Law Practice Management Tips From Industry Expert Ed Poll, Part 1

edward-pollToday we caught up with Ed Poll. Ed coaches and consults attorneys throughout the country in the areas of starting and operating a law practice and case management, strategic planning, profitability analysis, and practice development. He blogs at LawBiz, is a syndicated columnist and regular contributor to several major legal publications. His latest book, Life After Law: What Will You Do With the Next 6,000 Days? has received national recognition for helping lawyers plan for the time they decide to leave the practice of law.

In this post, part 1 of 2, he offers tips on billing, legal technology, time and case management and more.

1. What are your top 3 tips for lawyers to help increase business when things slow down?

First, make sure that you return all your phone calls. Too many lawyers feel time pressures and generally feel overwhelmed and stop returning phone calls. Failure to return phone calls is still the number one complaint against lawyers. So one way to increase business is to return phone calls to a client or even a to a vendor who might refer business to you

Second, determine what your sweet spot is. Do you like to write or speak? What are you good at? Most lawyers are good at writing. If so, write. Write a blog post, write articles that are then reproduced or published in newspapers and magazines. As a result your name, expertise and reputation thereby get expanded.

Third, figure out what you like to do. Are you a sports person, a theater person, or a musician. Figure out what you like to do and spend time with people who like to do the same thing. That’s always the first source of business in my experience. So, when I came out of the food industry, I associated with my old colleagues and they were my first clients. 

2. What types of 21st century billing practices do you recommend lawyers consider using in their law practices in order to improve case management?

When you talk about 21st century billing practices you’re really talking about technology and I tend to use technology as a tool, not as a means to an end. So, I’ll sidestep this question and say that if we go back to what makes businesses work–any business whether it’s a department store, a manufacturing company or a law practice–what makes our billing practices work is making sure our customers (in this case our clients) understand what they’re getting into.

So you need to have a written fee agreement in order to make sure that your clients understand what they’re agreeing to. The agreement should indicate that: 1) the lawyer agrees to take on the client, 2) the lawyer agrees to represent the client competently under Model Rule 1.1, 3) the client is also agreeing to something–to tell the truth to the lawyer and to respond quickly to the lawyer by supplying documents and other information as the matter moves forward, and 4) the client is agreeing to pay the bill according to the terms of the agreement. In fact, I would go so far as to have both the lawyer and client initial the fee provision as a way to ensure that client understands it and has read it.

Also I strongly suggest that lawyers stop doing work unless their clients honor the fee agreement. So whatever the terms of the fee agreement are, don’t ignore them. If you do, you’re teaching clients to ignore you, that you don’t really need payment, and that you really don’t mean what you say.

I think these kinds of practices are important whether you’re talking about the 21st century or the 15th century. They are always important.

3. Is billing innovation reliant on practice areas or can all lawyers explore ways to bill outside the typical billable hour scenario?

It seems to me that we’ve got two basic billing modalities in today’s world. One is the hourly billing standard and the other is value billing. And, the latter is divided into a number of different billing modalities including contingency fees or fixed fees. It seems to me that one has to argue that the practice area is almost irrelevant when it comes to how you bill because these days, even litigation lawyers who typically are more hourly sensitive have moved to value billing.

Now they may have one modality of value billing or another, but it’s not hourly billing. The only proscription I can think of off the top of my head in terms of the modality of billing that you may use is in the divorce area. In this arena, ethics opinions suggest that the lawyer cannot take a percentage of the litigation. We’re not in the business of encouraging divorce and therefore percentages aren’t tolerated. However, you could have a fixed fee or other modalities that have nothing to do with hourly billing.  So when you think of a modality that is outside the billable hour you have to think in terms of public policy and social mores. If we are encouraging something against public policy it will likely be prohibited. But otherwise we can do whatever we’d like.

4. What are you top 3 time and case management tips for lawyers?

First of all I have to take issue with the concept. Because we cannot manage time.  But what we can manage is ourselves. So one of the top techniques to get more done in the same amount of time or get the same done in less time is to set our priorities.

So list what we have to get done, then list what we want to get done, then list what we hope to get done. It’s like Steven Covey’S four quadrants–the first quadrant (in terms of time) is doing what we think is urgent–it’s what comes across our desk and we have to get it done and get it done now even though we didn’t expect it. The second quadrant is what we want to do for our long term benefit, but we can’t do it because we’re immersed with quadrant one. Another quadrant is unimportant stuff–and oftentimes we do that stuff like shuffling paper just to keep busy because we just don’t want to deal with quadrant two. So we need to prioritize, do what we have to do, then do what’s important to us, and then finally do what we want to do. We will benefit the most if we can increase our time in quadrant two, this is the quadrant where we’re improving our skills and planning for our future.

Second, create a plan for what we do during the day, during the week, the month, and the year. So for example if you’re looking at a yearly calendar, assuming we’re at January 1st, mark on your calendar the time you want to be out of your office for vacation. Don’t let anything interfere with the vacation. Then insert other meaningful and important dates. Return to the present and begin to fill in your calendar with activities you want or need to address.That’s how you manage your time.

Third, in addition to setting your own priorities and then planning ahead for important things like vacation, make sure you utilize the principle of delegation when it comes to case management. Many times I tell my clients who complain that they don’t have enough business–I ask if they’re focusing on rainmaking. Then I suggest that they look at their desk and hand over the less demanding files to someone else, or a contract lawyer, or even hire an associate. And then I advise them to spend some of the freed up time marketing. So that’s how I would suggest that you manage your time in order to get the best results.

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Tune in next week for Part 2 of Ed Poll’s law practice and case management tips!

–Nicole Black

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