Sunday, October 17, 2010

Jumping on Your Bandwagon

At a dinner party I sat next to an acquaintance, named Tony, whom I had not seen in a while. As we were catching up, he naturally asked, “So how’s business?”

Questions like Tony’s represent a critical moment in such exchanges, and how we respond shapes what follows. “How’s business?” and “How are things going?” are socially obligatory questions, often asked in lieu of something more original and without a care as to the answer. A one-word reply, even a positive one — “fine,” “good,” “great” — doesn’t give the other person much to sink his teeth into and generally serves to put the brakes to what could be a productive conversation.

So instead of giving him some monosyllabic reply, I said, “Tony, I've been in business since 1993, and last year was my best ever, last quarter was my best ever, and last month was my best ever.”

The way Tony looked at me changed. After a pause, he suggested that I call a certain attorney who, he thought, could use my help. I did, he returned my call (I suspect Tony played a role in that), and the story had a happy ending.

The happy ending had little to do with me or my marketing prowess; rather, it had a lot to do with recognizing that a positive, compelling description of your practice, told with some enthusiasm, creates a bandwagon onto which potential referral sources can jump.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The 2001 Mariners

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After the Seattle Mariners finished the 2001 season with a major-league record 116 wins, a reporter is said to have suggested to manager Lou Piniella that they won so many games because four of their starting pitchers – Jamie Moyer (20-6), Freddy Garcia (18-6), Paul Abbott (17-4) and Aaron Sele (15-5) - had terrific seasons. Piniella’s reported response: “We didn’t win 116 games because our pitchers had great years. Our pitchers had great years because they pitched for a team that won 116 games.”

There’s a law firm analogy here. Firm A has good lawyers, but as a firm it’s ordinary at best. Firm B’s lawyers are just as good, and as a firm it is widely respected and enjoys consistent success, profitability and growth. To explain why Firm A is less than the sum of its parts, while Firm B is greater, consider these contrasting presumptions: the presumption of scarcity versus the presumption of abundance.

In firms that presume scarcity, the emphasis is on my practice, my originations, my clients, my billable hours, my collections. Standards for clients and matters are pretty low because, after all, the next matter may be my last. And don’t ask me to reinvest in the firm - in marketing, recruiting, training, technology or anything else that may reduce my next draw.

In firms where abundance is presumed, one is more likely to find a firm culture that values teamwork, encouragement, reinvestment, and the sharing of opportunity, success and credit. Client quality is relatively high, because the attorneys understand that accepting a bad client will divert time and energy away from serving the next really good client whose arrival, they are certain, is imminent.

In short, attorneys at firms that presume abundance know that the victories are coming, and that they will have a good year because they play hard for a team that will win 116 games.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Junior Prom

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A courageous young attorney called the other today to ask what he unfairly termed “a stupid question.” He wanted to book a lunch with a trade association exec to pick his brain about an industry issue, but he was struggling in making the call and wanted some advice on how to word his invitation. I assured him that attorney angst over inviting people to lunch was not uncommon. For male attorneys, it could in fact be a “guy thing.” My theory: Most men never fully recover from the high school trauma of asking a girl to the junior prom; it haunts them throughout their adult years, and the residual emotional scarring forces them, on most days, to dine alone at Blimpie.

I suggested that, when he makes the call, he briefly explain to his prospect why he wants to meet. I further suggested that, taking a page from How to Win Friends and Influence People, he tell his prospect, “This is a complicated issue, but if anyone can help me with it, it’s you.” Finally, in his invitation he should specify the restaurant (a nice one) and a choice of dates, as in, “I’m thinking about the Capital Grille, either next Thursday or the following Tuesday, at 1:00. Which of those dates works better for you?” (In suggesting a power lunch, 1:00 is a key time. The restaurants are quieter, you don’t have to wait for a table, and the other person will be in awe that you are not bound by the lunch-hour yoke of a nine-to-fiver.)

Such an invitation fits under the heading of “assuming the sale” - not a question of will he have lunch with you, but merely when. It brings posture and confidence to the otherwise nerve-racking act of asking someone to lunch, and it will give you a better batting average than the typical high school guy.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Something Better than 5%

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At their retreat, the partners were finishing a plan to address their projected five-year needs for office space, associates and staff. As they were about to reach a conclusion (as it applies here, a “conclusion” being whatever opinion you hold at the moment you get tired of thinking about something), one of the founding partners, mostly silent during this discussion, elbowed me and whispered, “Watch this.”

On the white board he drew a graph that, if it illustrated the growth in your 401(k), would make you giddy. “This,” he explained to his colleagues, “shows the success of our firm since we started.” He gave a two-minute synopsis of their revenue, client and attorney growth during the firm’s first decade, then finished by saying, “We have never had a year that is as bad as what you’re assuming each of the next five years is going to be. And we never will.”

Around the table, loud exhaling was accompanied by the reopening of ring binders, and the planning discussion resumed.

Regardless of their past successes, it’s hard for most people to picture a future that is much better than now. They’re willing to entertain predictions of modest improvement, but except for the most intrepid planners, a bold vision of the future is the present plus 5%.

If crafting a compelling vision for your law practice has you stymied, try this: Pick a year – five or ten years from now – and design a Martindale-Hubbell profile for yourself that would be consistent with a huge practice. Fill in the blanks: articles you will have had published, presentations you will have made, certifications, professional memberships, community involvement, honors and awards, and representative clients.

That can be a fun way to create a great vision for your practice. Once you have that blueprint in front of you, you may find that working toward your vision becomes pretty easy.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Complaining

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Growing up in a small Midwestern town (see "Virden, Illinois") instills in a person certain practices, ranging from mundane (talking about the weather) to absurd (saying “hello” to other drivers when your windows are rolled up) to reclusive (declining help from, or otherwise bothering, other people).

Shedding the first two habits can be achieved by relocating early in life, but the aversion to imposing on others is a burden that chases many to their grave.

Consider this: At a restaurant, the hostess seats you next to the kitchen, despite vacant tables in more pleasant milieus. Or you notice a rustling in your salad. Or your entrée is unfit for human consumption. But when the manager comes by to ask “How is everything?” you say – altogether now – “Fine” … and never return.

Your clients may be equally reluctant to complain. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re happy with you; just that their displeasure hasn’t reached critical mass.

It may be up to you to invite them to complain. Otherwise, the next time they need a lawyer or recommend one, they may think of someone else.

The good news: Inviting clients to complain is easy. A benign question – “How are we doing?” or “Can you think of any ways we could serve you better?” – should do the trick (but beware of “fine”). There’s a good chance that they’ll praise you, or make a suggestion that you could easily implement. Even if they are more forthcoming than you would like, letting them vent is bound to have a salutary effect, and you may have a client for life.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Relative Filth

… and, no, I’m not referring to your brother-in-law.

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Several years ago, after California voters approved an initiative requiring their legislators to receive education on ethical principles, the state senate brought in ethics guru Michael Josephson (http://www.josephsoninstitute.org/) to deliver the message.

In preparation, Josephson met with senators and staff members, and here’s his account of one interview:

A senior staffer confided, "We need this program. People lie a lot up here." I wondered if I should act surprised. But before I could respond, the staffer added, "I hardly ever lie."

Although his statement sounded like a confession, he wasn’t embarrassed at all. "Hardly ever lying" made him morally superior. In a culture where lying is common, the occasional liar feels like a saint. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

I’ve heard variations of this justification -- "I’m not so bad as long as others are worse" -- so many times I’ve given it a name: The Doctrine of Relative Filth.

Josephson’s doctrine came to mind during the last of three meetings I’ve had in recent weeks with law firms whose leaders have convened for the daring and laudable purpose of thinking strategically – examining themselves and the legal landscape and challenging themselves to paint, in bold strokes, a picture of their firm’s future.

These three firms, while differing from each other in many ways, are about to face a common challenge: how to break through the ceiling of “relative” visioning (“How much better should we be than we are now?” “How do become more competitive?”) in order to ascend to a place where they can shake off comparisons and consider, “What would we look like if we were as great as we could be?”

I believe that every good law firm has the potential to be arguably the best law firm in its market (or at least in its weight class) – provided it’s willing to quit comparing itself to itself or its neighbors. In your strategic thinking, be guided by the Doctrine of Absolute Greatness.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Branding (and Why You May Not Want to Do It)

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Branding is a marketing craze that I thought had run its course, particularly among smaller, cash-conscious law firms that can’t justify the cost of etching their name, logo or tag line into their prospects’ temporal lobes.

Nonetheless, twice in the last month, “branding” came from out of left field during my meetings with attorneys. The first time, the perpetrator was part of the lunatic fringe and was brushed off by his level-headed colleagues. But when, in the second instance, launching a branding campaign started to gain traction, I had to restore order.

“Let me ask you this. In the last month, how many of you have booked at least one marketing lunch or meeting with a client, prospect or referral source?”

One hand went up. I asked its owner, “How many did you book?”

“Seven or eight.”

“OK,” I said to the group, “here’s what I think. A branding campaign won’t help ‘Dwight’ here, because he’s in the game and doesn’t need the help. And it won’t help the rest of you, because you’re not in the game. Plus, it’s expensive.”

Many years ago, I developed this principle: Things that cost a lot generally don’t work, and things that work generally don’t cost a lot. Sadly, most law firms waste a lot of money in the name of marketing to make up for the lack of real marketing by their attorneys.

By your behavior and action, “brand” yourself as an attorney or firm that is friendly, engaged, committed, responsive and skilled and that adds value to clients. That’s branding that works.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Marketing Roles for Non-Marketers

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You don’t have to be a rainmaker to make major contributions to your firm’s marketing success. If you haven’t hit your stride in marketing, you can still have a big impact by playing a supporting role.

1. Become an Industry Expert. If a lot of the firm’s clients come from one industry, be the firm’s go-to person for useful information. Read trade publications. Know the trade associations. Track legislation and case law.

2. Read the Paper. Look for news that your clients and colleagues need to know about, and send it around.

3. If You Can Write, Write. The Internet has made writing skill a more powerful marketing asset than ever, since you don’t have to rely on third-party cooperation to get your message out.

4. Monitor the Web. Follow worthwhile websites and use Google Alerts to monitor news that affects our clients and industries.

5. Review the Firm’s Website. Once a month, look for contents that are outdated or inaccurate, and be alert for missing information that we want visitors to see.

6. Become the Referral Source Information Nag. Once a week, review the new client list and be sure that we have identified the referral sources, captured their contact information, and thanked them for the referral.

7. Become the Cross-Selling Czar. Thirty days after a file is opened for a new client, talk to the responsible attorney about that client’s cross-selling potential. What other legal needs could we handle? What other attorneys should that client meet?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bad Clients

Not mine. Yours. You need to get rid of them.

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Bad clients mess up your practice. The 80/20 rule holds that 80% of your collection problems, complaints and other headaches come from the least desirable 20% of your clients.

Worse, every minute that you spend on bad clients is a minute taken away from good clients.

In general, you don’t build a good practice on bad clients. They rarely make referrals – and, when they do, the client they send you is just as bad as they are. Also, other attorneys will see that you have bad clients and will send you more of them.

The first step in purging your bad clients is to grade your client list. Consider what your A clients have in common. Ditto for your Cs. (One attorney told me there are no B clients – “B” is just a temporary grade for people who haven’t shown their true colors.)

Your A clients will have two or more of these qualities:
  • Good character
  • Good to work with
  • Pay on time, without unreasonable complaint
  • Need, recognize and respond to good legal work
  • Can refer other A clients
  • Have repeat business
  • Let you get close enough to recognize and handle their other legal needs

Think about what practicing law would be like if you could give all your time and energy to A clients. Then, fire all of your C clients and never knowingly accept another one.