Making Your Criminal Practice More Rewarding
Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.
“The variety in a criminal law practice keeps it enjoyable. Familiarity at the courthouse makes it fun,” says Austin solo Erik Goodman, who has been board certified in criminal law since 1985. Houston criminal attorney John Parras agrees. “People charged with crimes are wealthy, poor, smart, dumb, funny, eccentric, boring, interesting and mundane. The scenarios that bring them to court are sad, funny, interesting, complicated, simple, stupid, and entertaining,” according to Parras, who has been designated as a Super Lawyer – Rising Star and began his legal career as a law clerk to Michael Tigar and Ron Woods in the Oklahoma City Bombing trial.
Yet many criminal attorneys suffer from stress and burnout. Others struggle to make ends meet. How can you keep your practice manageable, enjoyable and financially successful, too?
Choose Your Clients Carefully
When lawyers fail to adequately screen incoming clients, they find themselves spending inordinate amounts of time dealing with problem clients and the frustration they create. Not only does this reduce the profitability of a criminal lawyer’s practice, it creates stress for the lawyer and reduces the time and energy available to provide good service to desirable clients.
But how do you discriminate between desirable and “Problem Clients” before you get involved in the case? After all, by definition, all clients have a problem messy enough to need a lawyer. And, many clients in criminal cases, even if innocent of the crime charged, have made unwise choices that contributed to their unpleasant situation.
First, think about the Problem Client experiences you have already had. What similarities or common traits did they have? Are there questions you can ask in the initial interview to ferret out those types? Looking back, were there Problem Client hints in the initial interview? Did they do something that raised a red flag, but you ignored it because it was the end of the month and money was tight?
Invest Time Now, to Save More Later
“Spend time getting to know your client in the initial interview,” advises Parras. “Ask them about their family, their upbringing, their education, their work. You might learn that they never had a stable relationship; your lawyer-client relationship may end up just as troubled. If they’ve had lawyers before, ask who they are and how the case went. You’ll have an instant window into what they think a lawyer should and shouldn’t do. Challenge them when they say things that don’t sound right to you. If they get away with fooling you in the initial interview they will fool you throughout the case. Fifteen minutes up front will save you hours or days of work later.”
David J. Ferrell, an El Paso criminal and probate attorney for 32 years, advises to be leery of cases where the potential client has already seen several other lawyers about the case, or a prior lawyer has entered an appearance but now wants to withdraw. He says you should also ask a lot of questions before accepting a case referred from other criminal lawyers who are too busy to handle the case, if you don’t know them very well. Could they be unloading a dog case on you that they wouldn’t dump on a friend?
Manage Client Expectations
Ferrell cites a few examples of warning signs that your potential client will have unreasonable expectations. He counsels to decline potential clients who make statements in the initial interview like, “My friend’s lawyer got his exact case dropped the first day they went to court,” or “I’ve already read the law online and the case is bogus, I just need you to get the judge to dismiss it,” or “I saw a case like mine on Court TV and …”
Goodman says, “Most of the time I know what I can do for a client and I tell them up front. Those who want more usually get the message. I avoid persons who try to encroach upon my ability to accurately assess a case.”
“Anything you do that does not produce the outcome they think is ‘easy’ to get will be seen as a failure to them,” echoes Parras. “A desirable client is one that understands his problem, trusts you to help him with it, and when it’s over, regardless of the outcome, is thankful because he knows you’ve done your best.”
Educate your clients to manage their expectations. Describe each stage of the process, typical time frames, and share honest assessments about the likely outcomes of various stages.
Stress affects your client’s ability to comprehend and recall what you say, so make it easy for clients to refresh their memory. It will reduce the time investment and frustration for both of you. Prepare a handout with common instructions, with check lists or blanks that you fill in with particulars. Provide a handout of responses to Frequently Asked Questions at or before the first meeting. Post the FAQs on your website for future access and to enhance your website’s search engine optimization. True FAQs will naturally include the same words potential clients search on.
Systematize and Delegate
Although every client is different, most practices involve repetition of certain similar activities. The more processes that you can reduce to a form or a standard procedure, the more efficiently and profitably you can practice. Systematization increases what you can delegate to administrative assistants, paralegals and associates. Maximal delegation may require you to make investments up front in system design and training, but each investment will pay off rapidly in your stress reduction and profits. Delegation also helps reduce burnout by allowing you to focus your time on the most novel and interesting aspects of your cases.
Those who say “I tried delegation and it doesn’t work” may need to enhance their delegation skills. For help in that regard, check out this author’s article on delegation for lawyers at http://www.lawyer-coach.com/index.php/2004/12/01/delegation-a-powerful-time-management-tool/#more-32.
Protect Productivity Time
With hearings almost every day and clients calling about their cases, criminal lawyers have trouble finding time to do the complex thinking a case requires. It is essential that you protect at least one hour per day to focus without interruption on producing the work that requires concentration. Close your door and give your assistant a script for handling calls, which reassures the client of a specified time interval when you will call back.
Lawyers have been amazed at their increase in productivity from just one uninterrupted hour per day. Some days you may actually manage more, but protect at least one hour. For more time management and productivity tips for lawyers, read http://www.lawyer-coach.com/index.php/2008/11/14/successful-lawyer-time-management/#more-190.
Set Your Fees Appropriately
If you are swamped all the time, yet struggling to make ends meet, you may not have the right fee structure, especially on fixed fee matters. “Do not set your fee based on what you need today, that will always be too low. Do not set it based on what you think the client can pay, what they can pay may be more than the case is worth or less than you deserve,” counsels Parras.
To evaluate your fee structure, experiment with tracking all your time (billable and non-billable) for a month. You may discover that you invest a lot more time in a case than you realized. We tend to optimistically estimate our time requirements based on the case that flowed the most efficiently. In the tracking process, you may also discover how you tend to waste time, the time of day when you can be most effective and productive, and what disrupts you the most. Make adjustments based on that feedback, too.
Many lawyers fear that raising their fees will reduce their business. Some find that their business actually increases, however. Most clients can’t really judge the competency of a lawyer, and they view the fee as an indicator of the lawyer’s skill. Any slight decline in volume will be offset by the higher fee. As you have more time to properly serve your clients, you may find your referrals multiplying. If your business drops off significantly, however, you can always return to your old fee structure. Just be aware that bargain-hunters often make the most difficult clients.
The Short Version
As you consider these tips, don’t try to change everything in your practice at once. Experiment with one strategy at a time. You’ll be better able to identify what works, and less likely to get overwhelmed. If it all seems like too much, then just follow Goodman’s pithy advice: “Always return your calls. Treat people respectfully. Pace yourself; you’re in this for the long haul.”
Adapted from the author’s article in the July 2010 issue of the Texas Bar Journal.