By Mark Powers

Originally Published In Lawyers Competitive Edge

There are two fundamentally different management styles: reactive and proactive. One can imprison you; the other can give you freedom and success in your practice.

Unfortunately, most attorneys are operating in reactive mode, juggling constant interruptions and responding to demanding, and often unprofitable, clients. In this mode, it is easy to find yourself addicted to adrenaline, meaning that you become accustomed to, or need, crises and deadlines to motivate yourself.

Managing from crisis to crisis becomes an acceptable way of doing business. And, because this mode has become so natural to attorneys, there is a danger. The danger is falling victim to resignation in which you believe there is no way out of this trap. You may find yourself thinking, “I am not sure if anyone can help me. And, even if someone could, I do not have the time or energy to get help.” This trap then becomes an excuse for not learning the skills necessary to take control of your practice. And without help a vicious cycle is set into motion. The prison doors are shut tight and stress continues to build until burnout occurs. There are no escapes from this cycle. The only hope is to recognize one’s management style as reactive and take action to break the cycle. Recognition and action are the keys to freedom.

Following are indicators of a reactive management style, followed by 10 practical tips that will help you find relief. Take 30 seconds to determine if you are operating in this mode by checking off the applicable boxes.

Are you operating in reactive mode?

  • You are constantly handling client crises and doing damage control.
  • You are overwhelmed by present day circumstances,– not looking ahead, or at the competition.
  • You are working harder to generate income, but you are not sure if your practice is profitable.
  • You are practicing “threshold” law, often working with anyone who crosses the threshold, regardless of profitability or your areas of expertise.
  • You have high accounts receivable. You are not sending invoices or collecting in a timely manner.
  • You are multi-tasking and it seems like you are doing all the work yourself. You are a $150/hour attorney and you find yourself doing legal, paralegal and clerical work.
  • You have high staff burnout and turnover.

As an attorney in reactive mode, you will notice that you are deeply involved in day-to-day client activities, often reacting to crises rather than planning strategically. Sometimes it might feel like you are operating under a survival mentality. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to have a vision for your practice. The sum total equals burnout!

How to make the shift from a reactive to a proactive style? Here are 10 tips for getting on track in your practice:

  1. Designate daily “power hours” when you block all interruptions and power through one to three hours of continuous production.
  2. Start setting boundaries – commit to not taking work home with you at night, not coming into the office on weekends and keeping your word about taking vacations.
  3. Develop a personal and professional mission statement, which dictates some of the decisions you make. A resource for learning how to do this is Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
  4. Find a mentor, or coach, to help keep you focused on your goals and mission.
  5. Rate your client matters from A, B, C and D. A clients listen to your advice, pay bills on time, send referrals and have high growth potential. D clients consistently do not pay or resist paying bills, do not send referrals, are high maintenance and difficult to please.
  6. Determine which files are the most profitable. You will probably find that 80 percent of your income comes from 20 percent of your clients. You may actually be wasting time and energy dealing with clients who are uncooperative and require too much energy for too little return. Be more selective; work only with A and B clients; raise your retainer if necessary.
  7. Institutionalize your marketing activities to ensure at least three marketing contacts per week. Do not conduct marketing activities that are inconsistent with your personal beliefs and values. Instead, tie them to your passions and interests.
  8. Make a list of your key referral sources. Pick out the top 20 sources and start communicating with them more often. Let them know that you appreciate their ongoing trust in you.
  9. Create a championship team around you. Hire the right people for the right jobs and learn to delegate. Designate a staff member to maintain communication with clients through regular check-in calls. Introduce this person to clients up-front and explain the role he or she will play.
  10. Schedule time for fun and personal health.

As an attorney in proactive mode, you will approach your practice in an entirely different manner. By anticipating problems and taking steps to preempt them, you will not feel as overwhelmed and out of control. Instead, you will be working towards a vision with firmly set goals that you renew on a regular basis to make sure your actions are in line with them. Your practice will not only be more profitable, but it will also serve your life. As a result, you will experience greater satisfaction and success.

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