After three years of law school and a strenuous bar exam, you’re finally ready to be a lawyer. Hopefully law school taught you how to analyze the law but what about the rest of it? Did you learn how to find clients, bill and collect money, keep track of your deadlines, deal with difficult people or all the issues that come up in running a law practice? Here are five things we wish we’d learned in law school:
There aren’t enough hours in the day. It’s a sad truth, but you will work a full day and find that less than half of that time is going to be billable time. There are a lot of administrative tasks that are necessary to running a law practice such as paying the internet bill or dealing with staff concerns. In addition, you have to make time to bring in new business. In between all that, you must take care of your clients. You can’t avoid these responsibilities, but there are some tactics that can help you better organize your practice to make the most of your time.
Time-sheets will be the bane of your existence. While you are handling administrative tasks, or getting interrupted and switching gears from one case to another, it can be hard to keep track of the time you spent on each case. Time-keeping is important whether or not you are billing a client for your time. Obviously, if you are charging by the hour, you have to document what you were doing and how much time you spent on it. However, even if you are working on a flat fee or contingency fee basis, you need to keep track of your time in order to understand whether you charged the right amount and if your case was profitable. If you don’t keep track of your hours, how will you know whether you effectively made $50/hour or $500/hour? The best way to keep track of your time is as you go on a daily basis. If you try to reconstruct your hours after the fact, you will under or overcharge your time.
You must deal with difficult clients. Unfortunately, there is no crystal ball to predict when an otherwise normal client will transform into a problem client. Clients don’t always tell you what you need to know or tell you the truth. This may be deliberate, or it may just be that they don’t think the information is relevant, so they don’t share it. Either way you need to be skilled at questioning your client repeatedly to make sure you get what you need to effectively represent them. Also protect yourself by documenting what you were told and what you did. Remember too that a client who is difficult or high-maintenance during your first consultation, will never get better so you may want to consider whether you want to work with them in the first place.
You have socialize (at least a little). Effective networking is a necessity. If you want to find and keep clients and build your reputation, you need to know how to network. Yes, there are many ways to market your practice, but they aren’t a replacement for networking, nor is networking a replacement for other types of marketing. The way to grow your practice is to make connections and face to face networking is a crucial part of that. Make sure you are targeting the right groups and following up with your contacts, so you build strong relationships.
Your law practice is a business. That means you must understand how to create a budget, manage your finances, hire and train staff, market and take care of a host of other things. If you don’t know how to do it, you have to learn. Take a class, read articles and books, ask your colleagues for advice, and bring in experienced help.
Running your own practice can be a wonderful experience, but unfortunately law school doesn’t teach you many of the skills you need to do it well. You’ll make mistakes, but if you keep learning and improving soon enough you’ll build a successful practice.
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