When you are managing a law firm, you have a lot of balls in the air. You need to meet the demands of clients with high expectations. You need to be a leader that sets the tone and example for the firm’s ethics, administration, and finances. You need to make sure that your staff and other counsel feel valued and part of the team. And you need to keep on track with any casework that you still have on your own desk.
Finding success in all of those facets requires some solid law firm management. But solid law firm management skills just don’t come naturally. They certainly do not come from obtaining a law degree. There is a huge difference between those lawyers who think they are good managers because, simply, they are lawyers; and those who truly have strong people management and law firm management skills.
So, whether you are running your own one-person law firm or the managing partner of a massive 1000-person law firm, it is always a good time to take stock of the law firm management skills in your toolbox and consider some ideas that may add to those skills. This blog will discuss some of the common traits that make for solid law firm management, and it can even serve as a law firm management cheatsheet that you can revisit from time to time.
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The Temperature is Set at the Top
Effective leadership is the first trait common to all successful law firms. In any group, from an informal gathering to a large corporation, the leader of that group sets the tone for everyone and everything else. That might sound like a huge statement or even an oversimplification, but it is true.
If the leader of your organization is bitter, self-aggrandizing, not generous, and not kind to anyone different from him or herself, then your organization will reflect those attributes. While you may not have those negative characteristics yourself, the organization cannot help but send those vibes throughout the building. That is because the person at the top makes choices every day, such as the people he hires, or the people with whom he chooses to surround himself, that will have an impact on the overall firm.
By contrast, if a leader is generally upbeat, hopeful, giving, and relates to all different kinds of people, then the organization will reflect those characteristics instead.
Do not think that the size of the organization will dilute the impact of a leader’s influence. Whether it is a tiny law firm, or massive, multi-office law practice, the tone of the leadership will seep through.
Therefore, law firm leaders must be positive role models for newer attorneys and staff. While it might be somewhat unconscious, leaders at the firm are always being emulated.
If a firm suffers from poor or incompetent leadership, there are some telltale signs, including:
1) High turnover
2) Negative client relationships
3) Lack of direction and focus
Indeed, if you see that there is a revolving door of attorneys and staff at a law firm, that is a sure sign that leadership is not doing its job properly. Also, a negative atmosphere can spill over into how attorneys and staff interact with clients or drop the ball in providing proper legal services, which can be devastating for a firm’s bottom line. Finally, the strategy of a firm comes from the top. Without a goal in mind, no one in the organization knows what they are striving for.
Be Sure to Grease Those Wheels
You have probably seen, or even been a part of, those law firms that tend to tout the attorneys at the firm and ignore the staff. Huge mistake. The administrative support in any firm is as important, and many times more important, than the legal work that is accomplished.
As you know, there is a bit of an 80-20 rule in legal work as lawyers. We, as lawyers, spend about 20% of our time actually doing legal research, legal writing, or legal advising. The other 80% of our time is spent handling the administrative tasks that go along with our legal research or writing. When writing a brief, for example, following all of the filing requirements of a particular court takes a great deal of time. Though it is not deep legal thinking, it is vital to getting a filing out the door properly.
That should demonstrate to you how important administrative support is in any law firm. Thus, as part of any law firm management cheatsheet, be sure to give time, attention, and praise to those who keep the processes in a firm running smoothly. Without people and processes that keep things moving, your firm will screech to a halt.
As noted above, a firm needs direction and focus. If everyone does not know where the firm is heading, then no one will know in which direction to go. A book of business is never handed to you, and clients just do not come to the firm magically. Your firm needs a plan to make those things happen, and be ready when fortune smiles and you get that big case.
The most successful law firms have long-term goals and shorter-term strategies on how to get there. They also work to have buy-in from the attorneys and staff. When those pieces are in place, you have an organization that is focused on growth and prosperity.
Take Time to Evaluate
Just as we should go to the doctor’s office at least once a year to make sure that we are in good health, successful law firms monitor their own health in the marketplace. When a firm takes the time to evaluate its processes, procedures, successes, and failures, it can flag issues at the firm before they become crippling problems.
Some of the common metrics that law firms use to monitor the health of the firm are:
1) Billable hours
2) Satisfaction level of clients
5) Trust account balances
Having regular reporting on the above factors can really give insight into whether the firm is going in the direction you want.
In sum, law firm management is not something that happens by itself. It requires maintenance and attention so that the firm grows in the way you want. If you are meeting your goals, then the benefits will make all the work worth it.