What Not to Wear, Law Office Style

Makeover shows are some of the best of reality television. They highlight common missteps many are making. They can fill a person with hope and positivity and make change look achievable. Law firms make some common missteps and need to change, too. Here are four items that too many law offices are “wearing” that they should reconsider. These changes are much like those on a makeover show—they do not take long but they have a huge impact. Make an effort to update your firm and stay modern to be competitive.

Stop wearing your Gmail/Hotmail/AOL email as your professional email.

It just doesn’t look good. I know how it happens. You started the firm before professional emails were the thing, or business ramped up too fast. You have no time to change it and everyone knows you by it now, so you just keep using it. But in this day and age, it looks unprofessional and lazy, like wearing sweatpants to the office. Get a professional email.

Stop going without a website.

Same vein as no professional email. Maybe your client base is word-of-mouth and you think they don’t use the internet very much, but the tipping point of a website being necessary already happened. As in years ago. Going without a website is like forgetting your undergarments. Use WordPressGoogle, or Wix to pick a site URL, choose a template, and write simple content to give yourself this necessary professional online real estate. And if you haven’t updated the website in five years, time to replace those stretched-out pages.

Stitch a new phone script.

As a person who calls a ton of lawyers, I have heard the best and the worst. On the “worst-dressed list,” I have heard lawyers answer their own phone in an abrasive, distracted, “Hello?” sans introduction or name. I have heard answering services that honked “law offices.” It’s time for a bit of classic customer service. Put together a pretty outfit that is the phone script—something personal to the firm, professional, and friendly. Get everyone on the same page. Something like, “Hello, this is Mary with Smith and Jones, immigration lawyers that care. How can I help you today?” Make it your own style, but snazzier.

Throw out the hand-me-down fee agreement.

For some reason, fee agreements make the rounds. An associate leaves a firm and uses the old firm’s agreement, or asks a mentor for his and adopts it to fit her purposes. It gets stale, with old, forgotten, raggedy clauses that don’t fit with the new fee arrangement or says things in tense lawyer-speak—the equivalent of musty tweed. Pull the old agreement out and shred it with the red pen. Or start all over. Look at sample agreements to get ideas. Clauses that give lawyers the most trouble are scope of representation, costs, fees, and duties of a lawyer to client and client to lawyer. Make sure you have clauses to resolve disputes with a third-party payer that discuss confidentiality, conflicts of interest where dual representation applies, and to ensure that any waivers are sufficient where applicable. And don’t forget the tone and feel of the agreement. Make sure it fits your law firm like a slick business suit—it should say you are professional, supremely competent, and confident.

A great makeover show doesn’t just tell you what not to wear, though. It also tells you what to buy or keep—the closet essentials everyone should have regardless of individual flavor and style. Here are six closet essentials of every law office.

1. Setup and test offsite cloud backup.

Backups are like a white shirt—it’s clean and goes with everything. But just because it’s a basic item doesn’t mean it looks good on everyone. Try on the backup system by setting it up properly and testing it in real time, to make sure it works properly and consistently. Make sure at least one version is completely offsite, to account for natural disasters and office fires or floods, and to decrease downtime. ABA Formal Opinion 482 discusses ethical obligations and practical solutions for backup in instances of natural disasters.

2. Buy well-tailored practice management software.

Even today, not every law firm has practice management software. Those firms are going without a black suit in the closet, and everyone should have a black suit. Practice management software should manage cases, streamline processes, track time, invoice clients, and ideally ensure anyone in the firm can identify case status for a client with a couple of clicks. Even when a firm has practice management software, it is often underutilized—only wearing the black suit to funerals. For example, most software offers client portals that can empower clients to find their own answers and collaborate with the firm better, but many firms don’t set it up. Learn to partner the black jacket and pants with other wardrobe pieces to maximize the features of one of the most versatile closet essentials.

3. Fashion an intake system with a comprehensive conflicts check.

Most firms have some intake system, but it looks like a threadbare white t-shirt. Get a new one that includes all the essential questions for your practice areas, and a process for updating the contacts as you go, so searches are comprehensive enough to identify conflicts before they can lead to difficult conversations, waivers, or withdrawals. This can be achieved by building it out in practice management software, but it doesn’t come fully formed and is only as good as the information put into it. In other words, don’t go cheap polyester on the questions you ask; go high-quality cotton with your conflict check procedures.

4. Design an annual budget.

All law firms should have annual financial goals and a budget—the equivalent of a pair of practical flats. What is the baseline you have to make to stay financially viable? How much will you put away in savings for emergencies? (Start with a goal of three months expenses and wages if this is the first annual budget, but aim for six months in a certain timeframe.) And what is the growth goal for the next year? Figure out what your firm will be wearing on its soles to stay on target and healthy. Then look at those soles periodically—pulling reports and measuring progress—to make sure they aren’t wearing too thin.

5. Put together policies and procedures manual.

Every closet needs some modern, stylish, denim pieces. A denim jacket, some skinny jeans, or a nice bootcut pair—your firm’s “style” should be reflected. It is essential that current policies and procedures are written down so that employees have a point of reference on how to do things. Even in a solo practice, writing them builds firm equity and value, and simplifies the training process when one does hire help. Denim pairs with everything, just like a good policies and procedures manual. And this living document shouldn’t be stone-washed. Keep it up to date. Does it have a current technology policy? Does it have an up-to-date anti-harassment policy?

6. Accessorize with marketing.

Now that the law firm has the essentials, glam them up with accessories that reflect your firm’s offerings and strengths perfectly. Maybe the business cards are classic pearls or a favorite tie; the presentation on avoiding risk and compliance a warm scarf. Client roadmaps and education materials, logos, and snazzy headshots on the website—these are the bobbles that make firm fundamentals and core practice values, vision, and mission stand out to potential clients. Don’t leave off the accessories that make closet essentials unique to you.

Time to open your firm closet, clean it up, and bring in essential items that have longevity and staying power because they are classic and fundamental.

About the Author

Charity Anastasio is a practice management advisor for the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Practice and Professionalism Center. Find her on Twitter @charityanas.

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