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Jan Copley
Certified Practice Advisor
Atticus, Inc.

530 South Lake Avenue, Suite 250
Pasadena, CA 91101
(626) 696-3145
(626) 421-6747 (fax)

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Little Things Mean a Lot … Or, How Ignoring the Details Can Cost You Business

October 24, 2012

Filed under: Practice Management — @ 6:26 pm

My brother-in-law died recently, leaving his widow, my sister-in-law, with an estate to settle. For us lawyers — especially the estate planners — it probably looks like a pretty simple estate to settle, but, for my sister-in-law, it’s overwhelming.

So, my sister-in-law made an appointment with the local lawyer who had drawn up her and her husband’s wills. What happened? She walked into a messy office, was greeted by a distracted receptionist, had to wait fifteen minutes, and then shown into the lawyer’s messy office. The experience did not instill confidence in her, and my sister-in-law chose not to retain the attorney.

So, what’s the point of this particular blog entry, you say? It’s that because this lawyer was sloppy about first impressions, he lost business. And, if he’d just used some manners and common sense, my sister-in-law probably would have retained him — she was already predisposed to do so.

What should the lawyer have done differently? He should have focused on the message he was conveying through first impressions, including:

  • Keeping his reception area and meeting room clean and neat
  • Making sure my sister-in-law was greeted warmly —and with sympathy — at the door
  • Not making my sister-in-law wait

And, really, how hard would it be for him to do these simple things? Wouldn’t it be worth it so that he wouldn’t lose business?

Please let me know how this helps you!

If It’s Too Good to Be True…

August 15, 2012

Filed under: Growing Your Business,Practice Management,Prepaid Legal Plans,Pricing — @ 8:00 am

Even lawyers get scammed. Steve Riley, my friend and fellow Atticus practice advisor, forwarded a link to a recent Wall Street Journal Law Blog article, “Despite Warnings, Lawyers Still Fall for Collection Scam.” Apparently, lawyers can be just as easily sucked into promises of easy money as everyone else. So, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

What about prepaid legal? The article got me thinking about other financial arrangements, which, while not scams, can trap attorneys. Specifically, I found myself thinking about prepaid legal plans. Most prepaid legal plans require attorneys to either (1) provide their services at discounted rates or (2) remit a significant percentage of the amount collected to the plan.

The reason why lawyers choose to participate in prepaid legal plans is that they think they’ll see more clients and generate more revenue. That may or may not be true; some plans refer potential clients fairly consistently, while others do not.

You have to ask: will you make money? Generating more revenue may not be what you’re looking for: rather, the question to ask is, will you generate more profit? And the answer may be no. If you’re running your business with a 30% profit margin (which, according to the Los Angeles County Bar Association, is the average profit for a law firm) and paying 40% of your revenue from the matter to the lawyer referral company, you’ve just signed to work at a loss!

Alternatively, if the plan limits the amount you can charge for certain work, make sure that you’ll make money at that price. If the plan limits what you can charge for a specific transaction to say, $1,500, and it costs you $2,000 to provide that service, you’ll be losing money on the deal.

In either case, it seems to me you’re better off using the time you would spend on prepaid legal matters marketing for clients who will pay your full rate.

What quality client will you see? Another concern I have is that a prepaid legal plan member won’t be the quality client you want — you’ll be seeing individuals whose primary concern may be to get a discount. In my experience, people who choose their attorney based only on price are not great clients. As a rule, they’re not great referral sources, either.

Please let me know how this helps you!

Are You Listening?

July 25, 2012

Filed under: Listening Skills,Practice Management — @ 1:20 pm

Do you find yourself frustrated because you think no one is listening to you? I think this is a very common experience in all of our lives — at parties, at the office, at home (how many of you have spouses who seem to interrupt you all the time?).

Worse, people may complain that you don’t listen to them. That’s a problem. As lawyers, one of the most important things we can do is listen to the people around us. By listening, we have a better chance of retaining new clients, figuring out what’s really bothering a client so we can effectively represent him/her, learning how to deal with opposing counsel, and discovering weak spots in an opponent’s position.

I don’t know about you, but I think true listening skills in the legal profession are rare. We’re too busy to slow down and actually pay attention to what someone is saying. As a result, we miss a lot.

That’s why I was interested when I ran across an article, “A Lawyer’s Recipe for Better Listening,” on the Legal Productivity blog. According to the article, consider the following four steps to improve your listening skills:

1. Stay quiet. Don’t interrupt. Let the other person finish.

2. Don’t think ahead while someone is speaking to you. Don’t let your personal filters get in the way of hearing what the other person is trying to tell you.

3. Wait for the speaker to note that he/she has made his/her point. If the person doesn’t explicitly say so, ask (nicely) if the person is finished speaking.

4. Repeat the speaker’s point back to him/her. There are two reasons for doing this: (1) you can make sure you’ve really heard what the person is saying; and (2) you let the speaker know you’re paying attention. When I was practicing, I found this technique to be especially useful in meetings with prospective clients.

Please let me know how this helps you!

Just Say No

July 11, 2012

Filed under: Focus/Time Management,Practice Management — @ 1:38 pm

My job as a law practice management coach is really about helping my clients create the businesses and the lives they want. So, I talk to my clients about making time for themselves and turning down the “D” clients.

I think all practice management gurus say the same thing, in one way or another. But, I recently ran across a posting on the HBR Blog Network, “If You Don’t Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will,” that says it more eloquently than most. The idea behind the article is to take control of your life and your business, rather than letting unreasonable people put you in situations where you shouldn’t be/don’t want to be.

In other words, saying yes just to please someone — or because it’s easier than saying no — is not a good business practice!

I also like the article because it gives three rules to determine if you are saying yes for the right reason:

    1. Don’t let your relationship with a person cause you to say yes unless yes is the right answer. No matter how well you know someone, don’t let that person take advantage of you.

    2. Don’t do something just because you “have” to. Unless it’s something such as court-order mediation, you probably don’t “have” to do it. Instead, choose to do something or to work with someone.

    3. Don’t work with people who don’t respect your priorities. If someone pressures you to do something you don’t want to do — such as schedule an appointment at an inconvenient time or cut your prices — that’s probably not someone you want to work with.

Please let me know how this helps you!

Is Your Firm Healthy? A Twelve-Point Checklist

May 25, 2012

Filed under: Growing Your Business,Practice Management — @ 1:02 pm

The mega-firm of Dewey & LeBeouf is imploding; according to an article in the May 18 Wall Street Journal, there are rumors that Dewey will seek protection in the bankruptcy court soon. It’s not the first time a big law firm has gone down in flames, and it won’t be the last. And you can’t just blame it on economic conditions; during the thirty years I’ve been a lawyer, I’ve seen the biggies go down during good times as well as when times were tough.

As a law practice management coach, I mostly work with small firms and solo practitioners. So, you may think that any lessons to be learned from Dewey’s demise aren’t applicable to my clients. If so, you would be wrong.

I recently ran across a blog article, “A (Don’t Be) Dewey Dozen: Use This Checklist to Make Sure Your Firm Isn’t Dewey” on the ABA Legal Rebels website. According to the article, there are twelve questions to ask to determine if a firm is healthy:

  • Does the firm trust its leadership?
  • Is the firm sufficiently liquid?
  • Can everyone articulate the firm’s strategy and value proposition?
  • Do proposed mergers and acquisitions advance the firm’s strategy?
  • Are clients firm clients, not just clients of an individual partner?
  • Is firm leadership truly aware of the firm’s finances?
  • Does partner compensation make sense?
  • Does the firm encourage client feedback?
  • Are the firm’s clients happy?
  • Does the firm listen to its critics?
  • Does the firm believe its value can be improved?
  • Is the firm willing to experiment with new ways of doing things?

Think about it: why would these rules not apply to small law firms? Ask yourself these questions about your business; if you answer no to one or more of them, it may be time to step back, acknowledge that improvements are necessary, and work to fix the problem.

Please let me know how this helps you!

The Psychology of Fraud

May 2, 2012

Filed under: Practice Management — @ 1:13 pm

I remember the first time, when I was a young lawyer, I realized a client had lied to me. I was shocked! Unfortunately, as the years went by, more and more of the people I dealt with — clients, opponents, trustees, beneficiaries — led me astray, and I grew jaded.

I think that at some point, every attorney realizes that someone in his or her practice — be they clients, opposing counsel, employees, referral sources or otherwise — has engaged in fraudulent or unethical behavior. Of course, as attorneys, we are obligated to watch out for, and prevent, fraudulent behavior. That’s why “The Psychology of Fraud,” a recent story on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” caught my ear.

Why some people lie. According to story, recent research reveals that many people commit fraudulent behavior because they’re not thinking about the ethical ramifications of what they are doing — rather, they are thinking in terms of a business decision.

Based on my experiences, I think there is truth to the theory. For example, I remember a conversation with a potential trust administration client: she told me that her ailing, demented mother had proposed leaving her entire estate to the potential client, even though mother would be disinheriting her other children. The prospect told me she “prayed to God” for clarity and came to the decision that accepting her mother’s offer was the right thing.

Of course, we know her decision — whether or not approved by God — wouldn’t stand up to a legal challenge. However, it’s not that my prospective client was an inherently bad person. Rather, it’s very likely she was thinking in “business” terms — what would benefit her — and had not focused on the ethical ramifications of her proposal.

By the way, I declined the case.

Is it a business or an ethical decision? The point, however, is that as attorneys, we need to be aware of the ethics of what the people around us propose and do. So, based on the research cited in the article, I think it’s useful to remember that when you are faced with a decision, or are evaluating decisions made and actions taken by the people around you, to step back, stop thinking about the issue in business terms, and consider the ethics of what is proposed.

Please let me know how this helps you!

What Should You Do First?

February 1, 2012

Filed under: Billing,Focus/Time Management,Practice Management,Processes — @ 6:20 pm

When I talk to my coaching clients, many of them express the sense of feeling overwhelmed — they have too much to do and they’re not sure what they should work on first. Thinking you might occasionally feel the same way, I thought I would write about an easy way to decide which projects you should tackle: work first on the cases that will bring you the most money.

You probably have a spreadsheet or some other tracking system listing the open matters in your practice (and if you don’t, you should). You may list the client name, the work to be done, and any deadlines — filing dates or client meetings, perhaps. Why not add another column, listing the amount of money you expect the case to bring in? It will help you really prioritize what you need to do.

Here are two other benefits to keeping this kind of list:

    1. You will have an idea of the amount of money you have in your pipeline. It’s probably more than you think, and that will give you confidence about your practice.

    2. Second, you can watch the amount of work you have coming in and see when your pipeline is not full enough before cash gets tight. You’ll know when it’s time to ramp up your marketing to get more work in the door.

Please let me know how this helps you!

What Does George Clooney Have to Do With Your Messy Office?

November 30, 2011

Filed under: Practice Management,Processes — @ 8:00 am

I saw the new George Clooney movie, “The Descendants” this weekend. It’s good. Clooney does an excellent job playing a man in a tough spot in his life.

So, you say, what does this have to do with law practice management? Well, Clooney’s character, Matt King, is a lawyer. There’s a shot of King in his office, surrounded by Redweld files and stacks of paper. It’s hard to see his desk.

I was struck by the image. So many lawyers have messy desks! And, it costs money. Think about it — how much time to you spend every day looking for stuff? If it’s fifteen minutes and you bill hourly at $300 an hour, that’s $225 a week in billable revenue or $11,700 a year! It’s not a good road to profitability.

Moreover, I think a really messy office is a symptom of a law firm without processes. It probably means there are many other inefficiencies — and lost revenues — in your practice.

To counteract this, I suggest you implement what my good friend and colleague, Steve Riley, calls the “Clean Office Solution.” Set a time for you and your team to clean out your office. Be ruthless. Throw away stuff you don’t need.

But there’s more to it than that, and that’s why you need your team involved. Work with your team to develop systems so the messes don’t happen again. Reward your team for creative solutions to prevent messes. My guess is that you’ll generate so much more revenue that the incentives will be more than worth it.

Please let me know how this helps you!

More About Checklists

November 9, 2011

Filed under: Practice Management,Processes — @ 7:13 pm

In my previous two blog postings, I’ve ruminated about checklists, processes and lists and how they can be useful to our practices. However, I’m not sure I talked about three more ways checklists can be helpful tools for practicing law, so I’m going to do it here.

I used to be skeptical of using checklists — I thought it would take too much time to create them. But, I changed my mind once I found myself reinventing the wheel over and over again. And, when I did implement the use of checklists in my office, I discovered three additional benefits they can provide, as tools to (1) increase efficiency, (2) delegate work, and (3) train my team.

Checklists and efficiency.
We create checklists to make sure that we don’t forget something. Since I found practicing law to involve juggling lots of little pieces, checklists were especially important to make sure I didn’t drop something. One nice side effect, however, was that checklists made me more efficient. Especially when I was working on a project I didn’t usually handle on a day-to-day basis. Having a written checklist meant I didn’t spend my time trying to figure out what I had to do next! The checklist enabled me to finish a project more quickly and with confidence that I hadn’t missed something.

Checklists and delegation. If you’ve got a really good checklist, it can increase your efficiency — to the point that you don’t have to do the work. What a concept! The idea is that the checklist will be clear enough so someone else can follow it and take care of the project. All you, as the lawyer, have to do is oversee the work. That means you can use your time at its highest and best level: marketing, meeting with clients, and true attorney work.

Checklists and training.
One of the recurring themes I encounter as a law practice management coach is my clients’ agony over staffing decisions. If we have an employee who is not performing well, we may be reluctant to let him/her go because we then have to go through the hassle of training someone new. I’ve certainly been guilty of this thinking. But consider this: if you have written checklists and procedures, won’t that make training someone new easier? You can walk your new person through a procedure once, and then he or she can consult the written checklist in the future without having to interrupt you. The checklist will also provide the new team member with confidence because he or she has a resource to consult.

Please let me know how this helps you!

Lists, Checklists and Processes — Oh My!

November 4, 2011

Filed under: Practice Management,Processes — @ 5:20 pm

Reading Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto has gotten me thinking about the various tools we create to remember things and to get things done. I’ve decided that we use three different types of devices: lists, checklists, and processes, with subtle differences between them.

Checklists. I think a checklist is something we use to remember the key elements of a multi-step process. According to Gawande, there are READ DO checklists, which instruct us what to do next. A recipe is a good example. On the other hand, we also have READ CONFIRM checklists, which assure us that we haven’t forgotten anything. I think the World Health Organization’s Surgical Safety Checklist falls within this category.

Processes. A process is a detailed “how to” list. It sets out all the steps necessary to accomplish something. One item on a checklist might be accompanied by a process for that item. What would be an example? You probably have to do some things before you shut your office down at night. One item on the checklist might be to take out the mail. However, taking out the mail involves other, underlying actions: gathering it up, making sure there is appropriate postage, etc. You don’t need each of these times on your checklist, but you might want a written process for taking out the mail with each step enumerated in the process.

Lists. A list can be a brain dump. We create lists when we’re worried that we can’t remember everything we think we need to remember. There may be no particular order to it, and the list won’t be useful to anyone else (unless you turn it into a process or a checklist).

We can also use a list as a clarifying tool. If we’re trying to make an important decision, it can be useful to write down the pros and cons of what is involved in the decision. Once again, there may be no particular order for what we write down and someone else may or may not be able to figure out what the list is about. But creating the list should give us some clarity about the next step we want to take.

Please let me know how this helps you!

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