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Smaller law firms face tremendous challenges in supporting their practices. Unlike larger firms, they typically cannot hire a human resources manager, a marketing manager or even someone to manage information technology. Success in any law practice depends on that firm’s ability to be responsive, to attract and retain good clients and to manage its economics — not to mention, of course, doing outstanding work and staying current in the law. It is likely impossible, and certainly unnecessary, to do that while also wearing every office-support hat as well. What is needed? The amount of outside support available to a small firm is impressive and, in many instances, also economical. Even small firms should consider help from marketing professionals, computer professionals, accounting professionals, graphic designers, bankers and, yes, even lawyers. The difficulty often is not identifying the many ways the firm could use help, but identifying what is most important. As in most well considered strategies, the inquiry begins with introspection — defining goals and needs. In making this assessment, a firm should assess both the risk of going it alone and opportunity from seeking outside help. Assessing risk asks the simple question: What could go horribly wrong and how bad could it be? Information technology is a leading example. Even if a small firm’s office has a single computer, it could crash and destroy all client and form files at once. If a firm has no backup facility, someone should run (not walk) for help. Services are now available that are relatively inexpensive and can provide full periodic backup over the Internet. For small firms with computer networks, the same issues can be raised for internal networks; the cost to a firm of a computer system going down for a full day can be enormous. On the opportunity side, the affordability of technology and wide availability and easy access to research resources certainly levels the field somewhat between larger and smaller firms. This trend also makes using outside assistance for technology management a more efficient use of resources. Another important area of inquiry is marketing. More traditional marketing avenues, such as advertising, business development and promotional activities are clearly best left to outside professionals, but also tend to be expensive and not very effective for a small firm. An outside public relations (PR) professional can help prepare press releases, arrange for attorney photos and introduce media sources such as local newspapers (radio or television) and legal press to help get the firm’s message out. A PR professional can also be extremely helpful in getting interviewed. The ultimate purpose of this coverage is to increase the firm’s profile and recognition in its field. Many experienced PR professionals will work with small or startup law firms on a contract basis or hourly. Whether the firm is ready for a PR professional or someone to help design and place ads depends on where its business comes from (or where it would like it to come from). Other marketing-related needs, including collateral materials — namely, stationery and letterhead, business cards and brochures — along with development of a firm logo and associated office signage, can be effectively prepared (that is, with image and target audiences in mind) by outside graphics and design professionals. They can coordinate these materials (the firm’s Web site and even holiday cards, too!). Graphic designers are also playing a leading role in developing Web sites to provide a ready means for delivering information about a law firm’s people and its practice. Again, assistance in this area can be very economical (there are many starving artists) and can result in promotional materials that create a far more professional image. LAW FIRM ECONOMICS Another area that a successful small law practice should not overlook is the management of the firm’s economics — budgeting, billing, collections and reporting. Outside accounting firms are expert in working with businesses to establish and provide feedback on budgets, helping to set up internal bookkeeping, auditing and handling taxes (even for individual partners). Given their business, most accounting firms can also work as an intermediary with banks to help law firms with any required lines and letters of credit. Similarly, most accounting firms have at least informal relationships with insurance agencies and other group benefit providers; these relationships are valuable in developing a firm benefit program, including health, dental and disability insurance, as well as with 401(k) or other deferred savings plans. One other important area accounting firms can frequently assist in is payroll services or selection of an outside payroll service. One typically does not think of lawyers needing legal services, but many matters require just that. Hiring an outside counsel to handle a variety of matters is an efficient way to deal with the inevitable needs — such as review of partnership agreements or bylaws, review of real estate leases or construction documents, ethics advice and review of firm policies. Outside professionals can also assist law firms in locating appropriate office space, the design and outfitting of that space and perhaps its maintenance and security. In many cases, these services are provided without charge or as part of a larger purchase. For example, a real estate broker can provide tremendous assistance understanding the real estate market, and a good one will provide a lot of data, all without charge (unless a lease is entered into). Similarly, many furniture suppliers will provide design and support services without additional charge. Many times, this professional help can yield a big dividend. Small law firms with growing practices may also consider the use of professional recruiters for administrators, staff and legal personnel. Remarkably, outside professionals can be used for all of the above functions, without excessive cost. Unfortunately, it is also possible to spend a lot of money on the above tasks and get very little in return. The key to both finding and using outside help is to manage the business and own the result. Someone at the firm must know (or learn with the help of the outside professional) what is needed and how to go about getting it. Amazingly, someone can do his or her own marketing for years and then assume that, should he or she hire a PR person, that person can do everything. That approach can never work; no outside PR person can know a law firm or its channels for getting business as well as those in the practice. The PR person can amplify efforts and can open whole new doors for those efforts, but it is still the firm’s effort. Similarly, an accountant can make a budget, but it has little meaning if it is not understood; and if the firm did not help form the budget, it will never live by it. It is advisable to hire someone with experience with firms, but that is not enough. Every firm has its own unique needs. If a firm begins looking for outside help by asking how someone can amplify its efforts or open new doors, it can avoid spending money on things that are never used (and firms spend millions every year doing just that). Rather, the firm can focus on exactly those things that will yield a return for the practice. This method also saves time and results in a far better search process. The better defined a project is, the better focused an interview can be, and a person’s or company’s competence can be assessed in light of their ability to provide counsel on how to improve the practice. Another key is to build a network of support providers in a sensible fashion. An accountant often has relationships with one or more banks and can leverage his or her familiarity with the bank and the firm to the mutual benefit of both, e.g., by securing faster credit approval or a waiver of bank legal fees. This is not to say that a law firm should try to micromanage its service providers. Quite the contrary, lawyers are professionals and their clients rely on their judgment; firms should only hire service providers who are regarded as professionals and should trust them within their areas of expertise in the same manner that clients trust the firm. For success, the firm simply cannot abdicate responsibility for the results. When should it end? For ongoing services, such as those provided by accountants, a firm should continually evaluate its outside service providers in a similar way that clients evaluate the firm, although it should be mindful that few outside service providers owe a fiduciary duty to their clients. An outside service provider that is defensive, that cannot articulate the reasons for what it is doing or that is disrespectful should be replaced right away. Lower overhead and greater nimbleness give small firms competitive advantages over their larger counterparts. Even if the time were available to try to do everything in-house, lawyers are paid for their expertise and ability to get results; the same should be true for outside support professionals. If one wishes to maintain the same (or greater) level of expertise or client service than those of larger firms, however, it will be necessary to rely on the expertise of others. The outside support structures available to small firms can enable them to focus on their expertise — high-quality client service — while maintaining the many benefits of practice at a smaller firm. Matthew B. Lowrie and Peter C. Lando are partners at Cambridge, Mass.’ Lowrie, Lando & Anastasi, a firm specializing in intellectual property law, including patents, trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets, licensing and business transactions and related litigation.

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