Help in Law Practice Management for Solo Lawyers

Laww Practice Management for Solo LawyersThe statistics on net income for solos firms is scarce, but is getting better. Last year CLIO released their 2016 Legal Trends Report  based on data generated by its thousands of users. Here is on one their conclusions:

“Out of an eight-hour workday, the average firm collects payment on only 1.5 hours of billable time. These unit economics would be devastating to almost any industry, and they help explain why, despite charging an average of $232 per billable hour, the average small-to-mid-sized firm struggles to make ends meet.”

The Solo and Small Law Firm Compensation Report from Above the Law also reports that a quarter of solo practitioners make less than $50,000.00 a year.

There are many possible causes for the low income reported by solo practitioners. [For a different explanation see blog post by Carolyn Elefant ] .

My own theory is that many solo and small law firm lawyers don’t understand the difference between “doing law” and “running a law firm as a business.” Or as Mark Cohen puts it, there is a difference between “law practice” and “legal delivery.”  There is a deficit of knowledge of how to create a sustainable law firm business model with a differentiated competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Help is on the Way

Help for solos and small law firm’s is on the way of consultancies that are responding to this need providing affordable law practice management advice to solos and small law firm that can turn around a failing practice.

Here is a short list of resources that I recommend:

Individual Consultants

Jared D. Correia, Esq., who runs Red Cave Consulting out of the Boston area has developed a unique approach to providing subscription-based consulting for solo practitioners. Jared A is a former practicing attorney and has been advising lawyers and law firms for over a decade.  He is a regular presenter at local, regional and national events, including ABA TECHSHOW,  and regularly contributes to legal publications, including his column, ‘Managing,’ for Attorney at Work, and his ‘Law Practice Confidential’ advice column for Lawyerist.  Jared is the author of the American Bar Association publication ‘Twitter in One Hour for Lawyers’.  He is the host of the Legal Toolkit podcast on Legal Talk Network.  Jared also teaches for Concord Law SchoolSuffolk University Law School and Solo Practice University.

Solo Practice University picks where your legal education left off. For an initial fee of $265.00 plus $65.00 you get access to all courses within the Solo Practice University curriculum, Notable is the extensive curriculum in law practice management and technology for solo and small law firm practitioners. Want to learn more about virtual law practice? Consider taking Stephanie Kimbro’s course on Virtual Law Practice at SPU.

Another interesting resource I recently discovered is: Start Here HQ , based in Portland, Oregon. This advisory service comprises lawyers who practiced so they know firsthand the challenges lawyers face as a profession. The company’s goal is to help lawyers build scalable and sustainable practices and offers 1:1 coaching for individual attorneys. You can schedule a free introductory call at startherehq.com/schedule-a-call.

Another resource I have used are the marketing services of Chelsey Lambert from LawTechReview. Chelsey has developed a curriculum of courseware in law practice management and technology that provides unique insights on how to organize and implement your marketing program.  Chelsey has worked with solos and small law firms for over a decade and served as a coach, consultant and trainer at the Chicago Bar Association as a Practice Management Advisor.  Her programs and written resources have been shared at bar associations, and law schools across the country.

Law Practice Management Resources from Bar Associations

Don’t overlook bar association resources. Most notable are the products and services of the American Bar Association’s Law Practice Management Division. On demand CLE’s in law practice management can bring you up the learning curve quickly. See also Law Technology Videos.

Many state bar associations have law practice management advisors that provide free advisory services to members and offer educational programs in law practice management and technology. Here is a convenient list of law practice management advisors at state bar associations. See this list also from the ABA.

The Florida Bar’s Practice Resource Institute – has a new venture to train lawyers in law practice management and technology skills. See How to Start a Law Firm courseware. Also check out: Michigan Bar’s Practice Management Resource Center and the New York State Bar Association’s Programs in Law Practice Management.

Law Practice Management Vendor Resources

Vendors of law practice management software offer first-rate free educational resources. See for example:
Clio’s Resource Library
RocketMatter’s Productivity Blog
Free Webinars from MyCase
LEAP Legal Software: Start Your Own Law Firm Guide
DirectLaw’s Digital Lawyering Institute

The path to success for solos and small law firms is paved with learning about new technologies, new business models, new marketing methods, and new ways of delivering legal services. As professionals, lawyers are tasked with re-inventing themselves every decade. Continuous learning makes us “professionals.” Keep learning or die!

Virtual Law Practice: Success FActors

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Offer “Unbundled Legal Services” with DirectLaw

unbundled legal services“Unbundled Legal Services”, also known as “Limited Scope Legal Services” means that instead of full service representation the attorney, with the client’s consent, offers help in one more limited tasks for a fixed fee. Another way to think about “unbundled legal services” is to think of an ala carte menu with the consumer purchasing just the legal services they need and no more.

“Unbundled legal services” can expand the market for an attorney’s services. When offered online “unbundled legal services” can be a source of additional profitable revenue. Offering a limited legal service is an easy way to establish a client relationship that may lead to a full service engagement in the future.

For additional resources on this concept see: Limited Scope Legal Services: Unbundling and the Self-Help Client, published by the American Bar Association and authored by Stephanie Kimbro and the  Unbundling Resource Center, sponsored by the ABA’s Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services 

DirectLaw as a Platform for the Delivery of “Unbundled Legal Services”

DirectLaw’s virtual law firm platform was created to support the delivery of unbundled legal services online. Besides offering DirectLaw’s automatic legal documents with legal advice for a fixed fee, you can create new fixed fee or “unbundled” legal services using based on your own legal documents.

You can design you own intake questionnaires using Rapidocs and treat the questionnaire as if it were a document for processing through the DirectLaw shopping cart.
While this option does not have the benefits and efficiencies that our libraries of Rapidocs-based documents offer — i.e., clients won’t immediately access and complete an online Questionnaire that will create their documents behind the scenes — our open platform offers the flexibility for law firms to easily sell their own documents via the firm’s “menu” of documents.

How It Works — Selling Non-Rapidocs Documents or New Fixed Fee Legal Services

  • Document purchase is made, and the firm is notified via e-mail.
  • A record appears on the firm’s Attorney Dashboard.
  • Firm obtains from the client the information to prepare the purchase document(s).
  • We encourage firms to use the collaborative features of the platform to facilitate this information gathering process.  For example, start a secure communication with the client to explain next steps;
  • Upload the firm’s own questionnaire or intake form (Word or .pdf format) to the client space;
  • Client returns the completed questionnaire via the upload/file sharing function.
  • Firm uses the information in the completed questionnaire or intake form to prepare the client’s document(s).
  • Firm uploads completed document(s); the client is notified and downloads his/her completed document(s) from the client’s secure portal.

Creating Rapidocs Intake Questionnaires

  • You can create an online questionnaire using Rapidocs which is treated just like a document when processed through the DirectLaw shopping cart. A Rapidocs Intake Questionnaire can have help screens and the questions can respond to logical directions. For example,  if the answer to one question means that another group of questions is irrelevant, the other group of questions can be greyed out. You can use Rapidocs validation rules within a Rapidocs Intake Questionnaire.
  • It is easier to create an online intake form using Rapidocs, than it is in html.
  • The answers to the questionnaire are exported and you can use them to import into a desk-top document assembly solution.
  • You can author a Rapidocs Intake Questionnaire using the Rapidocs authoring system, which is included with your DirectLaw subscription.
  • If you need help with automating or creating an Intake Questionnaire, our team can do it for you.

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What is a Virtual Law Practice?

Virtual Law PracticeA virtual law practice is a law firm that provides a web-based environment where the client can communicate with their attorney and access legal services securely online. Some services may be provided by the attorney, such as legal advice. Other legal services, such as web-enabled document automation, combine a digital application with the skills of the lawyer.

An attorney with a traditional law office may operate a virtual law practice as an extension of their office-based physical practice, or a virtual law practice may be online without physical constraints. In both cases, the attorney may use some virtual lawyering technologies and more traditional skills.

Whatever the configuration of the particular law practice, to offer legal services, communicate, and collaborate with clients over the Internet, the law firm must have a “secure client portal.”  Incorporation a client portal into a law firm’s website is the core requirement of a “virtual law practice”.

Resource: PodCast from Florida Bar: What it Really Means to be a Virtual Lawyer.

See ABA Journal Article, March, 2017: Granat, Really Virtual: Putting a practice online means access, efficiency, and upkeep.

DirectLaw Free 30 Day Trial of Virtual Law Practice

The “Client Portal” concept

A virtual law practice has been referred to in these ways: virtual law office or VLO, virtual law firm, eLawyering or online law practice.  Law firm web sites which  just a description of a law firm’s practice, biographical information and the partners and employees of the firm, and some legal information, but no access to a secure “client portal.” would not be a virtual law practice.  

A “client portal” enables access only with a unique username and password that the client uses to enter his or her own secure web space within the attorney’s Web site.  A client portal is unique to virtual law practice and is the key to differentiating it from other web-based or cloud-based services.

Within the “client portal” the client can communicate and collaborate with their attorney securely with industrial–strength encryption for every communication.  The attorneys and their clients can securely discuss matters on-line, download and upload documents for review, pay bills online, schedule appointments and meetings online, review case documents online and handle other business transactions related to the delivery of legal services in a secure digital environment.  In addition, legal applications can be offered, such as web-enabled document automation, which increase the law firm’s productivity and enhance the user experience. Inside the secure client portal, web-based legal applications can be offered which substitute in part for the work of the lawyer resulting in an increase in productivity for the law firm. A “client portal” application is essential to an ethically compliant virtual law practice.

To experiment with the Client Portal concept sign up for DirectLaw’s trial program. No credit card required.

What a “Virtual Law Practice” is Not

The literature about “virtual law practice” often quotes some lawyers as referencing themselves as “virtual lawyers” because they have no physical office, meet clients within their client’s office or at the local Starbucks, and do their legal work by email, cell phone and tablet computer. But since these lawyers don’t deliver online legal services securely, one would not consider them to be true “virtual lawyers”.

This is a difference between virtual law practice and just being a “mobile” lawyer. We would characterize the mobile lawyer as just being “untethered” – a lawyer who is mobile and free from a specific office location.  A “virtual lawyer” is also an “untethered” lawyer, but he/she is also much more than that when integrating a client portal into their virtual practice model. Making this distinction is important because when the lawyer is evaluating his or her compliance with the rules of professional conduct ethics issues arise from the direct delivery of legal services to clients online. For example, if the lawyer is delivering legal services to clients online, there may be an online form of limited scope engagement agreement that must be properly executed securely online.

The establishment of the lawyer/client relationship online through a secure client portal and use of a click wrap agreement requires compliance with rules that a virtual practitioner must know that go beyond the traditional establishment of the lawyer/client relationship. Many lawyers now use legal applications hosted in the cloud. Using cloud-based applications does not define “virtual law practice.” Using a time-keeping and billing application originally hosted in a local sever within the law office and now hosted in the cloud does not make one a “virtual lawyer.”

A “virtual lawyer” delivers legal services online. The secure and encrypted online connection where clients interact with their lawyers and complete tasks related to the solution of their legal problems defines “virtual law practice.”

Online Legal Services is the Future

Delivering legal services online is the future. It is the path towards streamlining a law practice, increasing productivity, and lowering costs to serve clients more effectively. As more web-based applications are created that substitute for the work of a lawyer, the client portal becomes the essential component in the lawyer’s toolbox for delivering legal services.

In the fullness of time, all clients will expect their lawyers to can work and interact with them securely online. A “Virtual Law Practice” will not be something only for “early adopters” – it will become an essential component of every law firm practice

Why Don’t More Lawyers Use Document Automation?

Increasing Profit Margins with Document AutomationFor years some law firms, but not all, have used some form of document automation in their law offices. Ranging from an MS Word macro to long standing programs such as HotDocs, as well as automated forms distributed by legal publishers such as Willmaker by Nolo, some law offices have incorporated some form of document automation in their law practices. Document assembly of legal documents that are generated in high quantity by a law firm is an indispensable process for increasing law firm productivity and maintaining profit margins in an era of intense competition.

Legal Document Creation the Old Way

The manual process of cutting and pasting clauses from a master MS Word document into a new document, is a productivity process which is fast becoming outdated.

Barriers to Change

An obstacle to wider use of automated document assembly methods, is typically the lawyer’s insistence on crafting the words in each clause to their own satisfaction. Because most lawyer’s do not have the requisite programming skill to automate their own documents, law firms by default will opt to use their own non-automated documents, rather than risk using the legal documents automated by an independent provider, because by definition the content of the documents is “not their own.” As a result, many law firms do not even use desk-top document assembly solutions when the forms are published by an independent provider or publisher, remaining stuck using more time consuming and less productive manual methods.

Typically, when a law firm does use document assembly methods, a paralegal inputs answers from a paper intake/questionnaire into a document assembly program running on a personal computer. This results in the extra time-consuming step of inputting data from the intake questionnaire to the document assembly program, but it is still more efficient than manual methods.

Web-Enabled Document Automation

Now comes, “web-enabled legal document automation” methods.”  Web-enabled document automation is a process whereby the intake questionnaire is presented on-line to the client through the web browser to be completed directly.

When the client clicks the “Submit” button the document is instantly assembled, ready for the attorneys further review, analysis, revision, and customization if necessary.  A “first draft” of the document is created, ready for revision. The result is a further leap in productivity because the client is actually doing part of the work at no cost to the lawyer, freeing the lawyer up to focus on analysis and further customization of the document.

Here is what the client “path” should look like in a “reengineered” legal service delivery system:

Client PAth Powered by Web-Enabled Document Automation

Unfortunately, lawyers have been slow to adapt to this process as well,  because of their reluctance to use legal documents drafted or automated by someone else. However in order to automate their own documents they must either acquire the skill to do the job, or commit the capital to have a skilled professional automate their documents for them. For solos and small law firms these two constraints create formidable obstacles to using more efficient methods.

Since neither condition is common within smaller law firms (programming skill, investment capital), the result is that the law firm gets stuck using older less productive methods of document creation.

We know from our experience in working with law firms who are interested in DirectLaw, and our web-enabled document automation platform,  that some lawyers are committed to using their own legal forms and documents and won’t consider anything else.

However,  I have yet to see lawyers, with some exceptions, create their own automated legal documents in any quantity. Thus, law firms become stuck in a negative loop of their own creation which reduces productivity (and profitability) :

“My legal documents are better than yours; I can’t automate them for the web because I don’t know how; thus I will be less productive and be required to charge you more because of my own inefficiency.”

Competition

In the consumer space, now comes  non-lawyer providers to take advantage of the solo and small law firm’s competitive disadvantage. Research by companies like Kiiac provide support the conclusion that 85% of the language in transactional documents is actually the same. In more commoditized areas, where legal forms have been standardized,  the legal form content is 90-95% the same in all documents.

Taking advantage of this consistency of legal form content,  companies like LegalZoom, RocketLawyer,  NoloCompleteCase, ShakeLawSmartLegalForms, USLegalForms, and LegacyWriter , to cite a few major players, with their superior online marketing and branding machines, now sell legal forms by the thousands and at low cost. These online legal form service providers which a “good enough” legal solution for consumers who would do anything to avoid paying the higher fees to an attorney.

Its true that the consumer doesn’t get the benefit of the attorney’s legal advice and counsel, and the accountability and protection that dealing with an attorney provides, but consumers don’t seem to care.

What can be done?

The “web-based legal document automation solution”, used by non-lawyer providers, is a disruptive technology that is eating away at the core business base of the typical solo and small law firm practitioner.

What can solos and small law firms do to compete in this challenging competitive environment?

One solution is DirectLaw, our virtual law firm platform, that incorporates a web-enabled document automation solution, together with state specific automated legal form libraries, ready to go. Plus, DirectLaw includes an authoring system that enables law firms to easily author their own legal document forms and documents with their own content easily and quickly. Register for the DirectLaw Free Trial to explore further how web-enabled document automation can power your law practice.

Document Automation: Virtual Law Practice: Success Factors

 

 

Workshop on eLawyering in Miami: 02/03/2017

National Council of Bar Presidents
ABA Mid-Year Meeting in Miami, Florida
The Bar’s Role in Virtual Law Miami Lecture Hall, 3rd Floor.
Hyatt Regency Hotel
Friday, February 3, 2017
10:45- 11:45 A.M.

eLawyering Success FactorseLawyering, also call Virtual Law Practice, was an idea that was created over 20 years ago, but the practice is still a new concept to many bar leaders. How do bars regulate law firms that don’t have “walls”? What models are out there for law firms to work in this new technology? What is the bar’s role in training, educating and mentoring virtual lawyers who have a completely different orientation from the “traditional” law firm? What are the career paths for virtual lawyers? How do you assist law firms who want to learn how to deliver legal services online? What vendors offers services that enable law firms do offer legal services online? What is the difference between an “eLawyer” and just an “untethered” lawyer? What are the ethical issues that lawyers need to be aware of when delivering legal services online?

Is eLawyering the future of the legal profession? Will a new generation of clients with the Internet in their DNA expect their lawyers also to be online and what are the implications for law firm business models, law firm structure, and law firm organization?

This workshop will showcase services bars can offer to members who are operating without walls.

MODERATOR A. Scott Chinn, Indianapolis, IN, Past President, Indianapolis Bar Association and Member, NCBP Executive Council

SPEAKERS Chad E. Burton, Dayton, OH, CEO, CuroLegal
Richard S. Granat, Palm Beach Gardens, FL, CEO/Founder, DirectLaw, Inc. and Managing Partner, Granat Legal Services, P.C.
Natalie Kelly, Atlanta, GA, Director of Law Practice Management Program, State Bar of Georgia 2A:

See new consumer-facing portal at http://www.directlaw.us, launched just this week for the ABA Mid-Year Meeting in Miami.

Lawyers can subscribe to DirectLaw here.