Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : January 2008

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 SOLO/SMALL FIRM PRACTITIONER

BY PAT YEVICS  

When I was deciding what to write for this column, I wanted to start the year with something positive. It was, after all, a new year. Most of us have not even had time to break our new year resolutions, so I wanted this article to be hopeful and positive. However, as I was savoring a cup of café Americano at my favorite coffee shop, I read an article in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Even Lawyers Get the Blues: Opening Up About Depression” . Bummer, to be sure. This, however, was too important to ignore, and I am determined to make this as uplifting as possible.

First the yin, which according to Wikipedia is “a shady place, north slope, cloudy, overcast and corresponds to the night.” I am not going to do an entire article on depression or mental illness as it has been done by much more knowledgeable people than I. However, I do want to stress that depression is a serious disease, just like cancer and diabetes, and there have been many studies that show that lawyers suffer from a higher rate of depression and drug and alcohol addiction than other professions. If you or someone you know may be depressed or show signs of depression, take steps to get treatment. There is no better way to start the year than by resolving to be healthy both physically and mentally.

According to a posting on the blog The Legal Underground, “A 1990 study at Johns Hopkins University found that of 28 occupations studied, lawyers were the most likely to suffer depression, and were more than 3.6 times more likely than average to do so.” The site continued, “A research study of 801 lawyers in the State of Washington found that 19 percent suffered from depression.”

What causes this depression in a profession that has highly intelligent individuals with above-average incomes? Studies have come up with many reasons, some of them more obvious than others: increased competition because of more lawyers; increased demands by clients; incivility by other attorneys; adversarial nature of the profession and many other factors. One study also pointed out that those who are inclined to enter the legal profession have two common personality traits – perfectionism and pessimism (Psychologist Lynn Johnson, “Stress Management”, Utah Bar Journal, 2003).

The key to handling stress, depression or other such issues is to seek out help in the same way you would as if you thought you had cancer. I have listed a number of realistic resources for taking the first step. If you are not yet ready to make a phone call, then there are some wonderful Internet resources specifically for lawyers. One such site is www.lawyerswithdepression.com, designed just for lawyers by a lawyer who suffered from depression. It has wonderful links and resources. Also, if you have a family member who may be suffering from depression and you need help with dealing with the issues, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill has chapters all over Maryland and is a wonderful organization.

In addition, the Maryland State Bar Association’s Lawyer Assistance Program is a completely confidential program run by its new director, Jim Quinn. He can be reached at jquinn@msba.org or (800) 492-1964, ext 3041.

Now, thankfully, the yang, which is described as “a sunny place, south slope, sunshine positive, upward-seeking, producing and corresponds to the daytime.” Nothing makes us feel better than getting a new client or providing a new service for clients. I decided to take a slightly different approach for this, intrigued by some of the new lawyer blogs and a great issue of the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division’s December 2007 issue of GPSolo on “Electronic Rainmaking”.

No matter your personal opinion on the use of technology in the legal profession or your own technical ability, clients and potential clients and referral sources use technology/Internet to obtain information about lawyers and their services. We need to think of some of the new and not-so-new technologies as opportunities to satisfy clients more easily and get new clients.

Using Old Technologies for New Uses

Many who read this column actually remember when we did not actually have cellular phones and could not keep in constant contact. Many also think of cell phones as intrusions rather than tools to help us maintain good client relations and procure new clients.

There is really no longer any reason that a lawyer cannot respond to all phone calls within 24 hours. With cell phones, we can get all messages from anywhere and return all calls. You should always remind clients that you may not want to conduct business over the cell phone or that you may not be able to answer a specific question without further research, but it is critical that all calls be returned as quickly as possible.  You should also make certain to return all other calls that may not be from clients specifically because you do not know if it is a potential referral. You should always be known as a person who returns phone calls.

Another “old” technology which can be used as a marketing tool is the good old answering machine. Most people have come to accept their use and are not turned off by it. Make sure that you keep your message current. If you are not going to be available for a certain period of time, make certain that your message reflects your schedule. This will give clients and prospective clients a realistic expectation. Also, make certain that you do not leave outdated messages on your answering machine. Nothing is so disheartening to hear than a message is four or five days old. It leaves a very bad impression.

Slightly Newer Technologies

Many more practitioners are using e-mail to communicate with their clients (for “Rules for Using E-mail”, go to www.msba.org/departments/loma/articles/officemngmt/emailpolicy.htm). I think it is critical that all practitioners use e-mail to communicate with their clients. To not do so would be a marketing disaster. This is just another tool to help communicate with clients. You could have a general e-mail address and a direct e-mail address, just as you do with phone numbers. E-mail is now as important a means of communication as the telephone.

As with phone messages, if you use e-mail, you need to respond to messages within 24 hours. You do not need to give answers to all e-mail questions, but you do need to let clients know that you received the message. Clients are very impressed when you respond quickly, which is easy to do with handheld devices such as Palm Pilots or Blackberrys, laptops on wireless connections or Internet cafés all over the planet. If you will have no access to e-mail or do not want to commit to responding to e-mail, you can always have a detailed out-of-office message. And, for the best marketing tip, if a client gets your out-of-office message and you actually do respond, they feel very special.

I think it is time for most practitioners to have a simple website that will give information about the firm, practice areas, contact information and directions. Whether we like it or not, many clients and potential clients may make decisions about our ability depending upon whether or not we have a website. I think a website is absolutely essential for newer and less-established practitioners (for tips to get started, visit www.msba.org/departments/loma/articles/marketing/timeweb.htm).

Information as a Marketing Tool

You should be using some type of case-management system to have access to all your client and potential client information. Since most of these software tools can be accessed through your laptop, when you speak with a client you can have all of his/her information right in front of you. In addition, it is very easy to access documents while out of the office, so that you can respond even more quickly and accurately to clients. 

In an excellent article on the blog Legal Marketing there is a post from Dan Hull www.legalmarketingblog.com/client-communications-dan-hull-the-12-rules-of-client-service.html), who lists the “12 Rules of Client Service”, and communication is always a critical component. Rule #5 is “over-communicate: bombard, copy and confirm.” This can all be done using the technology we have.

These are tools that we all have. They can all be used to satisfy our clients who, in turn, will refer us new clients and new business. Next month, I will discuss using e-newsletters and blogs for getting new clients.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: January 2008

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