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'Ernie The Attorney' Discusses Technology, Social Networking for Lawyers and Going Solo

Ernie the Attorney is a long time blogger and innovator in the law. We love Ernie for lots of reasons, one of which is his linked-in profile which states:

Darwin observed that "it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change." The legal system, long bound by tradition, now struggles to adapt to increasing societal change. Today, lawyers can use technology in novel ways to improve communication and increase efficiency in gathering information. We need to be more adept at handling digital information to fully represent our clients.

Clients increasingly need lawyers who look at things in fresh ways, who seek hidden advantages, and who properly assess risk instead of reflexively avoiding it. "Zealous representation," to me, is less about swash-buckling and more about thoughtfulness and strategic planning.

Want to learn more?  Listen or read Ernie's GAL Radio interview where he discusses social networking and other hot topics in law.


Announcer:  Welcome to GAL Radio brought to you by the Greatest American Lawyer Blog.  Changing the way law is practiced through technology, innovation and creativity.  Turning the business of law on its head, and shaking things up to the betterment of clients, lawyers, law firms and society. 

Damien Allen:  Good afternoon, and welcome to GAL Radio.  My name is Damien Allen and joining me today via the telephone is Ernest Svenson of the Svenson Law Firm in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Good afternoon, and welcome to the program, Ernest.

Ernest Svenson: Hey, it’s great to be here.

Damien Allen:  It’s great to have you. Congratulations on your Super Bowl win.
Ernest Svenson:  Thanks.  That was a long time coming and well-enjoyed.  I don’t know about well-deserved, but we’ll simply pretend like it was deserved and the city is really, really enjoying it.  It’s a great win.

Damien Allen:  And it’s a great city.  I haven’t been down there in a long time, but I have very fond memories of wandering around the city of New Orleans as a 20 year old and a street musician and just having a great, great time. But, today we’re talking about technology and lawyers.  You, yourself, have your own law firm, The Svenson Law Firm.  You’re a solo practice.  What made you decide to go into a solo as opposed to working for a large firm?

Ernest Svenson:  Well, I had worked for a large firm – the same large firm – for about 20 years after I finished my clerkship, my federal clerkship, and I really like the firm.  The firm was great.  They were pretty progressive. They gave me some latitude to try some tech stuff there and help promote and evangelize technology, but after Katrina, which, you know, certainly made it easier to look at making a change that previously might have seemed monumental, because everything seemed less than monumental after Katrina, I just decided that I wasn’t really happy practicing law. I didn’t think it was the firm.  I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I figured I would just try and practice it on my own and see if that helped things.  And what I found was I liked practicing by myself a lot more.  I found that I liked practicing law once I was practicing by myself.  And basically, I just didn’t like all of the friction that’s inherent in practicing in a larger organization that has hierarchies in place, that has committees and subcommittees and meetings and all that stuff.  I mean, I just wanted to practice law, and if I found a new technology, implement it, and when you’re by yourself it’s a lot easier to do. So, that’s basically kind of how I wound up practicing on my own and why I enjoy practicing on my own.

Damien Allen:  What are the specialties of the Svenson Law Firm?

Ernest Svenson:  Well, at the big firm, I was in the litigation section, and we did anything involving commercial litigation, and over the years that was a bunch of different stuff.  I had sort of picked up a specialty doing franchise work, and I represented a couple different franchisors like Popeye’s and Ruth’s Chris and so forth.  So, when I went out on my own, I continued to represent those companies, and I still do franchise work but when you’re on your own, you have the latitude to take different kinds of cases and also certain kinds of cases you don’t want to take because they’re better handled by larger firms with teams of people.  So, I’m doing franchise work, and then I’m also doing general commercial litigation.  And when I do need to work with other lawyers, what I typically do is I just engage a lawyer who has a specialty or has a particular skill set that I think is going to be helpful in a case.  So, I handle pretty much the same kind of cases, I just handle them in a different way.

Damien Allen:  Now, you also do a set of blogs, and you also do a radio podcast every Friday, this WEEK in LAW.  On one of your blogs, you were talking about speaking on social networking young lawyers.  What was that seminar about?

Ernest Svenson:  Well, it’s the young lawyers who have been in Louisiana after they have passed the bar and kind of gotten settled.  They give them an inaugural seminar that lasts about a half a day, and they are various topics that they cover.  I was asked to speak, along with a couple other folks, about social networking.  I don’t really consider myself an expert in social  networking, because I don’t really know exactly that it has this really specific definition as to what it is, but I guess I do it out of blog, I use Twitter, I use these essentially social networking tools, so, that’s why I get so much sought out. When I’m asked to give those talks, I am always wary and I want to make the people who ask me to speak understand that I don’t really have a formula.  I can’t really  tell people, here is what you should do, here is what you shouldn’t do.  I can tell them some things that have worked and not worked for me, and I can tell them some things that I have observed other people doing that seem to work or not work, but I consider myself to be sort of experimental about all this stuff, and I don’t go into it with a big strategic roadmap and say well, I’m going to try to avoid this.  So, I kind of try to debunk things, and so my pitch to the young lawyers was, I think social networking is a tool.  I think it’s like anything else.  It’s just networking, but done in a different way.  You live in a small town, you know everybody and you kind of know who they are, you know how everything works.  If you live in the bigger town, it’s harder to know everybody, but then all of sudden if you overlay the internet, then suddenly it’s easier to keep up with a larger group of people, not in the same way you would if you were in a small town, but you have more of a sense of what people are doing if you use these tools in a certain way.  So, these new tools that basically are all enabled because of the internet is to keep track of people and connect with them and to build relationships and extend the relationships that you already have.  And so I try to promote the things I think it enables, and I think there’s a lot that it enables, and I try to explain why in certain cases when things don’t work it’s just because somebody didn’t foresee how something would be used.  I’m not one who says, Oh, because something could go wrong, let’s not use it.  Like, the Florida Bar Association told judges in Florida that it would be unethical or improper for them to friend other lawyers who might appear in front of them on Facebook.  And I think that’s ridiculous.  I mean, they did that without understanding what Facebook was about, without understanding what the benefits of it might be.  They just said, “well, we shouldn’t do this”, and I think that’s the wrong mentality to have, I think it’s the wrong approach to have and I think that’s really, I guess my big message is, don’t shut things down or say no to them before you understand them and try to find things in these new tools that can let you do new things in better ways and just see how you can make them work for you. 

Damien Allen:  Do you use social  networking for your law firm on a whole or are you using it for advertising, or are you using it just to talk about specific cases, how does this technology work in your firm or your realm?

Ernest Svenson:  Well, I started off blogging, and I think that’s the first thing that people talk about when they think of social networking.  While blogging has been around for a long time, I really think that’s the mainstay, and I think that’s what anybody who’s interested in doing social networking in a business sense, like a lawyer would, I think that’s the first thing that you should consider.  I mean, yes, I use it for promoting my firm, but I don’t use it consciously because I didn’t start off using it consciously.  I started off, again, experimenting and playing around with it, this was back in March of 2002.  I’ve found that if you write things that you’re interested in, it doesn’t all have to be about law.  In the beginning it was mostly about law because the name of the blog I picked was Ernie the Attorney.  And so people would come there and say, I have a question or you’re a lawyer, help me out with understanding this question.  It wasn’t necessarily a question that they had about their own problem it was here’s a ruling that has come out, what do you think about it?  So I would just give my opinion but try to do  it in a down-to-earth – and by down-to-earth I mean something that anyone could understand not necessarily just lawyers -- and I found that people reacted favorably to that, they liked it.  They liked that, instead of giving them this high priest, voodoo mumbo jumbo, that I would I would try to explain things the way that I would explain them to my brother who’s not a lawyer, for example.  And, so I think that the social networking tools are very helpful if you want to get business, but the way you get business isn’t …you don’t say, hey! I am here, give me business, although some people do that and I don’t think it works very well.  I think the way it works is you just talk about what you know, talk about what you’re interested in, and do it in a way that’s engaging and if you do, people will come along.  It may not be 100,000 people, but that doesn’t really matter.  I mean, what matters is that you, you know, it’s kind of like your pre-approving or pre-connecting with somebody.  When somebody comes to me and says I want to hire you because I read something on your blog or I kind of know who you are and I want to hire you, they already know who I am.  They’re not coming to me saying, well, I kind of read about you and I know you had an ad on TV and you claim to be an expert, but I don’t really trust you yet because I don’t know who you are.  They come to you with a sense of hey, I kind of know who you are and I already like you.  So, that makes my job easier because I don’t have to spend as much time making them feel comfortable.  They come to me already having decided that they trust me, which is important in the lawyer-client relationship because a lot of the difficulty in the initial representation is you have to make the client understand that it’s better for them to tell you about things that they may not want to tell anybody because you can’t do your job as effectively.  So, it just makes everything easier.  It’s just a thing that eliminates friction, and that’s the real benefit of it.  It has a marketing component but it’s more than just marketing, it’s the whole realm of client interaction.  That’s what I think it enables. 

Damien Allen:  Besides the blogging, the podcasts and the social networking are there other pieces of technology that have come into play that help you within your practice. 

Ernest Svenson: Yes, there’s a lot of different things.  One thing, I guess it’s mostly a bad thing in the sense of being extremely challenging for most lawyers, but there’s a lot different technology that one can avail themselves of in the practice of law.  Unlike the accounting profession where once somebody created the spreadsheet, that was pretty much the killer application that accountants need.  Lawyers, we don’t do just one thing.  We don’t just crunch numbers.  We investigate facts  We figure out how to convey those facts in a meaningful, compelling way to jurors or to the judge.  So there are a lot of tools that we use, and there are a lot of different technologies that one can avail oneself of as a lawyer, and so for me it’s a lot of different things.  One thing is, because I’m a litigator, I have to investigate facts and I have to figure out what happened, I have to keep track of documents, and I have to keep track of things that people said, and I use a program called CaseMap which was originally developed by some jury consults who found that as they consulted with lawyers to develop the themes, that the lawyers really didn’t need to know how to manage the facts. So they created this program to help some lawyers chronologize information.  So, I use that, and I use Adobe Acrobat to  manage my PDFs, and I use some other programs to keep track of things, and I think PowerPoint and programs like that are important.  So, it’s just a whole bunch of different things, and I think that that’s the part that for a large law firm, it’s really challenging because to try to get everybody on board with one program, whatever it is, Outlook or new software case management system, that’s a huge challenge because you’re not changing just the behavior of one person, you’re changing the behavior of a group of people, and it’s breaking several people’s habits and establishing new habits.  So each time you add a new program, the problem becomes, which is already exponential problem, it becomes exponential to an exponential degree.  So, it’s a challenging thing, and I think that that’s why it’s easier for smaller firms and solos to use technology or to start using it anyways, and I think that that’s really an advantage that some of the small firms have is that they can, if they pick the right kind of cases to handle and they use this technology effectively and know how to use it, they actually, for the first time, have an advantage over the larger firm because the larger firm, unless it’s already using this technology, isn’t going to be able to pick it up quickly. 

Damien Allen:  With the launch of the new iPad, Ernest, is that something that you think is going to help any attorney or solo attorney, in general, is that going to be something that looks like it’s going to be an even bigger boon to the industry?

Ernest Svenson:  I think it can be.  Obviously, we have to wait to see when it comes out how good it is and how it works in the legal profession, but I think it has a lot of promise in the way that the tablet PC had promised but for some reason hasn’t really caught on in the legal profession.  I think that the big difference is going to be a couple things with the iPad.  For one thing, it’s coming out on the Apple platform, so there are less people that it has to please initially.  I think that the people who decide to use it, I know I’ll be one of those people, will be looking for ways to make it work in the way that the tablet did.  I played with the tablet for a while, I’m a MAC user now, but I played with a tablet for a while when I was first on my own, and I liked it. I thought it was great because what it does is it changes the social dynamic.  If you have a tablet type device in your hand, people don’t necessarily go, oh, there’s a computer.  Whereas if you have a laptop, you have to put it on a desk to type on it, and right away that just changes things.  With the tablet, you have it in your hand when you’re making notes or you’re doing things with it.  For all people know, who are sitting far away from you, it might be a legal pad.  So, it’s got an ease of use factor that I think is good.  It’s portable, and then the key, and this is the thing that I think that Apple did that’s really smart, is it’s basically the iPhone but bigger and faster.  So, and people say, why won’t it run a big boy operating system, that’s a fault.  It’s not a fault because with the iPhone, when you push the button to turn it on, it’s instantly on.  There’s no rebooting issue unless it gets messed up, which doesn’t happen that often.  A tablet or any kind of device running a full-fledged operating system has to boot up or it’s got the possibility that if it needs to be rebooted, it’s going to take a lot longer.  This is a device where you push the button to turn it on and it’s on.  So, you could use it in a lot of different ways.  You could use it for taking notes in a meeting or a hearing.  You could use it, if the court would let you, in a trial presentation where you want to display something and you hold it in your hands to make it more intimate.  You can do that on the iPhone.  So, I think it’s got a lot of potential, and I think it’s a niche product on a niche platform that will have the time it needs to develop and to be used in different ways, and I think that lawyers are going to use it, and I think it’s going to catch on.  I don’t think it’s going to change the legal profession overnight or even in any way necessarily, but I think it’s going to give those lawyers who are Apple users a tool that they can use that’s effective, which the tablet PC just didn’t seem to quite get there because it had rebooting problems or just didn’t quite work. 
Damien Allen:  We’d like to thank you for joining us today and discussing your use of technology in your solo practice.

Ernest Svenson:  You bet.  I’ve enjoyed talking to you, and take care and hope that your Detroit Lions do a little better next year. 

Damien Allen:  Well, like I said, we’re close enough to Green Bay.  At least I have one professional team close to me to root for.  If you’d like to find out more about Ernest Svenson, you could check out, where his ongoing series of blogs is at.  Thank you very much for joining us today. You’ve been listening to GAL Radio.  My name is Damien Allen, everybody have a great afternoon. 

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