Turning down clients for fun and profit

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When you’re a new attorney trying to pay the bills, you take any work that comes your way. At least that’s what I did.

If someone needed help and had a few bucks, I was your guy.

If I didn’t know what to do, I figured it out. It wasn’t as though I was taking time away from other better-paying work. In the early days, there wasn’t any.

So I did what I had to do and (eventually) built a successful practice.

If you’re just starting out, this might be a good plan for you. If you’re not starting out, however, this is not a good plan.

You can’t take “anything”. You have to be selective.

That means turning down work that doesn’t pay well. The small cases and clients, the work that doesn’t align with your vision and goals.

You can’t afford to take the small stuff because it takes time away from the big stuff.

Ah, but what if you’re not that busy? What if your dance card isn’t currently filled with high-paying clients and life-changing cases?

You have two options.

Option one is to take the small case, not for the money necessarily but as a marketing strategy. Help someone with a small case today, tomorrow they may bring you a big case. Help the start-up get going and they may one day have a steady stream of business for you.

The “low-paying” work you do for these clients is an investment in the growth of your practice. You earn less today so you can earn (a lot) more tomorrow.

I’ve done this. I’ve taken small cases that paid little or nothing and was rewarded with some fat, juicy cases down the road.

If you consider this option, the idea is to think in terms of clients, not cases. The case isn’t important, the client is. If it is a client who knows a lot of people, for example, they could send you a lot of business, even if their own case isn’t much to write home about.

Capiche?

Option two is to stick to your guns. Turn down (or refer out) the small stuff or the work that’s not in your primary practice area. When you do that, you can use the time this gives you to focus on marketing and bringing in the types of clients and cases you really want.

I’ve done this too. It was key to my going from “just getting by” to building a big practice.

So, both options work.

What also works is to do a little of both. Turn down most of the “wrong” work but take some of it when it makes sense to do that.

I know, it’s complicated.

Which option is best for you? You might find the answer by looking at a spreadsheet or your bank account. Or by trying it one way and then the other and seeing what works best.

If that sounds even more complicated, you might do what I did.

Stop counting beans and start trusting your gut.

This can help

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The most dangerous number in business

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In business, the most dangerous number is the number one.

If you have one client and they leave or go out of business, you’re in trouble. You want more than one client.

If you have one “price point” or package of services, you have nothing to offer the prospective client who wants something different.

If you have one marketing method and it stops working for you, if you have one target market and it becomes too competitive, what will you do to keep your pipeline full?

You don’t want your entire livelihood to depend on the number one.

Which means, as soon as you have something that’s working for you, start adding the next thing. A second market, marketing strategy, or offer.

But not another practice area. Not unless you’re in a small market.

The bigger the market, the more competition you have, the more you need to specialize, because you can’t compete with everyone on everything.

When you specialize, marketing is easier, cheaper, and more effective. You can stand out from the crowd and become known for what you do best.

Specializing allows you to become the top dog in your field.

That doesn’t mean you must turn away work that’s not your specialty. Take the work if you want to and can handle it. But don’t promote this, promote the “one thing” you do best and want to be known for.

Because when you specialize, one isn’t a dangerous number, it is your friend.

How to choose your specialty

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Every lawyer needs one of these

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I’ve had a lot of legal secretaries and assistants over the years. Some were good at their job, some were very good, and some were worth their weight in gold.

The most valuable assistants were the ones with the guts to tell me what I needed to hear when I wasn’t ready to hear it.

The ones who pushed me to do something I didn’t want to do (but needed to). The ones who didn’t put up with my stubborn ways or my “because I’m the boss” attitude. The ones who respected me but weren’t afraid of me.

They helped me see what I couldn’t see and do what I didn’t want to do. They helped me grow as a person and a professional.

If you have people like that in your life, be grateful. And listen to them. They won’t always be right, but they will be right more often than they are wrong.

I heard from an attorney who is fortunate to have an assistant like that in her life, and fortunate that she listened to her.

The subject: increasing her fees, which I wrote about recently.

She wrote:

This blog really resonated with me.  I got busier during the pandemic than I had ever been before, so my assistant convinced me to raise my fees by way more than I was comfortable with.  I raised my immigration consultation fee by 15%, the flat fee for my most popular service by 33%, and my hourly rate by 40%.  I’m still just as busy as ever and my assistant is going to get a big bonus this year. 🙂

Why do we often refuse to do things we know we should do, even things we want to do?

Fear. What if we’re wrong, What if we mess up, What if there are unforeseen consequences?

We’re smart but we’re human.

So why do we then listen to someone else when they tell us to do that very thing?

Because, through them, we hear the voice of our inner wisdom speaking truth. Because the voice we hear is our own voice, giving ourselves permission to do what we want to do.

Make sure you have someone in your life who cares about you enough to tell you what you need to hear.

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No, I don’t want more clients

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Last week, I pontificated about the value of limiting the number of clients an attorney takes on to 10, because it allows them to earn more and work less.

I also said most attorneys won’t do it.

Some attorneys do, however. Appellate attorney Steve Emmert is one of them.

In response to my email, Steve wrote:

(Heh, heh!) I currently have fewer than ten files open. Most of them have seven-digit deltas, of course, so I can still make a living. But you’re absolutely right about this.

This week I took a call from an ad guy at SuperLawyers, in which I’ve been listed for several years, though I’ve never advertised with them. He asked if I’d like to have an extra three or four clients a month. I’m probably the only guy who’s ever told him, “No” in response to that question. I told him that I start getting nervous when I have more than about 12 files open, and three or four more a month would drown me. He really didn’t know what to say.

Who wouldn’t like to be able to tell a sales rep they don’t want any more business?

Steve also shared a story that illustrates the same idea in a different way:

Years ago I attended a brilliant presentation by a guy named Mark Powers, of the legal-consulting firm Atticus. He described his trip to a big firm for an in-house presentation. As soon as the introductions were complete, Powers said, “Now, the first thing I want each of you to do is double your hourly rates.” The ensuing uproar subsided just long enough for one of the partners to stammer, “But, but if we do that, we’ll lose half our clients!”

“Exactly!” a triumphant Powers replied with a smile. He explained to them that if they got the same amount of money for doing half the work, they’d have a better quality of life.

Point, set and match.

I’ve had discussions about raising fees with many attorneys over the years. When I do, I can almost always hear the wheels turning in their head as they wrestle with idea. Sadly, their desire usually loses out to their fear.

Not my friend Steve, however, who figured this out on his own.

I know this because I interviewed him and published a book based on that interview. In it, he shares the secrets to his success, or, as he might describe them, the methods to his madness.

How to Build a Successful Appellate Practice contains valuable practice-building and career-building advice for attorneys in any practice area.

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What if you could only have 10 clients?

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What would happen if you allowed yourself to have no more than 10 clients or 10 active cases at a time? Everyone else gets referred out or turned away. Or told they have to wait until you have an opening.

Because you only take 10 clients at a time.

I’ll tell you what would happen.

You would have more time to serve your clients, which would help you attract better clients and bigger cases. You would be able to charge more, have lower overhead, spend less time on admin and marketing, have more focus, less stress, and enjoy what you do.

In short, you’d earn more and work less.

That’s the theory, anyway. Is this practical? For most attorneys, no. Not without making a lot of changes they aren’t willing to make. So I’m not recommending this way of doing business to all attorneys.

I am recommending that all attorneys think about it, however, because this is the kind of thinking that can lead to some great ideas.

Ideas that can help you earn more and work less.

So. . .

What would you change about your practice if you adopted this rule? Which clients would you eliminate to make room for your 10?

What types of cases would you turn down? What would you change about your fees and retainers and billing? What expenses would you be able to eliminate or reduce?

What would you change about your work process? How would you make things easier, quicker, or more effective?

Let your mind run with this idea. Imagine what your practice (and personal life) would be like if you fully embraced the “no more than 10” rule.

You might get some ideas you can use immediately, or start working towards. Or gain valuable insights about what you’re doing well and what you need to improve.

After this exercise, you probably won’t go “all in” on the “no more than 10” rule. But you might.

Would you like to build a “100% referral” practice? Here’s how

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The need for speed

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I’m a simple man with simple needs. I don’t need a powerful computer because I don’t edit videos or images, work with complicated databases, or play games. I work with text and use a handful of simple apps to manage my work. 

I could do that on just about any piece of silicon, and as long as the gear I’ve got is still working, I usually wait until it dies before I replace it.  

The thing is, we don’t know what we don’t know and I didn’t know I was long overdue to replace my laptop, which I finally did after Calvin (yes, named after Calvin and Hobbes) recently bit the dust. 

Today, I’m a new man with a new computer. 

A fast processor, a fast SSD, and a new perspective on the value of upgrading even when you don’t think you need to.

I knew Calvin had slowed with age (he was 7 at time of his passing), but I didn’t realize how bad off he was. I blamed Evernote when I should have blamed Calvin. 

Now, Evernote flies. It launches in seconds, notes open as soon as I click them, and everything works the way it’s supposed to. 

All my apps work that way. I don’t have to wait for anything to launch, pages to load, or functions to engage. 

Who knew?

And, what else don’t I know?

Whether it’s computers, workflows, or the people in our lives, we get used to them and often can’t see their flaws. We don’t realize how much we might improve our situation if we change them. 

We need to train ourselves to periodically stand down from our daily routines and take inventory. Examine where we are and what we’re doing and see how we can improve.

What we’re doing might be working but something else might work better. 

Or faster. 

So that’s my story. I’m a new man with a new computer and I like the new me. 

There’s just one problem. I haven’t decided what to name my new baby. Hey, how about Barry? You know, Barry Allen, aka “The Flash”?

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Subscription fatigue is a thing

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I watched a video by a guy who presented 5 reasons why he switched to a new app, replacing two others he’d been using. He did so, he said, “because subscription fatigue is a real thing.”

His first reason was cost. One app is cheaper than two and a free app (which he now uses) is cheaper still.

An app might only be $5 per month but $5 here and $5 there and before you know it, you might spend $1000 per year.

Of course the bigger cost of using too many apps, or the wrong apps, is the cost of our time.

Time to learn how to use the app, update it, hack it and customize it to our liking, watching videos about how others use the apps–is time better spent doing work.

Or is it?

The time we spend in app-land might be well spent if it allows us to get more out of those apps. If they help us save more time than we spend tweaking them, or help us earn more money, that’s a win.

There’s also the fun factor. I enjoy using some apps more than others. I’m sure you do, too. We probably use those apps more than others, and probably get more out of them.

Clearly, using one app instead of two, or simpler apps instead of more complex ones, provides less drag on our day. Some apps may do a better job at some things than others apps do, but we have to consider the extra overhead of using multiple apps.

When we look at other apps and compare them to the ones we use, we have to consider other factors:

  • Future proofing. Some apps are locked into propriety data formats, some aren’t. Some make it easy to export (and use) your data, some don’t.
  • Platforms: Can you use the app on all your devices? Mobile, tablet, desktop, cloud?
  • Security/redundancy: How safe is your data? What are your options if the site goes down or you can’t log in?
  • Features/development: Does it have what you need and want? Are new features being regularly added?
  • Speed: How quickly can you enter new information; how fast is search?
  • Support: Can you get help if and when you need it?
  • Training: Do the developers and/or user base show you how to use the app and how to incorporate it into your work?

I’ve tried a lot of apps and do my best to use as few as possible. When I find something I like, I stick with it, but continue to take new apps out for a spin.

Which means I spend way more time than I should, in pursuit of the perfect app.

It’s a blessing, and a curse.

Evernote for Lawyers

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Assume I’m as dumb as a rock

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I had an eye infection and went to see a doctor. I won’t do my usual rant about not making the patient (client) wait for 40 minutes before you see them, as if their time isn’t important, and if there’s an emergency, to explain that and apologize, because that’s what a professional who cares about people would do.

No. I’ll save that for another day.

Today, I want to address another issue. Making sure your patients (clients) understand you.

The doctor had a lot to tell me about the care and treatment of my eye, including what to do now and what she will have me do later if things don’t clear up. The problem? She delivered this information rapid-fire, with a foreign accent, through a mask, and I didn’t catch most of it.

No problem, I thought. I’m sure she’ll give me some instructions to take home. Maybe a link to a video or two, so I can see what to do and how to do it.

Not so much.

They gave me a list of things to get at the pharmacy, but no instructions about how to use them. No, it’s not obvious, and it’s my eye and I don’t want to wing it. So now, I have to call the doctor’s office and have them explain it to me.

Doctors (and lawyers) need to spell things out. Assume your client (patient) knows nothing, is distracted by their problem, and not able to process and remember all of your information or advice.

Assume they are as dumb as a rock because in that moment, they probably aren’t their usual clear-thinking self.

If you have a new PI client, for example, and you tell them to keep a “pain journal” to document their aches and pains, their sleepless nights, the medications they took, and so on, you may assume that your advice will literally go in one ear and come out the other.

Assume they didn’t hear, didn’t understand, and won’t remember everything you said. Or anything.

Give the client detailed written instructions. Explain what you want them to do, how to do it, and why it is so important to their case. Give them some examples, so they can see how much to record. And have them email you their notes once a week, so you can make sure they’re doing it, and doing it right.

Because your clients depend on you to take care of them. And sometimes, that means assuming they are as dumb as a rock.

Happy clients provide more referrals

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Do your clients know how smart you are?

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My accountant and I recently started using a shared Dropbox folder to exchange documents. I spoke to him the other day about a bunch of things and when we were done, I asked if he wants me to keep everything in that folder, or could I remove them.

Some things I want to put elsewhere. Some things I want to trash.

He said I could do anything I wanted with those documents, they’re all copies.

One reason I asked is that every year he sends me an inch-thick booklet of “literature” to read, information about changes in tax law, recommended record-keeping practices, and various strategies for reducing taxes.

It’s a lot to read and I’m sure it’s very good but I usually don’t read it.

I always assumed it was canned material, purchased from a service that sells research and recommendations to CPAs to send to their clients. Something he and a thousand other CPAs stick in the envelope (or dropbox folder) they send to clients each year.

Boilerplate. Generic. Boring.

But I was wrong. He told me he writes all of it.

I was impressed (and told him so) and embarrassed that, at best, I only skimmed his good work.

My fault for assuming. His fault for not letting me know he wrote it.

Had I known that, I would have read (some of) it and probably found something I could use. At the very least, I would have been even more impressed at how smart he is and how hard he works for his clients.

So that’s my message to you. If you write or record something, send it to your clients and prospects, even if it’s not completely applicable to their case or situation. And make sure they know you wrote it.

You want them to know that you’re smart, good at your job, and work hard for your clients. You want them to feel good about choosing you as their attorney.

Pretty sure you want that too.

How to write a newsletter that brings in more business

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What could you improve?

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The other day I stopped at a light. On the corner, a building was under construction and I saw a tradesman poised on a beam, doing something with a piece of lumbar. I couldn’t tell what he was doing but I could tell he was doing it purposefully and carefully.

Like he wanted to do it right.

No doubt he’s proud of his work, I thought, and wants to do a good job so he’ll be hired again.

And because he knows his work will be scrutinized by a building inspector.

That’s when I thought about you.

You do your best work because you are a professional and you’re proud of what you do. Like the contractor, you have a client who expects and deserves your best work.

Your client is interested in the results you obtain for him, and wants to know he got his money’s worth, but he won’t “inspect” your work like a building inspector.

So it comes down to you.

From time to time, you might ask yourself a question: “If my work was inspected by the bar, by my insurance carrier, or by another attorney my client hired to get a second opinion, what would they conclude?”

Did I cut any corners? Omit steps? Make mistakes?

A little introspection is good for the soul, and the pocketbook.

But don’t stop there. Don’t focus solely on avoiding mistakes, consider ways to improve what you do well.

At the end of each case or engagement, examine the steps you took and the order in which you took them. Do you see a way to improve your process? To do a better job or get the work done more quickly? To make it easier for you to do that work for the next client?

While you’re at it, examine how you treated the client. Did you make them feel appreciated? Did you make them feel like you gave them their money’s worth?

Ask yourself questions like these and take notes. Write down what you did well and what you could improve.

Because you are your own building inspector. And you don’t want to merely be up to code, you want to be the best you can be.

Ready to take a Quantum Leap in the growth of your practice? This will show you how

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