October 2006

This issue contains the following articles:
  1. Were They More Enlightened in the Dark Ages?
  2. Should You Manage "By the Numbers"?
  3. Are You on the Same Page With Your Clients?
  4. What's the Latest from LawBiz® Management Company?


  1. Were They More Enlightened in the Dark Ages?

    Several months ago we wrote about the State Bar of California's proposed rule to require mandatory disclosure of malpractice coverage as being typical of how state bar associations undermine the very members they represent. Since then two more highly publicized examples have driven the point home.

    • The New York State Bar has proposed that "computer-accessed communications" such as blogs be included in New York's definition of legal advertising, and therefore require state scrutiny. The proposal included a requirement that lawyers file copies of computer-accessed communications with the attorney disciplinary committee in the appropriate judicial department of the State. It also would require lawyers to retain copies of all written advertising, including Web sites that may be accessed by computer for at least one year.

    • The New Jersey State Bar's Committee on Attorney Advertising threatened to prohibit the State's lawyers from participating in such peer review surveys as those sponsored by The Best Lawyers in America and Superlawyers, and from publicly communicating the fact that they had been selected for inclusion in these publications - on the grounds that such recognition creates "an unjustified expectation" about the results that the lawyers selected can achieve. The State Supreme Court finally stepped in and put the order on hold pending review.

    Consider the absurdity of these two actions, which ostensibly were intended to "protect the public." Can you imagine requiring lawyers to submit their blog posts to the State Bar before "going public" with their comments? A rule of thumb for successful blogs is that content is "king." In other words, blogs with content that enables the reader to learn more about the subject of the blog focus will receive more attention and become a site of renewed readership. As for the directories, what happens to the standard of "truth in advertising," if lawyers cannot present the fact that their peers selected them for an honor?

    Once again, by such actions, bar associations seem to be the adversary of the very members whose interests they are supposed to be advancing. "protecting the public" is a rubric used too often to hide policies of restriction. Whether intentionally or not, these actions favor large firm lawyers and provide little or no protection to the public. In effect, bar associations enact restrictive communication rules that impinge on advertising and other communication modalities employed by small firm lawyers, the majority of the legal community, that are designed to tell clients what lawyers do and level the competitive playing field with large firms.

    Bar Associations are sometimes referred to as anachronisms, as medieval "guilds" that have no place in the modern world. On the contrary, I believe it's too bad that there isn't more of a "guild mentality" in the Bar. "Guild" in the sense of trade union to HELP lawyers develop their practice, be more effective and better serve their clients. If they cannot do that, what purpose do they really serve?

  2. Should You Manage "By the Numbers"?

    I had the pleasure of participating in a Nashville, Tennessee conference sponsored by Juris, Inc. and Citigroup Private Bank, among others, where the topic was financial benchmarking for law firms. The idea of benchmarking - setting up statistical guidelines to identify best management practices - has long been used in industry, and the presenters showed how it can apply as well to professional service firms. For example, the appropriate statistical benchmarks can help you

    • Explore operating excellence and deficiencies in the law firm

    • Understand where you are currently relative to your goals

    • Provide fact-based information to gain consensus among your colleagues.

    There is no question that statistical information can be helpful - but it should not be controlling. For the typical small or mid-sized law firm, the only thing that matters, in my opinion, is what your goals and strategies are ... not what someone else's may be. Yes, we live in a competitive world. And, to some extent, the performance standards that other organizations aspire to or actually achieve may impact us. However, we must act in accord with what fits with our firm's culture, with the capabilities of our personnel, and with the aspirations we have, not those of our competitors. Benchmarking should be used as a guide to suggest areas where we might improve ... but not as a mandate for change that is inconsistent with a firm's culture.

    Consider the fact that some very able law firm business consultants recommend that law firms regularly eliminate a set percentage (typically 5% to 10%) of those clients deemed too small to be worth the firm's time and overhead. Such advice reminds me of when I was in the food industry and the process of making store buying decisions first became based on computer runs rather than walking the stores and seeing what customers actually purchased. Some decisions based on the computers were appropriate; some were not. The damage, however, couldn't be known because the buyers didn't interact with the customers. Ultimately the only winners were the powerful, large volume vendors ... who today literally get to purchase shelf space.

    Using numbers to help make decisions is appropriate, but beware of non-thinking, knee-jerk responses. Know the kind of firm that you are and that you want to be, and use the numbers to help you measure your progress as you advance toward your goal.

  3. Are You on the Same Page With Your Clients?

    In a recent LawBiz® Blog post we cited lawyer and blawger Norm Pettis, who related his experience when he asked a legal ethics panel if a lawyer could withdraw a client's claim if the lawyer concluded the claim was without merit. The panel's unanimous response was that the client had to consent to such an action. As Norm, who vigorously disagreed with this viewpoint, put it, "If a client insists on pursuing a meritless claim, then you must do what the client wants, whether it makes sense or not."

    Communication skills are obviously vital ingredients to a successful lawyer-client relationship. It's essential that the client knows what the lawyer is doing, and that the client approves of the tactics to be taken to achieve the client's strategy/goal. As we've observed here before, the starting point for this communication is an effective engagement agreement. Make sure clients understand that they're entering a two-way relationship. The lawyer agrees to perform to the best of his or her ability in accord with professional standards, and the client agrees to communicate and cooperate fully - which includes paying the bill.

    Going through the process of detailing and negotiating to prepare the engagement letter enables you to avoid a client with unrealistic expectations or demands and who believes that your estimates, whether of time or outcome or costs, are guarantees instead of informed estimates. Discussing engagement terms will frequently uncover the client who will in the future express irritation with delay, who will chronically complain about everything, who will demand constant or instant attention, or who expects unrealistic or abnormal hand-holding.

    The focus of the conversation between lawyer and client must be to understand the intent and desires and wants of the client. Only then can you shape your assessment of the services to provide. If the two are in harmony, and you inform the client (so the client understands clearly) what to expect, there is little likelihood of disagreement. We must find out not only what our clients need, but also what they want. We must communicate with them at their level of understanding. We must find out how they best receive information and then provide it to them in a way they can understand.

    The obligation to promote quality communication between attorney and client and to assure that the client has a good understanding of what to expect lies squarely with the attorney, as part of his or her professional responsibility. That is the essence of client service. If you're not providing it, then at some point your clients will start looking for a lawyer who will.

  4. What's the Latest from LawBiz® Management Company?

    This has been a year of dramatic product and service enhancement for us at LawBiz®, and we've used these monthly communications to keep you abreast of the latest developments. Last month we talked about our new strategic alliance with Juris, Inc., and now we've entered into working relationships with two new organizations serving the legal profession.

    On October 12 we began a series of teleseminars in conjunction with the South Carolina Bar. These one-hour CLE-approved seminars on "The Business of Law"® are offered directly to telephone participants who register in advance. The cost is modest and the information is practical and immediately useful. The first teleseminar covered creating a business plan; the second teleseminar addressed practice development and client expectations issues; and subsequent weekly topics will include collecting your fee, crafting a financial plan, and exiting your practice. To sign up for the seminars Click here.

    In addition, LawBiz® Management Co. and the Los Angeles County Bar Association have announced a new "preferred vendor" relationship. Members of the Association will have easier access to our consulting services and practice guides. I've long commented on how law schools do absolutely nothing to teach lawyers about managing client relationships and running their practices professionally. In fact, in conversations I've had with educators, their view of law as a profession means that any such programs are trade-oriented and therefore inappropriate for law schools. Following this philosophy, most bar associations don't support law practice management programs as part of the MCLE requirements. The Los Angeles County Bar, along with the South Carolina Bar, should be commended for taking affirmative steps to the contrary, which can only be to the benefit of all practicing lawyers.

    Our 2nd Special Report in the series, The Successful Lawyer-Banker Relationship, was just released and has already earned critical recognition.

    Finally, I'm pleased to share the news that in mid-September I was one of five practitioners inducted as a Fellow of The College of Law Practice Management. Formed is 1994, The College of Law Practice Management is a nonprofit organization that honors and recognizes notable law practice management professionals, sets standards of achievement for others in the profession, and funds and assists with endeavors that enhance the highest quality of law practice management. The mission of The College of Law Practice Management is "to recognize, inspire, and promote excellence in law practice management by identifying and honoring extraordinary achievement, supporting activities that enhance the development of knowledge, facilitating information exchange among the Fellows, and acting as a catalyst for positive change within the legal profession." To date, more than 200 practitioners have been inducted as Fellows of the College, including administrators, lawyers, professors, consultants, marketing directors, and others from 10 countries, who have made noteworthy contributions to the profession. To me, this is above all confirmation that the professional status of "The Business of Law"® continues to advance. Ultimately, every lawyer and client will benefit from this kind of recognition.
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