Edge International

Leadership: Agility in the Face of Fragility

Gerry Riskin

I was delighted to be asked to create an article on leadership for the Law Practice Management Magazine of the American Bar Association.

My hands-on work with law firm clients has been very focused on the pandemic, remote working, and the need for extra special consideration of members of firm teams due to the strains and stresses created by the pandemic environment.

Smart people tend naturally to focus on the “efficient and effective”, however sometimes there are other management dimensions that need attention. This article explores the dimension of managing in light of pandemic-induced fragility in every firm

I am grateful to the ABA and the Law Practice Management Magazine and hope that you and your firm will benefit from this article.

From Partnership to Prosperity

Gerry Riskin

Congratulations! You have been admitted to the partnership. This is an exciting transition in the life of a dedicated lawyer, with expectations of additional income and greater prestige within and outside the profession.

As soon as you have finish celebrating, you need to turn to the new burdens that have been placed upon your shoulders: the added challenges that come with your new status, which include handling an extra layer of responsibility, plus coping with the additional criteria by which others will judge you.

If you are going to satisfy and surpass the new expectations that come with the partner territory, here are three of the most important skills you need to acquire and hone.

1) Active Listening

Most effective rainmakers consistently identify this skill as the single most essential arrow in their quiver. As lawyers, we are trained to talk, present, deliver, and advise. We are often in situations where we have heard similar facts before and once we believe we have heard the nuances of the matter before us, we rush to offer preliminary advice or just plunge right into the matter. In doing so, we lose the biggest client-relations opportunity of all!

In essence, active listening demonstrates that you are focused on what you are hearing and that you understand not only the facts, but the context as well—and even the emotions. This is achieved by feeding back appropriately through paraphrasing or even body language. It is not about parroting but rather incorporating what you have heard into your responses. At its best, it involves empathizing with the client. For example, in dismal cases, before telling the client how pathetic the prospects of success are, you might let the client know that you understand the anger, frustration, and sense of futility that arise from a situation where the law does not make satisfaction very easy, or even possible.

Warning: Unless you intend to use this skill and are actually conscious of practicing it, you will not achieve its benefits. Some people may be good listeners, but very few will actively listen well unless they consciously do so. It is a premeditated act.

Active listening creates a unique and priceless bond with a client. The client feels truly understood, empathized with, and cared about, and feels that they have communicated the importance of the issue at hand.

2) Managing Client Expectations

Many find out the hard way that clients don’t appreciate good efforts that fall short of their expectations. Whether we like it or not, we are going to be measured by our clients.

The good news is that we can influence the measurement process.

If we take a very passive approach, the ruler against which we will be measured will be exclusively the creation of our client, based partly on reality and partly on the client’s concept of what reality in this instance ought to be. Therefore, if you want to meet or exceed the expectations of your clients, it is essential that you have some input into the construction of the client’s ruler.

Clients observe effort and just naturally expect results. Conveying your effort is inextricably linked to managing client expectations. The client who calls and asks you to take care of a simple, routine matter and is told “no problem” often wonders later why the bill was more than a “no problem” might have justified—or why the time frames were a little longer than a “no problem” should have warranted.

The most common client complaints brought against professionals arise from inadequate expectation management. Many lawyers who are superb technically are dramatically under-appreciated by their clients. Conversely, some lawyers with very average capabilities seem to have highly satisfied clients.

Consider two lawyers providing similar services. One hasn’t communicated with a particular client in over a month, but the client isn’t concerned since she has a good grasp of where her matter stands and was not expecting to hear anything for six weeks. The second lawyer hasn’t communicated with his client for the past two weeks, and the client is feeling ignored and forgotten.

The first client, who has been given some sense of the time involved, the level of attention that the matter will receive, and the particular steps involved in moving it forward has a much better feeling about her lawyer’s performance than the second client, who has been (and feels) neglected.

Managing client expectations involves ensuring an understanding of the degree to which the client values finding a solution to the problem, describing the steps involved in solving the problem at hand, and conveying the complexity of the obstacles that may have to be overcome and the time frames of each step.

Those who are most effective at managing client expectations take the time to get feedback from the client to confirm the client’s understanding of the value, the steps, the complexity, and the time frames of the solution. To make absolutely certain that the process is sustained throughout the matter, the best “expectations managers” invite client questions and comments throughout the course of the matter, especially whenever surprises are encountered. Every step of the way, the client should be informed how the matter is progressing.

Managing client expectations not only avoids complaints, but is also a key differentiating factor leading to client satisfaction and referrals. The client who receives services consistent with their expectations is motivated to make enthusiastic referrals.

3) Handling Client Complaints

Also central to being an effective partner is mastering the skills to deal with client problems. The broad categories of unhappy clients you might encounter are the following:

  1. People who are unhappy about needing a lawyer? They resent having to defend that lawsuit or prosecute their rights where the law is of limited assistance or the remedies inadequate. We all encounter these clients from time to time. They are sometimes rude, easily displeased, and prickly to deal with, no matter how hard we try. They may view our professional services as a necessary irritant.
  2. Reasonable clients who understandably have a specific complaint requiring our attention and action.
  3. Clients whose relationships with us began pleasantly enough but a specific incident or event shakes their confidence, perhaps through no fault on our part at all, and tension arises.

The natural reaction to a client complaint is to wish it did not exist. We all like our matters to run smoothly, and a complaint is like sand in the machinery of our busy workday. Evidence reveals that the average unhappy client will tell at least nine other potential clients, and 13 percent will tell more than 20.

The most effective partners know that they must address complaints when they surface rather than waiting for the symptoms to subside. In addition to the obvious benefits of neutralizing what might have been a negative impression, these partners realize that a complaint may very well be a warning sign of danger ahead. Since most people are reluctant to make a complaint, when someone does so, it may represent only the “tip of the iceberg” of a much more serious problem that may never be verbalized. So dealing with a complaint when it is discovered may preclude a major problem later on.

Resolving a complaint properly is an opportunity to elevate a relationship to a higher plateau. Partners who are open to client complaints establish a communications pattern that provides invaluable data for their business development efforts.

The ways that we as lawyers often react to client complaints include:

  1. We become angry, defensive, and lash back with as much, or more, feeling as the client expressed. This will usually serve to encourage the client to seek alternate counsel. A war of egos in this relationship is lost as soon as it begins. Some lawyers will manifest anger? more subtly, with rationalizations like “We shouldn’t have agreed to act for them in the first place.”
  2. Some lawyers may assume an “I don’t want to hear about it” attitude toward complaints. While they might not actually use those words, their behavior will speak for them. In these cases, the problem may dissipate on its own, but the truth is that these situations leave scars that tend to cause problems later.
  3. Attempts to minimize the seriousness of the problem are usually heard by the client as: “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.” This denies the client the dignity of having the complaint taken seriously.
  4. Treating the symptoms of the problem is like the doctor who quickly prescribes a tranquilizer for tension rather than treating the reasons for the tension. The “how can I make you feel better” approach is, at best, only a temporary solution. It may leave the client with the sentiment that you are not really listening to him, or worse, create a pattern where the client imposes upon you for concessions or lower fees by looking very hard for problems with your work to complain about in the future.
  5. Some lawyers prefer to deal with conflict by rationally explaining all the sound reasons why the client should not feel the way that she obviously does feel. This, as a rule, does not change the client’s feelings at all; instead, it makes the client angry that those feelings have been considered invalid. Lawyers who employ this approach seem blind to the fact that there is an emotional dimension to the problem in the first place. There is almost always an emotional dimension to the problem.
  6. Joint Problem Solving. Of all the ways to respond to a client complaint, this approach seems to produce the best results because it examines causes and invites client participation in finding the appropriate solutions.

Therefore, partners who want to turn complaints into relationship-builders begin by getting a full description of the complaint and listening carefully, suppressing the temptation to jump right in and explain what happened. They acknowledge the client’s feelings and determine what the original expectations were. Even if the original expectation are obvious, it may be therapeutic for the client to articulate them.

To involve the client in joint problem solving, it is essential that:

  1. both of you have a thorough understanding of the problem, including its logic and emotion, and
  2. that you encourage the client to participate in identifying possible solutions.

In most cases, there will be rational and effective options that allow the luxury of inviting the client’s participation.  This does not quite finish the matter. The client will know you truly care only when you demonstrate it by executing the solution agreed to and then seeking feedback to ensure that the client was satisfied.

Conclusion: Some new partners will deceive themselves into dismissing the importance of these collateral skills on the grounds that the only issue for a good lawyer is technical expertise. I contend that such expertise is necessary but not sufficient. Those who ignore these skills do so at their peril—and risk joining the under-appreciated, who mutter how unfair clients can be.

Those who master these skills are found at the helm of better partnerships and practice groups, not only practicing these skills but working to ensure that their associates and staff acquire them as well.

This article has been reprised from an earlier version relating to partnerships.

Virtual Coffee Breaks

Gerry Riskin

Reaching out to clients and colleagues while working remotely can seem awkward, especially if there is no apparent reason for doing so.  The value of connecting during this time is in preserving and enhancing relationships by showing genuine care.

The most effective way to do a “virtual coffee break” is one person (be it client or colleague) at a time.

I suggest you consider these steps:

  1. Make a list of coffee candidates NOW before this idea slips away… put a few names down… if only two or three individuals come to mind, that’s fine — it’s enough to get started… add more as they occur to you. Candidates might include clients (past and present), referral sources, colleagues (who you may not be interacting with as much as usual because you/they are working from home), as well as any other individuals who are important to you professionally.  Personal friends and family are important too but they go on a different list.
  2. Choose a person from your list. Don’t procrastinate – just do it!
  3. Text or email suggesting a 10-15-minute virtual coffee break.
  4. Your communication might be something like: “Matthew/Elizabeth, I hope you are well. It has been a while since we last spoke… I’d like to catch up over a virtual coffee if that sounds good to you. Would Wednesday at 3pm or Thursday at 11am work better for you? (Feel free to tell me if we need other options). Have a wonderful day.”
  5. Assuming an affirmative response, send a Zoom (or Microsoft Team) invitation.
  6. At the virtual coffee break, really have a beverage at hand (coffee, tea, water…).
  7. Ask how she/he is doing and be an attentive listener. Do not allow the conversation to deflect to yourself right away. Be gracious, but still persistent with caring and curiosity. Find out how your coffee break companion is REALLY doing. Also – an important note – be sure to use your judgement to not over-reach.
  8. After the call, make a note or two. You will be glad to remember details two months later when you circle back to check in again.
  9. Throw a reminder into your calendar to touch base again after what you consider to be a reasonable period of time.

This is so simple that you might just discount the idea and not do it.  That would be a mistake.

Shoot me a note if you would like to set up a virtual coffee break with me — I can show you some strong anecdotal evidence as to why these “virtual coffee breaks” are so powerful.

Client Remote Working Outreach — Managing Partner Checklist

Gerry Riskin

Managing Partners: Capitalize on your firm’s opportunity to enhance your outreach program to clients.

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT

The extremely fragile state of mind of your clients makes this essential for three reasons:

  • It’s the right thing to do. You will help them.
  • The unique opportunity is NOW, when client needs are intense.
  • Your firm’s relationships with your clients will be forever enhanced.

MY RESEARCH – HANDS-ON EXPERIENCE

In my research with individual attorneys and client firms I have learned that:

  • Many attorneys have been reaching out to at least some clients.
  • Some have done an effective job of showing care and concern.
  • Others have been a bit mechanical and missed the opportunity to show caring.
  • Those participating in the outreach can learn a lot from each other by sharing experiences.

QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR ATTORNEYS

(test your attorneys’ client-awareness)

How are your clients doing right now?

What are their situations?

  • Living alone or with a significant other?
  • Kids?
  • Pets?
  • Do they have at-risk friends or relatives?
  • Is any family member or friend sick?

What are they doing to stay sane professionally or personally?

  • Virtual Happy Hours?
  • Virtual lunches?
  • Virtual coffee?
  • Other?

How are they coping with working from home (WFH)?

  • Regular work hours/routine?
  • Sleep – OK, or not so much?
  • Stress – how bad is it and what are they doing to reduce it?

Note: Attorneys who cannot answer these questions are not really in touch with their clients right now.

“What benefits would accrue to you or your practice group by showing you care about your clients?” (In a facilitated discussion, record these benefits.)

HOW DO YOU DO THE OUTREACH?

Have each attorney list some client contacts and referral sources, active or otherwise.

Ask your attorneys to invite several clients a day to communicate.

  • Attorneys should suggest video.
  • They should explain why they’d like to use video.
  • Feedback from others suggests most people prefer video.
  • As a precaution, they should allow clients a choice (phone).

Attorneys should be trained to ask open-ended big picture questions, like

  • How are you doing? (Make it clear that you really want to know.)
  • Are there any surprises – things you did not expect WFH?
  • What’s the hardest part about WFH?
  • What’s the best part of WFH?
  • Do you need anything? How can I help?

Encourage your attorneys to:

  • Probe (dig deeper): “What’s that like?”
  • Avoid leading questions, like “It’s not so bad, right?”
  • Use empathy in your answers: “That must be pretty difficult.”

DO NOT SELL

The outreach is about showing care, concern and empathy. If you are perceived to be looking for more work you will have reduced your credibility to ZERO.

TRACKING THE OUTREACH

  • Ask attorneys to list those to whom they have reached out.
  • Ask attorneys tell you about how each client reacted.
  • Publicize the anecdotes in your team meetings.
  • Give the attorneys who do this well some recognition. Ask them to detail in a team meeting.

CONCLUSION

Your outreach is a condition precedent to maintaining or enhancing client relationships.

The door to this opportunity is wide open – walk through it.

Do a good job, not a perfect job. (Don’t be the perfectionist who missed the opportunity.)

MAY I HELP YOU? If you would like to have an informal discussion about this topic, please let me know and I’ll set up a video meeting with you (no fee).

I INVITE YOUR FEEDBACK: I would be interested to know your thoughts on your outreach to clients or any other matter relating to law firms and their management – during crises or at any other time. Reach me via email.

Remote Working Checklist for Managing Partners

Gerry Riskin

This article is derived from actual counseling sessions with managing partners who are operating under tremendous pressure and are doing the best they can to prioritize the the key elements of Remote Working.

Topics:

  • financial viability
  • staff who were mainly office-related – receptionist, etc.
  • protecting existing relationships
  • care of staff and vendors
  • effectiveness at marketing and business development
  • video production (including equipment)
  • quality standards of excellence
  • engendering high satisfaction levels
  • adherence to the firm’s culture and values
  • peak performance of your people
  • analyzing short-term viability of specific practice areas
  • esprit de corps

To achieve these objectives, here is a partial (but growing) list of the kinds of topic we are helping our managing partner clients address.

  • The tone of both internal and external communication (In the name of disseminating information rapidly, there is a high risk of damaging relationships with clients and staff)
  • Technology
    • Capacity
    • Platforms – technology that allows teams to communicate without email (can NOT help with Citrix but augment with Slack, etc.?)
  • Nature of jobs/responsibilities that do not lend themselves easily to the transition
  • Mindset of people involved – some calm, some afraid, some panicking
  • Home situations
    • space
    • children
    • pets
    • ill family members
  • Suddenly succession issues (or position mapping)
    • replacing those who fall ill
    • capacity to rapidly reassign responsibilities
  • Use of video in communications
    • fundamental video training
    • positive video usage role modeling
    • discouraging negative role modeling
  • Understanding the many advantages of video over “phone calls”
    • positive impact on client relations
    • positive impact on staff morale
    • positive impact on focus and concentration
  • Adding some level of sophistication
    • eye contact
    • sound quality
    • how to encourage a client/co-worker to meet by video
  • Leadership
    • What the managing partner must do effectively
    • Communication plan
      • what must be imparted and how
      • the right tone
      • frequency
      • mode (video live, video recorded, length etc)
    • What the managing partner can not do effectively and what must be delegated to other leaders:
      • practice group leaders
      • industry group leaders
      • client team leaders
      • administration
    • Listening internally and externally. Includes creating survey-fatigue-proof surveys:
      • short and obviously beneficial to survey taker
      • for clients, measuring satisfaction, feeling valued, and ease of dealing with firm virtually
      • for staff, measuring satisfaction, feeling valued, and ease of dealing with firm virtually, sensitivity of firm to special needs of staff
    • Firm personnel training – the 20/20-style training approach is ideal for virtual workers.
      • Topics for all:
        • continuing professional development training
        • identifying the invisible challenges
        • feeling out of the loop
        • how to replace the real coffee break/lunch with a virtual one
        • how to really listen
        • how to demonstrate genuine empathy
        • how to communicate virtually with clients – what is different now
      • Topics for leaders:
        • facilitating virtual meetings
        • ensuring individuals are not being orphaned
        • the frequent (relatively short) check-in (individual/group)
        • getting the tone right (even brilliant people get this wrong)
        • empathizing – the reality of what people are facing
        • maintaining awareness of values
        • (demonstrably) trusting your people
        • teaching your people how to communicate
          • with firm’s people
          • with clients
      • “Dynamic Resilience” required from us at Edge and our clients to overcome unforeseen challenges.
      • How the 20/20-style training approach works (timing not year).

If you would like to have an informal discussion about this topic, please let me know and I’ll set up an initial, without fee, meeting with you.

This article will be supplemented and/or updated based on the evolution of the topic of “remote working” as it evolves with our clients.

Time-Sensitive Heads-Up re: SERIOUS CYBER THREAT

Gerry Riskin

Alert: An article published on February 1 on the LawSites blog reports three ransomware attacks on law firms within 24 hours.

“Five U.S. law firms — three in the last 24 hours — have been among the companies and organizations targeted by a new round of ransomware attacks,” Bob Ambrogi writes. “In two of the cases, a portion of the firms’ stolen data has already been posted online, including client information.”

The current attack arrives in law firms via email attachments which release the malware into computer systems when they are opened.

Here is a checklist of my recommended actions for your firm to take right now:

  1. Warn all your staff immediately to be triple-concerned about any emails with links or attachments: if in doubt about contents, consult IT before opening. (Social engineering will make the email and its attachment look harmless, and many will be fooled.) This warning will be most effective if it comes from your firm leader.
  2. Consult with your IT dept or outside IT consultant to see what you can do to mitigate the risk.
  3. If you have any useful information, please send it to me now: I will promptly share it with Bob Ambrogi, who broke this story.

The Focus Challenge – Part 3: Your Family

Gerry Riskin

1. Fighting Zero

In any given moment, there is a competition for a lawyer’s attention between family and clients. A successful lawyer needs to resolve that competition in favour of clients most of the time – but not all of the time.

From a time-management perspective, this competition is like the “urgent versus important” battle that doesn’t seem to go away.

All family matters are important… but only some are urgent. In most cases, those family matters that are both important and urgent can be dealt with, even if it means pushing the substantive legal work to the side at least temporarily. Sometimes there are irreconcilable conflicts where few options exist. When the legal matter cannot be delegated or moved to the side, an important and urgent family matter may suffer. So to be realistic, the lawyer’s family must occasionally sacrifice for the law practice, but that outcome should not become habitual.

The default pattern for many is to rationalize that if the matter is important to the practice, then the family should simply sacrifice. With this approach, if one kept score as to whether the attention of the lawyer went to clients or to family, at the end of some period of time the score might very well be 100% clients, 0% family.

Obviously, zero percent attention to the family is neither healthy nor sustainable, but I suspect it happens more often than any of us would like to believe.

My assertion to lawyers that zero percent is not adequate frequently results in a defensive reaction:

“You just don’t understand! It’s the substantive practice that sustains my family by allowing me to provide for them. They simply have to understand, or neither my practice nor our lifestyle will be tenable.“

This defensive reaction is, in my view, based on a misconception. I am NOT arguing that the family should get a very significant portion of the lawyer’s business day overall. This is not my point. My point is that the lawyer has to be careful to pick and choose where the family priorities must supersede the pressures of the practice.

To put it in numeric terms, I am not suggesting that a lawyer for whom the scores are 100% clients and 0% family should move to 50-50. But I am suggesting that 0% family is not okay, and that even a slight move from 0% is an infinite improvement.

2. Integrating Family and Your Practice

It’s probably not much of a stretch to convince most lawyers that they should attend their child’s school play, season-final game, graduation, or other significant event.

Here are some other thoughts that might help a lawyer avoid zero percent:

  • If you can’t be home for every workday evening meal with your family, then how about making it sacred to do so once per week?
  • If you can’t attend every parent-teacher interview for your child, what about attending 50% of them (or fewer if you’re lucky enough to have a spouse who has the time available to allow you a smaller percentage).
  • Ensure that your calendar integrates the important family obligations with your work obligations. If you don’t want your professional calendar to reveal the elements or nature of personal commitments, use a code, such as “See Calendar A.” While this article is not about technology, you may be able to integrate both your professional calendar and your personal one on your smart phone without giving access to your personal calendar to those in your office.

3. Impact of Professional Life on Home

The challenges to the well-being of those in the legal profession have become epidemic (see Lawyer Well-Being: An Issue We Must Address Right Now).

If I told you a member of the family who worked at a law firm was suffering from: substance abuse and/or depression, what would you say the impact would likely be on the immediate members of the family?

The first line of attack is prevention. If we are past prevention, then it’s time for professional help (see Five Essential Articles: Depression and Substance Abuse among Lawyers).

On an optimistic note, let’s say that you are living a balanced life, not suffering from the wellness issues referenced earlier and are very close in a meaningful way to your family. My advice is to value what you have – and not to risk losing it by taking it for granted. Ensure that your spouse agrees that the balance is working well; if not, work it through – even if professional assistance is required for that process as well. It will be worth it in the long run.

––––

I’d be happy to discuss any of the component pieces of this series of articles in greater depth as a courtesy to my readers. Contact me at edge.ai or at my blog, gerryriskin.com.

In the first article in this series, I discussed:

THE FOCUS CHALLENGE – PART 1: YOUR PRACTICE

In the second article, I discussed:

THE FOCUS CHALLENGE – PART 2: YOUR CLIENTS

The Focus Challenge – Part 2: Your Clients

Gerry Riskin

1. The Legal Matter

Here are some of the essential lessons I have learned after several decades of listening closely to clients, conducting my own research, and reading a myriad of surveys and research studies by others:

a) Clients do not have legal problems. They have personal or business problems that may require them to seek the services of their lawyer.

b) Clients do not want to be treated as though they were stupid, nor do they want to relinquish control. Clients want choices, not answers; specifically, they want choices that they would not be able to generate without the expertise and assistance of their lawyers – ones that will help them to level the playing field in finding a resolution to their problem.

c) Lawyers often believe that the only thing clients care about is results, but research shows that this belief is wrong. Clients want a lawyer who cares and exerts effort… and since most of the expended effort is invisible, lawyers must project that effort so that the client is aware of what is being done on their behalf.

2. The Business Affected

All clients want a lawyer who understands their situation; in the case of business clients, this means understanding the industry and the client’s place in it.

Understanding the industry and the business are essential to resolving related legal problems in an optimal way.

Many lawyers are unconsciously incompetent in this regard. They believe that their knowledge of the typical legal requirements of a specific business or industry reflects an understanding of that business or industry. For example, they think that knowing how to manage the legal requirements of aircraft leasing makes them an airline industry expert when, in fact, understanding terrorism, fuel prices, political stability, etc. are key to the executive suite of the airline.

3. The Satisfaction

Clients are satisfied with lawyers who listened to them.

Clients are satisfied when their expectations have been managed and shaped in such a way that they are capable of appreciating what the lawyer has helped them to achieve. When lawyers fail to shape the expectations of their clients (and most lawyers fall into this category), they set up a losing game in which they are never able to measure up to what the uninformed client naively imagines is possible.

Footnote: People judge everything they encounter in their lives on the basis of experience, and your clients are no different. We must not lose ourselves in the substantive elements of the practice of law such that we forget for even a moment to care about what our client is experiencing in the moment. Many organizations now recognize that this issue is so important that they have created a position called “chief experience officer,” or CXO, who is responsible for making every piece and part of the encounter between the consumer in the organization a positive, meaningful and hopefully memorable experience.

I’d be happy to discuss any of the component pieces of this article in greater depth as a courtesy to my readers. Contact me at edge.ai or at my blog, gerryriskin.com.

In the first article in this series, I discussed:

THE FOCUS CHALLENGE – PART 1: YOUR PRACTICE

The third and final article will be:

THE FOCUS CHALLENGE – PART 3: YOUR FAMILY

The Focus Challenge – Part I: Your Practice

Gerry Riskin

1. Substantive Practice

Gone are the days when some level of specialization in an area could sustain a practice over a lawyer’s lifetime. Things are changing too fast and new competitors will emerge – some of them not even law firms.

In the meantime, what you can do is think about the future of both your practice area and the clients you serve.

We’ve been using this life cycle S-curve for a long time. It was borrowed from industry and the legal profession has embraced it gradually over the last number of decades. The graph applies to both your substantive practice, and the client you serve within it.

The S-curve may be applied to your practice, your firm, your practice area, your client, an industry, or all of the above. Most work gravitates to the right side of the curve where rates are low and competition is high, as opposed to the left where exciting emerging areas afford major strategic opportunities with few competitors and low resistance to fees. Therefore, it is necessary to be forward-thinking.

2. The Business of Law in a Digital World

I am asked by people at international associations of law firms, and sometimes by those at individual firms, “How is the practice of law changing? What do I need to know, and how do I keep up?”

The oldest members of your firm might remember when firms began to use computers for data-processing. All lawyers will remember the accelerating change of technology — from how word-processing is done to how documents are generated.

Today, with machine learning and what is commonly referenced as “artificial intelligence,“ the quality of documentation is ever-enhanced, while the cost of generating it decreases.

Many firms seem unaware that they now exist in a digital environment that needs to be nurtured. Firms are now rated on-line whether they like it or not, and enlightened firms are fostering more positive reviews.

This is not the place for a deep dive on the subject, but it is a caution that firms that are not making a considerable effort to learn the changing technology around them – and to embrace it – will soon be left behind.

3. The Firm

Well-managed firms outcompete poorly managed firms. Firms with a business plan outcompete firms without a business plan. Why then, at conferences where managing partners gather, do we see by the use of anonymous voting machines that the vast majority of firms don’t have a business plan? (I’m referring to a sample across a wide spectrum of firm sizes. If you’re thinking that the top 25 firms in the world likely have a plan, you are correct.) Firms that do not see the benefit of managing the business of law are being left behind.

The better firms train their leaders on how to get improved performance from their people. The better firms train their individual lawyers on client-relations skills so they can give greater satisfaction to their clients and attract more desirable work, both in traditional ways (via personal relationships) and in digital ones (through an online presence).

I’d be happy to discuss any of the component pieces of this article in greater depth as a courtesy to my readers. Contact me at edge.ai or at my blog, gerryriskin.com.

In the next two parts of this series of articles, I will be touching on:

The Focus Challenge – Part 2: Your Clients

The Focus Challenge – Part 3: Your Family

QNBT: Extracting Real Value from Non-Billable Time

Gerry Riskin

“Your billable time is your income; your non-billable time is your future.”

David Maister

Non-billable time gets little respect

Many perceive non-billable time as something that can be conjured at will. Taking someone to dinner who may or may not be a qualified client prospect can be recorded as business development. Furthermore, that two-hour dinner can turn into three or four and, with travel time, five hours. Those who have spent many hours on gruelling and challenging legal work can easily resent the generation of these hours with so little effort.

The consequence: Non-billable time is often not tracked accurately

In fact, in many firms, it is seen as a sign of prestige not to record non-billable time.

Some firms have learned to break this cycle by making non-billable time less discretionary and harmonizing it with the objectives of the team or firm.

The nature of the “qualified non-billable hour” is pre-negotiated and pre-authorized.

Suppose a senior associate wants to join the ABA section relevant to her practice area. Furthermore, she’d like to attend the meetings of her subsection locally, regionally, and nationally. Her practice group leader wants to know why this will be a worthwhile investment for the firm and indeed what the return on investment might be. She argues that over the next several years, gaining prominence in the section will yield referrals from other parts of the country and thereby enhance the practice for her, her group and the firm.

Her practice group leader might wisely ask something like: “Do you think you can get on the ladder such that you will occupy a position of prominence in the section, perhaps leading to becoming a chair of the section within five years?” The senior associate may respond that she was successful in attaining elected offices in school and then university and is confident that she can do so in the section. The deal might be struck such that the approval to spend the non-billable time (and the travel expenses) will be conditionally approved based upon a monitoring of her progress over the course of the next two years. If that progress is promising, the firm will continue to support the effort.

In this instance, the non-billable time expended by the associate becomes qualified non-billable time (QNBT). It is not merely discretionary time, nor is it perceived to be something that can be conjured at will, but rather it is something that has been vetted and will be measured against a set of objectives.

Imagine a situation where most, if not all, of the lawyers create a plan – for approval – that will constitute QNBT. Aside from an improved perception and respect for the non-billable time that is being invested, there is also a much higher probability of a good return on that investment for the firm.

A heretical principle: The non-billable hour is worth more than the billable hour

A Chicago firm I know which has had a meteoric rise in prosperity decided that a non-billable hour was worth more than a billable hour. Before you faint, this did not mean that spending eight non-billable hours and no billable hours in a day was considered more valuable for the firm. Not at all. Rather, the firm decided that those who spend ten billable hours and no non-billable hours are depriving the firm of the strong return that it would obtain on having at least one quality non-billable hour from that individual in a day.

Desirable non-billable minimums and billable maximums

For those firms that still bill exclusively by the hour, it is tough to persuade leadership that excessive billable hours are counterproductive. The truth is that the more senior people with the relationships should be spending at least a portion of their time attracting more work from existing clients and attracting new clients. Those who do exclusively billable work deprive the firm of that new work generation. Therefore, some enlightened firms actually place a maximum on the billable hours that a partner can spend, especially if that partner is a part of senior leadership or practice group leadership or industry group leadership or have a proven rainmaking capability.

I strongly recommend that the managing partner and executive team give some serious consideration to becoming QNBT-oriented.