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Get good at the business of law

Michelle Peters explains why being a good lawyer isn’t enough if you want to be successful at the business of law

17 May 2017

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The biggest reason why so many law practices aren’t achieving the goals and dreams of the lawyers who run them is this: the practice owner isn’t as good at running the business as he or she is at ‘doing’ the business of providing legal services.

Often, the owner has set up the practice assuming that because they are a good lawyer, the clients will just appear. Or they optimistically believe that the skills they need to attract clients and grow a legal practice will arrive by osmosis the day they hang up their (actual or metaphorical) ‘open for business’ sign.

The truth is that no one is born knowing how to run a legal practice (or any other kind of business) but anyone can learn how to do it – if they are prepared to put in the time and effort. And it does take time and effort (and usually some expert help) to learn and hone new skills. You weren’t born knowing how to write a legal agreement or argue a client’s case in court; you studied with people who knew how to do those things and had experience doing it, and then you put it into practice and kept learning every day, probably with continuing professional development training every year. Why would learning how to run a practice be any different?

There’s a lot to learn. It was the same for me: when I switched from being a lawyer to being a business owner, I realised that in private practice I’d learned very little about anything other than how to provide legal advice. Suddenly I not only had to be able to do the work, I needed to be able to bring in the work, make sure I got paid for doing the work, and make sure my business survived financially while I was learning how to do all these things. Fortunately, I chose some great mentors and teachers to help me and they put me on the fast-track to learning the skills I needed to make sure my business succeeded. (This was what inspired me to make my business about helping other lawyers get good at the business of law.)

One of the most important things any practice owner needs to learn is how to market their business – because without clients you don’t have a business, just a dream. Many people assume marketing is just about deciding whether to ‘do Facebook’, which networking events to attend, and whether or not to run adverts in particular publications. What they don’t take the time to learn and understand is that marketing is really about getting the right message in front of the right audience. And the right message starts with the ‘why’ – why your clients need your product or service and why they should choose you to provide it. If you don’t learn how to do that, it doesn’t really matter where you advertise or market your services, you’ll generally be wasting your time and money.

Good marketing is a helpful start. But it’s ultimately fruitless if you aren’t good at turning the enquiries you get into paying clients. For most practice owners, this means learning how to ‘sell’ their services so that they aren’t letting the enquiries they worked so hard to get slip through their fingers. This can be a real challenge for some lawyers, as most hate the idea of doing anything that feels ‘salesy’. Instead they try to impress the client into instructing them by giving away too much free advice (which often backfires).

Of course, running a business is not just about being able to bring in the work. You also need to know how to create a business model that works – one which will be profitable and can be adapted as you grow. On top of that there’s learning how to manage the finances of a business (cashflow, profit and loss, balance sheets, and so on) and how to manage the staff (leadership and management are also skills we can learn and develop).

Yes, you can get help with all these things. But if you try to outsource or delegate parts of your business that you don’t understand yourself, you’re heading for disaster. I can’t tell you how many lawyers I’ve spoken to who’ve said: ‘We’ve tried advertising but it didn’t work.’ When I ask them to tell me how they decided on the content of those adverts, they say things like: ‘Oh, the advertising department of the newspaper/magazine put it together for us.’ So, they didn’t have a strategy for the advert and they didn’t play any part in deciding the content of that advert. They left it to someone else who knows very little about their brand or their business, and quite possibly not much about good marketing either. No wonder they had zero results.

I’m not saying every practice owner should get involved in every detail of every aspect of their business – far from it. I’m saying the owner needs to develop their business skills to the level where they can participate in developing the strategy for every part of their practice. Then, when they give the detailed implementation of that strategy to others, they will be able to understand whether it’s being done correctly or not. Outsourcing or delegating without understanding the strategy yourself is a bit like asking someone to build you a house without having any input into its design, purpose, or cost. What are the chances you’ll get the house you want?

 

Michelle Peters (The Business Instructor) is a former Magic Circle solicitor who helps lawyers to get more clients and increase their profits without working more hours. Find out more about Michelle, and discover complimentary resources to help you grow your practice, at www.thebusinessinstructor.com

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