Positioning your Small Law Firm for Growth
September 2, 2016
The time has come–you’re ready to start growing your small law firm. Maybe you’re making the move to add to your solo practice, or you’re looking to make your small but mighty team even mightier. No matter your goal for expansion, growth is not the easiest task. It’s very likely that the only time you’ll double your staff overnight is the day you make your first hire.
Or, you may be interested in focusing on growing your profits instead of your headcount. Either way, there are steps you can take to position your small law firm for the growth you envision and achieve your definition of success for your practice, such as:
- Creating a system to manage your work
- Standardizing your practice’s operations and procedures
- Maintaining a reliable pipeline of new business opportunities
- Learning to say “no” to the wrong clients
- Pricing well and billing properly
- Filling your team with the right people
As the head of your practice, are you ready to treat your small law firm as a business and truly commit to driving changes that will make your company (and your life) better? If so, let’s dive into each of those steps together.
Create a system to manage your work
First things first: you need a practice management system. It should be no surprise this is our number one tip, as Smokeball focuses on developing the best, most useful practice management software for small law firms, but our biases aside, it really is crucial.
We have seen firms who were able to set up workable systems using a combination of tools like Microsoft Outlook and OneNote. However, these firms are few and far between, and it requires a high level of time and expertise to work successfully with an improvised set of tools that are not built to work together for those practicing law.
If you really want to position your small law firm for growth, it’s crucial to purchase a system specifically built for legal practice management. When searching for one, seek out an option that addresses all areas of your operations, not just a few. Managing emails, documents and contacts is important, but a system like Smokeball goes beyond that kind of functionality. Because you can do all of your work inside of Smokeball, the software also automatically tracks your activities without any manual time entry required from you or your staff, allowing you to get an accurate understanding of how you’re spending your days and recognize the true value of your time.
But don’t just take our word for it. Take time to evaluate exactly what your firm needs. Think about what frustrates you, your staff and your clients daily and what you feel is taking up too much of your time, and then find a practice management system that solves those issues. Choose wisely. Your bottom line will thank you.
Standardize your practice
Are you intimidated by the thought of standardizing your small law firm’s operations? Don’t be. Standardization doesn’t have to be scary, and the benefits are well worth the effort.
Imagine it’s a new employee’s first day your firm. They walk in the door, take a seat at their new desk, and are expected to get to work. Of course there’s a bit of a learning curve, and it will take some time before the new hire is able to work effectively for your firm’s clients. But what if you could expedite the process? And what if you, as the owner of your firm, could spend less time bringing every subsequent new hire up to speed as well?
This is where standardization comes into play. By standardizing the things your team members need to do daily, you can make it much easier for everyone at your firm to work with accuracy and get engaged quickly.
One important part of standardization involves developing a set of firm-wide templates that you, the firm owner, endorse. If you know that each member of your team is using the same engagement letter, the same client memo template, and so on, you can rest assured that everything coming out of your firm is meeting your own personal quality standards.
You should also consider standardizing how you manage your files. Whether you use a practice management system or are still dealing with paper files, you should have consistent rules about what gets filed where and how documents and files get named so your staff can find what they need, when they need it.
And what about emails? If they’re related to an active matter, they need to be saved centrally and made accessible to the appropriate members of your team so everyone working on a specific matter can see exactly what is going on at any given time and jump in on correspondence as needed. Enforce consistent email management practices that all staff members are required to follow so that communication doesn’t fall behind simply because one team member is at court or out at a meeting.
Maintain a reliable pipeline of new business opportunities
Perhaps this is a no-brainer, but in order for your firm to grow, you must have a steady—and ideally progressively increasing—stream of new business opportunities to pursue. So how can you ensure that you always have plenty of clients coming through your doors?
If your clients are happy with the work you do for them, they’ll be more likely to refer their own contacts to your firm. As I’ve discussed in a previous post, practice management software can help improve client satisfaction, and ultimately increase the likelihood of referrals, by improving your firm’s efficiency and responsiveness.
You should also work to develop referral networks with other law offices. As you likely know, attorneys often get requests for work in areas of law where they do not practice. If other attorneys know you and believe in your firm’s work, they’ll be more likely to confidently refer clients they can’t take on to you, and you can return the favor for them. If you need to build up your referral network, take a look at past posts we’ve written about underutilized networking strategies for attorneys, like attending events with a purpose and utilizing social media intentionally.
And finally, don’t be afraid of marketing. Starting a blog focused on your area of expertise, speaking at events likely to be attended by your target clients and other marketing tactics like email marketing can have surprising results. Do what you can on your own, but don’t hesitate to bring in a marketing expert if you need one. Marketing firms that specialize in the legal industry will be able to help you create a strategy focused on building your reputation and growing your business.
Just say “no” to the wrong clients
It may seem counterintuitive to turn clients away when you have dreams of growing your firm, but defining your niche and sticking to it will ensure you grow intentionally and sustainably. If a potential client simply isn’t aligned with your sweet spot, just say no. Your firm will suffer if you are constantly stretching to work in areas outside of your expertise or comfort zone. When you turn away a client that doesn’t feel like a fit for your firm, don’t view the situation as a lost opportunity for revenue. Instead, look at it as a gift of time to focus on what you know you’re best at and a chance to make sure you’re able to rise to the occasion when the perfect client comes along.
Price well and bill properly
Your time is valuable. Understand how you’re spending it, and then bill accordingly.
Tracking time is no fun, but it’s the best way to make sure all of the work you do is accounted for and billed properly. Even if you are charging a client a flat fee, tracking your time to see how it really stacks up to how much you billed will be helpful when pricing similar work in the future.
Luckily, with a tool like Smokeball, keeping track of your firm’s activities doesn’t have to be a tedious, manual task. Smokeball’s Activity Intelligence feature automatically tracks everything you and your team members are working without any extra effort from you, so you can rest assured you’re keeping track of your work accurately and staying profitable.
Once the work you’ve done for your clients has been tracked, don’t be afraid to bill for it. Never sell yourself short. If you’re proud of the work you do and believe in its value, your clients will as well.
Once you have your tracking and pricing practices in place, it’s also helpful to get into a habit of sending invoices each month. Not only do most clients prefer to receive smaller bills, but maintaining a regular cadence for your billing will also keep revenue coming in the door and allow you to accurately project profits and plan for growth.
Fill your team with the right people
One of the phrases I repeat over and over again at Smokeball is “get the right people in the right seats on the bus.”
How will you know who the right people are? Establish your practice’s expertise and goals, and seek out the people who align with your principles. In past blog posts, we’ve outlined the questions you should be asking during interviews, and we can’t emphasize enough the importance of discussing personal goals and work styles with prospective employees. However, even if you ask every interview question in the book, you’ll never really know how well a person will fit in with your mission, culture and goals until they’ve been onboarded and are working with the rest of your team. But don’t have to feel obligated to make sacrifices against your firm’s success for someone you discover is simply not a right fit. If you make a hiring mistake, let the employee go, and find the right person for the job.
We’ve all heard stories in small law firms about owners who feel as though they’re hostages to bad employees who hoard information and resist any change that might make that information accessible to others in order to make themselves irreplaceable. Luckily, as the legal industry ventures into the 21st century, practice management software makes it harder for individuals to position themselves as the sole gatekeepers of important information the rest of your team needs.
Hiring and onboarding is a challenge, but practice management and standardization can take some of the pain from this process. Putting all necessary information on your firm’s matters in one, easily accessible place will allow you to more efficiently build the perfect team and put your firm on the road toward the success you envision.
While the tips I’ve included here are great ways to begin positioning your firm for growth, I’ve only scratched the surface. If you want more ideas and insights, consider adding some new business books to your reading list. I always recommend “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t” by Jim Collins and “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” by Malcolm Gladwell. Even if you get just one great business idea from a book, it will be worth the read.
And if you want to talk growth with someone who can help, get in touch with us. Our team members love strategizing with small law firm owners about what they can do to achieve their dreams and how Smokeball may fit into the equation.