All businesses, including law practices, have slow periods. Knowing what to do when the phone stops ringing and clients stop hiring you can be a challenge.
It’s easy enough to spend such times in unproductive ways. Lawyers are not immune to the anxiety, doubt, and fear that often comes with a slow business period, and it’s easier than one might think to get caught up in loops of negative thinking. This makes it difficult to find the energy for productive activities, such as building an effective marketing strategy to help bring in more business.
Successfully bridging a business slump requires a twofold approach: Both the inner world (thoughts, feelings, and emotions) and the outer world (your environment and your business) need attention. You must address your inner world to keep the brain and body able to perform efficiently and effectively. On the other hand, you must also pay attention to your outer world—the world around you—and carefully consider what actions to take when there actually is time to implement strategic planning for business development.
The Inner World
If your law firm has ever been through a slow period, you’ll know how quickly an avalanche of unhelpful thoughts can arise. These are typical:
- “I won’t get new work.”
- “My clients have forgotten me.”
- “I’m going to go broke.”
Since lawyers are trained to consider what can go wrong in analyzing professional cases, they’re particularly prone to catastrophic thinking. This can provoke fear and anxiety, which can easily lead to a loss of motivation, procrastination, and excessive rumination.
As humans, we perform better and can think more accurately and creatively when we’re calm. Managing your thoughts and feelings throughout the day can help you stay energized, productive, and focused.
Here are a few simple, yet powerful tips:
1. Become aware of catastrophizing.
Catastrophic thinking is usually lurking underneath stressful feelings, lack of focus, and procrastination. Check the reliability of what you’re thinking.
Your mind will naturally try to weave together a narrative, even when you only have a few facts. For example, if it’s been a week since new work has come in, you might tell yourself it means that you will never get new work.
Our brains do this automatically to try to predict the future and keep us physically safe from harm. However, this instinct is not helpful in the context of reacting to a slow period for your law firm.
Lawyers are particularly prone to this type of pessimistic thinking, since the worst-case-scenario thinking that is necessary for prudent lawyers in analyzing cases can lead to catastrophic thinking in contemplating events in the rest of a lawyer’s life.
Ask yourself which of your thoughts are true—do you have factual evidence that, for example, your business is doomed or you will never get new work?
Dispute any catastrophic scenarios with the facts, as if you were advocating on your own behalf against an adversary. For example, the thought “I’m going to go out of business,” can be countered with “I’ve survived slowdowns before” and “it’s only been a few days since a new case has come in.”
2. Remember the facts
Create a list of facts to help halt catastrophic thinking and read them frequently if you begin to stress out. Here are some examples, but come up with ones that are true for you and your practice.
- “All businesses have slow spells.”
- “I have survived slumps in the past.”
- “My major client has told me they will have a new matter for me next month.”
- “It’s August and most of my clients are on vacation.”
- “I have a cushion in the bank for times like these.”
Focus your attention on your breath and breathe slowly and regularly, inhaling and exhaling to a slow count of four. Inhale-2-3-4-exhale-2-3-4. Over and over. If your mind wanders and you start to feel stressed, you can use a simple mantra to help yourself stay relaxed, such as, “Breathe and stay calm, breath and stay calm, breathe and stay calm.”
Breathing triggers the relaxation response of your nervous system, telling your brain that you are safe. By taking a few moments to breathe, you will be able to think more clearly and feel more productive in a very short period of time.
Don’t think you have a few moments? Keep in mind that a minute or two throughout the day can save hours lost to stress and rumination. It may seem counterproductive at the time, but thoughts like “I don’t have time to spend noticing my breath,” are just more instances of unhelpful and untrue thinking.
Try it for yourself. You’ll find that the more you practice, the more effective breathing techniques become.
4. Establish good self-care routines.
With extra time on your hands, you have a perfect opportunity to establish all of the self-care habits and practices that might seem to elude you in busy times. Here are a few examples of actions you can take:
- Join a gym and go regularly.
- Sign up for a few sessions with a personal trainer to find an exercise routine that works for you.
- Check out your neighborhood yoga studio.
- Commit to sleeping eight hours each night.
- Stock up on healthy food and get in the habit of eating nourishing meals.
- Sign up for an evening class just for fun, for example, improv, painting, or storytelling.
- Take a class on mindfulness meditation if stress and anxiety continue to be a problem.
Not only will you feel better, good self-care will support your other efforts. As a bonus, you’ll have less unstructured time on your hands to ruminate and worry, and more energy to devote to your efforts to move your business forward.
The Outer World
As you focus on caring for your inner world, you’ll quickly notice that you have more focus and confidence, and you can move into action. The openings in your firm schedule will give you the time you need for reflection, planning, and getting important but not urgent business needs moving forward.
Begin by answering these three questions:
- What clients or referral sources can you reach out to?
- What opportunities for your business have you been neglecting that you can now act on?
- What specific steps can you take to bring in more business, based on your answers to these questions?
Your answer to question three will guide you in prioritizing initiatives and developing a focused action plan to move forward while you have this precious time available to you.
If you’re not sure where to start, consider that your existing clients and inactive clients can be an excellent source of new opportunities for your practice, so prioritize communications with these clients.
Next, if you have a business plan for your practice, review it to see what you can move forward. If you don’t have a business plan for your practice, develop one now. The Clio Blog has some great resources on creating law firm business plans and marketing plans to guide you.
Soon enough, you’ll be through the slow period and you’ll see business start to pick up again—but it’s important to remember that investing in law firm business development isn’t just for slow periods.
Here’s how to make time for tasks and strategies to help your firm grow, even when you’re busy with plenty of clients.
Stay on Track When Business Picks Up Again
You can’t make the corn grow faster because you are hungry, and the same principle applies for your legal practice. Scrambling to call all of your referral sources when work dries up every few months isn’t a sustainable strategy—the best results come from consistent investments over time.
Most lawyers don’t keep their business development and marketing plans moving forward during their busy periods. The pressures of client work are intense and demanding.
But consistency pays off. The trick is to learn to use small increments of time for keeping your non-billable initiatives moving forward (and remember, these tasks, if done right, will bring in new clients, so they actually will make you money!).
Tackle Business Development in Small Steps
You might have a great business plan, a solid marketing strategy, and the ripest opportunities within your grasp but this one thought—“there’s not enough time right now”—is what will stop you dead in your tracks every time.
Nodding your head because this happens to you? You are not alone. “I’ll do it later” throws most lawyers off their best-intentioned plans.
Here’s what is important to know: Successful business development can be done in small steps. A five-minute investment can keep your plan on track. With 10 to 15 minutes, you can get some key tasks done.
Here are some examples of important actions you can take in less than five minutes:
- Look at your business plan or contact list and decide – who do I want to connect with this week? What action do I want to take this week? Get this item onto your to-do list.
- Send an email to a business prospect or referral source suggesting a lunch date.
- Review your website or online profile and decide what needs to be updated.
- Start brainstorming topics for the conference presentation proposal you are sending out next month.
- Email an article or link to a client telling them you thought of them when you read it, with a few words about why you thought it would interest them. (Maintaining strong relationships with clients is key if you want them to refer their friends and family to you.)
It’s amazing how much can be done with minimal investments of time.
Watch for the time between meetings, the time between finishing one big piece of work and starting the next, or the time you might have to read an article in transit or waiting at the courthouse. These are your opportunities to make an impact on your future.
Keep your business development to-do list on your desk and challenge yourself to move something forward every day. Make use of the small pockets of time available to you, to develop and execute on your plan, and to ensure that you are steadily investing in your prosperous future.
Whether you are a solo practitioner, a partner in a small firm, or an associate in a large firm, today’s lawyers are expected to stay productive and effective in both their professional and business spheres. By managing both your inner and outer worlds, you can not only survive business slumps, but effectively use them to build and strengthen your practices:
- Think twice. If it seems as if the world’s about to end, challenge that thought. Likely, your business isn’t doomed, and staying calm will allow you to take action to get through a slow stretch.
- Start small. Think about what’s most important to helping your business get back on track: Calling existing or previous clients is an excellent source for opportunities.
- Stay consistent. When business picks up, don’t neglect your long term business development plans. Even a few minutes a day can add up to a big investment in your future.
Allison Wolf is one of the most senior coaches for lawyers in North America. She has helped countless clients over the past 15 years develop thriving legal practices, and before that served as director of legal marketing for award-winning law firms. Allison received her Certified Executive Coach qualification from Royal Roads University in 2004, and, to round out her education, completed life coach training with Martha Beck in 2014. She is the president of Shift Works Strategic – Coaching for Lawyers, founder and managing editor of Attorney With a Life, and a partner in the legal marketing agency Hogarth & Wolf. Allison is a member of the International Coach Federation and American Bar Association, and a frequent writer and presenter for legal organizations, media, and law firms. Allison’s specialty is uncovering the thinking traps and gaps holding her clients back and helping them acquire the mindsets, skills, and habits for growing successful and rewarding legal practices.
Terry DeMeo, J.D., MCC, is an attorney and Master Certified Coach, known for her versatility and wide-ranging experience. After almost 25 years as a civil rights, criminal, and domestic relations litigator, she became a full-time coach, focusing on lawyers and other licensed professionals. She specializes in the areas of professional development and relationships. Terry is certified by several coaching programs in both general and relationship coaching, a certified mindfulness and stress management practitioner, a certified provider of the Myers-Briggs Typology Instrument, and has completed graduate coursework in somatic clinical psychology. An instructor for the Martha Beck coach-training company, Terry teaches courses in coaching skills, practice development, and coaching ethics. She is a member of the International Coach Federation.
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