Practice Development Efficiency

Epiphany or Hallucination?


This discussion of practice development efficiency theory is at one end of a continuum and is as far as we get from the other end, i.e. " 'bullet point' tips to improve your practice". The purpose of all the theory, research and analysis is to enable you to shake loose from the infinite universe of possibilities the one or two 'bullet points' that will work in your real world practice application and take you to the heart of your vision. Theoretical discussion, however dry, is the basis allowing beneficial choices to be made.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
Albert Einstein

Quantum mechanics is not only stranger than we imagine,
it is stranger than we can imagine.

Barry Gell-Mann

We start out with two statements from noted physicists because relativity theory and quantum mechanics are much simpler and more straightforward than the human relationships that make up our legal system and the attorney-client relationship. For example, protons don't lie and gravity doesn't vary its pull depending on who you know. While we should not underestimate the size of the knot to be untangled, we should not forget that we have a tool of understanding in common with our physicist friends and we have a secret weapon.

The tool we have in common is the ability to test and measure. This tool is beginning to work its way into law practice. For example, a generation ago the ability to pick a jury was considered an art. Now jury consultants who test and measure public opinion and the way ordinary people see and evaluate information can provide a substantial advantage to a litigator.

The secret weapon is sometimes called intuition, but calling it that diminishes its real value to the practice development planner by making it seem beyond understanding and analysis. I think the better term is non-verbal understanding based on experience. While protons don't lie, neither do they figure out that what other protons are saying is not always what they mean. More than intuition, the secret weapon is our ability to synthesize conclusions from incomplete and apparently contradictory data. The former tool, testing and measurement, makes the latter, intuition, useful. Testing is how we distinguish epiphany from hallucination. Lawyers and law firms win the future when they realize progression toward their vision. This is what practice development planning - and planning development efficiency - is all about.


Break a problem down into its basic components,
Arrange them in some sort of order, and
Work on them one at a time.
Frank V. Loduha

Every practicing lawyer with a pulse engages in practice development, every lawyer with a future engages in practice development planning. This is about getting better at it.

Practice development efficiency is the ratio of resources expended to progress made.

The practice development efficiency (PDE) ratio is the progress made toward achieving a practice development goal (what you hope to get) measured by the resources (what you must work with) expended. It is possible to make progress toward your practice development goals while expending few resources just as it possible to lose ground and move away from practice development goals while expending substantial resources. The exact units of measure by which the PDE ratio is expressed will vary by firm and situation, but will be expressed from infinitely positive (progress toward goals with no expenditure of resources) to substantially negative (moving backwards while making great expenditures of resources). In the vast majority of circumstances, firms work on improving ratios that are neutral or modestly positive.

There are two types of practice development resources, personal and non-personal.

Personal resources are those things idiosyncratic to the person or idiosyncratic to another and adopted by the person through what society calls moral responsibility. The gratification of your time is the principal personal resource. If you would rather be doing something else, the differential between what you would rather be doing and what you are doing is a personal resource. Thus, if you love listening to a divorce client complain that you charged him what you agreed to charge for doing what he demanded you do, the time spent in that activity is not considered the investment of a personal resource. Likewise, if both you and your secretary hate to listen to lawyer jokes and you step into a conversation and take the brunt of a client's humor to protect her from having to listen, you are investing your personal resources to save hers. Your time alone is a non-personal resource because you are going to spend it somehow. For example, if drafting interrogatories (doing purely legal work) or schmoozing potential clients (doing purely practice development) are equally gratifying, then there is no difference in the investment of personal resources involved in doing either.

By analogy, if you were planning to build a house, personal resources would be the natural inclinations of the labor pool. Inclinations are important because, unlike in the home construction process where the laborers get immediate cash compensation, stakeholders rarely get to see immediate personal results from their efforts.

Work is only work if you'd rather be doing something else.
Ray Prince

Personal resources can become depleted. The term of art for the depletion of personal resources is 'burnt out'. 'Burnt out', contrary to its analogy, expresses a phenomena on a continuum. The better analogy is to a building. The continuum is from 'minor smoke damage' to 'smoldering ruin.' However the depletion of this resource to any degree degrades the quality of the person's life. The opposite of the depletion of a personal resource is 're-creation.'

While there is a certain charitable component to efficiently using personal resources in practice development, the theoretical basis is not so eleemosynary. Many of the day to day activities of practicing law consume personal resources. These are the activities that result in fees. Practice development planning results in being in position to earn fees more efficiently.

Designing conservation of personal resources into practice development has two benefits:

First, it gets greater mileage out of the stakeholder. For years I've adopted the expression of professional effort as quoted by a corporate CEO who said he never worked till he was finished, he worked till he was tired. That is true of a majority of today's practicing attorneys. If we are going be successful in practice development, we can't ask the stakeholders to work harder or longer or to invest more personal resources. They are already giving all they have to give. We must design a system that, when the day to day legal work is factored in, requires less, or at least equal, daily investment of personal resources.

Second, people tend to be better at what they find more gratifying. The only business I ever received from a country club was when I was a caddy, although for several years I tried. A former senior partner played the locker room like Rubenstein played Carnegie Hall. The commonweal of our firm dictated we each do what we did best.

It is important not to confuse practice development planning activities with marketing activities. Practice development looks at and compares every element of the law practice you have and the law practice that is defined within your vision. Marketing is the tag end of the process, getting the message out to those potential clients that the practice defined by your vision is to serve. On the basic level, for example a sole general practitioner with a single staff person, the evaluation of the efficient use of personal resources might show the attorney expends a great deal of her personal resources during the time she spends interacting with clients in child custody matters and almost no personal resources while doing computerized legal research. An efficient practice development plan would not have her spending more time with prospective clients but might involve her helping with research for colleagues who refer work to her.

Non-personal resources include everything that can have an impact on your practice that is not within the definition of personal resources, excluding money. Non-personal resources have value common to one or more of the stakeholders. It is important to remember that the word 'resources' when used in a practice development planning context is a conclusion. Something is a 'resource' when it relates in a positive or negative sense to reaching a goal or achieving a vision. That conclusion requires that you know in advance what the goal or vision is. If the goal and/or vision is a little foggy, it might be hard to know whether or not a circumstance is a 'resource'. An example would be your office location. If the office has good visibility at a busy intersection, and the firm's vision is a plaintiff's personal injury practice, the location is a 'resource'. If the vision is to do computer-aided research and write briefs for other lawyers who find you over the Internet, the location may be neutral as a resource. If traffic noise is a distraction or the rent is high, location may actually be a 'negative resource'. Thus, if you don't know whether your vision entails personal injury or research services, you can't form a conclusion on location as a 'resource'. Another example might be the number of attorneys with full page Yellow Pages ads looking for personal injury work in your geographic practice area. If you want to compete with them head to head, the number of competitors is a 'negative resource'. On the other hand, if your vision is to subcontract in the case evaluation and discovery work attendant to personal injury litigation, a large number of small P/I firms means a large number of potential customers for your specific services. Non -personal resources include many things beyond market situation: substantive expertise, existing reputation and goodwill, assets such as computers, library, office equipment, furniture, experienced staff and the like.

The final resource to consider is money. Money is not a third category of resource but can vary from a personal to a non-personal resource depending on where it fits on the individual's MM~OPM continuum.

Money has two distinct characteristics: its importance to the individual as a means of keeping score/security and a symbolic meaning within relationships. On the score/security aspect of money, we all have met attorneys for whom money is a measure of competitive success. For others, like some of our parents who struggled through the Depression, money is a form of security. For people with a score/security relationship with money, the perceived surplus or lack of money will impact the personal resource investment of a particular practice development activity. For example, your firm may have a stakeholder who, if she isn't out winning big dollars in court, feels that she is falling behind her competitors. For her a practice development activity without immediate return will involve the substantial investment of personal resources.

As to the other aspect of money, the relationship aspect, those of us who spent time in private general practice can recall certain clients for whom a $100.00 debt was a crushing responsibility (Unusually heavy weight, or responsibility, within the relationship between debtor and creditor) and others for whom a handful of maxed out credit cards, bills and letters from collection agencies had no personal meaning whatsoever (unusually light weight or responsibility). For the former, money is a personal resource and for the latter, money is a non-personal resource. For stakeholders who equate money and personal responsibility, the personal resources invested in practice development are minimized, and thus the efficiency enhanced, when they perceive the activity as benefiting the stakeholders collectively. For stakeholders who do not equate money with personal responsibility (the OPM folks) they will get the most out of practice development activities when they see these activities in terms of their individual vision for their professional future.

Efficiency in the use of personal resources does not exist in practice development planning because we desire it so. It exists because the practice development plan relates the vision of the firm to the mission activities of the stakeholders in achieving that vision. Thus, vision must come first. Without vision, practice development is like travel without a destination. Vision doesn't require a high moral component, although for many lawyers that is or was a reason to join or remain in the profession. But vision is always personal. Just as the firm's practice development plan must serve the firm's vision, it must consider the personal resources available.

Efficiency in the use of non-personal resources likewise considers the firm's vision together with its mission. Unlike personal resources, there may be personal resources that do not serve the firm's vision. For example, the high visibility location previously mentioned. Sometimes practice development efficiency means ignoring or even jettisoning non-personal resources irrelevant to the firm's vision and mission.

The efficient use of both personal and non-personal resources requires that practice development programs be measured, tested and evaluated as part of the process. The frequency and manner of measurement and evaluation are unique to each program and firm. Rarely, if ever, will waiting to see the impact of the program on the firm's bottom line be the evaluation method of choice. Since the pace of program benefit must exceed the evolutionary changes in the market, it is inefficient to wait. In addition, the measurement must be immediate in both time and effect to distinguish the success (or lack of success) of the program from other influences on the progress of the firm's plan.

Every firm will change over time. Controlling that change to enhance the satisfaction of the stakeholders is what practice development planning is all about. Most firms will apply resources in an attempt to favorably effect change. Relating the procedure of the application of these resources to the plan is where practice development efficiency is found.


Take inventory of the personal resources available for practice development.

It is a good idea to take inventory of the personal resources available for application to the firm's practice development plan at the start of the planning process. This should be repeated every few years or whenever there are changes in firm personnel or market conditions. Remember that what you are seeking to measure are the personal gratification levels for various stakeholders. Asking during a firm meeting what they are willing to do will measure their dedication to the firm, their sheepishness about publicly refusing an activity or a variety of other things that mask their activity related gratification levels. Meeting time can be saved by preparing a written questionnaire with a series of 'either - or' questions:

Would you rather:
__ give a live oral presentation in front of a small group or
__ make the behind the scenes arrangements for the presentation?

Meetings are most productive when:
__ there is 'no holds barred' interaction between everyone attending or
__ when a leader makes a comprehensive presentation for the group
to vote on?

After an interview, I know better:
__ what the client thinks or
__ how the client feels?

Properly set up these can be scored quickly and will help the firm match the personal resources of the stakeholders to the practice development programs.

Never underestimate the value to the firm of those below you in the pecking order. While the specifics of this topic will be discussed elsewhere, one of the biggest mistakes made by firms, large and small, is overestimating the value of those above and underestimating the importance of those below us in the overall scheme of things. It is inefficient to waste any resource and staff is a very valuable resource.

Sometimes it is hard to discuss personal vision where the firm culture is impersonal in nature or where well defined relationship strata between stakeholders exists. In these situations, as an exercise have the planning committee discuss practice (business) development efficiency for a well-known client or public figure. If you let the discussion flow for a while, whether you're discussing Michael Jordan or Bill Clinton, the discussion will eventually define a presumed vision and mission and will relate these to the development activities.

The place to incorporate practice development efficiency concepts is at the program level. When programs are designed, the measure of efficiency should be built in and an efficiency goal defined. For example, we put together a practice development program for a small personal injury firm that could not compete with its larger competitors in advertising dollars. In designing the program we identified specific individuals in the firm who would not find program activities an additional burden in either a personal resource or straight time context. We then calculated a financial cost to the program and established some program goals. Finally, we designed a system to measure the success of the program.

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