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January 2006

Leveraging a Lawyers Greatest Asset, Their Mouth

I have said repeatedly and often on this blog that I know that I am doing well when I am dictating a lot. It is no mystery why this is and must always be so. And, I am not talking about these blog posts. Sure, my big fast moving mouth is able to generate content at lightning speed since I am not the one that has to type these up.

What you need to understand is that I do a lot of dictation to my staff, to my virtual workers, to my clients, and even to my adversaries. I probably type twenty words a minute. Unfortunately this sad fact is made sadder by the fact that my accuracy is about 60%. My Dad would not let me take typing in high school or college, noting that typing was for secretaries. Now, here I stand in the emerging digital world, high-tech attorney, on the forefront of high-tech practice, without the ability to type. The cruel irony of it all.

But, boy can I talk. I don't know how many words per minute I can get in, but I would have to say that it must be at least 200. Perhaps it is 300 or 400. I don't know. But if I can talk four times faster than I can type, simple math tells me that I can get four times as much done talking information than I can typing it.

Let me give you an example of how this is working. Whenever I am on the phone with a client, or working on a project, I keep my legal extranet browser window open. As I am talking to my client on the phone, I am literally creating tasks in real time, or capturing notes, or starting discussion lists. With my typing limitations, I usually end up with a good rough outline of where we are going and what we need to do next. After I am done with this process, I pick up my digital dictation equipment and dictate all of the to-do items, their order, who they are assigned to and file uploads. I flush out message discussions, instruct people to be added to the extranet and craft the extranet into a perfect reflection of case strategy. But, I dictate all of this information which is then input into the extranet by our soon to be hired extranet manager. That person, also on a priority basis, keeps adding information and to-do items to the extranet at a pace that I could never achieve myself. The case manager is then able to reorganize and assign those tasks to appropriate people, or let those people claim tasks as appropriate. The case manager keeps the project and the various aspects of the project moving towards conclusion even when I am out of the office for three days at a shot taking depositions. The case manager can see what needs to happen and insures that it does happen even while I am not looking.

There is no question that we are practicing laws in ways that few lawyers have ever considered. There is also no question that it is working. We are able to do more in less time. We are able to think strategically because we have all of the information available to us that we need to make smart decisions. We determine how to accomplish the clients goals (whether contract negotiation, litigation or strategic planning) right out of the gate and we document that strategy in a variety of ways. The bricks of the path leading to the end zone are the tasks that are created and assigned. And, the client gets to see it all just by logging in. Could you imagine that?


Changing The Way Law Is Practiced One Task At A Time

What do we accomplish by letting priorities dictate our process?

Before instituting the priorities system in our office, paper tended to pile up in globs. The mail would sit on the corner of Jenny's desk until I had time to deal with it. Eventually, I would grab the pile and bring it to my office where it would sit in another pile. Often, the pile would look so intimidating that I would find other things to do, usually sitting behind my computer monitor safe from the pile. Eventually I would go through the pile and attach the routing sheet which dictates everything that happens with that document, from calendering, to scanning options, to routing, to to-do items generated by the document, and to digital filing. My document routing cover sheet also prioritizes a document on a scale of 1-4.

Although I have always rated my scanning in terms of priority, I failed to develop an effective process around that prioritization. I would take the entire pile, more often than not with the #1's on top and the #4's on the bottom and drop it in a big pile on Jenny's desk. Jenny would check the pile for priorities, but no doubt, sometimes succumb to the sheer size of the pile, an intimidating foe.

Now, the #1's fly through the office at a much faster pace. The #2 pile which is typically not so big finds it's way through the process at a nice pace. The #3 and #4 piles are the largest. They sit, each in their own neat stack, waiting to make their journey up to a higher slot.

What can I tell you. The paper flow where once sporadic is now balanced and steady. Priority items don't get lost in the pile, hiding in plain view among the 8 1/2 by 11 sheets of sheer chaos.  If one worker is not available, the job does not sit in their in-box undone, waiting for that person to return. Most office tasks become ubiquitous and available to several as opposed to just one.


Let Priorities Be Your Guide

In looking at how and why we go about our business of being a law firm, we realize that there are some flaws in the process. Law firms are often set up on a system wherein tasks are matched with specific people. I send dictation to my secretary. The endless flow of paper goes through the tagging and routing process towards the scanner and then through the process of digital and physical filing. GAL posts are sent to Katy for transcription. Nick handles much of the scanning. Jenny does much of the calendering.

I don't know why it didn't occur to me sooner. We have been moving aggressively towards a task-based business model to deliver legal services. The extranet brought something to light that I had not really anticipated. In the extranet, we are able to create finite tasks which need to be accomplished in order to realize client goals. The smallest tasks are documented and assigned. But, sometimes the tasks were assigned to workers who were not necessarily the right person for the job. That person might not be available to preform the task the quickest. That worker might not have the specialized interest in the issue presented. Why don't I let workers claim tasks?

It was a bit of a revelation. By putting tasks into play and prioritizing them, we can allow workers to claim tasks that are of interest to them and which they feel comfortable achieving within the time frame set forth. After all, who knows better what at workers availability is than the worker them self?

This got me thinking about our internal operations. Why should tasks be arbitrarily associated with people? Isn't the most important thing about a task it's priority? The things that have to be done right now should be done by anyone certified to preform that task. An appropriate business model should not limit that task to a person.

We now prioritize all incoming mail on a rating scale of 1-4, with #1 being something that has to be handled right now. As I consider what to do next, I don't have to look far. My #1 tasks are staring at me.

As I route the paper back to my staff for routing, scanning, transmittal, mark-up and digital filing, I prioritize each document 1-4. Again, #1 is something that has to be done right now.

The scanning is further rated on a scale of 1-4. Important documents by settlement offer make their rounds around the office in the one category from beginning to end. The client gets the document as a PDF (perhaps even marked up with audio comments) quickly and efficiently. Some of the #2 items become #1 items, the #3 items eventually work their way to #2. The #4 items (junk mail) wait for that day in the future when I have nothing to kill but time.

I would encourage anyone who is considering out of the box options for their legal process to consider letting priorities dictate tasks, not the availability of people.


The Evolution Of A New World Law Firm

There is a lot going on at the law firm these days. We had some sizable settlements come in and we have some more on the way. We are adding one more permanent paralegal/extranet administrator. We have added one more part-time high school student to do the scanning, data filing and other misc. tasks (we now have two part-time high school students doing administrative jobs including typing up the GAL dictation to this weblog.) We have three virtual law clerks (soon to be four), we have one case manager whose primary job is to keep projects moving forward and workers on key tasks through the extranet system. We have Jenny who does just about everything. We have one attorney, that's me.


More On Using Your Cell Phone As Your Primary Phone

I did something unusual the other day. I accidentally left my cell phone at home. Since I use my cell phone as my primary number, this created a little bit of a dilemma. I called my wife and had her leave a message stating that I could only be reached at our primary office number (land line).

When I got home, there were fifteen missed calls. I don't know whether that is the average number of calls I get in a day. We had a major ice storm in our town and most everything was closed down. I suspect that this number was on the low side.

The interesting thing was the comment from Jenny at the end of the day. She had to field all of the calls that would normally come directly to me. She commented at how little she was able to get done while fielding all of the calls would have otherwise come to my cell phone.

I don't necessarily answer every call that comes through on my cell. I do screen my calls. I also don't let calls interrupt me when I am in the middle of something. Voice-mail is a great tool of communication. In many instances it is better for my clients to leave me a message with some information about their problem prior to me calling them back. That way I can grab the right documents or get the information that the client needs.

I wonder how much time is wasted in law firms on the inefficiency of call routing. In many law firms, the phone call goes to the receptionist and then to the secretary even when the caller wants the attorney on the line. Setting aside the fact that you are absolutely wasting your clients time by making them talk to two meaningless people on their journey to your line. What a waste of internal resources for law firms. If you want to increase the productivity of your staff, take them out of the endless loop of inactivity. The number one wasted activity, in my book, is routing callers through a maze of support staff.

Today's lesson is clear. Jenny is able to get far more done in a day because she doesn't have to deal with answering and forwarding calls to me.


Losing Hourly Pennies and Investing In Your Own Future

Building client relationships is not a billing event. This first year of practice at my new firm certainly involves a lot of hours which were, under the old model, deemed as uncompensated. Reaching out to old and new clients, introducing them to our new billing model, preparing project proposals, creating legal extranet projects and populating them with initial data and status phone calls are all un-billed at our office. These are all things which build a foundation of client relationships.

Of course, once those relationships are established, the start-up costs of launching a new project for a client become less. Once you train a client how to use the extranet using "gotomeeting.com" you don't need to train them again. The next project that you bring online for them is easy and seamless.

I continue to spend time developing relationships. What I am seeing, however, is that by putting in that time and letting the client know that they don't have to pay for it I am distinguishing myself in the market and building a solid foundation for further work. As importantly, those very clients are telling their friends and other business owners about how we do what we do.

In many ways, we are investing in our future. To me, it makes all of the sense in the world. It is hard for me to understand the slash and burn mentality of law firms who gobble up client pocketbooks like a three year old who finds himself alone with a bag of chocolate chip cookies.


The Importance of Process and Technology In Revolutionizing Legal Services

When I started my law firm a year ago, I had some major anxiety built up and a healthy dose hostility towards the hourly billing system. The further I get into my practice I realize that there are gains to be made in both productivity and process. Obviously, there are lots of lawyers who bill on an hourly basis, but who do so both ethically and professionally. There are many lawyers around the country who eat time all the time. There are many attorneys who view client relationships as far more important than their daily billing fee. Most of those lawyers work, one way or another, for themselves or with only a small group of people. Inevitably, they have an autonomy to make decisions for themselves.

When you are in a large firm, or when you are in a small firm that is dominated by one or two hourly billing dictators, you simply don't have the luxury to use your  own discretion.

But, I digress. The point of this post is to acknowledge that there are tremendous efficiencies to be gained within the legal services market which will inevitably deliver higher quality services to clients at lower costs. By lowering costs, legal services will become available to more individuals and businesses. Instead of spending $1000 and getting virtually nothing in return, clients will be able to spend $1000 and feel like they received tremendous value for their money.

The importance of process is in the area of quality control. If the process for handling a particular activity is documented, you are drastically reducing not only the amount of time which that activity takes but the possibility that an error will occur. We are working hard to document internal processes this year so that we can plug and play people into those processes.

While process has a positive impact on productivity, it is the Internet and technology which offers the greatest possibility for revolution within legal services. Technology can put teams of people together regardless of where they are located. Technology can make sure that all mission critical information is available to every member of the team, including the client. Technology can insure that knowledge is captured and leveraged moving forward. Technology, while not free, can be obtained at a cost point which achievable to the vast number of attorneys who are practicing.

The problem is that there are too few in the legal services market who think much about these things. Technology is great but too few firms spend time making sure that technology increases quality and reduces cost as we have noted previously, technology can be used for evil as well as good. No one questions that some firms use technology to take a fifteen minute item and turn it into a three minute item but still charge the client for a twenty minute item. But, I would guess that the majority of firms leverage the explosion of email to simply create more and more twelve minute billing events that they can pass onto the client.

Of course, there will be a great divide between those firms that use technology to increase billing and those that use it to revolutionize legal services. There is no doubt in my mind as to which approach will dominate the market five to ten years from now.


Take Small Bites And Chew Your Food Well

I just completed a $1000 project for a client which concluded very successfully. It was a trademark infringement matter where a competitor used my clients trademark as part of their Google AdWords program. After meeting with the client as a prospect on two occasions, it was clear that I had done my job well in informing the client how difficult it is to pursue federal court litigation and the high cost of that litigation. Over the course of two "free-consultation meetings", I began to feel more comfortable that the client understood the litigation process, the time frames, the budgets and the wide variety of hurdles which could effectively kill the case. The client was interested in taking the first step forward which we basically defined as a $1000 research project. That project was to analyze the most recent Meta Tag and AdWords cases, research some specific bad faith issues related thereto as well as document the clients chronology and documentation potentially supporting his claim. I then went into my basecamp extranet and created a project for him. I identified a milestone (calendering) forty-five days out to complete the project. I then added three categories of to-do lists which involve analysis of documentation and chronology, research and client consultation. The tasks were then assigned to the virtual law clerks,  the client and to myself as appropriate. Each task had a time budget.

We were able to complete the research and meet with the client within budget. The meeting at the end of the project went through the chronology and the specific cases as they applied to the facts at had. We spent considerable time educating the client and letting the client know what the next steps would be. For a $1000 budget the client was ecstatic with the project and our deliverables.

There are many lessons to be learned from this approach. One of the most important lessons I believe is that every client matter should be broken down into smaller pieces. In a traditional hourly firm, the firm would have simply signed the client on a retainer agreement and they would have been off. There probably would have never been an exact definition of tasks or deliverables. The next client involvement might have been months down the line after the project and the case had a life of its own.

This matter may be resolved in litigation. But, the first small step was perhaps the most important. And by taking small steps, the client is able to make intelligent decisions as the matter moves forward. The client can decide that it is not in his business interest to pursue it at any step along the way ( ie. at the end of each specific project.)

From the law firms side, we were able to keep this within budget because it was a narrowly defined project. We dramatically reduced the amount of variables which might have driven the costs up. The next project that we have defined is equally small and well defined as the first.

This reminds me of a lesson my grandmother used to teach. Take small bites, chew your food well and you will enjoy your meal. Too often, law firms treat clients as an all you can eat buffet, by the time the client runs out of money, the law firm is gorged in fat. Perhaps cases and matters for clients should be viewed as 1000 course meals each prepared and served separately with a little time out between courses.


Commoditizing Legal Services

There has been a lot of talk  of commoditizing legal services. Of course, we see a form of commoditization in certain legal niche areas such as collections. I would be interested to hear what other areas of law that people think have moved towards a commoditized model.

While few people may have noticed, there has been a significant push to commoditize commercial contracts. Back in 1995 there were a whole variety of mutual non-disclose agreements that I saw being passed around. There were some similarities, but they were far more different than they were the same. Today, I get clients sending me non-disclosure agreements to review all the time. And, the amount of differences between them has grown extremely small. The amount of time that it takes me to review a non-disclosure agreement or create one has gone from perhaps as much as two hours ten years ago to fifteen minutes today.

And, we see this phenomena occurring across a variety of contracts. The legal forms available on WestLaw and Nexis cover virtually any and every comercial transaction known to man. The fact that we don't have to recreate the wheel allows us to draft many commercial contracts for less than $1500 dollars. And, there is a good range of contracts that we can now do for $500.

This possibility really didn't exist ten years ago where each attorney grabbed a form from their own database or simply started from scratch with a commercial contract. The attorney would pass the contract off to another attorney who had a completely different idea about contract drafting which would result in tremendous wasted re-drafting between the attorneys. As we grow closer to standards, we dramatically decrease the number of things which need to be negotiated. As importantly, we, as attorneys, tend to focus on the issues and contract terms which are really critical to our client as opposed to the form of the contract or other more irrelevant items.

It is my expectation that within the next five years we will see a large number of contracts that will have as few as ten variables to be negotiated between parties. Those contracts will have already been approved or accepted by most attorneys. The cost of those contracts will plummet, but the number of customers that will buy them will sky-rocket.


Bringing Legal Services To The Masses

It is Saturday and I am out running errands, shopping. Surrounding me I see Kohl's department store. I just got back from Gander Mountain. Down the way is Sam's Club, Meijer, and Target.

It strikes me that in the retail business, there has been a huge movement to push items which would have been otherwise limited to the upper and upper-middle classes downward. Designer knock-offs or even designer clothing are now available at Target to huge segments of the market, from people who make $30,000 a year on up.

Legal services are basically for the rich. Few middle class people could hire a lawyer and pay them by the hour to take a case all the way through trial. Thank God for the contingency fee arrangement or people who are injured or discriminated against would have no opportunity for any legal representation.

It gets me thinking though, if we reduce the overall costs of legal services by using a blend of technology and task based processes, can we in fact broaden our market to include those who would otherwise be excluded? And, if we are able to acheive that goal, won't we explode our market exponentially? Won't the number of people who are potential customers dramatically increase?