Successful law firms — and actually all professional firms and successful businesses — seem to share many common characteristics regardless of their size, areas of practice or location.  A few months back I posted a“shared characteristics” list for 2009 firm success stories.  I’ve updated and posted below a somewhat updated mini-article and checklist:

Seminar attendees and clients alike often ask me, “What are the characteristics of successful law firms?” It’s a great question as there are indeed shared traits among firms who seem to flourish year after year based on their number of satisfied clients, their survival of tough times and the loyalty and stability of their staff. Ditto re most law firm failures as well!  Keep in mind, however, that every firm and every success (and failure!) story also has its own unique characteristics including its collective personality and culture, its motivators and, of course, those destructive and often subtly hidden de-motivators!  With that said, however, firms that maintain success records do:

1. Make ongoing efforts to improve management and leadership skills including the identification and appointment of the most qualified and ethical people to be firm leaders (vs. leadership by seniority alone).

2. Ensure that strategic plans or action plans aren’t just agenda topics at retreats or other meetings.  They are created, monitored regularly and everyone – from the top down – is held accountable to do their part.   This means there are real and reasonable goals clearly defined.  And perhaps most importantly, there are real consequences when someone fails to do his assigned tasks (i.e. ACCOUNTABILITY is an action, not merely a word!).

3. Have a “doable” and innovative marketing plan that’s tweaked as needed.  Marketing is a firm-wide activity –the newest to the oldest of employees participate and are properly trained to do so effectively, professionally and successfully.  Referral sources and other “measuring sticks” for assessing a firm’s marketing success are reviewed often to ensure the plan is indeed attracting the types of clients desired.  And, the flip side of this means they are not threshold practices –meaning they don’t take whatever client may walk over their threshold.  Client selection is done carefully and selectively in sync with the firm’s marketing and strategic plans.

4. Treat all employees — from the newest file clerk hire to the partners — respectfully at all times (including treating/training/renaming receptionists as your primary “Marketers of First & Last Impression!”). Office bullies and chronic naysayers are never tolerated regardless of the seniority of the perpetrator.

5. Have leaders that act decisively and do not shy away from the tougher decisions.  Likewise, they avoid the many negative consequences of sticking their heads in the sand and/or procrastinating.

6. Hire wisely and offer continuing and quality training, frequent and timely performance and attitude evaluations and one-on-one coaching (e.g. new software/equipment, stress or anger management, organizational skills, associate development, substantive law skills, etc.).

7. Define success independently and creatively – in other words, by what’s best/right for the firm, its people, goals and culture vs. merely adopting society’s or traditional legal system definitions.

8. Treat each and every client with the utmost integrity, timeliness and respectfulness…and as if they were their only and/or their biggest client.  They also offer clients multiple ways to offer their feedback and recommendations anonymously and otherwise.

9. Embrace risk management and technology completely and in an ethical manner and with foresight, resourcefulness, and creativity (vs. attitudes such as “My staff takes care of stuff like this.“).  Likewise, they recognize technology changes can (and often do!) happen overnight and they are willing to be persistent and patient with each new learning curve challenge.  No employee –again from the top down — is allowed to be non-compliant (ever!) when it comes to the firm’s risk management systems and policies.  In addition, these firms recognize that no consultant or IT pro holds the magic wand for the success (or failure!) of the firm’s on-line presence.  Successful on-line development and continued presence is heavily dependent on the hands-on involvement of firm leaders and other employees AND in a timely fashion. Too many folks want things to be done for them, instantly and perfectly ad preferably, without their having to hardly life a finger.  This is just not reality and successful firms understand this.  They appreciate the commitment and active participation it takes by each of their leaders in order to build and keep a great online presence.

10. Believe in and practice diversity within a positive work environment. Such attitudes and conditions are clearly evident from the firm’s morale, satisfied, interesting assortment of client types and healthy, upbeat employees – employees who are encouraged to take care of themselves, practice smart stress management and to live balanced lives.

About the author 

Nancy Byerly Jones

Nancy Byerly Jones and her husband reside on their mountainside ranch (“Little Hee Haw Farm”) with an energetic “family” of horses, donkeys (large and miniature), dogs and cats. Their favorite pastime is sharing the joy and fun of their animals and ranch life with their family, friends and clients.

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