It was wet outside this morning. I don’t like getting my sneakers damp. I do everything possible to keep my sneakers dry because they’re my only pair. Wet shoes are miserable, so I spend considerable focus studying where I walk. Puddles are my nemesis.
It was wet outside, but it wasn’t raining. It was just a guy cleaning the sidewalk.
As I navigated around the man spraying with a hose and his pressure-washing machine, I was inspired to write this post. My shoes got damp, but the wet sidewalk got me thinking…
Some cities have dirty sidewalks. No offense, Hanoi, Amman, and Mandalay.
Other cities have clean sidewalks. Thank you, Singapore, Jerusalem, and Miami Beach.
Many cities have no sidewalks at all, but we’ll save that for another story. (Get ready Siam Reap. I’ve got you on my radar.)
Clean sidewalks are expensive. It takes money to wash sidewalks, sweep streets, and keep the dirt at bay. The machines and personnel come at a price. Those folks don’t wake up early and pull on those sexy rubber boots just for the heck of it. They’ve got to be paid.
There’s a benefit to clean sidewalks. Cities with clean sidewalks have more tourists who spend more money. I’m sure there are other benefits as well, but my worldview doesn’t extend far beyond tourism. All I know is that nobody wants to spend thousands of dollars on a Chanel bag only to have it splashed with mud from a dirty sidewalk.
Keeping the sidewalks clean takes systematic effort to combat the decay. It takes people, machines, money, management, and systems. It takes constant effort. I’ve been in the heart of Jerusalem for a month, and I’ve seen the pressure-washing team outside at least three times each week. The filthy gunk never stops accumulating. The cleaning can’t stop either.
Law firms may not have sidewalks, but we have plenty of decay caused by the business equivalent of dirt, dust, and grime. Our practices are affected by overuse, change, and personnel issues. We can let the deterioration accumulate and affect our results, or we can fight back, clean things up, and prevent further problems.
I vote for fighting back.
Deciding to Maintain Your Firm
Routine maintenance is a strategic decision, and it’s expensive. Maintenance isn’t fun, inspiring, or particularly enticing. Getting something new is fun. Cleaning something old is tedious.
We regularly face resource expenditure choices that allow us to either (1) allocate more resources to growth or (2) allocate those same resources to keeping the old systems functioning.
It’s a (1) shiny object versus (2) boring old stuff decision. Many of us struggle with the temptation to invest in the new things instead of keeping the old systems functioning.
I see the decision play out all the time as I respond to lawyers’ questions about their practices. It’s evident when…
- A lawyer considers adding a new intake person to the team, but the existing team members haven’t been getting the attention they deserve.
- A lawyer hires a designer to crank out another free e-book but isn't promoting or distributing the old e-books.
- A law firm contemplates adding video to its website but hasn’t updated or added new written material in months (or longer).
- A lawyer debates switching practice-management systems but hasn’t fully exploited the capabilities of the existing system.
- A firm considers adding a new practice area, but it has barely scratched the surface of its current practice areas.
You get the idea. The basics must be attended to and managed, or entropy creeps in. When we prioritize the new over the old, business fundamentals begin to degrade.
Growth requires a balance of maintaining existing solutions and creating new ones. Without balance, we lurch backward and forward. First, we launch into something new, then we’re forced to repair something old before decay ruins it completely.
Some decay is easy to overcome with basic maintenance. It can be cleaned with a phone call to the right source of help. Other decay requires a lifetime of persistent engagement on a daily or weekly basis.
We’re all guilty of letting a few of these slip, so it’s worth highlighting a few elements of your practice where decay typically occurs. Many of these elements will require your attention, management, and supervision. Ask yourself whether your sidewalks are being cleaned or whether you’re letting the grime accumulate.
Decay is to be expected, but it shouldn’t be tolerated. Here is where we tend to let things deteriorate.
Furniture gets old and worn. Fabric fades, wood scratches, and laminate cracks.
After a few years of heavy use, some furniture creates the wrong impression on your clients. Some might argue that the condition of your office furniture is trivial. It’s not. Furnishings have an impact on the perception of your law firm.
Pay someone to repair, restore, and clean any items in need of upkeep. Replace furnishings that have exceeded their useful life.
You might not see the dirt, dings, and scratches on your walls. You become immune to these small imperfections when you’re in that space every day.
But less-frequent visitors have a different impression. These small blemishes add up and damage trust. The impact is subtle, but it becomes a part of the overall impression formed by visitors. A little touch-up paint applied periodically keeps the walls looking fresh and new.
Carpet wear is sneaky. You don’t notice the tracks wearing in the high-traffic pathways. But someone visiting your space for the first time notices the flaw instantly.
Carpet doesn’t last forever. In a busy office, it doesn’t last long at all. Clean it until it needs replacing, then bite the bullet and replace it.
4. Personal Hygiene
You’re selling a personal service, so your personal presentation matters. It would be nice if your intellect carried the day, but a trivial matter like your appearance affects the results you achieve for your clients as well as how your clients feel about you.
It’s easy to let hygiene slip when we’re distracted by pressing issues. But you are constantly in situations where your appearance is used to evaluate you. Clothing selection, haircuts, and other grooming choices have an impact on your success.
5. Accounting System
Before you know it, your accounting system can become a mishmash of old records, closed bank accounts, and uncleared transactions. Allowing a trust account to decay into a mess can bring more than bounced checks when your State Bar drops by for a random audit.
Preventative maintenance of your bookkeeping system and records is essential if you’d like to keep your license to practice law. Sadly, for most of us, maintaining accounting systems is excruciating. But it has to be done.
6. Form Bank
Your standard forms need frequent updating. Things change, and the forms need to reflect that. It’s common for lawyers to edit the same field every time they use a form but never change the template.
Form banks and document assembly systems should grow and change as the law evolves and your practice grows. Updating forms creates efficiency and results in profit. It’s a high-payoff maintenance investment.
7. Data Files
Old client data, accounting data, draft documents, and other information pile up in random folders, cluttering your system and making it hard to find the information required to complete projects. A systematic approach to organizing, indexing, and archiving old files affects your present and future effectiveness. Clean it up.
Thankfully, you no longer have to devote thousands of square feet to large rooms filled with books. But you do buy online versions of written resources. These resources require pruning when they're no longer useful, updating in the form of renewed subscriptions, and organizing so they're accessible by your team.
Buying the information and failing to organize it is pointless. A library of resources changes and evolves regularly. It needs to be maintained so that it remains useful.
9. Billing Info
I recently walked into a law firm's file room and noticed boxes and boxes of paper stapled together and stacked. My inquiry revealed that these were old draft invoices. The lawyers reviewed the drafts, then turned them back in before sending the finalized bills to clients.
Tossing out old records, even when they’re useless, is something many lawyers resist. There is no logical explanation to why we keep things. It’s symptomatic of the larger issues we face.
Billing information is kept in our brain just as often as it’s kept in an automated system. We memorize strange client requests and priorities. We decide to delay billing for a month but fail to remind ourselves when it’s time to send. A client gives us a new email address, but we keep it on a sticky note instead of entering it into our system.
Billing your clients is a fundamental part of running a practice. When this process atrophies, the entire business suffers. If a busy city can keep the sidewalks clean, you can keep your billing systems neat, tidy, and functional.
10. Vendor Lists
Even the smallest firms make purchases. Most of us optimize for price and convenience, and we keep notes on where to buy, how much to buy, and how to pay.
But some items get purchased less frequently, and we can’t recall where we bought it, how much it cost, how we got that good discount, or who to call when we need assistance.
Our failure to maintain a good vendor list with useful notes means we reinvent the wheel with each purchase. Instead of spending 10 minutes buying a new laptop, we spend hours evaluating vendors and making decisions. Investing some time in maintaining our lists makes us more efficient and allows us to improve the buying process.
It’s easy to neglect our employees’ salaries. Waiting for employees to ask for a change to their compensation is a mistake. Paying attention, monitoring employee productivity, and factoring performance into compensation allows us to stay ahead of the curve. Instead of operating reactively (which usually creates an agitated team member), we need to prevent discontent by being proactive.
12. System Documentation
Old system documentation falls apart faster than you can document new systems. Small changes affect multiple systems. A new copier might require changes in the system documentation for 10 different tasks. Instead of pushing the “big green button,” now we’ve got to press the “brown START key.” Systems decay rapidly when we fail to engage the entire team in using and updating the documentation.
13. Marketing Activity/Plan
You invest time and energy into a marketing plan but abandon it when you get busy. The decision isn’t conscious. It just happens when you’re distracted by busy stretches. Then, sadly, your lack of marketing takes you from busy to desperate once your schedule clears.
Once you’ve developed a marketing plan, follow it. Your business literally depends on it.
14. Referral Source Relationships
When a referral source stops referring, you worry that something went wrong. Did a client say something negative? More likely, the source simply forgot about you because you failed to keep the relationship fresh. Staying on top of your source’s mind requires frequent communication. Your referral sources have busy lives too, so you have to remind them that you exist.
15. Internal Communication
You’ve probably spent a lot of energy creating a vision for your business. You determined how you’ll serve your clients, your team, and yourself. You wrote it all down, edited it extensively, and communicated those ideas to your team.
Then you put that vision on a shelf and forgot about it.
Your vision is like a dirty sidewalk. It won’t pay off unless you keep spending time developing it and communicating what’s at stake, what you’re trying to achieve, and how you will get it all done. Your vision needs promotion, discussion, and explanation. You need to communicate it over and over to remind your team and inform new members.
Law firms tend to hire employees, give them a desk and a laptop, and hope for the best. That’s a big mistake.
You need to manage your team with systematic communication. All employees need to be engaged with their supervisor. Employees left to their own devices cause breakdown and disruption. It’s not their fault if they veer off the path when they haven’t been taught the proper direction.
Investing your time, energy, and money cleaning your law firm sidewalks pays off. It prevents bigger issues from arising as you plunge forward. It allows you to confidently pursue new projects and directions without the fear of breakdowns. Investing in old systems allows you to confidently step into the future by taking advantage of new opportunities.
It’s time for a power wash.