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Your Clients’ Responsibilities

Posted by Peter on August 13, 2013
law firm management, new client prospect / No Comments

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Most clients don’t know how to be clients…you need to teach them how to be clients. The below have been a long time coming for my Firm. Attorney-Client, Doctor-Patient are fiduciary relationships of heightened importance, these aren’t like a customer buying a pack of gum at Walgreens. And once you get compliance they just help your business a ton. You eliminate the needless “urgent” client calls, clients know how/when to pay, clients know how case updates are communicated, and they know what happens to their documents when the case is over. A good place to find Client or Patient Bills of Rights are in hospitals, the list below were actually partially based on what I saw while spending a good bit of time at Marquette General Hospital over Christmas 2012.

These are new enough that I’m still tweaking how we use them. I’m expecting that they’ll be part of what gets emailed to a prospective client to confirm their free, initial consultation. Further, they’ll be enclosed in the prospective client folder that we give at the initial consultation. Then we’ll probably highlight a touch as part of the initial client sales call. So these are our current Client Responsibilities:

You have responsibilities as a client.


  • Payment for Legal Services. Your initial payment is required before any legal work is performed and prior to the creation of an attorney-client relationship (payment amount varies by individual case type & circumstances). A separate, written engagement agreement must also be executed prior to the creation of an attorney-client relationship. We send-out client bills on a monthly basis and all invoices are due upon receipt. A 10% payment-in-full discount is given to clients who pay their bill in full each month. You can pay your bill online at:  Familylawchicago.com. You can also call us to make payments over the telephone, or, you can mail payments and payment authorizations to the address above. Attorney’s fees will be paid in full prior to the entry of a dissolution of marriage or the final resolution of a client’s matter unless prior arrangements have been made by client and attorney consents to monthly payments after the conclusion of the case. We reserve the right to withdraw from this matter for any just reason as permitted or required by the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct and as permitted by the rules of courts of the State ofIllinois. Upon termination, you agree to pay for all services rendered to the date of termination and all other fees, charges, and expenses incurred.


  • Client Costs:  Reimbursement. In client matters that involve the court system, court filing fees, service of process expenses, and all costs that must be paid to the circuit court clerk or the sheriff to file a case are the client’s responsibility and must be paid in advance. We do not charge for travel time. We do not charge for general copying or regular first class mail. We do require client reimbursement for premium delivery services such us overnight mail, FedEx/UPS, or the various certified/registered mail products. We do require client reimbursement for major copying projects of more than 100 pages such as copying a client’s entire file.


  • Honesty is the Best Policy. Honesty is a must for both client and attorney. It is critical that our Firm be open and honest with clientele so they develop trust in us and know we are reliable. The Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct require that we do not make false statements of fact or law. Therefore clients must fully inform us of all details relating to the matter in which we are representing them. This includes all actions taken either by a client or by previous counsel, and any negotiations with the opposing party. The truth can come out at the worst possible time if people are not honest.


  • General Communication. We have a strong preference for e-mail communication because it’s less obtrusive for everyone. We want to provide thorough legal representation which requires intense concentration and attention to detail and constant interruption doesn’t serve that purpose. At a minimum our lawyers and staff check e-mail at the start and end of the business day. Billing, scheduling, and administrative questions should be addressed to our Client Relations Manager while substantive legal matters should be directed to a lawyer. Clients should communicate address or contact changes as soon as possible, even after their matter is completed since this allows us to keep you informed about important changes of law that may affect you.


  • Appointments with Attorneys (subject to “Emergency” exception below). All attorney appointments (whether in-person or telephone) should be set through our Website:  Familylawchicago.com. Our main office is located at161 N. Clark Street, Suite. 3200,Chicago,Illinois (Clark/Randolph). We also offer various suburbanChicago locations, by appointment only. You can also schedule appointments over the telephone (312-893-5888) by calling our Client Relations Manager.


  • The Definition of an “Emergency.” An emergency is a situation that requires immediate attorney attention and cannot wait until normal business hours (8:45am – 4:45pm) or regular appointment scheduling. Emergencies are very rare. Within our family law practice the following circumstances would constitute an emergency:  A person has been arrested, domestic violence has been threatened, or a child or children’s possession or safety is at risk.


  • Privacy & Confidentiality. Confidentiality is the cornerstone of our profession. Client matters are kept strictly confidential both inside and outside the office, including the fact that a client is represented at all. Strict discretion is used when making telephone calls and client materials are secured and not subject to casual review. There is no expiration date on the Attorney-Client privilege.
  • Treatment of Opposing Parties. We are pro-marriage and pro-family divorce lawyers because family relationships don’t end just because a marriage or other relationship does (among other areas of practice). We follow the Golden Rule and treat our clients, other lawyers, and opposing clients in the same manner we want to be treated.


  • File Retention. Our client file is your property. At the end of our legal representation we return all client trust property (original documents, insurance policies, estate plans, etc.) to the client. At your request, we can also give you the client file in its entirety. If a client does not request his hard file in its entirety, subject to the above we will save a digital copy of the client file and discard the hard copy of the client file.


  • New Developments in a Case. We promise to communicate to you and to actually show you all work that is occurring on your matter. Our Client Relations Manager will forward you all documents relating to your case such as court orders, pleadings, correspondence, and monthly invoices. The attorney assigned to your case will communicate with you regarding legal advice and substantive matters.


  • Referrals & Repeat Business. Our goal is to create client loyalty from day one. All follow-up questions and discussions related to the matter that we represented you on in the past are free-of-charge. For example, if we represented you in a child custody matter and you wanted to discuss possible changes to a parenting agreement and how that could be accomplished, that would not be billed. All repeat clients or their referrals are given a 20% discount on attorney’s fees. Continuing with the example above, if you now wanted us to file a petition in court to modify substantive provisions of a previous child custody order you would be charged at a 20% discounted fee compared to the attorney’s fees currently in effect at the time of the repeat business.


  • Great Lawyers Serving Great Clients. We are a specialized domestic relations and elder law firm that strives to provide great value and service in our legal services business. We provide premium legal services at value-oriented prices. We don’t want to be the priciest firm around but our fees must support the staff, technology, and training necessary to provide the finest legal representation possible. Our clients are responsive in communication, courteous with regards to appointments, they inform our lawyers on all facts about a situation, and pay their bill promptly.


I FINALLY Have Written Office Procedures!

Posted by Peter on June 13, 2013
law firm management, officing / No Comments

This has been a long-time coming for my legal services business and something I’m actually kind of proud of and something I view as a critical hurdle towards the future growth of our Firm. The reality is that businesses and organizations that want to perform consistently and where personnel inevitably change over time MUST have some sort of Operating Manuel. A McDonald’s franchise has an operating manual. I was helping a friend clean-up his flooded home a couple weeks ago and he came upon his training manual from naval basic training…the U.S. Military has operating manuals.

So when a new legal assistant was about to start with our Firm in April that served as my personal deadline to finally get the Chicago Family Law Group, LLC’s Operating Manual tweaked and finalized. It ain’t perfect and it’s surely something this is being improved and evolving over time but it’s a key step in building the equity of my firm. Here’s the current Index of Procedures:

A.     Court Procedures.

  1. Court Scheduling & Notice procedure.
  2. Post-Court Calendar & Order procedure.
  3. Notice of Service procedure.

B.    Financial Procedures.

  1. Credit Card Processing procedure.
  2. Rocket Matter Invoice procedure.
  3. Monthly Billing procedure.
  4. Firm Billing Rules.

C.    Legal Assistant Procedures.

  1. Assistant Start Day procedure.
  2. Assistant End Day procedure.
  3. Office Supplies Ordering procedure.

D.    Marketing Procedures.

  1. Firm Referral Network Touch Plan.

E.     New Prospect Intake Procedures.

  1. New Prospect Intake procedure.

F.     Office Procedures.

  1. Open File procedure.
  2. Close File procedure.
  3. Daily U.S. Mail procedure.
  4. Fax Processing procedure.
  5. Out-of-Office Staff procedure.
  6. Document Scanning procedure.


How NOT to Handle Referrals

Posted by Peter on May 30, 2013
marketing, referrals / No Comments

I’ve written previously about my Firm’s 3 Marketing Channels and these remain the critical marketing avenues that I’m pursuing on a consistent basis subject to consistent improvements within each channel. And “Traditional Professional Referral Sources” is an important business generation channel…I met with a new client prospect just last week from a professional colleague and church friend who fits this marketing channel to a T and someone who I expect will retain us as her attorneys.

And I also met with a young, female attorney recently who should have been a great addition to my referral spreadsheet. I’d ran into this lawyer a couple times at some networking events and sat by her recently at a networking function and was able to speak with her in some depth. I learned about her law practice and she mentioned a pretty compelling niche advocating for elderly persons within a nursing homes and assisted living settings. She spoke about a history with her mother having not been given great care while on her deathbed with this experience serving as a great motivation for her law practice niche. And her practice area is very complimentary to our divorce/child custody practice, plus, everyone knows a bunch of aging persons these days with the greying of the population. I NEED a good referral source in this area!

And then just when this attorney was in position to begin receiving regular referrals from my burgeoning family law practice for years to come, INSTEAD, she became the subject of a blog post titled:  How NOT to Handle Referrals. Why??

Because I saw this lawyer asking questions on a list serve that we’re both on about a FAMILY LAW case. I’m not going to refer things to someone who is going to be potentially trying to grab family law work. Think about it, why would I refer stuff to a lawyer who is going to keep the family law work that comes to her vs. someone who is also in this nursing home niche practice area who would be in position to refer family law parts of the representation to us or refer family law matters to us generally?

My primary motivation in burnishing our referral listing is having experts to access on behalf of our clientele. But, surely over time I have the expectation of reciprocity or generally being top-of-mind to professionals to whom we are making referrals.

Currently I’d love to meet with an immigration or bankruptcy attorney to consider working together for our referrals…e-mail me (peter@soloinchicago.com) and lets meet. Also, anyone have experience handling domestic battery sorts of cases? Sadly, the criminal side of domestic violence is something we in family law land get a LOT of and although I represent people regularly on Petitions for Orders of Protection (or defending against) once a case has a criminal component that’s when I punt.

Online Marketing For Lawyers: What NOT To Do

Posted by Peter on April 30, 2013
marketing, new client prospects, technology / 3 Comments

Editor’s Note:  The following is a guest post from Evanston divorce lawyer Joshua Stern.

There are countless websites that promise to deliver traffic to a lawyer’s website. There are some services that go a step further and promise to connect potential clients with a lawyer. In fact, if you have an Esq. after your name, odds are at least one company has told you about the “thousands of visitors” that come to their site every month looking for a lawyer.

Wouldn’t you like to be the one they call?

 When I set out to write this post, I intended to discuss a variety of online referral sources by name. The problem is that there are too many of them. Instead, I am offering my rules for creating an online marketing strategy. Specifically, what NOT to do. These are 6 rules I have used since I started my practice:

  1. Never Pay for Leads; Ever. Companies that promise to connect you with clients are incentivized to acquire as many “leads” as possible and then charge you by volume. It’s your job to convert them. The problem is, as anyone who has watched Glengarry Glen Ross knows, the leads are weak. The company has no incentive to screen the potential clients because then it would lose its unique selling proposition, which is volume.  Additionally, many of these companies only give you access to the leads, they won’t pair them with you. That means you will spend your time combing through “leads,” competing against other attorneys to contact these “potential customers” first.  To make matters worse, the “potential clients” are the ones who categorize their legal problem. Many of the leads will be miscategorized. Worst of all, these “potential customers” aren’t obligated to use the referral service. It’s distinctly possible that they will have found counsel by the time you contact them.
  2. Stop Caring about “Strategic Partnerships with Google.” Everyone has a “strategic partnership with Google.” Here’s the link where you can register your business as a partner with Google. It is a ubiquitous, and thereby meaningless, distinction. Don’t pay extra for it and don’t base your purchasing decisions on it.
  3. Leave Blind Faith at Home. If a company tells you they will get you to the top of Google’s search results, make sure they tell you how. Think of it this way: would you ever hire a travel agent that promised to get you to Paris but wouldn’t tell you how? How about a doctor that gave you a prescription without a name? Of course not. You wouldn’t because you’d be certain that you wouldn’t get the results you were promised or you would acquire them in a less than desirable way. Companies that promise results but won’t disclose their methods will either underperform or will use “black hat” SEO, meaning techniques Google frowns upon. While the former outcome is a waste of money, the latter is even worse. Your site may completely disappear when the next algorithm change comes out. Worse yet, if Google finds your SEO tactics to be in violation of their Webmaster Guidelines, they can impose a manual penalty. Remember the JC Penny fiasco of 2011?
  4. Don’t Buy What Your SEO Company Has Already Sold. Speaking of SEO, remember: there is only one #1 result in any Google search. Even if you find the perfect SEO company, you need to be certain they aren’t representing your competitors. Otherwise, you and your competitor are paying for the same thing, and only one of you can have it.
  5. Why Are You Listed in that Directory? For those of you who don’t know, directory submissions used to be an easy and reliable SEO tactic. There are more directories online than you can fathom and many of them allow you to list your site for free or for a nominal fee. Google rankings used to be influenced by the sheer volume of directories pointing back to a particular website. Those days are gone. Directories, generally, have little SEO significance. There are exceptions. By and large, you want niche directories or highly reputable directories. A niche directory would be something like Findlaw. A trusted directory might be something like the Yahoo! Directory or DMOZ (Google it). If you don’t have time to make that assessment, ask yourself this: “is this directory listing likely to result in phone calls or clicks to my site?” If the answer is no, don’t list your site. Also, stay out of bad or shady looking directories. You wouldn’t hire a lawyer based on the recommendation of an intimidating and ragged looking stranger and most users aren’t going to use a directory that looks like some late 1990s Geocities monstrosity.
  6. Don’t Stop. Online marketing is not something you can do in fits and spurts. You are trying to establish and maintain your professional reputation on the internet. It helps if you enjoy it, but no matter what, stick with it. Don’t underestimate the importance of momentum in marketing.

Online marketing can be confusing, but its importance will only grow. As lawyers, we have a tremendous opportunity to share our knowledge with the rest of the world, helping clients and strangers alike. We are fortunate that there is a demand for our training and that by helping others, we are given the opportunity to improve our reputation and grow our businesses. It’s the perfect marriage.

My 6 rules of what not to do when marketing yourself online should help everyone save some money and will hopefully free up capital to be redirected to more profitable marketing channels. If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email.

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What’s Your Best Bad Idea?

Posted by Peter on April 16, 2013
client counseling, family law / No Comments

How to Survive a Law Firm Flood: 6 Steps

Posted by Peter on April 02, 2013
law firm management / 1 Comment

Who remembers the Great Chicago Flood of 1992? I do. I was actually a senior in high school at the time and for those of you who don’t recall here’s a link for you. Basically some dredge and piling work being done on the Chicago River resulted in some old utility tunnel being damaged with many inter-connected tunnels that ran under large portions of Loop office buildings being flooded. I owned a cheesy “I Survived the Chicago Flood” T-shirt for many years thereafter.

My law firm survived a flood just last week. You don’t really expect flooding on the 32nd Floor of a Loop office building but that 33rd Floor above us does have a kitchen and bathrooms that use running water and pipes in our ceiling that deliver that water. Well, sometimes pipes leak…profusely!

Here’s how my firm survived the Flood of 2013:

  1. Our Practice is in the Cloud. This is such a key productivity issue for days you’re sick or to access documents when in court and, YES, to survive a flood. My associate attorney and I were displaced for 3-4 days but our work product was in same place it always is:  Google Apps, DropBox, Rocket Matter. Our telephones are routed through Answeringservice.com which can be forwarded anywhere.
  2. Mobile Computing & Home Office. One lesson I took from our flood is that I should invest more in making sure every staff member has adequate mobile computing or home office computing options. I likely should invest in 2-3 laptops or tablets for general mobile computing with court appearances and such but also for emergency work at home circumstances. Because my associate attorney’s work at home set-up was a little lacking because I hadn’t given her the tools she needed and she wasn’t used to working at home. I have worked at home a lot over the years and enjoyed an extremely productive time working from home.
  3. Check Your Insurance. Thankfully most of damage caused by the flood was to the office structure itself and not to the contents of our office. Meaning, the office owner essentially damaged itself which they repaired themselves. Some items on the floor of our space were damaged which we submitted through the main tenant’s (we’re a subtenant) insurance policy. Check your coverage. If I would have had to buy several new computers or such, that would have been a big problem.
  4. Don’t Hold Client Trust Property/Documents. In a family law practice such as ours it’s almost never necessary to have a client’s original documents such as tax returns, wills, etc. This sort of paperwork is what could have been damaged by flooding.
  5. No Excuses…Get it Done. I so admire people who have success despite unforeseen adversity and that was the fun, flood challenge I faced. Remember the year when New England Patriot QB Tom Brady tore his ACL in week 1 and yet the Pats still went on to have an 11-5 season?  Same with our flood or the day you’re sick or the day your computer crashes; be ready.
  6. Know Thy Landlord, Building Management Company. Almost all these guys are pretty good at signing a lease and cashing a rent check but how do they handle flood clean-up and repair? I give props to both our landlord and the building’s management company at 161 N. Clark, Chicago, IL. Yes, the flooding happened but the post-flooding reaction was very good. Check-out your situation in advance or when you’re looking for office space to be sure you’re covered when the sky is clear.

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Law Firms & ‘False Urgency’

Posted by Peter on March 06, 2013
law firm management / 1 Comment

False Urgency is the biggest deficiency that I need to stamp-out in my Firm right now. And I mean internally (myself and our staff) and externally (clientele). What do I mean when I say ‘False Urgency’? I mean simply the many things from staff interruptions to unscheduled client calls that hinder the efficient use of time…and that’s the main stock-in-trade of a legal services business. It really goes back to the old Important vs. Urgent continuum…I want to be spending far more time on intentional, scheduled important matters instead of unscheduled, urgent but not important matters.

And I think it’s a pretty easy fix that I just need to implement. How?

Automate your calendar. I’ve been meaning to sign-up for timetrade.com for months. I used it as a free trial some time ago and then with various changes in my firm had let it expire. Basically it lets you put a simple button on your Website and then integrates with your electronic calendar so a prospect or client clicks through your calendar for meeting times you’ve set into your calendar in advance. I have no relationship with timetrade it’s just the product I’ve used and seen used in the past and the price is only $49 annually.

Train your clients. Include some ‘Client Responsibilities’ along with verbal direction to clients up-front regarding how meetings and telephone conferences are handled & NOT handled. For example, last week I took a spur-of-the-moment call from a client whom another attorney in the office had been corresponding with on some legal discovery. And he starts peppering me with questions that really should have been asked of the other lawyer on the case and I just sort of nodded and said yes to his questions. And the net result of that sort of conversation is basically 15 minutes of wasted time. If that call was set in advance through timetrade or scheduled through my legal assistant with meeting specifics set out in advance that time would have been far more productive.

Define a narrow emergency exception to the above. Basically this is the one exception to the above, like in family law land if some ex-wife has just grabbed the kids, has plane tickets to Russia, and is threatening to never let you see your 9-year-old daughter again. Or the folks from DCFS just showed up and want to take your kid. But this is also part of the TRAINING in #2…and this should be a very narrow exception.


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SIC Podcast #1: Tim Ryan, Legal-Lease.com

Posted by Peter on February 16, 2013
law firm management, officing / No Comments


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Never Waste a Good Court Date

Posted by Peter on January 30, 2013
litigation / No Comments

This is my slightly different take on Rahm Emanuel’s little phrase, “Never waste a good crisis.” Because as a family law attorney and likely most non-criminal lawyers, I find that the wasted court date phenomenon is rampant. So many court dates have the potential to waste time/money, upset clients due to the impression that little is being accomplished on their matter, and frankly zap your professional satisfaction.  This is one of the reasons why I look forward to my court dates over at the courthouse one of my colleagues affectionately calls the “Triple Nickel” (Domestic Violence Courthouse at 555 W. Harrison, Chicago). I don’t like domestic violence, however, this is the one area of our practice where cases are required to be treated on an expedited basis…thus you have substantive court dates with nearly each court appearance.

How do you NOT waste court dates?

The most important mechanism that our firm utilizes is simply updating each case’s ‘Next Actions’ within our law practice management software after each court date. Nothing too involved, simply a form of ‘To Do’ list for a client’s case that flowed out of the last court date and items that must be completed by the next court date. Because in many cases if I’m not pushing the case, NO ONE IS. The best judges are utilizing some form of this short-term ‘To Do’ list from court-date-to-court-date which helps. But other judges know next to nothing about specific cases and are not keeping notes to help them remember. So you don’t get much judicial help until the case is maybe 3 years old. And although many clients state that they want the case over with yesterday, I frequently find that their actions don’t support their statements. That’s why the ‘Next Action’ listing is so critical…it’s part office organization, it’s part office task delegation, it’s part client communication, and it’s part CYA email/letter to client when they’re complaining about their case taking so long.

The key:  Get organized after each court date so you know what you want to accomplished before the next court date. First, create your ‘To Do’ list for your Firm and communicate these items to the client. Second, put follow-ups on your Firm’s electronic calendar so you’re seeing specific deadlines on the calendar. Simple, but these things must happen after each court date.

And then there are those cases that get filed way too soon…but I’ll save that for another post.


The Most Important Month

Posted by Peter on January 03, 2013
billing / No Comments

Happy 2013 from Solo in Chicago and here’s hoping the new year is full of “Accomplishments of Significance.”

But, what is the most important month? It’s the month after your client has worked through his initial retainer deposit. And it’s so critical because this can become a time when clients get behind on their payments and if you let that happen it’s hard to recover…it’s hard to get those clients paying again once they have gotten out of the payment habit.

And I don’t mean for this to be an extensive post about overall billing strategies or evergreen retainers but rather simply that you must be ON TOP of a client when he gets the first bill after the retainer is used up. Our contracts require that clients pay their balance-in-full each month for all work done the previous month…remind clients of that fact. Sometimes we’ll accept a payment plan where a client can pay less than the full balance as long as a significant, monthly payment is made. But you cannot let a client pay nothing! Because each month without payment makes it progressively more difficult to get the client paying again. You must get your clients into the monthly payment habit.

The client who pays that “next month” will likely be a profitable client for months to come; the client who pays nothing may never pay anything again.


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