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April 2008

The Distinction Between Business and Law

Because we do so much trademark work, we live in a world of notice letters, threat letters and draft complaints.

It never ceases to amaze me how many business opportunities are lost as a result of lawyers being so caught up in their threats, that they fail to see the opportunity for companies to work together.  I am working on a matter right now where one of the top social networking sites for women is allegedly infringing on a large newspaper publishing concerns magazine trademark.  The publishing company’s website is pretty weak, with extremely limited traffic.  It is a perfect opportunity for them to get in the game on the web instantaneously. 

But the lawyers are so caught up in making threats that they can’t see the opportunity staring them in the face.  Lawyers sometimes forget that their client’s interest is business, not law and certainly not litigation.  “Protecting their client’s interest” sometimes means stepping back from the threats and focusing in on the opportunity. 

The Impersonal Nature of Email

I recently posted The Etiquette of Email.  As a follow-up, Peter at the Solo In Chicago blog provides great insight into the appropriate use of email:

I'm amazed at the vitriol I see written via e-mail particularly from clients and on lawyer list serves. I really think that the impersonal nature of e-mail (typing on some electronic device by yourself) really brings out the worst in people. My personal policy is absolutely if there needs to confrontation or criticism, do it in person or over the phone. Time and again I see a tone of communication from people that they would NEVER express verbally but when it's not really expressed to a person but rather just typed into a box there's inappropriate anger.

I couldn’t agree with Peter more.  Email is a great way to transmit information.  It is a terrible communication device.  If anything serious is happening in a case, a phone call is mandatory.  A follow-up email is fine. 

The Evil Side Effect of Lawyer Advertising: More Consumer Information

The proliferation of lawyer websites, law firm websites, lawyer blogs and even LinkedIn profiles have literally exploded the amount of information available to consumers of legal services.  There has been a steady debate about whether or not lawyer blogs constitute lawyer advertising and how the advertising rules impact law firm websites which often include testimonials, a listing of favorable results and representative clients.  Within the LinkedIn community, clients can provide recommendations to the lawyers they’re connected to.  Clients sometimes brag about their lawyers on bulletin board systems and even on their own websites. 

I got in a debate the other day with a lawyer who believed that all of the above forms of information were unethical and constituted impermissible lawyer advertising.  This lawyer’s view is that no lawyer should allow to have anything except a web page including your name, address and phone number.  What a crock!

Anyone that would suggest that consumers were better off before the advent of the Internet in shopping for legal services is smoking crack.  Anyone who’s worked in a law firm knows that the vast majority of clients walk in the door with absolutely no prior experience with attorneys, law firms, and in many instances legal services in general.  Before the Internet, they were placed completely at the mercy of the lawyer sitting across the big fancy table.  In that, “face-to-face” meeting, the chance that a consumer could escape without first paying a hefty retainer fee was slim to none.  Even in matters in which the lawyer had no expertise, they could always sound smart enough to land the client.

In the Internet age, a client and virtually every possible legal matter can go to the Internet and educate themselves concerning the basic legal principles involved, review lawyer websites which explain the key elements, compare law firms through the information on their websites located all across the state, the country or the world.  They can make calls and get free consultations from many different law firms before making a decision; providing the client with a variety of different fee options.

Of course, this doesn’t even begin to touch on the amount of pro bono information that is provided by every lawyer who blogs, providing scores of individuals who cannot afford any legal services in-depth information in order to engage in legal self-help. 

I’ve always believed that there are really two classes of potential clients who might review information on the Internet.  The first are injury clients who are often vulnerable.  The second is everyone else.  Most of whom are looking for legal advice regarding business, real estate and other matters which do not imply vulnerability.  The concept that business people can be deceived by law firm websites which include a representative list of sample cases is laughable.  The anti-advertising contingent builds its argument on the foundation that legal consumers are fundamentally stupid.  I believe that most of that contingent is simply trying to avoid having to compete.  They would prefer it if there were no ready options available to clients and virtually no information from which a perspective client can educate themselves.  I believe it is the ethical duty of every lawyer to provide information concerning their practice, areas of specialization, representative cases and results.  They should be obligated to provide information concerning the fee options and billing policies.  Legal consumers win as information about lawyers and law firms proliferate, whether self-generated by the law firms and lawyers themselves or as commentary by other people.  The people who contact our law firm are overwhelmingly smart, intelligent consumers who have contacted several law firms, educated themselves about the legal issue they are facing and ask all the right questions prior to retention.

Have you considered dictating your emails?

In my previous post, I noted the rising problem etiquette in email.  I attribute this in part to text messaging, which, by its nature, kinds to be cryptic, short and almost painfully to the point. 

Virtually everyone who has an email account has a web version of that account.  We strongly recommend authorizing staff to access an attorney’s webmail account in order to send dictated email messages.  I would say that at least of 15% of all of my email is dictated, transcribed by staff and sent through my webmail account.

Dictating email has huge advantages.  First of all, it allows you to say more in a lot less time.  Second, you can dictate an email from anywhere that you have a portable recording device.  My Blackberry has built-in dictation.  I’m dictating this blog post into my phone, which will be auto-routed to my staff’s email account for transcription.  This allows me to work from anywhere and specifically to draft emails from anywhere. 

But the biggest advantage I think is that it allows you to be a lot more comprehensive when providing information to someone by email.  You could cover a many more issues in an email which you spend ten minutes dictating, then you can in an email you spent ten minutes typing yourself.

We include a disclaimer at the bottom of the email that the email was in fact dictated and transmitted by a staff member.  We believe that dictation is one of the most underutilized tools in virtually every law firm.  Digital dictation provides so many advantages over cassette tape dictation as we have previously noted, here, here and here.  The biggest problem is that many attorneys haven’t realized that dictation can handle a lot more than cover letters and pleadings.  It can be used to pass information onto to staff, to delegate tasks and even to draft email.  Have you considered leveraging dictation with your email technology? 

The Etiquette of Email

I think we all know not to turn our caps lock button on when we send email by this point in Internet history.  However, the rise of text messaging has created a shift in email etiquette.  Email recipients are much more willing to accept short cryptic messages sent by text through a Blackberry, Palm or otherwise.  In fact, using short hand and abbreviations is commonplace.  I often wondered whether the advent of text messaging has spilled over into the email arena. 

Short cryptic responses in email are sometimes inevitable.  But much of the time they are not received well by the recipient who may feel that the lack of attention suggests that they are being nuisanced, that their question wasn’t appropriate, that you don’t have time for them or other negative implications. 

I think it is important that when we send emails, we try and retain as many of the formalities of a signed, dated and transmitted letter as possible.  A three sentence response may still be appropriate, but it is my belief that the expectations of the recipient are still fairly high.  Don’t let the text message mentality spill over into your email account.  You may find that you are sending all the wrong messages to the people most important to you. 

Earth Day 2008, Law Firms Going Green

Earth Day is Tuesday, April 22, 2008.  Our law firm has been digital since day one.  This means we use a small fraction of the paper that most law firms use.  I would estimate it to be at something in the range of 10% of a normal law operation.  In many ways, we have been green since day one.  We recycle, use low wattage fluorescent lights where possible, equalize our heating system, ensure that large cardboard boxes make it into the recycle dumpster, ride our bikes to work where possible, reduce travel by conducting GoToMeetings and a variety of other activities.  Of course, we do many of these things for our own business purpose.  They happen to also have a positive effect on the environment.

We are in the process of taking the next level towards becoming a “green law firm.”  We are developing internal policies and incentive programs in order to round out our green existence. 

What we need now is ideas from you.  We have been unable to locate a certification authority for green law firms such as ours.  So we set out to develop our own policies and standards. 

If anyone is aware of a certification authority or has other ideas for enhancing our “greenness” please comment below.  It is our hope to inspire other law firms to go green as well. 

Introducing Virtual Paralegal Aretha Gaskin

The Virtual Legal Assistant, Inc.
Aretha Gaskin
Owner & Virtual Support Professional
Based in Westfield, New Jersey USA

Revised_015 My name is Aretha Gaskin and I am a virtual support professional and I’ve worked at some of New York City’s largest law firms and bring well over a decade of law firm experience to my two companies: The Virtual Legal Assistant Inc., and Bankruptcy Forms Processing Inc.  Prior to working in the legal industry, I worked in the non-legal world for several years as an Executive Secretary.  Helping solo and small business professionals overcome their administrative challenges is the focus of my virtual practice.

I offer an array of virtual secretarial and virtual receptionist services catering specifically to the legal community.  My services range from the personal assistant level to ensuring the success of those stand alone projects so critical to any business.  In essence, I cater to both the busy solo practitioner and the start-up entrepreneur.

There is a Difference between Having Technology, Using Technology and Dedicating Yourself to a Process Utilizing Technology

We have incorporated an awful lot of technology into our law firm business model and process.  By way of example, we use GoToMeeting with the attendant conference call service almost on a daily basis.  Many of our clients are located in other states and over seas.  GoToMeeting is a tremendous asset to any law firm and, in many ways, is far superior to a face-to-face meeting.  For instance, you actually share a desktop and are looking at the exact same thing online.  In a traditional meeting, there’s a tendency to get together and talk about things without moving the ball.  The best case scenario in a face-to-face meeting is that someone’s got a projector or patch cord into a LSD TV so that everyone can look at the same thing.  If people have multiple laptops, changing the presenter is extremely difficult.  This is not true with GoToMeeting. 

I’m not saying that face-to-face meetings aren’t important.  But I am saying that an awful lot of people have software applications such as GoToMeeting downloaded on their computer, but rarely, if ever, use the application.  They have not incorporated GoToMeeting as a resource within their business process.

There is a big difference between having technology and using it.  You have to commit to technology in order to get real value out of it.  It’s great having an extranet, for instance, but if you don’t use it religiously, it will become more of a headache than a tremendous asset that it can be. 

And there is a difference between using technology and dedicating your firm process to it.  The key to technology is process.  I cannot state this strongly enough.  For instance, talking to a client on the phone is fine.  But our process dictates that you schedule a GoToMeeting with the client in order to maximize the time that you are on the phone.  In almost every instance, you and your client are reviewing something.  If you were both looking at that “something”, you will have a much more intelligent, thoughtful and focused conversation.  And specific to-do items will arise out of the conversation.  If you are editing the document online while discussing the appropriate language, you will be able to not only discuss concepts, but agree on the exact language after drafting, reviewing, revising and finalizing. 

Lots of lawyers and law firms have great technology.  Few law firms actually use that technology.  While some lawyers in law firms use technology, most lawyers in law firms don’t.  A single lawyer in a firm utilizing technology is fine.  A law firm dedicated to that technology as part of their client service model is nothing short of amazing.

So take some time and look at what technology you have available to you in your law firm.  Now ask yourself whether or not you use that technology to its fullest potential. 

Are You a Virtual Worker Looking to Promote Your Services?

We have created two new categories for virtual worker issues.  The first category is a listing of virtual workers who have submitted their background information and websites to us.  That link can be found here

The second is a blog category which includes all of our virtual worker posts. That link is found here

If you are a virtual worker and want to get listed, go ahead and contact us.  We just purchased some job posting software which we will be implementing over the next month or two.  This will allow us to have a job board for both virtual workers and prospective employers right here on the Greatest American Lawyer Site!

Virtual Worker Recap

Since we are going to be having some upcoming posts on virtual workers, we thought we would recap our best posts on virtual workers over the last 3 ½ years.  As you know, there are tremendous benefits to incorporating a virtual worker into your law firm business model.  Here is our bullet list of favorite posts: