September 11, 2019

The Small Firm Roadmap: Aaron Street, Sam Glover, Stephanie Everett, Marshall Lichty

Sam Glover and Stephanie Everett are two of the four authors behind the new book The Small Firm Roadmap: A Survival Guide to the Future of Your Law Practice. This book was put together by a team of contributors from Lawyerist. For the past decade-plus, Lawyerist.com has been helping small law firms through their vast library of information, which includes resources, articles, podcasts, and videos.

With these materials, Lawyerist helps lawyers navigate not just the practice, but the business of law. One of the appealing elements of Lawyerist and the client-centric model is how they walk readers through their human approach in their new book. This approach is applied equally to clients, lawyers, and small firm owners.

It’s not just an ideal, it’s a proven way of helping small law firms thrive and reach that significant gap of clients who are going unserved and need legal help, but for various reasons, don’t know how or where to get it.

Nikki Van Noy: Let’s get started by explaining to listeners what Lawyerist is.

Sam Glover: Lawyerist is a community of solo and small firm lawyers who are innovative or entrepreneurial-minded and are trying to figure out how to build a successful modern law practice, in view of all the trends shaping the practice of law. Lawyerist is also a publication and a resource–we have product reviews, we have lots of topical subject matter areas where people can learn about legal marketing, legal technology, and things like that.

But the core of it is really the community Lawyerist Insider and Lawyerist Lab.

Nikki Van Noy: How did you guys come to start this?

Sam Glover: I guess I should explain that. The way Lawyerist started was a blog back in 2006 and 2007 where I was writing about legal technology. After a while, Aaron Street came along, and we decided to turn it into a business. Over time, it evolved from just being a publication and a blog to being the community that it is today. It really came about because we saw a real need from lawyers to understand how to build more successful law practices, which is also how we wound up writing a book.

We’ve been talking about it and writing about it and speaking about it and podcasting about it for years now, and we just saw the need and really heard the need from our community for a guide to practicing law and building a more successful law practice. And so that’s how it all evolved–trying to fill that need.

Nikki Van Noy: Sam and Stephanie, are you two lawyers yourselves or did you practice in the past?

Stephanie Everett: Yeah, we’re both lawyers, and we’ve both had our own practices. For me, I started out at a larger firm and then started my own firm with a partner and ran that for seven years. Sam also had his own firm, so we actually understand exactly how our community feels. We’ve been in their shoes–we understand their frustrations and their fears. I think that’s why we’re really relatable to them.

Small Firm Problems

Nikki Van Noy: So, Stephanie, what are some of the different circumstances that small firms specifically have to deal with, as opposed to larger practices?

Stephanie Everett: There’s so many. I mean, the big thing for everyone in our community is that moment that you decide to open your own firm. You’ve been to law school, you got your degree, and somewhere along the way, someone said, “You’re a great lawyer, you should open your own firm.”

Well, the moment you do that, you become a business owner. All the problems and all the issues and the opportunities that business owners have are on your plate as well. You’re no longer just that technician practicing law, you have to figure out how to market and advertise and attract new clients, and then convert those clients and deliver amazing client services.

Then you have to invoice them and collect that money, and then let’s just throw in that you’re the IT person and you’re the HR person, and you’re just like every other small business owner in the US–you know how to do your thing, your craft, but sometimes, all of the other pieces of the business that come along with it can be hard.

Sam Glover: One of the things that we’ve noticed is that lawyers come out of law school being told a story about what law practice is going to be like, whether it’s working for a big firm or even starting their own practice, but they’re completely unprepared for it, especially what it’s going to be like starting their own practice.

You have to be the CEO, and you have to be the CTO, and the COO, and the CMO, and you have all of those jobs, none of which are covered in law school. For a long time, it was enough just to hang your shingle out there and tell everybody you’re practicing. The trends that are shaping the practice of law today just don’t really allow that. They’re not very tolerant of that traditional method of just hanging out your shingle, building your reputation quietly, and counting on people to knock on your door or ring your phone.

So, we’re just trying to help lawyers understand how to run a business, which is really the piece of it that you miss out on in law school.

The Human Toll

Nikki Van Noy: One of the things that you guys talk about, which is very interesting to me, is not only the business toll that not having this knowledge can have but the human toll. Can you guys talk a little bit about that?

Sam Glover: Yeah, for sure. Our profession is kind of sick really. Lawyers are at the top of the charts for depression, suicide, alcoholism, other substance abuse, and divorce. It feels like there’s a piece of that that is the result of the way we have built practices. We built practices around sacrificing for the client–we’ve built a culture of long hours and beating yourself up in order to win cases, or win judgments, or win negotiations to get the best deal.

That traditional method of law practice is almost sacrificial and about pounding your head against the wall in order to try and win and succeed. We think that a huge part of the problem here is not acknowledging that you’re a human being and that you have to have some harmony between your work life and your home life and your personal life.

You need to have a new approach to structuring your business. It has to take all of that into account, you have to be able to bring your whole self to work and not just leave it there, pummeled on your desk. You have to be able to go home and still be a real person. I think you can build a practice intentionally around the idea that there’s client time and personal time, and that those things can be complimentary–not that they are completely separated, but not sacrificing one for the other. You can actually come out ahead and better. I think we can begin to heal the profession if we remove ourselves from some of the expectations that we’ve built up over so many years.

Nikki Van Noy: This is a holistic approach that helps to alleviate business problems and then also makes the experience more enjoyable for lawyers.

Stephanie Everett: Absolutely. I mean, one of the things that we’re advocating with this book and with everything that we’re doing, is that it’s time to change the fundamental way in which we practice. Being able to look at practicing law from a new angle opens up all kinds of possibilities for how your approach to work can be better and healthier and more fun, quite frankly.

An Example

Nikki Van Noy: Can you tell me one of your favorite stories about how a firm was perhaps struggling in some way and what that turn around look like?

Stephanie Everett: So many folks come to mind, but I’ll just give a slight sliver of an example that I was just working on this morning. Turnover is a huge problem for lawyers because as I remind them, there was no HR class in law school, no one told us how to find and hire the right people or have the interview skills. There’s a good way to do it that allows you to figure out if the person’s going to be a good fit for your firm.

There was one particular lawyer that I was working with who had really been struggling with this and had a lot of turnover, and kept finding people with the right skills, but they just weren’t a good value fit. They ultimately wouldn’t work out for him and his firm and that’s got a huge cost associated with it.

By approaching it strategically with his values, and understanding what he was building, and how he was building it, and what type of people he wanted on his team, and taking that approach, we were able to completely restructure his hiring process. I just got a note from him this morning–his new person is amazing–a client just reached out and said, “Wow, I know this person hasn’t been at your firm very long, but I can’t believe the level of client service I receive every time I call.”

It’s changed the whole attitude in the office when you take that one person who wasn’t fitting and fill it with someone who is. That’s just one example of one small change. I see lawyers do this incrementally throughout their practice. It just changes their overall experience as business owners and as team leaders.

Client-Centric Model

Nikki Van Noy: That leads to something that you guys discuss in the book, which is this idea of a client-centric model. Can you give listeners an overview and a feel for what that might look like?

Sam Glover: One of the things that’s really core to the way we structured the book and the way we structure our approach to building practices, is around the idea of client-centered, which is a design philosophy. The idea is to focus on what your client wants out of the relationship, what their needs are, and how you can serve them. This is something that as soon as you start talking about business and law, lots of lawyers go, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, this is a profession, not a business.”

The whole thing about a profession is that you are serving the clients. Lawyers aren’t necessarily doing a great job serving that client. Lawyers are doing an amazing job at solving legal problems, but that isn’t the end-all and be-all of what clients need. What we are advocating for and what we’re trying to teach lawyers how to do is to think differently about the problems that they are trying to solve for their clients. To do that means getting in your client’s head and exercising extreme empathy for your clients.

How can you figure out what to put in your office? How can you design your website?  How can you structure the way you communicate both successes and failures? How can you change the strategy that you employ, based on what your client is bringing into that relationship? And if you can do that, if you can exercise the extreme empathy with your clients and put yourselves in their shoes, you can really design a client experience around that client and around that client’s needs and perspective.

That is really hard to do if you are taking just a traditional approach, “Bring me the legal problem and I will come up with a legal solution to it,” and you disregard all of the other stuff about the relationship.

Nikki Van Noy: That strikes me as very important in this field, because I am imagining that the people who come to you are inherently in a vulnerable state much of the time.

Sam Glover: Oh absolutely. Many people who come to a lawyer are in some kind of crisis, but also just trying to accomplish something, maybe starting a new business or adopting someone. So, often people need a lawyer’s help to get something joyful done as well. It is not just a crisis, but quite often that is exactly what we are dealing with.

If you can soften that relationship and really build it around meeting the client where they are to serve them in the way that they need you to serve them, I think you can really change the way you practice in a way that is better for everyone.

Changing the Model

Nikki Van Noy: Speaking of clients, another thing you guys talk about is the gap that exists between people who need legal help and people who can get it. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Stephanie Everett: Yeah, so we know that there are a lot of people out there who have legal problems and they need legal solutions. They may or may not be looking to lawyers to have them help solve those problems. Sometimes it is a matter of people not even understanding that it is a legal problem. Sometimes it is a matter of them not believing that a lawyer would actually help them, or maybe they believe they just simply couldn’t afford a lawyer.

Our profession has a little bit of work to do because there is a lot of people who need our help. There is a lot of debate over what the actual number is or how to measure that data, but one thing we can say for certain is that there are a lot of people who need legal help, who could benefit from having legal help, and just aren’t getting it.

Sam Glover: At our conference last week, one of our members described it in very rough numbers as there being the top 20% of the legal market, which is being well-served mostly by big firms. There is the bottom 20% of the legal market, which is mostly getting served by the Legal Aid and pro-bono services. And there is the vast middle 60% of the legal market, which almost nobody is serving.

These aren’t necessarily people who are impoverished. They are people like you and me who have money but have other challenges, or just distaste, or confusion about hiring a lawyer or getting legal work done. That’s really the opportunity. The puzzle that we are trying to help lawyers solve is to figure out how to tap into that vast middle 60%, which really is something like the access to justice gap. We could do a better job of getting legal services to everyone, not just the wealthy or the poor.

Nikki Van Noy: I am sure that this is a very in-depth answer and that there are several different solutions, but are you guys able to give us one way of doing that–of appealing to that gap?

Stephanie Everett: Sure, so we have so many examples of people in our community who are working on this, but simply changing the model, changing the way we deliver client services, and then the pricing that comes along with that. So, for small business owners, a lot of times your cash flow is tight already, and the idea of having a legal adviser who can help you make critical decisions for your business, or potentially avoid more costly ones, is something you just deprioritize.

We have people in our community who are offering reasonably priced subscription services to small businesses so that they could have that counselor on-call relationship. So, if they have a question and they need advice, they can get the lawyer involved early and help them actually solve problems. We have people who are doing divorce work and completely changing the model because maybe you don’t need a divorce lawyer to handle every aspect of your case. Maybe there is a lot of it that you could do on your own, but then there are those critical times where you could use some help, or you don’t really understand what the court needs for you to do, and so an adviser would be helpful. We have people who come in and just provide legal services in those times and it is priced very differently. Many people might not realize this, but a typical divorce that’s contested can be as much as 20 or $30,000 per spouse. That’s just not realistic for a lot of families.

As Sam said, it is not poor people. It is people like me. I tell my husband that we are not going to get a divorce anytime soon because we simply can’t afford it. I mean, I don’t want to get divorced anyway, but you know, if I did find myself in that situation, knowing that I could get help for those critical moments and just pay a lawyer to help me for those services would be something that would be very valuable.

You can see we are teaching attorneys how to flip the model and approach the problems from a client-centered approach, “What is it that a client really needs?” Well, let us figure out a way to adjust our model and deliver it.

Sam Glover: Yeah, one of the examples I gave over the last couple of days of our conference was about how my wife and I still haven’t done our will. I am a little ashamed to admit that, and the reason is because, first of all, finding an estate planning lawyer that I believe is a good one is a really challenging thing to do in the world right now. But even though I think I found one, it is a pain in the ass to work with a lawyer. I have to work on their schedule, I have to do it during my work day.

The thing is if you think about that when I say that middle 60%, that’s people like me. I can afford to get the estate plan done, but I really don’t need the hassle of taking two, three, or four hours out of my work day to go and get that work done. It just doesn’t feel like a priority. The problem for someone who feels like, “Oh, this thing is just a hassle,” is how can you make this easy? How do you make it simple?

As Stephanie was mentioning, maybe you make it assisted DIY. I don’t have to do everything myself, so I can feel confident that I am getting it done right, but I can also have the confidence of feeling like I am the one doing it. I think there are a lot of challenges like that in that middle 60%, but there are also challenges for people who are trying to compete for the top 20% of work as well.

I think when you start acknowledging that those are real issues that you can probably solve with client-centered design, then you start getting excited about the opportunities that exist for small firm lawyers in this market.

Nikki Van Noy: I have to tell you guys from a client’s standpoint, I love that. I think for clients, a lot of times it is that feeling of getting stuck on a specific part of the process. This is incredibly appealing from a client’s standpoint.

Sam Glover: For too long the lawyer’s answer has been, “Well, just shovel money into my pocket and I’ll take care of it for you.” And that is not client-centered.

Start With Yourself

Nikki Van Noy: Speak directly to a listener is who is running a small practice. What’s the one thing they can start to think about right now to at least start to lift or alleviate that feeling of being overwhelmed?

Stephanie Everett: One of the things we worked really hard to do in the book is to lay out a strategy that small firm lawyers can take in how they approach their practice. We are trying to guide them along that path. Honestly, you start with your personal life and your goals and your vision for yourself, because your business should exist to serve you and help you accomplish those things.

You start thinking about what it is that you want out of your life, then what is it that you want to create with your business, and what is most important and valuable to you there. From there, you can start thinking about all the different systems and processes that you need in a business to support that ultimate vision and strategy.