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The ABCs of managing a successful practice

By: Jane Pribek//December 20, 2011//

The ABCs of managing a successful practice

By: Jane Pribek//December 20, 2011//

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Tips, tricks and tactics that can help keep small and solo firms on the right track

Running a solo or small firm is not rocket science.

Rather, it can be as easy as ABC — provided law firm leaders adhere to some of the following guidelines provided by:

  • Attorney Greg Banchy, a solo practioner concentrating in estate planning with Banchy Law Center LLC in Eau Claire;
  • Attorney Tom Watson, senior vice president and marketing and communications director of Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co. in Madison; and
  • Diane Niksa, a law practice management consultant and business administrator for Kaplan Law Firm SC in Mequon.

In today’s economy in particular, Niksa said, firm leaders need to keep their eyes on the enterprise because neglecting operational management can cost money, or worse, result in a malpractice claim.

A is for Awareness

“Don’t assume that a pile of documents will intuitively find its way to the appropriate person to be dealt with properly,” Niksa cautioned.

A brief conversation, email or even Post-it notes for labeling or offering quick instruction regarding what needs to be done often are neglected tools, she said. Keep staff members in the loop by scheduling communication meetings to keep awareness high on the status of the business and to exchange ideas for improvements and solutions to issues.

B is for Blocked business time

Dedicate time for “housekeeping” at least two afternoons per month, Niksa said. This is the time to handle all non-client functions such as reviewing financial reports and marketing plans, meeting with staff members about business choices,
adjusting procedures to realize greater efficiencies and more.

C is for Catching up

Malpractice often occurs when small things get overlooked, Watson said. This can happen when firm leaders are overworked or juggling too many demands.

Watson said some lawyers close their offices every Friday to spend the day catching up, doing administrative work or simply recharging the batteries.

“Sometimes a step back saves money down the road,” he said, “and makes you a better lawyer.”

D is for Dynamic

The fundamental nature of all business is dynamic, Niksa said. As a business evolves over time, so should the operational systems through technology advancements, new products, improved methodologies, streamlined procedures, regulatory modifications, improving employee skill levels and the owner’s vision for what is desired from the practice.

“As change unfolds,” she said, “attention and planning can ease adaption, reduce resistance and maintain a competitive edge for the practice.”

E is for Excellence

Small and solo firm leaders can distinguish themselves by committing to excellence, Banchy said. By always striving to be the best — no matter the task at hand — firm leaders can enrich their lives as well as the lives of the clients who depend on them.

F is for Facing facts

Watson offers a hard truth for some:  Customer service is as important in the business of law as it is in running a fast food restaurant. The customer, or client, wants good service in addition to good lawyering. One way to start, he said, is to be accessible and let clients know more about the firm and its employees. A good website with staff member photos helps personalize the practice.

G is for Growth

Growth, Banchy said, is the process by which one comes to realize his or her potential through continuous improvement.

“Growth means opening ourselves to new ideas and new opportunities,” he said. “Professional growth begins with personal growth.”

H is for Habits

Whether they’re good or bad, habits control much of what we do, Banchy said. Be mindful of avoiding bad habits, so the firm doesn’t fall into negative patterns, but also learn to cultivate positive, resourceful habits, he said.

“The most successful people are the people who continuously strive to develop positive habits,” he said, “like being on time, doing quality work or getting started on tasks early so they don’t end up being done at the last minute.”

I is for Income

Accounts payable and payroll are a critical part of making money, but two areas that often run into trouble. Sometimes employees don’t consider invoicing clients a priority. The software to keep track of payroll might seem tedious and cumbersome, making time keeping a dreaded task.

These common pitfalls are why clear communication is necessary, Niksa said, to manage expectations and keep employees on top of both important aspects of business.

When dealing with clients, she said, it is important to indicate verbally and contractually the chosen billing method, payment expectations and the consequences of unpaid balances. Make it clear to firm employees that follow through also is crucial, she said.

J is for Justice

If firm leaders remember to treat the people they work with – clients, colleagues and staff — justly and fairly, Banchy said, it will contribute to the firm’s benefit in the long run.

K is for Know what you know

Lawyers are trained to practice law, not run a small business, Watson said. But for small law firms and solo practitioners, hiring staff members, paying the bills, managing cash flow, budgeting and marketing are all part of the job description. Without a good business plan and strong employees to manage the firm’s growth, no one succeeds. Firm leaders should target what they’re best at, he said, and try to delegate the rest.

L is for Learning

Legal professionals should dedicate time each day, Banchy advised, to learning something new that will improve their practice. Don’t become complacent, he warned, as learning is the engine for growth.

M is for Mitigating mistakes

Many malpractice claims arise from avoidable mistakes such as drafting errors, Watson said. Most lawyers use templates, but using old forms can lead to lazy drafting, he said, so be diligent in reviewing each document. Something as simple as a missing word or number can cost firms, he said. The firm name is on the document, and so is its reputation.

N is for Now, not later

Jobs can often be done more quickly and efficiently if they are dealt with as they arise, Banchy said.

“Putting work on a pile invites forgetfulness,” he cautioned, “which, for those of us who are naturally absent-minded, can only lead to greater stress when the task is rediscovered undone later on.”

O is for Organization

Firm leaders are less likely to procrastinate if they are organized, Niksa said.  “A place for everything and everything in its place,” she said. “Having to chase down something that is not in the last place you saw it chews up a lot of time.”

P is for Planning

Set firm goals, Niksa said, for next year, three years from now and five years out regarding growth, employee requirements, facility requirements, upgrades to equipment, expansion, sale, closing and retirement.

Q is for Quitting

Don’t be afraid to quit the bad clients, Watson said. Red flags to look out for: taking on a client for financial reasons; if the client has already been through other representation; taking a case in a practice area that’s outside the firm’s comfort zone; clients with unrealistic expectations.

R is for Routine

Solo and small firms need to have set routines in place, Niksa said, so staff members can assist and cover duties as needed. Make clear what tasks everyone should know how to do, she said, and where the information is kept. There should be no exemptions based on titles, she said, as a collaborative environment is critical to success.

S is for Starting the work

Getting going is often the most difficult part of any task, Banchy said. But successful firm leaders know that there’s no time to dawdle.  “Once you are able to ‘crack the seal,’” he said, “it’s amazing how quickly the task will progress.”

T is for Time management

In a business where part of what firms are selling is their time, failure to manage it well is like throwing money out the window, Banchy said.

U is for Updating

When possible, stay on top of the latest reference materials, computer equipment and other resources the firm relies on for work, Banchy said. Avoid the embarrassment of giving someone bad advice because of working with outdated resources.

V is for Volunteering

Niksa encourages firm leaders to get involved in something they’re passionate about, whether it’s pro bono work, service on a committee within the profession, a community group or nonprofit boards. In addition to the positives of giving back, she said, such outside opportunities might yield business development rewards, as well.

W is for Write it down

Create a policy/procedure manual with steps for every task or process so that anyone can step in and perform basic office duties and client support if needed, Niksa said.

X is for eXamine expenses

Vendor scrutiny yields a huge opportunity to save money, Niksa said. From annual competitive bids to an individual assigned to routinely read details of a vendor invoice, the cost savings will always be there if examined thoroughly.

Y is for Yearly acknowledgement

Take the time each year to look at what has been done, Niksa said, rather than continue the relentless focus on what needs to be done. It’s a morale booster for all. Recognizing the little things that contributed to the firm’s success will bring fresh energy into the new year.

Z is for Zoo

A wonderful place to unwind on the weekend with family, Banchy said. Point being: The happiest, most successful lawyers don’t try to work seven days a week. Strive for balance.


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