let’s start designing.

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Today I launch a new vision for iLawPractice. The shift is a big one — away from a focus primarily on technology and to a focus on designing a holistic practice that accounts for all the needs that a person has: financial, emotional, intellectual, spiritual.

I started iLawPractice when other lawyers began asking me for help — specifically, how to identify and integrate the right technology to support their practices. And I really, really enjoyed it.

But what I’ve realized is that technology is but a small piece in the puzzle. What makes a law practice worth doing is a lot bigger than choosing a practice management platform or using templates to automate doc preparation.

My clients have consistently needed and wanted counsel on so much more than the tech. From day one, we’ve talked about communication, marketing strategy, emotional intelligence, client service. And so much more.

And I realized that helping other lawyers isn’t about the tech. It’s about helping them to design an inspired practice, whatever that means to them.

So today I’m launching a new website — itself an experiment in agility. I expect it to change a lot, possibly in a short period of time. But I start here.

And I invite any lawyer who seeks a change in his/her practice to join me in drawing a map, picking a path, and embarking on the journey of designing an inspired practice.

do you have “mindful awareness” of your practice? #mindfulwednesday

I spent some time last week with a few dozen attorneys, talking about law practice management, technology, and related ideas. When I give these talks, I tend to make them very interactive. As in, I ask lots of questions of the audience. How can I address their issues if I don’t know their issues? Thus, the questions.

Well, this wasn’t a very lively group. As in, radio silence when I would ask a question. But I didn’t relent. I kept asking. And eventually some bold souls accepted my challenge and started talking.

As the “conversation” (and I use this term loosely) progressed, I started to identify a core issue with this group: they weren’t answering my questions because they didn’t know how to answer them. I was asking questions about their practices that they couldn’t answer (for the most part) because they simply didn’t know.

They didn’t know why they handled time keeping/billing/whatever the way they did. They didn’t know why they did or didn’t have a process for intake or client communication or whatever. At least, they didn’t know the why well enough to share. Why? My educated guess is that it’s because they’ve been doing things they way they do them for so long that they’ve stopped wondering whether the way is a good way or not.

I was posing questions that forced my audience to start really thinking about the why and how of their practices. By the looks on many faces, this was both a novel and challenging experience.

The folks in that room were there because they seek a change. The first step: having a mindful awareness of the current state of your practice.

I’m borrowing the phrase “mindful awareness” from meditation, in which context it describes (loosely) a process of identifying a destructive thought pattern, labeling it, and letting it pass when it enters your mind.

In the context of a law practice, I conceptualize the meaning to get at the heart of the first step of change: identifying those processes (or lack thereof) that don’t work, that get in the way of a successful practice, that hold you back from being optimally happy in the way you work.

I’ve helped many folks through the process of changing how they work. Perhaps the sole truth I’ve witnessed: the best kind of change starts with a mindful awareness of the present.

It’s with that awareness that you’re able to truly focus on creating a practice that supports you and the life you want. Not the other way around.

make a great first impression.

I started this little series of posts here. My inspiration was a recent opportunity to help someone essentially recreate a practice. From soup to nuts.

When faced with this blank slate, we started by strategizing about the first impression this person could make, through all the channels presented to a lawyer on a daily basis: website, calls to the office, email communication, interaction at networking opportunities, sharing a business card, conducting an initial consultation … and there are many, many more that deserve consideration. But I’ll start with these.

WEBSITE

This topic deserves a series of posts in its own right, but here are the obvious basics of making a good first impression on your website: Use professional images, not snapshots and not old pictures or ones that don’t look like you. Write your bio like a story, not like your Martindale-Hubbell bio. Yuck. And if you’re not a good story writer, then hire someone to write it for you. And don’t just talk about yourself — find a way to offer information to site visitors, whether through FAQs, blog posts, white papers or even ebooks. Finally, keep your target audience in mind as you design all aspects of your site. Your target audience is likely not other lawyers (at least not primarily). So don’t think like a lawyer when you create your site.

INCOMING CALLS

Not every practice requires a live person taking calls. But some do — especially in practice areas where clients have a perceived need to talk to someone (anyone) right at that moment. Criminal and domestic clients come to mind. If this describes your practice, keep in mind that you’re possibly losing potential clients if incoming calls aren’t handled well.

A person in crisis wants to talk to another person, and be given a clear expectation of what’s going to happen next. This is the first impression you should be giving, if your practice areas encompass crisis situations. Why? Because this will give potential clients a genuine reason to trust you, which makes it more likely they will hire you.

How to do this? You can hire staff to handle it in your office. Work with them to identify how various types of calls will be handled, even creating scripts (of sorts) for different situations, and nail down how you can make sure clients now what to expect going forward. By this I mean making sure the person taking calls clearly communicates to callers when follow-up communication will happen, e.g. “Attorney Smith will return your call within X hours.” The call taker can make this statement with confidence because you’ve already worked out the expectations to be set.

In lieu of hiring a person to sit in your office, you also can consider a service such as Ruby Receptionists — their staff can be trained to manage calls just as your own staff member would. If the thought of managing another person (or paying a full-time salary) discourages you, then you really should check out Ruby.

EMAIL COMMUNICATION

Yet another topic deserving of its own series of posts. The nutshell version: First, if you haven’t already done it, think through exactly how you’re going to handle initial contacts via email. Your website no doubt has an email contact form (or at least an email address), so you’re inviting people to contact you this way. So how do you respond? How do you make the right initial impression in this response?

I can’t answer these questions for you because they depend entirely on your practice and goals — but I can tell you that taking the time to think through an email policy, especially for initial contacts, is time well-spent.

Also, treat email communication as you would any other professional communication. Choose your words with care, remember that email can’t convey tone (or humor, often), and thoughtfully consider what information you share via email. Sometimes you need to pick up the phone (or meet in person), instead of hitting “send.” This may be especially so when responding to initial contact from a potential client.

Communication is the lynchpin of any successful attorney-client relationship. It’s so easy to do it right, and how you handle both incoming calls and email communication sets the stage for what clients can expect going forward with your office.

In the next post, I’ll share some thoughts on networking, business cards, and conducting an initial consultation …

tech, productivity, + an agile practice

The following post originally appeared on the MyCase blog, thanks to a kind invitation from Niki Black. It’s the first in a series that I’ll be publishing here about the ins-and-outs of an agile practice.

An inconvenient truth: technology doesn’t improve productivity. It won’t make you more efficient, successful, or happy. What it can do is help you create a workflow (or even a lifestyle) that enables your productivity, efficiency, success, and happiness.

It’s taken me 16 years in law practice to figure it out, but I’ve finally created a tech-rich workflow that really supports my productivity.

I call it my “agile practice,” in part because I’ve cherry-picked elements of agile methodology that fit into a modern-day law practice. Why agile? Because lawyers spend a lot of time putting out fires instead of working our to-do lists. Not me. Not anymore. An agile system accommodates the fires. Allowing me to stay on track, do more good work, in less time.

How? By following the core principles of productivity, and adding technology only if it supports the principles.  Start with these four:

Eat the frog. This simply means do the most important thing first, no matter how much you don’t want to, every day. If you do this, then it’s much less likely that you’ll be derailed by the unexpected or urgent. As well, it’s motivating to check that important thing off your list. Supporting tech: I currently use Workflowy, a simple and ubiquitous app, to manage my to-do list. The frog is always at the top.

Touch it once. When something (an email, a phone call, a task) appears in front of you, your goal is to touch it only once (or twice, at most). The order of action: (1) do it; or (2) file it away for doing at a specific time; or (3) delegate it. If (2) is the action, then touch it only once at the appointed time. Supporting tech: especially if you’re delegating tasks, a web-based app such as Trello or the collaboration features built into MyCase support this principle masterfully.

No multitasking. You can’t do two (or more) things concurrently and expect to do any of them well. In fact, trying to multitask can sap up to 40% of your productivity. So stop. At the end of each day, create your list of work to be done the following day, ideally arranged from most to least important. Then start doing the work, once step at a time. Supporting tech: here, the goal is to put down the tech while you focus on the work in front of you. But technology can also help you do this – try one of these 10 apps that fight distraction and support concentration.

Email management. Technology and principle are inextricably linked here. Managing email, instead of allowing it to manage you, is crucial for setting up a productive workflow. Simple steps: don’t work with your email open all day; check email only at set times during the day; reply immediately if doing so will take two minutes or less; get email out of the inbox once you’ve acted on it. Supporting tech: I use Boomerang to set automatic reminders for responding to email (or to remind me if someone has failed to respond to my email). Inbox zero is an unattainable myth, but with Boomerang I can keep my inbox under control.

Some final words of advice: If you spend more time trying to make the tech work, or fit in your desired workflow, ditch it. And don’t adopt new tech unless it truly solves a problem you’re having.

but what do our clients want?

Since 2009, I’ve offered some form of an extranet to clients for sharing documents, communicating, and general collaboration. In fact, the moment I learned about extranets, I was mildly obsessed. The concept seemed to solve so many problems: no deleted emails or lost attachments, a clear chain of communication, and security. One place for everything!

The security point was (and still is) really important to me, especially when it comes to sharing sensitive documents and communication. Email is not the place for this. Even if you use encryption on your end, never lose sight of the fact that the minute you hit send, you have completely lost control. Even encrypted email, once decrypted, is subject to the recipient’s whims. I live by this golden rule: don’t put it in (or attach it to) an email unless you’re okay with the content appearing on page one of the New York Times.

My extranet journey started with an investigation into VLOTech, the predecessor of the Total Attorneys Suite that includes a client-facing portal. I ultimately opted for an extranet product by PBWorks that predated its current offering, PBWorks Legal Hub.

For a couple of years I diligently created PBWorks workspaces for business and estate planning clients in my transactional practice. Configuring the workspaces was somewhat cumbersome, which made me feel all the more invested in having clients use them. (Note: I’ve tooled around in a free PBWorks LegalHub account and configuring a workspace is no longer so cumbersome).

I loved my extranets. My clients did not. Well, for the most part. Those who did like it, like my developer and my creative clients, were already accustomed to using a cloud-based collaboration tool. Everyone else? They would log in to the workspace, but they didn’t use it to communicate. They sent me emails. They didn’t use it to share documents; they sent them as email attachments.

Why? Because my clients want me to meet them where they are: email. I even had clients who would respond to a message I posted in our workspace by sending me an email instead of leaving a message in the workspace.

And this behavior applied no matter the extranet platform I used. I eventually abandoned the original PBWorks platform because (a) it was so cumbersome to use, and (b) it was expensive, especially for something that clients didn’t view as a value add. I found more intuitive (and less expensive) platforms, but the underlying problem continued. No one but me (and some other like-minded lawyers I collaborated with) really wanted to use them.

What I’ve realized is that client extranets can be a fantastic tool for lawyers and firms, especially when part of an integrated platform that ties it directly into case management and billing. Relying on too many different platforms and software programs is a leading cause of inefficiency in any practice. Consolidating functions and tying them tightly together promotes efficiency, productivity, and sanity.

But this is a benefit to the lawyers.

Our clients aren’t interested in our integrated platform. Our clients want us to meet them where they are. They already have to log into too many accounts. When we ask them to add another, they ask, “Why?”

Well, there are very good reasons — which I explain to my clients:

  • Transparency: locating everything (documents, communication, calendars, billing records) in a single place online makes it easy for everyone to know where things stand in a matter.
  • Efficiency: clients have access 24/7 to their case/project information, and don’t have to spend time looking through email chains or attachments.
  • Improved communication: by locating all “discussions” (whether via an IM or email-type interface) in a single spot, clients are far less likely to ask the same question twice, and are able to find the relevant information when they need it.
  • Customization: designing and using the workspace in ways that best fit the client’s (and the matter’s) needs should improve the client’s overall experience.

Even knowing these things, clients generally don’t use the extranet. They prefer to use their own email for everything. (Surprise!) So for most clients I bypass the extranet, and honor their request to use email (while still following my golden rule, above). But I’ve tweaked the process a bit: for example, I use links (with expiration dates) to secure cloud platforms for sharing documents instead of attaching documents to email messages.

Despite all of this, I’m certain that others are having a different experience with extranets in their practices.  A survey conducted by ILTA in 2010 reports on client extranet use by the 49 firms surveyed. The results describe the value add to clients and suggest client satisfaction with extranets. Worth noting: all but one of the firms surveyed (PDF) has 50+ attorneys, and 16 have more than 700.

But I wonder if these results are widely indicative. A current consulting client (a firm recently started by three ex-large firm attorneys) responded this way when I suggested that they consider a client extranet for sharing the voluminous number of document revisions with one particular (corporate) client: “The company already has its own extranet. The last thing our clients want to do is log into someone else’s. They prefer email. So we use email.”

Anecdotal, yes. But telling.

Which leads me to a conclusion: cloud platforms that offer client extranet features (integrated with other practice management features) are a potential boon to all attorneys. Solo and smaller firms, who likely work with individuals as opposed to large entities, can benefit internally from the efficiency and productivity features of such platforms. But they may find their clients are less likely to use the extranet, preferring the platforms they’re already using (like email). And big firms may find that their corporate clients don’t want yet another place to log into, either. Why? They, too, just may prefer to be met where they are.

I don’t discourage anyone from considering an extranet, though, especially one that’s part of a larger practice management platform. Individual success will depend heavily on the type of practice as well as clients served. My experience may not at all be predictive of another attorney’s or firm’s. Although I do hope that firms consider the lessons I’ve learned when planning for the adoption and integration of an extranet into the workflow, and take clients’ preferences and needs into account.

And perhaps some of the extranet platform designers may start considering what our clients want, as well.

Here’s some solid advice for anyone wanting to sell a service or a product in the 21st century: “Build something just for the people who matter. Relevance is the new remarkable.”

Which leads to a suggested query: how can we meet clients where they are and make the extranet relevant to the client’s experience?

This post first appeared on the ABA’s Law Technology Today Blog.

an antidote.

Throw a stone online and you’ll hit an article discussing how unhappy and depressed lawyers are. I’ve written about it here, as well.

What’s the antidote? There likely are many. Sleep more. Eat better. Exercise. Meditate. Stop being a lawyer.

One I’ve been practicing for awhile now is gratitude. If you’ve read many of my posts you may note I tend to write only about those things that really excite me. The practice of gratitude is one of those things.

Interested in exploring gratitude and what it can bring to your life? Try these exercises from Martin Seligman (psychologist in the study of happiness and author of Flourish – a recommended read).

THE GRATITUDE VISIT.

Close your eyes. Call up the face of someone still alive who years ago did something or said something that changed your life for the better. Someone who you never properly thanked; someone you could meet face-to-face next week. Got a face?

Gratitude can make your life happier and more satisfying. When we feel gratitude, we benefit from the pleasant memory of a positive event in our life. Also, when we express our gratitude to others, we strengthen our relationship with them. But sometimes our thank you is said so casually or quickly that it is nearly meaningless. In this exercise … you will have the opportunity to experience what it is like to express your gratitude in a thoughtful, purposeful manner.

Your task is to write a letter of gratitude to this individual and deliver it in person. The letter should be concrete and about three hundred words: be specific about what she did for you and how it affected your life. Let her know what you are doing now, and mention how you often remember what she did. Make it sing! Once you have written the testimonial, call the person and tell her you’d like to visit her, but be vague about the purpose of the meeting; this exercise is much more fun when it is a surprise. When you meet her, take your time reading your letter.

I did this with a former teacher of mine. It was by far one of the most amazing and humbling experiences I’ve ever had. It’s an incredible gift to both people involved.

THE THREE GRATITUDES. 

This one is perhaps less daunting. Commonly called the “three blessings,” I call it the “three gratitudes.”

Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. You may use a journal or your computer to write about the events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (“My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today”), but they can be important (“My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy”).

Next to each positive event, answer the question “Why did this happen?” For example, if you wrote that your husband picked up ice cream, write “because my husband is really thoughtful sometimes” or “because I remembered to call him from work and remind him to stop by the grocery store.” Or if you wrote, “My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy,” you might pick as the cause … “She did everything right during her pregnancy.”

Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier.

I practice the three gratitudes somewhat religiously. I used to blog about them, and now keep a written journal. My family and I often do it together at the dinner table. No money-back guarantees offered, but I can attest that this is a powerful way to retrain your brain to focus first on the positive.

And not to state the obvious, but we lawyers are paid to focus on the negative. We spend our days mired in it. The reason I left litigation? Because, always and every time, and even after getting the client exactly what she wanted at the outset, everyone involved was miserable from the experience. Including me. The negative was overwhelming.

In my experience, it requires thoughtful, intentional, and consistent effort to combat the negative. One antidote: the regular practice of gratitude. Give it a go. Let me know what you think.

links i like.

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Pretend it’s Friday. This week’s links? Words of wisdom from Seth. I think we think these ideas don’t apply to us. They do.

The links:

Accuracy, resiliency, and denial – where are you on this spectrum? No doubt we lawyers are guilty of making the two mistakes. I really hope you read and embrace this.

Who are your clients? This is gold, people.

Is your practice worth talking about? If not, then why bother?

Are you building gradually, to avoid the surprise of suddenly?

Could the point be more spot-on?

When you define the category, when the category is you and you alone, your marketing issues tend to disappear. This scares the hell out of most lawyers. Think of the advantage this affords those who are not afraid. Hmmm …

What works? A query significantly more important than what’s new.

Reading really good stuff is a really good way to keep moving forward. Add these books to the top of your reading list.