How Not To Run A Law Firm

ImageMy life holds few distinctions. One distinction, though, is I have learned the hard way how not to run a law firm.

I have thoughts on how TO run a law firm. But they are not distinctive or tried and true thoughts. They are only imaginings, and since I won’t ever have an opportunity to actually try them out, I have instead decided to write about what I know.

I know how not to run a law firm. I was in one, of one, and to a large degree ran one (or a least important aspects of one), for a number of years. I did many things wrong. I determined to learn from those mistakes. I started doing some things better. I wanted others to do things better. A chasm developed, and we parted ways, amicably for the most part. So today I speak from my failures, and frankly, the failures of others.

Here are my Top Ten Ways Not To Run a Law Firm:

10. Think only as far as your next client. This is the equivalent of thinking only as far as your next test in school or your next task at work. You will probably hobble through your practice, but that’s it. You’ll never run.

9. Have only a few big clients. This dovetails with number 10. After you’ve found your next client, if they are sizable, sit back and rest. No more marketing or seeking clients out. Just dive into their affairs, and bill, bill, bill. You’ll do well, even fabulously well, for a season. But all seasons end.

8. Be your own marketer. You went to law school and studied Torts and Contracts, so by all means, yes, you know how to market. It only follows. I hear that Wharton grads also practice law on their own. Oh, wait, they don’t? Hmmm. I’ve seldom met an attorney who truly knows how to market well on his or her own without help from marketing professionals. And the worst part is that when they involve marketing professionals, they think they know more than those professionals, and the relationship doesn’t last. No, don’t waste your money. Just keep up the lottery mentality that the next great client is waiting to hear about you in . . . the signature lines of the motions you file. Because that’s as far as many attorneys get on marketing.

7. Remember the hiring mantra: talent is last on your list of priorities. I’ve learned the hard way that your talent is your greatest asset. Greater than your client base, greater than your infrastructure, greater than your bank account. Talent, or lack of it, makes or breaks a business and especially a law firm. Funny, then, that law firms spend so little time on this aspect of building a business. Lawyers are expendable. They are a dime a dozen. But the glut of lawyers does not mean that law firms should just hire document reviewers who can’t do much else and then let them go when more is expected of them. The single greatest cost I’ve seen to businesses I worked in and consulted for is the replacement of staff and the capital that follows that redundant process.

6. Give nothing away. Not all law firms operate on this premise. But unsuccessful ones do. When you give some of your talent, money, expertise and time away, then talent, money, expertise and time some how replicate themselves. Call it God, magic or karma, whatever your bent, but it is simply true. There are some great legal websites out there that tell you more than the cases they have won and their client lists. They give you some information that is cogent and useful. Guess what? If I have a problem in that area, I would use them.

5. Burn your bridges. This is a law firm specialty, I find. Mad at an employee you are about to let go? Let ’em have it. Who cares if some day she is the VP of a company who just might need your help. Believe me, I know. I’ve fired well and fired poorly. I’ve had folks seek me out whom I have fired well. Same goes for clients. Let’s break up on horrible terms. Yes! That way, when the person you currently deal with is no longer at the company you represented, everyone says bad things about how you parted ways. Sometimes you can’t help a vitriolic break up, but you can help it being your doing.

4. Trust no one. Everyone has an agenda, right? Then exude distrust to your clients, opposing counsel and your staff. It works like a charm. They learn not to trust you, and you are well on your way to number 5, above.

3. See only the trees. There is no forest. I remember at one time in my legal practice feeling as if there was no big picture to what we were trying to do in a piece of litigation. It was all trees. Litigation must have a mission. If your mission is to make money only, then at least be honest and let people know that. Don’t hide it behind pretend altruistic mission statements. But law firms can have non-monetary mission statements–it is possible! But to really run a law firm poorly, have NO mission statement. That ensures no one understands why they are doing what they are doing, and ultimately, no one cares. Win-Win!

2. Do not humble yourself. Humility is taught nowhere, right? I mean, yes, it is in the Bible, and self help books, and is considered a virtue in most all religions. But whatever, it’s a sign of weakness, right? No. Humbling yourself means putting others first, like, oh, I don’t know, YOUR CLIENTS. YOUR STAFF. And it has worked so well with you as the Know All and Be All, so far, right? Which brings me to the number one way on How Not To Run A Law Firm . . . .

1. Reaffirm the status quo. That always works. If at first you don’t succeed, do it the same way again. As Albert Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” How can this play out? Well, perhaps your accountant says you need to diversify your client base. Then by all means, continue to work on the open files for your existing clients in hopes that other clients will see your magic on the highly publicized Sur-Reply to Reply to Opposition to Motion for Summary Judgement. Or, once you get one more big client, go back to that Sur-Reply. Dividends, I tell you, dividends are sure to be going someone else’s way, someone who actually tried something new after realizing the old way of doing things didn’t render new results.

So, here is your recipe for lack of success as a law firm manager. What did I miss?

2 thoughts on “How Not To Run A Law Firm

    • Tim, thanks. I was just reading a post mortem on the LeBouf firm earlier today. Here is a harrowing statistic from this article: “The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that during the decade ending in 2020, the U.S. economy will create 73,600 lawyer positions. Law schools are pumping out 25,000 graduates a year, suggesting an excess of 176,400 J.D.s no one really needs.” And still law schools are not teaching business acumen. So there will not only be a glut of lawyers but they will be ill qualified to run the firms they do manage to enter. Sad.

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