Year-end planning for lawyers: Your cases

Focus on successPeggy Gruenke | September 2016 | Law Practice Management for Solos

Getting Ready For Year-End: Review Your cases

It’s September and year-end is quickly approaching. All of those good intentions you had in January to organize your law firm will now be put to the test. Before your schedule is consumed with holiday activities and last-minute travel plans, now is a good time to focus on what needs to be done to wrap up the business year and get a head start on 2017. As an attorney and business owner, year-end can become the most stressful time of year. To help you out, we put together this list of four areas on which to focus between now and year-end, while your business may be slower than normal.

  1. Your cases
  2. Your clients
  3. Your finances
  4. Yourself

Your Cases

Like other small businesses, many law firms don’t evaluate their business situation in real time. Either they review their results after they’ve occurred or not at all. Being able to evaluate your cases implies you were collecting data along the way, whether in your law practice management software, using Excel spreadsheets or if you even still use paper. So in our first area of reviewing your cases, here are some questions to get you started:

  • How many new cases have you gotten in 2016, by practice area?
  • What cases were more profitable?
  • Did you hit any home runs – have that one big case?
  • What cases did you enjoy working on the most?
  • What case was your biggest headache?
  • Who referred you the most and best cases?

Asking yourself these questions will help you look back and reveal the some strengths and weaknesses in your business and what may need to be put in place for 2017. Continue reading

The Evolving Role of a Paralegal in Today’s Law Firm Landscape

Paralegal

October 9, 2014 By: Peggy Gruenke, Law Practice Management Specialist

Like so many areas of the legal industry, the role of the paralegal has changed dramatically in recent years. Paralegals have always taken on tasks that do not require an attorney’s hand for completion, such as drafting complaints, motions, and responses. These tasks are the basic skill set that any trained paralegal should know how to complete. This skill set is not extraordinary. It’s the norm.

So where are the opportunities for paralegals to become more integral and successful? There are countless ways to add value to your firm beyond the basics. In this article, I’ll focus on basic client communication skills to help ensure a great client experience that will lead to future services or referrals and thus a more profitable practice for your lawyer.

Here are some tips to help you take it to the next level and become a real asset to your attorney’s practice.

Your role in client selection and engagement:

Client selection is so important to laying the foundation for a successful and profitable engagement. You can assist your attorney with process by working with him/her to create and implement some of the following:

  • Design a client-screening questionnaire that asks basic questions of prospects. The purpose of this form is to identify any red flags before your attorney wastes time with a free consultation. For example, asking for a prospect’s phone number and full address. If they balk at giving this information then ask yourself, “Why should my attorney give away 1 hour of his time if they are not willing to give this information to you?”
  • Consider creating a new client welcome packet
  • Create editable client intake forms using Adobe and setup these forms based on practice area. Each type of practice area has different key information that needs to be captured during the initial client meeting.
  • Create open file checklists so with every new case you are consistently completing tasks.
  • Try your hand at creating a fee agreement template form in Word so for each new case you are starting with a fresh document instead of cutting and pasting, which can lead to errors.

Your role in managing cases:

I call this understanding the economics of a law firm. This is where the you can become an asset to your attorney by helping in the following areas:

  • Understand how client’s fees are set and how expenses are billed.
  • Understand the billing cycle – from the time hours are entered, to client being billed and money actually collected.
  • Understand the importance of retainers and encourage your lawyer to request and get them. Also, learn as much as you can about trust accounting and the rules for you state. A bonus skill!
  • Understand that for each billable hour, the amount actually collected is determined by how much actually got put on the bill and how much actually got collected. This is referred to as billing realization rates and collection realization rates.
  • Understand the role you can play in making sure all billable time is captured, properly reviewed and discounts are minimized.

Your role in risk management

  • Adopt and use good calendaring and task management processes and be the gatekeeper so appointments, deadlines, court-filing dates, statute of limitations are not missed.
  • Create a system for assuring fee agreements are sent and signed copies are received and saved, along with retainers requested.
  • Notice when a client relationship is headed south and be proactive in talking to your lawyer about things you are noticing.

Your role in understanding and using technology

Here lies the greatest opportunity for paralegals to add value to a law firm. This can become your competitive advantage. I think it is a save bet to say that legal technology is the most talked and written about area in the legal industry. And it can also be the topic for a whole separate article. So for this article, I want to leave you with a list of resources you can use to increase your knowledge in this area and really make a difference.

The following list of websites and blogs is a nice place to start for learning about technology in the law firm:

Thanks for reading and learn more by following me on Twitter @PeggyGruenke andsign up to receive my newsletter.

 

Some random tips and ideas to help you grow your practice.

Wordle: Random TipsSome Random Tips and Ideas for Growing your Business

I have been writing a CLE program for New Lawyer Training to present to the Cincinnati Bar Association. I realized that some of this information is probably good to hear again – no longer how long you have been in practice. This is a compilation of my thoughts, some from my friend Matt Homann and some from an article by AttorneyatWork. I hope you find some of these useful and even try a few.

  1. Write something for a publication – bar association, community newsletter, trade association publications, a client newsletter. Add links to article on your website and Linked In profile and send copies to clients.
  2. Include you assistant in client meetings – he/she is part of your team and more valuable than you may realize, if you have a good one.  (if you don’t have a good one, then get a good one).
  3. Keep a business development journal so you can remember who you met, promises made, what you did (follow-up) and whether it worked. Find a system that works and stick to it.
  4. Read the business media daily or set up a RSS feed – Courier, Enquirer – and drop a note to clients or prospects you see mentioned.
  5. People skills will take you a long way – be charming, empathetic, and attentive. People will remember you for how you treated them not necessarily the result you got.
  6. Be accessible – write you cell phone number on the back of your business card before handing it to clients – it shows they matter to you.
  7. Business cards – always carry them and have them easily accessible.
    1. Update your cards with QR codes and something interesting about you – become more memorable.
  8. Add keywords to your LinkedIn profile and website bio – get found more quickly.
  9. Take the time to recommend good people on their LinkedIn profiles. Ask them to do the same for you.
  10.  Delegate everything except those things only you can do. Life is short – make your practice more profitable by engaging help of others who can assist you.
  11.  Use Evernote to organize your online research. Lots of other uses but start here.
  12.  Optimize your website for mobile – think about it. Do you wait until you get back to the office to look up something or somebody?
  13.  Learn how to use punctuation correctly. Letters to clients, blogs, and recommendations you write.  If you can’t, then pay someone to review your content.
  14.  Support a cause and volunteer your time.
  15.  Identify the most successful businesses in your community and find out who is in charge there. Take them out to lunch. Learn about their business. Foster a new relationship.
  16.  Write a personal note card to someone – once a day.  Maybe takes all of 10 minutes. You want people to notice you, this will get their attention. Look through your business development spreadsheet, LinkedIn contacts, neighbors, boards you serve on, alumni friends and people at your kid’s schools.
  17. Start a list of business books to read. Every week set aside 60 minutes to read a random chapter in each. Take notes and start a list of cool ideas.
  18. Ask for testimonials from your favorite clients and publish these on your   website. Save them in a book or frame them – start a wall of testimonials in your office.
  19.  Do a random act of kindness once a week. It’s uplifting and makes you grateful for what you have.
  20.  Ask for feedback from clients, co-workers, and peers – listen and take notes. Don’t comment or dispute. Just listen

A Cyclist’s Perspective on Fee Agreements

As a cyclist, I truly understand the importance of a well-balanced wheel for ensuring a successful ride.  After completing my recent ride, I thought about the analogy between the smooth bike ride and a successful client engagement. The difference between my smooth rides and not-so-smooth rides can be the condition of the wheels – one loose or out of balance spoke can lead to a bumpy ride or even a ride ending crash. In comparison, the difference between a successful, profitable client engagement and one that is bumpy or ends in a crash can come down to having a well written and executed fee agreement. A fee agreement is a contract which outlines the terms of your business relationship.

There are many resources out there to help you design a fee agreement contract. Having reviewed and helped design a few, I believe incorporating these 8 key elements or spokes into your fee agreement will help you on your way to having a successful and profitable client engagement. As illustrated below, each spoke contributes to the success of the client/attorney engagement.

8 Key Spokes = Fee Agreement Elements:

 fee agreements

1.  Who is the client and what legal services are you providing. Are you representing the company or the individuals in the company? For a probate matter, there can be multiple parties. In this first section, be clear about who you are representing and for what.

2.  You’ve conducted a conflict check and documented the results based on your own internal procedures.  But how will you handle the situation of a conflict arising during representation? You have a duty to notify existing clients of a potential conflict. Spell it out here so the client understands. Great article: Conflict Checking Systems from A to Z by my friend Jim Calloway. Continue reading

Where’s the Money – Managing the Expectation to Get Paid

By Peggy Gruenke, Owner – LawBizCOO

A lawyer’s job is more than offering sound advice or making a persuasive argument. An important role for every lawyer seeking to improve their level of profitability is to manage expectations from intake through getting paid at the conclusion:

        1. Expectations about service;
        2. Expectations about how long it will take;
        3. Expectations about results;
        4. Expectations about cost and getting paid.

#4 is an active process that really is going on behind the scenes during the entire engagement. In my previous blogs, I talked about getting paid on cases using retainers and hourly billing and the importance of communication in these processes.  LawBizCOO 

Today, let’s talk about the clients who are habitual late payers and ask for discounted bills once the bill is beyond 90+ days. One reason you may be in this position is due to the flow of communication being driven by the client rather than you, the lawyer. By not firmly implementing your collection policy throughout the engagement, you have caused your own collection problems. A firm-wide written collection policy will set the stage for getting paid. Including this information in your fee agreement is the way to address the getting paid for your work part of the engagement. (Include link here)

So many times I see a client’s account creeping up to 60 days past due and the attorney assures me they are “good for it”, they will pay. Or “they are a good friend or a friend of a friend who will refer me more business”. The attorney continues to work on the case. Then the next month it’s 90 past due and same responses from the attorney. Now we’re six months into the engagement with no payment. You have clearly sent the message to the client that it’s OK not to pay you for the legal work you are doing on their behalf. Keep in mind, clients respect working with lawyers who have a good business sense and firmly adhere to the guidelines set in the initial client meeting. And as a small business owner, getting paid is an integral part of your business.

Clients who get no pressure to pay their late bills, generally will not pay them. Then when the attorney finally does decide he wants to get paid for the services he provided, the getting paid process becomes a time consuming effort that:

  • Leads to confrontation with the client;
  • Opens  the door for the client to question this work;
  • Is ultimately less profitable because in order to keep the client happy, you discount the bills.

Not setting and managing expectations has created an environment where the client has effectively put themselves in control of your collection policy. Take the time early in the engagement to set the stage to make this matter a profitable one.

Thanks for reading my article. Follow me on Twitter and Linked In.

Where’s the Money – Another Perspective on the Importance of Communication

By Peggy Gruenke

The other day I was working on billing, accounts receivable and collections and I noticed a pattern which shed some light on our cash flow and receivables. I was able to identify 3 types of clients and how they pay their invoices.

Type 1 – The client, who paid an original retainer which has now been depleted and never replenished. Reviewing the bills of these clients, they were starting to accumulate past due balances. I had a feeling that this was happening because they somehow expected that was all they would have to pay.

Type 2 – A client who is on hourly billing without a retainer. For the most part they seemed to be paying consistently as long as the invoices were getting mailed out monthly, without big surprises like large amounts of previously unbilled time now showing up on an invoice.

Type 3 – Clients who we allowed to become late payers. Who’s in charge here? Continue reading

An Informed Client is a Happier Client: Client Intake Forms and Procedures for Managing Your Law Practice

By: Peggy E. Gruenke, COO Godbey & Associates

Not only is an informed client a happier client – they also tend to pay on time, are less frustrated and have a better chance of becoming a good referral source. All pointing to good things for growing your practice.

Your initial interview is the first step in managing your risk and  is an opportunity to screen cases and clients unsuitable to you, thereby leaving you with the time and resources to provide excellent client service to those clients you choose to represent.  Initial client meetings are to define the working relationship and set client expectations.

  1. Set context for relationship. Remember you want to be in control; don’t let them start off trying to mange you.
  2. Clarify financial obligations and consequences.
  3. For some, it may be first encounter with an attorney and they have no idea what to expect-explain the process.
  4. Clearly and accurately communicate:
  • Course of action
  • Possible outcomes
  • Implications of decisions
  • How long things may take
  • Expected fees and expenses
  • What types of documents they may receive

Continue reading