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Bar News - January 15, 2014

60 Tips for New Lawyers


Many years ago I worked with a team at ABA to develop a rapid-fire method to present lectures on technology topics. We developed the “60 Tips in 60 Minutes” model. Each presenter had no more than one minute to deliver a bullet point on a specific topic. The buzzer rang after one minute and the next presenter started – whether the first person was done or not! It was both fun and educational. I reached out to my colleagues at the ABA, State Bar Associations and the Canadian Bar for input on the materials below.

I offer these tips as my present to you for your kindness, diligence, and support during our Law Practice Management Course. I wish you well in your future endeavors.

If I may be of help in the future, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Focus on the Client

1. When meeting with a potential client listen more than you talk. Remember the ancient saying, that we have two ears but one mouth. Listen twice, speak once.

2. Don't nickel and dime your clients with separate charges for fax, telephone postage, etc. Build this into your hourly rate.

3. Don't charge for every phone call or email - if it's a contact confirming an appointment or something that is administrative in nature, Record “No Charge” and show it on your bills (including it on your bill lets the client know that you aren't charging them for everything).

4. To show interest in your business clients, consider going to their office instead of having them come to yours. Don’t charge for travel time. Meeting at their office often gives you a better understanding of their needs and presents an opportunity to look for further ways you may provide additional legal services.

5. When meeting with a client under stress (divorce, etc.) have the tissue box within their reach. Let them know it is fine to cry. It’s part of the process to start the recovery and you’re going to help them get through this challenging time.

6. As you complete your meeting with a client, verbally summarize and reflect what each of you will be doing as the next steps in moving the matter forward. Have the client repeat to you what tasks the client will complete. This avoids confusion and assures the client that you understand their needs and want them integrally involved in the process.

7. Many cases take a long time to complete. A tort case may take years. Clients worry when they don’t hear from their lawyers. Provide periodic progress reports in writing, even if nothing is happening. That way the client knows that you are paying attention to their matter.

8. Go through your files. Fire your worst client! One really bad client can totally sour your attitude toward the practice of law. If you can’t get along with that client it is best to part company even if you have to refund all their money. I know a few attorney who make this an annual ritual. Your stress factor will diminish and your outlook improved. Just be sure to follow all ethical considerations.

9. Your certificate of admission to the Federal Court includes the words “attorney and counselor.” That doesn’t make you a therapist, but it does make you an advisor. Help your clients make well-reasoned decisions. Don’t just blindly follow the law. Look for a practical result within the law. Many times a client will come to you thinking it is a legal issue when it is a practical life issue. Counsel them accordingly. The law can’t fix everything.

10. Clients appreciate effort and value. Never send a one or two line bill. Every bill is a communication that should reflect the detail in your work and the effort you applied to achieve the result.

11. If you see something positive in print about a client, copy the article and mail it to them with a note of congratulations.

12. If a client owes you money for more than 60 days without explanation, pick up the phone and call the client. The delay in payment may be a sign of dissatisfaction or other concern about your services. Address it promptly and directly. If the client is tight on cash, get a commitment as to when it will be paid and don’t extend credit indefinitely. Remember, you are their attorney, not their banker!

13. A. A client is the most important person ever in this law firm – in person, by mail, or by telephone.
B. A client is not dependent on us, we are dependent on the client. C. A client is not an interruption of our work, the client is the purpose of it.

D. We are not doing a favor by serving the client; the client is doing us a favor by giving us the opportunity to do so.

E. A client is not someone to argue or match wits with. Nobody ever won an argument with a client.

F. A client is a person who brings us his or her wants. It is our job to handle them profitably for the client and for ourselves.
14. Never be afraid to say to a client, “I don’t know.” However, follow it up with, “please give me some time to find the answer for you.”

Take Care of Yourself and Grow

15. Form a lasting relationship with a good CPA. Don’t do your own tax work. CPA’s are a great referral source.

16. Take advantage of Bar Association resources. Most states have a Practice Management Advisor. Other Bars have a Law Practice Management Committee or Section. The best way to learn is to get actively involved with your local, regional or State Bar.

17. Remember "what goes around, comes around" (small state, word gets around quickly if you're a jerk. Opposing counsel may be someone you need one day.)

18. Actually read the rules. You need to understand the rules before you can apply them in a practical setting. Don’t trust your colleagues to give you all the right answers.

19. Tread carefully when “office sharing.” Review the ethics rules and make sure your clients know that you are operating a separate law practice from your office mate.

20. Try to meet as many of the local attorneys as practical. Don’t be bashful about asking for referrals or conflict cases. Offer to assist them if they need a “second chair.” Just be clear about compensation and follow the ethical rules for feesplitting.

21. When you have a case with an attorney you have not previously met, pick up the phone and introduce yourself. There is nothing worse than getting a cold-harsh pleading from someone you don’t know. Often, the phone call opens the door to resolution of the matter.

22. Never promise what you can’t deliver. When you promise to deliver, do it! If the documents were promised for Friday, deliver them on Thursday. Always strive to exceed client expectations.

23. Just because you are a lawyer, don’t think it gives you special privileges when you step up to the clerk’s window at court. Be polite. Let them know you need help and always say “thank you,” for any advice or assistance. The clerks and court officers can save your backside from great embarrassment. Ask them for advice about how a judge or particular clerk likes things done in their courtroom.

24. Telephone etiquette is important. Speak slowly and clearly. When calling, always identify yourself. When calling a client ask if this is a good time to talk or if they prefer talking later. Their time is as valuable as yours.

25. Set aside a “stress break” at your desk each day. Take five minutes to just sit back, close your eyes and relax. Breath! If you don’t slow down you are likely to visit your stress on staff and family.

26. Put your vacation on the schedule as a regular appointment. Let clients know well enough in advance that you will be on vacation. They will understand, and you will feel better while you are away that the world will not stop rotating.

27. Get exercise! Take a walk during your lunch or afternoon break. Go to the gym. Do something, even if it’s just stretching at your desk. Move!

28. The practice of law is changing faster than ever before. Take time to learn new skills. Consider expanding into a new practice area.

29. Develop and practice various forms of your “elevator speech.” Have one for meeting with clients and another for meeting with lawyers. Develop a pitch for each major area of the law in which you provide services. Ask the prospective client what type of legal matter is of concern and then deliver your message tailored to their needs.

30. Law professors are people too. Don’t be shy once you pass the bar. Call for advice or input. You’d be amazed at how wiling we are to help you get a solid footing in your new career.

31. In order to build your network of like-minded lawyers, attend seminars and educational programs to expand your knowledge in areas of interest. Introduce yourself to others. Share your business card.

32. When you attend a club meeting, bar function, or social engagement, don’t hang with the same crowd. Seek out an area or a table where you don’t know anyone and meet them. You can’t expand your business base by sitting with your regular crowd. As you expand your base you’ll “know everyone,” and they will know you.

33. You will make mistakes. Admit them promptly. If it involves a client, tell them about it. Don’t cover it up. In a huge majority of cases all it takes is a simple question, “what will it take to make it right for you?” You’d be amazed at how many times the client says, “don’t worry about it.” If corrective action is needed, do it immediately.

34. Never forget your family! Too many lawyers have sacrificed marriages and family relationships while worshiping at the altar of the billable hour. Go home. Spend time with family. The work will be there in the morning.

Take Care of the Office

35. Worry about old files before you have them (#1 question from lawyers to the South Carolina Bar Practice Management Advisor: “What do I do with all my old client files?”)

36. Before you launch your practice take time to design a business plan and marketing plan. Focus your efforts on your target market. Draw a budget - so you can anticipate the costs and expenses of running your practice. Draw a technology plan so you know what you require to produce the legal product that will meet your client's legal needs. Draw a management plan that matches the tasks you need to do on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis against yours and your staff's skill set. Have a Vision and a Mission that set the lofty ideals that you will strive to attain. Lastly plan the office on paper..layout, storage, reception you know what goes where.

37. DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT TAKING MONEY FROM THE TRUST ACCOUNT THAT YOU HAVEN'T EARNED! Close your doors; pick a new profession before you ever take money from your trust account. This is money that has been placed into your hands for safekeeping, not for you to convert for other uses.

38. Return phone calls promptly. To you it may be a small matter. To the client it is their life. If you can’t return the call promptly, be sure a member of your staff returns the call and explains the reason for the delay.

39. When I client comes to your office always show hospitality. Offer a beverage, water, tea, coffee, etc.

40. Hire a “classy” receptionist. Remember, the person who sits at the front desk is your Director of First and Last Impressions. Make sure that the impression is a great one!

41. In order to level out your cash flow, consider billing half of your clients around the 15th of the month and the other half just before the end of the month. Many clients pay their bills on the first of the month. If your bill is on their desk before the first of the month it gets paid promptly. If your bill arrives on the 3rd or 4th, you get passed over until the following month. This is a free loan to your client! Bill early, bill often!

42. Treat your staff as equals, not as servants. Build a collaborative environment where staff input is an integral part of the process of handling client matters. Praise staff for a job well done in a public fashion. Deliver corrective messages in private.

43. Cross-training for staff and lawyers is essential. No person should be the only one who can perform any task. For example, who knows how to balance the checkbooks? Who knows how to check a balance owed by a client? Who knows all the steps to open a new client file? Vacation, illness, or termination of an employee should not be a reason for anyone to say “I don’t know how that gets done!”

44. Update the message on your answering machine or voice mail. There’s nothing that says, “I don’t care,” than a message that says, “I’ll be in court on April 23rd and April 24th and will return your call thereafter,” when it is now May 3rd!

45. You can’t be an authority in every area of the law. Decide what areas are your comfort zone. When someone needs services outside your comfort zone, develop a network of colleagues to whom you may refer cases or co-counsel if you want to learn a new area of the law.

46. Write an article for your bar association about a topic of interest. Nothing says “expertise” more than a published article. Put the article on your firm web site. Send an announcement to clients. They want to share in your success.

47. Sit in your reception area for a few minutes and look around. Would you like to do business with this office? Are files strewn about? Are computer screens with client information potentially visible to those waiting? Can confidential phone calls be overheard? Is the area neat, clean and well provisioned with current magazines? Are the chairs comfortable, especially for older clients?

48. The day the bank statement arrives for your IOLTA (Trust Account), be sure to reconcile the account. Don’t wait. Too many lawyers leave it for next week, or next month. The rules require monthly reconciliation. If there is an error or adjustment needed, it is much easier to find it before there are more transactions in the mix.

49. Review and update your disaster plan on a regular basis. What happens if your office or home burn down? What happens if your computer is stolen? How will you get back to work quickly?

50. If you don’t bill, you won’t get paid. Be sure that bills are sent on a regular basis. Too many lawyers have failed because they have unbilled or uncollected time on the books and no money in the bank.

51. Learn to delegate. There’s reason you have an assistant, paralegal, or secretary. Make them part of the team and give them assignments consistent with their capabilities. I know of many secretaries who truly “run the show” and make their attorney-boss look good.

Take Care of the Technology

52. Set aside time for attorneys and staff to learn new technology tools. Don’t just install new software and expect everyone will pick it up on the fly. For any single new or upgraded software allow at least one-half hour per day for a full week, with no interruptions, for anyone to learn the new tools.

53. Use your computerized client information database. When “Jack McCarthy” calls and says you did a will for him and his wife eight years ago, you should be able to tap a few keys and pull up his information and be able to say, “Gee, Jack, it’s been eight years! How are Millie and the kids doing?” “Little Jack must be in high school now and Sally must be starting middle school.” (You probably don’t remember Jack, but he’ll be impressed that you can refresh your memory.)

54. Pause before pressing the “Send” button to transmit that email. Are you sure it is going to co-counsel and not to opposing counsel? One slip of the finger can ruin a good case.

55. Most of us use Microsoft Word to compose documents. We cut and paste text from one document to another. Often the fonts, spacing, and attributes of the text don’t come out as desired. Use the feature “Paste Special.” Select “unformatted text” and it will insert the text to match the format of your destination document.

56. Create a “Google Alert” for you and each member of your staff. Know when your name comes up on the Internet. Create “Google Alerts” for major clients and for facts, cases, or information that are pertinent to your practice.

57. Most lawyers have more than enough technology tools. They simply don’t know how to get the most out of the software already installed. Take a few minutes each day to learn one new feature in Word or in your case management program. All of these programs have wonderful tutorials and help menus. Use them!

58. This “telephone” has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us. From a western Union internal memo in 1976. The Internet is here to stay. Judicious use of the Internet will help advance your law practice. Learn to use and embrace new technologies.

59. Always include a signature block on business emails. Include your name, firm name, address, phone number and web site. You don’t need your email address since you were the one who sent the email. Be careful in using heavily formatted text or graphics as some recipients may disable some of the features.

60. Write down all your passwords and put them in a sealed envelope. Entrust the envelope to a valued member of your team. Update it periodically. Attorneys and staff do die, become disgruntled, or otherwise unavailable — and everything on their computers is locked!

Contributors to these tips
Courtney Kennaday
Practice Management Advisor
South Carolina Bar
David J. Bilinsky
Practice Management Consultant
Law Society of British Columbia
Atty Nerino J. Petro, Jr.
Practice Management Advisor
State Bar of Wisconsin
Ross Kodner, Esq.
Chief Technology Officer
Microlaw, Inc.
James Calloway
Practice Management Advisor
Oklahoma Bar Association
Dan Pinnington
Director, Practice PRO
Lawyers Professional Indemnity Program
Reid F. Trautz
Director, Practice & Professionalism Center
American Immigration Lawyers Association

Supreme Court Rule 42(9) requires all NH admitted attorneys to notify the Bar Association of any address change, home or office.

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