Today’s guest is Chris Berry from the Elder Care Firm. We’re not going to be talking with Chris about Elder Law. We are going to talk about the magic of the word no and other topics that will help you create an economically and personally sustainable business.
I met Chris at a Michael Port event several years ago and the one thing that stood out is that he is highly organized, smart and managed to keep a zillion balls up in the air with few or none of them ever falling to earth. I thought that learning about how he does that is something we can all use a little of.
As it turns out, one of his special skills is using the word no and knowing when to use it. Why don’t you listen as we cover this topic and more in this podcast episode. Here’s some of the specific things we talked about:
- Why the word no might be one of the most powerful in the English language.
- The reason you need to never, ever charge by the hour for the work you do.
- How working on an fixed price basis can dramatically increase your hourly rate utilization.
- The importance of thinking of your business as a business and not a professional practice.
Narrator: Welcome to The Sustainable Business Radio Show podcast where you’ll learn not only how to create a sustainable business but you’ll also learn the secrets of creating extraordinary value within your business and your life. In The Sustainable Business, we focus on what it’s going to take for you to take your successful business and make it economically and personally successful.
Your host, Josh Patrick, is going to help us through finding great thought leaders as well as providing insights he’s learned through his 40 years of owning, running, planning and thinking about what it takes to make a successful business sustainable.
Josh: Hi, this is Josh Patrick. Today, you’re at The Sustainable Business.
Today’s guest is going to be Chris Berry. I met Chris – oh, I don’t know, four, five or six years ago at a Michael Port event and he impressed me as being one of the attorneys I’ve met who are actually running a business and not running a practice. And for those who will spend some time listening to this podcast, know that if you’re in the professional services world, I always recommend that you look at your business as a business and not a practice. Chris has a done a really good job and we’re going to talk to him about he has done this, about making himself operationally irrelevant in his business.
So, instead of me talking about Chris, why don’t we talk with Chris and we’ll bring him on.
Hey, Chris. How are you today?
Chris: I’m doing fantastic. Thanks for having me.
Josh: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks so much for spending some time. Okay, so you build yourself a really great law practice. You own a bunch of cross fit gyms. You have two kids. You have a really busy life and it seems like you’ve got basically everything under control. So, a lot of that had to about systematizing your business and taking yourself out of the day-to-day operations. So, why don’t we start talking about that? What do you think was one, two or three of the most important things you’ve done that have helped you down that road?
Chris: Well, I think—and I appreciate those compliments. I think the biggest thing was when I started my practice, I started my practice on my own. And the biggest thing is I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want it just to be a practice. My whole goal was to not just practice law but have a law business.
And you mentioned systematizing things to be able to do all the things or stay in control. And I take it a step further. In addition to systematizing my business, I’ve also tried to systematize my personal life as well. So, especially when you’re running your own practice, running your own business, the lines get blurred between your personal life and your business life. And so, taking those same concepts, you apply to your business can also help you systematize your personal life, whether you’re batching projects of even putting projects on a calendar. So, I take those same principles I use in my business and apply them to home life as well.
Josh: So, what are some of the things that you’ve done to systematize your business and your life?
Chris: I think, from the beginning, just looking to outside sources. Don’t just learn inside of whatever business you’re in. One of the first books I read was Book Yourself Solid by Michael Port which really helped me identify that I needed a marketing system. And then the other thing that I read was a book called The E-myth – The entrepreneurial myth which really just beat in my head this idea of it needs to be systematized. So, when I started my practice, as I was kind of figuring out how I wanted to do things, the order of things getting done, I was always looking to the future of “Okay, even though I may be able to do this now on my own, let me document this so that if I can bring on additional team members, that documentation, that process will already be in place versus not thinking about the big picture right off the bat and kind of scrambling from behind.
Josh: So you said, you documented your processes, how did you go about doing that?
Chris: It sounds pretty straightforward and simple but I would just write things out as I was doing it – writing out the steps. And then I’m a big fan of kind of doodling and I use one of those Moleskine journals. But I would actually just draw out the process of what I would want to see happen. And it took some trial and error. It wasn’t perfect the first time but between writing out the steps as I was doing the different tasks and then also just big picture brainstorming of what I wanted the overall client experience to look like. From there, I’d just flesh it out one step at a time.
Josh: So, once it was in your notebook and you started training other people on how to use it, did you just use your notebooks or did you put it in a spreadsheet or a word processing document? Where did it go?
Chris: It started about 12 years ago, when I started my practice. And we didn’t have as many kind of technological tools that we do now. So, initially, it started as I put it into my journal. And then from there, it’d go into a Word document. And then, we added some practice management software. And now, we’re using a practice management software that really doesn’t allow you to get around the system. So, now, it’s built into the software package we use. So that once you’re trained on it, it’s pretty straightforward in terms of training staff and then getting them up to speed.
Josh: So your practice management software, is that specifically for the legal profession? Is it a general purpose thing?
Chris: We have a program called Action Step which is not a legal-specific type of software but it is built for service professionals, so it might be appropriate for a financial planner or some other professions as well as lawyers. But what I love about it is, just like the name says, it’s one step at a time and it’s about taking action. So, what we did is we basically used that software to craft our system inside of that with various stepping stones to the next task from the time a client contacts us to the time we wrap up their file.
Josh: Oh, that’s very cool. So, it’s essentially a workflow management process that you’ve put together?
Chris: Correct. Yup. We’ve kind of gotten our workflow down and based on the different types of cases we have, we do estate planning and elder law. And there’s a couple different possible workflows inside of that, but we have crafted every workflow inside of Action Step so that it’s pretty easy to see based on – even if I’m not the attorney working a case, to figure out what is the next step for the file.
Josh: So, you started this 12 years ago, how long did it take you to document all the processes in your office?
Chris: Well, when I started, the first goal was just to get enough clients to pay the rent and make sure I could bring home some money. So you’re definitely scrapping at first. And probably, within the first two or three years, I quickly identified the niche area that I wanted to practice and then I started to see patterns in terms of “Okay, I’m always doing this for a client. I’m always doing this for a client.” And so, I would say, within the first couple of years. And again, I think that’s one of the advantages of why my practice really turned into a business pretty quick is the fact that I always started with the ending goal of “I want to be able to replace myself so that the business wouldn’t be dependent on me.”
Josh: That’s a great goal to have. And one of the things that you said is that you only have a couple of processes and that makes me believe that you only do a few things and you’ve probably gotten very good at that. Would that be an accurate statement?
Chris: Yup, you hit the nail on the head. Very quickly, in my practice, and I think this was one of the keys to a growing so quickly is, I niched down what exactly I was doing. I focused entirely on estate planning and elder law which is kind of a niche area of practice but it’s an area of law we’re not having to go to court that often and really just fit my personality type. So, initially, you might think there’s a lot of different workflows built into that area of practice but in reality, we have probably three different workflows and it’s just a matter of working those workflows and we’ve done a great job, from the very beginning, identifying who our client is and then tailoring a process and a service to meet whatever their needs are.
Josh: So, I’m going to bet that you do not work on an hourly basis, you work on a project basis?
Chris: You’re absolutely correct. That was one of the things early in my practice, I think, maybe the first year, I took on a couple of hourly clients but very quickly I moved to a flat fee or fixed fee basis. Clients appreciate that and they reward us for our efficiency than we’re paid based on the value we’re providing versus just milking the clock.
Josh: So, when you’re working on a fixed price basis or a project basis, are you finding what many other people find which is your actual utilization rate per hour is much higher than you could probably charge, if you’re charging hourly rates?
Chris: I would say that’s true. I do have an hourly rate that I quote clients and that’s obscenely high just because I don’t want to be charging hourly in the first place. But we found and we’ve tested it many times and we test it about once a year, where we measure the time spent on every staff member on any case to make sure that we’re appraising appropriately.
Josh: How did you figure this out, to go fixed price? Because frankly, very few people in your profession do that.
Chris: Well, I think a couple of things lead to it. First of all, my undergrad was in business and finance. And so, I come into law with an idea of a business mind first where my undergrad was. Finance and psychology actually were my majors.
So I always kind of looked at the practice of law, not as “Hey, I want to be a lawyer but this is a business and it should be ran like a business.” And so, businesses should reward efficiency. That was one of driving forces. I don’t want to be rewarded for being inefficient. Another driving force was that clients don’t like that idea of “Okay, I’ll just sign on for this routine or I don’t know how much time he’s going to bill.” They don’t like surprises. They appreciate the certainty. At least, my clients.
And the third thing is I’m completely lazy. And so, the last thing I want to do is be able to have to track my time – sit there, tracking every 15 minutes. It’s not to say that I’m not efficient with my time management. I think I’m very efficient. But to me, it just seemed a waste of time to track my time, if that makes sense.
Josh: To me, it makes a lot of sense because I’m in the same boat. I never track my time. So, one of the complaints I always hear from folks who are in professional services that traditionally charge by the hour is that “Well, I can’t charge by the hour because then I’ll have times where I spend more hours than I should.” What would your comment be to that?
Chris: So, if I can just re-state the question. So, the issue people have who bill hourly to moving to a flat fee basis is that “what if they take a bath on a client, right? What if they guess wrong in terms of what that flat fee is?”
Chris: To that, I guess I have a couple of points. First, you should be so good at what you’re doing. You should hit the nail on the head on a relatively often basis because you’re the expert. So you should be able to guesstimate accurately. So the first thing might be just a level of knowledge in whatever your service is and being able to control that.
And then the second point is that there are going be times that you miss. There’s certainly cases, and I can think of one on top of my head, where we quoted a certain fee and it ended up being a lot more. But that said, if you’re doing it right, you’re going to have a lot of others where if your system is setup properly, you’re going to be super efficient and you’re going to be under that kind of time cap that you would have allotted for whatever you quoted.
So, especially when you’re starting out, you might miss more than you hit but once you get efficient and, again, the less you offer, the better you’re going to get at this – in terms of less workflows you have, the less different types of clients, different types of workflows. The less you offer in terms of offerings, the better you’re going to get at those offerings.
Josh: So, I’m going to bet that because you only do a few types of things, you’ve gotten very good at it. You’ve gotten very efficient at it. And you probably do it a lot faster than most of your competitors.
Chris: I certainly agree with that. Our model, if you will, has been to become an expert in a very few areas. So, we have deep level of knowledge in just one or two areas of law versus a lot of other attorneys. They have a shallow level of knowledge in a lot of different areas which this concept has been frustrating for my parents because their son’s an attorney and he’s supposed to know everything law related. But I tell people the less I saw in Law and Order last night, I’m probably not going to know the answer to their traffic ticket or that type of thing.
But yeah, I think one of the keys in all of business is to really specialize in what you’re good at and really know what you know. And then if there are things that you also need to offer, maybe partner up with someone who’s an expert in that area. And that’s what we’ve done, is we’re experts on the estate planning and elder law. That’s our production piece. While we could do things like probate or family law, I just have other specialists that I refer that to.
Josh: And to me, that makes a ton of sense. I mean, just out of the curiosity, I know that I found that any time I get involved in what I call one-off which is something I really don’t know a lot about, I always end up taking a bath. And any time I stay in what I know a lot about, I never take a bath. Would you say that’s true for you?
Chris: Oh, I agree, 100%. Even though, that’s right, just kind of sticking to what you know, there’s always a family member that asks this or a close friend that asks that. Those are always the ones I’m regretting. I’m like, “Why did I say yes to this?”
Josh: I can certainly appreciate that. So, let’s talk a little bit about how you integrate personal and business because I’m a strong believer that this whole thing with work life balance was invented by people who have never owned a business. And what I find is that integrating both makes a lot more sense. So, how do you go about doing that?
Chris: Well, the biggest thing is my calendar. My life is guided by the calendar and I put everything on the calendar. Whether it’s time I’m picking up my kids, the time I’m working out, the time I’m returning phone calls, my client meetings, what I’m doing on the weekends. My calendar is always full.
And I found that that allows me to accomplish more. Even I have my rest time calendar down there where there’s no appointments, no work being done. It’s just family time. So I’m a big believer in making sure that everything fits my calendar and then a big believer on figuring out what’s important to you. So, if you have a mission statement for your business, maybe you should also have one for your family. And from that, you can then prioritize what’s important to you.
So, very early in my law career, I knew that I didn’t want to be in the office all day, kind of the classic stressed attorney who’s working too long, health fails, that type of thing because I think it’s all linked together. And so health, working out, eating right, those are all things that are very important to me. And I think that bleeds over into business where now I have more energy, able to accomplish more when I’m at work if I’ve gotten that morning workout in, if I’m eating the right things during the day.
So I think it’s all integrated especially if you’re a business owner, it’s all integrated. Things that are going to be keeping you up at night, it might be business stuff. It might be personal but it’s all related.
Josh: So, if you we’re to give somebody some advice about creating a calendar, would they put everything on one calendar or would they have separate calendars?
Chris: Well, for me, what I’ve done is, first, I created what my ideal calendar looks like, what my ideal week looks like. And then from there, that’s how my calendar gets developed. So I have times where we can schedule appointments. And I have times where there’s no appointments to be scheduled. So I build it all into one calendar just because also it makes it simpler for me. I only have to look at one place, to look at my calendars.
So, typically, I don’t work long days. Generally, I’m out of the office by sometimes 3- maybe 4 o’clock at the latest because, for example, tomorrow I’m leaving the office at 3 because me and my son – he is taking piano lessons and I’m taking guitar lessons. I have days blacked out where I’m doing jujitsu and cross fit. So, all of this is all on my one calendar. And I think, for a business owner, it makes sense just to have one calendar.
Josh: So, how much of your time do you use the word “no”?
Chris: That’s a great question. And that’s something that if I could talk to my starting out attorney 10 years ago, I’d definitely tell myself to use the word “no” a lot more. And that’s something that’s been difficult for me to understand because I’m always a people pleaser but by having systems in place and also adding team members and having them say “no” to things, they being a gatekeeper has been very effective for me.
So I’d probably say no a lot more than yes now. And it’s very tough to kind of make that transition but as you become more successful, there’s more and more draws on your time and you have to be more selective about how you use that time and energy. And for me, the most important thing is family and then behind that’s growing this firm to support my team and support the clients. And if it’s something that’s not going to fit in line with those goals –that mission statement for my family or my business then that gives me the ability to say “no” to things. But if I wasn’t clear on where I wanted to go or my mission, then I’d be saying yes to a lot more things than I do. So, saying no is very powerful and one of the most important and powerful things that you can do as a business owner.
Josh: So, I’ve got time for one more question for you. And it’s really around mission statement which is, lots of people have business mission statements, not many people have personal mission statements. How did you go about deciding that you needed both?
Chris: I basically broke down what are my roles? Like, who do serve? Like, I serve my family and I serve my clients. And so, I think serving my family is the most important thing. And I find it silly to have a business mission statement without having a family mission statement. I mean, I guess, personal to every family and that should be worked out together but yeah.
We sat down and we crafted kind of what are the important things and my children are young. My son’s about to turn six and my daughter’s about to turn four. And so, we also talked about, based on that mission statement, we kind of built some house rules and things like that. So, I think it’s vitally important. Like, we started off, a small business owner, you can’t separate that business and personal life. They’re intertwined. So, I think it’s vitally important. And taking those same ideas of delegation and saying “no”. And things to systematize your business, if you apply it to your personal life you’re going to see some similar [inaudible 00:18:24].
Josh: So, you may be the only person, besides me, I’ve ever met that has both a personal and a business mission statement, so I highly congratulate you for that.
Chris, we’re out of time and I’m going to bet there’s going to be some of our listeners who might want to get in contact with you. So, if they did, how would they go about doing that?
Chris: Sure. Probably the best bet is shoot an e-mail to me or you can just go online to our website and there’s a contact form there for the law firm. You can find our law firm’s website at Michiganestateplanning.com. And if you wanted to shoot me an e-mail because you have any questions, it’s firstname.lastname@example.org.
Josh: Cool. Thank you so much.
Hey, Chris, thanks so much for your time today. I really appreciate you spending a few minutes with us.
And those who are listening, I think there’s probably some good nuggets here that you might want to take advantage of. And I have an offer for you which is I’ve developed this thing I’ve called the Periodic Table of Business Elements and the periodic table has a ton of different strategies you could be using in your business. It’s on one page. It’s easy to get. And it’s even easier for you to get it. All you have to do, take out your smartphone and send me a text. The text should be sent to 44222 – that’s 44222 and just type periodic in and we’ll have that periodic table on it’s way to you.
So, Chris, thanks so much for your time today again. And I’m looking forward to speaking with you in the future.
You are at the Sustainable Business and I hope you have a great day. Thanks so much.
Narrator: You’ve been listening to The Sustainable Business podcast where we ask the question, “What would it take for your business to still be around 100 years from now?” If you like what you’ve heard and want more information, please contact Josh Patrick at 802‑846‑1264 ext 2, or visit us on our website at www.askjoshpatrick.com, or you can send Josh an e-mail at email@example.com.
Thanks for listening. We hope to see you at The Sustainable Business in the near future.