Consultants like me, who spend a lot of time thinking about and strategizing for the future of law, often get carried away talking in broad-brush terms about the changes we see coming. Understanding the big picture is certainly important, but practitioners often find it more helpful to hear specific things that other attorneys are doing differently today to prepare for that future.
To bring you some concrete examples, I spoke with several lawyers who have built thriving practices by studying and adapting to the changes they see in their clients’ behavior. Three overlapping themes kept coming up during my conversations: communication, pricing and teamwork. These attorneys have worked hard to differentiate themselves in these three areas because doing so benefits their clients. The key takeaway: by putting the client at the center of everything you do, your practice will naturally evolve to keep up with the ever-changing landscape.
“Clients are now more savvy consumers and have lots of information at their fingertips,” notes Amanda Allen, a business and real estate lawyer in San Diego. Moreover, “consumers today are empowered to identify and appreciate good design,” says Jeff Skrysak, an attorney and legal solutions architect in Salem, Oregon. In other words, clients’ expectations are changing. Lawyers who respond to that, and who can adapt their services accordingly, are poised to thrive.
Both the content and the delivery of client communications are changing. Lawyers with client-centered practices spend time learning what information their clients really want to know, and how they want to receive it.
A good starting place is the language you use to describe your practice. When I spoke with Madhu K. Singh, the founder of Foundry Law Group in Seattle, we talked about her unique website. Instead of touting the firm’s expertise in entity formation and IP law, the website describes the firm’s offerings from the client’s perspective: we help you build a business and protect its assets.
Rethinking client communications goes beyond the written word. Kristin LaMont, the founder of LaMont Law in Salem, Oregon, focuses on improving her clients’ retention of important information by providing it multiple times and in many different formats—including visual infographics and audio content.
Jeff Skrysak explained the firm’s reasoning as follows, “As attorneys we forget that much of what happens in a legal matter is new information to our clients. It is a new situation they’ve never been in before. They are also under stress, which distracts their attention. Therefore, we need to help the clients retain what we tell them by being repetitive and delivering the information in ways that they can easily absorb it (written, visual and auditory).”
Sometimes attorneys are hesitant to provide communications in the client’s preferred format because doing so might conflict with other professional duties. Amanda Allen, the founder of Aguirre Allen Law in San Diego, used to tell clients not to text her because it was hard to save text messages in the client file. But Allen recognized that texting was quickly becoming her clients’ preferred method of communication, so she went in search of a solution. She now uses Google Voice, which allows her to easily save text messages.
Another theme I heard throughout my conversations is that clients want to know what legal services are going to cost up front. Allen uses fixed fees in her practice and commented that her small-business clients love it, because they can incorporate the expected cost into their business plans.
But deciding on the right amount to charge can be difficult. Allen developed her flat-fee offerings over time, after some trial and error. “You have to be smart about when and how you offer it and build parameters around the scope of work so that you do not end up in the hole,” she explained.
A subscription-based pricing model is another way to achieve predictability. Singh has always offered a subscription option, but it wasn’t very popular until a couple of years ago. In the beginning clients were unfamiliar with it and asked a lot of questions—Is it a retainer? Does it roll forward? But now that her clients are accustomed to seeing it elsewhere (HR subscription services, for example) they understand the concept. It works particularly well for clients who use her firm as a part-time GC—they may not have active issues every month, but there’s enough going on that they appreciate being able to spread out their legal fees over the course of the year. Singh notes that she does not sign up brand new clients to a subscription plan. “It’s best to do a project first to see what it’s like to work together.”
Some practice areas lend themselves more readily to that type of pricing. Singh noted that subscription-based pricing doesn’t necessarily work well for litigation. LaMont Law offers flat-fee pricing to estate-planning clients, but have not yet done so on the family law side. Skrysak, who entered law school after a career in IT, explained that the firm plans to roll out flat-fee family law services once they finish automating their internal processes.
Success Through Teamwork
The third theme to come out of my conversations—teamwork—is closely related to both pricing and communication.
Skrysak’s comments about automation allude to the fact that predictable pricing requires good processes so that individuals with different skillsets—not just people with JDs—can work together provide services efficiently. Communication also plays a critical role. For a team-based delivery system to work, all team members need to be able to quickly communicate with each other about the status of matters.
At Foundry Law Group, Singh uses a Kanban board (a workflow-visualization tool) to help her team manage and share work. They also use an open workspace, which fosters informal learning. For example, younger lawyers can overhear how Singh talks to clients on the phone. Another way in which Singh fosters team cohesion is with jigsaw puzzles. One of Foundry Law Group’s clients manufactures 1000-piece puzzles and brings new ones to the office from time to time. The puzzle-in-progress is set up right by the front door, which makes for a great conversation starter. Moreover, it provides an opportunity to have those serendipitous watercooler conversations; when team members want to take a break, they can work on the puzzle for a few minutes instead of browsing the Internet in isolation.
Allen is similarly interested in fostering cooperation among attorneys. She is the founder of Enrich, a co-working community for lawyers. As a solo practitioner, she had not been happy with her work options. “I could either work in an office in a random building or large firm, work from home, or work in a co-working space. None of those worked for me. I was intrigued with co-working because it is like having the brain trust of a law firm, while maintaining independence. However, lawyers need confidentiality and a certain level of professionalism.” Allen founded Enrich to address her frustrations and meet the specific needs of attorneys. After one year, Enrich is already full and has a waitlist. “People truly love coming to work here, and my own book of business has grown just from practicing around other great lawyers,” she said. In addition to providing office space, Enrich also offers programming for lawyers with an emphasis on business development, practice management and wellness.
The attorneys I spoke with are experiencing success because they are taking time to think strategically about how to deliver legal services effectively and affordably. This approach benefits not only their clients, but also their wider communities. It also means that their clients will come back to them or send them referrals, which ensures the future success of these firms. If these examples are any indication, the future of law is quite bright.
About the Author
Alix Devendra is an attorney, and a design strategist and coach at Start Here HQ, a professional coaching and training firm for lawyers. Follow her on Twitter @alixdevendra.