50 Essential Business Tips for Every Lawyer

  • September 18, 2014
  • Susan Van Dyke

During our lifetime the path to a successful career has morphed into a maze of complex twists and turns, and only those with a GPS system or a helium balloon on a long string have a fighting chance of reaching our goal or being rescued.

In our effort to keep up with and use available technologies, position ourselves among many competitors for new work, stay abreast of changes in law, and provide current clients with due care and advice, we’re at risk of forgetting the very basics. Whether you’re an associate, partner, managing partner or you hold another leadership position within the firm, it’s good to review business essentials every now and then. Some of them you probably already know, and some you may be doing, but forgetting why.

What would you tell your younger self about practising law, working with others and creating a successful practice?

The following 50 tips are the tenets of business that will consistently serve us well. They will help ground us, connect us with others and help to pull through any economic downturn.

1. Run your practice like a business.
You are a service-provider and clients should always get great service from anyone who answers the phone, sends a package, e-mails an opinion, or duplicates documents. Every member of your firm should be trained to service the client and it’s imperative the firm’s leaders and partners embody this attitude as an example to all.

2. Treat everyone like a prospective client.
Anyone who is connected to the firm in any way will form an opinion of you that they will share when asked. This includes opposing counsel, the photocopy repair-person, the caterer, candidates interviewing for a position and anyone you hand a business card to. Treat everyone as if they are about to refer you new work.

3. Empower your team.
Every member of your firm can make an important contribution to the firm and its clients. Ensure each person understands his or her role and  has the authority to fulfill that responsibility, plus a little bit more.

4. Communicate with care.
Take time to understand how your messages are received, regardless of whether the recipient is a client, colleague or staff member. Consider your tone of voice, body language or choice of words and whether they will be received in the manner in which you intend.

5. Always row together.
You’re all in this together, only to differing degrees. Some are partners, some are not, but you’re all working for the firm’s clients in one capacity or another. Co-ordinate your efforts so you’re headed in the same direction. For instance, if you’re a small firm providing personal legal services, train everyone to note and celebrate clients’ personal milestones – a graduation, a birth, a house move, etc.

6. Get good people.
Elevate yourself with the company you keep. Hire the best and brightest you can and position them in the best spots in your firm. Tap into their strengths and let them shine. Provide for ongoing professional development, rewards and recognition.

7. Build strong relationships – inside and out.
Your relationships with everyone inside and outside your firm matter.  Keep them strong by returning e-mails, phone calls and other enquiries promptly. Ask your assistant to help you during your busiest times, but do acknowledge those who have taken their time to reach out to you. This demonstrates your respect  for others and will reflect well on you and your firm.

8. Be kind.
People might forget what you said or did, but they won’t forget how you made them feel. Listen carefully, be sensitive and understand what others might need from you.

9. Never stand still.
Whether you’re in an internal meeting or speaking with a client or prospect, ask “Shall we go ahead, then?” or “What’s our next step?” Keep your practice and your firm moving forward by making advancements. Even a small step counts.

10. Sneak up.
Keep your staff on side by recognizing loyalty and good work. Surprise your assistant with a weekly latte, the occasional gift “just because” or a thank-you card with a handwritten note of why you value his or her contribution. Extend this approach to anyone who helps your clients, makes you look good or makes your job easier. You will be rewarded many times over for these small gestures.

11. Set your watch early.
Manage your image and always arrive at meetings on time. It demonstrates that you are in control and that the people you are meeting with matter to you. Anything less sells you short and is damaging to your reputation.

12. Light the way.
Shed some light on what’s going on in the inner sanctum of the firm. Share news with your team and keep them informed so that they can work with you effectively. Successful companies involve and inform their employees in the direction of the business, when there’s something to celebrate, or when it’s time to hunker down and brace for change. You are not cultivating mushrooms.

13. Stay out of the red.
Think black. Always have the bottom line in mind for your individual practice and the whole firm. What does your practice cost and what are you bringing in? Do you have a sound business case for the next big expenditure? How can you redirect costs to increase your return on the investment? Think like a business.

14. Take the shot.
Wayne Greztky once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.” Get in touch with your best clients and ask them for an update on their business. If you don’t ask for the work or how you can help them reach their goals, you’re missing easy opportunities to attract work or keep clients close.

15. Step into the light.
Now is not the time to blend in. Understand what sets you apart and why clients choose you over everyone else. What are your strengths? How do others perceive you? Prepare to get behind a plan that communicates these unique qualities. Get in front of your practice group, firm, or your clients’ industry in a manner that positions you as an effective expert.

16. Turn the tables.
Ask staff for their opinions for improvement. Provide them with a safe and encouraging atmosphere to express their thoughts. Tap into your budding entrepreneurs and they will bring value to your firm. They will also appreciate your interest in their opinions. Listen. Act. Reward.

17. Say “thank you”.
With each new piece of business, someone is choosing you over many other lawyers. The simple and humble gesture of acknowledging that you’re not taking a client’s work for granted will help to build strong relationships with existing (and new) clients.

18. Pass it on.
Whenever you plan to meet a client, whether for a social or business occasion, consider inviting a more junior lawyer to attend with you. Mentoring your professionals is a critical long-term business strategy that benefits your lawyers and clients. Ask the client first, assure them of your confidentiality policy, and never bill for the junior’s time unless legitimate work is done and pre-approved.

19. Show ’em a little love.
Make a list of your most important referral sources and clients. Plan to make a big fuss over them once or twice a year. Invite them as a group to a private, well-planned, dinner they won’t want to miss, send them a very special or unique gift, or arrange an opportunity for them to meet a VIP. Help them feel the love.

20. Work for free.
Throw in a freebie for your best clients once in a while. It will be so unexpected that your client will be delighted. Ask if their will is up to date, offer to do their conveyance or enlist your librarian or marketing professional to help with a special project – all non-billable, of course.

21. Dress to impress.
Your image counts. Wear the best clothes your budget can handle. Get help from a stylist in your favourite clothing store to maintain, or develop, a look that’s sharp and current. Take care to get skirts and pants hemmed correctly and professionally and have shirts crisply pressed. Polish those shoes, and please, socks match the pants, not the shoe.

22. Listen, read, discover.
Keep learning. Be open to new perspectives and methods of doing things. Let your own habits and belief systems be challenged. Restrain yourself from rejecting ideas outright just because they are different from your own. Ask questions, review examples and ponder this new information. Early innovation hardly ever strikes us as fitting at first.

23. Act the part.
Actions lead to results. Sit and think as long as you like, but it’s action that will propel you forward. You arrived where you are today because of the things that you’ve done, not just what you’ve contemplated. Your success will be determined by your actions.

24. Make (and keep) friends.
Raise your game and build important relationships with other high-performing professionals – other lawyers, accountants, bankers, and advisors. Develop a trusting two-way relationship with each and tap into their expertise and referral power. Give back regularly in unique and thoughtful ways. When in doubt, ask “How can I help you?”

25. Get a mentor.
Unless retirement is within sight, a mentor is key to your success. A good one will fuel your practice and give you a boost when you need it most. A small posse of mentors, lawyers and non-lawyers who are internal and external to your firm, will ensure you receive well-rounded advice. Get different mentors for different reasons and value their time and expertise.

26. Send a message.
Provide feedback instantly so that those around you know where they stand. It will help them understand if they need to recalibrate their approach or sprint ahead with confidence. Good leaders provide constructive criticism in private and with due care, while praise is given out loud with enthusiasm.

27. Win them back.
Call four clients you haven’t worked with for the past year. Spend a maximum of 10 minutes researching their company news on the Internet first to ensure you’ve picked up any relevant highlights or lowlights. Don’t think too hard about it, just pick up the phone and ask how they’re doing in the current economy, what’s planned for next year and when they’re going on holiday next. Let them know you were just thinking about them and wanted to touch base. Really… just start dialling and trust that you will be charming.

28. Stock the pantry.
When duty calls and your team is facing some late night work, fill the pantry ahead of time with healthy, fun snacks to power them through. If dinner is needed, order in the best your budget can handle. Pizza just doesn’t say “thanks for your commitment” like good cuisine does. It’s an easy, thoughtful gesture that will get you noticed and cause your stock to rise.

29. Buy a round
Next time there’s reason to celebrate with your client, bring in a tray of Mimosas or champagne to celebrate. Toast the occasion and express your congratulations. Invite your managing partner, assistant and anyone else who the client would  want to include. Your client will be dazzled– just make sure alcohol is an appropriate offering first. Cheers!

30. Keep your promises.
There is little else that will damage a relationship faster than failing to follow through on something. It puts a blemish on your image and compromises the goodwill you’ve created with this person. Leave yourself a voicemail, send a text back to your office, enlist the help of your assistant, and just take one simple action to remind yourself that someone else is counting on you.

31. Get paid.
Bill your clients monthly, or immediately following the completion of a matter if possible. Clients are happier to pay your bill while your services are fresh in their minds.

32. Never eat alone.
You must eat and, conveniently, so must everyone else. Use this time to connect, learn, teach or bring in new work. Your assistant can help by pre-booking lunches, and even breakfasts, with your most important clients, referral sources, prospects, colleagues and friends. Make a list and weave the names into your calendar. Sudden cancellations can be filled with students, staff or firm lawyers.

33. Campaign for yourself.
Win support from your managing partner, marketing partner and practice group leader by discussing your goals and plans for the coming year. Share your rationale and outline your strategy so that when you need their involvement, or budget approval, you’ve already established yourself as a thoughtful planner.

34. Make introductions.
Consider who your clients or referral sources would benefit from meeting. Look across to other practice areas within your firm, scan your client list, or speak to practice group leaders for opportunities to make connections for your clients or referral sources. Arrange a lunch or a meeting and facilitate a discussion about how each party can help each other.

35. Grin and bear it.
Avoid sporting your “I will not be pleasant to work with” face in your bio and other promotional material. That’s the photo that tries to tell us the more serious you look, the more capable you are at representing us. Not so. A friendly face should assure us that you’ll be easy to work with. Put a glum face beside a cheerful face and which one will be more memorable? Most of us will call the person who appears more enjoyable to work with.

36. Blow off that lid.
Stop setting limits for yourself. Instead, consider yourself overflowing with possibilities. Reach for a big goal you thought was too lofty. Accept a tingle of fear and take a big leap the next time you see an opportunity. Seize the moment and accept what comes.

37. Get it over with.
Tackle the tasks that are haunting you first and get them off your mind and off your plate. You’ll feel so good. Your spirits will lift and you’ll find renewed energy to do the things you really love.

38. Listen to your mother.
You’ll go further with a healthy dose of good manners. People around you will enjoy your company more and you’ll find others more courteous in return.

39. Give the right task to the right person.
Consider delegating a task you’ve already mastered to someone who is qualified. You have to earn the right to pass it on, though, so avoid delegating something you don’t understand or haven’t done a few times yourself.

40. Turn it off.
Do everyone a favour and turn off your PDA while in meetings. Callers feel embarrassed when they inadvertently interrupt a meeting and it’s disruptive to the people you’re meeting with. Either turn it off or forward it to your assistant.

41. Turn it on.
Release your charisma. Smile, make eye contact, hold the door for someone behind you, say “good morning,” let another driver merge into your lane … you’ll receive back what you put out.

42. Breathe.
Even if you don’t run off to yoga every day, you surely know the benefits of oxygenating your body. During times of stress, it will rejuvenate you.

43. Give back.
Do something meaningful in your community just because you can and for no other reason. We need leaders and our children need role models. Join a board, lead a cause, initiate a project, or give time to your church, school, or favourite charity. Just do something – a little or a lot – but do it well and do it now. Expect nothing in return.

44. Do a sound check.
Your outgoing voicemail message could be one of the first impressions you make on new clients, and it’s regularly heard by current ones. We can tell how much we’ll enjoy working with you by your tone of voice. If you have any doubts about your outgoing message, re-record it. If you want the naked truth, have your kids, your spouse or another loved one listen to it. If they cringe or wince, re-record it.

45. Listen up.
The all-time challenge for some lawyers is simply to stop talking and start listening. Really listening. Not just the pretend listening where you’re really only waiting for your turn to hold the conch. I mean active listening, where you’re absorbing what’s being shared with you.

46. Be more than a card-carrying member.
If you belong to an organization or sit on a board, get involved. Direct your energy where it will bring the biggest return. Start by choosing one thing and do it big.

47. Be helpful.
The process of learning what you can do for another person will lead to opportunities not normally discovered. For instance, we can share our thoughts and opinions, introduce people within our network, provide solutions to a problem, or help identify goals and objectives.

48. Don’t trip over your client.
You should know what your client looks like, having come nose to nose with them occasionally. Nothing replaces in-person contact. Make every effort to get in front of your clients and impress them.

49. Recycle everything.
An article can morph into a presentation, a posting on your website (biography and publications pages), firm newsletter, industry publication, a client alert or even in-house training. Editorial coverage can be clipped and sent to clients and, again, posted on the firm’s website. Stretch each opportunity for maximum value.

50. Write, speak, shake.
Step up to the plate with your pen, pearly words or a firm handshake.  You can build referral sources one person at a time, but it’s better to reach them en masse if you can. Target key publications with topics that are of interest to their readers. Volunteer to pull together a panel of clients and lawyers for a conference, and always ask for the attendance list for future follow-up and inclusion on your database.

51. Always exceed expectations.
Deliver more than you promise and you’ll often delight your clients!

Susan Van Dyke, Principal, Van Dyke Marketing & Communications is a law firm marketing consultant based in Vancouver, B.C. She can be reached at 604-876-7769 or svandyke@telus.net.