Let’s talk about “best practices.”

There’s a cult of best practices in law firms. We get advice all the time laced with words like “must” and “should.” There are books on how to start a law practice that have been around since the 70s and have received few updates. And that advice was 100 years old in the 70s.

Point is, there are some established rules that most of us accept as givens. But you don’t “must” or “should” your way to a business you don’t hate. You have to design.

There are far greater minds out there than mine on design thinking in law firms. People like Cat Moon at Vanderbilt and Alix Devendra at Start Here HQ come to mind. But I can tell you a bit about my experience in design.

At the most recent Lawyer Forward conference, my friend Angela Faye Brown talked about designing your firm around revenue goals, and that those revenue goals should be based on life goals. Fair enough.

I definitely had to start with life goals. My family situation is a bit unique. I have 4 homeschooled kids and a wife with a chronic illness, and we live in a different area than where our primary law office is. I couldn’t have the kind of practice I had before in Rockport, running from hearing to hearing. I knew I’d have to design something that was location- and time-flexible and allowed me to hire support.

Rather than start with what money I wanted, however, I started with product design. I wanted to know that I could deliver something that made clients happy before I measured whether it could make me happy.

I’m sure we’ll talk about this more, but I’m always preaching the “Design, Source, Build, Deliver” mantra. Those four words have been the focus of two of my Lawyer Forward TED-style talks and central to the Legal Supply Chain Manager training program I’ve offered. They mean a lot to me.

So that’s where I started. I designed a product. “See a need, fill a need,” to quote the fat boss from the movie Robots.

I designed a Pro Se Assistance product for divorcing couples. It is primarily a coaching product, with a heavy focus on quality training for the pro se divorce litigant. It’s not glamorous, but there’s a need. And perhaps more important, it uses my ninja skill/passion intersection of teaching. So I designed it. I identified the crucial elements and what it would take to deliver them, then I made sure I could do it at a profit. Once I did all that, I knew I had a marketable first product.

After that, I made rough sketches of a few more products I could develop in the coming year: limited scope divorce, certain probate options, and estate planning. I’m not taking any of those cases until I’ve developed the product, but I know they’ll come. I like to think in quarters (see the book 12 Week Year on this) so I mapped out how I’ll add one product each quarter.

Then I did some math. I figured out who I’d have to hire or contract with to build the product (the “Source” element from earlier), as well as how much revenue those providers would have to generate to justify the hire.

We’ll talk more about the math another day, but I started with product rather than what money I wanted to make. Maybe that’s just me being afraid of money, or maybe it’s super smart focus on the consumer. I don’t know. I’ve heard practice experts argue for both approaches. For me, though, it was clear I was going to deliver legal product so I wanted to start with that.

However you do it, I encourage you to think long and hard about the practice that you want. Even after practicing for 7 years, I’ve dedicated about two weeks to figuring this out. It may be the most important time I’ve spent on my practice.

Design what customers want. Design what you want. If those two magically overlap, you officially have a plan. Now it’s time to implement.