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Solo In Chicago

...empowering the Second City's entrepreneurial legal community

Friday, October 27, 2006

You can make almost any service upscale

I just wanted to follow-up on Thursday's post regarding Total Customer Experience.

The September 2006 Entrepreneur Magazine had a piece about C & M Moving and Storage, "white-glove movers." They're a Houston-based company offering specialty moving services to customers with artwork or high-priced furniture.

If movers can go "upscale," aren't there ways to make your legal services more upscale (and profit greatly from it)?

A quote from the piece, "luxury consumers are not lacking in material goods, and they also frequently look for what I call luxury experiences." I think this is applicable to the practice of law. Clearly not all aspects of a practice. Some legal work is hard slug-it-out stuff where a client needs to be in the trenches with you. However, the example I go back to is the boring/bland real estate closing. I think some clients want to make one phone call telling you they want to sell their home and that's it. They want to be hands-off. They want a nice package of documents post-closing not just some slip-shop old envelope of things. They want more than the correct result. Great customer service feels good, right?

I know I often miss this point being cheap and almost too logical. I'm overly analytical and just see some of these extras as "fluff." But a lot of people want to pay for the fluff. I was just down at a conference at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, FL...nice place. I think the subject of this post is analogous to the turn-down service at the Ritz. I think it's "fluff" and I'd never pay for it myself. But lots of people want to pay for those little chocolates and vases of flowers!

Practicing from home

Chuck Newton has a great post here about working from home (I just discovered his blog...home office attorney from Texas). He lists seven points and writes extensively.

I know our office expense is by far our largest monthly expense and we're strongly considering going home office or attempting some office-sharing set-up where the rent would be split between multiple persons.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Total Customer Experience

Saw a free conference call here put on by Cisco Systems with this title...it got me thinking. My law firm is very deficient in this area. Is yours?

I think it's somewhat of a mindset change and/or a management issue. We as lawyers are very much tailored toward finding solutions to "legal" problems. It's an important part of what we do. However, if you are at a smaller firm or in a managing type position at a large firm, isn't this "Total Customer/Client Experience" idea vital too?

Everyone knows that when you buy a product/service, it's not only about the end product or service, right? I can play one round of golf at a great course with no starter, no range balls, no free balls in the cart, no water on the course, ect. versus the place with the friendly starter, free range balls, bottles of water and free balls...it's a huge difference in experience.

Unless you're one of these elite trial lawyers where every case is win/lose for all the marbles, I think a lot of what we do the result might be similar with another lawyer. But, what about the Total Customer Experience? I think right now it's mostly a staffing issue for us.

Take a real estate closing, most lawyers will eventually get a deal closed. But it's a major difference if you can give great and thorough information up front, your staff can expediently manage times/dates and just hold the clients' hand, there's great lawyer repoirte at the closing, and post-closing rather than just sending a title policy and a deed you can provide serious legal advice about a myriad of real estate options going forward.

How's your total client experience??

Some "rainmaking" tips for ya!

Got my weekly e-zine from How to make it rain.com...a couple real usable tidbits:

Be A Problem Solver

One of the best Rainmakers I know, a man who has sold literally hundreds of millions of dollars worth of legal services in his career calls this philosophy for selling legal services "Problem Solving Selling". He even carries around a baseball glove to remind himself that ". . . when I'm sitting with a prospective client, my job is to focus on what they are saying so that I can catch the problems that person is struggling with, and help them find relief." What could possibly be more professional and ethical than helping people with important problems, to find solutions to those problems?

The Test

I told you I'd give you a test you can use to apply and see if anything you're doing or considering doing (and paying for) qualifies as Rainmaking:

1. Does it seek to help your prospective client solve their problem or maximize their opportunity?
2. Is there a call to action, or is it just "image building" ?
3. Is there a logical "next step"?

I especically like the baseball mit analogy of "catching problems!!"

Kaplan's circumcision comes out...

Here's a link to a story regarding Judge Jordan Kaplan's recent decision granting a father's request to stop circumcision on his 9-year-old son. I didn't find the decision too suprising...purely a "best interests" analysis I imagine. Kaplan's a solid jurist.

What's up with waiting until 9-years-old for this sort of thing?

Monday, October 23, 2006

How to do legal technology in your firm?

I'm on a couple email lists from Technolawyer.com which had an interesting post lately about how to "do" technology in one's law firm. The lawyer writing on the issue was balancing using an outside consultant versus doing it himself. This particular guy came down on the side of doing it himself saying it saved time and just saying it was too important to be relient on someone outside to get this sort of thing done. Is he right?

For the fairly minimal tech support I've needed since I went solo I've used an outside consultant...haven't really had the emergency breakdown where the systems crashed just as we needed to get some pleadings or something out the door. It's hard for me to think that a lawyer doing their own tech support is the most cost-efficient way to do things. Perhaps in your earliest stages where you don't have any employees, yes, but once you start to have administrative staff don't these people need to take over these functions? And then for the bigger projects use the outside "consultant"? What's the experience out there?

Bigger question that I'm personally dealing with right now, what tasks should be delegated to support staff and in what priority order? My current set-up is I have a law clerk who essentially does some court filing and legal research. Additionally, there's clerical support as part of our office suite that I'll use when big clerical projects need more support. I'm in the process of interviewing for another slot. What should this persons role be? In my mind, issue one is accounting/bookeeping. Our bookeeping isn't what it should be and doing billing and billing follow-up each month sure takes a lot of time. Second, I want to get some of the repetive legal tasks off my plate...basic estate planning, real estate closings. Third, just general phone/email follow-up when I get swamped with court/meetings.

Are my thoughts in line with your experience? I suppose how and when to delegate is somewhat related to practice area(s).

More than just a lawyer

Here's a nice profile of California attorney Jeff Hughes of Legal Grind. I've seen his story before very interesting...combining legal services and coffee shops. I see he now has two locations...only one the last time I saw him discussed.

It's a good reminder about cultivating the entrepreneurial mind-set. I don't think this is encouraged much in law schools. Some of the bar associations have been doing a little better of late on the law practice management stuff. Are there non-traditional income streams that your firm can be tapping? Buy an office condo? Blogging revenue? Paid writing?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Mega-firm to solo...

If the above is something you're considering, grab an issue of the October 2006 Chicago Lawyer (sorry it doesn't link to the piece). It includes a very extensive piece that profiles three big firm attorneys that have gone solo. I've never been big firm, save one summer job during law school, so this is a very eye-opening viewpoint and simply new to me. One of the lawyers profiled had left McDermott, Will & Emery and another Sidley Austin.

What's changed for them...their perspectives:

Although they still have some Fortune 500 clients, mainly the transition to solo meant serving smaller businesses. One's comment was that big companies hire big firms for "comfort level."

Cost efficieny. One of the lawyers mentioned billing at about 40% of his big firm rate, but, since he keeps 80% of his revenue versus the 30% he used to keep, he's a better deal for clients.

Be able to tell clients that you can put a team together. One of the lawyers interviewed talked about the fact that for 90% of cases one lawyer is enough, but for those 10% of cases where you're getting papered to death and need greater breadth, he knows the players/experts well-enough to get a team together to compete with the big firm.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Online time-keeping option

Just a quick shout-out regarding Time:59, a fairly new tech company offering online time-keeping and invoicing tools. I'm just in the process of reviewing the software but the price is right for $19.95 per year. It's produced by a local, Chicago-based company. Here's a blurb from their press release...

Time59 is a new system for self-employed lawyers, accountants, consultants and others who need to manage their billable hours. It operates completely within a computer's web browser, so there is no software to install. Users may access their account from any computer with internet access. They can then input, analyze and bill their time, confident that the information will be stored securely in a state-of-the-art data center.

Client trust account presentation on the Web

Rjon Robins has a nice little online presentation regarding trust account management here over at How to make it rain. I just reviewed it for my first time (they've got a bunch of good free resources including an eBook, e-mail list, and blog if you haven't been to the site before). I think us lawyers tend to give this issue short shirk as too easy or just plain boring (I know I'm guilty of these mindsets). And in reality, trust account management isn't difficult but I suspect many practitioners might be at a similar stage to where I'm at. My trust account(s) were set-up fine up front and I understood trust account management. But quite simply as our clientele has increased the amount of money in our trust account and the number of different clients' money in the trust account makes simple yet critical organization and management very difficult. We're not organized enough in our account management. My takeway points from the presentation:

  • Only a lawyer or lawyers should be signatories on your Trust account. Many of the horrer stories Rjon references in the presentation involve support staff hijinks with trust accounts.
  • Open a separate trust account for individual clients (when the size or importance of the client warrants such a move).
  • Use individual ledger cards for each client. Simply have sort of a checking account ledger for each client for whom retained funds are being held in your trust account.
  • Proper monitoring systems. Is a secretary opening your mail before you and thus able to manipulate trust funds? Again, this just goes back to many problems involving legal assistants getting lawyers in trouble due to their access to client trust accounts.
  • Avoid keeping original documents. I never really thought about client original documents in this way but a clients original documents are trust property. If you have them in the file, you'll be having to keep that file forever.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Need some free business advice?

Here's a piece from the NYTimes regarding free business advice from graduate schools of business. Take a look at a local business school if you're looking for some consultations. Be like Kramer on Seinfeld...remember Kramerica Industries and his intern?? Good stuff!!

Blogging versus Yellow Pages

Take a look at GAL's October 9, 2006 post regarding his blogging policy at his law firm:

One of the most amazing things to me when I launched my vertical blogs in a variety of niche content areas was that my total cost was $13.00 a month through TypePad for unlimited blogs. I designed my blogs a little different from most anyone else. I don’t have one blog where I talk about a variety of different things. I have blogs that are purely niche. Those blogs only talk about narrow issues within that niche. For instance, I have a domain name theft blog. It is a blog which deals exclusively with domain name theft, uniform domain name dispute resolution policy and domain name International Domain Name Arbitration. I have blogs in lots of other niche areas. But my blogs don’t bleed together. They are all independent and stand on their own. I use advanced templates within TypePad to create a standard "website" look for all of my blogs. When navigating between my niche areas, you have no idea you’re actually skipping between blogs. Because my blogs all link to each other, they increase the search engine results between them.

I do a tremendous amount of business off my blogs for $13.00 per month. Contrast the money I pay with TypePad to the money I pay for my Yellow Pages ad. I might get two or three clients a year off my Yellow Pages ad. I took a look the other day and I pay almost 100 times more for my Yellow Pages advertising and get 1/1000th the business.

That's pretty facinating stuff I think. He's far more sophisticated in his blogging theory than I am...although I think we are just about set to change-over to TypePad. The blogging versus Yellow Pages comparison is pretty staggering.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

National Law Journal piece on blogging ethics

Here's a piece from The National Law Journal regarding the ethics of blogging. Nothing new but another perspective...is it commericial speech or not? Perhaps in five years or so we'll start to see some bar association ethics opinions on the topic...I'm not holding my breath.

What's your mindset?

There's a short biographical post here from Lawcrossing.com regarding Attorney Warren Brown's journey from D.C. practicing attorney to bakery/retaurant entrepreneur. My wife (and me) to a degree are Food Network junkies and Warren now has a program called Sugar Rush that's pretty good. We've been to his bakery/restaurant in D.C.; pricey but good.

As an aside, Lawcrossing is a pretty good resource for attorney jobs, industry news and unique lawyer profiles...I have no affiliation with them but do get their weekly mailing called Lawcrossing newswire...but I digress...

But my moral of the story above about Warren is this, I think even beyond lawyering, it's about your whole mindset changing and becoming entrepreneurial when you go solo or become an independent practitioner as The Greatest American Lawyer calls it. Don't get me wrong, I had a high degree of personal pride in the legal work I was doing when employed by law firms previously, this can't be compromised.

However, now that I'm in business on my own I'm very aggressively pursuing other business opportunities too:

  • How can we make money blogging?
  • Is a side real estate brokerage/investment/management company the better way to "play" the real estate industry versus mere legal fees?
  • Should our law firm LLC buy an office to get some appreciation of real estate?
  • Are there conference/publishing opportunities out there?

Surely some "employees" have the entrepreneurial bug too; but I do think it's a lot easier to "settle" when you're getting that paycheck every two weeks. Going solo/independent is very much about not settling and opening up opportunities!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Accounts (not?) receivable

Four quick tips from a recent CLE I attended regarding, 4 Reasons Clients Don't Pay Bills!

1. They don't have the money. What is your intake process and is it diligent enough? Are you saying NO to potential clients when appropriate?

2. Clients don't realize they owe you. This is really about your billing system, proper review and follow-up. I have buddy in suburban Chicago at a small firm who says they don't send out monthly bills...just astonishing. Depending on your staffing levels, I think a person in-house or contacted out has to be reminding clients about unpaid bills regularly. Just make this simple change in our collection procedures has greatly helped payment receipts. My person is contracted out and she just makes regular biweekly or so follow-up calls...it's been a great help. Contact me if you need a referral.

3. Clients' slow cash flow. See #2, often times the squeky wheel gets the most oil (or cash).

4. They don't want to pay. This is often due to a bad result. There are many facets to consider on this point...should you sue, ect. Issue one might be managing expectations up front. You can usually tell the unrealistic clients at an initial meeting. Also, get an appropriate retainer.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Judicial candidate article

Here's the Sun-Times' article on various bar association judicial rankings...some interesting findings. I'm always amazed at the time and effort that various bar associations make on these judicial evaluations. Do voters pay attention? What holds sway in judicial retention elections? Unless you've done something that has gotten major public attention you get retained, right? I mean even as a practicing attorney I know the judges in my little corners of domestic relations (primarily) and that's it. I probably recognize five or so names on the ballot.

Is this the best way to staff our judicial branch?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Credit card payments for legal services

Here's a nice analysis about the acceptance of credit cards as a form of payment as a lawyer. It gives a real nice breakdown of the various fees and such that the credit card companies charge...a lot of the stuff I'd never heard before.

Does anyone really not accept credit cards these days? Occasionally I'll hear this issue come up and am just dumbfounded when I hear some people actually debate whether or not to accept credit cards. I think there are ethical issues in some states; not Illinois. You have to make it as easy as possible to pay for services in business period!

New trial lawyer blog

If you think that trial lawyers constantly compete with each other for top cases, think again. The newly created Trial Lawyer Resource Center (TLRC) is a hot-off-the-presses blog that represents the collaborative efforts of 10 trial lawyers. Some of the collaborators, like David Swanner of South Carolina Trial Law Blog, John Day of Day on Torts, Mark Zamora of A Georgia Lawyer and Ron Miller of Maryland Injury Lawyer Blog may already be familiar names from the blogsphere. Here's how the TLRC blog describes its purpose:

[this is a blog where a] number of the USA's top trial attorneys join together with litigation experts to lend their expertise on topics that matter in your trial practice. Gain insight in case selection, work up, trial strategy, evidence, and post settlement issues. Contributors will regularly share their real life experiences and knowledge to help you represent injured consumers.

Just back from Oregon

Spent a nice long weekend out in the Portland, OR area this past weekend. Boy that natural beauty out there and the temperate climate make it hard returning to the blandness of Chicago.

Let's grow into Chicago

Here's a piece from Law.com regarding law firm growth in the windy city. While many U.S. firms tackled expansion on the two coasts first, they're now realizing the importance of having a presence in Chicago -- to be closer to big national clients and potential customers in the Midwest region.

As for me, I'm moving to Oregon.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Bar association activity by attorneys

I've been on a bit of a run recently of various bar association activity and it begs the question, what's the ideal amount of bar association activity for an attorney? I intend to ask the question irrespective of any CLE requirements. Obviously if you're in a mandatory continuing legal education state you need to attend various CLEs which are often put on by bar associations. But what about all these things beyond just CLE...committee meetings, dinner meetings, golf outings, various volunteer efforts. Beyond the social components whereby you want to see friends like I will play golf with my best friend on Saturday (for example), what's the benefit with hanging out with other lawyers so much? Is there a detriment?

Obviously there are many ways to think about this concept. What has spurred this post with me is thinking back to the first lawyer I worked for and his adage was often, "I'm not going to find any new clients among this group of lawyers." I.e. hardly ever attended bar association events. I think there's some wisdom in that perspective even if it's not 100% accurate. However, many of the legal marketing studies we see say that some 30% of a lawyers' business does come from referrals from other professionals (bankers, lawyers, accountants). As I think about it, I think the lawyer in a niche practice might greatly benefit from lawyer socializing so he/she can line up referrals sources from other lawyers. In my practice which is heavily family law oriented, I think this benefit is diminished.

I personally do a good bit of bar work and like the CBA lunchtime CLE programs. But I gag at all the inter-lawyer social events...what's the point? There are significant portions of each day where I want to take the "lawyer hat" off.