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Practice Safe Law: Keeping your Practice Strong and Healthy

By Irene Leonard, Lawyer Coach    

With this tough economy you might be tempted to take more risks in your law practice – like starting to work for a client before you make arrangements to get paid. However, this is not the time to take more business risks, but rather to be even more careful.

Even without the worry of the economy, the practice of law can be a nerve-racking proposition. The good news is that there are things you can do to make your practice as strong as possible in good and bad times.

No matter what the economy is doing, it is important to maintain standards of practice that will protect you from economic or financial difficulties, burnout, difficult clients, bar complaints and stress.

Working as a business coach for the past 11 years has given me an opportunity to learn what kinds of chances or risks lawyers might take when they get worried. One of the many benefits of working with a business coach is that bad decisions can be avoided, as you take time to talk through changes you're thinking of making to your practice before you make them, and to be ready to course correct afterward, if needed.

The following are best practices that work for my clients. Follow these guidelines and you will keep your risks to a minimum and make your practice more rewarding and profitable.

Keep your clients happy. This is the most important way to avoid lawsuits from clients. Clients who know, like and trust you are less likely to sue you. And keeping them happy will ensure they like you and trust you.

Only work with clients who respect and are willing to pay you. Failure of either of these ingredients probably means the client is not happy. If you do take on a client who turns out to be difficult or risky, make sure you stay in touch with the client. To ignore them always makes the situation worse.

Choose your matters wisely. Don't take on cases you would normally pass up, just because you want work. Only take calculated risks. Ask yourself questions like: Can I make this client happy? Do I have the time and expertise to handle this matter? What resources do I need? Do I have them? Etc.

Make the quality of your services exceptional and unquestionable. Keep the quality of your service high by making sure you don't take on more than you can handle. Continue to update your legal skills and seek training for any new areas of law that you are venturing into. Manage your client's expectations about your services.

Be upfront and reasonable about your fees. Use engagement letters and stay on top of your accounts receivable.

Maintain good relationships, especially with mentors who will help and support you. Don't be afraid to ask for help in your practice or even your life. Partner with other, more-experienced lawyers when you are out of your league or comfort zone.

Have systems in place that keep you organized, on track and don't let you forget anything. Use checklists so you don't forget details. Don't rely on your memory, but rather your systems. Confirm your advice in writing.

Back up your computer daily. Use more than one backup system. Use separate hard drives and offsite Internet backup systems. Keep a hard drive backup away from your office.

Be aware of and follow the rules of professional responsibility. Make integrity and honesty key guiding principles for your law practice. Rules to strictly follow include: Be inscrutable with your handling of trust funds and trust accounts; avoid conflicts of interest; do not engage in misleading advertising; maintain confidentiality; and don't have financial arrangements with non-lawyers.

Maintain professional liability and business insurance. Reduce risks by making sure your insurance coverage is sufficient and appropriate for your practice.

Find healthy ways to keep your stress under control. Incorporate practices such as meditation, exercise, visualization, breathing and other stress-reducing activities into your daily routine.

Keep your stress down by remembering that your client's problem is not your problem. Separate acting in the best interests of the client from taking on the issue as if it were your own. In addition, don't take things personally – don't let the parties' anger or frustration influence your decision making.

Another big stressor is taking on too much or not having enough time to handle what's on your plate. Be willing to say no to more work now, even if you are worried about having enough in the future.

Maintain good common sense. Don't get involved in easy money schemes – if it smells fishy, it probably is fishy.

In these tough economic times it's more important than ever to have firm policies that will keep you and your practice strong. Don't relax your policies. Be safe, patient and practical, and ultimately you will be rewarded.

Irene Leonard has been a professional business coach for lawyers and other professionals for the past 11 years, after practicing law for 18 years. Leonard helps lawyers reduce the worry in the practice of law. She can be reached at 360-922-0944 or through her website, 2009 Irene Leonard

Reprinted with the permission of the King County Bar Association, July 2009 Edition