We’ve arrived at the final weeks of 2021, and chances are you’re already starting to make plans for how your firm will be successful in the new year (or at least you should be). With that in mind, it seemed like a great time to check in with some of our expert friends from around the legal community, and get their thoughts on the state of the industry and what lawyers will need to do to see their practices grow in 2022.
Fortunately, our expert friends had a ton of great insight to provide, and we’ll be sharing their feedback in a three-part blog series called, “Answering Legal Surveys The Experts”. This survey series will cover questions related to Legal Marketing, Law Office Management and The Future Of Law. In this edition of the series, you’ll see answers from the 12 law office management questions included in our survey.
Here’s our list of featured experts:
- Annette Choti – Law Quill
- Cynthia Sharp – The Legal Burnout Solution
- Doug Brown – Summit Success
- Gary Mitchell – On Trac Coach
- Jan Roos – CaseFuel
- Jan Sander – PerformLaw
- Matt Starosciak – Proven Law Marketing
- Robert Ingalls – LawPods
- Ruth Carter – Carter Law Firm
Now let’s dive into the survey results!
1 – How should a law firm respond after receiving a one-star review?
Doug Brown: Take a deep breath and don’t take it personally. One-star reviews happen and reacting badly or defensively will make it worse. The actual response depends on the context and the situation. Sometimes no action is best. But it’s often appropriate to respond to the review with a brief acknowledgment and commitment to follow up. Above all, don’t respond in haste or anger.
Robert Ingalls: Responding to negative reviews can be tricky from a professional responsibility angle, but always respond if possible. It’s best to keep it brief and avoid responding to specific allegations. Try something like “We take our commitment to our clients seriously and we want the opportunity to make this right for you. Please contact me directly at (#) so I can help.”
Gary Mitchell: The first step would be to reach out to that client and schedule a meeting to discuss their issues. Ideally you want to create the opportunity to turn things around and have them re-do their review with flying colours. You might consider making some sort of statement to the effect of, “We take client feedback very seriously. It is our commitment that if we make a mistake or don’t live up to your expectations, we will rectify that immediately. Ultimately, our goal is to go above and beyond your expectations.”
Annette Choti: If the one star review is from someone that was never a client, they can petition Google to have it removed. A law firm should take time to consider carefully whether or not they want to respond. If they decide to answer the one-star review, they should do so gracefully and with heartfelt sincerity, and then offer to take the conversation offline. This helps readers understand if the original poster continues the conversation, that the law firm truly wants to discuss and help them offline and not enter into a verbal battle.
Jan Roos: I’ve spoken to hundreds of firms about bad reviews at this point and in 90%+ of the one-star reviews I see it’s someone who was not a client. Oftentimes it’s opposing counsel or someone who didn’t get a callback. First things first, address the issue with a response. Google factors this into their algorithm but it’s also important for anyone who is looking. If it’s bogus you can say so – oftentimes Google will be open to removing these. If all else fails, the best defense is a good offense! A one-star review will tank someone with single digit reviews, but the more reviews you can get the smaller the effect is. You can also overwhelm a bad review with good reviews by tactically reaching out to old clients.
Ruth Carter: First, the law firm should respond to the review, and invite that person to contact them directly. This is especially true if your responses are public, so others who see the negative review will see that you take their concern seriously. Second, the firm should look at itself and see if someone in the firm contributed to the problem or if the firm has a policy that’s having a negative effect on its relationships with clients and prospective clients. Third, once you’ve dealt with the situation at hand, take a step back and see what lessons can be gleaned so you can do better in the future and either prevent problems or be better at responding to unhappy people. Additionally, even if you do everything right, some people will never be happy, or maybe their post has more to do with what’s going on in their life than anything you actually did.
2 – Should lawyers be okay with certain members of their staff working virtually rather than in-office?
Annette Choti: Yes. Full stop. 100%. We are all adults. We are either working or we are not. If you don’t trust someone to work at home, you shouldn’t have them on your staff to begin with.
Ruth Carter: I’m ok with this, as long as everyone is taking care of their responsibilities. I may be biased on this one because I work in a firm where no one cares when or where you work as long as you’re getting your work done. There are more opportunities for camaraderie when more people are in the office, but besides that, working remotely does not seem to have drawbacks.
Doug Brown: Yes. Lawyers should adopt a consistent and fair SOP (standard operating procedure) for how and when virtual work is appropriate – and how to work effectively in a hybrid workplace. Don’t make it up as you go along.
Gary Mitchell: Absolutely. At the end of the day it’s about productivity, not where the work is done, but how good and timely the work is completed. I have found over the last 19 months that most of my clients working from home have been more efficient, more productive and happier. That translates to happy clients, and isn’t that the most important goal?
Robert Ingalls: While a law firm will have to decide what’s best for their culture, it’s likely that top talent will demand increased flexibility to work from home going forward. In certain areas it may be difficult to hire and retain lawyers and staff with rigid in-office policies.
Jan Sander: From a technology standpoint, most of the work done in law firms can be performed remotely. This presents opportunities including larger talent pools to recruit from, more flexibility with work schedules, reduced office space cost, etc. Throughout the pandemic large parts of the workforce have realized and learned to embrace this, so it is important for lawyers to recognize this development, because working against it will sooner or later leave them behind.
Jan Roos: In a post-COVID world, many applicants consider it a disadvantage for a job to require in-office work. People worked from home for over a year in some places and it’s a tough bell to un-ring. For people willing to make the leap – you can expect much better help hiring state or nationwide (depending on your practice area) than locally. It’s just a numbers game – the more applicants you have the better you will be able to select from. Also, in our experience many employees consider fully remote work such a strong benefit that you don’t have to pay top dollar for salary if working remotely is a benefit in the mix. Finally – a consideration for the micromanagers. If someone isn’t doing their work with you physically over their shoulder do you want that person working in your law firm? We’ve found that A players do better with remote work and B players fall to worse.
3 – What should be included on a law firm’s list of essential technology?
Gary Mitchell: A complete practice management software program with a dashboard that includes docketing, file management, client communications, deadlines and reminders, file sharing in the cloud, internal communications, and weekly reports.
Doug Brown: Essential technology includes CRM (client/customer relationship management), LPM (law practice management) and then back office systems for finance & accounting, HR and payroll and for operating systems and procedures. The most important thing to remember is that technology is an accelerator. So if you automate a bad process, you’ll get bad results more quickly.
Jan Roos: CRM. I want to be extremely specific about what I mean here because most firms I ask this question have a practice management software that is masquerading as a CRM. Or worse yet a CRM that is masquerading as a practice management software. We define practice management as what happens after someone signs a contract to become your client. The information, security, workflows and documentation for these processes are priority here. We define CRM as what happens in between someone becoming a prospect and signing as a client. The most important things here are the ability to do follow up, keep basic information (name, email, phone number, notes, last call) and get to things fast. When you use practice management for CRM you’ll see follow up suffer and ultimately deals that could have closed fall off the radar. Nine out of 10 times that’s because it’s too bulky and hard to use which means employees are either too slow to respond or avoid it altogether because the work required would be too much. Follow up is hard work when systems are perfect! So without things being frictionless it becomes super easy to avoid.
Robert Ingalls: Robust case management software for intake, communication, assigning documents/emails to cases, time tracking, calendaring/reminders/statute tracking, etc. Your case management software should also include bookkeeping or connect to your bookkeeping software to time and prevent mistakes.
Jan Sander: A robust case and document management system, as well as law firm accounting software are a must have. There are cloud-based programs that wrap all of them in one, which we frequently recommend to clients. Combined with an email program and productivity applications such as Office 365 or GSuite and a pdf editor, these are the software essentials law firms should have. Working with small to mid-sized firms, we encourage our clients to move most if not all of their systems into cloud-based environments, which make for a less expensive, more agile and flexible technology infrastructure.
Matt Starosciak: Dynamic phone numbers for tracking website-generated phone calls as well as website form fills and live chat. I recommend www.juvoleads.com which is the single most powerful thing I’ve seen in nearly 20 years doing this work.
4 – What’s the best method for lawyers to electronically share and collect documents from clients?
Ruth Carter: Most of the time, email is just fine for my practice, but I know there are situations and other areas of law where it makes sense to have a secure portal or to use something like Dropbox to share files.
Robert Ingalls: A secure cloud storage solution. We have long preferred Dropbox, but Box has been building cloud storage solutions geared specifically to lawyers.
Gary Mitchell: There are many cloud-based programs out there that don’t rely on physical equipment. They are far more reliable than old school methods.
Jan Sander: Encrypted file sharing apps like Sharefile, or shared directories work well. Cloud-based case management systems often feature client portals through which documents can be shared securely.
5 – How crucial is it for law firms to be accepting credit card payments and online payments these days?
Doug Brown: Clients expect it. Law firms should be doing it.
Gary Mitchell: It is absolutely crucial. It’s simple. Make it as easy as possible for your clients to pay you, and pay you in a timely and convenient way!
Ruth Carter: It’s absolutely crucial. It should be easy for clients to give you money. And don’t charge clients who use credit cards extra. The percentage that the credit card processor gets is the cost of doing business. Assume every client will be paying with a credit card and factor in the cost when you set your hourly rate.
Jan Sander: For consumer-oriented practices, accepting these forms of payments is critical to client experience. Individual clients are used to credit card and online payments in their daily lives, and not accepting them is becoming increasingly inconvenient.
Robert Ingalls: Many established firms refuse to accept credit cards and that’s fine if that works for them. However, one of my primary rules of business is “make it ridiculously easy for a client to give us their money.” Every additional step a potential client has to take to give the company money is just one more chance we’ll never get it.
6 – What do lawyers need to consider before publicly sharing their opinion on issues that may be considered hot button or divisive?
Gary Mitchell: Who are they speaking to? Does it speak to issues their target market is facing? Will it help clients or prospects navigate these issues? Does it provide value and information that will assist or is it throwing fuel on the fire? Will this strengthen relationships or damage them? Depending on the issue will the lawyer come off as an expert or outlier? Will it support marketing efforts or damage or weaken them? What are other ramifications of speaking out?
Matt Starosciak: Are you so successful that you can risk alienating a certain percentage of prospective clients? If yes, go for it. If no, save your politics, religion, and hot button discussions for the dinner table.
Robert Ingalls: Is it on brand to weigh in on this issue? Does weighing in drive you further into your entrenched market or does it risk alienating a substantial portion of your existing client base and/or potential clients? Is being divisive going to endear a group to your brand over the long-term, so much so that it’s worth alienating a subset of people? With all that said, sometimes it’s just the right thing to do and consequences be damned.
Doug Brown: Lawyers should be free to participate in public discussion on important topics – even divisive topics – remembering their ethical obligations of course. They must also be mindful of the business impacts of voicing their opinion. The guiding principle should be the core values, vision and mission of the firm and how it aligns with the values of their clients.
Ruth Carter: My rule of thumb is “Don’t post anything online that you wouldn’t put on the front page of the newspaper.” This same rule applies to anything you say, regardless of the forum or context. You need to be ready to own anything you say, in any situation. Having said that, it’s good to take a stand on divisive issues that matter to you. It will make you stand out from the crowd and give like-minded clients a reason to pick you over another practitioner.
7 – What can those running law practices do to create a positive culture at their firm and avoid there being a great divide between attorneys and other employees?
Jan Roos: It starts with you at the end of the day. If you consider your non-attorney employees “lesser than” it’s going to seep out over time. No amount of meetings, perks or snacks in the break room will overcome that.
Ruth Carter: The people who run the firm should set the example that no one is above anyone else. If anything, it’s the non-lawyers, like receptionists and paralegals, who do the work that allow the firm to function. If you need help with something, there’s a good chance that it’s a paralegal or other support staff who is in the best position to help you. It’s important that all lawyers acknowledge how important these staff members are, and that comes from the top down.
Jan Sander: It all starts with the institutional elements, vision, mission and values. These should be clearly defined along with a culture statement. By conducting workplace satisfaction surveys with the whole team, firm management can compare the actual work environment with the intended firm culture. Based on the feedback, firms can implement initiatives including communication policies, attorney and staff training and development programs, non-monetary benefits and incentives, as well as team focused meetings and events.
Doug Brown: The most important thing is to learn how to become the “CEO” of your business. Learn how to become a really effective leader – and yes, this can be learned. Engage the right executive coach to help you chart a path that will get you where you need to go.
Matt Starosciak: Acknowledge great work by attorneys and staff publically. That means gather everyone together, say what the team member did that was great, and hand them a gift card $200 to their favorite restaurant. And then say the next person who does something awesome is getting $300. Watch how fast things improve.
Gary Mitchell: It’s all about relationships. Every member of the team is critical to ensuring client satisfaction. Everyone has a role. Don’t treat employees as “less than lawyers”. First, I would encourage the lawyers to reach out and build and strengthen their relationships with staff. Get to know them. Get to know what their aspirations are so you can help them achieve them. Often my clients have been surprised when they take this approach. It has led to employees taking on more tasks, responsibility, and ownership of the success of not only themselves, but also the lawyer and the firm.
8 – What’s your best time management tip for attorneys running firms?
Doug Brown: Time management is really about managing your energy and attention. Be specific and intentional about how you are approaching your tasks by creating time-constrained blocks for your highest mental intensity tasks at your peak times.
Ruth Carter: Multitasking does not work. Focus on one task at a time, and if you don’t need your cell phone to get a task done, put it where you can’t see or hear it.
Jan Sander: Using checklists or project management applications to stay on top of law firm management tasks are very effective tools to stay organized and efficiently complete day-to-day and project management work.
Gary Mitchell: Take a look at how you spend your non-billable, practice-related time. Are there things that you could delegate? I always say, whether you are running your practice, your group, or the entire firm, if it’s not billable, if it’s not business development/marketing, and if it’s not leadership, get it off your desk and delegate it down. This is a very common mistake of trying to take it all on when you have very capable people who could likely do it in less time, with more efficiency, freeing you up to concentrate your time and efforts on the big picture.
Jan Roos: Block off some time to focus on thinking big. Even if it’s one hour once a week. It’s so easy to get caught up in the day to day reactive stuff especially when you’re scaling up to the next level of revenue or headcount. If you can block off some time you can use it to put systems in place to avoid reactive stuff which will win you time back. So going back to the tip, make it automatic. It’s like an investment account, if you do it automatically you won’t miss it and when the day comes to take advantage you’ll be glad you did.
9 – What can law firms do to improve their client intake process?
Doug Brown: Document it. Practice it. Rehearse it. Refine it. This is not a fire-and-forget activity. Provide your staff with training and checklists to handle the most common activities. Then practice and rehearse (role play). They are different. Review regularly and update. The most important part of the process is to establish personal relationships and deep connections. The process needs to reflect that above all else. You are creating an experience. Be intentional about it.
Jan Sander: Checklists and workflows, ideally programmed into their case management software, allow for a standardized repeatable process that ensures all information is captured and no time is wasted with follow-up or bad clients.
Matt Starosciak: There are dozens of things almost all firms could do, as this is a huge area for deficiency. But I would say handle leads in real-time, not via voicemails and messages, record phone calls and coach staff continuously, be nice to the callers you can’t help. They write reviews, too.
Gary Mitchell: Really focus on your “ideal client profile”. Design questions that will make it obvious as to whether this person or company fits that profile and if they will become a loyal client. I often see this as a weakness. It usually takes more time and energy to service a ‘problem client’ than it does an ideal one. Your entire intake process should be designed to filter out potentially problem clients.
Ruth Carter: Get as much information as you can up front, even before you meet with the person. It’s even better if they can fill out any paperwork at home or online in advance, so you don’t waste time with these preliminary tasks. The outgoing message on my phone says, “Don’t leave me a voicemail. Send me an email.” This way people can tell me who they are and what issue they’re facing even before I talk to them. It also allows me to identify people who are not a good fit because their needs are outside the scope of the work I do, or the matter is in a jurisdiction where I can’t work on the matter because of the limitations of my state license.
Jan Roos: The biggest drop off we see by far is in CONTACT RATE not close rate. Law firms generally do a pretty good job once they get people on the phone. But they lose a ton by not picking up the first time, not calling back quickly (shoot for less than 15 minutes, less than five even better) and not following up if they don’t pick up the first time. We have clients that call prospects every single day until they pick up and they are booking the highest amounts of business.
Robert Ingalls: Use case management software that incorporates the client intake process. Clio Grow does this well.
10 – What are the best online groups or forums for attorneys to be a part of?
Gary Mitchell: There are many groups on LinkedIn and Facebook for lawyers. My advice would be to spend some time researching them and deciding on the best groups that fit your individual needs.
Ruth Carter: It’s best to be in groups and forums where potential clients are participating, and you can be the resident legal eagle who provides helpful, general information (no advice). This way, these potential clients see you as a friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful person and they’ll come to you asking how they can hire you.
Doug Brown: The only way groups will help you is if you are aware of what you need and intentional about selecting groups that provide that. Look for diversity of thought and experience. Then time-budget yourself so you use it enough, but not too much. If you’re not going to engage then don’t bother. Time and attention are your most precious resources.
Jan Roos: Let’s Talk Legal Marketing of course!
11 – What are the best law office management books for lawyers to check out?
Doug Brown: The best law office management books are the same ones every entrepreneur reads – expand your horizons from the limited perspective of law office management. I recommend “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek and Jim Collins’ “Good to Great”.
Jan Roos: Not law firm specific but two of the best books I’ve read recently are “The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership” by Jim Dethmer and Diana Chapman and “The Road Less Stupid” by Keith Cunningham.
Ruth Carter: I wrote a post for Attorney at Work about books that lawyers should read before opening a firm. (See the post here) It’s important to remember that owning a firm is two full-time jobs in one – running a business and being a lawyer. Both jobs require ongoing work in order for you to be successful.
12 – What can attorneys do to combat occupational burnout?
Gary Mitchell: You must take care of yourself if you are to be effective at helping others. This means creating balance. Proper nutrition, exercise, rest, and taking frequent short breaks to rest your mind. The impact of doing this is amazing. Clients who follow this advice report back a sense of ‘ease’, and dramatically reduced stress.
Doug Brown: Practice mindfulness and meditation. Don’t try to go it alone. Enlist a qualified coach to help you fix the underlying causes of burnout and to help you keep perspective – and sanity.
Ruth Carter: Here’s a saying every attorney should know: “If you don’t want to burn out, quit living like you’re on fire.” I strongly recommend that every attorney have activities in their life that are completely separate from their work, such as working out, a hobby, or volunteering. Periodically, it’s important to completely disconnect, take a break, and go on vacation. I purposely send myself to places that have bad wifi or cell service so I’m forced to disconnect.
Jan Roos: Don’t do things that burn you out! One of my favorite concepts that I first heard from Dan Sullivan is the zone of genius. The more time you spend doing the things that you are good at and give you energy, the less burned out you’ll be. To the solos saying “wouldn’t that be nice”, yes, I acknowledge the other stuff has to get done. But as soon as you can afford it, that’s the kind of stuff you want to get off your plate to an assistant, paralegal or virtual assistant. There are so many inexpensive and fractional options these days that the only excuse to not get this handled is not looking at it.
Jan Sander: With a data-driven approach, law firms can monitor workload and assignments of individual attorneys in their case or practice management software and act early when they detect imbalances by checking in on at-risk cases. Work can be reassigned and different opportunities can be offered if necessary. We find it also useful to go through a yearly practice plan exercise with attorneys and allocate hourly blocks to billable and non-billable contributions, including marketing, skill development, administrative and managerial work, etc.
Annette Choti: Lawyers should consider hiring a life coach for lawyers that can help address the specific challenges that lawyers face.
We’ll close this question out with some tips from Cynthia Sharp, a long-time attorney, wellness expert and co-founder of “The Legal Burnout Solution”.
- Set aside time to examine whether you are exhibiting any of the signs of occupational burnout. According to the Mayo Clinic, these symptoms include: becoming highly cynical or critical, difficulty focusing and staying motivated, and feeling disillusioned or dissatisfied at your job. Burnout can also manifest in physical symptoms, including exhaustion, insomnia or difficulty sleeping, stomach and bowel problems, changes in appetite, and frequent headaches. Perhaps it would be useful to ask others what they think about your self-assessment. It’s all too easy to stay in denial—even with outside input.
- Make a decision to take charge of all aspects of your life. We recommend making a written commitment to change or shift problematic situations.
- Consider where you could adopt more productive lifestyle habits. This includes healthy eating, regular exercise, and a consistent sleep schedule. Take a serious look at your work habits. Do you take frequent breaks throughout the day? Do you spend time with family, loved ones, or even yourself without being tethered to a laptop or other electronic device? Those who work remotely may be especially tempted to “squeeze in” work all day, every day.
- Investigate and take advantage of available resources. Attorneys hesitate to reach out for help in large part because of the perceived stigma. Admitting that you need help is a sign of strength, not weakness. A good starting point is to contact the lawyers assistance program (LAP) in your state. LAPs provide confidential services and support to members of the legal profession. At the very least, reach out to a friend, family member, or mental health professional.
- We have embraced mindful lifestyles for many years and firmly believe that any viable remedy must be implemented with a backdrop of mindfulness. We have compiled a resource guide to help get you started. E-mail us at [email protected], and we will forward it to you.
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