October 15, 2008

Why Do I Blog? The Perspective of a New Solo Practitioner - Joe Dane

This guest post is actually featured on Grant Griffith's Blog For Profit, but since I know Joe and Grant I feel totally comfortable 'snagging' it for my readers.

Joe Dane was a Reserve Deputy Sheriff, working uniformed patrol for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.  With his law enforcement background and having been named Prosecutor of the Year twice, Joe has taught extensively.  He currently teaches all aspects of criminal law, including laws of arrest, search and seizure (Fourth Amendment) law and the law of Miranda at a California state-approved police academy.  He has also instructed for the California District Attorney's Association on the topics of jury selection, trial tactics and crimes against children.  He has written training manuals and conducted in-house training for two DA's offices.

Now, as a new solo, free from the marketing limitations and advertising anonymity of government work, he understands he needs to be progressive and aggressive with a web presence.

Like every other attorney, I had my own personal reasons for going out on my own. I spent 12 years as a prosecutor before deciding to make the move. I had handled everything from assault and battery through homicide and I knew the law. Yet I knew very little about the big question - when I hang out my shingle, where does the business come from? I was walking away from a steady every-two-week paycheck. Even with my experience, the question remained: How does a new solo practitioner market himself against the established attorneys and big firms?

I knew that in some markets and fields, the yellow pages can be effective advertising. In southern California, however, the attorney section of the yellow pages is about an inch thick and everyone I spoke to agreed - it is horribly expensive and doesn’t pay off. I consider myself fairly tech-savvy and use Google to find everything, so naturally I thought a website was the way to go. After all, everybody has one, right? Having my own domain name and custom e-mail address certainly added the touch of professionalism I wanted. So how did I go from the “standard” static website to a blog?

While I was seriously thinking about going out on my own, I subscribed to Susan Cartier Liebel’s blog at “Build A Solo Practice” and struck up a conversation with her about her other amazing project - Solo Practice University.  She asked a simple question - “What are you doing to build up your web presence?” 

Huh? I knew about websites. I had messed around with Twitter as a way to connect with my family, but had no idea what she meant by “web presence.” I remember mumbling something about having a website built. “Trust me,” she said. “Let me give you the name of a guy who can talk to you about blogging. It’ll open your eyes.” I hung up, Googled Grant and G2WebMedia. I called Grant and in our first conversation, 45 minutes went by before you knew it. Grant was talking to me like we were old friends. I learned more in that one call about blogging than I ever could have imagined. I was sold on the concept of blogging as a way to effectively optimize my website and make me findable by those looking for me. It’s true. After I add blog posts, I’ll do random searches on Google and Yahoo a few days later. I type in general concepts and keywords a person might use when searching the web for a criminal defense attorney. For the topics I’ve posted about, I find myself ranking fairly highly, even in the first few weeks since my site went live. Those kind of results without spending thousands and thousands of dollars on traditional SEO techniques are incredible to me.

It’s exciting to watch the site’s statistics climb as I get more hits and visitors. I can track what keywords lead people to the blogs and can focus additional marketing by way of blog posts on the topics that generate the most interest. I’ve been up and running for about a month now and am getting tremendous feedback on the site and the content. Don’t get me wrong - I did the traditional things, too. I sent out announcements for the new practice to business contacts, friends and relatives. I’ve been handing out business cards like they’re candy. It’s all paying off, and I know that my website - and most importantly the blog aspect - will continue to be a strong force in my marketing campaign.

(You may just see Joe gracing the virtual halls of Solo Practice University.....Shhhhhh. :-)

August 25, 2008

If a Bank Fails, What is the Solo Practitioner's Responsibility for Client Funds? - Ed Poll

After a recent Connecticut Law Tribune article discussing the wave of bank failures and a lawyer's responsibility for a client's funds, I asked the reigning authority on The Business of Law™, Ed Poll, to guest post on the topic.  Ed Poll knows The Business of Law™ having written numerous articles and books on the topic.  He graciously agreed.

Guest Blogger - Ed Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC

Cash Management – The Lawyer’s Fiduciary Responsibility

Every lawyer-client relationship begins (or should begin) with a written engagement agreement that includes how and when the lawyer will be paid.  As a general rule most engagement agreements stipulate that the client’s payment for work that has been performed is to be deposited into a lawyer’s general account and payment for work that will be performed is generally to be deposited into a client’s trust account.

Managing and accounting for client funds held in trust is a personal responsibility of the lawyer.  Although there are a number of good computer software programs to assist with trust accounting, including QuickBooks by Intuit, the lawyer who receives clients’ trust funds bears all the responsibility of accounting for every penny.  In an accounting sense, these funds are a liability of the law practice to the client, must be kept in an entirely separate account and cannot be commingled with any other law firm funds.

Disciplinary Rules

The American Bar Association’s Model Code of Professional Responsibility specifically addresses the issue of trust accounts and commingling of funds.  Disciplinary Rule DR 9-102, “Preserving Identity of Funds and Property of a Client” states the following:

(A) All funds of clients paid to a lawyer or law firm, other than advances for costs and expenses, shall be deposited in one or more identifiable bank accounts maintained in the state in which the law office is situated and no funds belonging to the lawyer or law firm shall be deposited therein except as follows:

 (1) Funds reasonably sufficient to pay bank charges may be deposited therein.

 (2) Funds belonging in part to a client and in part presently or potentially to the lawyer or law firm must be deposited therein, but the portion belonging to the lawyer or law firm may be withdrawn when due unless the right of the lawyer or law firm to receive it is disputed by the client, in which event the disputed portion shall not be withdrawn until the dispute is finally resolved.

The conclusion to be drawn from this requirement is that money earned by a lawyer for provision of services belongs to the lawyer and must be removed from the client’s trust account when earned.  This must be done immediately (unless jurisdictional rules state otherwise), with the earned money being placed in the lawyer’s general account. 

Fiduciary Responsibility

When a lawyer is entitled to make the transfer, the lawyer must make the transfer or be guilty of commingling personal and client funds.  The lawyer is a fiduciary who must keep accurate accounting records of such transfers under every State’s rules of professional conduct. 

Each lawyer must answer a fundamental question:  when you first receive funds, which account should they be placed into, the trust account or the general account? The rules of conduct seem quite clear.  If the funds are provided on retainer, then they are for a task that is not completed and the hours are not yet earned.  That means the money goes into the client trust account.  If the funds have been earned when you receive them, then they should go into the general account.

Accounting Concerns

An ethical issue that can arise in very active personal injury or debt collection law practices, or in large firm real estate practices, is that trust accounts become so large that the lawyer’s record keeping does not keep the funds straight.  This happens in many ways:  lien holders fail to cash checks written against the account; funds subject to a lawyer-client dispute remain long after the controversy is forgotten; funds are held back for a triggering event that never takes place; a departed staff member has made an incomplete or erroneous record of trust monies that the lawyer can no longer decipher.

Contingencies such as this, and contingencies such as bank failure, serve as no excuse.  Every State imposes a fiduciary duty to properly account for clients’ funds to prevent misappropriation or negligence. Failure to provide accurate accounting records on a State Bar inquiry means very bad news for the lawyer.  If an accounting issue does arise, one expensive resolution is to hire an outside accountant to go through every document, check and ledger to reconcile the account. Another suggestion is to open and operate through a new account with scrupulously “clean” records, while allowing depletion of the old account until only the few questionable items remain. Such alternatives miss the point. To do less than use an effective software accounting program or an outside accountant to reconcile trust and bank account records each month is to invite error, inquiry and trouble. However, this may be a practical approach for the lawyer to consider.

Banking Realities

Recent challenges to the country’s banking system raise the specter of bank failures, with wide impact on the American public.  Lawyers, for example are the subject of recent inquiries because of their IOLTA trust accounts. 

The problem arises when any single account, in one person’s name exceeds the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation guaranteed limit of $100,000.  In an active family law, real estate, personal injury or debt collection practice, it’s easy to grow beyond this cap.  For example, if a lawyer holds $10,000 for each of ten people, the cap it exceeded.  Since most practices have more than ten clients, the problem is obvious.

Is it the responsibility of the lawyer to be in the banking business?  No, but the lawyer is responsible for acts of an agent, which in the case of client trust accounts is the bank.  If the bank fails, the lawyer (in light of Rule 1.15) is responsible.  One way to ensure client safeguards is to identify in bank records the name of the client and the amount of dollars held for that client, in effect creating sub-accounts.  Another, more direct approach is to maintain a separate trust account for each client whose funds exceed $5,000 to $10,000 and are likely to be held for an extended period of time.  The interest on such a separate account belongs to the client.  This is not an IOLTA account.

Does this increase the expense of a lawyer’s trust fund accounting?  Yes.  Some lawyers will see it as a standard cost of doing business.   For others, when it is anticipated that funds for the accounts will pass through the law office, it might be advantageous to provide in the engagement agreement for an administrative charge to cover the cost of account administration.  Also, remember that trust funds are a large and stable deposit for the bank, and thus are desirable accounts because they bolster the financial assets against which a bank makes the loans that are its source of income.  For that reason, a law firm may have considerable leverage to negotiate reduced service fees for multiple trust accounts.

Jurisdictional Rules

Lawyers must stay cognizant of the rules in their jurisdiction that may require client funds in excess of a certain amount, and expected to be held for short periods of time, be placed into IOLTA accounts.  In Connecticut, for example, an IOLTA account is the only place where lawyers and law firms may deposit a client's or third person's funds which are less than $10,000 in amount or are expected to be held for a period of not more than sixty business days.  In these circumstances, more than one IOLTA account may be advisable.

However a client’s trust account is structured, the engagement agreement must document that structure and the client should agree to it.  In some cases, the client may specifically instruct a lawyer to open a separate trust account as a source of interest income; in others, the client will seek the lawyer’s guidance.  Whatever decision is made, in today’s financial environment, it should be researched carefully, disclosed openly, and made in full accord with all ethical rules on safekeeping client property.


July 28, 2008

Why Every Solo Practitioner Should Have a Great Social Media Plan - Shama Hyder

From Brian Solis of PR 2.0

Question: If a conversation takes place online and you’re not there to hear or see it, did it actually happen?

Indeed. Conversations are taking place with or without you.

If you’re not part of the conversation, then you’re leaving it to others to answer questions and provide information, whether it’s accurate or incorrect. Or, even worse, you may be leaving it up to your competition to jump in to become the resource for the community.

Social Media is where it's happening.  To quote Christopher S. Penn:

The time for talk only is over. New media, social media, whatever you want to call it, is an incredible power, the likes of which we as humans have never had before. We can affect events at great distances, see beyond walls, know the thoughts of others, influence millions without getting out of our chairs. I hope you take a step back, realize the power you have, and make something of it.

David Meerman Scott of WebInkNow challenges those very effectively when they say, 'no, I don't need or want social media.  We don't use it."

So, it is why I invited Shama Hyder, social media and on line marketing expert, to discuss why you need to have a social media marketing plan.

Guest Blogger - Shama Hyder

Social Media-Why You Should Care and Where to Begin

Once upon a time, the media was made up of a select group of people. They talked and people listened. You better have cared about the media because theirs was the gospel truth. Today the word “media” is all encompassing. You don’t need a newspaper or magazine to share your views. More importantly, your clients don’t need a newspaper or magazine to tell them what to think. They can think for themselves (thank you very much!) and while they are at it, they will go ahead and tell whoever they wish.

Your clients, prospects, colleagues, neighbors are now the media, and just as you cared what the old media thought-you should care EVEN MORE about what the new media thinks. Why? Well, let’s say that 10 years ago the NY Times published a not so glowing review about your company. The effect may linger for a month (if that), but then they would move on to bigger and better things.  Let’s face it -  time and space were limited (only so many reporters, and only so much paper!).  Now, compare that to a blogger giving you a bad review. One year later, it would still be popping up as a search result when someone types in your company name. Even worse, it will have spawned multiple blog posts, forum discussions, and chats. If your immediate impulse is to control this phenomenon, stop right now. It will backfire. You can’t control a groundswell. The term groundswell was coined by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff who describe it as “a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations.”

But if you can’t control it, what can you do? <insert minor freak-out here>. You can nurture it. You can build a community of raving fans. You can give them platforms to voice their opinion. You can leverage it for the positive. The same groundswell that can devour you can also nourish you if you direct its power.

Okay, Shama- so should our company start writing blogs, open forums, and chat with everyone we meet? Not so quick Jack. The answer to this is IT DEPENDS. Although EVERYONE is part of this social media movement (like it or not), they all have different roles they prefer to play. Your first job is to figure out where your prospects fall in the Social Technographics ladder. Yes, another super useful creation by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff.  (image below found at: http://niallfiles.com/public/images/forrester/ladder.png )


Are your prospects creators who blog on a regular basis, upload videos, and publish websites? Or are your prospects simply spectators who like to read blogs but don’t necessarily comment? Answer this question, and you are half way finished with your spectacular social media plan.

Shama Hyder is an online marketing expert. She publishes the praise winning 'Online Marketing Tips' weekly e-zine with subscribers from around the world. If you're ready to get more clients, make more money, and have more fun in your small business, get your F'REE tips now at www.AfterTheLaunch.com

June 02, 2008

7 Questions That Can Attract The Right Clients - James Chartrand

Back by popular demand after his first guest post, 'Why Every Solo Needs To Find Her Brand" is copywriter and branding expert James Chartrand of Men with Pens.  Today he discusses the importance of understanding yourself in order to create your brand and set you apart from the pack.

Guest Blogger - James Chartrand

7 Questions that Can Attract the Right Clients

You know that the competition is stiff. You realize you have to stand out from the crowd to make it these days. With the professional world relaxing, it seems viable, too. You play up a little more of your personality and use that as a marketing tool.

That's branding. That's creating an image for yourself that you can use to appeal to a specific market.

Decide Who You Are

Alright, it's a given that you're Professional Extraordinaire. That's great, but so what? Everyone else is saying the same thing. There's no reason for a person to hire you over the next Extraordinaire vying for clients.

You have to look at what makes you different from everyone else, and much of that begins with deciding who you are. Your personality is unique, there's no doubt about that. There's also no reason to try to fit your personality into the generic traditional mold.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are my values? What do I believe in?
  • What makes me feel good? What do I not enjoy?
  • What image do I want to portray to people beyond being the best?
  • What makes me different from everyone else?
  • What value do I offer to potential clients?
  • What type of personality do I have?
  • What type of person do I like to work with?

A little introspection on these questions helps identify the answers that feel most comfortable – and if you're comfortable with the answers, you'll easily be able to convey these concepts to others.

That's what makes you different.

Why Being You Works

Branding is that easy – letting yourself be yourself, no matter who you are or what your profession might be. Trying to fit into some idealized mold of a traditional corporate lawyer doesn't fit many people and it also turns off potential clients.

That's key – being you turns clients on. They resonate with your personality. They identify with who you are, because they see themselves in you. After a meeting, they might say, "Wow, he's great – and he's just like me!"

People – your clients – align themselves with others that they can identify with and relate to the most. If they feel some bond of interests, likes or personality, they'll naturally want to choose you over the competition.

Of course, your clients respect your knowledge and trust your skills, too. The point is that they know that there are plenty of other professionals who have just as much knowledge (or more) and that those professionals are highly skilled, too – just like you are.

But you're different. You're just like them.

Reaching the Right People

The added advantage of branding yourself effectively with your own personal flavor is that clients will gravitate to you – and you to them. You will naturally attract people that feel you are just like them, and you'll discover that they're just like you in turn.

What does that mean? That means you'll be working with people you enjoy more than others, people you find interesting or ones who make your job a pleasure.

True, this does mean that the individuals who aren't really like you and don't enjoy your style are going to go elsewhere. But the people who do like you and the ones you get along with the most will come to you.

Now all you have to do is a great job. You'll gain their trust – and a few referrals when they tell their friends about you. Sound like a good deal? It is.

And all you had to do was be you.

Is That All There Is?

Is branding yourself using your personality all you have to do to attract new clients? No, of course not; if only business was that simple.

Plenty of other marketing strategies can further your particular branding to set yourself apart from the competition. Many can be quite fun. Some are obvious (and often forgotten). Some are basic lessons that every new professional needs to learn to make it today.

But giving yourself permission to be yourself, no matter what your profession, is a great head start. Shed your preconceived notions that you have to fit your personality into a stiff mold. Your profession is already regimented enough as it is.

Be you, and use your qualities and values as your biggest asset. Market those assets, and start showing people what makes you different.

Visit James' blog at Men with Pens, where you'll find more great tips to help you build a better business. Better yet, sign up here for the Men with Pens RSS feed.

May 19, 2008

Why Every Solo Practitioner Needs to Find Her Brand - Guest Blogger - James Chartrand

Through Twitter I was led to (in my humble opinion), a brilliant Canadian writer named James Chartrand who co-authors the blog Men with Pens and is a contributing author to the highly acclaimed Copyblogger.

I referenced the first article I ever read by James called, "Are You Talking To My Generation?" It was when I read this article, "Are You In Personal Branding Prison?" that I contacted James and asked him to guest post here because lawyers are really just starting to understand they have to break free from their monochromatic and dull marketing world and really differentiate themselves.  But the majority simply don't know how and they are afraid of what they perceive are limiting and stringent advertising rules.

But I didn't want to feature a legal copywriter.  I wanted someone who has a lay person's perspective of lawyers, who understands running a solo practice and selling legal services does not remove lawyers from the rigors of creative marketing. I wanted someone who would work hard to educate the lawyer that it is really OK to speak 'with' your targeted audience in order to bring in clients and grow your practice.

I'm going to ask you a favor, however.  If you are intrigued by what James has to say, like his unique and blunt style, let him know in the comments section.  James is excellent at continuing conversation with readers who engage him.  I'd like us all to convince him to continue his contributions here....maybe even get him to teach the art of writing and branding at Solo Practice University :-).

Guest Blogger - James Chartrand

You're a lawyer. Fantastic. You've studied hard and long, passed rigorous bar exams and you've put in the time. Now you're on your own with your practice. It's time to gain some clientele.

So what's your brand?

Wait… You do have a brand, don't you? You do have an image you want to convey to your clients and your prospective clients, right?

Branding Yourself

Your brand is your message, the image you convey that makes you recognizable. Most likely, the brand you've chosen is a personal one. You want people to see you as educated, smart, savvy and expert – someone who can sway judge and jury with your brilliant research and powers of persuasion.

Your brand probably includes a feeling of expertise, a sense of trust and an image of authority. You're a great lawyer.

Enough said. Your brain is a valuable asset and your undeniable arguments and convincing speeches makes you the perfect choice.

Why Lawyers Need Branding

You've established your brand, that image of complete confidence and assurance of the win. Sounds good.

Now take a look at the brand that all the other lawyers assume. Their marketing message (and yes, lawyers have marketing messages) probably sounds identical to yours.

It's no wonder that people say, "I need a lawyer." A lawyer. Anyone will do, because lawyers are all the same. You rarely hear people say, "I need that lawyer on Jones Street. You know the one."

You may think that you're different from other lawyers, and you are, certainly. You have strengths, weaknesses, attitude and talents. But to everyone else, you're just a lawyer barking the same message that all the other lawyers do.

In fact, if you didn't have different colored hair, eyes or skin tone, you'd probably look the same, too.

You have nothing special to offer.

You have no business.

You have no brand.

Breaking Tradition with Business

Times are changing, and the way of working in the world is changing for every single man and woman across all industries and fields of practice. No matter what type of professional you are, you have competition. Stiff competition.

A law firm is no different from any other professional service. Plumbers, gardeners, writers, advertisers… These professionals all run a business. Their business requires marketing, promotion, sales message and branding.

So does yours. You're in this line of work to make money and be successful. You want to attract clients. You want to sell your services and be hired for your talents and skills. Those desires and elements are all part of business, not practice.

Unless you have the reputation of Apple and Macintosh on your side, you need to stand out. Tossing up a sign that reads "Jones, Jones, Jones & Smith" doesn't encourage anyone to hire you. A business card that reads, "Attorney at Law," isn't compelling.

Branding That Sells

Lawyers have a particular challenge in branding. Anyone – anyone at all – is their potential customer. For example, I could be your next client.

Why should I choose you? Why not her? Or him? Or that person over there? Lawyers all look the same to me, and they all portray the same message and image. There's nothing at all to differentiate one lawyer from the next (except perhaps the specific field of law), and there's nothing to help me take a decision of who to hire.

Even worse, the media plays up lawyers negatively, stereotyping them as money-hungry sharks that use questionable tactics to get the ruling. That means lawyers have to fight twice as hard to shake up common perception.

A good brand makes the difference, though. Think on this:

I'm in my 30s. I'm a father of two. I'm middle income level and do okay, but I worry about money. I believe in honesty, integrity and transparency. I believe in fighting for the underdog. Hell, I am the underdog.

I value hard work and effort to achieve goals. I respect education, but I also know that a piece of paper doesn't mean much and doesn't represent a person's self-worth. I believe that some people are better than others for a job.

I like straight talk. I don't like to feel stupid and I don't like being told what to do. I like a fair win – but of course, I like winning. I appreciate people who can admit they don't know it all and who acknowledge their mistakes.

Now, how are you going to convince me to hire you? What does your brand – your image, what you stand for – tell me that makes me want to work with you?

A good brand can help draw your potential clients – people just like me, or like her, or like him – to your business.

And make no mistake, you have a business, not a practice. Call it what you want if it makes you feel better, but at the end of the day, it's a business just like mine, with billable hours, clients, service and invoices to pay.

Break tradition. Start putting value into branding and market your business properly. Stop giving the same impression as every other lawyer out there – bland, boring and all the same.

Start by asking yourself why someone should hire you over the next person. Now ask yourself this question: What are you doing about it?

If you want to learn more on how to have a better business, visit James' blog, Men with Pens. You'll learn branding techniques, customer service tips and marketing advice on gaining competitive advantages. Better yet, get the RSS feed for Men with Pens right here.

May 12, 2008

How To Earn Undying Loyalty From Business Clients (Part II) - Guest Blogger - Anita Campbell

(You can read Part I here.)

I have had the amazing good fortune of becoming 'friends' with Anita Campbell of SmallbizTrends and she graciously agreed to guest post here on a topic which is dear to her heart (as a former GC), writing contracts for real people, not court. She now runs a small business at Small Business Trends (www.smallbiztrends.com).

How to Earn Undying Loyalty from Business Clients by Standardizing Contracts and Writing in Plain English (Part II)

So, What is a Better Contract?

Having told you some of my pet peeves as a small-business person around contracts, you’re probably wondering, what makes a good contract from the client’s perspective? 

First of all, I take it as a given that a contract should protect the client’s legal interests – first and foremost. 

Beyond that, what makes a great experience for the client has more to do with how easy, fast and understandable the transaction “feels.”

Here are some guidelines for business-friendly contracts, documents and interactions: 

1. Write in plain English.  You’re probably aware there’s a movement for writing plainly, e.g., using I, we and you in contracts.  Some lawyers speak disparagingly of plain English contacts –– one lawyer I know calls them “kiddie” contracts.  But small business owners don’t think that way.  We are too busy running our businesses to be impressed with high-falutin’ legalese.

2. Write contracts for a 12 th grade education or lower.  This helps keep the frustration levels down.  At the end of this article is a citation to a tool that will help you check your contract language for reading comprehension scores.

3. Empower your clients through standardization.  By empower I mean, give clients form contracts that can be filled out with a minimum of involvement by you.  Or get them involved in the process of creating contracts and documents, instead of dropping everything in your lap.

For solo practitioners, this is especially important.  The last thing you want to be is a bottleneck for your clients’ business.  There’s only one of you, but many clients.  Do you expect them to wait for weeks until you can free up your time?

Instead, why not follow the lead of in-house counsel in business?  As in-house counsel, our staff was limited but the demands endless.  We did not get paid by the hour, so efficiency was top of mind if we wanted to have a personal life.  We standardized as much as possible into forms that could be filled out on a word processor by the line managers, by filling in blanks.  We also created sets of instructions to go with such contracts.  That way, we tended to spend the bulk of our time once to create a form and instructions, rather than reinventing the wheel over and over.

Another thing that we did was institute a protocol where the line managers filled out a document as far as they could, and then made an appointment to sit down with us in our office together to review it. The review requirement was written right into the instructions and also as a big bolded note right on the form contracts – to prevent non-lawyers from going it alone. The client felt empowered and in control because he or she set the pace.  But the lawyer acted as a safety net to ensure that unique circumstances were addressed properly and legal advice dispensed. 

For some types of transactions, rather than creating forms, we created detailed checklists for clients to fill out and bring to the lawyers.  Those checklists helped the client understand the transaction better.  Checklists shortened the cycle time for completing deals.  And they save the lawyers hours of time, saving the client money, too.

Yeah, but Standardization Undermines My Billable Hours!

Now, all of this standardization may sound counter to earning a living.  But I suggest just the opposite -- if you make it as easy and painless as possible for clients to deal with you, they will be eternally loyal.  They will so enjoy interacting with you, that they will find a recurring need for your services.  And they will value your services more, because they know you value THEIR time -- and their budget. 

Contrast that with the lawyer who insists that every contract or document must be written from scratch; who makes legal mountains out of molehills – and makes everything so complex that the small business owner cannot even delegate to staff, but has to get personally involved each time. 

What happens to that lawyer?  Clients get frustrated.  They avoid coming to the lawyer even when they know they should.  Why?  They know the process will not be efficient.  They fear their business goals will be delayed. They start making lawyer jokes. That’s when they start going bare, without legal counsel.  Or worse, they start pulling out old agreements or downloading contracts from places like www.DocStoc.com and playing attorney without the benefit of proper advice.

What Can Be Standardized?

Many contracts and business documents can be standardized and turned into fill-in-the-blank forms, if you take the time to do so.  Here is some low hanging fruit:

Employment offer letters

Customer contracts

Non-disclosure agreements

Consulting agreements

Agreements to hire freelancers or independent contractors

Employment handbooks (to cover many employment-related issues)

Resources to write better

Let me close by pointing you to several online resources you can use to make contracts more understandable and less frustrating for clients:

Readability test: http://www.online-utility.org/english/readability_test_and_improve.jsp

Plain English for Contracts: http://www.partyofthefirstpart.com/.  Check the associated blog for this site, too, for a list of other websites and blogs that cover plain English writing:  http://thepartyofthefirstpart.blogspot.com/

Transcript of Podcast for using plain English in general today:   http://www.thecomwellgroup.com/podcast/9-2006.htm

* * * * *

Anita Campbell is a former General Counsel who now runs a small business at Small Business Trends (www.smallbiztrends.com).

May 09, 2008

How To Earn Undying Loyalty From Business Clients (Part 1) - Guest Blogger Anita Campbell

I have had the amazing good fortune of becoming 'friends' with Anita Campbell of SmallbizTrends and she graciously agreed to guest post here on a topic which is dear to her heart (as a former GC), writing contracts for real people, not court. She now runs a small business at Small Business Trends (www.smallbiztrends.com).

How to Earn Undying Loyalty from Business Clients by Standardizing Contracts and Writing in Plain English

Having been a lawyer for many years and later moving to the business side, I have gotten a taste of my own bitter medicine. 

I have come to realize how frustrating the standard operating procedures of many lawyers can be to small business people.  I learned that with some changes and adjustments, the process of lawyer and client working together could become mutually-respectful, instead of painfully slow, laborious and frustrating.  In this article, I’d like to share some thoughts about how you can earn your small business clients’ loyalty and make for a more enjoyable time practicing law.

Let’s start by taking a look at what every client dreads – going to your lawyer for what you think will be a simple contract, only to end up with the “contract from hell.”

What is a Contract from Hell?

A contract from hell:

  • Requires 25 years of schooling to comprehend.  A typical “legalese” agreement may require a reading level of 25 years of education! Too bad almost none of us have a 25 th grade education. 

  • Uses words like “whereas” and “heretofore” and similar adverbs. If you manage to conduct business in real life without such words ever passing your lips, why do you need them in a contract?

  • Has more than 5-7 defined terms.  Lawyers love defined terms in contracts.  In moderation they can make a contract clearer and shorter – you don’t have to use as many words to keep describing the same thing.  But over-use them, and the contract becomes indecipherable.  Nothing makes a contract harder to understand than stopping to look up a defined term every 20 words.  No, I take that back – there is one thing that makes a contract harder to read:  putting defined terms within the definition of other defined terms. 

  • Has multiple exhibits attached.  Does any contract short of a multimillion dollar Wall Street transaction really need 5 exhibits or appendices?  Exhibits can make it easy to amend a contract or include regularly changed information or numerical formulae.  But anytime you have to stop and refer elsewhere in a document, it interrupts concentration. Plus, exhibits have a disastrous tendency to either (a) not get filled out properly, or (b) come loose and get lost in the backs of folders and on fax/copy machines.

  • Leads to avoidable litigation.  The contract from hell is virtually useless as a business document, because non-lawyers cannot understand it.  It goes into a file, never to be seen again. If you want to get your clients involved in litigation, go ahead and write contracts so complex that your clients inadvertently violate them. 

So, What is a Better Contract?

Having told you some of my pet peeves as a small-business person around contracts, you’re probably wondering, what makes a good contract from the client’s perspective?

(Part II will be featured here on Monday, May 12th. )

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Anita Campbell is a former General Counsel who now runs a small business at Small Business Trends (www.smallbiztrends.com).

April 02, 2008

All-in-One SaaS Solution for Solos - Rocket Matter

( Periodically I post about products or have guest posts about products or services  or books I believe are intriguing and worth exploring by solos.  I derive no financial benefit for doing so.  Nor do I do paid advertising on Build A Solo Practice for an important reason (although I am solicited constantly).  I only want to discuss the concept of these products or services I think would be really beneficial to new solos, different, exciting, cost-effective and forward thinking so readers can explore on their own and make the best decision for themselves.)

What I find intriguing about Rocket Matter is its time and cost-efficiency for the solo.  Instead of patching together different products, accounting software, time management software, file management software, the training on each, the different customer support departments for each, etc...this is one service and product which does it all, one training, one customer service department.  This saves time and money and endless frustration for an overwhelmed attorney and this is a concept worth exploring.

Guest Blogger:  Larry Port, a software developer specializing in web applications and a Founding Partner of Rocket Matter, LLC. 

A little over a year ago, my business partner and I began noticing the trials (no pun intended) and tribulations a number of our attorney friends were encountering with automating their firms.  They were in small and solo practices, and required some way to keep their practices in order, track time, bill clients, maintain their calendars, manage to-do’s, and organize clients and matters.

At the time, there were a couple of options.  The first was to string together a hodgepodge of software the firm already owned, such as Address Book and iCal for the Mac, or Outlook for the PC. Then, a time and billing package would have to be added to the mix.  And then one would have to try and wedge their matters into a project manager like Basecamp. But having to switch between these multiple applications seemed like a sure-fire way to lose time—in a business where time is a commodity.

The second option would be to invest in a practice management solution that ties these functions together in a legal software package.  But the problem was that none of these programs available at the time had the clarity or simplicity we like to see in user-interfaces.  They all had more buttons, screens, and tabs than any software we had ever seen.

Worse yet, both options presented the following expensive challenges:  How and where would data be backed up? How would security be managed?  What would the disaster recovery plan be if the office were destroyed or unusable? How should the office be configured so data can be accessed from anywhere?  What about applying security patches and paying for and installing product upgrades?

So, after studying the software options available to lawyers, my partner and I then researched and examined the activities of local small and solo law firms. We learned what they would really want in their dream system.  Our answer for them was to design and engineer Rocket Matter, a hosted, web-based practice management solution. It’s an all-in-one application designed to manage a small law practice, soup to nuts, built from the ground up with the sole purpose of optimizing our client’s time, money, and productivity.

Initially, we integrated contact management, matter and client management, calendaring, and to-do’s.  Then we realized most firms desperately needed a total solution, so we rolled in time and billing as well.   We like working on Macs, so we wanted firms to be able to have a choice of which hardware to use.  Web-based access makes Rocket Matter usable from a Mac, PC, or Linux machine.  And it also allows for access from mobile devices, fully functional from an iPhone or Pocket PC with SkyFire.

We came to understand the singular importance of time, and witnessed how too many lawyers were losing their billable minutes and hours due to inefficient systems.  The math is alarming: If a lawyer earning $250 an hour loses even .1 hours of time a day, over the course of the year that comes out to $6,250.  So we built a technology that actually traps time as you go about your day, to prevent you from losing this precious commodity.  We call this “Bill-as-you-Work”.

Our design emphasizes simplicity, so that the learning curve is minimal and usage intuitive, reducing training expenses and encouraging staff to actually want to use the product.  The web-based access eliminates up-front and continuing IT expenses, providing expert security, intraday backups, and an instant disaster recovery plan. 

Question: “If I have my data locally, its security is my problem. If you have it, to whom do I complain if it is compromised? Are you saying that online banking is completely safe? What about the customers of online access services whose information has been compromised?“

Security is a very serious issue in the practice of law. Confidentiality is key. The security measures we included in Rocket Matter are comprehensive. Every request is encrypted with 128-bit secure SSL, the same encryption used by many major banks and financial institutions. Passwords are hashed (stored in an encrypted format) and known only by you. Threat Modeling, which is the practice of identifying and countering attacks, is a fundamental part of our development process. There are a host of other security measures we have taken to lock down and isolate a firm’s data, and will be conducting ongoing audits with independent security specialist firms.

You should be aware that there is risk to any system and should base your business decisions accordingly. The odds of your data being compromised from a well-designed web-based application are lower than less sophisticated security breaches, such as data being physically stolen from your premises. Consider that if you do not take appropriate security precautions, whether on a server in a remote location or in your office, a computer can be vulnerable to attack. Another thing to think about, especially when running Windows machines, is maintaining up-to-date security patches.

Not all web applications are created equal, unfortunately. Ultimately, it is up to the consumer to ask questions to find out how seriously the software firm considers security. A responsible SaaS firm will incorporate security design as a fundamental part of their design process. They should be able to answer your questions about security, and specifically, have answers about data isolation, encryption, and threat modeling.

So if you’re ready to finally find that one system that works, take a look at Rocket Matter

A few things I would like to point out, as law firms move to paperless offices which imply a significant amount of their files and work product will be digitized as well as hosted off-site, it is becoming increasingly obvious one will have to purchase cyber-insurance.  As you construct your business plan and determine how you will build your solo practice include this insurance in your insurance package.  And for those who remain skeptical remember, even if you have files on your premises and own a fireproof safe, one still gets insurance for loss, right?   In my opinion, hosting off-site through a trusted provider with the added security of cyberinsurance is no different.

What I would suggest is discussing with your clients the way your office functions if it is or is going to go paperless, the security protections in place and have them initial their approval within the body of your retainer agreement.

If you would like to read more about Rocket Matter from legal tech gurus across the blogosphere you can do so here.

January 31, 2008

Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations - Michael J. Keenan

Michael Keenan is an Elder Care Lawyer in Glastonbury, Connecticut who has had his solo practice now for sixteen months.  His is a paperless office utilizing technology to better serve his clients, keep his overhead down and profits up.  He is a big believer in the power of blogging and is just thoroughly enjoying his professional life as a solo.  Here's his story: (and a sampling of why Michael is a great lawyer in my book.)

Michael J. Keenan Photo

Guest Blogger - Michael J. Keenan

First, I'd like to thank Susan for an opportunity to reflect on the past 16 months as a solo and share my experience with readers.  The good news from the world of solo practice is that I have found that it is nearly all good news.  I'm particularly loving solo life at this point as the stock market is continuously surging up, down and in all different directions, and the word "recession" is probably the most-used word on the internet these days.  It occurred to me the other day that if I were an associate in a law firm where business has slowed dramatically then I could be cut loose without warning (in fact, that;s exactly what happened to me five years ago).  As a solo, the only way that I would be "laid off" is if all of my clients fire me at the same time.  I might lose one or two here or there, but I'm not going to lose them all at once.  So, strangely enough, I feel like I have much more job security now than I did 16 months ago.

Of course, every new solo is going to have a different experience, but I am happy to report that my life, both professionally and personally, has improved dramatically since becoming a solo.  I enjoy making and implementing decisions about how the practice is run without having to propose ideas to the partners and waiting weeks or months for a response.  I no longer feel compelled to impress anyone by trying to be the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night.  If I'm suddenly needed at home due to an illness or some other unexpected contingency, I can just quickly adjust the schedule and leave the office without worrying about what the boss is going to think.  I can charge what I think are reasonable fees based on the client's circumstances without having to explain myself to someone later.  The list of wonderful things that are associated with being your own boss goes on and on. 

Of course, there are going to be difficulties whenever you make such a big career change.  The biggest problem I have experienced so far is that I had more business than I could handle when I started out.  I remember Amy and I spending the better part of a year squirreling away as much money as we could, anticipating that business would be slow for at least the first six months of the solo practice.  Instead, it was gangbusters virtually from day one.  The news to my referral sources that I was hanging out my own shingle seemed to spur twice as many referrals than usual and I was quickly swamped.  Yes, this falls into the "good problem" category, but it's still a legitimate problem.  For a while I was not able to turn work around within a reasonable timeframe and there was a general sense of disorganization and chaos for the first ten months of the practice.  Then I hired some "virtual" paralegals and implemented some more technology into my practice, but I didn't truly feel like I was getting a secure handle on things until the first anniversary.  So the moral of the story is to make sure that you are able to handle a big workload on day one.

I would offer two big-ticket pieces of advice to anyone thinking about going solo.  The first is to master the available office technology out there, especially the tools that will allow you to have a paperless office.  My practice is as paperless as I can possibly get it.  My most expensive piece of office equipment is my Fuijitsu ScanSnap scanner (about $500) which is very fast, yet small enough to sit on my desk next to my monitors. What goes into and out of my office is immediately scanned and saved in the appropriate digital file.  I enter the data from all business cards that I collect into my Outlook contact manager and then chuck the cards.  I always use the notes function in Outlook instead of those sticky notes.  I only keep original estate planning documents, which is required.  Literally everything else is digital.  My information is safer that way since I have two separate online services which back up all of my data every 24 hours, so if the building burns down I can be up-and-running the next day.  And free services like LogMeIn.com allow me access to all of my files from any computer with an internet connection, so I can get a lot of work done at home in the early morning hours before the kids wake up.  A nice secondary benefit is that my office is always clutter-free and organized.  Visitors must think I’m a Zen-Buddhist; no paper or file folders anywhere in sight.

Other technology tools that I use: I have two large flat-screen computer monitors which allow me to have two different programs simultaneously running and visible, so that I can do computer work much more efficiently.   My Treo 680 smartphone has become invaluable since e-mail has become my main source of communication.  And my Bluetooth earpiece allows me to handle calls on the go and convert dead driving time into billable time. 

I try to pick technological tools and systems not because they’re the latest and greatest, but because they are practical and allow me to be more mobile and productive.  At this point I feel like I have put the right tools and systems in place and I know that they have greatly improved my bottom line.

The second big piece of advice I would offer is to blog. I have been doing so since May, 2006 and the amount of business my blog has brought in still blows my mind.  In fact there are some weeks where I get a call a day from people who have run into it.  I also have what I call a “recreational” blog on distance running (my other passion besides elder law) and even this blog has brought in a significant amount of business!  A blog will boost your Google ranking and it’s a “point of difference”, in marketing lingo.  In other words, it sets you apart from the approximate 98% of attorneys who are not blogging.  If someone does am internet search on your practice area in your town, they will find a bunch of websites for different law practices which all say essentially the same thing:  here are all of our accomplishments, our practice areas, our biographies, how we intend to deliver excellent service, etc.  But if your website is accompanied by a blog then you stand out from the other attorneys in a big way.  It tells the reader that you know you’re an expert in your field, and since more of your personality comes out in a blog than from a website the reader starts to feel like they know you.  And any marketing consultant will tell you that a client is more likely to call a lawyer who they feel they know than an attorney who they don’t know.

So…if you’re considering hanging out your own shingle I would say that the most difficult part is finding comfort on a psychological level with “taking the plunge”.  But heavy planning leading up to your launch tends to ease the discomfort.  And once you take the plunge, the resulting sense of independence and autonomy will feel terrific and you’ll find yourself busier than you thought you would be.  I would also recommend a business plan that incorporates a technology-oriented approach and blogging.  Good luck!

Michael J. Keenan, Esq.
Keenan Law, LLC

My website: Keenan Law, LLC

My blog: The Connecticut Elder Law Blog

January 24, 2008

Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations - Dawn Elaine Bowie

Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations - Dawn Elaine Bowie

Attorney Bowie is a solo practitioner in Rockville, Maryland who was a non-trad law student, a mother with three children.  She is also a solo who caters to a very specific niche market, the divorcing father who is passionate about being a part of his childrens' lives and helps them before, during and after the dissolution process.  She is also the author of a remarkable piece, The Father's Bill of Rights, which reinforces the rights and obligations of fathers in this country.

Dawn Elaine Bowie

"For the past half year or more, I’ve been writing about why, how and what I do. All as part of my transformation from a run-of-the-mill divorce lawyer, to a solo who does what she loves representing fathers in custody cases. I’ve written about the same thing so often, in so many ways, that I find myself staring blankly at the computer screen trying to think of a new way to say what I’ve already said over and over. This is not a common experience for me. I write as reflexively as I breathe. So this may be a little less like all the promotional material I’ve put together over the past few months and more about what really drives me.

I am and have been for most of the time I’ve been in practice, a sole practitioner. I have to admit until very recently, I would have told you that the reason I’m a solo is because I had no other choice. There were tons of excuses: there weren’t enough jobs out there when I graduated from law school; the jobs there were didn’t pay enough for me to meet my expenses; the jobs that were out there were terrible, or not in my area of practice; I was too old; my law school grades weren’t good enough. By the time I’d have gotten done with the litany, it would have sounded as if I’m miserable being a solo. But in the past year or so, that has changed. A year ago, if some big firm in my area had approached me and said, “Hey, come join us, we’ll pay you six figures and give you a secretary and let you work 80 hours a week,” I might have taken them up on it. Now, I just can’t imagine it.

Why? Because I have done what I always dreamed of doing. I’ve become my own little boutique law firm of one. While I’m just getting started on my path to really making a success out of my narrow, little niche, I am confident that within a very short time, there will be no one in my area who can match what I do.

Over the past year, I’ve learned to mine my own strengths, both my legal abilities and my personal uniqueness. I genuinely care about my clients, I am responsive and communicative with them, my firm is rapidly developing into a cost-efficient, quality alternative to the pricier, bigger firms who are more frequently becoming my competitors. I’m beginning to gain recognition from folks in my legal community whose opinion matters to me. And I’m doing something on a larger scale that really does promote social justice and have the potential to change lives for the better. I’m doing it on my own time, my own schedule, in my own way. I’ve also learned to think in terms of myself as something separate and apart from what I do. Instead of, “I am a lawyer,” I’ve learned to say, “I practice law.” I don’t see what I do as an entitlement, or a right (albeit one I’ve earned) but as a privilege to serve others and to be able to learn new things every day. That perspective is the core of my work. It is something that makes me unique and it’s something my clients appreciate. It’s also something that probably wouldn’t translate very well to another firm.

So now, when I think about a job offer from Dicker, Dicker & Delay, L.L.C. down on Wisconsin Avenue, it doesn’t take more than about ten seconds for me to think, “Nope. Don’t think so.”

Dawn Elaine Bowie, Esq.

Maryland Family Law Firm
932 Hungerford Drive, Suite 13
Rockville, Maryland 20850
Tel: (301) 340-1050
FAX: (240) 556-0252
Website: http://www.marylandfamilylawfirm.com

Blog: http://www.marylandfathersrights.com

"Protecting Father's Rights is the Best Way to Protect Children's Rights."