5 Things I’ve Learned About Lawyers

There are lots of differences between us lawyers. We’re each unique in our own way.

We have different strengths and weaknesses. We have a broad range of interests. We spend our time differently. We’re a diverse bunch of folks.

But we’re a lot alike, too.

We have many things in common, like education. The process and effort to get into law school, the years we spend during our schooling, and the suffering we all go through to pass the bar exam create a lot of similarities.

But we also have some things in common (counterproductive things) that hurt our practices, reduce our income, and make us unhappy.

After working in the legal field for three decades, here are some things I’ve noticed about lawyers.

It’s not pretty…

1. Our businesses rarely have visions

For the most part, we do things the way they were done before.

Typically, our practices are based on other law firms. We copy what other people do and make minor modifications. Most small firms just look like tiny versions of bigger firms. We rarely try anything new or different.

Our plans for the future are murky. We’re waiting to see what “they” do. We haven’t forged our own path because we’re busy with today’s cases, clients, tasks, and projects.

Our lack of vision holds us back. It keeps us stuck in place. It makes us wonder if there might be greener grass, doing something different, somewhere else.

When you can see your destination in your mind, you’re far more likely to build the business that takes you to it. Knowing where you’re going allows you to coordinate your actions so you’re consistently moving in the right direction.

You’re going to invest decades doing what you do. Why not create the work you want? Why not choose your clients? Why not invent the workplace, approach, and atmosphere you like?

Rosen’s Rules is a free course. The second lesson is all about vision. Of the tens of thousands of lawyers who take the ten-day course, less than 10% invest an hour in watching the vision video. Less than 1% spend a day creating a vision.

Most of us spend thirty years practicing in a manner we don’t like. We accept it even though it fails to satisfy us. Only a handful of us ever put forth the energy required to do it differently.

You can, with a small investment of your time, have it your way.

2. We believe we call the shots

Most businesses exist for the customers, but many law firms exist for the lawyers. A lawyer-focus is distracting, inefficient, and counterproductive, but it’s the common way.

Lawyers see the world from a “me” perspective. We organize our practices around areas of the law, rather than client needs. We pick office locations we prefer over what our clients might need. We hire based on our beliefs about quality legal work rather than the likelihood of a candidate meeting client service requirements.

The bottom line is that we value the opinion of the legal community over that of the client community. We build practices we hope other lawyers will respect. We measure ourselves by them.

There’s a word for law firms that do the opposite. These rare firms that put the client’s perspective first are called “successful.” They’re busy, they have healthy bottom lines, and they’re highly valued by experts who do business valuations.

Client-focus means delivering what clients want, the way they want it, when they want it.

It doesn’t mean avoiding calls from upset clients. It doesn’t mean finding ways to isolate yourself so you can get the “real work” done instead of being “interrupted” by clients. It doesn’t mean insisting on email instead of text messages or slowing down responses to high-volume emailers.

Client-focus means that you build a business around what the client wants. When the client calls the shots, within the bounds of professional regulations, you create a business your clients talk about with each other because it’s so unusual.

At some level, we are required to call the shots. We have to in order to provide our clients with ethical, professional services.

But often our decision-making goes too far. We see the impact of a lawyer-focus when the large company moves their business to a different firm. We see it when the client writes a nasty review on Google. We see it when a friend suggests one firm over another when asked for a referral.

3. We prefer partners

Lawyers don’t like to go it alone. We like a partner. I’m not sure if it’s a “misery loves company” thing or whether we truly believe the strategic rationales we invent to justify our decisions. But many of us end up in partnerships that lack any business justification.

Our partnerships typically involve redundant skills, competitive personalities, and a “me first” mentality.

These partnerships often become the source of conflict, delayed decision-making, and a lack of shared vision.

Rather than helping us move forward faster, partnerships become a drag on our progress. Instead of spending our time marketing to expand the pie, we have endless discussions about dividing the existing pie.

I like people. I spend lots of energy meeting people, getting to know them, and maintaining relationships. I’m as extroverted as anyone and get lots of energy from spending time with people.

That doesn’t mean, however, that every lawyer I meet needs to become a law partner. Many of us make partnership decisions for friendship or other reasons unrelated to business profitability.

Going solo often means a narrower niche, more efficient marketing, and greater success. Bringing on employees is usually a better way to grow versus adding owners.

That said, most of us bring on employees before we’re ready…

4. We hire too early

Back in the caveman days, one lawyer asked the other, “How many lawyers do you have?” and the die was cast. From that moment forward we measured ourselves by firm size. Even the cavemen were too polite to ask about profits.

All too often the answer to that question is exactly the reason the law firm isn’t profitable.

“We’ve got a dozen lawyers, a half dozen paralegals, and a support staff of ten.” That answer likely explains why the firm is so deeply into the line of credit, arguing about how to allocate profits, and financially unable to expand the marketing into new tactics.

It’s not unusual for a single-lawyer firm to generate more owner take-home pay than a multi-lawyer firm. Payroll is the biggest barrier to profit. An out-of-control payroll is usually the explanation for a meager bottom line.

But lawyers love to have a good answer to that competitive question. We hire before we’re ready, and the frequency of that question puts pressure on us to jump the gun.

We’re a product of our culture. We enjoy the status of having a good answer to that question even if it costs us economic security.

Wait to hire. Answer the question in your own way. Maybe you can tell them you’re a crazy cat lady with 39 cats in your living room. That’ll get ’em to walk away.

5. We follow the pack

Uniqueness sells. When everything looks the same and someone creates something different, interesting, and innovative, we gravitate to it. That’s how Apple beat their phone and computer competitors and became the most valuable company in the world.

Lawyers always want more clients. But we hesitate to innovate and differentiate. Quite the contrary. We strive to conform. We love dark suits, leather shoes, and neatly trimmed hair.

Most of us look around our professional environment and strive to match the others. We wear the same clothes, speak the same words, copy each other’s marketing, and do everything possible to blend in. Some of us hire marketing firms to stand out, but reject their ideas when they make us feel self-conscious.

Followers rarely get the same results as leaders. You need to be out front if you’re going to achieve more and make an impact. But being a leader feels risky. Standing out in a world with peer pressure to conform is uncomfortable. You have to decide how much you want it.

Want more? Want to get there faster? Want to stand out in the marketplace, get noticed, and get hired? Then stop following the pack. Break free. Resist the pressure to conform.

You’ll win, they’ll lose, and they’ll still be talking about you when you sell your practice and chill out at the beach with the proceeds.

Insight helps us make better decisions

I pass along these observations not to push you to change. You don’t have to break free of these similarities we share. We can all remain perfectly content with our commonalities.

But there is value in considering your choices. Did you make them consciously? Did you make actual choices or did you merely fall in line? Are you the same as other lawyers because it’s what you want, or did you simply fail to consider the alternatives?

Many of the things we have in common serve us. We make a big difference in the lives of our clients and families. We get things done, we make changes, and we help people.

But there are lots of ways to get where we’re going. Today, I simply share my observations.

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