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January 2007

December 2006

Are You Losing More Than Time in Your Inbox?

I just stumbled onto a blog sponsored by a Larry Bodine and was skimming through some of his older posts to find this fascinating one titled "Lawyers Waste $80,000 a Year Reading E-mail". Read through the post to get his own commentary on the report that was released by the Edward Poll out of Venice, CA. Bodine brings up a great point about the loss of goodwill that would derive from the billing it would take to squeeze that $80,000 out of  clients.

The question that arose while I was reading the post was whether or not "waste" is the correct term. E-mail gives us an unprecedented connection with our clients through the "rapidity of response that [they] encourage". A current client can take a moment to shoot us an email regarding a question or concern, and in almost that same amount of time we can generate a response. I strongly disagree with titling this connection as "waste", as there is a definite profit that arises from having that sort of availability for your clients.

I do not believe that it is too much of a stretch to title this $80,000 as "client investment". The personal connection that is created between the person in need of service, and the one providing the service through the medium of email is a connection that keeps our clients not only coming back, but also spreading the word about our firm.

So to those of you who may see the time that you spend sifting through your inbox as a hassle and waste, I caution you before you attempt to capitalize off of it with billable hours. The time you spend corresponding with your clients makes profit in a different way than the invoice you send them each month. Through email correspondence you create a relationship that will separate your firm from your competition and make single-case clients, long-term and consistent ones.

Focus: 2007

Looking out onto the coming year, there are many different resolutions that hold a lot of promise for 2007. One of these is a re-dedication to the focus required to succeed against any goal we set for ourselves. Everyone knows the saying "you can do anything if you put your mind to it", but in 2006 there were instances where my mind was off from what I had set out to do, and my ability to do 'anything' was reduced.

Too often it is too easy to get caught up in the bells and whistles of anything you do and loose the focus that is required to stay afloat and expand in the business world. This is a danger those of us in the tech-age sector of the field of law must always be cognizant of. Technology in our field has the ability to change the face of the entire adversarial system, but its utilities and capacities can only supplement sound legal knowledge and argument; whose achievement can only be brought about through focused and dedicated work.

So let 2007 be a year in which we are dedicated to the work that makes us good attorneys. A year in which our ability to outperform our competitors, both inside and outside the courtroom is greatly enhanced; where we best them with both an extranet and an inspiring closing argument. The coming year is bound to have new technologies that we can test-drive and harness, but lets also maintain a focus on the fundamentals of the work that keep our doors open.

Project Management Technology

The technology known as Basecamp has been used in my firm for a while now. Through the technology we communicate with our virtual workers, assign tasks to specific cases and do most of what make us high-tech; however, Basecamp is a technology not meant to revolutionize the way that lawyers do their work, but to revolutionize the way in which any project of any kind is managed.

I have recently received word that a former employee at my firm, who is now off at college, has decided to test-drive Basecamp for a project he is in charge of in his student government. His goals may be very different than mine, but the commonality between us is that we are both leading projects with large tasks, and many people working together. As different as our projects may be, we both have seen the same increase in efficiency, transparency, and control that have greatly benefited our work.

The great thing about Basecamp is that you can achieve the common traits that make any project run smoother and faster, regardless of the nature of the project. Whether you are running a law firm or a student government project, a used-car dealership or a huge corporation; Basecamp will help you complete the projects that you set for yourself. If you have never tried Basecamp, regardless if your an attorney or not, I urge you to try their free account and see for yourself how your project can benefit.

Paying for the Traffic

A business's internet marketing operation can be one of the hardest aspects to perfect, as it can be extremely difficult to find a balance between your expenditure to generate traffic and the income that is derived from it. There are so many different ways to spread your name across the huge mass that is the internet, and in some instances quite a cost that is associated with each, but the best deal associated with internet advertising comes when you invest directly in your site's design.

Take some time to explore the different traffic generating options that are available in the internet, because there is genuine benefit to maximizing the exposure of your site; but some of the best investments to your web page are those you put right into its design. Surfers, or potential clients, have so many sites to wade through, and the only way to separate yourself from the others is with a site that's easy to navigate, quick to upload and simple to understand; characteristics that can definitely be enhanced by putting time and money into your site.

A straightforward, and well designed, site will increase traffic through the normal search engines and hold onto those prospective clients who do visit. By investing in a balanced and engaging site you will have tangible  (as tangible as a website can be) results, and notice an increase in both the visitors to the site, and those who take up your service because of it.

The Ease of High-Tech

There are three things that are absolutely necessary in selling your product according to Dr. Don Sexton of "Trump University". These include a clarity in your advertisements, relevance to your customers and uniqueness within the market.

Tech-age firms fulfill two of the three traits simply because of their nature. High-tech firms can provide a service of a higher quality, in a shorter time and at a lower price than old-style firms - all aspects that are extremely important to anyone in need of an attorney. The uniqueness of a tech-age firm cannot be disputed. We use email and the internet to be more connected and transparent to our clients. The connection that we can create cannot be matched by simple email, and absolutely not with billed phone calls and "snail mail". The transparency that we offer is something firms without our capabilities cannot even dream of. Utilizing the internet and giving clients their own unique name and password so that they can see everything that the attorney and paralegal do, allows clients to remain on top of the issue that they are paying thousands of dollars to have litigated in a way impossible without our technology.

The final key to achieving the sustainable income and client base that is needed within any business, according to Dr. Sexton, is a clarity within your marketing strategy. This clarity can be achieved in different ways depending on the specifics of your firm or business, but by highlighting both what makes you unique and all of the advances that allow you to beat your competition in every aspect of the job, you can have a clear marketing campaign which separates you from your competitors.

That is what is so great about tech-age firms - once you get them up and running, the rest is easy. Just by being  high-tech, you eliminate the hardest aspect of any business - separating yourself from your competitors. The very nature of your business brings both relevance and uniqueness - and achieving clarity in your marketing is close behind.

Referenced: "Build Your Benefit Advantage" by Dr. Don Sexton.

Setting the Record Straight

One of the interesting things about our settlement with my former firm is the way it happened. I invited the attorney that replaced me at my old firm, who happened to be the attorney they assigned to litigate against me, to lunch to discuss settlement. But before I did that, I welcomed him with open arms and gave him a tour not only of the firm, but also of our innovative business model. I showed him how we operated on a priority, rather than a people based system. I showed him how digital dictation drove our extranet/task based business process. I noted how we were completely transparent to our clients. I explained to him that the bills we send out only suggest what a client might pay but that every client can choose for themselves what they pay us for a month’s services. I explained to him how we regularly take risks and provide credit to clients on what would otherwise be traditionally hourly work. I showed him how our website drove massive amounts of business to our firm in a variety of niche practice areas including mass tort, domain name disputes, non-compete contracts and technology company representation.

In short, I think I blew his mind. In the process, I think he must have realized that everything he was hearing from the old partners at my old firm was flawed. He realized that they lived in a world that was closed and uninformed. You see, my old firm I’m sure thought that my business was struggling. After two years, they have very little idea of what I do or how I do it. In their minds, I was only living off of their success and the fact that I had worked for their firm for five years.

By dispelling the myths about my firm, I accomplished something, which was incredibly important to me. I made it clear to these people that I was not created by my former firm. It became clear that I had been severely held back by living under a business model created by someone else, most of my best talents had been quashed. It also must have been apparent that my business model was far superior to the one they were using, not only in terms of revenue but also in client service. 

This more than anything else felt good. Expressing myself at lunch in explaining all of the things that I was doing with my new firm was the best part of the settlement of the lawsuit brought by my old firm against me.

Ethics Lawsuit Settled

When my former law firm sued me for its quantum meruit fee in a case where they failed to advise the client of choice of counsel, I had my own choice to make. I could roll over and pay them their fee or I could stand up and fight on principle. Prior posts concerning the lawsuit filed against GAL can be found here.

I knew that standing up would be important. It would bring the issue to the table. It would cause lawyers to consider the question that I had posed: Do lawyers need to think about their clients first, even before their own interests in a fee? At a recent court hearing, the Judge answered the question I posed with an emphatic "Yes." He berated the attorney from my former law firm who suggested that there was no case or ethics rule that required a law firm to advise their client that they could choose their firm, or the departing attorney as their counsel. While acknowledging that the ethics decisions make it clear that a client’s constitutional choice of counsel should be preserved and that the client should be informed, the former firm argued that ethics rulings are not binding on the court.

I also knew that standing up and fighting would be risking my own fee, which was earned in spades, on the matter. As importantly, I knew that fighting my old firm would drain money and resources, which would otherwise be available to my other clients. It was not an easy decision to fight. Being the natural risk taker that I am, I decided to jump in and stand up with both feet.

After the last hearing wherein the Judge wholeheartedly indorsed my "You must think of the client first" position, I felt vindicated. I felt I had accomplished what it is I had set out to do. I had sent a message myself. I have proven that my message was legitimate. I wasn’t the only one in the world who felt that effectively conspiring against your own client was appropriate behavior. The Judge agreed that an attorney has an ethical duty to inform their client of their right to select counsel.

The settlement demand of the former firm kept dropping and they were looking for a response from me. I tried drafting some settlement letters but quickly realized that by arguing the ethics issues in order to support my settlement number, I was likely sabotaging any chance of settlement. Instead, I decided to invite the attorney in charge of the suit from my former firm for a tour of my office and lunch on me. We had a great pleasant two-hour meeting. At the end, I told him my settlement position, which caused a significant amount of drama. "You can’t send me back with that number," he said. "The case will never settle at the number," he insisted. But I told him it was my bottom line and I was more than happy to litigate to the end. Did they really want a trial on whether or not they met their ethical obligations to the client?

An hour after our lunch concluded and the reality that the case would likely be going on for many more months, a call came in from my counsel indicated that the case was settled at my number. It was over. My position was vindicated. My fee, and part of their fee to cover all of my time and legal expenses in defending the suit, was preserved. Former firm took a significant reduction in their alleged quantum meruit fee.

When I came home, my wife and I celebrated. We didn’t celebrate the settlement money. We celebrated that fact that we stood up for what was right, that we had stood up for the profession. We celebrated that we risked tens of thousands of dollars on something that was bigger than we were. We celebrated that fact that it is sometimes more appropriate to follow your heart, rather than your head.

Have I Really Just Created a New Business Model Altogether?

My clients see the value of our extranet system. When I bring them in to show them how we drive the extranet with digital dictation they are amazed. When I show them how portable dictation allows you to create and assign tasks from anywhere, you could almost see the light bulb coming on. When I explain to them that I typically dictate tasks in the evenings, when I roll out of bed in the morning and after I get out of the shower, their eyebrows typically raise (probably as they’re trying not to think of me getting out of the shower).

We have had one substantial client who has completely adopted our internal management system, including a full set up of digital dictation devices, an extranet and the resulting purely task based system that results. They’re using our extranet managers/typist to enter the information into the extranet. All of their digital dictation routes directly to our team.

As much fun as it was to see our internal system evolve, it is even more fun to watch a one hundred-person company explode as management adopts a web-enabled, task-based system of management powered by digital dictation.

I always used to say that it was unusual for a single attorney to be able to keep four internal staff and four to eight external virtual workers busy month in and month out. I would always tell people that it was digital dictation that allowed me to manage this large of a group, and drive projects forward by being both the coach and quarterback. I have now seen it create the same result in a large automobile dealership. What we were doing at my firm translates across virtually any other business model.

Never Graduate

Never stop being a student. Don't ever let yourself think that you have learned all that there is, because a business owner with a mindset like that, is not going to be one for long. This hole is something it is even more important to avoid within tech-age firms, because it can be devastating to your mission as one.

If you "graduate" and stop learning, than you are stationary, when the world in which your firm operates is one that lives on the top of an always-moving wave. Just as I posted on the importance of maintaining a firm that is keeping up with the latest in technologies (see "Staying On Top of the Wave"), your staying on the crown of the wave is only possible if you yourself always remain open to a new lesson.

There are so many ways in which to maintain this learning environment; the most important of which is to subscribe to the literature in the field. Keep yourself connected with blogs (like this one!), and magazines that are designed to share the lessons that we are each learning separately.

So don't ever close yourself up and say that you are done learning. It's so easy for that wave to swallow up those firms who stop advancing, which has the danger of leaving your firm among those old-style ones we are beating.

Opportunity in the Holidays

The ability to commercialize the holidays was a trick that our friends in the retail businesses mastered quite a long time ago. Just think about the difference in spending that you, personally, do when this time of the year comes around. That huge increase is due to the work that has been done by those timeless entrepreneurs that have not been in their store for a long time.

This is a trick that us in the legal field can make our own as well. While a firm cannot really take advantage of a holiday the way that some retail businesses can, we can use this opportunity to remind our faithful clients that we are around. So take the opportunity of the holidays and send your clients a nice card or basket, and I know that your "investment" will pay itself back later.

This is especially great if you are a new firm with a short list of clients. In our line of work its so important to have a dedicated set of clients whom you work with on a regular occasion, and at this time of the year, you have a great excuse to show some appreciation and make a personal connection that firms who don't have their address just can't make.

So get in the spirit! Spend a little bit of personal time on your clients - it doesn't even need to be that much time. Just google "deliverable gift baskets" and you can place an order within seconds.