Since graduating magna cum laude from Creighton University Law School a quarter century ago, Mary Vandenack, founder and managing partner at Vandenack Weaver, LLC, has become an unintentional student of change.
While her law school performance made big firms eager to snap her up, she chose to practice with her father in his small law firm; she calls the experience an “amazing gift.” After he passed away five years later, she moved onto big law and was struck with culture shock.
“I had this rather naïve idea that any law firm I went to would be like my family law firm and we would all look out for each other,” she laughs.
After stints at other large firms – each with their own culture - she founded her own firm with another big-law expat. This, too, was not without change. The firm grew exponentially, and merged with another. Ultimately, she and her partner decided small was best.
“We looked around and said, ‘I thought we left big law to be small,’” she recalls.
Furthermore, like everyone who has been practicing for decades, Vandenack remembers the days before internet, email, and smart phones when bound law books had to be updated with replacement pages, face-to-face meetings were always in person, and competition was limited.
Mary shares her hard-won lessons for running a successful small law firm learned from a career of nonstop change.
“Time is the biggest challenge to change because the nature of the profession is that we sell time,” she explains. “Every law firm, big or small, has a requirement of how much time you need to sell.”
Instead of working more hours, she advises making changes that help you free more time.
Vandenack recalls when she was overwhelmed but felt like she wasn’t accomplishing much. So she made an appointment for every required meeting and task on her calendar. This revealed she had enough time for two or three meetings a week. Here’s the conundrum: She was conducting two or three meetings a day.
To make her schedule manageable, she now has only three set meetings a week and leaves space open for two emergency meetings.
“Lawyers too often think they can do tasks better than anyone else – regardless of whether that’s true,” says Vandenack. “If you can save yourself three to four hours a week through delegating, you could very likely hire someone.”
Identify how technology can help save time, whether that’s automating non-billable tasks, speeding research or optimizing communication. But Vandenack advises making sure your team will actually use that new system before making the investment.
“The biggest challenge with technology is that people will read an ad or listen to a friend, go out and buy software and expect it to solve all of their problems. Then, ultimately, it ends up collecting dust,” she points out.
To help ensure your firm embraces your technology investment, Vandenack advises clarifying the problem you want to solve, making sure you don’t already have technology that can solve it, and involving those who will use the technology from the very beginning of the decision-making process.
Once you’ve selected technology, conduct ongoing training.
“The traditional way of training on new software is to shut down the office for a day and teach everybody. But the next day they go to work and they’re behind because they took the whole day off. So they go back to doing what they’ve always done and forget what they learned the day before,” she says.
That’s why she has hired someone to walk around her office to make sure everyone knows how to use new technology. However, you can avoid that expense by selecting that will provide one-on-one support for free.
She also advises to take adoption slow by asking lawyers to implement only one change per week.
For instance, with law practice management software, for the first week they could focus on automating legal deadline calculations for a key matter. The next week they could learn how to communicate with clients in a secure client portal.
Vandenack says a big mistake lawyers make is thinking they’re going to change staff behavior by changing compensation.
“But there is fairly good research that indicates that doesn’t work,” she notes. “Simply offering a 20% increase for all the new business they bring in probably won’t be enough to motivate them to win new clients, for instance.”
Instead, she says, create an environment of trust:
Don’t let them make up their own stories about what’s happening (which will happen if you don’t communicate). Instead, explain everything to them directly.
“Allow people to make their own decision about whether they want to be a part of it,” she advises. “If you’re really clear about who you are and where you’re going, those to whom it makes sense will choose to stay and those to whom it doesn’t will chose to leave.”
While that may result in further change, “it stabilizes and you will have the right pieces in place,” assures Vandenack.
Again, that may not always be money. She provides an illustration of an introverted lawyer who is expert at navigating regulations for offers in compromise.
“If you send him an email announcing he’ll get a bonus for every client he brings in, he may appreciate it but, because he hates networking and is busy, he won’t do it,” she explains. “However, if you have a conversation with him about what he does want to do, you’ll discover he loves writing. So, instead, you can reward him for writing a blog or an article about tax law to show the expertise that wins new business.”
The investment in minding your time and your team will pay off in smoother and easier change, insists Vandenack.
“You’ll have what you need to provide valid reasons to make change. Without them, you’ll never move forward,” she says.
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