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April 2006

Real World Examples of What Technology Can Do For You as a Law Firm

It is always interesting to take a look at what happens in the real world under a particular business process. Unlike some of the sites, The Greatest American Lawyer site recites actual real world applications of new and innovative business principles applied in the law firm. For those of you who have been reading this Blog over the last year and a half, you have seen and evolution of Ideas, application of ideas to practice and changing the practice based on real world results.

I had two interesting experiences today with clients. The first was a client who was extremely cautious about the use of technology in a law firm over confidentiality and privacy concerns. Essentially, he was concerned that e-mails might be intercepted or documents pirated. Our advantage over other law firms is that we have a secure encrypted extranet and a secure and encrypted file transfer system which doesn’t rely on unsecured e-mail. However, the interesting part of the conversation was relating the lack of security in a paper based world and helping him understand that every system has security risks. As we looked at a stack of papers sitting on the floor at one end of the office, we discussed how easy it would be for that paper to get misfiled, accidentally attached to a letter to another client or adverse counsel and other practical real world problems with paper. The light came on for him as he realized that a paper based world still relies on the U.S. Mail and Fed Ex for delivery. What is more likely, someone intercepting a U.S. Mail Carrier or a U.S. Mail Carrier delivering to the wrong address or someone intercepting an e-mail across the internet? Needless to say, his security concerns were relieved in part. At the end of the meeting, he loved the fact that we use secure and encrypted systems which were not e-mail dependant.

I then received a call from a prospective client in another state. He was meeting with another attorney in his home city before making decision on counsel. He expressed concern that the distance between us might make it more difficult for him to be involved in the case. After going through our extranet system through, our go to meeting capability through and are completely transparent to-do system again through the extranet, I think he realized that we would be more accessible to him than an attorney across the street who didn’t utilize these systems.

Technology brings you and your clients closer together. Don’t let security concerns or distance get in the way of securing that next attorney-client relationship.

Is Voicemail Really So Bad or Just A Better Way to Capture Information from Your Clients?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately of all the articles being written concerning the downside of technology. In reading these articles, I have to agree that technology can be a huge distract and have a severely negative impact on your ability to focus on important tasks. I use my cell phone as my primary phone. Clients and other counsel know, when they need to call me, to use the cell number and if they need to contact someone in my office, to call the land line. Our internal staff, including our virtual workers, uses Skype to communicate amongst team members. Lately, I am letting more and more calls skip to voicemail when I am in the middle of a project. I have changed my voicemail message to let clients know that they need to provide detail information about their issue and allow me time to review their message and get back to them in an orderly fashion. I also encourage clients to use e-mail which can provide even more information for me to review and doesn’t have the negative stigma which being placed in voicemail may have to some clients.

Whether for good or bad, voicemail is becoming a far more integral part of our communications strategy. I believe that clients become even more accustomed and excepting of leaving a voicemail message as opposed to getting a live person on the other end of their call. Is it really so great when they simply get to talk to the receptionist or secretary and leave a message?

Changing The Way Law Is Practiced

A year ago, I really believed that the most dramatic change that I would implement as a new law firm would be on the billing side. Clearly, we have been innovators on that front and have been rewarded with tremendous growth as a result. But sitting here today, I have to believe that our task and priority based internal process have even more wide ranging implications for law firms. Sure, most every lawyer law firm has a task list. But how many law firms make that task list available to their clients? Sure, most law firms try to prioritize items which need to get done. But how many law firms have created an internal process which is priority—centric, and where multiple staff members can handle a priority item on the fly?

Most law firms have a structure that goes something like this. Every lawyer has one secretary (or perhaps shares a secretary with another lawyer) and a number of associates and paralegals whom are shared across the firm. Staff members are constantly stressed out because they have multiple superiors placing items on their desk with very little process in place to ensure priorities are allocated appropriate. Yes, lawyers tell their staff "I need this immediately." But what about the other items on the staff members desk? How important is each one of those items and what is the system for ear-marking that item in a priority scheme? And what if the "I need this right away" task is a major brief which will take that staff member the entire day; Will the other priority items get out the door stuck on that same persons desk?

By routing paper and tasks into boxes labeled priority 1, 2, 3 and 4 and training multiple staff to handle those items, the most important tasks always get handled immediately.

And the task list that lawyers keep. How much attention does each team pay to those tasks? Are they managed on a daily basis? Or, as I suspect, are lawyers just focused in on what to do tomorrow (or today) and barely keep their chin above water in their list. One of the benefits of our virtual program is that the lawyer becomes more involved in task management, strategy and client relationships. The workers become the quarterback, the linebackers, the wide receivers and the running backs. In too many firms, the partners are too far removed from the day to day happenings on a case and the workers are too far removed from the strategy developed to accomplish client goals.

So as we move head first into our second year, I encourage lawyers to review their internal processes. Are you simply practicing law the way you were taught? Are your internal processes the same as used by most firms across your city? Stop and think. Is the way in which you are practicing law really the best way for you and your client? Please consider innovating, experimenting and exploring the wide variety of ways in which you might enhance and increase the value for your clients. Let value drive your internal processes rather than capturing every possible billable hour. You’ll be shocked and surprised how quickly you stand out in your legal community and how quickly clients tell their friends and business associates about your unique and innovative approach to the practice of law. If you "change the way law is practiced" you will no longer be a stuffed suit in a sea of power ties and power lunches. People will talk about you and the business which comes through your front door will increase.

Is It The Hourly Bill Or The Lack Of Budget Which Is Most Harmful To The Client Relationship?

After a year experimenting with various billing models and approaches in discussing billing issues with clients, I have come to some conclusions. First of all, you should know that I still keep track of my time on an hourly basis much like traditional law firms do. I have a policy in place under which many things which traditionally firms bill for, we don’t. For instance, client communications are exempted from our billing model. We have performed a significant number of projects on a flat fee basis but, as some observe, there are clients who are nervous about paying a flat fee because they think they might be paying too much. We started keeping track of the time we spent on flat fee matters so that clients could see that we really did spend the time achieving their goals. This approach has evolved into a max-budget approach. Essentially, we do projects for a maximum fee or the hourly fee, which ever is less. This works on most of the matters we handle for clients and solves the perception that a flat fee may be over bid. The client is essentially guaranteed a maximum fee, but could pay less if the project doesn’t take the time allotted. The attorney takes risks that he/she won’t appropriately quantify the project. Certainly, some projects have been under bid. We make the client aware of this fact and let them know they are getting a deal. They appreciated the fact and this further strengthens the client relationship. 90% of the time however, we are extremely close to the maximum budget for the project or come in under budget. What I have learned is that clients want to know what the project is going to cost up front. I know that a significant percentage of clients have retained us because of the cost certainty that this provides. There is no question in my mind that clients have referred their business associates and friends to us based on their appreciation for our billing approach. Our business is booming as a result.

In litigation and arbitration matters, we often cannot put a max fee on the project. However, we still work within budgets. Typically, we tell the client what the budget is for the coming month and what we expect we will deliver within that budget. At the end of a months billing cycle, we report back to the client how we did on our previous months budget projection and whether in fact we achieved the things we set out to achieve. We also project our goals for the next month and put a budget on that activity as well. Again, the clients appreciate the budget discussions and being able to plan their own finances accordingly.

So maybe the real problem isn’t hourly billing per se. Perhaps the real problem is the current incarnation of the hourly billing model used by law firms. Perhaps the savior of the billable hour is the max budget.

Greatest American Lawyer Exposed 18 year old high school drop out

Yes, it is true.  You may have seen it posted around the blogosphere already.  So before the tidal wave of controversy begins, I want to explain to you the reader why I did what I did. 

My name is Ryan Fielders from Dayton Ohio.  I am  18 years old and dropped out of West Carrollton High School last year.  I had always planned on being a lawyer but knew that was not going to happen.  I had a lot of time on my hands and knew that the blogosphere gave me  an opportunity to be one for real.  So I thought "What the heck?"  If people will listen to me, then why not pretend?  If I can make a difference without going to law school, then why not do it. I knew I had to be anonymous and keep my identity secret but that was the easy part in the wonderful world of the blogosphere.

A reporter asked me why I did it?  My parents were both lawyers so I understood the basics.  They were both innovative lawyers who were focused on changing the legal profession..  I also had first hand experience with the legal profession after my parents passed away.  I was involved in some rather ugly litigation through my teen years as my brothers and sisters fought over my parents estate after they passed away.  I saw all the problems with the legal system.  My parents estate was worth over $15 million.  An 14 year old boy came out of the woodwork when my parents passed claiming his share of the estate. 

Our fancy big law lawyers were impressive in stature.  But we never really understood what was going on.  They kept us in the dark and told us and our conservators and gaurdians what to do.  We paid over $1.3 million dollars in legal fees to attorneys who never cared about much of anything except billing  us time.  I have a stack of legal bills which is over three feet tall.  Needless to say, the outcome of the case was not much different than if there had been no litigation in the first place.  Our lawyers kept us in the dark about what they were doing and why they were doing it.  We might as well have given him that money up front and spared ourselves the aggravation.   Yes, it turned out his claim was legitimate and we ended up paying him more than we would have if our lawyers had given us good advice in the first place.

I am proud to have inspired so many lawyers this last year to 'think out of the box.'  The fact that it was all made up does not change the fact that there is a need to change the system.  Nor does it change the fact that more lawyers need to stand up and demand change. Yes, I am sorry to have deceived my readers but I have no regret for all the positive things that have come from this blog effort.  My parents woudl have beenproud.  GAL