“I don’t have a system!” my client screamed back at me.
Apparently I’m irritating enough to warrant a scream. I like to call it “coaching,” but I don’t think that’s what she calls it.
She does have a system–a crappy system–that doesn’t work the way she wants it to. Not having a system is, in itself, a system.
We all have a system. If the system is bad, the results are bad. The system works perfectly to deliver bad results because the system is designed that way. Most of us have systems that deliver bad results repeatedly.
However, we can change the system. We can alter the input to get new output.
Often the new actions you take are no more difficult or time-consuming than the old approach. But because you’re doing the right things, you get the right results.
Here are my top 15 ideas you can use to change a bad system into a better system. When you change these inputs, you’ll get better outputs.
1. Set a goal.
For most of us, the goal is to survive until tomorrow.
What happens when we have that goal? It pays off: You survive until tomorrow.
What if the goal was bigger? What if the goal was beautiful, powerful, and meaningful? What if achieving the goal brought you health, wealth, happiness, and fulfillment?
If you’re someone who achieves his or her goals (“survive until tomorrow”), why not pick a goal that makes a bigger difference in your life?
Remember, you already have a system. How about we change the input? If the system works, use it to get a better output.
2. One thing per day
Your task lists are probably overly ambitious. You get distressed when the list gets longer instead of shorter, so you double down and pledge to work even harder going forward.
But what happens when your list gets longer and longer?
Eventually you stop checking it. At some point, you abandon the list entirely. You spend your days responding to urgent matters as they come in and the list becomes a distant memory.
What if you did the opposite? What if you promised yourself to do just one thing instead of many?
Maybe by committing to do just one thing, you’ll stop ignoring your list.
A better system is to pick something–anything–each day and get it done, regardless of the interruptions. Don’t worry about anything else on the list until the “one thing” is done.
By focusing on a priority, instead of the entire list, you’ll knock something off the list each day. Over a year that’s a lot of things off the list.
Move toward your goal one day at a time. Small steps will get you there. There will be good days and bad days, but you’ll get where you’re going if you take one step forward each day.
3. Delete the tasks you’ll never do
How many things on your task list have been there forever? A shocking number, I bet.
You’re not going to do them. Accept it and move on.
For instance, I bet you need a will. You put it on your list back in 2012, but it’s still there. Just accept that you’re going to die intestate and scratch that task off the list.
There are many things you ought to do that you never will. There’s no point keeping those tasks on your list and distracting you from the things you will do.
Personally, I can’t cope with deleting those tasks entirely. Instead, I cut them off my task list and put them in an Evernote folder where I never see them. I still have them, but they’re out of my field of vision.
4. Stop spending money you don’t have
Until you set a goal and hit your financial target, lay off the spending.
How about you stop adding to payroll when you don’t have the cash?
How about you stop buying extra software you don’t need?
How about waiting on the new car?
What if you put off renting that bigger office space?
The lawyer says, “We’re borrowing money to get things going. We need cash to get the business off the ground,” or “We’re using credit to meet payroll over the holidays,” or “We had to borrow to buy some equipment and furniture.”
These stories all end up the same–with a pile of debt and a law firm struggling to make the payments.
When revenue falls, expenses need to drop too. Borrowing to meet a shortfall just creates long term debt. Oddly, the debt never seems to get paid back when revenue rises, because when revenue goes up, expenses always go up.
There is rarely a surplus. How is that possible? I don’t know. I don’t do math because I got a math credit for my Deductive Reasoning class in college.
5. Hire much later
Speaking of spending money we don’t have: payroll is the biggie.
We hire prematurely. We’re not ready, we can’t afford it, and the business can’t justify the expense.
We do it for a mix of reasons, including feeling too busy (because our prices are too low) and feeling insecure (because the other lawyers at the bar refer to their “assistant” or “associate”).
Your ego will be happier with cash you earn to buy things (like a fast sports car). Your ego only feels better for a few minutes when you hire an associate, but you have to keep paying the associate long after the ego boost has ended.
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Slow down on hiring. Bring someone on only when you’re overwhelmed with quality clients paying premium fees. I know you believe that hiring now is critical to your long term success, but it’s not.
6. Fire the worst client
There’s always a terrible client. That client is sucking the life out of you. They’re 80% of your distress. They’re the reason you’re too tired to go to the gym or too stressed to take a referral source to lunch.
Change your system so you eliminate these clients earlier and earlier. Eventually you’ll reach the point where you never take them on in the first place.
For now, find a way out of the engagement. Find a way to refer that client to someone else. Wrap things up and ship that client out the door.
7. Stop comparing yourself
So many lawyers spend energy comparing themselves to other lawyers. We’re obsessed with competition in unhealthy ways.
It’s a pointless waste of time.
We use these comparisons to decide everything.
- Where should we locate the office?
- How should we decorate?
- Whom should we hire?
- How much should we earn?
- What should we charge?
- What kind of clients do we want?
- What kind of car should we drive?
- What kind of house should we buy?
These comparisons don’t serve your business interests, your personal interests, or your psychological well-being.
Create your own circumstances, your own market, and your own business model, and do it with reference to customers. Clients are the people who determine your fate, not other lawyers.
Break free of the self-imposed constraints promoted by lawyer culture. Chart your own course and find your own path. Your system doesn’t have to be their system.
8. Charge more
Some clients love you. Some clients hate you.
Their feelings are rarely connected to your low price. How many clients have told you that you were great because you’re so cheap? Nope, that’s not what they say.
They love you because you call them back. They love you because you’re passionate about helping them. They love you because you care.
While there are certainly upper limits to what an attorney can charge, you’re probably not there yet.
Lawyers have endless stories about why they can’t increase fees. “The competition charges less,” “I know the clients are price-sensitive because they ask about it on the phone,” or “The clients can’t afford it.”
Most lawyers base their fees on the concerns of prospects who never become clients. That doesn’t help the bottom line.
Charge what the people who love you are willing to pay.
Charge more. You’re worth it.
9. Talk more about your client and not about yourself
Everybody wants you to talk about them. Nobody wants to hear about you.
They want you to tell them about themselves. They get antsy when you stop talking about them and start talking about yourself.
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“Enough about you, let’s talk about me some more,” they want to say.
Humans are completely absorbed with their own issues. That’s especially true of our clients who are experiencing adverse circumstances.
(But it’s also true of nearly everyone.)
So how come when you sit down to work on your website copy, you write about yourself?
How come when you’re at lunch with a referral source, you talk about the law firm instead of the clients?
How come when you give a speech at Rotary, you are the hero of the story instead of the client?
“They need to know about my expertise and experience,” you say. But that’s not true.
They need to know that you know about them. They want to feel understood.
They’ll pick you because you know their story. They only need to know about your qualifications when they feel compelled to justify the decision they already made.
10. Trust your gut
When it comes to growing a business, failing to make a decision is worse than making a bad decision.
Analysis paralysis is death. Get moving, pick an option, and make something happen.
Build a system to monitor your progress so you can measure the results of your decisions. Build a numbers-based decision making process for next time.
But this time, you need to go with your gut so things start happening.
It’s scary to make decisions without all the information, all the data, and all the input from everyone else.
But it’s essential if you’re going to keep moving forward. If your personal system involves a lot of waiting and wondering, it’s time to start deciding and acting. Trust yourself to do the right thing.
11. Do the marketing first
If you don’t do the marketing first, it won’t get done at all. That’s lawyer life. It’s just the way it is.
If you put off the marketing until after you finish the client work, then it’s permanently on hold because you will never finish the client work (hopefully).
Make the calls for lunches with referral sources first thing in the morning.
Write the articles for publication before you return the first client calls.
Arrange the speeches, seminars, webinars, or whatever you like before you get going for the day, because the next thing you know it’ll be 7 PM and you’ll have pushed the marketing to tomorrow.
The marketing only gets done if it’s done first. Move it up or accept the imperfect results you’re getting from your current system.
12. Fire the negative employee
You know the one. She constantly causes trouble, pulls your attention from your priorities, and makes you worry about who’s going to quit because of their interaction with her.
“But, but but…she gets the job done,” you say. “She generates revenue. She knows how to do things that I don’t.”
You’re going to fire her eventually. Why not today?
Seriously, stop reading and go fire her. You’ll feel better, your business will grow faster, and the other employees will know that performance matters.
13. Communicate more
I know you feel like you communicate all day long. You’re exhausted by 6 PM. Some days you’ve even lost your voice.
But do you say important things to the right people?
Do you listen to them when you communicate?
Do you give employees feedback so they can improve?
Do you praise people when they get things right?
Do you coach your team when the opportunity arises?
What about clients?
Do you focus on the clients with emergencies, or do you reach out to the dozen others who are likely to leave a positive review on Google?
Do you proactively update your clients or do you wait for them to call to check on the status of their case?
Does your communication make your clients feel like you care, or do they feel ignored because you’re too busy with the crisis-of-the-moment?
14. Be embarrassed
Our fear of embarrassment prevents us from achieving better results.
We feel pressure to conform to the group norms, so we hesitate to market our practices in ways that stand out. We worry we’ll be “unprofessional” or “weird,” so we choose to be totally “normal.”
Then we’re baffled when our results are unexceptional.
Jump up, stand out, be different, and avoid conformity. Experiment more, try new things, and be more human.
Take a risk to connect with more people in your marketing, your client relations, and your advocacy. Don’t be afraid to be real, vulnerable, and imperfect.
Being embarrassed isn’t the worst thing that can happen, is it? It’s not permanent, and it might be the reason your system gets results.
15. Measure it
They say “What gets measured, gets managed.” That’s even truer with lawyers.
We’re competitive. We may not like the game, but we like boosting the score. Hack your personality by measuring the things that cause your profits to rise.
Find the behaviors that cause your practice to thrive. Create a scoreboard for those behaviors. Then it’s “game on” as you push the score higher.
Every good system tracks outcomes. That’s the only way to know whether you need to change the inputs, or change the system itself. Build a scoreboard and start winning.
You need a better system
You’ll get different results if you change the inputs into your system. You’ll get better results when you stop doing things that don’t work and start doing things that do work.
Make a change, measure the impact, and pay attention to your results. Monitor, measure, and then make more changes.
Optimize your system for the results you seek. Don’t expect the outcome to change if you don’t change your input.
If you’re happy with your results, then keep following your approach.
But if you want different results from your system, it’s time to make a change. These 15 ideas will move you in the right direction.