“The beginning, middle, and end of what you should worry about when you’re running a law firm is quality of your work and putting clients first. Clients and doing it 100% right are what it is all about, and all it is about.”Will Terpening, Founder, Terpening Law PLLC
Care About Your Quality of Work and Care About Your Clients. And That’s It.
This point is so obvious that it probably seems unnecessary to make. But it has to be made. But every day I see letters from lawyers with typos, lawyers who are unprepared in court, garbage from big silk-stocking firms, garbage from little real estate closing firms, and I don’t get it. Often, the garbage comes in the guise of a form letter. Sometimes, it comes dressed as sloppy or inaccurate citations to case law.
Careless errors and problems associated with lack of responsiveness to clients are so prevalent with law firms that one of the easiest ways to set your firm apart is to take the extra step of having procedures to prevent those two basic issues.
Let me be clear, I can put a typo in a document with the best of them, I’ve fallen on my face in court, forgotten to return a client call or two, and screwed up plenty. All lawyers do. But there is a difference between messing up because of lack of preparation and sweat (no excuse) and messing up because it is a tough job.
You Minimize Mistakes by Having a Process.
As you get your law firm rolling, build in measures to minimize screw ups and be more accessible to clients. This is something we’ve not perfected yet, but we try to improve at Terpening Law every day. Here are some examples of what I mean by improve the process:
- Constantly identify your firm and personal weak points. For example, I have horrible eyesight and I am always busy, so typographical errors can sneak into my documents (probably including this blog) if I am not careful. So I get associates and staff to read my work carefully before I send or file anything.
- Use calendaring redundancies. Don’t just use “Outlook” as your calendar for internal, court, and other deadlines. Put them there, but also put them on a physical white board, and consider other date tracking apps as well. And, include reminder deadlines a week or two before briefs are due. Get deadlines on the calendars of everyone in the firm, and discuss them constantly.
- Take your clients’ calls or return their messages immediately. Same for emails. Nights and weekends too. There is all kinds of talk these days about “lifestyle,” “balance,” and waiting to respond to emails so you can focus on work. Balance is fine, but not at the expense of excellent client service. I sometimes even get automatic messages from lawyers and other service providers telling me they will respond to my message next Pancake Tuesday so they can focus on whatever they are doing. That infuriates me, and I bet it infuriates law firm clients as well. That’s just code for lazy. Clients deserve to have prompt responses.
- Even as a new, small firm, have a receptionist — even if that means your paralegal is answering the phone. It is one absolutely necessary way to help clients and others find you, and it personalizes the firm. I cannot stand having the phone go to the automatic directory during business hours. It is annoying for callers, and arguably disrespectful. It sometimes happens, particularly during lunch hour, but I try to prevent it. If you are literally practicing on your own without staff, answer the phone yourself. Get your office phone forwarded to your cell phone.
- On that note, never practice without at least a paralegal. This is so important that I will write another post about it. You need to be focused on clients, practicing law, and marketing. If you do not have a person handling the organizational stuff for you, the risk of screw ups is too high. If you want to be excellent, you have to have someone catching the many detail things that are so easy to miss, and you have to take the time to train them. Having a good paralegal is more important than having a good associate attorney, as important as a good associate is. It makes a bigger difference to the quality of your practice. More on this later.
- Copy your paralegal and an associate on most correspondence and give her access to your email. Trust the paralegal (within reason) to run the non-law part of your practice. Make sure she is available to clients in case they cannot get you because you’re in court or for some other legitimate reason. You need to focus on your work and your clients.
- Going paperless is impossible. The paperless office is a myth. But do make sure everything — ranging from your notes to correspondence to key documents — is electronically scanned and saved somewhere secure in the cloud. One of the best pieces of advice I got when I was a younger lawyer at a bigger firm is that if a tornado destroyed your office, you should be able to find everything you need in your electronic files. Have a process where you scan everything.
We are far from perfect, and there are lots of good law firms. But I do find that worrying about process and constantly trying to learn from our mistakes is worth the time. Take notes based on your own experiences and reflect on them. I’ll talk more about that in other posts going forward. What are some ways that you’ve improved your ability to focus on clients and limit errors in your practice? Let us know!
Questions? Call me at the office.
Will Terpening, Charlotte, February 27, 2019.