage Reinstatements
** Landlord Tenant

COMMERCIAL LAW

** Civil Suits
** Business Incorporations
** Debt Settlement

FAMILY LAW

** Divorce
** Child Support
** Modification of Settlement Agreements
** Mediation

CRIMINAL LAW

** Federal/State Defense
** Felony
** Misdemeanor
** Traffic Tickets
** License Suspension

It’s too much. No wonder she hasn’t taken a vacation.

Pick one practice area. Clients prefer to hire lawyers who specializes. They’re also willing to pay them higher fees because lawyers who specialize are perceived as being better, and they usually are. When you do lots of one thing, you tend to get better at it.

You also find it easier to keep up with changes in the law, new forms, and best practices. You spend less time (and money) on “compliance,” which gives you more time (and money) to invest in doing things that lead to more profits and growth.

Yes, you have to give up work that isn’t in your specialty. But you can refer that to other lawyers who send you business that’s outside of their specialty.

In addition, marketing is easier and more effective for lawyers who specialize. Which leads me to the last point. If you want to be able to take vacations, earn more and work less, you have to get good at marketing. Not great, necessarily. Good enough is good enough, as long as you do something on a regular basis.

Specialize, delegate as much as possible, and get good at marketing. Those were the three things that allowed me to go from being overworked and overwhelmed to quadrupling my income and reducing my work week to three days. You can do the same thing.

Learn more: The Attorney Marketing Formula

Share

How to become a better writer

Share

I used to write like a lawyer. Dry, stilted, cautious, boring. I’m stifling a yawn right now remembering how I used to sound.

Then I started reading books about copy writing and saw what I was missing. I saw what it meant to write to communicate and persuade, not just inform. I tried it, first in my demand letters. It was liberating and I’m pretty sure it earned me a few extra shekels.

I used some of those ideas in my briefs and declarations. Not to the same extent, of course, but a sprinkle here and a dash there. Judges and opposing counsel noticed.

Eventually, my efforts to become a better writer made me a better lawyer.

Lawyers earn our keep with words. It behooves us to improve our writing skills. If you want to know how to become a better writer, here are five ways to do that.

  1. Write every day. Take 15 to 20 minutes a day and write. Every day. Write a journal, free write (look it up), or write a page for your office operations manual, but write something. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but the more you write, the better you get.
  2. Write faster. Fast writing is usually better writing. When we let go and let the words flow, our writing is more natural and has more power. Of course it goes without saying that you shouldn’t edit while you write.
  3. Write letters to specific people. You’ve heard the oft-repeated advice to “write like you talk,” right? The next time you write something, write the first draft as a letter to a real person. You might actually speak, record, and transcribe your thoughts.
  4. Read every day. Read, in different disciplines, including fiction. Read slowly and pay attention to how good writers present their ideas, how they describe people and places and action.
  5. Study. Read books on grammar, copy writing, and creative writing. Learn the rules of effective writing and develop a sense of when it’s okay to break them.

None of this should be a revelation. It’s common sense advice you’ve heard before. I’d heard it, too. But I wasn’t doing it. I was busy. But then I realized that this is the kind of continuing education that could really pay off over the rest of my career. And it has.

As Jim Rohn put it, “Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.”

If you want to know how to write better reports, better headlines and titles, get this

Share

When is procrastination a good thing?

Share

I’ve got until the first of next month to complete my CLE credits. I’ve been watching videos over the last couple of weeks and making good progress. I know some people would say that doing three years worth of CLE in a few weeks is unwise. They would point out that I could have done an hour a month and been done months ago.

Their math is correct but their advice is misplaced. They assume that procrastination is a sign of weakness or poor organizational skills and leads to unnecessary anxiety and poor results. But is that always true? Is there a time when procrastination is a good thing?

I think so.

Procrastination helps you prioritize. It allows you to filter your list of tasks so you can focus on what’s important and not merely what’s urgent.

CLE isn’t important to me since I no longer practice. Now, it is urgent that I get those credit done, but waiting as I did allowed me to concentrate on important projects.

Procrastinating served me another way. It allowed me to express (to myself) my resentment at being required to take courses I don’t need and don’t want. It allows me to give the middle finger to the system.

Hey, I’m human.

In school, procrastinating served me another way. Waiting until the last day to write a paper or study for exams gave me a built in excuse in case I got a poor grade. “Hey, I didn’t spend any time studying.”

I almost always got good grades, however. But what if I hadn’t?

What if procrastinating is harmful? What if it keeps you from doing what’s important? What if it results in poor performance or results?

Then you have a problem.

There are lots of techniques for dealing with “bad” procrastination. I think the simplest solution is to get the task out of your head and onto paper–your calendar or other “trusted system”. Give yourself enough time to get the task done and then forget about it. If you’ve schedule a start date and given yourself enough time to do what you need to do, you can then devote your mental energy to other things until it’s time to start.

That’s what I did with my CLE. I knew what I needed to do and when I needed to do it. And I’m getting it done.

Calendaring tasks for the future also gives you a buffer of time which may allow you to adjust your priorities. When the scheduled start date arrives you may find that the scheduled task can be safely postponed, or that you don’t need to do it at all. Since I am not actively practicing, I keep thinking about changing my status to inactive. If I do that I won’t have to do CLE.

When is procrastination a good thing? When it serves you in some way. It’s okay to do things at the last minute, as long as you are getting important things done. And as long as you’re still getting good grades.

Share

How to use CLE to get new clients and new referral sources

Share

When it comes to continuing legal education (the mandatory kind), there are two types of attorneys:

  1. Those who take the classes only because they need the credits (98%), and
  2. Everyone else.

C’mon, be honest. If you weren’t required to do so, would you have signed up for most of the CLE classes you’ve taken over the years? How about if they were free?

Me neither.

But this is not a post about how ridiculous it is to compel professionals to do what the realities of a competitive marketplace already do. No, this is a post about how to make money with CLE.

Want to know how?

Okay, there’s a very simple way to leverage the time you spend taking CLE to grow your law practice. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you have to listen to the presenters and you have to take notes. No playing games while the audio is playing. And no multi-tasking, either. You actually have to pay attention.

Yeah, I know, I’m not doing a very good job of convincing you that this is a good thing, but it is.

So you take notes of the CLE programs you take and when you’re done, you write a one page summary of each class or each segment. Kinda like a brief. Actually, you can put it into any format you want: a summary, FAQ’s, case studies–whatever floats your boat. You can even record an audio if you want.

You with me?

The next thing you do is distribute your summaries to people who might like to see them. You can send them to people you know or you can contact people you don’t know and offer to send them. Or any combination thereof.

To whom do you send them (or offer to send them)?

  • Your competition. You lose nothing by giving this information to other lawyers in your practice area(s). They still have to take the class if they want the credit but your gesture of good will is certain to be appreciated and remembered. They next time you need a favor, some information or advice, you’ll have a ready made list of people willing to help you out. And the next time they have a conflict of interest on a case or otherwise have to refer out a matter, you might just be on their short list.
  • Other non-competitive attorneys. This is where you can really score some points. Take that tax class you just completed and slant your summary for attorneys who don’t practice tax law but need to know something about it. Summarize the changes in SSD for PI lawyers. You get the idea. By delivering value to attorneys in other practice areas, you position yourself as an expert in your area and someone worth knowing. If nothing else, your summaries give you a great excuse to contact potential referral sources and initiate a relationship.
  • Other professionals/referral sources. Financial planners, real estate, insurance, CPA’s–other professionals need to stay informed about the legal issues that affect what they do. Your summaries can spare them the time and trouble of wading through a mountain of information they don’t need and will undoubtedly earn their appreciation.
  • Prospects/clients. Obviously, you need to make the information suitable for lay people and you’ll probably want to avoid mentioning where you got it, but educating your clients and prospects about the legal issues they face and the available solutions (that you can provide, of course) is always a good strategy.

There are other ways to use your CLE notes. You can turn them into articles and blog posts, reports and ebooks, talking points for a speech or seminar, and hey, you can even use it in your actual, honest-to-goodness legal work. Imagine that.

As you can see, with a little creativity you can leverage the time you spend taking CLE classes (and writing summaries thereof) to create some simple tools you can use to grow your practice.

Now, for extra credit, here’s something else you can do: send your summaries to the author or presenter of the CLE class. They may not have any use for it but they will be pleased that someone actually paid attention and took notes. You now have a new contact, a well-regarded attorney who might just know some people you would like to meet and who might be willing to make those introductions.

And hey, they might even give you the hook up so you can submit your own CLE program. If you do, let me know how many credits I can get. I need 36 units and I’m way behind.

Share

When you’re not the best lawyer in town

Share

So you’re not the best attorney in your field. You didn’t finish first in your class. You’re not the best presenter, writer, or negotiator.

You’re just you, someone who loves being a lawyer and helping people.

And you know what? That’s enough.

You don’t have to be the best to have a very satisfying and rewarding career. In the long run, your passion for what you do will attract everything you need. You can learn what you need to know and get better at what you do.

But you must be willing to grow.

Unfortunately, many lawyers stop growing the day they receive their license. The got school “out of the way” and then switched gears to focus on building a career.

Oh they go through the motions of continuing their education but mostly because they have to, not because they want to. Soon they find themselves in a rut, a career rut where billable hours and overhead and moving up the ladder are job one. In time, many such lawyers find themselves dissatisfied with their careers, but often they don’t know why.

It’s because they’ve stopped growing.

Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” Lawyers who stop learning stop adapting to the changes around them. If they’re not careful, they’ll find themselves on the endangered species list.

Learning and growth aren’t limited to the law, however. There is much more to being a lawyer. You need to learn marketing. You need to understand human psychology. You should be able to read a balance sheet. And much more.

I heard someone say (on LinkedIn, I think) that it’s no longer acceptable for an attorney to say they are “computer illiterate”. Yet many attorneys are functionally so. Yes, you can hire people to do what you don’t want to do, but in the wired world we live in today, someone who refuses to learn some basic computer skills might as well waive a white flag and call it a day.

Never stop learning. Never stop growing. Never stop adapting to the changes around you. That’s how you will survive in this jungle.

Share

Lawyers required to protect personal information under new federal rule

Share

Oh what fun, lawyers (and their clients) have new regs to comply with and new exposure if they don’t. Civil damages, administrative penalties, and even criminal charges are possible under these new rules. But this emerging field also provides new marketing opportunities. You can advise (and bill), you can represent damaged parties, and you can defend parties charged with failure to comply. And, if you practice in any related field, you can attract new business by speaking and writing about these new regulations. You can also earn profits beyond your legal fees by offering non-legal identity theft protection to your clients and their employees. I work with many attorneys who do this and the income is not only substantial, it is residual. If you’re interested in learning more, send me a personal message. dw

By Susan D. Oja and Alex De Grand

April 1, 2009 — Lawyers who bill their clients after services have been rendered are expected to implement a written program guarding against the theft of their employees’ and clients’ personal information under a new federal law.

The Federal Trade Commission will begin enforcement of the “red flags rule” on May 1. The rule is part of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 (FACTA), a congressional response to spikes in reported identity theft. Identity thieves assume a person’s entire identity or synthesize one from parts of various victims. Because more than half of identity thefts occur in the workplace, businesses are required to implement safeguards.

Those subject to the rule are “creditors” and financial institutions who maintain consumer-type accounts or other accounts at reasonable risk of identity theft. The FTC noted that identity thieves look for opportunities to obtain products or services that do not require payment up-front.

As interpreted by the FTC, “creditors” has a broad definition, encompassing professionals such as lawyers and doctors who defer payment of a client’s bill. The American Medical Association protested that other federal laws and professional ethical duties to maintain patient confidentiality precluded the new rule. But the FTC held in a letter that the statute borrows the sweeping definition of “creditor” from the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA). Agency interpretation of the ECOA specifically includes doctors and lawyers within the meaning of “creditor.”

What is expected

Under the new rule, lawyers must implement a written policy specifying how they will watch for the warning signs — the “red flags” — that indicate an identity theft may be occurring and how they will respond to prevent or mitigate the crime if uncovered.

Policies are supposed to be tailored to the amount of risk. The FTC acknowledges there is no bright-line rule to distinguish between high and low-risk. But the rule suggests a lawyer consider such factors as how easily an account is opened or accessed and previous experience with identity theft.

If a lawyer finds there is little risk, an appropriate program might comprise no more than checking photo id at the time services are sought and a policy against collecting from an identity theft victim or reporting it on the victim’s credit report.

In its letter to the AMA, the FTC stated that it does not foresee the new rule imposing a great burden. “For example, a small medical practice with a well-known, limited patient base might have a lower risk of identity theft, and thus might adopt a more limited Program than a clinic in a large metropolitan setting that sees a high volume of patients,” the letter read.

What to watch for

The Appendix of the “red flags rule” provides examples of incidents putting a creditor lawyer on notice of potential identity theft. In addition to fraud alerts from consumer credit agencies or the client’s complaint, this list includes suspicious documents, perhaps altered or forged. A creditor lawyer may receive fishy personal information such as an unexpected change of address. Creditor lawyers are also directed to look for unusual use of an account.

A creditor lawyer’s policy should address the detection of “red flags” at the time an account is opened by obtaining identifying information about the new client and verifying it, the rule instructs.

What to do

Responses to “red flags” should be in proportion to the risk posed and a creditor lawyer is advised to consider any “aggravating factors” such as a data security breach that may exacerbate the threat. The rule Appendix suggests appropriate responses could be alerting law enforcement, monitoring the account for evidence of identity theft, changing passwords or other security devices controlling account access, reopening an account with a new account number, or closing an account. Under certain circumstances, the rule states that a creditor lawyer may determine no response is necessary.

These written policies should be updated periodically to account for changes in risks to clients’ information or innovations in detection of identity theft. A subsequent merger, acquisition, joint venture, or service provider arrangement may also prompt the need for an updated written policy.

The rule also requires appointing a senior management person to implement the program; appropriately educating employees; and overseeing any service provider arrangements. Liability follows a creditor lawyer’s data, so due diligence is necessary to confirm vendor compliance before outsourcing payroll or hiring an office cleaning company.

More information from the FTC: The Red Flags Rules: Are you complying with new requirements for fighting identity theft?

Susan D. Oja, a solo practitioner in Middleton, is a certified identity theft risk management specialist through the Institute of Fraud Risk Management. Alex De Grand is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin.

Share

How to leverage CLE time

Share

Kiyosaki (see previous post) says leverage is "doing more and more with less and less". One way to accomplish this is by making the time you spend in Continuing Legal Education do "double duty" for you, as the following letter from one of our subscribers attests:

"One idea that I have found very useful in building clients’ perceptions of credibility and reliability is the faxing or emailing of regular snipits of industry-specific information.
 
"For example, I have been wooing a client in the commercial construction business. Although I am not an expert in construction law. . . I came across an interesting summary of late breaking developments in subcontractor liability in the latest issue of the [his state Bar] Journal. I immediately copied it and faxed it to my contact (the executive v.p.) with the note, "I thought you might find this interesting."

"I then added a quick blurb about how this is precisely what we do proactively for our business clients to keep them on the cutting edge of their field.
   
"This practice keeps me alert to my client’s needs, motivates me to stay on top of "hands-on" CLE information, and lets the client know about my concern, competency and desire to excel."

Share

What did YOU learn about marketing in law school?

Share

"91% of Lawyers Unhappy about Lack of Marketing Training in Law School," says the headline of a report of a recent poll. "We must have struck a nerve because the responses were overwhelming and many lawyers even took the time to make pointed comments," said Daniel Guttman, MBA, principal in the firm that conducted the poll.

Is anyone surprised by this?

When I went to law school over thirty years ago, there wasn’t a single class on anything having to do with the "real world" of being a practicing lawyer. Nothing about how to open an office, hire employees, or set up a filing system. No guidance on calendaring or conflict checking, file retention or bookkeeping. And we certainly weren’t taught anything about marketing.

Is it any different today?

Did you learn anything about marketing in law school? Did they teach you how to bring in clients or how to keep them happy ("client relations") so they would come back and refer their friends?

I wrote an article on this subject: What I learned about marketing in law school, detailing my experiences. Now ‘d like to hear yours.

And while we’re comparing notes, tell me if your state (province, jurisdiction) allows you to earn continuing legal education credits for classes in marketing. Last time I checked, most jurisdictions allow credit for ethics and certain law office management topics, but not marketing.

I taught myself how to market my services. I had to, to survive. At the time, there were very few resources available to attorneys who wanted to learn marketing and the practical side of running a law practice. There was Foonberg’s book and little else. (That’s why I wrote Referral Magic.)

In 1977, Bates vs. Arizona made it possible for attorneys to advertise, officially blessing the notion that the law is a business as well as a profession and suggesting that the "business of law" might be something we want attorneys to know. Unfortunately, I don’t think much has changed since then, and this poll says most attorneys agree. Here’s how the author summed up the results:

  • 41% don’t get good marketing results, don’t know how to market or don’t bother to do any marketing at all.
  • 37% manage to just generate enough business for themselves.
  • Only 22% of respondents consider themselves rainmakers

The article, along with lawyer comments and a link to the complete poll results can be found on this page.

 

Share