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Ask an Expert Series: Better Business Practices for Lawyers

You may work in legal, but the success of your firm is pure business. Many of the best practices that apply to the business world translate directly to the legal industry as well. There are three basic principles that make up best business practices: planning for success, making good decisions, and focusing on the culture of your business from the beginning, no matter how small you are.

To learn more about how to apply these principles, we spoke with Jaimee Hall, Founder of Legal Back Office. With responsibilities that include leading a 100+ back office function for a global litigation firm including full P&L management, strategic planning, and people leadership, Jaimee provides actionable information on how to plan for success, make better business choices, and create a strong office culture.

Below is the transcript from our Ask an Expert Series installment with Jaimee, “Better Business Practices for Lawyers.

CosmoLex: Our first question is, does every law firm need to have a business plan and/or marketing plan and what is the difference between the two?

Jaimee: I was thinking about this question and my very first thought response was kind of cheeky saying, “you don’t really need a plan.” Honestly, there have been lots of successful businesses without it, but if you don’t want to burn yourself out, if you plan on not maximizing the amount of money you could make, if you don’t care about how much you might make or what kind of impact do you have on your community or the legal industry then no, don’t waste your time. But I say this in jest, of course, because it’s true to a certain degree. I think the legal profession more than any is really struggling with burnout and balancing that personal and professional roles and responsibilities.

There’s so much with lawyers right now, and trying to educate on self-care and stress management and how do we help this industry to strike that balance. And I think the same thing applies in personal as well as professional that you if you want to achieve goals, you need a plan. And a business plan is taking a step back and saying, “Who are we? Where do we want to go? And how are we going to get there?”

And then a marketing plan is saying, “How are we going to capitalize on and maximize all the advertising and marketing opportunities for us that are going to move us towards achieving those long-term goals as an organization?”

So, in my opinion, you need both. If you have some goals in your mind that you want to achieve and you haven’t written them down, I always tell people that you’re not going to get there or it might take you far longer than what you’d originally planned if you don’t have a path.

CosmoLex: For me, the first thing I ask is what general metric should every law firm measure? Because I think that KPIs, Key Performance Indicators, is one of the places where small businesses specifically tend to lack.

Jaimee: Absolutely. The typical measurement is obviously billed hours. All law firms are measuring billable time, revenue, and net income, but are you breaking that revenue down? Looking at your average revenue per case, how many days does it take from the time a lead called you to when you’re able to actually have a consultation with them? And then, how long does it take once you get a consultation with them in order for them to retain? How many people leads are you meeting with that ultimately end up becoming clients?

That will measure your overall retention percentage. And I love using this phrase: incremental changes equal exponential impact. So if know where your metrics are in your lead process and in your client intake process, how long does it take to get those clients in the door if you get their paperwork? You can start improving little pieces, even about your procedure. You don’t have to be particularly strategic about that. It’s just saying, “Hey, is this is taking too long for us to get a call and start to get people in the door, how can we shorten that timeframe? Is it availability of attorneys? Is it not getting to the calls as quickly and not being able to return the calls for a couple of days and we know those leads are calling other lawyers?” Whatever it is, if you can start focusing on improving those individual metrics, even in a small way, it will, overall have an exponential impact on your business. A few other questions you should ask yourself is, “what’s the cost of marketing per lead that you get in the door? What’s the cost of marketing per client? What are the administrative hours by all employees in addition to billed hours?”

You can really find a treasure trove of data and knowledge by looking at how much time your lawyers and your legal staff are spending on administration. This is time that they could otherwise be spending those hours on billable work, or adding value to a case or adding value by working with getting clients in the door more quickly. There are also days to collect your outstanding receivables and how long does it take for your clients to pay you? Not just “what’s our total collections compared to our total work in process” or “our total collections with our total billed out,” but how long is it taking for those clients to actually pay you?

And then customer satisfaction. Not everyone is measuring that in a numeric sense and I think it’s a really important part and component of understanding the service that you’re providing. Is the vision of what you want your law firm to be translating to the client? When people get surprised by negative online reviews, those are often situations that could have been cut off at the pass through a customer satisfaction survey process. So those are just some measurements and data pieces I think every law firm should be looking at. As you’re looking at them, you can find some pretty easy opportunities for improvement in the future.

CosmoLex: I know that when I talk to attorneys a lot, they often say that they want to start tracking these types of numbers. Any suggestions on how to get started?

Jaimee: Yeah, I think first of all starting with a really good case management system, or really good software that you’re using for accounting or for that intake process is what’s going to help it not feel so cumbersome. Because there’s going to be reports that are already built into all of those systems that will help cut out a lot of that work. In order to pull it all together, you might need to do a little bit more manipulation.

But I think that’s the very first start is just using the software that you have in place to its maximum capabilities. Secondly, I think just creating a spreadsheet. Excel is really powerful, even using it in a basic way, and set up your dashboard of your key performance indicators so you can every month have someone plug in numbers or be pulling reports out of a system and plugging them in. And I would argue that even though it might take a little bit of time to put it together, gaining visibility and being able to do something about it will give you much higher ROI even on the time that it takes to administratively get all those numbers in the same place.

CosmoLex: I couldn’t agree more. I know that, even at CosmoLex, we pay very close and special attention to those KPIs that really matter to us so that we can make more intelligent decisions more quickly.

Next question: what percentage of my total budget should I allocate to marketing?

Jaimee: I get asked this a lot. My very first question when people talk to me about marketing in general is “well, what are your strategic goals?” Because if you don’t start there, with what do you want to achieve, then it’s kind of hard to answer that.

I’ll give you an example, just so everyone can be on the same page. I’m a firm that has five lawyers and I’m really happy with where I’m at with five lawyers. I really like to still practice and oversee those four lawyers and I know if I take on any more lawyers or legal staff, I’m going to be stretched and not be able to practice and not be happy. Right, that’s the size I want my firm to be. Well, you’re going to be investing in your marketing a little bit differently than the firm that’s five lawyers but wants to be 50, right? And so for me, this isn’t a straight number. You have to start with, “what is it that I want to achieve and in what time frame do I want to achieve that?”

Generally if you’re happy with where you are, I would say don’t invest any more than you already are other than making sure you’re continuing to keep that phone ringing and building that referral-based system. And if you start to see things slowing back, then you might need to do a little bit more. Now, I don’t want to give a non-answer. Typically, 5% of your revenue will keep the phone ringing, allow you to maintain what you’re doing, just generally speaking. Ten percent of your budget is really more realistic, especially when you’re just starting out, or you’re looking to really grow and have a more established plan. This percentage of revenue could lessen over time as your brand gets strengthened, but it will likely never be less than 8% or somewhere in between 5% and 10%, especially if you’re looking to compete and maintain market share.

CosmoLex: I know that it’s often the hardest part, figuring out where to start and how to start. You decide on a budgetary number of some sort and then that’s where that question really comes into play, which is that marketing plan or that plan in general.

When you talk about that 5% and 10% are there any sort of places where you suggest that they start? Is there an easier place to start with their marketing? You mentioned referrals, for example.

Jaimee: Is there an easier place to start? Really depends on the practice area. I think that’s a really hard question to answer in a general way. Every practice area drives leads in somewhat of a different format. Some people don’t really utilize a referral-based approach at all. And easy is kind of a unique word. Nothing these days is easy.

What I would say if you have a limited budget – and this is a general statement – but just being active on social media, whether that’s just Facebook and LinkedIn, is going to help drive at least engagement and awareness with your brand. Engagement, meaning you’re posting when you’re attending things or you’re inviting people to join you, you’re tagging other organizations, if you’re there and you’re doing a post about them. So an inexpensive and easy way of going about getting your brand out there is capitalizing on social media when you don’t have to be paying for ads.

Now having said that, social media isn’t always a great avenue for corporate lawyers or business litigation. And that’s really engagement driven; social engagement and professional engagement, being at events and driving those referrals. So, I would probably have a different answer for that one and would say, “how are you engaging with your target market?” If you want to be the divorce lawyer for business owners, I would highly suggest you find opportunities to spend time with business owners.

When you spend too much time around other lawyers and those people are driving your referrals, especially if they’re in your practice area, you know they’re not always pushing cases to you that are going to be quality cases. But at the same time, having a referral base of other lawyers that are in other practice areas is a great thing.

CosmoLex: That leads into our next question here, which is a continuation of question three: how can I determine where to spend my marketing budget?

Jaimee: Yes, another good question. So I’m going to go back to the marketing plan, and just how important it is to create a plan. So you’re not spending money in places that will ultimately not be successful and some of it is trial and error. Every market is different. Every practice area is different, and every brand is different within those practice areas.

So, creating a plan at least allows you to set goals that are connected to your strategic goals, and it allows you to see trends over time. So you can look at it after a month or two and say “Okay, what were our goals in this marketing plan?” Make sure that the marketing plan is holistic. That is, look at traditional advertising, look at digital advertising, look at social media and look at social engagement, and all the things you can do to drive business in the door.

Honestly, don’t wing it and don’t let an agency just give you a proposal for everything they can do for you. Really work on and engage with a consultant that’s knowledgeable, where you can look at your goal holistically and really help to draft that plan that would capitalize on community and marketing opportunities.

You don’t want to just look at what everybody else is doing. If you’re doing this for the first time, you’re fairly new, or you feel like you’ve become stagnant, I think getting a consultant that could help you pull in all the service provider options into one plan is really key. And if you’re doing this for yourself, look across all these marketing avenues for opportunities. Set some goals, but do that trial and error, set plans, initiate measures, and then re-calibrate or celebrate if things are working well. But you can’t just pay out endless dollars and then set it and forget it. You really have to manage the plan closely or work with a partner who can.

CosmoLex: Does office culture matter if my office is only my assistant and me?

Jaimee: If we were interacting live with someone, I would turn the question around and probably say, “Well, what do you think?” If you’re asking that question of someone else and they turn it around and ask you, “Hey, does office culture matter even if you’re in a small company?” And I’d start with, “Well, what are your strategic goals?”

Are you looking to grow? Will your current assistant stay if you’re a jerk? Let’s just call it what it is. How do you define culture? Your clients will experience it, your service providers, your colleagues, and the court system if you don’t have an engaging and respectful culture.

So how you treat your legal assistant will directly impact how you treat your clients and those around you, is what I’m trying to say. Just like how you treat your spouse or significant other or kids will directly impact how you are viewed in the market and professional circles. So does culture really matter if my home is just me and my spouse? You tell me. Culture matters regardless of how many people are there, because it does have a trickling impact. So it absolutely matters, and it matters that you get yourself off on the right foot with you and with your assistant so you guys can be successful long-term.

CosmoLex: I couldn’t agree more, and I know that CosmoLex as a company, we take culture very seriously. One thought process we used was determining core values. So a set of shared values that everyone could stick by and everyone agreed to when joining the company, so that if there was any sort of question about how to interact or how we would interact with each other or the outside world, that there was no question about that. You had to abide by these rules, so to speak, and that set the tone to help us build the right culture at the company. I know that very often that’s the toughest part of building a small company is finding not only the right people, but then finding people who fit in with your culture. Would you agree?

Jaimee: Yeah, absolutely, and I wanted to just mention the cost of turnover. Everyone knows how painful it is and how challenging when you lose good people, or when you lose anyone at all. There’s just so much that is dropped and so much that affects everybody else in the firm, the clients, you as a lawyer. But if you can avoid that cost of turnover, that starts with culture. Weigh that cost, and I think that you’ll find that it’s much cheaper and much more productive to maintain a culture that’s gonna keep people engaged.

CosmoLex: Speaking of that term I used, fit: when hiring a new member of my firm, how important is it to consider their fit with my company as opposed to their experience and professional record?

Jaimee: I would say fit first, soft skills second, and technical third, so FST: Fit first, soft skills second, and technical third. That is, I think if you assess for culture and attitude as a priority, that is all about fit. Skills and soft skills could encompass people’s social abilities, communication, work ethics, etcetera. And technical, the legal experience, specific practice area knowledge, ability to research, write, etcetera. All are important, but a great writer who’s demeaning and belittles her staff is not going to last long and won’t be worth your time.

That way if you end up with two great candidates that are technically proficient, pick the one who’s going to most fit with your culture, even if they might have a little bit less experience than the other candidate.

CosmoLex: Yeah, so the right person, right seat mentality. So find the right person and then put them in the right place. And I think that when you talk about experience, I think that’s a great example, and I think a lot of people get hung up on that. Any tips to mentally get over that hurdle?

Jaimee: I think I would weigh the cost. I would just keep that in my mind, of weighing the cost of turnover. If you have someone who’s technically proficient but they can’t seem to get along in the office, or they rub their clients the wrong way, there’s going to be a cost that you eventually pay, and it’s just gonna be exponentially growing over time. So I would just keep that phrase in my mind as I’m trying to make that decision, of weighing the cost of who I’m going to hire. Can I recover more quickly if I hire a good fit and he makes the technical error, or can I recover more quickly or what will be the downside if I get the wrong person in the door that’s technically proficient?

CosmoLex: What is the best way to handle bad online reviews? Going forward, how can I get better reviews?

Jaimee: Talk about something that wasn’t even a part of our society and professional discussions a decade ago or a little bit more. Online reviews can be really great, and they’re very powerful for the positive and the negative. Your organization, bottom line, needs a voice and I think the biggest mistake firms make is not responding at all to all reviews, negative and positive. The reader is left to only see one side of the story if you don’t respond, and they just come up with their own conclusions. And even if the reviews aren’t correct, or quite accurate, or are exaggerated, by not replying at all the reader, whether it’s a potential client or a current client, is left to believe what they want based on what they see.

You shouldn’t respond defensively, however. It’s really hard to do, especially if you feel like that reviewer was being dishonest. And for really egregious claims, you can often get them taken down, but not quickly and it’s cumbersome and costly. I think when you respond humbly, transparently, and professionally, you give yourself and your firm the voice that you want the viewer to hear that represents your brand. I also think it’s really important to set up a plan to get good reviews in an ongoing way, so that way when a bad one strikes, it won’t have a big impact. What happens now is that you might have two positives, you get one negative and it totally drops that overall score. And of course, people only see the negative if one of three are bad. So if you’ve got an ongoing way and plan in which you can capture those positive online reviews, that’s going to be a better strategy in the long-term for whenever a negative review does come up.

CosmoLex: I think it’s important to bear in mind that people, when they leave negative reviews, they’re incentivized in a way to do so. People take action when they’re upset more than they’ll take action when they’re happy with something. So a couple of the points that you mentioned at the end, when you hear someone say something positive or share positive feedback, make sure to reinforce the thought process of, “Hey, leave a review.”

When it comes to referrals, when it comes to that sort of organic marketing, would you agree that reviews are probably one of the most critical pieces?

Jaimee: Absolutely. Everyone should have a plan for getting reviews built into their marketing plan, because it is kind of a critical component. Once you get a referral from someone, they don’t call you right away. They go poke around to see what kind of online presence you have. And they’re going to bump into those reviews potentially before they even call you.

CosmoLex: Agreed. So we’ll move on to the last pre-selected question: I feel like my firm isn’t taking off as fast as I want. When should I call it quits and look at joining another firm?

Jaimee: I thought about this one for a long time because it’s another tough question to answer that’s not methodical. A lot of times I think we’re looking for formulas, and sometimes it’s just not a science—it’s an art and it’s a gut instinct, but it’s also rooted in data. So I would ask a lot of questions and I hope that asking these questions that would help you try to determine what your next steps are.

I would say, where is your heart and your head at? Why did you start your own firm in the first place? Were you running away from something, or were you running to something else? What were your expectations on how fast it would take off? What is fast to you? Were you hoping you would be more lawyers by now, were you hoping you’d be making more money? Did you have a plan and have you followed it diligently? Have you gotten a consultant to look at your business plan, performance metrics, and provide you with advice?

If you want to achieve big results and your heart is telling you that you don’t want to throw in the towel, I would get a consultant or a fellow colleague that achieved success to talk through the next steps with you. If you were running away from something else and not to something, I think that, quite frankly, might be worth assessing what you really want in your career. Maybe you love practicing, but being a business owner is more than you thought it would be. So I think taking a real hard look on why you started up your firm in the first place will really help answer those questions and help you determine where you go from there.

CosmoLex: When I’ve talked with the attorneys a lot at various shows and stuff like that, one of the things we talk about is that attorneys went to law school to practice law, not to be accountants or business owners per se. It’s important to note, it’s not for everybody. Having that plan, having that drive is incredibly important to growing in general. And like you said, there’s some persistence involved in the thought process of am I going slower than I expected to go.

So with that, we’ll go ahead and open it up for additional questions. The first one comes from Laurie: Should we do cold calling?

Jaimee: When you’re looking for clients for your law firm, there’s some pretty strict standards that vary by state, in terms of what you can do to advertise to your potential client base. I know at least in Missouri and several other states the bar highly frowns upon cold calling to potential clients.

Now, if you’re calling on a referral base, that might be different. If you’re in personal injury and you want to establish relationships with chiropractors or physical therapists or that sort of thing, that’s entirely different. But most of the time, most of the bar associations frown upon cold calling and what they really want you to do is put it out there, who you are and the fact that you provide legal services. But, ultimately, the client really needs to have a choice.

Now, if someone’s already called you and inquired or sent you an email to inquire, what you can do to try to keep those clients engaged with you is do an email drip campaign. So everyone that calls in, try to get their email address and just tell them we send out resources and helpful things that will help you through whatever that particular practice area is. And we’d love for you to be able to get that information if you’re willing to get it. Then once a month, just send out some sort of e-newsletter or less formal, just a blog post of, “Hey, here are some great tips that you can utilize if you’re in a probate situation. If you’re fighting with your siblings, what’s the best way to resolve that and keep your legal costs as low as possible.”

So I would highly encourage you to try to collect information as you’re getting them from leads and establish a plan after that to be able to stay in touch with them. I would highly discourage you from cold calling.

CosmoLex: I think it was a great answer. Next question is from Thomas: What are all the acceptable ways to avoid having a trust account?

Jaimee: That’s a really good one. I wish I had a really brilliant way of doing that, but I do actually have a couple of tips. I need to give this caveat because I am not a trust accounting specialist in every state and I’m not a lawyer myself. So I can’t provide legal advice, but I know at least in the state of Missouri, we just got a new opinion by the bar that $2000 or less on a fixed fee does not have to get deposited to the trust account but can go directly into your operating account.

So depending on your practice area, if you’re doing six fees and you’ve got somewhere you’re charging $2,250 it might be worth even lowering, that to $2,000 to avoid the hassle of having to go into trust. The other thing you can do is if you do a lot of fixed-fee work or even hourly work is the client doesn’t pay to the end. Now, that creates a cash flow issue. CosmoLex is probably like, “No, don’t do that. The cash flow is going to be hurting.”

If you don’t have a cash flow problem, you have to be really cautious about this recommendation because you don’t want it to become a problem. But if you can float it and you can have clients pay at the very end, after you’ve already earned all the money, then you can show that it’s been earned and it can all go into your operating account. Now, that’s a general statement, because you might need to check with your local bar as they might want you to show it going into the trust, and then moving over to operating. But at least it creates a simpler profit, it’s less administratively burdensome of having to pull money every other week or pull money every month in little bits.

CosmoLex: I think CosmoLex’s response would be that finding a software solution that can help you manage your trust account, is another way to mitigate the administrative hassle. CosmoLex is one example, but there are many other solutions out there that help manage your trust account.

At the end of the day, the most important part is to stay compliant, know the rules, understand what they are and make sure that you’re complying with all your state’s regulations. I know that each state is wildly different in some cases.

Is advertising on Facebook a good option, and how can we get more interest while advertising on Facebook?

Jaimee: I think that’s another one that’s really going to be unique by practice area and also by market. Who is your target market? Are they on Facebook? And if they are then yes, I think Facebook advertising could be a really good option. But also how you’re doing your Facebook advertising is really critical to determine whether it’s been successful or not. So, if you put an ad out there and you put 50 bucks into it, it’s probably not going to do that much.

I will say that Facebook targeting seems to be much better for people that are in personal injury or people that are in your average consumer practice area like divorce. I think it’s a little bit harder for corporate. If you’re a corporate lawyer or business litigation, business owners are on Facebook, but not in that context. They’re not looking to get connected with a lawyer through Facebook.

So depending on your practice area, Facebook can be a good option. So, I’d highly suggest that you work with an agency or a marketing organization that can help you to craft those Facebook ads appropriately. Because legal advertising can be very overwhelming for people and very off-putting if not done in a way that just markets to them in the way that they want to consume that message.

CosmoLex: Last question: Are workshops helpful in gaining new clients?

Jaimee: Again, I think that depends on practice area but I will answer it for a few, in the interest of maybe there’s some people on this call that this pertains to them. I think estate planning and elder care workshops work really well because those are the topics that are kind of hard to understand. Medicare, Medicaid, setting up trusts and people that are sort of in the middle socio-economic class, see the word estate planning and they think, “Oh, that’s not for me. I don’t really have any assets.” But they do, they really do. And there’s a huge opportunity to be capturing those people in the middle socio-economic class of our country and being able to explain something to them.

I think in divorce, it’s a little bit more challenging because people will come, but you have to pay quite a bit of money to get people to come and get in the door. And how many people that are going through divorce or getting ready to go through divorce want to be seen publicly and especially in their community.

From a corporate law perspective, I actually think workshops are really great because business owners are continually confused and don’t fully understand the law. And I think that’s a great opportunity for educating business owners, and maybe even partnering up with several other presenters. That’s another way to really get people in the door for a workshop. Don’t do one just on your own. Partner with other people that are in a like-minded or applicable service area. So if you’re doing estate planning, try to get a financial advisor to come in and join you.

CosmoLex: Jaimee, any last points to add before we end today’s webinar?

Jaimee: If you would leave with one thing from this webinar today it’s how important it is to have a plan. And getting a strategic plan in place is so critical to you being able to achieve long-term results, short-term results and just kind of avoid some of those pitfalls along the way as you go in your business. So thank you all so much for attending. Your time is valuable and I really do appreciate you having me today. It’s been a joy.

CosmoLex: Thank you so much, for joining us, Jaimee.

For sustainable growth and continued success, it’s important to remember that having a law firm also means running a business. The best practices included in this discussion can help you strategize to develop a strong company culture, implement marketing and business plans, focus on the metrics that mean the most and make sure you’re headed in the right direction. Juggling cases and clients can make running a law practice challenging, but having the right processes in place can help you build a better law firm.

To get even more expertise on how to handle internet marketing for your law firm, check out the complete recorded session: Ask an Expert Series: Better Business Practices for Lawyers

CosmoLex Team

CosmoLex is a leading legal practice management solution that is trusted by thousands of law firms across North America. CosmoLex is a single solution that lets solo legal professionals & small law firms manage their practice, billing, AND accounting all in one login, on any device, at any time. CosmoLex users can eliminate the need to maintain multiple programs because CosmoLex does it all -- including time & expense tracking, billing, business accounting, trust (IOLTA) accounting, calendaring, task, email & document management, even secure client communications -- in one web-based application. 

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