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How to run your law firm from India (with a four month-old)

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We were proud to host this event for the Colorado & Denver Bar Associations. MCLE was available for Colorado attorneys only using event ID DBA028. 

Attendance Affidavit (Denver Bar Association)

Build your life, not just your law firm. An attorney and founder of an immigration law firm in Washington, Greg McLawsen has found a way to combine his love of travel with his professional life. Join Greg as he offers his top tips on how to work virtually from anywhere in the world, even with an infant in tow.

Slides for the talk.

Slides for the event are linked below. This talk was originally given in Chicago for Clio's Cloud Con 2016. Slides may be slightly modified prior to the event.

How to run your law firm from india (with your 4 month-old)

from

Greg McLawsen

Written material.

Video of the live webinar.

Law school talk: Legal Zoom and Legal Hacking

This month I had the opportunity to return to the University of Nebraska College of Law to talk about the future of the legal profession (as I see it). Professor Eric Berger is a good friend from the days when I served as his research assistant for his work on constitutional law issues. When he was out in Seattle last summer we had a long that about these topics on a hike and so I wound up coming out to talk to students and faculty. For those immersed in "legal future" issues there's probably not much new here. Primarily I wanted to help students think about the quickly changing legal services marketplace. Students need to get out of the head space of thinking about getting "jobs," and focus more on new models for delivering valuable results to clients.  What's the difference? It's a difference of mind set. New lawyers should not assume that a cookie-cutter career will be handed to them on a silver platter. They should assume that they will have to deploy creativity and critical thinking to really examine how they can contribute to an organization and ultimately - most importantly - to the clients they serve.

Video is courtesy of the nice folks at the law college.

Photo credit: Pakorn

Can law firms profit from limited license technicians?

Can law firms profit from limited license technicians?

Washington is the first state in the country to granted a limited law license to non-attorneys. Termed Limited License Legal Technicians (LLLTs), these professionals may operate their own firms or work along side lawyers. In this month's edition of the Washington Bar Association's magazine, I debate Jerry Moberg on whether there is a business case for law firms to hire LLLTs. The bottom line is that I think it's possible for firms to make this work, but it will be harder than many anticipate.

Leveraging technology - MSJDN materials

Leveraging technology - MSJDN materials

The day after returning from a month in India I was proud to talk to the Military Spouse JD Network about technology tools in law firm. Forrest Carlson, Bill Hayden and I spoke about tools for working remotely as an attorney.  At the request of our organizers, here are the materials from the presentation.

Working remotely - 4 top resources for lawyers

Working remotely - 4 top resources for lawyers

Later this morning I'm heading over to Seattle to talk to the folks at the Military Spouse J.D. Network about technology tools for working remotely. Pleased to be sharing the podium with co-presenters Bill Hayden and Forrest Carlson. Since email is a scourge upon the earth, I figured that I'd post presentation materials here rather than fill up attendees' inboxes.

India Pt. 5 - Greatest foodie travel hack ever

Forgive me, since this has nothing to do with anything that's helpful to anyone professionally. But it may change your life when you travel. It may be that the rest of the traveling world has known about this since time immemorial, but this was an epiphany for me: you can design your own menu at bad restaurants.

Allow me.

The problem. 

Cities and large towns tend to have plenty of restaurants that serve the local population and consequently serve food that is both (1) good and (2) what locals want to eat. Those are the two core qualities you're probably looking for as a traveler. The problem arises in small towns and villages where you might find yourself en route to some tourist destination. Right now, for example, I'm in Yuksom, Sikkim, which is the jumping off point for some great Himalayan treks. It's small enough that the population can't support an eatery catering to locals, so the only joints are selling to travelers.

That is a recipe for disaster.

What you end up with is the classic "backpacker's" menu, the definitive feature of which is the banana pancake. These black holes cater to the the least common denominator of the perceived Western and Israeli palate. Full of boring carbs and blandness, it's a foodie's worst nightmare. Example:

The solution.

Buy your own ingredients! Why this had never occurred to me I will never know. The other night we sat at the only local eatery, which featured one (bad) vegetable dish on the 6-page menu. I asked the owner if he had bindi (okra) - he did not. But I remembered seeing a vegetable stand down the street. Five minutes and $.87 later, I came back with a bag of veggies. With only the very basic perimeters of "no oil, no salt," we got back some lovely, spiced veggies.  For the hassle of cooking our bag of veggies we were billed $1.58.

The following night we took this to the 102-level and bought our veggies in advance so we could wash them ahead of time. (I wasn't sure how much TLC the staff would want to devote to the surprise prep).

You can see the sort of set up that this type of eatery has - here's a look at the main station's mise en place.

You're breaking the cook's flow by asking him to prep your veggies (or whatever), so expect to pay some sort of premium. But if you're at this sort of joint, that's probably not going to break your bank.

Here's a look at the results. I'm not saying this is James Beard territory. But if the other options are chow-main or faux pizza, this is high living indeed.

A related nuclear option is to take over the kitchen altogether. I've attempted this only once on this trip, after being served a grease-bomb of an omelette in a tiny tea hut. Since Jules is militantly opposed to grease, I politely asked the cook to step aside and just did the omelette myself. Wasn't a masterpiece, but it was an improvement. I'd recommend trying this only in pretty small or not busy spots. But I know view taking over the kitchen as a legitimate option to lousy food. 

Conclusion.

Never except the reality with which you're presented. If the restaurant doesn't have what you want, go buy if for them, pay them to cook it, or do it yourself.

India Pt. 4 - Communicating with clients

Kolata, as it turns out, really  knows rain and humidity. We swam out of the hotel lobby this morning into air with the viscosity of 

lassi

. Now we're taking refuge as the streets go Venice style.

Yesterday we returned from the sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest. Nearly five million people live on the Indian side alone (most of the territory is in Bangladesh), making ends meat with very difficult subsistence agriculture. Generally the only source of fresh water is man-made collection ponds, from which families draw drinking water and irrigate their rice paddies. Locals venture into the forest to harvest honey and approximately 45 lose their lives in tiger attacks each year. It is a beautiful and desperately tough place to live.

(Below, woman walks on the retaining dyke which prevents saltwater from flooding the village, and a trio sets up a net to capture fish at high tide.)

I won't even attempt to transition gracefully from the hardships of rural Bengal to the topic I want to cover today, which is working remotely with clients.

Just as our firm is built to allow remote collaboration within our team, it's fundamentally important to us that client work can be performed from anywhere. So here's a look at the systems we use to make that happen. By the way, these are all off-the shelf, easy options. Running a seamless virtual law firm doesn't take a maverick these days, and in fact it's a lot easier to get off the ground than your grandma's paper office was.

Clio.

The core of our firm is Clio, which I consider to be the leading law practice management (LPM) application available today. Full disclosure: I'm grateful to Clio for hosting me as a visiting "lawyer in residence" while living for a while in Vancouver, BC, but they don't pay me anything to promote their product - I just like it.

In short, Clio is a (mostly) all-in-one solution for the main functions of a law firm. For purposes of working remotely, there are basically three core elements to this. First, our cloud-based client files live on Clio in basically the same way they would traditionally in a paper file. That is, each client "matter" gives us all documents, notes and client communications related to a particular matter. Here's what it looks like:

In other words, the whole client file is basically right there at our fingertips to easily click to anything we need. How cool is that?

Second, Clio gives us a client-facing portal so that our clients can access their file and communicate with us. Using the portal, clients can upload documents (or any file) using a simple drag-and-drop utility. They can also use the portal to send secure messages to us. The portal has 256-bit SSL encryption, which is one heck of a lot safer than the old file cabinet. The client portal is really a critical feature set for us, since one of the principal reasons for us being on the cloud is to make it easier for clients to share information with us.

Probably my biggest pain point with Clio at the moment is that it doesn't include a forms feature, which we could use to gather information from our clients at intake and beyond. Its API allows integration of Intake 123, but that form-creating application doesn't meet all our needs either, and of course I also don't want to pay for a new application to deliver feature sets I wish were already included in Clio. A couple days ago I built an intake questionnaire on our website using the Wordpress plugin, Gravity Forms. So far that looks promising, and could be spliced together with Clio via a Zapier if I opt for a pricey developer license.

Finally, Clio allows us to manage billing and collect payments from clients. Hourly and flat-fee billing is easily integrated into client matters, and it takes only moments to generate a new bill. These may be shared with the client through the secure portal. We use LawPay for one of our credit card processors, which integrates with Clio. So when clients receive the bill they can simply scroll down and complete a credit card payment on the same screen. LawPay's rates are higher than other credit card processors, but they are one of only a couple processors that are able to process deposits to a client trust account. Also, their support is quite good.

In addition to simply meeting our needs from a feature perspective, what I really love about Clio is the excellent user experience. It looks great and operates intuitively from a user perspective, both for attorneys and for clients. That's absolutely paramount. If your clients are going to be interacting with your firm through an application, then their experience with the application is their experience with your firm. Almost all of my clients enjoy using Clio, which means extra kudos for their overall experience with the firm.

If you want to try Clio for free you can do so here.

Phone answering.

My firm doesn't have a receptionist and never, ever will. Until recently we used Ruby Receptionist, which was aptly described by Ernie the Attorney as being the Seal Team Six of call-answering. Like other answering services, you point your in-bound phone lines at Ruby, and they answer calls following whatever instructions you give. It's hard to put my finger on why Ruby is so good, but basically these guys - mostly gals - are like client service ninjas. As a representative example, a Ruby called me one day to transfer a client call and heard Bollywood music playing in the background. Later that week a half dozen Bollywood DVDs showed up at the firm with a hand-written note from the Ruby. You can call that a gimmick, but I'm telling you, these folks know how to make you feel cared for, and more importantly, make your clients feel cared for. This is the most professional possible experience for clients calling your firm.

But I said we used Ruby until recently - why the change? Because we transitioned our firm's brick-and-mortar presence from our stand-alone office to a Regus facility. Most folks are familiar with Regus, which is a world-wide operation selling nice office space and ancillary services. There's a Regus office 10 minutes from my hotel in Kolkata which I could be using at no additional cost if I wanted. For the marginal cost of only $100/month I tacked-on call answering service to our service plan, compared to the $500-$600 I had been paying for Ruby. Frankly the quality is no where close to Ruby. I'll often get the receptionist calling to say that "someone" is on the line for me, whereas a Ruby wouldn't bother me until she'd taken down the caller's full name, contact information and favorite color. I'm hoping that we can work on the quality, but meanwhile I certainly don't mind the cost savings.

Earth Class Mail.

This one is a relatively recent experiment for us. As hard as we try to be paperless, you just can't always get away from it. In immigration practice, for example, the federal agencies insist on sending most notifications by snail mail. As a paperless practice, this means someone has to open and scan all the notifications. When we started outsourcing our back-office work last year, that meant there was no non-attorney on site at the firm, and my poor associate ended up with mail duty. That sucked for him and for the firm, since there were better uses of his time.

Enter Earth Class Mail (ECM). These guys, with locations all across the U.S., basically allow you to outsource your mail room. For roughly $125/month we get a mailing address in Seattle to which all of our snail mail gets sent. When it arrives, it automatically gets scanned and uploaded to this mailbox for my (or whomever's) review:

 The scanning can be done in black-and-white or color, and of course is done with OCR, rendering .pdfs with recognized text, rather than a flattened image, so you can cut/paste and search the document.

So far so good with ECM. As a very important note, however, understand that this is not a solution for gaming Google. With ECM you can buy either a post office box or an address that looks like a street address with suite number. Back in the wild west days of SEO, folks could fool Google Local into thinking that such an address was an office location, which did great things for your search ranking. ECM still seems to play into that misconception with some of its marketing material. Misconception because Google has cracked down on this game and won't rank such an address on Local. Incidentally, this is also a problem with Regus, since Google will not list an address from a shared office facility on Local. Frankly, that's a major, major drawback of using Regus.

Skype.

Hardly creative, but this is our go-to solution for video conferencing with clients. It's basically a network effect issue, which is to say that a video conferencing application helps us only if our clients use it. Doesn't do a us a lick of good if we have a killer conferencing application that our clients don't use. Skype is ubiquitous, and in fact many of our international clients already use it on a daily basis. Plus, it works great and has all the features we care about, including 3-way calls on my premium account. 2-way video calling, of course, is totally free on Skype.

Google Voice.

When I first opened the law firm we used a free Google Voice account as our primary office number. This virtual line can be forwarded to ring on any number of designated devices. So, for example, when we started using Ruby, the Voice number would ring to Ruby, who would then forward the call to me. Voice isn't a feasible solution for anyone other than a true solo, in my opinion. It's basically impossible to forward calls (Ruby forwarded on its own lines) and calls got sporadically sent to voicemail accidentally.

But a great thing about Voice is using it for SMS text messages. Users can text to the Voice number, which can be viewed in the Google Voice page or in your Gmail inbox. We found that many of our younger clients were more comfortable texting than calling us, and this made it easy. A caution, however, is that texting etiquette typically calls for quick turn-around, so you do need to set some expectations about how text messages will be responded to.

Nextiva.

After finding that Voice wasn't meeting the phone needs of the growing firm, we upgraded to Nextiva's Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) service. (We still keep the Voice number, primarily for purposes of SMS texting). For those who haven't looked into it, VOIP basically offers you something that functions just like a traditional phone line but operates via your internet connection. The quality just as good as a traditional LAN line, and we've never had an issue with dropped calls. A great think about Nextiva, and VOIP lines generally, is that they're so highly portable. So, in theory, if I want to work from a particular office, I can just plug in my phone there and suddenly have my office line in that location.

But devil is in the details. Sadly, Nextiva doesn't play nice with Regus's network setup (or vice versa). So I was frustrated to learn that our Nextiva phone lines simply won't work at our new office location. Our hacked solution is to forward the Nextiva lines to Regus's system, so we may end up just ditching Nextiva since Regus will provide us with a number at no additional cost. (I'm hanging onto the Nextiva number for now in case our love affair with Regus doesn't last).

I include Nextiva in the list of virtual tools, even though the jury is somewhat out on how we'll be handling voice-calls on an ongoing basis.

(Above, artisan prepares statutes for durga puga, the most celebration on Kolkata's Hindu calendar, which involves launching statues of the goddess into the river).

That's basically it for our core client communications systems. With the tools above I can work on any of our client files anywhere in the world with an internet connection. If others have recommended alternatives to our choices I'd be very interested.

And now, gratuitous food porn. In order of appearance, mutton biryanipuri with channa, and luchi with Bengali veggies and fish (made by yours truly with a lot of help).

India Pt. 3 - Communicating with the team

This week Jules and I are holing up in the storied and fascinating city of Kolkata. The ex-seat of the British raj, this steamy metropolis with its crumbling colonialism channels Myanmar's Yangoon more so than it's larger Indian sister city, New Delhi. Bracing for what we (correctly) figured would be a pretty intense urban experience, we went further up-market with our accommodation than normal, having learned the value of an oasis when traveling in urban India. We wound up at the astoundingly nice, and recently restored,

Lalit hotel

. Though by no means a budget  room, at the cost of a Holiday Inn in the U.S., let's just say your dollar goes much, much, much further in these parts. Compare this ("free") breakfast with the pre-packaged wasteland of an $80 motel.

(Yes, breakfast does come with malaria tablets).

After getting hopped up on three cups of chai, how does one collaborate with a law firm squarely on the other side of the globe? Here's a look at some of the tools we use every day at the firm, whether I'm one zip code or many time zones away.

First, a word about who the team is. The core of our law firm is just two attorneys, myself and the extraordinarily capable and amiable Gustavo Cueva. Gustavo has primarily responsibility for much client contact, and the sort of legal research and analysis tasks traditionally done by an associate. The vast majority of routine, commodity legal drafting is done by a large team of contract attorneys that operate independently from the firm. Delegation is made to those attorneys on a task-wise basis. In a typical case, after Gustavo has collaborated with clients to secure all the required information and documents we need for an immigration process, the contract team with be tasked with drafted and quality-review testing the appropriate legal forms, which are then modified and reviewed by Gustavo or I. That whole process is a discussion by itself, but I mention it just to give context for the communications that are going on within the firm.

So here's how we roll from a communications perspective.

Email.

We don't use it. Okay, that's a fantasy, but we move closer to the reality every day. Email is the scourge of professional life. We waste a quarter of our time farting around in our inboxes and there's no correlation between inbox time and actual productivity.

For team-communication purposes, there are two main problems with email. First, email is a terrible way to organize information relating to client matters. The painfully classic example of this is attorneys printing out email threads to put into a paper file. But even paperless folks have to find a hack (here's ours) to file emails with the relevant client file. Even if you do this well, it's still devilishly hard to put follow conversation threads and backtrack to figure out what's transpired in a case.

The second issue is the pure volume of emails. Most professionals get 100 or (many) more emails per day. Email puts critical communications on the same importance level as newsletters, Netflix renewal notices, and "professionals" who are "reaching out to you" (a creepy phrase). Our Golden Rule at the firm is that email is the communication medium of last resort.

Trello.

If I'm such a kill joy on email, what do we use instead? Thanks for asking. The answer involves much more than just a communication tool, and goes to a core commitment to how we manage the firm. That's the use of a set of project management practices developed in the technology sector, which are referred to as Agile. (Disclaimer for legit Agile gurus: I in no way claim to be one, I'm just one attorney trying to bring some sanity to projects at our our firm).

Attorneys are project managers whether we embrace that title or not. Whether you're litigating or doing transactional work, you're almost certainly working on a complex, multi-stage process with lots of known and unknown variables. Lawyers may be relieved to know that there are entire disciplines devoted to the science of project management, with over a century of knowledge ripe for poaching. Born largely out of project management in tech fields, Agile is a primo example of these goodies.

A discussion of Agile is way beyond the scope of this post. (Absolutely the guy to guy to follow on this issue is friend John Grant over at Agile Attorney). For my purposes, though, a core idea is to know at all times what's keeping a case from moving forward. At the firm, we think about cases as being in a production line, not because we view our clients as widgets, but because they hired us to get something done for them. They don't give a darn if we open a file - or worse, "paper it over" - for them; they just want us to accomplish the goal that brought them in our door.

From this need to know what's going on at all times was born one of the hallmark features of Agile management - the kanban board. This visual tool gives us a consolidated dashboard where we can collaboratively view every single client case and understand where in the "production" cycle the matter is. Here's basically what it looks like:

Kanban boards are traditionally done using sticky notes on a wall - if you've seen any movie about startups you've probably seen one. But since we have a decentralized work environment, we use a tool called Trellofor a cloud-based kanban board. That's what your're looking at above. At a glace, we can tell which lane a particular client matter is in. In the Williams matter, are we waiting on documents from a client before we can proceed? Are we waiting on our contractors to do a first draft of documents? Or does Gustavo need to do a final review of work product?

On the level of a particular client matter, all activity is documented within a client "card." Clicking into the card, you can see (above) that there's a master to-do list of high-level stages of the case progression. An activity feed below captures everything going on in the case - we basically use this as a catch-all case documentation as you might see in the notes section of a traditional paper client file. Finally - and very important - we can communicate to other team members within a Trello card. So instead of emailing Gustavo that I need him to ping Mr. Williams about a missing document, I flag Gustavo in the card and make the note. This goes a long way towards keeping all case-related chatter in one spot, so we can easily audit what we've been doing on a file.

If you're looking into using Agile in your practice, consider LeanKit as an alternative to Trello. LeanKit has a much more robust feature set, which isn't necessarily a good thing if you're just trying to get off the ground with a kanban board. A critical improvement, though, is that it allows a board-within-a-board,  so to speak: within a particular card you can create a second, simpler board with task cards. So using LeanKit, you could have a master client board, as shown above, and then track advancement of individual client tasks within the card, using the same sort of card system. Another very exciting tool to Agile lawyering is Lawcus, which will be the first LPM system built entirely around Agile. Built by neat guy, Harry Singh, Lawcus is doing a private beta right now, but you can probably get a try-out if you ping Harry.

Trello (or LeanKit) is by no means an all-in-one law practice management (LPM) system, and doesn't pretend to be. We very happily use Clio as our cloud-based LPM system - more on that in the next post about communicating with clients. Obviously we want to be sure that all our activity on Trello finds its way into a client's master file in our LPM system. Luckily, Clio has a great application program interface (API), meaning its developers make it easy for Clio to play nicely with other applications. We use a third-party solution called Zapier, which is basically a tool for helping various web applications work together. Using a "Zap" that we created, any new activity on a client's Trello card it is automatically registered as a case activity in the notes section of the client's Clio matter. In reality, we almost never reference the notes section of Clio to review the case activity, but if Trello ever died on us we'd have all the activity safely archived in Clio.

Bottom line: from a productivity and collaboration standpoint, Trello is absolutely at the core of our daily work life.

Google hangouts.

When we're in the same time-zone this is a tool we use frequently. We use the chat function for the sort of quick questions that might traditionally cause an associate to tap on the partner's door. I try to avoid much of this though, since even small interruptions can take a very heavy toll on productivity - we really overestimate how good we are are multi-tasking. If a chat is more than a couple back-and-forths then it probably merits a focused conversation via phone or video chat.

Speaking of video chat, we often use that for our very short daily standups where we review the day's battle plan. We'll also use it later in the day if there's a particularly thorny issue needing discussion; I find the face-to-face quality of video really helps versus phone.

With a 12-hour time difference there really isn't much need for contemporaneous communication while I'm working from abroad, though we have used the chat function a few time.

Let's get cooking.

Hope that's a helpful overview of our team collaboration tools. Coming up next, working collaboratively with clients on the cloud.

After morning computer time, I'm off to learn some Bengali cooking.  The cuisine utterly mind-blowing, featuring lots of light, subtle flavors like banana leaf-wrapped river fish with a mild yellow mustard sauce. The green blob in the picture below was tiny shrimp in a sinus-clearing horse-radish like mustard stew with taro leaves. Like nothing I'd ever had in the best possible way.