Best Practices for Sole Practices and Small Firms

At the second annual Solo/Small Firm Institute, lawyers Briana Chua, Danny Mazza, Ayensa Millan, and Emily Taylor – all solo/small firm lawyers – shared their insights on a variety of issues.

In no particular order, among the tips those in attendance learned, we heard:

  • That you have to “do everything” and “be everywhere” in terms of marketing and business development.  For some that is a divide-and-conquer strategy, with each lawyer focusing on something different. But for solos, it may be picking the two or three best strategies and then making them a priority.
  • Accounting and business practices can take an inordinate amount of time, particularly at the beginning. All agreed that they needed systems and procedures to free them up to practice law.
  • Each of them have added staff to address these administrative issues, but only after starting with support from their family – not financial support, administrative support.  Having a mother, sister or other family member helping out at the beginning was more common than one might have thought.
  • Work-life balance is something that these lawyers struggle with and there is, again, no single answer. What was common is that unplugging totally is more the exception than the rule, even during vacation.
  • And, speaking of vacation – it is possible for solo/small firm lawyers to take vacation, although some have not done so for long periods of time.

What’s the take-aways from this session?  Solo/small practice isn’t for the faint-of-heart.  It takes hard work, dedication, no small amount of imagination and innovation, and as with most things, a little help from your friends and family.

Disaster Preparedness for Law Firms

With the recent devastation in the southern United States in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, we are reminded of the need for a disaster plan.  In addition to considering how to best keep yourself and your family safe, you should also give some thought to protecting your practice and the clients who rely on you.  What would happen to your law firm if there was no power? Or, what if a disaster struck while you were at work? What would you do if your computers sustained water damage and became inoperable?

Document Storage – Where are your documents stored? If you keep paper files, how would you keep them safe? If you store your documents electronically, consider:

  • Are your documents backed up? How can you access your backups?
  • What is your back-up plan if you lose electricity?
  • What is your backup plan if your office is flooded?

Business Continuity – Consider how you will keep your practice going in the event that you cannot access your office or are short staffed.

  • What staff roles are absolutely vital to continue operations, what employees are needed?
  • What is the chain of command?
  • Are employees cross-trained so that they can step in and fill another job function?
  • How will time-off and pay be handled for employees?

Taking Shelter or Evacuating – A disaster could strike while you are at work.

  • What is your evacuation route?
  • If you cannot escape, where could you shelter?

Contact Information – If the power is out, you are going to need a way to access contact information.  Reports coming out of Florida indicate that the power might be out for at least several more days.  Gas shortages have made running a generator difficult. Do you have contact information readily accessible for:

  • Clients
  • Employees
  • Courts
  • Federal, state, and local officials
  • Utilities such as telephone, water, gas, and electric companies
  • Neighbors?

Insurance Coverage – Do you have insurance that will pay for some of the costs and expenses that you will incur before your law firm can go back to being operational?

Our thoughts are with everyone suffering the impacts of the hurricanes. We hope that you found this post helpful and if you have any suggestions about additional things to consider, please Tweet us @AZPractice2_0!

Lawyers and Well-Being

A new report by a national task force on lawyer well-being has been issued.  You may find the report here. A number of national groups were included, with representatives from the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Law Practice Division, the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP), the National Organization of Bar Counsel (the lawyer regulations folks), the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (the ethics lawyers) and many others.

It is no surprise that as a general principle, to be a good lawyer you need to be healthy in body and spirit.  No, this does not mean that if you do not hit the gym five times a week you cannot be a good lawyer.  It doesn’t mean that you have to run marathons, or even half-marathons.  It does mean, however, that we need to be in a condition that will allow us to use our best efforts for our clients.

It is also, by now, no surprise that lawyers are at the top of the range of those experiencing chronic stress, high rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse, and high rates of suicide.  The report includes specific recommendations for various stakeholders including judges, regulators, employers and Bar associations as well as general recommendations.

The bottom line is that we lawyers need to take better care of ourselves and each other.  We need to stop finger-pointing and stigmatizing those who are suffering and turn our attention to ways in which to assist ourselves and our colleagues.  What do you need to be well?  Do you need to eat better, drink less, exercise more?  Do you need to better manage your stress, get sober or address your anxiety or depression?

There is no easy answer, but this report – on the heels of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundations’s study of mental health and substance abuse among lawyers – should be a wake-up call for all of us to take a moment (or more than a moment) to self-evaluate and decide what we need to increase our own well-being, both physical and mental; it’s also a good time to look around and see if you have a colleague who may need assistance.

Resources and information, as well as confidential peer support, are available from the State Bar’s Member Assistance Program.

 

 

Yes, but is it compatible?

New technology, new equipment, new apps or software . . . they are bright and shiny – they do bigger and better things than before.  But before you take the plunge stop, take a deep breath and ask yourself . . . .will it work with what I already have and want to keep?

Learning this lesson the hard way can be painful.  Take, for example, the transition to new equipment – let’s say phones – only to learn that they do not work with your existing operating system, switchboard or other hardware.  Learning that the system you’ve just bought works only on Windows 10, and not the version you have been using and hadn’t intended to update quite yet, can stop progress in its tracks.  Or dealing with another person, agency or company whose software works only on an older operating system and either very poorly and not at all on yours can be daunting.

Having an IT professional you can call upon to resolve these issues can save a lot of heartache and frustration.  Do you need a full-time IT person on your staff?  For most lawyers the answers is no.  But you should have in your contacts (or for old-schoolers, Rolodex) one or more IT consultants you have already vetted and know you can afford.

A word to the wise.  Start looking for that person now before you hit a roadblock.  Ask around – someone you know probably has that information for you.  If you find someone great, we’d love to hear about them at Practice 2.0.  We don’t make referrals, but we do compile helpful information to make your work life a little easier.  You can send that information to us at practice2.0@azbar.org.

 

 

Thinking about office sharing?

If you are in a solo practice and need some bricks and mortar space but don’t want to take on a full office, or the financial burden it brings, office sharing may be an option you wish to consider  Office sharing – usually with a joint receptionist and some joint equipment (think printers, copiers) – can be a frugal and expeditious solution.  Of course, if it was easy and fool-proof, there would be no need for any comment.  The fact that you are reading this opening paragraph therefore tells you that there are a number of considerations to address.  Here are some:

  • Be certain that your firm is distinct and separate.  This applies to signage and business cards/stationary; it also applies to your phone number – you should have one that is separate from any other lawyer or firm in that space, your email, your fax number (if you have one) . . . you get the picture.  A client or prospective client coming into the shared space should not be confused about who you are and that you are not associated with the other lawyers in the space.
  • Physical separation and security is also an issue in these arrangements.  It may seem obvious, but it is easy to forget.  Your office door, desk, and any physical file storage must be able to be locked so that you may restrict access.
  • Be sure to inform your clients that you are not associated with the other lawyers in the shared office.  You may do so during your consultation; it’s not a bad idea to have that disclaimer in your fee agreement or engagement letter.
  • Remember that communications with your client, or about your client’s matter, should be held in your office space – and remember to close the door.
  • Will using a shared receptionist create confidentiality or conflict issues? If you are sharing a receptionist do not assume that s/he understands the confidentiality requirements to which you are subject.  Even if this is an office-sharing arrangement that is tailored specifically to lawyers and you’ve been assured by the rental agent that staff is trained, keep in mind you are responsible for supervising your non-lawyer assistants.  Assume that the receptionist has been appropriately trained at your own risk; it doesn’t take long to have a conversation to assure yourself that the receptionist understands confidentiality.
    • If you are using a shared receptionist, it is a better practice to have them forward calls to your voice mail rather than actually recording a message.
    • If clients want to drop off documents, files or other information, how will you ensure that this information is not exposed to the other lawyers in the space or their clients in a shared waiting room.
  • What are the cybsersecurity provisions of the space?  If you are all using the same internet connection think about whether you need some professional IT assistance to make sure you have adequate security for your cyber-communications with your clients.  Perhaps you may wish to choose an office-share where you will have your own, unique internet connection.
  • In what kind of practices are the other lawyers in the suite  engaged?  Will there be a conflict created if your clients use a shared waiting room?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the issues that should be addressed before you make this commitment.  The lawyers at Practice 2.0 are happy to discuss with you your personal situation and assist you in identifying issues and crafting solutions.  Call Practice 2.0 at 602-340-7332.

Managing ourselves

As many return from summer vacation, or at least a long 4th of July weekend, we are again reflecting on self-care – this time in connection with maintaining a successful practice.  Have you yet taken time off this summer?  Are you planning on some kind of recreational break from your practice?  Why do we ask and why is it important?  There are hundreds of practice management applications – software galore – to help us.  Case management, document management, all kinds of task automation, mobile apps, installed software . . . the list is endless.  But what all of these products cannot do is manage us.

What are we talking about?  No, wait, don’t roll your eyes . . . let’s talk about lawyer wellness in terms of our practices.  Here’s our point – we can have all of the best equipment, resources – human and other – the best procedures and processes (OK, so we are being utopian), the best legal minds, and the best of intentions but none of them will work as well as they ought if we are worn out, either mentally or physically, or both.

Have you gone to the office when you are just dragging?  Does it seem like you are slogging your way through quicksand?  Or are you perhaps a bit cranky?  It’s Arizona and it’s summer and even if you are fortunate enough to live in or around Prescott, Flagstaff, or points north where the weather is more moderate, don’t we all remember those glorious summer vacations from our school days?  Is it time to take a vacation – even if it’s just a long weekend where you unplug and really relax?

Maybe a vacation isn’t the cure for what ails you.  Maybe it’s rethinking the volume of your practice.  Do you have too many clients?  Do you need additional human resources – either on staff or contract help?  Do you need to employ some of the time management suggestions we posted last week?  In the thick of the action it’s sometimes hard to consider these issues.  Many firms have official retreats to do strategic planning; even if your firm is small, or is just you, doing some strategic planning (what we in our family sometimes call “thinking deep thoughts”) is a worthwhile endeavor.

So here we are, suggesting that we each take a moment, a day, or a long weekend to think about what’s working for our practices and what isn’t; what we can change easily and quickly and what should be a long-term goal; whether we just need a little break at the beach, in the mountains, or wherever your person battery most easily charges, or whether we just need to make some changes to our day-to-day work practices.  Let’s take the time to manage ourselves.

 

Time Management Tips and Resources

At the State Bar Convention a couple of weeks ago, State Bar Chief Member Services Officer Lisa Deane shared with the audience a number of tips for time management, as well as resources she found helpful.  The response was so positive that here, for your reading pleasure, are her tips:

Time management is about being deliberate; more efficient, simplifying life to make sure the important work gets done.

General Tips
1. Sleep. Get 7-8 hours. Sleep deprivation decreases overall performance. You may get the work done but the quality will suffer.
2. Stay out of the rabbit hole. Only use social media if it is planned or minutes will turn to hours.
3. Buffer Time. Leave time between tasks and meetings. Consider a 50 minute meeting or task to save the last 10 minutes for debriefing or preparing for the next task.
4. Health.
a. Exercise, Stress, Food. Not watching these today is okay but long-term exercise and eating right will reduce chances of disease and cancer.

Work Tips
1. Planning
a. To-do list:
1. Everything you think of should go on a master list. If you know the due date, write that down as well.
2. Each week this list is reviewed to plan the next week.
3. Brian Tracy, recognized sales and personal trainer, says your efficiency will increase 25% the first day you start creating a master list.
b. The Plan:
1. End of each week- Review your master list and create the to-do list for the following week. Calendar blocks of time to accomplish projects, email, meetings.
2. Beginning of each day- Review the list. Look at priorities and tackle starred items.
3. End of each day- Make list for the following day. Star items that must be done. Make sure starred items get blocks of time on your calendar.
2. Most Important First
a. Tackle most important items first in the day. For most people first thing in the morning is our “prime time.” If not, do the most important during your “prime time.”
b. Watch time limits set for projects so all important work gets done.
c. Email-Try to resist doing email during non-designated times. If you can’t resist than review email while you’re having your morning coffee or juice. If the email message will take longer than 2 minutes to respond save for later.
3. Email
a. Calendar time for emailing. If you have a few extra minutes than only respond to emails that take 2 minutes or less, otherwise move them to folders:
1. Read
2. Archive
3. Needs Action This Week or Needs Action Later
4. Specific Content Folders
a.  Julie Morganstein’s 4 Ds:
1. Delete- some things aren’t work doing, they are schedule clutter.
2. Delay- If something is a low priority then delay it until later and re-evaluate whether or not to take on the task.
3. Delegate- Can someone else take on the task?
4. Diminish- Tackle the task in a short meeting, short email response.
c. No- It is not a four-letter word. Say yes only to what helps accomplish short and long-term goals and brings great value.
d. Organize- FOR PAPER
1. Try to touch it 1 time.
a. Keep it for your records
b. Throw it away if it has no value
c. Give it away to someone who can use it
d. Response Needed- put it on the master list
5. Focus
a. Turn off distractions – turn off ringer, email alerts, phone beeps, etc.
b. From The Muse, a blog: The 52/17 Rule:
They studied employees and found those who worked for 52 minutes followed by 17 minutes of socializing were 10% more productive than the others.
6. Time Pockets
a. Between tasks, if you have worked 52 minutes get up and deliver documents, walk to clear your head or visit with a colleague.
b. Read an article or blog in your “to read” folder or email box. Have these accessible for short pockets of time that become available.
6. Batch Tasks
a. Multitasking- switching gears requires changing thoughts and results in a 40% of lost productivity. Instead,
b. Batch Tasks:
1. Phone Calls
2. Delivering materials, documents, etc. to colleagues
3. Emails- Calendar two to three times each day to check emails. If this is new to you start by calendaring six times and then slowly back down to three.
7. Access your System. If it doesn’t work calendar time to seek online resources to help.

Other Resources:
1. Time Management Skills
https://www.skillsyouneed.com/ps/time-management.html
2. How to Manage Time with 10 Tips That Work
https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/219553
3. Mind Tools
https://www.mindtools.com/pages/main/newMN_HTE.htm
4. Top 15 Time Management Apps and Tools
http://www.lifehack.org/articles/technology/top-15-time-management-apps-and-tools.html

 

Traveling this summer? Here’s some helpful technology

When it comes to travel, like most other things these days “there’s an app for that.”  Recent articles in the ABA Journal’s online Tech edition and other publications prompted us to do our own research for apps/sites/services that might be of use to us as we begin or continue our summer travels.

This list is by no means comprehensive; it merely reflects apps that we thought we’d use, or that we wish we’d had during previous travels – either for business or leisure.  In no particular order, (and without endorsement) here’s some of what we found:

Tired of wedging yourself into an unusually narrow seat, or one that seems mere millimeters away from the seat in front of you? Seat Guru lets you check the seat width and pitch on major (and some not-so-major) airlines. (free)

Upside Travel Co. (started by the founder of Priceline) promises to revolutionize your business travel. They book your travel and lodging in a single-priced package for 5 – 10% off regular rates and give you a retail gift card to boot.  Once you enter your arrival and departure dates and the kind of hotel you want (2 star to 5 star), Upside offers a package and one or more alternatives that may better fit your wishes. (free)

If grabbing a meal or snack during a layover is part of your travel routine, try Grab.  Grab shows you what is available in the airport, the menu, and (where available) allows you to order your food on your mobile device.  Then when you land, grab your meal and head off again. (free)

Are you vegan or vegetarian?  Happy Cow lists vegetarian and vegan restaurants in North America and offers recipes for when you get back home. (free)

Want to find bargain flights?  Skiplagged finds flights other travel search engines don’t, including some from “hidden cities.”  What’s a “hidden city?” It’s the city in which a longer flight has a layover – you can sometimes book the second leg of that flight for a reduced price vs. a direct flight between the two cities. (free)

Sidekix provides “interest based routing.”  Like art galleries, or maybe coffee shops, or boutiques.  Tell Sidekix what you like, and your starting and ending points and it will plan a personalized walking route for you based on your interests.  Streetography overlays maps with curated photos to let you see what is along your route.  You can filter by recency and photographer and offer your own photos for posting. (both free)

Finally, a more luxurious option for frequent business travelers.  Do you wish you could just have your “work clothes” clean and ready for you when you get to your destination?  You may want to check out DUFL.  Once you register with DUFL (yes, this one costs), they send you a suitcase to fill with the clothes you usually use for business travel.  DUFL then inventories, photographs and cleans the items you send.  When you have business travel ahead, you click on the photos of the items you want and DUFL delivers them to your hotel.  When you are done, they pick up the clothes, clean and store them for next time.  There is a cost for this convenience ($9.95 a month for storage and $99 per each round-trip) but if you spend more time on the road than at home, think of the trips to the dry cleaner and packing time you’ll save.

 

Are you well?

Wellness.  It’s the newest buzz-word; OK that and mindfulness.  Have you rolled your eyes more than once when someone starts to discuss wellness?  But when we talk about wellness, are we just talking about physical health?  Or are we, as we should talking about not only physical, but mental health?  And the health of our practices and careers?

At the 2017 State Bar Convention last week, the Member Assistance Committee and Practice 2.0 co-sponsored MAC Minutes – a series of short presentations on a variety of subjects from time management to substance abuse to mental illness to the more traditional health and wellness.  The presentations, brief but fact-filled, make us wonder, are you well?

Law is a stress-filled profession; it can be simultaneously invigorating and exhausting.  Many experts have discussed the impact of vicarious trauma – the consequences of taking on the emotional burden of clients in crisis.  Are you taking care of yourself?

It’s a multi-level question and the answers, we suspect, are as complicated.  Are you exercising, making healthy eating choices, attending to your inner lives, seeking balance in the way that makes sense for you and, if you have one, your families?  Are you enjoying the practice of law or the area of law you have chosen?  Is your practice well?  Is it running well and are you able to concentrate on the important stuff while wisely using human or technological resources to minimize the time you spend doing administrative or non-lawyering tasks?

We are posing the questions . . . there are no simple answers.  But the Bar has resources for you if you are seeking change.  Our Member Assistance Program provides volunteer peer support if you are experiencing personal challenges.  Our Practice 2.0 program provides advice and counsel on running your practice, on making your procedures more efficient, and a variety of practical law office issues including technology.  Want to talk?  We’re here.

Member Assistance Program, 602-340-7334

Practice 2.0 practice management advice line, 602-340-7332

 

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