8 strategies for constructing your new law firm
It’s 2017, and we are all cyborgs. Don’t believe me? What’s the capital of Kyrgyzstan? You just thought about reaching for your smartphone—your auxiliary brain—to look it up, didn’t you? Instant knowledge is unremarkable in 2017, which is solid evidence that we are living in the future.
And yet, lots of lawyers are living in the past. When I asked about the capital of Kyrgyzstan, how many of you reading this just thought “I don’t know,” and it didn’t even occur to you to switch browser tabs or pick up your phone?
According to the 2015 ABA TechReport, lawyers use Facebook at about half the rate of the general population. Facebook, Google and messaging apps aren’t just about marketing; they are about participating in present-day society. At an alarming rate, lawyers don’t.
In the law itself, you can argue that moving slowly and adapting reluctantly is a feature, not a bug. But when it comes to serving clients, it’s a malfunction. Why not start your new firm (or give your existing firm an upgrade) with strategies that take advantage of the trends shaping the future of law practice?
Lawyers who drag their feet will soon be standing around wondering why their phones stopped ringing. (To start, nobody likes making phone calls anymore, especially to lawyers.)
Here are eight things you can do to get yourself and your new (or established) law firm ready for whatever comes next.
None of them requires artificial intelligence.
You probably don’t even need a new computer.
You do need an open mind.
You will quickly notice there are no business plans or strategy templates in this article. There is no universal blueprint for a successful law firm of the future (or, for that matter, of the present). If all you want is a business strategy template, you can get one on the Lawyerist website. This is a set of strategies—some of which will be discussed in greater detail by other writers in this series—and a thought exercise that will help you position your firm to take advantage of what comes next.
1. BE NIMBLE
One thing seems certain: The trends currently shaping the legal profession do not point to a continuance of the status quo. The delivery of legal services is changing—although it is not entirely clear how that change will come and what it will mean for lawyers practicing today. To be ready for whatever comes, you must be nimble above all.
To be nimble, you must cut overhead and experiment constantly.
There are two important reasons to reduce your overhead:
- The downward pressure on fees—from clients and competitors—isn’t going anywhere. You have to find a way to charge less. (That doesn’t mean you have to get used to the idea of making less money. Keep reading.)
- You need to be able to take calculated risks. The only way to find out what will make your firm successful in five, 10 and 15 years is to experiment, and you can tolerate more risk if less of your income is committed to overhead.
You still need to spend money to make money, obviously. But you need to be smart about your spending. Put a premium on flexibility and be wary of lock-in. Now is probably not the time to purchase a new server or sign a five-year lease. But neither is it the time to sign up for practice management software if it won’t let you export your data in a useful format.
Spend money when there is a clear benefit and always with a view to the long-term implications of your spending.
Once you can take calculated risks, start taking them. Conduct at least one experiment at all times. But experiment deliberately, not haphazardly. Gather data from your experiments, evaluate the results, decide whether the experiment succeeded or failed, and change your practice accordingly. Then, start a new experiment.
To help you figure out what to try, use the Agile retrospective. Every time you complete a task, such as handling a new client or answering discovery, get your team together (or if you are solo, sit down on your own) and ask three questions:
- What went well that we should keep doing?
- What didn’t go well that we should stop doing?
- What should we try next time?
That should give you some ideas.
Deliberate, constant, iterative experimen-tation is what will help you improve your practice constantly and stay on top of new opportunities and challenges as they arise.
2. DIGITIZE YOUR PRACTICE
In order to be nimble, you should digitize the files, procedures and other information you use in your practice. You can be far more nimble—not to mention secure—if all your files are scanned, backed up to the cloud and encrypted.
But don’t stop at scanning documents. Work on creating document templates for automated assembly. Maybe let your clients fill in the blanks for the first draft. Whenever you can save time and increase accuracy by automating a process, do it.
3. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE INTERNET
As a cyborg lawyer, your online presence is part of who you are. In fact, your website is often the first thing people see even after getting a word-of-mouth referral.
Your website should, first and foremost, serve to introduce people to you. Make it reflect your firm and vice versa. If you have a slick, responsive website but a shabby, disorganized office and you are terrible about getting back to people, fix that. If you emphasize first-class client service but your website looks like your nephew designed it last decade, fix it.
And not just for potential clients. Court staff, other lawyers, current clients and (hopefully) the media might need your address, your bio or your head shot.
At a minimum:
- Your website should have a professional, high-resolution photo of you (and every lawyer at your firm), a brief bio and your complete contact information.
- Your website should be fully functional and easy to navigate on mobile devices.
- Consider providing a client portal on your website for communication, access to documents, DIY templates and more.
- Make your website part of the service you offer.
4. RETHINK THE CLIENT EXPERIENCE
Lots of people with legal problems don’t hire lawyers to help solve them, and cost is only one reason why.
How many other successful modern businesses force their customers to communicate primarily by phone and mail, emphasize in-person meetings at inconvenient times and places, use lots of impenetrable jargon and documents, and charge a bunch of money for unpredictable results?
The Department of Motor Vehicles comes to mind. And lawyers.
Maybe people don’t want to hire lawyers because it’s an expensive, unpleasant experience most of the time. Maybe we could put some effort into designing a smooth, client-centric experience. If the experience can’t be effortless, maybe we can minimize frustration instead of adding to it. And maybe in some cases, we can figure out ways to do less work, charge less and still deliver the high-quality legal service the client needs.
5. RETHINK YOUR BILLING MODEL
There is nothing wrong with hourly billing— unless it is the only thing you offer. The case for alternative fee structures has been made at length and in detail, by me and many others. There is no reason to repeat it here. The point, in sum, is that for some types of services, alternative fee arrangements make sense.
You should have a toolbox full of billing options so you can suit the fee arrangement to the legal service the client needs from you. Offer options. Experiment with unbundled services, flat fees and subscriptions to see if you can find a better way to charge for the services you offer.
6. Outsource whaT YOU CAN
Most lawyers handle some work that could be handled more efficiently and effectively by someone else. Sending work to a trusted contractor can free up your time and skills for more valuable work.
For example, a receptionist’s job is easy to outsource. A good receptionist service will probably save you money while making you look good. Or do you know a smart lawyer who needs flexibility? Why not see if he or she will handle a discrete task for you, like reducing oral agreements to a first draft.
Outsourcing requires you to carefully lay out your procedures, but once you do, you should be able to smoothly integrate an outside contractor into your workflow.
7. BE A TECHNOLOGY ADVISER
It is long past time for lawyers to shed their reputation as Luddites and become knowledgeable technology advisers to our clients. There are too many legal issues tied up in the way people and companies use tech to entrust it all to the IT department.
If you represent businesses, you should be talking to them about how to implement litigation holds within their document management system. If you create estate plans, you should be discussing digital assets. No matter what kind of case you handle, you should be advising your clients about secure communication tools and practices.
Becoming a trusted technology adviser where the law intersects with technology will make you a more valuable legal adviser, but it may also open up opportunities to solve problems you and your clients aren’t even aware of now.
Finally, here’s a thought exercise to get you thinking about how to move your law practice into the future:
What if a company came along in the next year or two with an app or a service model that solves your clients’ legal problems in a way that cuts deeply into your firm’s client base? How did they do it?
Don’t fight the hypo. One way or another, it happens.
When you figure it out, consider doing it first. Disrupt yourself. Every day you wait, the likelihood increases that someone beats you to it.
Sam Glover is the founder and editor-in-chief of Lawyerist.com. A 2017 ABA Journal Legal Rebels Trailblazer, he writes, speaks and hosts podcasts about legal innovation, the legal technology industry and access to justice.