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Solo Contendere: Celebrate more than buying a new calendar

Well, we can finally put a lid on 2016. It was a bad year for a lot of people. News outlets. Democrats (and pollsters). Celebrities (and people who love them—although a Facebook meme recently reminded me that it seems like more beloved celebrities are dying only because I am getting older). Slate ran an online piece asking if 2016 was the worst year in history, although the recency bias inevitably tends to skew the results. I don’t tend to agree, but I don’t want to begrudge people their complaints.

Every Jan. 1 we celebrate the most arbitrary of anniversaries: the day we have chosen every year to buy a new calendar. We make resolutions to be a better person, and by the next time we buy a new calendar have usually forgotten all about what we resolved to do, let alone have done it.

Even though I don’t customarily make resolutions, I probably should. If not for myself personally, at least for my firm. It bears examining every year what you have done over the last year to strengthen your practice. But January 1st is an arbitrary anniversary; it tends not to mean much except that, unlike birthdays, weddings, or other significant life events, it is a date on which we all share an anniversary. The anniversary of buying a new calendar. Hardly the stuff memories are made of.

Instead of making resolutions every Jan. 1, we should look at individual events that affect the firm: the law practice equivalent of a birthday or an anniversary.

I signed up with the Better Business Bureau a few years ago, on a one-year membership. They told me I had an A+ rating, and it wasn’t expensive, and it would help me to add value to my website and surety to my customers to have BBB accountability.

One year later, I realized that I had done nothing with them. Literally nothing. I hadn’t even put their sticker up on my door or their logo on my website. That’s inexcusable. After one year, I should have been able to look back and measure how much their endorsement had added to my business, or whether their links had driven any traffic to my website.

Instead, that one-year anniversary had passed without me doing anything except give them my money. Almost worse, I hadn’t taken a snapshot of my business the day I signed up, so even if I had done something with their endorsement, I wouldn’t have had any metrics by which to measure its effect.

August 17, 2013 (or whatever day I signed up) should have been an anniversary for me to look at as a marker of progress. It wasn’t.

Some anniversaries are just that obvious: the day you begin a new marketing campaign, change offices, or hire a new support person or associate. Most aren’t, though. In fact, many significant anniversaries aren’t even obvious except in retrospect. Two examples come to mind.

I can trace a significant amount of my business over the last several years to two clients. For each of these two clients, I handled at first one relatively simple case. There wasn’t anything special about either of the cases. Neither one was particularly difficult, and in each case I got a good but not exceptional result for the client. In each case the client got exactly what he wanted, but there wasn’t anything about either one that screamed that I had done a difficult task well.

But in the years since, each client has returned a significant amount of work to me, and each has referred a similarly significant amount of other clients. What made those cases so special? What was it that I did that made them keep coming back exclusively to me? I wish I knew. If I had, I could have identified the particular thing I did and made sure to incorporate that as a best practice. Years and dozens of cases later, they are as unlikely to remember as I am. Which brings me to my second example of an anniversary.

This one I can remember, and not because it was great. Without getting into details, pretty early in my law firm’s existence I had a case melt down spectacularly because of particular client conduct which I could have recognized had I known enough to anticipate it. I couldn’t have saved the case, but I could have saved months of my time and a pretty painful beating if I had known enough to withdraw.

Lesson (rather painfully) learned. And it was learned. Now that I know the warning signs, I know enough to not take those cases, or withdraw if a client starts displaying those same signs. I can’t trace any growth in business to the lessons I learned and incorporated on that date, but I can look back and see just how many problem cases I didn’t take as a result of that. As I mark the progress of my firm, that is one of the dates I look back on.

We can mark the steps forward we take in small-firm practice in a lot of ways, but the anniversary of buying a new calendar doesn’t seem like the best one. Of course, it’s convenient to note the progress of things like revenue growth from the first of the year, since you have to do that anyway. But there are more important milestones in the growth of a small firm. Those are the ones from which you should measure your progress.

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