This is the time of year where there are countless articles helping us to identify resolutions for the New Year that will make us better, thinner, healthier, sexier or more organized. There are also countless articles telling us that by the end of January, in spite of our best intentions, we will go back to our same old habits.
There is, however, one person I read about that might actually accomplish this New Year’s resolution. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame is known for making aggressive resolutions, and this year he did not disappoint. He plans to read one new book every other week. He has even invited people to join him on Facebook in a kind of worldwide book club. If you are interested, the first book is “The End of Power” by Moises Naim .
As lawyers, we should all embrace the New Year as an opportunity to improve our craft and our delivery of legal services. Instead of making a long list that is easily abandoned by the end of January, we can learn two things from Mr. Zuckerberg about setting resolutions.
First, instead of making a long list, pick a single resolution for your practice. Second, create a system of accountability to meet that single resolution. Thousands (more likely millions) of Facebook followers will know when Mr. Zuckerberg has missed his goal, and they will demand an explanation.
If you are looking for suggestions to improve your law practice this year that will also reduce your risk of professional liability, try any one of these five suggestions:
(1) Communicate with clients better. Consider creating a new habit to always return every client’s call or e-mail within 48 hours. The biggest complaint clients have is that lawyers don’t communicate with them, and 18 percent of all disciplinary claims stem from the failure to communicate.
(2) Pick a niche. If you are currently a jack-of-all-trades, a generalist, an attorney who takes anything that comes in the door, consider narrowing your practice to one (or two) niche areas.
Only identify the niche in your elevator speech; only post articles in social media that speak to your niche; and focus on mastering the rules and regulations of your niche.
Attorneys who consistently take on matters outside of their primary practice area are more prone to making mistakes that adversely affect their clients, and as a result, they have a high risk for disciplinary and malpractice claims.
(3) Managing client funds. Take the time to review the webinars on the ARDC website and review other resources so you can understand how to manage your Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) account. If you are still challenged, make a decision to hire an accountant or a bookkeeping service to manage client funds properly. Don’t be one of those lawyers who have to respond to the ARDC because of a notification it received from your bank about your IOLTA account.
(4) Create a system for checking conflicts. If you don’t have one, create one. If you have one, make sure it is fully integrated as part of your client intake process and used all the time. If you are uncertain as to whether you have a conflict, or whether you can proceed in spite of the conflict, make it a habit to contact an ethics attorney.
(5) Plan a vacation. Many attorneys find themselves the subject of a disciplinary or malpractice claim because they are overwhelmed and stressed out. If we wait for the right time to take a break, it will never come. Look at your schedule for the year, and block out your vacation now. Some people take a vacation the same time every year and that trains your clients and colleagues to not look for you during that time.
Whatever new habit you choose, make sure you have something or someone in your office or your life that will hold you accountable. It is fine to miss a day or two, but make sure you stay the course.
While it is a widely held belief that new habits can form in 21 days, a study published in 2010 by Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London, and her research team concluded that it actually takes about two months for a new behavior to become automatic. Give yourself time.
Sometimes, all it takes is one new habit to pave the way for a series of new habits that might transform your life or the way you do business. This is essentially the conclusion drawn by Charles Duhigg in his book “The Power of Habit .” (A very good read by the way. )
It is possible, for example, that narrowing your niche might result in exponential growth in your practice or learning how to manage your money better might be the trigger for you to come up with ways to increase revenue.
As Charles Dickens is quoted as saying, “I never could have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order and diligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time.”