All Our Practice Tips
Is Your Law Firm Experiencing Growing Pains?
The growing pains experienced at law firms don’t usually get self-diagnosed as such.
Instead, they tend to be described in terms of the series of symptoms that happen to be manifesting, often at the same time.
- Without a parallel increase in billings, the lawyers, the staff and the law clerks, all appear to be more frenzied than normal.
- Individuals that used to work well together are, not infrequently, encountering ‘broken telephone’.
- A, not insignificant, percentage of work is being done by the wrong level or position.
- Tasks that used to be streamlined are starting to fall through the cracks.
- People are no longer feeling connected to the firm vision.
- Politics are, on occasion, becoming a distraction.
- Motivation is dropping.
It matters that, at the root, these complaints are all signs of growing pains.
A correct diagnosis would provide you with the opportunity to generate insight about appropriate solutions, rather than applying a series of band aids which could actually make things worse.
To illustrate the point, if you’re not viewing growing pains as a systemic issue, you might be concerned about the performance of specific individuals and begin appropriate measures to address that. If, instead, the problem was treated at the root level, with process improvements, structure adjustments and formal job descriptions, everyone would be part of the solution.
A very different approach.
So, for today’s tip, if you start to notice some (or many) of these issues all starting to present themselves at the same time, rather than problem solving one-by-one, give some consideration to what’s really happening.
Are these isolated issues? Or are they growing pains driven by larger systemic problems?
That conversation alone could be the driver of a completely different course of action… with potentially much better results.
For reading related to growing pains, see these past articles on Slaw and SlawTips:
Also, see the following articles by Sandra Bekhor at Toronto Marketing Blog:
Articling Students and Young Lawyers: Get a Mentor
I was not hired back after articling. After months of searching (soul and otherwise) I was ultimately offered two jobs at the same time. One was located in a trendy area in Toronto for the “young and eligible”. The other was in a small city outside of Toronto, as foreign to me as another country. I had no idea how to choose firms, other than that accepting the Toronto offer would let me stay in my hometown, as, after all, I was young and eligible, and pay me more (at least initially). So I sent a quick thank-you email to the lawyers that I used as references, saying that I was going to choose the Toronto job. Within minutes I received a reply, subject line: “DON’T TAKE THE TORONTO JOB”. And the replies kept coming, advising me to take the other offer.
Ultimately I followed my mentors’ advice, a move which I have been thankful for ever since. It helped launch my career, find a spouse and make a family, and establish a life in a town that I have come to call home. Sure, if I had ignored my mentors, I would probably have ended up just fine. But with the knowledge that I have come to gain in the years since, I know that given the same options I would make the same decision again.
Mentors have valuable knowledge that can help you as an articling student or a young lawyer. They have the benefit of wisdom accumulated over years of trials and tribulations – dealing with difficult clients, managing the ups and downs of practice, navigating a career – and on top of all that, they know you and can give you advice in light of your character. Offering more than just book knowledge, a good mentor may know you better than you know yourself.
Find a mentor in the senior lawyers you work with, in your colleagues, or with formal networks, by joining your local bar association or a section of the Ontario Bar Association. The Law Society of Upper Canada’s Coach and Advisor Network can connect you with a mentor for a specific purpose. The Advocates Society can help you develop skills. And various diversity associations such as the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers and the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers can help you network and connect with like-minded lawyers. Also check out practicePRO’s manging a mentoring relationship booklet.
—Ian Hu (@IanHuLawpro)
Avoid Communication Pitfalls With This One Simple Practice
Nothing causes trouble in legal practice quite like communication failures.
Communication is one of the most common sources of malpractice claims.
Honing proactive and effective communication skills has significant positive implications for everything from delegation, to the quality of your work, and the health of your personal and professional relationships.
With this in mind, focusing on improving your communication practices is probably one of the best investments you can make in your career. Where to start is quite simple, with your thoughts.
What are you thinking when you postpone communicating? And how is that serving you?
I work with many lawyers on practice challenges and many of these come down to how they are thinking about communication.
The thought is essentially this: Now is not the best time to communicate about this.
Here is how this thought plays out in practice.
I don’t need to communicate to the partner about my progress on the draft right now. I will get this draft to the partner when it is complete.
Think again. Talk to the partner about when she would like you to check in. You can’t read her mind and she may want an update sooner.
There’s not enough time to respond to this client, their matter isn’t urgent, and nothing is happening right now so I will get back to them later.
Think again. They are wondering what is going on and even if the answer is nothing they need to hear from you. Respond to their email.
These may not be your version of – I will do it later – so do look for what is, and catch the thoughts, and think again.
I recommend a Monday morning, or even daily practice of asking this question:
Who do I need to communicate with this week? And today? And make these communications priorities on your to do list.
When we are caught up in the flow of a non-stop stream of work and deadlines it gets very easy to forget to communicate. This simple practice of checking in with the question – who do I need to communicate with? – will help you keep up.
This post originally appeared in the Lawyer With A Life Blog
Don’t Let Anyone Bully You
This is easier said than done. Don’t let anyone make you do what you know is wrong – whether out of trust, love, or pressure from a bully. If a client tells you to hide evidence or lie, don’t do it. If a supervising lawyer tells you to take a shortcut that only partially fulfills your duties, don’t do it. If opposing counsel treats you maliciously and you want to retaliate in kind, don’t do it. As a lawyer, you are often the last and only person who can say no when someone tells you to do something you know is wrong. That’s why you’re a lawyer, to stand up for justice. Stick to what you know is right.
Malpractice claims have occurred when a lawyer is lured or pressured into shortcuts. In one example, a paralegal established a trusting friendship and business relationship with a new lawyer, but the lawyer was too trusting. The paralegal provided the lawyer with real estate files, but insisted on doing the work including processing all the documentation. The lawyer breached both professional duties and obligations to Teranet by letting the paralegal effect registrations using the lawyer’s electronic land registration account and disk. The transactions were fraudulent and the lawyer was compelled to resign as a licencee.
There are numerous other examples in which you will be pressured – a client instructing you to withhold evidence; opposing counsel encouraging you to settle a file you haven’t investigated properly; and so on. Don’t succumb. Stick to what is right – your Atticus Finch moments are found around many corners.
The Law Society of Upper Canada’s Coach and Advisor Network can also set you up with a mentor to provide you with insight and support.
—Ian Hu (@IanHuLawpro)
I Make a Good Income but Am I Really Wealthy?
According to Moneysense, earning the big bucks alone, doesn’t make you rich. Real Wealth is determined by” Net worth” what you own – minus what you owe. (Moneysense, January 2015) .
A financial plan is designed to help you build your net worth and get more from the money you earn. A financial plan address key areas of your financial life such as:
- How to make the most of your cashflow
- Identifying risks to you and your family’s cashflow
- Creating cashflow with passive investments when you are ready to stop working
- How to clawback your cashflow from taxes
- How to make the most of the cashflow you leave behind.
The question many people fail to ask themselves… I make a good income but am I really wealthy???
Take the all Canadian wealth Test:
—Jackie Porter (@askjackieporter)
New Lawyers: Document All Client Interactions
New lawyers, I hope this tip will follow you well for your whole career. Begin doing this now and do it every time, to the point where it becomes a habit. It will both help your practice and protect you in the event of a malpractice claim. Document all client interactions, whether over the phone, or in a meeting – even the quick or “0.1” conversation. If you are a young lawyer or articling student who may never encounter a client in your first year, this advice applies to your encounters with senior lawyers who give you assignments. Treat them as your clients, as you are in effect providing them with your legal advice.
When you step into a meeting, take a notepad with you and take notes. This applies even to the meetings where you are told “this will take just a second.” You’ll be surprised how often a second can become fifteen minutes of intense legal analysis. Every time you pick up the phone to speak with a client, open a note in the file and record what was said. Pay particular attention to instructions given to you, and recommendations you give.
When you are asked, ten days, ten months, or ten years after the fact about what happened, you will be able to reference your notes and recall the conversation accurately. Did you miss following through on instructions? Did the client take your recommendations? Did you discuss the possible outcomes and risks of the steps involved? It’s all in your notes – so long as you keep them.
—Ian Hu (@IanHuLawpro)
New Lawyers and Articling Students: Support Staff Is a Great Resource
As this fall marks another season of incoming new lawyers and articling students, this tip is for you. When you receive your first assignment from your articling principal or senior lawyer, you may be left wondering where you should start. Sometimes the answer is with the assigning lawyer’s assistant or law clerk. The assistant can provide you with similar precedents the assigning lawyer has already perfected. These precedents can provide you with valuable insights into the legal writing and work product you are expected to achieve.
Yes, you can tackle the work on your own without any guidance – but wouldn’t it be easier to follow the well-worn path? Many assignments do not require you to reinvent the wheel. A statement of claim is likely to set out the theory of liability and damages, which may closely mirror past cases. Pay attention to the wording used in precedents, as the phrases used may be taken directly from cases. The same goes for research memos, letters to clients, factums, etc. While Google and CanLII can be very helpful, don’t neglect the human resource available to you a few steps away.
—Ian Hu (@IanHuLawpro)
Flexibility Isn’t Just for the Yoga Mat – Try It on Your Schedule
This tip was inspired by a young mother I know, a senior associate at a big firm, who shared with me her recipe for handling the challenging tension between mom-time and lawyer time: the early escape.
Here’s how it works: One night a week she stays late at the office, until between eight and ten at night, depending on the week. Then, two days later, she leaves the office in the early afternoon to pick her kids up early from daycare for some special time with them.
This wonderful “life hack” checks two important boxes for her. She checks her productivity box by getting gets a nice uninterrupted period of time each week to push through a whole lot of work. She also checks what she calls her “mommy box” with this dose of fun unstructured time with her kids.
Once you put in your time and rise in the ranks in a law firm, these opportunities for flex time open up, if you are willing to take advantage of them. The twin bottom lines in private practice – service to clients and the billable hour – can both be well served within a flexible schedule.
It turns out this strategy is also frequently employed by professionals in other sectors. New York Times journalist Neil Irwin reports on this trend in his article: “How Some Men Fake an 80-Hour Workweek, and Why It Matters” citing the research conducted by Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. Reid conducted a study of more than 100 professionals at an elite consulting firm.
“Some 31 percent of the men and 11 percent of the women whose records Ms. Reid examined managed to achieve the benefits of a more moderate work schedule without explicitly asking for it.
They made an effort to line up clients who were local, reducing the need for travel. When they skipped work to spend time with their children or spouse, they didn’t call attention to it. One team on which several members had small children agreed among themselves to cover for one another so that everyone could have more flexible hours.”
Our devices allow us to be connected to the office day and night. For many this on-line connectivity functions as a ball and chain that means we are never truly off work. By setting boundaries though, and using these devices to their full advantage, you can get out of the office and onto the soccer field when you need to. There are many ways to be out of the office and in a meeting. It might be a meeting with clients, or at your child’s school. In the case of one very in-demand associate I know it meant he was at the gym.
There are still those old school lawyers – dare I say dinosaurs – who insist that what really counts is time at your desk. They want to see you in at the office in the early morning and still there past the supper hour. I say what really counts is the quality of your work, your relationship with your clients, and how you manage your practice. All three of these get the most optimal results when you are well rested, energized, and in a positive state of mind.
Have a look at your workweek and see where you can introduce some flexibility into the mix. Experiment with mixing up your working hours and see what kind of an impact that has for you overall. I especially urge you to get out of the office early some of these last days of summer. Give it a try – you just might like the results.
[This tip by Allison Wolf originally appeared on the Lawyer with a Life Blog]
Digital Security 101
No one likes to talk about digital security. Heck, say “F T P” to some people and watch their eyes immediately glaze over. I get it. It’s techy and geeky and those who are not, just smile and nod. However, whether you are geeky or not, digital security is immensely important to the health of your business and even your personal life.
I’ve been trying to get the core concepts of digital security out there for over a decade. My first presentation for the OIVAC (way back in 2006) only touched upon what one needs to consider when it comes to the security of their privacy, equipment, business/client information, data collection and website. I got rave reviews, but the comments made me realize just how little attention anyone was paying to the digital security of their business <-and that you couldn’t put that much raw intel about digital security into anyone’s head in one sitting. 😉
I’ve refined that presentation over the years, breaking it up into more digestible parts. At just about 2 minutes, this short and pithy video captures the basics of digital security in, what I like to think, is a relatable and fun way:
Digital Security Salad http://ow.ly/7eZ230eyWua
Please comment if you like or not — I’m reworking the parts about data collection and website security next and would LOVE to know if the whole “relate it to food” concept works <g>
Andrea Cannavina (@AndreaCan) helps law firms organize, automate and implement business process improvements to create efficient workflows and happier staff.
Cashflow 101: Getting Out From Under the Lifestyle Trap
“Measure Cash flow by how much you keep not how much you earn,” Lifehacker 09/08/2014
Lawyers have a notorious reputation for appreciating the finer things in life. High end cars, vacations, a beautiful home in a desirable location, designer clothing and other luxury items are often some of the perks lawyers associate with being successful in their profession.
Unfortunately many lawyers often do not realize what their lifestyle is costing them. Very few track their spending to see if the money being spent is actually in line with their priorities. I encourage you to take a closer look at your spending in order to hone in on your values. Ask yourself, does my spending reflect my priorities; am I spending most of the income I earn? The truth is, if you do not have a sense of where your money is going, you are likely to spend more of it, even if your income continues to increase. This leaves you vulnerable in getting caught in the lifestyle trap of always having to work to create income.
As you become more successful and mature as a legal professional, the lifestyle trap means you could be earning a significant income, have all the trappings of wealth, but no real wealth or savings to rely on in the future.
—Jackie Porter (@askjackieporter)