delegating

98 – Delisi Friday – Scaling Your Law Firm, Your Way

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down once again with his Chief Marketing Officer, Delisi Friday, to discuss law firm growth and how they’ve scaled their firm over the years in the way that best suited their goals.

The pair begins the episode with a look at the motivation for their most recent hiring expansion and how they knew it was time to grow. Delisi shares her frustration on the marketing and intake side, where she would receive a new case and have to decide between overwhelming an attorney with an already large docket or rejecting a case she would normally accept.

Michael echoes this sentiment and adds that rejecting “bread and butter” cases from referral partners was hard to do at times but needed to be done to ensure that the proper time and care was being put into existing cases; and that his staff was not going to be stretched too thin. This is how they knew it was time to hire 3 new associate attorneys.

“I always want to market our firm honestly, and I want us to fulfill our promises as well.” – Delisi Friday

Following this, Delisi asks Michael how he knows when the firm needs to grow and how to figure this out. Michael breaks down his answer in two points:

  1. “If I see the workloads on my people are becoming unhealthy.”
  2. “If [I’m] having to turn down things [I] wish we could keep,” paired with asking yourself, “Am I having to turn down enough things that justify hiring someone else?”

Adding onto these points, Michael says he saw that his firm was at the point where they had to hire more lawyers or start saying “no” to cases at a rate that he felt would damage his referral relationships. To this, Delisi brings up the firm’s weekly docket discussions. During these meetings, she not only brings up the number of cases on attorney dockets, but also the phases of those cases to properly assess if they have the bandwidth for more cases. Michael then discusses doing something similar in his monthly attorney development meetings and adds that a further challenge is getting lawyers to trust him enough to tell him when they are overwhelmed.

“I have to prove to them that I’m worthy of their trust … [by taking] steps to help and not punishing them for being overloaded.” – Michael Cowen

Delisi then asks Michael how he decides how he’s going to grow, to which he explains why he looks for what the pain points are and what type of hire would resolve them in the most efficient and logical way. This leads them to discuss the pros and cons of hiring an experienced lawyer, which has historically not had the best “hit rate” at their firm. This, according to them, is due to the firm’s established culture, procedures, and systems, which many experienced lawyers may find difficult to adjust to; having been trained in and working under different systems and procedures beforehand.

“I can’t do legal work, market the firm, and run a 33-employee firm.” – Michael Cowen

Michael then touches on the fear associated with growth; more specifically the fear of letting responsibilities go. He goes on to say that finding and hiring the right manager to cover those responsibilities and run with them is essential. By hiring and promoting the right people, such as his firm operations and intake managers, Teresa and Delisi respectively, most of those fears and anxieties have subsided while productivity and efficacy have only increased.

Building from this conversation, Delisi asks Michael what he’s learned along the way from scaling his firm and his advice for other lawyers, which he breaks down into 3 main points.

  1. Do you want to grow?
  2. Is this a temporary bump, or do you have a sustainable flow of business where it makes economic sense to grow?
  3. Do you have the cash flow to grow?

Throughout these points, Michael notes that growth is not for everyone, and it’s not the only way to build a successful and profitable practice.

“You should grow if it’s going to fulfill you, and if it’s what YOU want to do.”– Michael Cowen

Delisi then adds how every year, they seem to bring in roughly the same number of new cases without even realizing it, month-to-month. Michael clarifies that while this doesn’t sound like growth, the value of those new cases grows with each year, which reflects the growth model his firm follows. This is tracked through a concept learned from former podcast guest Chad Dudley, called the 5-Star Case Rating system, which assigns each case a star rating based on a variety of factors, and helps to accurately analyze a lawyer’s docket and the firm’s entire case load.

“We may have the exact same number of cases that we did last year, but the type of cases, the quality, and what our projected attorney’s fees are going to be vastly different.” – Delisi Friday

Michael then shares that growth isn’t always about adding more lawyers, but frequently requires more paralegals, marketers, or other positions. This leads Delisi to dig deeper into the onboarding and training process for all these new hires, especially the young lawyers.

Michael answers candidly, sharing how large the time commitment is to bring someone completely new and inexperienced up to speed. But, from his experience, the more time you put in up front, the better the outcome is in the long run. He elaborates on this sentiment by sharing his lengthy 3-step deposition training process with new hire lawyers, an incredible training strategy which everyone considering hiring young lawyers would benefit from hearing.

Delisi then references Chad Dudley’s podcast episode once again, sharing his fantastic quote about how being a great tennis player doesn’t necessarily make you a great tennis coach. This leads Michael to share that, while he’s a great teacher, he doesn’t see himself as a great coach, something Delisi commends him for realizing.

“We have a promise we make to our referral partners that if you’re nice enough to bring us in on your case, we are going to do the case to this standard. Which means I have to enforce those standards at my firm.” – Michael Cowen

Michael and Delisi then discuss some of the challenges they’ve faced when hiring new lawyers. For the most part, it boils down to setting expectations and being willing to have tough conversations when those expectations aren’t being met. This has led them to their current strategy of hiring 3 lawyers who are all relatively young in their careers, something Michael has been very happy with, citing their energy and willingness to learn and adapt.

Delisi agrees and adds that these associate additions have required the senior attorneys to communicate more with each other, which has led to more idea sharing and even a hint of competitiveness, which has been fun and rewarding to see.

The pair wraps up the episode with their final thoughts on law firm growth. It’s been a wild, scary ride, but if you plan for it and grow at a rate you can handle while keeping an eye on your finances, it can be very rewarding.

This podcast episode also covers how to know when and why your lawyers are overwhelmed, why Michael likes promoting paralegals from within, a look at some of their past hiring mistakes, and so much more.

82 – Malorie Peacock – Working Through Others: Building a High-Performing Team

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his partner Malorie Peacock to discuss the art of managing your team and “working through others.” They cover effective delegation, hiring for experience vs. hiring for attitude, and how lawyers can be leaders to their teams.

Michael and Malorie kick off the episode with a look at delegating tasks to your team effectively, which is easier said than done when the team member has to do the work to your standards. Malorie starts by sharing her thought process when she wants to delegate a task. She first asks herself if this is something she could expect someone else to do in a way she approves of. If it is, she gives clear instructions and deadlines for when the task should be completed. Lastly, she makes a point to be available and open to answering any questions the team member may have about the task.

Michael then brings up a common pitfall for attorneys attempting to delegate tasks – if it’s not done right, he tends to just fix the errors instead of explaining the issues to the team member. Malorie cautions against doing this and outlines the perfect strategy for situations where the work needs to be fixed ASAP, but the team member needs to be taught the correct way for next time.

The conversation then transitions to a look at hiring and training – specifically for a paralegal position. Malorie shares how both of her paralegals started with the firm as receptionists with no legal experience. They were both trained up to the paralegal role which required a lot of work up front, but the benefit to this was they didn’t have any “bad habits.” Michael agrees that he prefers to train someone up from within, so they learn to do the job the way he wants them to, but not every lawyer agrees with this approach. They continue to discuss the pros and cons of hiring someone with experience vs. without experience, to which Malorie concludes it’s really about their ability to perform their main role of assisting the attorney.

After an insightful look at what the attorney can do to ensure their assistant is successful, they begin to discuss what lawyers can do to be leaders to their teams. Malorie reflects on the true meaning of being a leader and insists it all goes back to trust. Your team should trust you enough to tell you when they messed up, or when they need help with something.

Michael continues this line of thought with the necessity of having uncomfortable conversations about issues BEFORE they become a crisis. He recently had the opportunity to meet with Texas A&M football coach Jimbo Fisher, who is notoriously tough on his players. When Michael asked how he holds his players to such high standards, Jimbo highlighted the need for clear expectations, consistency, and for the team to believe that you hold them to those high expectations because you genuinely care about them. In order to have those necessary uncomfortable conversations, you need buy-in and trust from your team members, so they know you’re coaching them up and not putting them down.

Michael and Malorie then discuss how they communicate with their staff to lift them up. They share a variety of techniques that have worked for them, including not creating emergencies, overcommunicating, being willing to do parts of the paralegal’s job, and numerous strategies to show employee appreciation. One thing Michael has always done and will continue to do is invest in his staff’s education. He does this through weekly internal trainings and paying for his staff attend legal seminars like the annual ATAA symposium. Even the act of spending money on their hotels shows them they are valued and appreciated, and “if you buy-in, we’ll have your back.”

This leads Michael and Malorie to discuss the importance of having your team’s back. This doesn’t mean that you sweep issues under the rug- but it does mean you don’t bad mouth your team members to other people, especially to people outside of your team.

They end the episode with a discussion about managing anger and frustration, something many attorneys struggle with. Michael and Malorie both agree when someone does something wrong and it makes you upset, you need to wait until you’ve calmed down to have a conversation with them about it. Malorie finds it helpful to vent to a trusted person about what happened to let off steam, while Michael likes to take his own time to cool off. It comes down to what works best for you, so you can have a productive conversation without bringing the whole team down.

Attorney leadership, while easier said than done, is vital to the success of any law firm. This is why Michael and his firm will be dedicating the second half of 2021 to developing their attorneys into strong leaders. If this topic interests you, stay tuned for a follow-up episode later this year!

This podcast also covers why the “perfect assistant” doesn’t exist, praising your team members, why you need to avoid unrealistic expectations, Michael’s favorite strategies for building employee buy-in, and so much more.

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