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Solo In Chicago

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

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Private CLE providers

I saw my first advertisement by a private law firm providing CLE to other attorneys on page 349 of the July 2007 ISBA Bar Journal. This is a real business opportunity for lawyers.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

NY lawyer advertising ruling...

Interesting piece about the allowance of Internet pop-ads by NY attorneys.

Not to speak out-of-turn, but how often (if ever) do lawyer regulatory bodies go after lawyers for things like advertising/marketing and firm names...in IL I've never heard of such an example. Anyone? I talk about this because I think so many lawyers are hamstrung with the rules of professional conduct that they don't market well.

I guess where I'm going is differentiating between things like stealing clients money and ignoring a clients case with things like marketing. From my experience the regulatory bodies are responsive to direct complaints from clients but who complains about a lawyer's marketing campaign? I think you may want to push the envelope more in your marketing plan.

ABA's blawg directory

ABA Journal has a very good and updated blawg directory here. We're listed, but if you're not it looks like an easy sign-up process.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Defining your practice niches...

My wife and I attended a very nice folk music festival in Woodstock last Sunday...you know the cute little town square out there right (county seat of McHenry County)? But what I was struck by was the number of law firms on the square; probably not too different than many county seats. My question: how the heck would a consumer know which firm to choose? It's all these individual names or partnerships and other than the ethnicity associated with a last name you can't tell lawyer A from lawyer B.

Before a person has a relationship with you or your firm I think this is tough but I want to do better. One thing I'm thinking about is using a practice area in our firm's name. If one of the firm's on Woodstock's square said the "family law offices of Peter Olson" and I were considering divorce I'd have gone to that one. Here's an interesting way I know one firm is doing this:

Mickey, Wilson, Weiler, Renzi & Andersson, P.C. in Aurora. Then separately they have the Elder Law Center, P.C. I know one of the partners in the firm. I don't think you can have subsidiaries in law firms to protect yourself from liability but I think there are "branding" benefits. Perhaps you brand different parts of the umbrella firm..."family law services" or "The Olson Law Firm, LLC's Elder Law Section". Then start creating these distinct brands through separate Websites and newsletters, ect.

Practicing in an unfamiliar jurisdiction...

I'm going to criticize myself about the "dumb" mistakes you can make when you practice in a new county. I handled a simple child support termination case in Lake County...I very rarely appear up there (though that may change as we've started to get more and more referrals up there). So long story short on Monday I had an order entered terminating this father's child support obligation. Post court we forward the order to the father's employer to stop the withholding and they don't like the wording included in the order and won't stop the child support withholding. At one level this was just an annoying and persnickety employer. That said, I corrected the issue today in court and I did find out that Lake County has a specific form order to terminate child support.

No big harm other than some time wasted but watch out...it could be much worse. At least make a phone call or communicate briefly before appearing in a new jurisdiction...you'll save yourself some time!

Law firm billing...

I'm amazed at how may firms do a horrible job at this; I don't think we're horrible but that's not to say there are not some near-term improvements that we're considering.

Some critical items that surprisingly I see done poorly:

**Monthly bills must be sent (amazing that I've seen firms that don't do this);

**Enclose self-addressed STAMPED envelopes with your monthly statements;

**Be descriptive in your billing...this is a great communication piece;

**Be HARD in collections;

Where we've been and currently are; where we're going...

Since our inception, we've billed clients monthly and use Quick Books Premier: Professional Services Edition for billing/accounting. No major complaints, it allows for hourly billing and you can describe in detail each entry. I think this program is quite fine if you're a one attorney office. From other reviews I've read, once you get beyond one "biller" you may want to move to some of the more specialized legal accounting/management packages. Bills are sent out religiously the first day of the month. We've done this from day one.

After some time our accounts receivables got higher than I liked and we made some changes. First, once a client hasn't made payment after the 30-day grace period, one of my assistants begins to make weekly calls to that person...non-threatening just reminding people that we haven't seen their payment and asking when can we expect it. This little item has been surprisingly effective.

We've also begun using an outside collection agency. Essentially the stages we go through with an unpaid bill are: start phone calls after 30 days w/o payment, collection letter stating that we'll be sending to collections at the 60 day mark; and send to collection if there are no payments after 90 days. The exception would be if the case is in court we'd probably withdraw after 60 days before getting a collection agency involved.

Probably the only other wrinkle we've added of late has been to include coupons in our monthly billing. I'm still unsure about this. Does a coupon make us look too much like a fast food restaurant? Still "puzzling" on this one. I do know two clients have come to use directly from our coupons.

One other general item (if possible), wall yourself off from collections. Obviously I'm entering my billing for legal work. But maybe it's just me but I don't like doing collections nor does it feel too comfortable for me on the one hand to be dealing with very traumatic and personal legal issues with a person and then simultaneously calling them about the $500 they didn't pay last month. Collecting is critical for your business, but just create a policy that you and clients are aware of and follow it. Have non-lawyer staff follow-up on collections if at all possible!

The future...

I think one of our failings is not getting large enough retainers up front. What's the proper retainer size? I'm guided by some previous jobs I've had but I think I'm too squishy.

I still want to make it easier for clients to pay us. The two thoughts I have are to e-mail our monthly invoices and to use PayPal. It's not a ton of money but stamping an envelope and then enclosing a stamped return envelope multiplied by 20-30 monthly bills adds up. We have looked at PayPal in the past...their credit card transaction fees are competitive (2.5-2.9%) and they offer more credit card options and are obviously Internet based. We do accept credit cards but we've had to run them ourselves which takes time.

The other change is to be "harder" regarding late fees. We include these in our retainer agreements but we don't enforce them in our bills. Essentially we need to use Quick Books' full capabilities better...I know this is doable but I nor my assistant have figured this one out. We don't have many clients not paying but we do have too many "annuity clients" owing us $1,000 to $2,000 and paying in drips and drops...there needs to be a price for this.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Referral sources...

Obviously there's not one standard answer to this question for all lawyers. It varies greatly based on primarily law practice subject matter and where you are in your legal career. So just so you understand where I'm coming from, I'll have been a 5-year licensed attorney in November 2007 and I've been a sole practitioner since April 2005. My practice primarily encompasses: all facets of family law, residential real estate transactions, and representation of small to mid-sized commercial property owners (leasing and evictions primarily).

What have we tried? What's worked and hasn't worked? What are our future plans?

One thing I did initially was to send a mass mailing to virtually everyone I knew with an announcement that I was opening up my own practice. This is a "must do" and it has reaped benefits and it's interesting how we'll still get calls from people who I forgot even were sent anything and they'll mention that they saved a business card and now they're calling because they have a legal problem. I also sent a mailing to some 250-500 lawyers announcing the opening of my practice and offering to be available for court coverage and referrals. This reaped surprisingly few benefits. I had read about doing this from people such as Jay Foonberg, but I think we got maybe one referral of any kind through this lawyer mailing.

Perhaps six months into our practice I started using LegalMatch.com as a referral source. This is a commercial, Internet-based, geographic-specific matching service. Clients enter their case information and I respond. I'd probably rate this as a 4 out of 10. LegalMatch does generate a high volume of referrals and does market itself aggressively through the various search engines so that potential clients can find it. I'm in their family law referral "pool." The downsides are referral quality and cost of the service. For this current year we paid $5,000. And many of the referrals through LegalMatch are very low money cases and just not clients you even want. It has more than paid for itself the two years we've had it but we will not renew when the current year ends in October.

I am a referral attorney of Pre-Paid Legal, Inc. The only thing I'd say about this is that it's free for lawyers so it doesn't hurt you in the pocket-book. I've gotten 3-5 referrals through them. As one of their referral attorneys you simply agree to give a slight price break to one of their referrals.

Bar association referral services give you great bang for your buck. I'm fairly active in a number of bar associations and I'm amazed when I speak with the occasional lawyer who's not a member of any bar associations, referrals aside you need to be getting legal education and be expanding your attorney network. Back to the referral idea though, I think these are critical because many people who don't have lawyers in their social networks call bar associations for referrals and secondly these are typically like $50 to $75 annually...almost costless. I've gotten good referrals from the Northwest Suburban Bar Association and the Illinois State Bar Association. I actually plan on joining the North Suburban Bar Association for this very purpose. I've heard good things about the Chicago Bar Association's referral program and I'm going to try to get on their family law referral service again. My criticism of CBA is that they make it too difficult for an attorney to be a part of their referral service. When I applied probably two years ago I was denied as not qualified enough and I had three years of heavy family law experience at the time.

Other "professionals." This is a critical area for I'd guess any lawyer. If I had to generalize, some of the above areas are good and useful for the person starting a firm and early in their career. These last two (clients and professionals) are items are more critical for my future and potentially the most lucrative referral sources. For us in the residential real estate area, you simply get most of your referrals from real estate agents...that's the obvious one. Other lawyers are also starting to be critical referrers. I think this takes time but once you have some good lawyers who know what you're doing this may be the best referral source going. An established lawyer gets many, many calls that are outside the breadth of his/her practice area...he/she is a GREAT referral source. Along this line, you should be really getting a nice "lawyer referral file" of your own developed because you're often a referrer too. As an aside, an readers interested in being part of a small list serve to serve this very purpose? Get to know each other in a small setting and then do a better job of handling referrals...shoot me an e-mail!

Current and former clients. I think this the category that isn't too helpful right up front because you either have few or no people in this category but over time this becomes the MOST IMPORTANT category. This is the category I consider most critical right now. After 2.5 years in this set-up we have a mailing list of 500 or so former clients or at least people who've contacted us. We have started a quarterly client newsletter to reach out to this group better. We also do the occasional "targeted" mailing of articles I write that address a specific area of law. I think there's great room for improvement here and there's great upside potential to marketing to this group of persons.

That's an overview of where we've been and where we're going. Ideas?

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Olson Law Firm, LLC version 2.0

Just a little teaser for what I hope to be some useful and thought-provoking upcoming musings. I've decided to make the Grant Griffiths and Chuck Newton jump to being a home office laywer. It's going to be be a progressive transition over 2ish months or so. Bottomline, 1-2 in-person meetings per month with clients isn't worth some $1,300 in rent. If I didn't tell you (and if you are or want to be) a client of our law firm you won't notice a thing. We'll still use our same landlord (http://myofficesuite.com/), just now strictly pay hourly rates as necessary when meetings and presentations are necessary.

Also, I'm really looking at this occassion as sort of a fresh start to re-analyze everything that our Firm is doing. I'm in the process of writing sort of a 2-year retrospective on "hanging out our shingle" for one of the bar association publications but hope to post bit-by-bit drafts here. I'm sort of re-engergized. Quite honestly over the last handful of months my wife and I had given some serious though to re-locating and possible career changes but for now it's not going to happen...Solo In Chicago I shall remain. So let's see if we can't take this Firm from Good to Great!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Belated Happy 4th and welcome back...

Well, back to the "grind"...took a little respite up in northern Michigan. Spent some time in Traverse City area...the availability of cherries is great but I couldn't find The Greatest American Lawyer.