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The Change Conqueror's Guide: How to Thrive in a Chaotic World

Published on Jun 20, 2023
Guest Author
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Who survives? Who thrives? You became a lawyer to thrive by engaging and helping people around you. How do you build a law firm that allows you to follow your passion? How do you build a thriving law firm for both current and future success?

People often talk about the “survival of the fittest.” Yet, most people misquote Charles Darwin. Instead, Darwin said:

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

The smartest or most scholarly lawyers are not always the survivors. They certainly are not always the thrivers. The strongest lawyers – those who started with the recognized name or the money or the position – are also not always the long-term survivors in our profession. Those assets may provide a little head start, but that’s all. Without adaptability, other lawyers quickly pass them.

The long-term thrivers are usually those lawyers who are most adaptable. Don’t get me wrong – As a lawyer, you should always work to perfect your advocacy, trial, and writing skills. You should constantly chase perfection! I’ll quote Coach Nick Saban (Roll Tide!) on the issue:

“I think everybody should take the attitude that we’re working to be a champion, that we want to be a champion in everything that we do. Every choice, every decision, everything that we do every day, we want to be a champion.”

If you ever lose the desire to work toward being the best advocate for your clients (or if you never had that desire to start), then you should quit being a lawyer right now. But thriving requires more than being the strongest or smartest lawyer. It’s adapting for long-term success.

I’ve seen smart lawyers struggle for work and clients. I’ve also seen great courtroom lawyers unable to manage their own law firms or personal lives for success. Success requires smarts, skills, and experience. It also absolutely requires adaptability. Let’s listen again to Coach Saban:

“One thing about championship teams is that they’re resilient. No matter what is thrown at them, no matter how deep the hole, they find a way to bounce back and overcome adversity.”

Grit and adaptability! The best teams don’t quit. They adapt and bounce back. In the courtroom, you must adapt quickly to win. Why are so many good lawyers adaptable in court yet so resistant to the same concept in business?

It was the best of times until it wasn’t.

In 1998, I was only three years out of law school. An established trial firm in Huntsville (near my hometown) called. They were looking to add a young lawyer with an opportunity at a partnership. I jumped at the opportunity to move home, join the firm, and prepare cases for trial.

The two older lawyers in this firm were the best courtroom lawyers in the region. I’m biased but that fact is true. This was the opportunity of a lifetime for any young lawyer. Prepare cases for court! Go to trial! Tell clients’ stories! Two experienced, older trial lawyers to mentor my professional growth!

For many years, this was the best of times. These guys had reputations as great lawyers. Their names meant a steady stream of good clients with good cases. I spent many years as their partner.

Slowly, things changed. Both older lawyers gradually quit trying cases, one due to declining health and the other to increasing outside activities. The rest of the firm was complacent from past success and intransigent in opposing any adaptations. In this new environment, I often found myself frustrated.

The firm continued to advertise in the phonebook, long after almost everyone else quit using it. The firm continued to maintain a large library of unused books, long after everyone else went electronic. The firm had no processes for key areas like client intake, staffing, or accounting. When I suggested we hold regular partner meetings or work on some simple standard procedures, I was met with complacency by some and resistance from others. Meanwhile, I watched the firm’s competitive position slowly erode due to inaction.

I’m not writing to criticize other lawyers. My now-retired older partners enjoyed years of success and were fantastic courtroom lawyers. They taught me how to prepare and try cases. I only regret my old firm would not build upon that past success. That failure to adapt allowed local competitors to move slowly ahead.

Lawyers need peers to consult.

In 2016, I left to start my own firm. I spent several years gathering data and preparing to implement new strategies before making the leap. I was excited to build something. I still am.

Beware the day-to-day grind! I’m not sure any small business owner is truly prepared for the daily grind. As a small law firm owner, you can easily lose yourself in daily management tasks. That grind slows innovation and keeps you from exploring ways to better run your firm.

How do you escape the daily grind? First, start implementing simple processes where possible. Second, find a group of like-minded peers to discuss business and strategy. After all, we’re all better with friends to guide us. Here are four broad areas where a coach or peer group can help:

1. Develop processes that free you to focus

If you want to focus on the creativity and thinking that makes lawyering fun (to me it does), you need simple processes and procedures for the daily grind. Too many law firms face every new day in a state of perpetual chaos fighting fires that could have easily been managed with basic procedures.

Free yourself to be a lawyer! Over the last couple of years, I’ve worked first with the group at Vista and then with a peer group of lawyers to help develop processes that can give me back time to be a real lawyer.

2. Discuss ideas that improve client service

Where do you get ideas for your business? Sure, you’ve learned through experience some things that work or don’t work. Sure, you’ve learned some good ideas through seminars and books. I regularly set aside time for seminars and books. But, the best ideas come from listening and talking with other innovative law firm owners. What better way to learn than discussing ideas with a group of other law firm owners?

3. Learn adaptations that work (as well as those that don’t)

For years, I begged my former partners to explore different marketing. I begged them to develop processes for client intake, medical record retrieval, staffing, and accounting. Instead, we stood idle while others slowly passed.

I want to learn constantly from others how to serve clients better, prepare cases better, and streamline management practices better. With a group of like-minded law firm owners, you can discuss and learn about adaptations that are working.

4. Receive (and give) advice that is honest and unbiased

I’ve seen it many times – As a lawyer prepares for trial, his or her perspective can become biased. An old trial lawyer told me once – “You start drinking the Kool-aid.

In business, you can also lose perspective by becoming too emotionally invested in a prior decision or way of doing things. Think about all the people who buy and hold a stock as it declines day after day, too emotionally invested to sell when needed. Most people suffer to some degree from this bias.

When I first consulted with Vista, I was in that biased position. I needed additional staff but had been unwilling to take the necessary leap. An honest, outside look at firm operations and processes can help you better see needed adaptations. I needed to act on staffing. An honest review by Vista helped me act and hire additional staff. I’m much happier as a result. Now that I’ve joined a peer group of like-minded personal injury lawyers, I’m really excited to continue learning from the honest advice of others in the coming years.

About Jeff Blackwell:

From its office in Huntsville, the Blackwell Law Firm helps people with serious personal injury claims across Alabama. The firm has handled and tried cases in counties statewide. Professional and peer groups regularly ask the firm’s attorneys to present or teach on topics involving personal injury, car accident claims, workers’ compensation and trial skills.

Jeff Blackwell focuses his law practice on cases involving severe personal injuries, substantial damages and wrongful death. He works exclusively for the victims of personal injury and their families.

Jeff is a proven trial lawyer. He fights hard for his clients. He began his career in 1995 at a prominent Birmingham law firm where he handled serious injury cases throughout the State of Alabama. Within the first three years of practice, Jeff orally argued a case before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, successfully defended a large healthcare corporation from serious fraud allegations with a team at trial and obtained a large recovery for consumers in a statewide class action.

In 1998, Jeff made the move home to North Alabama. He wanted to focus exclusively on representing Plaintiffs in cases of significant injury or damage. At the Huntsville firm where he practiced as a partner for the next 17 years, Jeff successfully tried cases to verdict in multiple Alabama counties. He also successfully represented clients before the Alabama Supreme Court and Alabama Court of Civil Appeals on many occasions. He has helped injury victims in both Alabama and Federal Courts.

When a longtime law partner retired in 2015, Jeff opened his own law firm. His law practice is built around a process involving legal scholarship, case preparation and strong client advocacy. This process is the foundation of the Blackwell Law Firm.

Jeff was born in Decatur. He graduated high school in Athens. He lives with his wife, Sharon, and three children in Huntsville.

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