Going Solo and Running a Small Estate Planning Practice – Part VI

This week’s topic is “Going Solo and Running a Small Estate Planning Practice – Part VI”.

In Part I of this series I discussed some introductory thoughts about going solo, practicing with precision and practicing efficiently.  In Part II of this series I continued the discussion of “Practicing Efficiently” and began my coverage of “case management”.   In Part III of this series I continued the discussion of case management.  In Part IV I discussed some practical considerations surrounding opening a new law practice.  In Part V I skipped the planned topic to reflect on public speaking and the client meeting – or communication in general.  I likely will return to that topic in the future – stay tuned.  In Part VI I am going to round out this initial series on Going Solo and Running a Small Estate Planning Practice by briefly discussing “office systems” for the new attorney.

Office Systems

Office Systems is a general topic and some of what might fall under this topic has already been discussed previously.   However, I think it is helpful to consider the topic at the general level so that you are seeing the big picture when thinking about how you are going to run your new practice. By office systems I am talking generally about protocols and not about technical systems. This topic is about as fun as eating sawdust without the benefit of butter but hey – fiber is good for you!  It keeps you regular – right?  And in any practice or system, regular is good.

Office Systems

  • Manual File organization
  1. Alpha/numeric; or
  2. Centralized/decentralize
  3. Willy-nilly

Files – who needs files!  No one has files any more – right? Wrong.  We have computer folders and subfolders, working files, files for storage, vault files, scheduled long term shred files – and they are everywhere!  On the computer, in filing cabinets, on filing cabinets, behind filing cabinets, at home, in our desk drawers – everywhere!  Ever lost or misplaced a file?  Me? Oh- no way!  Never!  But… supposing I did, or might, it likely would have been due to some degree to a lack of file management system or backup.   Personally, in addition to all the various clients files, I have library files (where I sort and store the zillion articles, new releases, flowcharts, checklists, etc. that I come across in every day practice), document development files, “to read” files ( I have lots and lots and lots of those), and on and on.  I am sort of stuck with the organizational structure I started with, and while it could be better, it could be worse.  My point is that every attorney is going to build a number of files over time.  At the start, take some time to think about how you want to structure your filing system.  Future changes can be very difficult accomplish, so be careful how you start off.

  • Digital file organization

1. Establish a template master file with standard sub files that you use every time you open a new file.  Organize as you go along.  No one ever goes back and organizes a closed matter but if you ever find a need to reopen that file you may wish you had.

2. Consider establishing a file naming convention and stick with it. It makes later searches much easier.

  • Opening file procedure

I find this less of an important issue than I did when I was in a larger firm.  However, now that I am well into my small practice phase of life, I wish that at the start of my practice I had instituted a  file opening procedure that included a broader data gathering strategy.  Keeping track of client birth dates, or anniversary dates would have been an easy way to keep connected in a meaningful way.  Mapping my clients by their location may have given me interesting insight into where my clients live.  Collecting and analyzing referral data would also have likely have provided unique insights. While these and other data points could still be collected, finding the time to comprehensively employ this type of data gathering becomes more difficult.

  • Closing file procedures/retention/storage/destruction

It is easy to ignore such a procedure at the start of your practice but overtime it will become harder (and more time consuming) to bring this procedure on line and to implement it with respect to past files.  Your little office will quickly become a paper swamp and you will wonder how it ever got to such a state.  Being with the end and mind and come up with process for closing files, what your are going to (have to) keep and/or store and how you are going to dispose of the “residue”.

  • Protecting client information and client property (physical and digital files)

Things to consider

  1. Offsite storage
  2. Onsite storage
  3. Computer backup and redundancies
  4. Address protection from:
    1. Fire
    2. Water (moisture)
    3. Third parties
    4. Intruders – online and on the physical premises
  5. Document (file) destruction (shredding) procedures.

Tip: Make believe your system crashes and test your system and see how long or perfect recovery is.  Make believe if you had a break in and your hard drives where taken. Make believe you had a fire.  One day, sooner or later, one of these make believe events will likely happen.  What then?  Sure – it is difficult to cover all your weakness but you should at least be aware of them and have a plan of how or when you might be able to best address them in turn.

  •  Billing

Things to consider:

  1. Billing cycle (ad hoc, monthly, bi-weekly, end of project, etc.)
  2. What are you earning (day, month, quarterly, yearly)?
  3. What do you have to earn (day, month, quarterly, yearly)?
  4. What are you happiest earning (day, month, quarterly, yearly)? 
  5. How predictable are your earnings?
  6. If you are not making enough, ask the same questions about spending.  Then ask, which is easier to change to get you closer to your goal in the short v. long term. Ask what is the expected cost of change? What is the speed of that change? What is the predictably that change will have desired effect?
  7. Review your billing methods annually. Are you charging too much; too little; are your billing rates/methods attracting the types of clientele you want to foster?
  8. Methods of payment
  9. Interest on late payments
  10. Discounts for early/timely payments
  11. Collection policy (have one, even if it is that you don’t sue to collect and then stick to it)
  • Office manual/operating procedures manual

Things to consider:

  1. Standard procedures/policies for practice

No problem.  That shouldn’t take long!  Right! You could spend months doing this!  Don’t!  Ask or search around and start piecing this together over time.  It will take a lot of time but is worth the investment.  I am still building mine and fussing with this one or that one to adjust from what I am learning in my practice.

  1. Personnel policies/benefits
  2. Docketing, calendaring, tickler system
  3. Maintaining client contact – client retention:
    1. News letters
    2. Holiday cards
    3. Phone call follow ups
    4. In person visits
    5. Lunches
    6. Appreciation events
    7. Surveys
    8. Online recommendations
  • Accounting Procedures
  1. Bank account reconciliation
  2. Cash Flow analysis
  3. Accounts Receivables/Payables
  4. Expense Approval System if required
  • Develop a disaster plan development for your office, files, computer, etc.

 

  • Develop a plan for your illness, incapacity or death.

Think about your clients and what they are trusting you with.  Developing a plan for your illness, incapacity or death really is not optional. Many clients ask me about what happens to their files if something happens to me.   What would happen to yours?  Don’t your owe it to your clients to have a plan in place for this possibility?   Your plan should be fairly detailed: how to get into your office, how to access your computer or filing cabinets, where you store client files or property offsite, your codes or passwords for online accounts or service providers, who should take over your practice.

I think a disaster plan also contemplates keeping a current task and/or deadline list too. While I find it helpful to use a task list in my practice, I am always mindful that if something did happen to me that it also needs to be complete enough to ensure that an attorney stepping into my shoes can act with confidence with regard to client matters that I have open.   In this regard, as lawyers, the patterns of daily practice really act to either help or hinder the effectiveness of our larger disaster plan which may only be revised or updated every now and then.

  • Develop a network of other lawyers to call upon for assistance and know (and stick to) your practice limits
  • Approach your practice like a business

Whether you are a solo or in a 2 man shop, approach your practice like a business.   Now I am not a business coach so I will stop with having said that.  Just think about it.

 My next post will likely move in a new direction. Thanks for reading – I hope it helps.

 

About Smilie G. Rogers

Elder law, life care planning estate planning, probate and tax attorney located in York, Maine. Licensed in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
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