4 Things Small Firms Can Do to Avoid Extinction

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Personal Productivity for Lawyers

This quick-start guide to Getting Things Done and Inbox Zero also includes two shortcuts for those who want the benefits of GTD without having to learn the system.

In an interview with NZ blog LawFuel, Jordan Furlong gave some advice to solo and small-firm lawyers who want to “avoid extinction.”

1. Learn to Use Technology Effectively

“Technology” is nothing more than a ten-dollar word for “tool,” so think of it this way: what tools do I need to command in order to run a successful and profitable law practice?

At the top of the list: learn to use the technology you already have (and probably don’t know how to use well). Furlong points out that Word, Excel, Outlook, and your firm’s tickler system are tools you already have: “they cost you nothing to install and maybe a day’s worth of training to maximize their benefit.”

You should stay on top of new technology, as well. Of cloud-based software options, Furlong says “these are easy wins: small efforts at minimal cost to upgrade your efficiency.”

2. Upgrade Billing and Use Flat Fees

Establish fixed fees as the default presumption and place the onus on rebutting that presumption to bill by the hour.

On billing, his advice is to (1) accept credit cards, and (2) make flat fees your default. This may not work for every practice area, but most lawyers can benefit from adding flat fees to their billing toolboxes. Flat fees shift your focus from time to efficiency and aligns your interests with that of your clients.

3. Focus on a Niche

The general practice solo is part of a history that’s passing. If you’re in a small community, it will hang on longer than in urban centers, but the eventual outcome will be the same.

If you don’t already have a niche, Furlong says you should focus on one or two practice areas because it’s not realistic for a lawyer to stay competent and up-to-date in multiple practice areas. The law and procedure are too complex.

4. Employ Emotional Intelligence

The good news is that, given how most lawyers are short on empathy and EQ, even displaying a moderate amount to those around you will vault you to the front of the line in this regard.

It’s easy to get jaded in law practice, but Furlong points out that being able to listen and empathize with clients is always going to be a legal skill that’s in high demand. Law is a people business.

The Small-Firm Advantage

Solo and small practice has its own built-in advantages, and chief among those are the ability to move quickly to adapt to changing market circumstances, run low-cost yet high-quality law practices, and develop a personal touch that clients find satisfying and memorable.

What surely won’t work is complacency. The future holds promise for firms that adapt and extinction for those that refuse.


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  • Paul Spitz

    It’s kind of embarrassing to our profession that Jordan Furlong has to even mention a few of these things. Mastering technology like Word, Excel and Outlook? Accept credit cards? It’s 2016, almost 2017. Anyone not taking credit cards or who can’t use basic word-processing software in the second decade of the 21st century deserves to be extinct.

  • Matthew Kreitzer Esq

    Fantastic article, although I would have some issues with the proposal of flat fees for things like contested divorces, where a flat fee would exceed the ability to pay of many potential clients. Most of the time, they cannot afford a simple retainer.

    • I’m a bit confused by that. If the client can’t afford a flat fee, how are they able to afford an hourly fee?

      Is it a matter of cash flow? You can just as easily create a payment plan (or a pay-as-you-go menu) for a flat fee as you can spread out hourly payments over multiple invoices. Or is it because a flat fee would be larger than an hourly fee, in total? If so, either the fee is wrong or the services are being packaged wrong.

      If you’re thinking the only way to do flat fees is to quote 100% of the potential work and get paid up front, then try re-thinking flat fees.

      And while I think all lawyers should give flat fees a real try, there are definitely times when hourly is better. It’s just that those times are far fewer than most lawyers think, which is why Jordan is arguing flat fees should be the default.

      • Paul Spitz

        I think clients tend to think that flat fees mean “this will be cheaper,” while lawyers tend to think that flat fees mean “I’m going to eat my hat on this project.” So the tendency for us is to build cushion into the flat fee to deal with the fact that the client may want 27 drafts of the document over the course of a year, instead of 2-3 drafts. The client is then surprised that the flat fee isn’t actually cheap.

        • I think that’s an artifact of thinking in terms of hours. If you refuse to use time as a measure of value, it frees you up to think about what your services are really worth to the client and whether you can build a business around that fee. Or maybe you need to work to help the client see more value in the service.

          It also frees you up to think about other ways to meet the client’s needs. Even if you are the most honest, efficient lawyer on the planet, hourly billing traps you in a mode of thinking in terms of effort, not results. When you change your structure, you might be surprised at the alternative strategies you come up with—and they may be just as (or more) effective.

          • Paul Spitz

            I understand, but you still occasionally run into a situation where a client asks for 10 times the amount of work than is normally required for something. Or where the client withholds crucial information that might have affected the flat rate that you charged, and now you have to do a number of extra tasks without getting paid.

            • When it comes to flat fees, the way you describe the scope of the representation in your representation agreement is really important. If a client asks for 10 times the work you’d normally do, then you should be able to point to your agreement and say “that’s not what we agreed to, and the extra work will cost you extra.”

      • Matthew Kreitzer Esq

        Having been “knee deep” in the Family Law trenches for two years now, I have to say that payment plans for Family Law cases, such as Domestic Relations, simply will not work. You get strung up on the bill far too often in this line of work, and attorneys need to be paid up front for a specific amount of work.

        The idea was that for a flat fee, you need to be able to hedge your risk by charging the entire cost of the work up front. With an hourly retainer, I would feel far more comfortable petitioning the Court for a withdrawal should the hourly retainer run out; because you have created a contractual obligation to replenish the retainer.

        I think you would have some Ethics Counsel frown at putting a dead switch on flat fee legal services where you withdraw on anticipated repudiation for flat fee services, or where you have staggered fees. I think the argument would go that creating staggered flat fee services would serve only to confuse the end consumer.

        As it is, no, I do not feel comfortable creating a retainer for a contested divorce which says, “You pay me $1,000 now, but you may have to pay me $1,000 later down the line when we get to trial.” Something about that strikes me as a test case that I simply do not want to be.