Maryland Bar Bulletin


Publications : Bar Bulletin : May 2012

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In mid-April, I spent a week hiking and camping in both Grand Canyon National Park and Havasu Canyon, which is on the Havasupai Indian Reservation and is the western part of the Grand Canyon.  I went with a group of women I did not know until we met at the Phoenix airport. It was designed to be a strenuous and adventurous trip.

The book that I took with me on this trip was Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, originally published in 1944, and it was on this trip that I learned two valuable lessons: One, if you have a problem, ask for help and decide what needs to be done; two, if you do not panic, you can solve your problem.

What does this have to do with solo and small firm practitioners?  Regular readers of this column know that no matter what I do, somehow I can relate it to solo and small firm practice.  So, if you will indulge me, I will try to explain.

As solo and small firm practitioners, you are bombarded with problems and situations that need to be ignored, handled, delegated, or solved.

Sometimes, whether we admit it or not, many of these situations will cause us to worry, causing our decisions or choices to be based on worry rather than based on the situations themselves. 

In Carnegie’s book, the lesson that resonated with me most was from Willis H. Carrier, who started the air conditioning industry and founded Carrier Corporation.  Although I had heard variations of this many times, it is described as follows: First, what is the worst that can possibly happen? Second, prepare to accept it, if necessary. Then, calmly proceed to improve on the worst.

This theory can be applied to everything in our personal and professional lives.  We should have a sign made for our offices to remind us of this and use it regularly.

The MSBA has been in the process of looking for a new web coordinator with no success.  Using the Carrier theory, I asked “What is the worst that can happen?

I thought the worst would be that we will not find the right person, and the website will not move forward, and we will not be able to keep members happy, and the site could become obsolete.

Then I asked how we could prevent that and have come to the realization that we need to use some outside assistance just to help us through the planning stage to determine what our needs are, what direction we need to take.  As a result we have been looking for a consultant to help us with this process.

What an experience! I decided that I needed to do some research for how to choose and prepare to work with a consultant, and coupled with my own experience, I thought I would share some ideas to help your firms with this process.

What are some reasons a solo/small firm might benefit from working with a consultant? Although most solos and small firms think of using a consultant for technology related issues, there are some other areas that consultants can address:

  • You may be considering a change to your technology and need to determine which software may help you be more effective.
  • You may have had a change in personnel and want to review your processes.
  • You may want to consider expanding your practice areas.
  • You may need help attracting new or better clients.
  • If you are concerned about some of your management procedures and policies and want to have an outsider evaluate how you perform some tasks and offer suggestions to be more efficient.
  • You may be considering buying another practice or selling your own.

Why would a solo or small firm choose to work with a consultant on these or other issues? There are two main reasons: time and money. Most solo and small firms do not have the time to do some of the research and planning the consultants will do.

The costs associated with working with a consultant should be viewed in terms of the amount of billable time you would use to find the same information and/or the money that a consultant could help you save in expenses or generate in fees.

Sometimes the idea of choosing and working with a consultant can seem more trouble than it is worth, but if you use some of these tips, you should find one that will help you achieve your results.

  • First you must understand what consultants do. Most of us think we know what they do but that is no more likely than your clients really know what lawyers do.  They help you move from your “current situation to a desired situation.” (See “Eight Tips for Working with a Consultant”, by Julie Gable, Information Management Journal, July/August, 2007 http://tinyurl.com/npjznd.)
  • Do your own homework. Determine why you need a consultant and what you want to achieve by using a consultant. You would want to be as specific as possible although after speaking with potential consultants you may adjust your scope. Up front clarity will lead to a productive and valuable relationship. (“Working With a Consultant”, Jan B. King, www.sideroad.com/Consultant/consultant.html.)
  • Rate them. When interviewing consultants, you want one who listens to your needs and concerns, rather than one that tells you what he or she can do. You do not want someone who comes to the interview with his or her agenda.  (“How to Find a Consultant that is Right for You”, Ken Lizotte, www.thesideroad.com/Consulting/find_a_consultant.html.)
  • Make certain the consultant – whether for management or technology – has experience working with law firms and more specifically solo and small law firms. This is in addition to determining their expertise in the management and/or technology areas. This may not be quite as critical if the consultant is just for hardware, but if it is software related, experience with solo and small law firms is essential.
  • Get referrals from other solo and small law firms. 
  • Get references from potential consultants and be certain that you receive references from other law firms. Ask the consultant what he/she did before becoming a consultant. (“Working With a Consultant,” Jan B. King, www.sideroad.com/Consultant/consultant.html)
  • The devil is in the details. Once you decide upon a consultant, determine the detailed scope of the engagement. Put everything in writing. Be very specific about what you are paying for and what is not part of the agreement. This is not unlike the way you should be managing your client fee agreements. Understand that any changes in the scope or direction of the project will probably result in increased fees. Make certain that you include a clause agreement regarding confidentiality of your information. In addition, establish the fee/billing/payment arrangements in the beginning just as you would for your clients.
  • Work with your consultant the same way you want your clients to work with you. Be part of the process and monitor progress. 
  • When the consultant presents his/her report, it is based on an objective point of view and may not be what you want to hear.  You actually need to be prepared to hear some information that will not be what you want to hear.  You will have to review that carefully and hopefully take the advice/recommendation of the consultant otherwise, there is no purpose to spend the time, money and effort. 

I do recommend that solo and small firm practitioners, invest some resources to work with a consultant if he or she feels there are management or technical issues that need to be seen from an outside point of view. It is not about spending money, which can be tight for some firms, but about investing in and improving your practice so that you are as efficient as possible and ultimately as profitable as possible.

* * *

Oh, I forgot about my hiking story. Anyway, while hiking near Mooney Falls in Havasu Canyon, I was part of a smaller group of more adventurous women who decided to hike to the more remote Beaver Falls. The hike was quite strenuous along very narrow ledges and rickety ladders on some very steep cliffs. When I was climbing down one of the last and most dangerous ladders, it started to move away from the cliff. Although it was a short ladder falling off, it would have had horrific results for me and the woman in front of me. Rather than panic (which was what I wanted to do), I calmly said I was going to fall, and the woman in front of me held the ladder, and the woman behind me helped my unhook my backpack which had become wedged between the cliff and the ladder, and I calmly climbed safely down to the ledge and then to Beaver Falls.

It literally was at that moment that I decided that I would never panic again. It will not help. I will try to figure out how to solve problems or accept the worse that can happen. Hence, the consultant.

Hope to see you all at Solo Day at the Annual Meeting on June 15, 2012 in Ocean City, and if you are really interested, I can show you the ladder and Beaver Falls.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin : May 2012

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