Some Assembly Required: 3 Truths about the Legal Industry They Didn’t Teach Us Back in Law School

Guest post by Rjon Robins

Back when I was first starting my own law firm I had a client come to me for help starting his own restaurant. He was a great chef, but he had no experience and undertook no training in the marketing or managing of a restaurant. He was “just” a great chef.

Against my counsel he went ahead and opened his restaurant anyway, with predictably bad results.

Years were subsequently wasted learning expensive and embarrassing lessons the hard way. That cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in terms of both opportunity costs and working capital. Too many hours in the restaurant, struggling to reinvent the administrative wheel took all the joy out of his business; and distractions caused by easily avoidable “emergencies” prevented him from being able to spot market trends and marketing opportunities.

Consequently, my chef client was always playing catch-up with other restaurants whose chef-owners were not nearly as talented as he. But they invested the time, before and after, opening their businesses to learn what they never learned at culinary institute about the business side of the restaurant industry. And that made all the difference.

So the lesson for all of us is that it takes more than being a great chef to start, market and effectively manage a successful restaurant. Just like it takes more than being a great lawyer to start, market and manage a successful law firm.There is simply a body of knowledge, “Truths” if you will, about the business side of the legal industry that one does not acquire through talent or by virtue being smart.

The First Important Truth they didn’t teach you back in law school is this: What they taught us back in law school was how to think like a lawyer, not how to manage the business of a law firm.“Some Assembly Required” is NOT stamped on the back of our JD diplomas, but it should be. Just being aware of this gap-in-knowledge can make a huge difference to any lawyer who decides (or decided) to start a law practice.

Important Truth # 2: What’s the business of a law firm? The business of a restaurant is to sell food.To the extent the restaurant is well managed it will be able to sell food at a profit. McDonalds, TGIFriday’s, your favorite bistro. Obviously they all pursue different pricing, service and delivery strategies. But at the end of the day, they’re all in the business of selling food. The business of a law firm, at the end of the day, is to sell legal services.

Important Truth # 3 What’s the job of a lawyer in a law firm? “Too many cooks in the kitchen”. That’s not just a cliché. Most restaurants fail because there are too many cooks in the kitchen and no one paying attention to everything else that must happen in order to run a successful restaurant.

Your law firm, my law firm, every law firm has the following positions on staff and don’t you forget it: Receptionist, Secretary, Paralegal, Associate, Rainmaker, Manager and Owner. Imagine being a customer in a restaurant with only a great chef on-duty, but no one to take your order, no one to bring you your food or even pay the purveyor’s bill to be sure the chef has fresh ingredients to work with. Pay attention to which job you do every week. And for how many hours you do each of those jobs. We can often slash the number of hours a lawyer must spend in the office each week just by paying attention to which and how those “other” jobs are being performed.

You didn’t have as much fun being a lawyer as you’d always imagined it would be, and if you’re falling short of your revenue goals, chances are you spent too much of your time that week doing the jobs of receptionist, secretary and to a lesser-extent paralegal.

Action Plan To Improve Your Practice Right Away:

  • Define the jobs of receptionist, secretary, paralegal, associate, rainmaker, manager and owner.
  • Pay attention to how many hours you spend every day, doing which jobs.
  • Total up the hours at the end of the week, and compare that to revenues and your overall mood. You’ll see the connection.