Lawyers have a hard time believing it’s possible to have a practice that’s both prosperous and easy to run. That’s because most lawyers are completely frazzled. And some of the most frazzled ones are in small firms.
Why is this? Well, some pundits say the legal profession is now the victim of disruptive societal change. That sounds plausible at a superficial level. But the real reason is something less monumental, and something totally within our control.
Frankly, most of us aren’t managing our practices very well. Not because of social upheaval. Not because we’re inherently inept at running a business. But because we tend to focus most of our time and energy solving our clients’ problems.
We ignore our business challenges, which is not good. Running a law firm presents tremendous business challenges, especially a small one with limited resources. A big key to running any business well is making effective use of your resources.
For example, time management is crucial. Time needs to be carefully managed because it’s the scarcest resource (and least replaceable) of all.
Another challenging resource is technology. And yes, technology can be confusing, especially with the dizzying array of options with which we’re faced. But when managed properly, it can dramatically improve your practice.
So How Do You Manage Technology Properly?
Well, that’s what I’m going to show you.
Now maybe you’re thinking, “But I can barely handle email, so how am I going to learn to leverage technology?” First, you don’t need to master technology to leverage it. You only need to understand enough to hire the right people to help you. In other words, you don’t have to push all the buttons yourself; you can hire people to push buttons for you (or automate the “button pushing,” which is even better).
Listen, if you can follow a clear “process roadmap” — such as rules of civil procedure — then you are capable of radically improving your practice with common technology, most of which you already own. All you need is the right roadmap, which I’m going to give you. And if you read on, I’ll show you a well-defined 12-step process to leverage technology to transform your practice and improve your quality of life.
But before we get into the process, let me briefly share the story of how I learned to leverage technology to create a thriving solo practice.
If you can follow a clear ‘process roadmap’ — such as rules of civil procedure — then you are capable of radically improving your practice with common technology, most of which you already own.
In 1987, after having spent two years clerking for a federal judge, I started working for a large New Orleans law firm. The firm had high-profile corporate clients in many different industries, and they charged their clients premium rates. So, not surprisingly, I was well-paid, even as a first-year associate.
Over the years, I worked on interesting cases and learned the art of practicing law. Mostly, the “art” involved managing voluminous information stored in voluminous boxes of paper. Paralegals did most of the grunt work, so it wasn’t that taxing for me. Still, over the years I became less enthralled with the way I was practicing law.
Then the economy started hitting bumpy ground. Clients got nit-pickier about their bills, and recruiting new clients became more difficult. Meanwhile, the firm’s overhead kept climbing. So, everyone had to work harder for less money. The stress levels climbed, and I became dissatisfied. I started daydreaming about starting my own practice, preferably something simple, without the need for lots of staff to manage lots of paper.
One day a friend showed me how to scan paper into my computer, and I immediately saw how I could create a practice that was easy to manage, with low overhead (i.e., less paper meant less required office space). But I still had the pesky problem of getting new clients.
The firm’s institutional clients weren’t going to hire a solo lawyer with no paralegals and a tiny office. Smaller businesses might, but how could I market to them and convince them to hire me? Well, the internet was the perfect medium, and I discovered its power mostly by accident.
In 2002, I started my blog “Ernie the Attorney.” Although I did so as an experiment, it quickly got a lot of attention. Then I started getting inquiries from potential clients who, having read my blog posts, decided they trusted me enough to hire me. However, they couldn’t afford the high rates at my big firm. But — you got it — I knew how to solve that problem.
I gave up my big firm partnership, and simultaneously my big firm paycheck, to start my own solo practice. Of course, it wasn’t easy at first, and I had many worried moments along the way, but it turned out to be a great decision. I used technology to do a lot of the work that I had previously delegated to paralegals and secretaries (who cost money, by the way). And I didn’t have to work hard at all to get new clients. My website brought me a steady stream of clients that loved working with me. I had more work than I could handle, which made it easy not only to raise my rates, but also to be super picky about who I accepted as a client.
I could work as much as I wanted to, where I wanted to, and with whom I wanted to, mostly because of automation, outsourcing and the internet. And while it was gratifying to have a practice that was profitable and easy to run, I found something even more fulfilling — showing other lawyers how to do the same thing. And for the past 12 years, that’s what I’ve done.
My advice is based on what I did in my practice, and what other lawyers have used in their practices. Because my recommendations are battle-tested, that is how you can have confidence they will work in your practice as well.
OK, Let’s Talk About the Process
I mentioned there were 12 steps, and I’m going to go through each one. But first, let’s talk about three phases that encompass those 12 steps. In general, these are phases that you need to go through as you transform your practice to make effective use of modern technology.
- Phase 1: First, you work on simplifying and lowering overhead. That means you’ll start digitizing your bulky papers. This will enable you to use less office space, and not depend as much on human beings (i.e., paid staff) to shuffle paper. You’ll also save time and reduce stress because you’ll be able to find critical information in seconds. Best of all, eliminating paper sets you up for automating key workflows.
- Phase 2: This is where you get exponential increases in efficiency and cost savings. That’s because you’ll start harnessing the power of automation. Do you want to create documents with a few clicks and zero errors? How about getting great new clients in a predictable, steady stream even when you’re busy, or asleep? Well, that’s what automation can do for you if you go about it in the right way.
- Phase 3: Finally, you’ll learn to work virtually from anywhere with an internet connection. That will set you up to harness outsourcing. Not everything can be automated, but pretty much everything can be delegated. Once you know the secrets of hiring virtual assistants, you can find smart, eager helpers with just a few keyboard tabs.
The “12 Steps”
Now let’s drill down and discuss the steps to transforming your practice by using technology.
First, you must develop the right mindset. Yes, we have to be realistic: technology can be a challenge for many lawyers. But the number one reason they struggle is because they don’t approach technology in the right way. If you’re intimidated or frustrated by technology, then the root of the problem is almost certainly how you’re approaching it.
Most lawyers are haphazard in their approach. They might ask their tech-savvy lawyer friends for guidance, and they’ll hire the first tech consultant they encounter. That’s not an optimal approach. More likely, it’s a path that inevitably leads to further frustration and failure.
The right mindset is one where you decide to make a strong commitment to leverage technology and then get the right kind of assistance.
2. A Roadmap
You need a systematic approach for assessing the best technology options and then implementing them. You shouldn’t just go from one shiny object to another. You need a basic roadmap that shows you how to leverage technology in a step-by-step way, which is what we’re discussing here.
The next step is the most important one. Lawyers who don’t follow this step are the ones who suffer the most in managing their practices.
You should have well-developed systems for running your law practice, and they should be documented. Of course, many lawyers do not have good systems. They have “loosey-goosey” systems. In other words, there’s variation in how one staff member performs a task and how another person does it. I call this “chaotic variability,” and it is an insidious problem.
Look, you need solid systems if you want to leverage technology in a way that makes your life easier, not harder. Documenting workflows is important with any kind of complex process, but it’s crucial when using technology because chaotic variability is more dangerous when workflows are invisible (e.g., digital workflows). You cannot easily see disorganization inside a computer; it is essentially invisible — quietly and unobtrusively becoming a major disaster.
Creating systems is not hard. There are many books about it, but the one I most recommend is “The E-Myth” by Michael Gerber. It is a great overview of the various systems that all small businesses need to develop. This book was not written for lawyers, but it will still give you 80 percent of the information you need.
For a law-focused book, I recommend John Fisher’s “The Power of a System: How to Build the Injury Law Practice of Your Dreams.” Fisher is a New York personal injury attorney with a solo practice. He handles complex cases, and to be blunt, he makes a lot of money. But his practice is easier to manage because he uses systems and, more importantly, he documents them.
In fact, his book is his documentation. It is a detailed blueprint of the systems he uses in his practice. He gives it to every new staff person who comes to work for him so that they know precisely what they need to do without him having to repeatedly coach them. If you want to know what your documented systems should look like, read Fisher’s book.
4. Tech Assistance
As you work on taking full advantage of technology, you are wise to obtain expert assistance. You will need help selecting the best options and then prioritizing them. Besides not having systems in place, this is probably the biggest error that leads to failure for small firm lawyers. It is imperative that you find the best people to help you manage technology.
Your “tech-savvy” friend is not a good choice, because you need professional guidance, not amateurish help. The best professional is one who not only knows a lot about technology but also has specific experience advising lawyers in various practice areas.
I know many smart lawyers who are adept at using technology to run their firm but are not as adept at helping other lawyers. Why? Because their perspective is too narrow; they only understand what worked for them. They have a hammer and, to them, every tech problem looks like the nails they pounded into their own practice. Avoid those people.
You need trustworthy technology consultants to help you make good choices and to help you implement those choices. Now let’s talk about some of the key technology choices you should make.
5. Paperless Lawyering
If you want to streamline your practice and reduce clutter and chaos, you need to stop managing information and in paper form. Digital information is cheaper to store, easier to transmit, and can be automated more easily. Digitizing paper is about more than just scanning, because when you shift to a paperless practice, you’ll need to make sure you have solid systems for managing that digital information.
Now, you probably already have some systems in place for your word processing files and maybe mail. But you need to get more strategic and more systematic when you shed paper. This does not mean that you’ll never deal with paper again — rather, just that you’re dealing with a lot less of it. Furthermore, your main information managing system will be digitally based as opposed to paper-based.
6. PDF Skills
One of those common questions lawyers often have is: what format should I scan my documents to? The answer is the PDF format. From now on, just think of PDFs as digital paper. As you probably know, e-filing is now mandatory in every federal court, and it’s increasingly being adopted in state courts as well. Original documents filed in the record are no longer paper documents – they are PDF files. So, PDF is the format to use when digitizing and organizing your documents.
There is a lot to learn about PDFs, and the more you learn, the smoother you’ll make the transition to a paperless practice. Plus, you’ll feel more comfortable eliminating the paper version of the document once you know how to effectively work with PDFs.
7. The Cloud
As you release yourself from excessive dependency on paper, you will want the freedom to access your information anytime, anywhere — even when you’re out of the office. And that means you need to embrace the cloud.
The cloud is mysterious to many, but actually, it is a pretty simple concept. Basically, it means you can use the internet to make transferring digital files fast, simple and easy. When you send someone an email with an attachment, you are using the cloud. But, what most of us mean when we say “embrace the cloud” is you should start storing some of your information in the cloud, so you don’t have to ask someone in the office to email you a file.
You can use cloud services like Dropbox or Google Drive to host some or all of your digital files on their servers; then you can access those files anytime you want from anywhere, even if you only have your smartphone or an iPad. So, think of the cloud as universal access to all of your documents and files. If that information is still only in paper form, then it is not going to be available via the cloud, and that’s why I said you need to convert all of your documents to PDF and upload them to Dropbox, your practice management software, or anywhere else online.
I highly recommend the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500, as it will scan directly into your Dropbox folder, making the process more streamlined.
The real power of modern digital technology comes from automation. We know that digital automation can be used to turn on lights at a certain time or send us reminders, but it can also be used for many other things that we previously could not even imagine.
To set up a sophisticated automation workflow, I recommend using InfusionSoft. However, I also recommend finding an expert who specializes in it, as it is not the easiest to set up the first time. This is sophisticated automation and not entry-level stuff. So, focus first on automation that involves common office work, and that will help understand how to automate more complex tasks.
The most common office tasks for lawyers involve generating documents: pleadings, contracts, affidavits, email correspondences and routine forms.
Much of those text-generating workflows can be automated. The key is determining which of those workflows should be automated and, among those, which should be automated first.
The more we rely on digital automation and information, the more we need to pay attention to how to keep it secure. Part of security is making sure that the data is not inadvertently deleted or somehow lost. Another part is protecting our data against interception by bad guys. Certain practice areas are more prone to attacks by hackers, but the most common attacks affect every kind of law firm.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions and misinformation related to security. Here is the main thing to be aware of — hackers are dangerous for two reasons: 1) they have automated their most common attacks, and 2) they use very effective psychological manipulation to gain entry into your computer, which they have automated as well.
Once you understand how they use psychology, you will be able to prevent 80 percent of the most common attacks, even when the hackers come up with new variations.
10. Mobile Lawyering
“Mobile lawyering” simply means practicing law without constantly being tethered to a desk in your office. Embracing the cloud is what makes this possible. Today, you no longer need to remain in your office, unless that is the best place to get your work done.
Sometimes we have to work away from the office because it is inconvenient to drive into the office. Sometimes we find ourselves stuck in a client’s office. Instead of twiddling our thumbs, we can open up our laptop or smartphone and bang out emails that need to be answered.
If you are in court, you may need to quickly pull up a case your opponent cited, or find case law that contradicts their assertion. When you have “always anywhere” access to your information, then you can do that. The amount of work you can do with just a smartphone or a laptop and an internet connection is amazing.
Ideally, you should only be doing the things that require a law license. Everything else should be automated or delegated, and a lot of what you should delegate can be outsourced to people who either work part-time or full-time. Hiring assistants who can work virtually using cloud tools is the way to go. If you have solid systems that you’ve documented, then handing work off to virtual assistants is a piece of cake. Chris Ducker’s book, “Virtual Freedom,” will give you the full scoop on how to use virtual assistants to grow your practice smoothly and steadily. It is not focused on law, but I highly recommend it.
12. Online Marketing
You must learn to market your practice online. This is the thing that will have the greatest long-term payoff. If you do this right, your practice could be two or three times more profitable, but without any increase in workload. The internet is where all the gold is, and you need to learn to mine it.
Increasingly, people are looking to the internet when they need to hire a lawyer. Today, most people looking for a lawyer use the internet as part of their evaluation process. Therefore, having a website is crucial for lawyers now.
How do you attract potential clients who are using the internet to search for legal services? First learn how to market online, which doesn’t mean having a fancy, expensive website (which unfortunately is what most lawyers believe).
So, what should you do to learn proper online marketing? First, learn the principles of marketing, and then apply the ones that work best for small businesses to the internet.
The best kind of marketing for small businesses is direct-response marketing. This method is incredibly effective in any medium (direct mail, billboard advertising, TV, etc.), not just the internet. Direct-response marketing is appealing for lawyers who feel awkward promoting themselves. In other words, if you’re an introvert who doesn’t like to go to networking events (like me), you’ll love direct-response marketing.
The best and fastest way to learn more about direct-response marketing is from Dan Kennedy’s book “No B.S. Direct Marketing.”
The options are endless; it all comes down to your creativity and execution.
So, That’s the Process in a Nutshell
Get help from the right people and work through those steps in an orderly fashion. Don’t get impatient. And, above all, avoid the haphazard approach that many lawyers use. That’s how you will create an incredibly satisfying practice — one that’s highly profitable and also easy to manage.
Note: To learn more about creating a paperless practice you can go to Ernie’s site paperlesschase.com, where you’ll find a free guide.
Adapted from Ernie Svenson’s chapter in “The Secrets to Marketing and Automating Your Law Practice: A Lawyer’s Guide to Creating Systems, Getting Clients, and Becoming a Legal Rainmaker” by David M. Bitton (Practice Panther, 2018). Download the free PDF version of the book here or buy the soft-cover or Kindle version of the book on Amazon (at cost).