In a recent Indiana trial court proceeding, the judge held the attorney in contempt of court because he failed to follow a local court rule: where socks. While most of us have heard the mantra of dressing for success, one has to wonder how deep can the client see? Does a client know whether you are wearing a T-shirt, underpants or as in this case, socks? Apparently, the judge saw bare skin next to shoe leather, and was offended. One has to wonder about the sensibilities of the court…
In a recent case, the lawyer was successful in growing his practice. So much so that he engaged 30 staff; they met with clients and even provided legal advice in loan modification matters. The net result is that the attorney did not provide adequate supervision for his staff and allowed them to five legal advice. This was the unlawful practice of law. The attorney was guilty of violating the Rules of Professional Conduct and was suspended for two years. Punishment could have been more, but the lawyer made financial restitution to aggrieved clients and agreed to community service during his suspension.
Moral to the story: Grow your practice with appropriate supervision of unlicensed staff and technological support. Don’t allow unlicensed staff to provide legal advice. Coaching helps both with growing your practice and with operating your practice efficiently and within professional guidelines.
The larger one’s firm gets, the more management issues arise. Running a law practice is equivalent to running a professional service business and management principles are as important as being legally competent.
In years gone by, many people attended law school because a legal education enhanced their skills. In today’s world, entry into law school is first evaluated based on ROI, return on investment. And, in some instances, the comparison is coming up short. After the Great Recession, getting a job after law school was not guaranteed. Law school graduates, in addition to being uncertain about their job market, faced extraordinary debt burden.
A 2012 survey indicates that at least 24% of law school graduates are not practicing law. Rather, they were finding their way into nonprofit and education sectors and the federal government. This compares with9% in a similar 2003 survey. One factor pushing this statistic is the need to reduce or pay some of that student debt.
And when considering whether lawyers are satisfied in their chosen career, measured against whether they would go to law school again if given the opportunity, almost 2 out of seven said “no.” This latter statistic seems to be consistent with similar statistics of earlier years. In the 1970s, in response to a survey that I commissioned with the State Bar of California, almost 1/3 of the respondents indicated they were not satisfied with the practice. But they didn’t have the huge amount of debt that today’s graduates are carrying. I suspect that what keeps people enrolling in law school is another statistic: those graduates with the highest grade point averages have median pay levels that exceed $121,500, more than those who achieve the lowest grades. This is a significant difference, and the reason for the continued attraction of law schools.
This evening my wife and I went to dinner. It was a pleasant Southern California evening with the sun still shining. The wind was blowing but the gusts were significantly less than yesterday. We walked from our home. We decided to go to a sushi restaurant near our house. We were about 10 minutes early and waited outside for the door to be unlocked. The owner came to the door and was washing the door window from the inside; he then opened the door and washed the window from the outside. He said it would be a few minutes more. He then returned to the inside and locked the door. In the meantime, we were getting colder from the wind gusts. The noise of the door being locked clicked something in me. I looked at my wife and said, “How would you like Italian food? The other restaurant is just down the street.” That’s where we went and had a very nice dinner. The sushi restaurant owner could have let us inside, away from the wind gusts, even if the chef was not ready to serve. But, he didn’t; he thought only of himself, not of his customers. He could have said “hello, come inside.” But, he didn’t. I suspect he didn’t know or care that he lost business that night, and perhaps for the future. There are more sushi restaurants in the area.
What are you doing in your law firm that favors your wishes, your desires, your idiosyncrasies at the expense of your clients and prospective clients? As in the case of the sushi restaurant, most often you can accommodate the needs and wishes of the customer and yours at the same time. It certainly would not have caused any problem to let us into the restaurant to sit inside rather than outside. It certainly would not create a great burden to return clients’ phone calls promptly or educate the client about the process he is about to embark on … How much time would it take to ask about the client’s expectations or to tell the client about your expectations (like getting paid timely)? There are other lawyers who do understand their clients’ desires and expectations.
Take care to think about your client and what he expects and whether you fulfill those expectations.
Linda Popky, marketing consultant of Leverage2Market, writes her Top of Mind piece this week about a serious marketing blunder, as follows:
“…. (T)he local Orchard Supply Hardware (OSH) store featured a great buy on a tabletop propane heater….There was only one problem. A propane heater naturally requires propane to work. And even though OSH carries small portable propane tanks, they didn’t have the ones in the proper configuration to fit the heater. Whoops.
“So making this (purchase) work required an additional trip to … Home Depot (to get the correct propane tank) … Driving your customers to visit your competition to complete their product experience with you (is) not the best way to keep the flames of loyalty burning bright.”
As Linda suggests, make it easy to do business with you, not hard. Examples include answering phone calls quickly (as on the first ring) and messages returned promptly (no later than the next day. Being astute in The Business of Law® will create loyal clients.
While doom-sayers proclaim that the legal profession’s problem is too many lawyers, practical experience often tells a different story. A friend recently shared this story with me:
“When we needed an immigration attorney, only one returned our calls of enquiry from the several my husband called locally, (she got our business) and when we were looking for a lawyer for wills and other family matters recently, only one was interested in the bread and butter stuff we’re looking for help with. Couple this with the ‘non-lawyer’ who dealt with our house sale (very efficiently) in the UK, as consumers we see the ‘lawyer’ crisis differently!”
There may be an oversupply of lawyers for jobs at Biglaw (the high paying positions too many law school graduates still want), but the demand (the bread-and-butter business with the Main Street folks who can’t pay $1,000 an hour legal fees) is still there.
My friend’s experience suggests this simple solution for any lawyer worried about having enough business: pick up the phone! The teachings of my father many years ago come to mind. When the phone rings, and you respond, you will be hired. But,if you don’t respond, you won’t be hired. This is similar to the adage that if you don’t swing the bat, you can’t hit the ball.
Marketing efforts are designed to make people aware of you and to encourage them to call. But all the effective marketing in the world won’t make up for calls missed or not promptly returned. Service is fundamental. If clients want you, it’s because of the quality service you can and should provide. If you’re there right from the start it shows what you will do going forward.
I wrote recently about the great chasm between lawyer supply and demand for legal services. I suggested that this is an age-old problem only because many lawyers are courting a very small market segment, the large companies of the world. The bulk of the consuming public has less ability to pay but still great need. And the Bar hasn’t yet figured out how to incentivize lawyers to serve this need.
But perhaps the real issue is not so much the supply, but rather the lack of service provided by lawyers. The following several instances were reported to me from one who had repeated unpleasant interactions with lawyers. It’s a shame that she had more than one such experience, but most people can identify with what happened to her.
"When we needed an immigration attorney," she says, "only one returned our calls of inquiry from the several my husband called locally. When we were looking for a lawyer for wills and other family matters recently, only one was interested in the bread and butter stuff we needed addressed." She continues by making the further observation, "Instead of using a lawyer, we used a ‘non-lawyer’ for our house sale; she was very efficient." She concludes that "… as consumers, we see the ‘lawyer’ crisis differently!."
Lawyers get a bad rap deservedly in too many instances!
For the 2013 academic year, law school admissions were headed for a 30-year low, a decline driven by student worries about rising tuition, debt load and unemployment after graduation. Potential law students increasingly understand that today it is a fool’s gamble to spend many thousands of dollars in the hope of getting a well-paying job at the end of three years, and as they pursue other careers the legal profession will shrink.
Demographics present another way to reduce the supply of lawyers. There are more than 1.2 million lawyers in the United States, at least half of them sole practitioners and some 400,000 poised to retire by the year 2020. To suggest that this latter group should be treated differently from any other group in the organized bar would create allegations of ageism and prohibited discrimination. However, a metric that is applicable to all lawyers, such as “competence in professional skills,” is safer ground. Of course, if this metric also achieves the basic goal of reducing the number of lawyers, by implying that older lawyers are less competent to serve clients, so much the better.
The problem with this metric is that it is never applied uniformly. If we look at new lawyers, those who have been admitted to practice for three years or less, there will undoubtedly be many who are not “competent,” despite the fact that they have passed the bar exam. What is the competence metric for “older” lawyers? Do they have to pass another bar exam? If yes why should age be the factor that determines whether they have to take a new examination? If not, what might it be? There is no examination at anywhere in the time spectrum of a lawyer’s career that requires such an examination.
It is the rare lawyer who has not thought at some point, “My opponent is not very good.” Often this is another way of saying, “My opponent doesn’t seem very competent.” This is impressionistic only, but to be valid it must be applied throughout the entire career life cycle.
It is not accurate to automatically assume that older lawyers are more careless, have too many distractions and make too many errors leading to discipline.Young lawyers are closer to the teaching of the rules of professional conduct than are the older lawyers. But, that does not assure that all younger lawyers are competent to offer the advice they’re asked for … and, with MCLE, older lawyers generally keep their skills up. Regardless of lawyers’ ages, the majority of the complaints against the profession relate to careless dealings with clients… Age is not a determining factor in such a scenario.