How we found the secret to success in a small business and helped a law firm owner find joy again

By Dave Favor, The Wise Owl

Any successful long existing business has a story. Moreover, from the story is usually some great lessons on how to be successful. This is our story from my point of view.

I had worked for IBM for 32 years, in management, when I discovered I had some health issues during my yearly physical. Being in management I was aware of the early retirement programs being offered, so I signed up for the last program. With my health issues in mind, I figured I would take all that buyout money and conquer the world. Of course as all good plans go, it did not turn out exactly as I had envisioned. It was not that bad either. I was doing some contract consulting work for Blue Cross at the dreaded turn of the century. In the technology world, everyone just called it the Y2K project. It was December of 1999.

One day I got a call from Cheryl asking questions about technology in a small law firm located in a small town somewhere off route 95. As the conversations became longer, I decided to travel down to visit her after my project with Blue Cross completed. I have lots of interesting stories about how this big city guy met this little southern town and southern woman, but that is another story.

Here I am with Cheryl, who is doing a consulting contract with a law firm owner who wants to grow. She is telling me that she needs help getting this law firm under control, business wise, so they can expand. I say, “no problem, business is business so let’s look at the burden rates, return on investment trends and the process being followed.” Silence in the room after that now infamous speech was made. The next month or so was spent with Cheryl and I teaching each other enough to find common ground. We finally reached a compromise position and presented a plan to the senior partner of the Firm.

To grow rapidly, we determined that we needed to apply known business theory and practices. This was not the norm for small law firms of the day. They relied on professional skills, not tools or processes. We could see what was needed but could not convince a professional skill-based staff to change. The expense side of the business was growing as the additional skilled staff were brought in to handle increased client loads. The profit margins were going down, and we felt lost. Classes we had put together to address soft skills and process were not well received. OK, so this was a learning experience. We had to develop a total solution instead of pieces.

We spent a year looking at case management systems, business theory white papers, and financial analysis of the law firm as it started to expand. We identified common steps in everyday work that could be handled by a process. We determined the need for soft skills and found business theory and a case management system that could be tailored for this law firm. We developed processes that would support the case management system. We found a financial management system that would work with our case management software and allow for trend analysis. We worked out a balanced scorecard approach for the tracking numbers instead of a singular focus on money.

All of this was done over a year with trial and error. There were false starts and a lot of frustration as we attempted to change the day to day routine. Gradually we gained some acceptance. With each step, we refined our solution.

One of the early discoveries for us was the inclusion of lifetime goals as well as business goals for the business owners. That soon expanded to include all of the staff and became integrated into our business solution. The second breakthrough was the new focus on soft skills. Along with professional skills, we included classes on communications, self-mastery, client interaction and even a class on how to answer the phone with a smile.

After several attempts to move the firm into a process based system, we hit that aha moment. We developed a hybrid system that incorporated process and skill-based areas. After several months of designing and research, we developed a law firm that relied on a case management system that was supported by both professional skills and process workers. We created profit centers with a more realistic bonus system. Classes on soft skills were tailored to law firm’s needs.

The key to any business solution is discovering what the end goal is. We developed a formal process for a small law firm to define the values, mission and vision for a law firm. With this insight, we developed a strategic planning process tailored for a small law firm. Incorporated with all of this is the concept of a merger of life and job goals that became the “Triangle for Success”. The key to the strategic solution was the definition of profit centers, need for soft skills, processes, and a balanced scorecard way of measuring success.

Did it work? After the unveiling of the new system, the Firm expanded rapidly and soon had headquarters in the big city. The legal professionals worked alongside the resource center. Other Firms were asking about how we did it. Software developers were looking at how we implemented and integrated their products. And today the owner is doing exactly what he wants to do with his life (on the beach). Cheryl and I became business partners as well as lifetime partners, and our calendar was filling with speaking engagements. Catalyst the business was born. That was fourteen years ago.

Today Catalyst stands as a successful small mentoring company. Our client base is driven by personal referrals, and we pick and choose our clients knowing that they will become lifelong relationships. As mentors, we are getting to see other people attain their dreams, and we feel ownership in their success. And on any given day you can find us sitting on our back deck with a client or two who will fly or drive in just to tell us their dreams. The advice is free and they are not allowed to discuss hiring us. This is our way of helping others find their dream.

We have on-going clients we enjoy daily. We have a pay it forward policy at Catalyst (called Catalyst Connect).  We go to the beach to restore our souls. And we go to Disney (Club Floor of course) to restore our childlike attitude about life. Our family and friends are in and out of our home doing what family and friends do.   Our days are filled with doing what we were meant to do. We believe the good life is simply this: Living in a place you like; with the people you love, doing the right work; all on purpose.