Whether you’re emerging from quarantine or setting out on your own, 2020 has become the year of the great equaliser. Never before have firms, courts, and clients been so reliant on technology and innovation to ensure success.
But of course, an internet connection and a web camera is only the starting point. To plot a new path forward legal professionals will need a clear and recursive strategy to build a long-lasting foundation for the future. This checklist is designed to help you craft a step-by-step map to start or restart your firm in the wake of unprecedented disruption.
Establish Goals (KPIs)
You won’t know success until you define it, so the first step for any (re)opening firm is to decide what success will look like. Start with time benchmark (6 months, 1 year, 3 years) to know when to accurately self-assess. Then define key metrics that are measurable and workable; these are often called key performance indicators (KPIs), but you can simply call them goals. Everyone’s goals are different so don’t stress about finding the right ones; instead measure what’s most important to you, for example: monthly revenue, number of matters, number of hours worked (or not worked). Finally, be flexible and kind to yourself. The goals you set in January 2020 are likely different than the ones you’ll set in August 2020. Goals change as your firm does.
Consider physical location needs
Many law firms, like most small businesses, lease their space. The brick and mortar presence of a law firm has been a given for generations. However, with the rise of flexible workspaces (e.g. shared workspaces like WeWork) and telecommuting (i.e. use of mobile technology), a brick and mortar office is no longer assumed. While you may not be ready to completely forego a static address for your firm, you may want to research and consider sharing office space with others, moving to a block schedule of “office hours,” and/or becoming a virtual law firm even if for only certain days or times of the year.
Establish marketing and intake strategies
Whether you are starting a firm from scratch or reemerging you will need to cultivate a list of clients and prospective clients by communicating with them frequently and effectively. Most small firms have enough on their hands with practising law and running a profitable business, but setting up a successful marketing and intake system is both important and easier than you might think. At the very least every law firm should have a website, social media presence, email marketing program, and rating platform presence (e.g. Google Reviews). These platforms do not require much if any money and all of them act as de facto advertising for your firm on search engines. Even if you have had a firm website for years, now is the time to reconsider the content that you put on it (e.g. blogs, news/updates, etc.) so that Google can more easily link to you.
Establish virtual vs F2F policies with clients
Even if you’re not ready to be a virtual firm, chances are that at least some of your clients will now desire virtual consultation, if not representation. Video conferencing, mobile file sharing, and virtual hearings are here to stay. Many law firms will continue to offer face-to-face open-door policies and in-home visits to clients, but many clients will now prefer to shop for, and interact with, law firms the way they shop online. Firmly establish the assumed methods of contact you’ll have with clients. Put those policies into writing and clearly communicate them on your website and materials. The actual policy is up to you, but clearly stating how accessible you’re open to being will be crucial for clients in late 2020 and beyond.
Establish working from home /remote work policies
Many firms began working remotely and working from home long-term for the first time in 2020. While it was a steep learning curve for many, and while many firms will always prefer employees work in-office, some firms may be open to extending a policy of working from home for their staff. If so, it is best practice to get a policy in place and set expectations early. If a firm is going to be virtual and decentralised it will also need a technology plan in place. Ensuring that all employees have access to laptops and software for matter management, document automation, billing, video conferencing is a top priority. It is also not a given that employees will always have reliable internet service, so do your research on cloud software and choose a hybrid model (both locally installed and accessible via the internet) when possible.
Establish hiring goals
Whether you’re starting your law firm and debating a full-time or part-time legal assistant, or restarting your physical firm, hiring is an essential task. This is especially true as law firms experience a backlog of work resulting from the closure of courts nationwide. Like setting business goals (KPIs), your firm should set hiring goals, delineating not just how many employees you need, but what you need them to do, how long you will need them, what success looks like for each of them. Set immediate and annual goals so that you can periodically review your business’s success and growth plan.
Evaluate diversity policies
The coronavirus pandemic will undoubtedly be the story of 2020 as its implications are felt globally across social, economic, and political realms. But the year has also seen tremendous social justice protests not experienced in a generation. As firms are often the first contact for a public seeking justice, it is important for law firms to consider what role ( if any) they want to play in vocalising their policies on diversity, equality, and justice. Many firms and companies adopted policies that encompass hiring, training, and business practices addressing race, gender, disability, and other differences in the workplace.
Leverage eSigning and eFiling practices
Following the pandemic and working from home norm, the electronic communication and sharing of legal files between client, law firm, and court is more important than ever. Likewise, eSigning is an associated task that can not only speed up the transmission of documents, it can also give clients an option to interact with your firm virtually. In the same way that a paralegal can be a notary to save your office time, legal software that handles both your matter management and eFiling/eSigning needs can make your firm more efficient and transparent. eFiling doesn’t have to be seen as an extra step, by rolling it into one software and process it can become the new norm in your firm.
Establish billing strategy (e.g. hourly or fixed)
For decades certain areas of law practised certain types of billing. However, those strategies are beginning to be rethought and the effects are being felt across every area of law. Before assuming the old ways of billing are right for your firm, research the trends in billing hourly or fixed amounts. As other firms change their strategies, clients may have new expectations that vary from your assumptions. Regardless of the type of billing that your firm employs, keeping accurate track of your hours worked is the first step in moving to collecting from your clients. Every modern law firm should be making use of automatic time tracking software. Even if your firm decides not to bill by the hour, accurate time tracking can help to ensure transparency for your clients and protect against judicial inquiry into ethical practices.
Offer just-in-time communication
Working remotely may feel new to many, but mobile work on laptops and mobile phones is anything but. Clients and legal professionals alike are always connected to each other and their work via mobile technology. The result is that law firms need to offer instant and always on communication to match the online experiences clients enjoy elsewhere. Where client portals once dominated legal technology, lawyers can now use mobile apps and one-time file sharing to keep clients informed and up to date. Law firms also need to stay in touch with colleagues, especially if employees are working remotely. Likewise, law firms need to rely on their network of fellow law firms for just-in-time resources and feedback. All of this requires a tool like Smokeball's Communicate feature, that can give law firms access to people and resources just when they need it. Make sure that your law firm is never closed even while you’re away.