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Ernie the Attorney Provides Great Solo and Small Law Firm Tips. Have You Heard of Ruby Receptionist?

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Enrico Schaefer:   Welcome to GAL Radio.   Today we are here with Ernie the Attorney.   Ernie is a long-time attorney who practices in a variety of different areas of law.   Recently he has made the full-time commitment to run a CLE company at a website called, and he does technology training tips and seminars for lawyers.   Welcome to the show, Ernie.

Ernie Svenson:   It's good to be here, Enrico.  Thanks for having me on.

Enrico:   One of the really interesting curriculum items that I have seen on your website is called "Little Big Firm:   Tips for Small Firm Lawyers".   It is clearly something you are out there teaching in your CLE to lawyers who come to get their CLE credit and learn about technology.   Tell me a little bit about this particular educational track.  

Ernie:   Well, it all started with a blog post that I wrote for my Ernie the Attorney blog which I dashed off quickly.   It was something that had been building up for a long time.    It was the idea that as a solo lawyer, practicing commercial litigation and corporate type stuff, that I could do as good a job or better than I could if I was working at a mid- to large-sized firm.   This was all based on my actual experience.

I wanted to do commercial litigation when I got out of law school, so I went to work at a firm in New Orleans that was on a small size.   There were one or two firms in New Orleans that had a good reputation, but they were smaller than the big firms, and whenever I was applying to go work at someplace – and this was, of course, in the heyday when people, if you did well in law school they fought over you, so I had a lot of job offers - most of them were from big firms.   The big firms were always saying, "No, you don't want to go work at that firm.  That's a small firm.   We're bigger and we can do all this great stuff.  We have lots of important clients.   You should come here."

I didn't want to do that, because I felt that I liked the renegade way that these smaller firms were doing things.   The smaller firms maybe couldn't afford Lexus, but our firm cobbled together and they shared their account with Arthur Andersen so we had access to Lexus even though normally a firm that size wouldn't have it.   The receptionist was really well-trained so if you called them, they paid a lot of attention to what she sounded like on the phone and some of these larger firms didn't.   They'd have the old battle-ax who answered the phone and they thought it was good enough.  

The small firm I went to had a Wang computer system which created really good-looking document, but they were the smallest firm in New Orleans that had the system.    The rest of the firms were big.   So they were working really hard to establish this presence and this perception out there that they were good, because they were good.   They had really good lawyers, but it was hard to convince clients that they were really good, unless they came in and worked with them.   Their method was signaling at all levels that we're really good and we pay attention to details.   But all that costs money.  It wasn't something you could do unless you were in a firm of at least 20 lawyers.   So when I left the firm after 20 years to go out on my own, I wanted to maintain that same thing.   I felt like I was going to be able to maintain most of it because of a lot of it just depends on the technology.  The clients that I wanted didn't care where I worked.   They didn't want me go take out rent in a high-rise building and spend a lot of money.   They didn't care about that.  But they would care about what my website looked like.   They would care what my stationery and my pleadings that I filed with the court looked like.   They would care if when they called me whether I had somebody to answer the phone or was I was answering my own phone.  They might care about those kinds of things.

So I steadily tried to pick apart those little problems and solve them so that in the end I got to a point where you could come to my office where I was in a co-working space downtown.  It was the old large law firm that had once made me an offer.   I was working in the same building but I wasn't paying the same amount of rent.  I'm paying a fraction of what it would cost.  Instead of my overhead being 50 to 60 percent, my overhead was about 8 percent of my collections.  Yet I looked, for all intents and purposes, and acted and functioned like I was in a big firm.  Basically, I knew the same things that I knew when I worked with the big firm; I just had to deliver that as a solo lawyer.  

That blog post was about that.  Then I got invited to speak by the Louisiana Disciplinary Council on their road show.  They wanted me to come and talk about that topic because they thought that would be interesting.  And I thought, "Great.  I'll have a greater presentation." It was extremely well-received.  It's one of the top two presentations in terms of people wanting to hear it.  When I give the presentation they want to know more and they're very excited because there are a lot of solo and small firm lawyers out there, or lawyers who are at big firms who to leave, who want to figure out how to connect those dots.  That's basically what that presentation is all about.

Enrico:   So it sounds like what you've done over the years is sifted through the process of figuring out what really are the things that are important to most clients in terms of appearance.  I always say there's form over substance.  If you want to pay for form, there are a bunch of suits down the street in a fancy conference room who are going to take $10,000 from you in order to come through the door, and you'll get all kinds of form.  But if you want substance, if you want good quality legal work and a return on investment, and an attorney who is going to think about these things, then you're in the right place hiring us.

But there is a certain minimum level of expectation of clients out of their attorneys, especially when you're handling a complex matter.  Give me a rundown of what you, in your experience, believe are really the important things that you have to have in place.

Ernie:   I think number one is you have to deliver a good quality product.  You have to be a good lawyer and you have to pay attention to the details.  That goes without saying and that's not part of my talk but that is obviously the most important thing.  That precedes everything. 

But assuming you're doing a really good job and you know you're competent, what are the little things that signal to clients, to judges, to opposing counsel, to everybody, that you know what you're doing? For example, the pleadings that you file in court; do those look coherent? Is the typography part of it right? A lot of lawyers say, "Typography? What do I care about typography?" Well, you might not care, but if I showed you two things where one was incorporating typographic principles that apply to legal documents and the other one didn't, you would know right away that one of them is better than the other.  You would tend instinctively, whether you acknowledge it to yourself or not, to be ready to receive that one with the better typography as something that you would expect to be higher quality. 

There's a book called "Typography for Lawyers" by Matthew Butterick.  He has a website and he explains the principles of typography that apply to legal documents.  He used to be a design guy and still is, went to law school, saw the problem, and said, "Let me explain to lawyers why they need to do this," because they create professional documents like a book or a magazine.  Those are professional documents.  Well, so are the things that lawyers file, but lawyers wouldn't pick up a book or a magazine that had the typography principles that they use in their own briefs.  They'd say, "My God, this is garbage."

So why don't they do the same thing for their pleadings? The answer is that they don't know what those principles are.  Butterick's book and his website say, "Okay.  Here's what you need to do." If you do those things and set up your documents, you'll have a template that will work great and your documents will always look great.  You'll never have to think about it again because you've set it all up in the beginning. 

But if you're unaware that that's something that you should do, you'll just keep doing what all lawyers do, which is copying everything that everybody else is doing, and it's all crap.

Enrico:   Excellent.  That's an interesting thing.  So definitely your work product has to show competence and professionalism.  You also mentioned a receptionist and phone.  What are the issues there that lawyers need to be thinking about?

Ernie:   Well, when I started out on my own, my first goal was to just spend as little money as possible.  While I also wanted to be as good in terms of my appearance as my old firm, I couldn't really afford or I didn't want to start paying money for things that I didn't need.  It would be great to have a receptionist.  There were phone-answering services but those weren't that great and they were expensive, so I didn't do that.

After a couple of years a friend of mine said, "Have you heard of this thing called Ruby Receptionists?" I said no.  He told me how much it cost.  It was $200 a month for 100 minutes.  I thought, "That's pricey.  I don't want that." He said, "Well, just try it for 30 days for free and see what you think." And I thought, "Well, okay.  At least I can test this idea of what it would be like to have a receptionist service and how good would it be, and then I'll cancel it."

I kept the service, and I still keep them because for the $200 a month, which is more than I pay per month for anything other than my malpractice coverage, I have the best receptionist you could possibly ever have.  My receptionist, and the service of my receptionist, what my clients experience when they call me, is better than my old firm ever had and that any firm I know of ever has.  It's just one of those things that's kind of weird, but that's the way it works.  The way it works is big firms, or firms that hire a person and put them there, first of all, they generally don't train them.  Firms aren't in the field of saying, "Let me figure out what makes her a good receptionist." They just hire people that are good and hope that they keep working there. 

But if the receptionist that's the optimal, best receptionist gets up and goes to the bathroom and is replaced by somebody else, then suddenly the quality of their call-answering has gone down a notch or two.  If that receptionist doesn't show up for work because she's sick, and that happens, it's the same thing.

This service, Ruby Receptionists, always answers your phone.  Assuming it's not a holiday and assuming it's not after hours, they are going to answer your phone.  They have a pool of people that they assign to do this.  It's not like the typical reception service that some people are used to.  These people are high-touch, really high quality.  I can't say enough about how good they are.  They are trained to be receptionists the way that the Navy trains the SEALs to attack people.

Everybody that I've recommended this service to has come back and said, "Oh, my God, thank you so much.  That is just the most amazing thing in the world." You literally go from having an okay receptionist to now having as good or better, usually better, than any other large firm could ever have.

Enrico:   Wow.

Ernie:   So it's little things like that.  But that makes a difference because you're not answering your own phone and you're getting a screening of the calls, because when they call you and say, "I have somebody on the line," they're going to tell you if it's a new client or a judge or somebody who is wanting to know this.  If you don't want or need to talk to them, you can say, "I'm in a meeting right now.  Tell them I'll call them back later." They don't feel like they've been ignored.  They've gotten a human being to answer at least part of there question.

So there are all kinds of things that Ruby Receptionists can do.  I think 40 percent of their clientele is now lawyers because this is something that lawyers need.  You need to have clients feel like you're there for them, even when you're not, because you can't be there for every client at every moment of the day.  You've got to get work done and you don't need to be disrupted.

Enrico:   And your staff doesn't need to be disrupted.  I'm looking at the website right now and I'm thinking, "Okay, if we had someone else running the tower and directing traffic, our secretarial staff wouldn't be distracted from doing the things that we really need them to do, which is typing documents, figuring out local rules, e-filing, PACER, and the rest."

Ernie:   Exactly.  It's just an amazing service.  You can give them a list of commonly-asked questions and they will respond.  If it's just something that people tend to ask you all the time, you can say, "Well, here's a list of the answers," and they will answer as though they work at your firm.  People can ask how to get there; you can explain to them, "Here's how the parking situation works and here's how you drive," and they'll explain it to people as though they are working in your building.

Enrico:      Wow.  Are they 24/7? Are they an answering service as well, or just business hours?

Ernie:   No, they're just business hours.  If you sign up for them, you get a toll-free 1-800 number that you can use, but you forward your main line to them so they catch all that traffic.

They're in Portland, Oregon, and I forget what business hours they can be available, but generally speaking, the usual business hours for anybody in the contiguous US.  That, and they don't work on holidays.  But they're pretty much there all the time.  The only time somebody doesn't answer your phone there would be if for some reason the Internet on your line went down or if their system goes down.  That's happened once in the past three or so years that I've used them.  They immediately emailed me, and everybody else, I'm sure, and said, "We have this problem.  We're not sure how quickly it will be repaired, but we just wanted to let you know about it." I got the impression that maybe the phones would be down for half a day or so, which that happened at my big firm, too, so I wasn't shocked or freaked out about that.  It was back up in 20 minutes.

So that's the only time I ever had downtime, which is another reason why I think they are better than a receptionist you would have elsewhere.  Like I said, if the receptionist takes coffee breaks or is sick, none of that happens with them.  The only mission-critical point of failure is if their phone service goes down or if their system goes down.  So far, that's not been the case.

Enrico:   All right.  I'm looking at the website right now.  It's  A great tip from Ernie the Attorney.  Ernie, it was a pleasure having you on today.  Have a great week.

Ernie:   Same here.  Thanks for having me.

Enrico:   All right.  We will see you next time on GAL Radio.  Until then, have a great New Year.


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