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November 2005

The Traditional Approach with Clients seeks to insulate Lawyers and Law Firms from Accountability to those Clients

      I was sharing some of my excitement about the success of some of my new approaches to the practice of law with a friend who owns a marketing firm. Specifically, we talked about our secure extranet system through which allows our staff, virtual workers and clients to see exactly what is happening in their case, who is doing each task and why each task is being assigned. My friends immediate reaction was that he was very concerned that we release such a detailed paper trail of what we were doing in a case from the standpoint of liability and from the standpoint of client expectations and performance. While he thought it was a great idea, he knows that that is not the way it typically works with law firms and their clients. Clients are usually kept in the dark and lawyers are experts at avoiding paper trails which detail what they are going to do and why. Lawyers are great at CYA (cover your ass) letters detailing what they are not going to do.

      I had to stop and think about his concern for a minute, on the one hand I completely understood where he where he was coming from given the fact that lawyers rarely if ever keep their clients informed at such a detailed level about what was happening in their matter. I mean, if you tell a client that there are five to-do items that need to get done and they never get done, you as the attorney are going to have a big problem explaining that to the client. In order for this system to work, the attorney has to buy into the proposition that legal matters can be broken down into projects, those projects can be defined, outcomes documented and tasks assigned in order to accomplish each of the important benchmarks in the case. If you believe, as I do, that this approach is a much better way to handle client matters, you are the type of attorney who can strategize and assign tasks, then this system blows away anything else on the market.

       In reality, if an attorney cannot define and document exactly what is supposed to accomplish in a matter in order to accomplish client goals, that attorney has no business handling that legal matter. That is why clients pay us so much money, to solve their problems. If we cant tell them how they are going to be solved, we simply are not doing our job.

      My clients thus far have been both grateful and enthused about our extranet and the documentation of their legal matter having permanent format that they can access at any time. They appreciate that they can see where their matter started and where it finishes, reviewing the entire recorded history of the project from beginning to end. Perhaps as importantly, it has been a great system for me as the attorney. It actually makes my job easier to have to define the project on the front end. It actually makes my time far more productive since I am working within a very defined structure as I handle a clients legal matter. This task based system intensifies focus in a level beyond any I have ever experienced as an attorney handling a legal matter on behalf of a client. I don't mind being accountable, and I certainly don't mind leaving a paper trail of how we went about solving a client's problem.

      Until lawyers are willing to be accountable to clients for each task assigned and each outcome documented, we will never be in a position to provide real value to our clients.

Lawyers, Take Charge of your Damned Life!

      There is a great quote that I thought really did apply to the situation that lawyers often find themselves in, the situation of being stuck. Everyone knows the drill when you are a new associate, law firms pay a lot of money and encourage associates to spend even more. Debt builds and before you know it, the associate can't go anywhere because they can't replace their income and meet their debt obligations. The same thing is true on up the associate scale right on through to partners. If you carry a lot of debt, your options are limited. Even if you do have a lot of debt I would advise you to live by the following motto: "Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved." --William Jennings Bryan

     As I think back on my decision to jump ship and embark on my high-risk course towards becoming a successful independent practitioner, I can only think about the truth of the words above. No one is ever really truly stuck. We make choices and we could always choose to change our lives. What holds people back is not the absence of choice, it is fear. Is it no wonder that the culture of traditional law firms incites fear and insecurity amongst its work force? Of course these law firms want you to look down upon independent/solo practitioners. Of course that law firm wants you to think that the prestige of their office is what the practice of law is all about. Of course that traditional law firm will spend considerable time pumping itself up and making itself feel good about itself. This sort of law firm bunker mentality work well before the age of the Internet. But, I wonder how well it will work now that blogs have taken hold and anyone who cares to look can see that there are lawyers like me who not only survived, but thrived.

        As I sat at my desk in my traditional firm just a year ago, I had little idea that there were other lawyers out there like me. As I started to explore the Internet and find blogs such as MyShingle, TheNonBillableHour and others, I realized that I was not alone. As I read about technology on the Dennis Kennedy blog and read the inspirational words of Ernie the Attorney, I became aware that I had been trapped inside a cave where darkness ruled the day and the night and ignorance was encouraged in order to keep people in line.


Big Can be Very Very Bad

      As I am reading about the Delphi bankruptcy, and the troubles which are haunting General Motors Co., it occurred to me that there will always be a role for mega-firms to handle certain transactions of mega-corporations. The Delphi bankruptcy is a huge monster of a case which could only effectively be handled by making the primary quarterback a large outside law firm (despite the fact that small to medium sized firms might play a role in specific projects).

      It also occurs to me that we may be seeing yet again that huge business structures can lead to tremendous inefficiencies, waste and a shift toward the political, as opposed to the capitalistic structure which defeats many large companies. One of the things that we often complain about pertaining large firms is the fact that they become focused on political issues and power as opposed to ingenuity, creativity and customer service. We have seen auto manufacturers fall into that trap repeatedly. Perhaps as we look at alternatives in the legal market, we ought to keep our eye upon other markets as well for examples of where large is not necessarily better.

The Greatest American Post

        Well, I can introduce you all to Katy who is the person who gets to type my dictation directly onto the Greatest American Blog. As I mentioned previously, I decided that the only way that I could keep my practice going and also blog was to actually dictate posts and to have someone else enter them into Typepad.

      I will give her the honor every week for the next month to choose out some of her favorite previous posts and provide a short synopsis of each in her own post. We have new RSS feeds joining us each day. For those of you who are new to the Greatest American Lawyer Blog Katy will help you catch the highlights from the moment I decided to quit my cushy partnership position at a top local law firm and start my own law firm dedicating to changing the way law is practiced.

      So Katy, have at it. Feel free to spend some time reading some of the earlier material, I will be interested to see what you believed was in fact interesting.

Saturday Night on the Town

      My wife got back from her four day stint out of town on Friday evening. The kids and I were already in bed, fast asleep. She flipped on the light in the bedroom, looked me straight in the eye and said "where is my cat," loudly enough to wake all of the kids, even the ones in the other room. I suppose it shouldn't surprise me that she would be paranoid about me killing her cat. I have never been a big fan. Having grown up in Detroit, I am a big Detroit Red Wings fan. My oldest son Echo was born in Boulder, Co. and, being the little contrarion that he is, decided to name the cat Avalanche. Lets just say, Avalanche and I have never bonded very well. My wife dotes over Avalanche like it's her fourth baby. I am apt to leaver her out all night.

      Needless to say, Saturday morning came too early. I went to work all day. My wife tried to reclaim her house. On Saturday night, I had an invitation to go out with some friends. Ten minutes from leaving, our youngest boy, who is three and a half, started throwing up. Since I had been home alone for four days with two brothers throwing up, I didn't hesitate to run out the door to my party.

      One of the amazing things about living in a growing small sized tourist town is that it is small. It took me a while to warm up to the concept of small town, but it never ceases to amaze me that there are far more benefits than detriments. I ended up out at the local bar at midnight, having abandoned my friends who were stuck at home with one of their one set of kids. It turned out that one of the members of the Grateful Dead had started a band and was actually playing in town. The bar was packed. I rocked till two a.m. but the best part was that I saw one of my college room mates whom I had not seen in quite some time who just happened to be up north and just happened to be at that bar. Only in a small town could that happen. Well, at least, only in a small town could that happen as many times as it has happened to Paul and I in Traverse City. Whenever he is in town and not on the town, I end up crossing paths. I have to say that I love small town living and I certainly love small town practice. We have two trial judges and our primary trial court level is over three counties. Compare that with someplace like Detroit where there are something like thirty such judges in a single county. Hooray for small towns.

Fishing for Clients

     As I now enter my tenth month of independent practice, I have found myself at a crossroads of sorts. Any lawyer who thinks that business just walks through the door by chance is fooling themselves. We do general advertising (like my restroom advertising campaign which I do really for fun), yellow pages advertising, website advertising and a few other broad based market tools. However, a sustainable civil litigation law firm needs to go out into the world and have face to face meetings with people. I am in a period where I can actually schedule and attend such meetings since my practice has slowed down somewhat. I have to take advantage of this time. I have to ensure that my laptop computer does  not become addictive or fry my brain like so much marijuana. I am at that juncture in my firm where it is time to go out and ask for business.

      I now have a virtual law staff that can be cranked up quickly and easily to support a lot more work. It is now time to go out and get that work. I will let you know how it goes.

The Power of Max Budget Projects

I had a very positive experience this morning with a new client who is negotiating a contract with one of the largest software vendors in the world. The contract would call for my client's product to be integrated with the major player. It is clearly an important contract for my new client.

After receiving the contract draft, I contacted the client and let them know my standard billing practice. I let them know that everything is budgeted up front and gave him my maximum recommendations for a budget on the project. I told him they would pay the lesser amount between my hourly bill or the max budget, whichever was less. The client immediately breathed a sigh of relief and thanked me for raising and discussing the budget issue. She was genuinely relieved to talk about budgets and expectations, something that her prior counsel had never done. I told her that I found it very interesting that her response was similar to the response of most of my other clients on issues concerning budgets. Attorneys seem loathe to raise the issue with their clients. In contrast, clients genuinely appreciate early and often discussions concerning legal budgets. They love talking about what it is going to cost and they certainly appreciate putting a maximum on their spend. No client has ever objected if I have come back to them and said that the initial budget needed to be expanded to include a new or unexpected issue requiring attention.

If you are not talking about budgets with your clients from beginning to end you are missing a unique opportunity to distinguish yourself in the marketplace and increase client satisfaction exponentially. Try it, and you will be surprised.

Bring it on BigLaw!

As I continue to contemplate BigLaw Associates dilemma at her firm, I had some additional thoughts. BigLaw Associate is concerned about what people will think if she quits BigLaw and opts for a different career at a smaller firm, or even perhaps as an independent practitioner. As I read though her site, however, I noted that the Golden Boy at BigLaw had already left the firm for the same reasons that BigLaw Associate is struggling with. Here is the quote:

       "A couple of weeks ago Golden Boy left the Firm. Golden Boy was the future. Golden Boy was being groomed for greatness. With his impeccable credentials; graduation at the top of his class; a prestigious clerkship with a famous judge; the jaw line, voice and posture that commands the respect of even the crankiest judge, he embodied the Best and the Brightest every BigLaw dreams of recruiting. And now he is gone.

Lured by an even bigger, more lucrative BigLaw? No! He was fed up and did not believe ANY BigLaw would give him what he wanted."

Yes, the best and brightest are sometimes smart enough to see the truth about BigLaw Life. They see that their talents are being wasted on a culture and business model that in many ways is just an illusion of the practice of law. More and more talented and bright attorneys are seeing that technology makes small and independent practice possible at levels that never existed before. Big Law has no advantage over me in terms of technology, availability or implementation. BigLaw can't implement the technology I use. They have too many offices, too many integration problems. Too many back end systems that need to be adjusted in order to incorporate new technology tools. BigLaw can't compete with me. I have every research tool available to me that they have to them. And I can move fast in the market to incorporate client service tools that deliver results to the clients. Bring it on BigLaw! The Golden Boy and Golden Girls of the legal practice are finding new life in greener pastures.

Need more proof, check out this link from My Shingle.

Should BigLaw Associate Jump Ship?

For those of you who have been following the adventures of BigLaw Associate you know that she anonymously on the trials and tribulations (bull shit) of working in a mega-firm. She is anticipating that she will ultimately be discovered as the anonymous blogger and be fired by her firm. She thinks she may quit, but is afraid as most any high paid associate at a prestigious firm would be. Here is what she says:

      " I'm having difficulties shaking the sense that a BigLaw job is a mark of success. I have worked very hard to get where I am, and I am sure that quitting the Firm will feel like a defeat (and like great weight lifted off my chest, of course). Even worse, I have this nagging suspicion that others will view it as a defeat and I will branded a loser. I can just imagine the whispering at the next family re-union: "BLA had so much promise, but they say he just couldn't hack it! And now he's working solo, poor guy. They say "solo" really means "so-low" (snicker) ... , get it?"

There is no denying that some people, primarily non-lawyers, but also the occasional non-BigLaw lawyer, look at me with a touch of awe when I tell them I work for the Firm. I reluctantly admit that it tickles my vanity a little bit. Just dropping the name of the Firm gets me immediate respect I might otherwise have to earn. Earning respect sounds like a lot of work. How good does one have to be to get respect as a lawyer, without the brand recognition of a prestigious BigLaw, such as the Firm?"

I think Big Law Associate captures the essence of BigLaw Life perfectly. It is all form over substance. Associates rarely get to do anything meaningful and spend their careers pushing paper and finding new ways to bill clients for work which may not even be relevant. I know because I have worked at these mega-firms. Your self esteem as an associate is all tied up in your firm name and your high salary. I remember one day I looked in the mirror and had no idea who I had become. How could it be that I had this prestigious job and all this money and no sense of self? The irony was not lost on me. I realized that much of BigLaw Life is smoke and mirrors. BigLaw creates an entire culture built around ego and its own sense of prestige. BigLaw creates fear within that culture that anything outside BigLaw's front doors is failure. BigLaw leverages that fear in order to keep associates and partners in place.

The truth is that if you really want to practice law, chances are that you will never do it at BigLaw. Practicing law is not drafting memos, summarizing records and researching law. Practicing law is client contact, stepping into court and working the front lines of a case. I found at BigLaw that the mid-level associates had quickly become less focused on their big salaries and much more focused on the fact that they never got to go to court to do anything meaningful. If you graduated first in your class, do you really want to spend twenty years carrying someone else's bag around the courthouse?

I think that BigLaw Associate should jump; should quit big law life and find a niche at a smaller or perhaps even her own firm. I think she will find that instead of losing her sense of self she will find her sense of self. She may even find the profession that she thought she was going in when she went to law school. What do you think? Log on to the BigLaw Associate blog and post a comment if you think that she should be supported and inspired about a new life outside the BigLaw front doors.

Loving the Rain

I lost the key to my office. It's the weekend after I have been basically taking care of kids who are throwing up when I should have been working. I can't find the key to my office becuase it came off my key chain when my wife took my car to go do what she was doing.