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Find Your Rally Point

The official account by the United States Congress goes something like this:

On September 8, 2009. Marine Corporal Dakota Meyer maintained security at a patrol rally point while other members of his team moved on foot with two platoons of Afghan National Army and Border Police into the village of Ganjgal, Afghanistan, for a pre-dawn meeting with village elders.

Moving into the village, the patrol was ambushed by more than 50 enemy fighters firing rocket propelled grenades, mortars, and machine guns from houses and fortified positions on the slopes above. Hearing over the radio that four U.S. team members were cut off, Corporal Meyer took the exposed gunner’s position in a gun-truck as they drove down the steeply terraced terrain in a daring attempt to disrupt the enemy attack and locate his fellow Marines along with the Afghan soldiers.

Disregarding intense enemy fire now concentrated on his lone vehicle, Corporal Meyer killed a number of enemy fighters with the mounted machine gun and his rifle, some at near point-blank range, as he and his driver made three solo trips into the ambush area to assist and save the Afghan soldiers.

During the first two trips, he and his driver evacuated two dozen Afghan soldiers, many of whom were wounded. When one machine gun became inoperable, he directed a return to the rally point to switch to another gun-truck for a third trip into the ambush area where his accurate fire directly supported the remaining U.S. personnel and Afghan soldiers fighting their way out of the ambush. Despite a shrapnel wound to his arm, Corporal Meyer made two more trips into the ambush area in a third gun-truck accompanied by four other Afghan vehicles to recover more wounded Afghan soldiers and search for the missing U.S. team members.

Still under heavy enemy fire, he dismounted the vehicle on the fifth trip and moved on foot to locate and recover the bodies of his team members. Corporal Meyer’s daring initiative and bold fighting spirit throughout the 6-hour battle significantly disrupted the enemy’s attack and inspired the members of the combined force to fight on. His unwavering courage and steadfast devotion to his U.S. and Afghan comrades in the face of almost certain death reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

Marine Corporal Meyer is by all accounts a hero.  He acted with incredible courage in the face of insurmountable odds, and he always remembered his rally point.

A “Rally Point” is used in military planning as an identified point on a map that will serve as a geographical location to regroup and come together to evaluate, adjust, and proceed.  We all need a Rally Point.  We need that place to retreat to that helps us to regroup, clear our head, and evaluate next steps when the distractions of life get in the way and cause our creativity, productivity, and motivation to wane.

In no way am I comparing the day-to-day struggles of the lawyer life, with what some consider the most extraordinary battle of the Afghan War, but each of us need to take a page from the military and set our own rally point.  We should take a page from what hundreds of years of military experience has taught our heroes in uniform as it relates to engraining in the fighting men and women the value of a rally point.

Where is your rally point?

My rally point is that place that allows me to settle my mind, focus on the important tasks at hand, and provides balance to my day.  My current rally point is my home office.  At other times it has been a coffee shop, a Starbucks, or a Panera Bread.  I started making a coffee shop of some kind my rally point very early in my life.  When I was in college I wouldn’t study at the library or in my dorm room.  I studied at the local Barnes and Noble coffee shop.  I liked being surrounded by books and people and the energy of intellect.

I went to law school about 20 miles away from that particular Barnes and Noble, but when I was distracted by law school, and life, I would sometimes return to that same Barnes and Noble and study.  It centered me and reminded me where I came from and where I wanted to go.  Sure, there was another Barnes and Noble in the town where I attended law school, but it wasn’t the one I was accustomed to.  I hadn’t made that my rally point yet.  I eventually did, however, i still enjoy returning to that original Barnes & Noble coffee shop to read and write.

Later in life, as I was trying to build my own law practice and was a solo practitioner, I would spend a lot of time at my local Panera Bread.  It was a great atmosphere with energy, movement, and coffee, yet I could concentrate and use their free wi-fi.  When my business grew and the distractions of the office, or life, began to get to me, I would retreat back to that Panera Bread and take a day to work from there.  It was my rally point when I began to feel defeated by what life was throwing at me; and every time I left after spending some time there, I felt more energized and optimistic.  The bottom line is, it doesn’t matter if you are an Army Ranger battalion, or a solo lawyer with nothing but a laptop, you need to identify a rally point, and return to that place to regroup and reorganize.  It will prove to be a balancing factor that will only help in your effort to succeed at the lawyer life.

 

Utilize Your Strategic Vendors

No man performs a symphony alone.  No man gets the job done in a law office alone either, not even you solos.  We are all subject to running up against it at times.  You know what it is.  It’s the unknown process, or the appealing case we’ve never taken on before, or any number of anxiety-causing events or circumstances that may present themselves in any given day within your practice.  And whether you’re the senior partner at Baker & McKenzie, or you’re a solo practitioner in rural North Dakota whose name happens to be Baker McKenzie, you’re going to need some legal allies to help you out from time to time.

I recently found myself in need of some help on such an issue in my own practice when I was in need of achieving service on a defendant in Delhi, India.  Now for many, that task may seem rudimentary, but for me it presented a simple challenge of quickly learning the finer details of the Hague Convention so that I could properly serve my targeted defendant.  As I began the task of updating my recollection of the Hague, I realized there had to be a better way for me to get this task accomplished than spending a full day on it.  And there was.

A quick Google search led me to a vendor in Atlanta that had an appealing website that essentially made them look like they knew what they were doing, and better yet, they had a phone number.  To assuage my suspicion as to whether they were an international fraud ring only concerned with bilking me of my money, I picked up the phone and called.  A young man answered and when I informed him of what I needed done, he politely responded, “Oh sure.  Let me get you to someone who can help you with that.”  Sure enough, he got me to “Pete.”  Pete was more than helpful, and without even being retained gave me advice that I wouldn’t have known without experience attempting service in this particular country before.  And I know my first attempt would have come back unsuccessful.  Pete had already saved me one failed attempt at this task, and likely a bit of scorn from the judge in the case.  I was sold.

For a fee of a few hours of my time, Pete took care of the entire project, and I slept better knowing I had someone experienced in this process taking it on for me, and in the end my client would be better served, and probably save some money.

There are scores of tasks, projects, and procedural undertakings that are probably better outsourced to vendors or experts who do the thing every day.  Sure, you’re smart enough to figure it out, but is your 5 hours of time to learn the process worth it for the client, when you could outsource it for a few hundred bucks?  Don’t be afraid to utilize every prospective vendor to provide a better service for your client at a more cost-effective price.  And I know some may say, “But Chris, I’ve been hired to do this thing and the client won’t understand.”  Oh, my friend, don’t forget you’re already doing then when it comes to service of process.  My experience suggests that rare is the lawyer who is serving process on their own.  And rarer still should be the lawyer who’s afraid to ask for help from those best suited to the task.

Putting an army of legal vendors, or better yet, “strategic partners,” to work for you in your practice is not only good practice, but its good business.  Take as much uncommon work off your plate as you can and concentrate on the tasks that provide the most value to your client if you’re the one performing them.  Your client will end up with a better product, you’ll have a friend in a happy vendor, and you’ll find yourself facing less anxiety as you continue to find more joy in your ability to live the lawyer life.

Make Life Your Canvas

Stephen King advised in his personal memoir, On Writing, to “put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room.  Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”

King was referring to his mistaken prioritization of writing over the life he should have been experiencing with his wife and kids.  Luckily, he realized the blunder of his aim.

Law is similar in that too many of us forget where our aim should be.  Your legal career is simply a support system for life. It isn’t your life.  It isn’t the end all.  It is a tool.  It is a color in a larger pallet of paint that will get thrown on the canvas of your life and turned into art.  Make sure to use every color available, and don’t feel like you have to stay within the lines.

To realize one’s true self one must understand the beauty in their own life.  Shakespeare’s Othello referenced the “daily beauty in his life.”  It is this “daily beauty” that is vital to the undertaking of life if one is to live it with passion and purpose.  Like the artist’s canvas, the beauty of one’s life is the product of the pallet of experience of each day.

What about those days that the client isn’t happy regardless the outcome, or the opposing counsel is pressing the wrong buttons?  What if your home life is leaving you feeling empty, or bills aren’t being paid as easily as you anticipated?  The paramount psychologist and philosopher William James instructed, “Be not afraid of life.  Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.”  Don’t fake it ‘til you make it.  Make it the product of your own belief.  Make life your canvas.

The practice of law is a most arduous and trying manner in which to make a living.  However, it is so much more difficult if our outlook on our lives does not begin with a purposeful belief in the value of living the lives we were blessed with.  It is up to each of us to live each day with purpose, appreciation, and vigor.  In those moments when we do, we’ll realize we’re living our true purpose within the lawyer life.

– Chris Smith, Esq.

Support Staff Friday – Products We Love

This week, Alicia Ivory is highlighting a legal support services product.  Clio is a cloud-based practice management platform that provides a central docketing, billing, matter administration, and contact database for law firms.  Alicia is a fan of the product, and she tells us why in this Support Staff Friday blog post.  Enjoy.

Top 15 Reasons that I love Clio:

15. The reports – I can figure out the weakest link, the strongest link, and the areas we need to improve in all in a glance.

14. The limitless calendaring! It’s essential that we docket everything! From deadlines to hearings, client consultations to conference room time not to mention travel schedules and the day to day phone calls that need to be returned. You can have a separate calendar for everything!  Hide what you don’t want to see, show what you do, you can share and make private. It’s incredible!

13. If you need to know how to do something in Clio there is a support site dedicated to any question that you might possibly have. From syncing your calendar with your iPhone to making your bills beautiful it’s there with a click of a button. There are video tutorials and step by step written instruction.

12. Clio is extremely affordable. For a boutique Law Firm or a Large Law Firm, Clio has rates that everyone can afford.

11. Branding! Your Firm name is all over everything – customize your Clio with your logo and pictures of your staff.

10. CLE Opportunities. Clio is constantly offering CLE opportunities at no additional cost to you. You can’t beat free, anywhere CLE’s.

9. Syncability – Clio syncs with Gmail. I can set a timer while I write emails or talk on the phone with clients from my email provider.  This means that I don’t have to toggle between programs. I can do real time billing with not a lot of effort.

8. Document Automation – Magic words in my opinion. We have an arsenal of simple pleadings and letters that we can use Clio to help us draft with just a few clicks. This helps us maintain our high standards because it auto fills our documents rather than us hunting through and changing out old information.

7. Clio is constantly changing and always for the better.

6. Did I mention Syncability? Clio syncs with Dropbox so that we can save documents to our client matters and access documents through our client matters.

5.  I love Clio’s Customer Service & Technical Support. They are always friendly. I get a quick response if I’m having an issue that needs to be resolved and chances are by the time I call their already working on it.

4. Clio Connect – Great for co-counsel and customers, Clio connect provides your firm a common work space that is secure. Share bills, calendar entries and notes with your clients. Share matters and documents with co-counsel. Co-counsel can also enter their time so that you can send your common client one bill!

3. Clio is customizable. Make your clients matter display according to the type of case and according your work flow. You’re limited only by your imagination!

2. Mobile!! Not only can you log into Clio from any computer and see all of your information, Clio offers an iPhone app. You can check your docket from the Courthouse, look up client information from a coffee shop, or work from a cabana at your favorite resort (so long as your phone gets service there).

1. Easy to use – yep. That’s all, my top reason it’s really Easy to use.

Alicia Ivory is Operations Director for The Smith Firm, PLC, a general civil practice firm with offices in Oklahoma and Texas.  Ms. Ivory is a Certified Clio Consultant and can be reached at alicia@thesmithfirm.net. 

 

Support Staff Friday! – Practice Management

A law firm is only as strong as the team it assembles, and the administrative and support staff can be just as important as the lawyer in the courtroom when it comes to profitability and work life balance.  In an effort to integrate various views on The Lawyer Life, I’m bringing in support staff and associates to create content for posts that we will feature on Fridays.  These folks are free to write anything that strikes them as relevant to the topic of creating a happier more productive life in the practice of law.  The first post in that series is being provided by Alicia Ivory.  Alicia is Operations Director for The Smith Firm, PLC in Oklahoma City and Dallas (my firm).  She has risen from an administrative assistant to pretty much running the show.  I hope you enjoy her first post on practice management platforms. 

Ever wonder what the other guy is doing that he is able to make it look so easy?  I’m betting he has the right tools for the job.  We, at my firm, are on a quest to find the absolute best applications and systems in all areas of practice management.  I can tell you that we have stumbled a lot more than we’ve run, but we are starting to get to a place where we are excited about the applications and tools that we are utilizing to help us become more efficient, more mobile and, of course more lucrative.

When I came to work at my firm, more than a year ago, we were using Time Matters and Billing Matters by Lexis Nexis, considered by some to be the Cadillac of practice management platforms.  When I looked at it for the first time it was overwhelming, confusing, and I literally thought to myself, “What in the world am I supposed to do with this?”  I’m fairly certain that at the time my opinion mattered little, so I tried my best to make sense of it.  With two offices in two states, we needed a better cloud option, and we had a business manager that wanted to switch the accounting feature to Quickbooks (I’m not ashamed to say I secretly gave her a high five in the hallway) so a little more than a year ago we switched our practice management platform to Clio.

We tried Clio for a week and we were sold!  It was user-friendly and malleable.  It could be what we needed it to be, a strait forward, cloud-based platform that simply worked.  We set the parameters for our practice needs, and create the systems within Clio that we wanted, and we don’t have to call support every time to do it.  The best part is that we feel like Clio actually listened to suggestions we had, as well as others, and they keep working to improve the platform.

I will say that Time Matters does have more features than Clio but, overall we’re finding that Clio’s ability to integrate with other applications like: Google Apps, Law Pay, Dropbox, and Xero, is moving us forward in our quest to be “The Other Guy.”  And with my boss’s schedule being in multiple states on any given week, the mobility of the platform, and integration with other applications, is great.  It helps our attorneys practice better, and maintain better balance in their work lives.  And with Clio’s updates and improvements we’re finding that right when we start to miss something about TimeMatters, Clio comes out with something new.  And now that I’m managing the office, my opinion matters more than it did; and Clio has my vote.

Alicia Ivory is Operations Director for The Smith Firm, PLC, a general civil practice firm with offices in Oklahoma and Texas.  Ms. Ivory is a Certified Clio Consultant and can be reached at alicia@thesmithfirm.net.  

Act As Would the Lawyer You Want to Become

Act as would the lawyer you want to become.  That directive reminds me of my first contested hearing.  I had no guidance, or clue as to what I was doing at the time, but I tried to emulate the attorneys that put hearings on before me.  As I became more familiar with the courtroom, I realized everyone has a style and a way of presenting their case.  What did I want my style to look like?

Fortunately for me, I was blessed with incredible mentor lawyers who were well accustomed to high stakes litigation, and I was quick to observe and try to emulate them when I had the opportunity.  Emulating the best trial attorneys seemed to be the best way for me to become the trial attorney I hoped to be.

Mentor lawyers were instrumental in my earliest years in practice to give me the confidence I otherwise may not have had, as well as the support to know there’s no one way to do things and that I had to find my way.  The best lesson they taught was that if you are doing all you can to represent your client’s interest, you’re going to be OK at this lawyering gig.

Effective advocacy is evident in the heat of a hearing, but its probably most tested when you have to appeal a decision by a judge who was one of those mentors, or when you’re pitted against one in a case.  It may be difficult to stomach at the time, but nothing earns respect as an attorney like putting a marker down that you’re willing to go to bad for your client, even if it means taking an opposing position against a mentor lawyer or judge.  A mentor lawyer will want nothing less than your best if you come up against them; and if you’ve been emulating them, you’ll be prepared.

Are you the lawyer you want to become?  Why not act as so?  You’ll eventually become the person you emulate, therefore never stop emulating the best attorney in the room; and if you reach a point where you don’t have a better lawyer to emulate…RETIRE!

 

 

Make Your Legal Vendor Experience Known!

Attention attorneys. The Lawyer Life is seeking information, reviews, experiences, warnings and recommendations relating to all law related business vendors such as Clio, Lexis Nexis, Rocket Matter, West Publishing, Avvo, Total Attorneys, Legal Match, etc.

Attorneys across the United States are inundated with marketing and sales pitches for these companies. We would like to know what your experience has been with any of them.

Your reviews will be anonymous, but please forward your contact information, a description of your experience with the product, and whether you would recommend it or not. This is an informal process, and we will keep a running review of these products for readers so please submit your review at any time. We’ll post reviews in a period post specifically relating to a vendor review.  We believe this will be a fun and informative look at the vendors we all deal with on a daily basis.

Email submissions to chris@thelawyerlife.com. We look forward to hearing from you.

Cut the Office Umbilical Cord, and Enjoy the Lawyer Life.

I’ve had the privilege to be traveling a lot this month between Los Angeles, San Diego, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Tampa, and now Austin, I’ve been on the road and on the go, however, my productivity from the standpoint of work is up. This little fact has raised the question in my mind as to why we work and live the way we do in the traditional law firm model.

I consider the traditional law practice model as that of a physical brick and mortar office with a receptionist, and a series of offices, conferences rooms, and work spaces in which attorneys and support staff show up in the morning, and stay until well after 5:00 p.m. when their work is done for the day, or they’ve met their billable hour quota for the day. To receive phone calls, or faxes, the lawyer needs to be in her office. To access records, files, research or resources, the lawyer needs to be in their office. If they want to work from home they can pack up and relocate to their kitchen table.

This model has existed since I’ve known what a lawyer was, and for many it has proven a very profitable and reliable system. However, for some of us, we would like to build a life around our practice, as opposed to being enslaved by the work in such a way that our lifestyle, and relationships, suffer. The days of the traditional model as the only way to practice are over.

With third party applications, and software as a service, an attorney can be as productive in an airport, a coffee shop, their kitchen table, or on the beach as they are in the office. Without specifically endorsing a product, Google Apps, Dropbox, Grasshopper, Clio, Rocket Matter, etc. are changing the way the legal world can, and should, work.

If you’re happier working out of a coffee shop, why wouldn’t you make it your office? If you’re happier in the office, by all means stay there. But for a few hundred dollars a month, a virtual office is a great option for those who aren’t married to the idea of a traditional office setting. And with the sharing economy becoming the norm, clients are more likely to prefer meeting outside the office, or in their own office.

Additionally, the idea of a lifestyle based legal practice reduces overhead, and inherently increases efficiency, which allows for a more value based fee structure offered to happier clients. What’s the downside?

Productivity is about execution. Life is about your time, memories, energies, and impact. If you can build a productive legal lifestyle that provides ample opportunity for quality family time, increased memories, and impactful action, why would you not? There is no reason not to.

Give yourself the opportunity to stay away from the office for a week, or at least a day, and see if you can maintain productivity levels at your average pace. If you can’t, evaluate your processes and see where there are holes in your technology, which are keeping you tied to the office. If you can, then set yourself free; and go enjoy the Lawyer Life.

Do More, With More. Your Knowledge Management System.

You’ve handled this type of matter many times before this new client walks in the door. Their matter is academically complicated, but not procedurally difficult. It will require litigation, but its nothing unique. “You’ll handle it just like you’ve handled the 100, or maybe 1,000, similar matters that have come before it,” you think to yourself. There’s nothing different about it is there?

Are you going to handle this new client more efficiently and with more skill than you handled the 100 that have come before? Why, or why not?

If the next file is not handled more skillfully than the last file, then you’re not growing, improving and better serving your future clients. You are stagnant, you are lazy, and you are not the skilled professional you could be.

Be motivated to do things better and with greater efficiency each and every time you open a new file. Have a knowledge improvement and management strategy, and diligently execute upon that strategy each and every day.

How are you managing and filing away new knowledge and information? Is it easily accessible? Are you conducting an after action review, or “AAR” as the U.S. military would refer to it, at the conclusion of each matter? Are you regularly educating your associates and staff as to how matters are best handled and conducted?

As a professional service provider we are called upon to continuously improve upon our services, processes, and catalog of offerings. To remain stagnant is to begin to die. If you are not consciously improving upon your knowledge base by way of continuing education, reading and studying practice specific resources, and diligently filing past research and briefs, you are coming up short.

Don’t sell yourself, your practice, and your clients short by failing to conceive of a knowledge development plan that contributes to process and efficiencies, and in the end helps you provide better legal services.

Here are few simple ideas to jump start the development of your own knowledge management system:

1)   Clip practice specific articles and materials to an Evernote file. It’s an easy way to capture and store information on the go and in a hurry that you can easily reference later. Don’t forget to go back and review it.

2)   Create topic specific electronic files to save research and case law specific to the topic. This seems like an overly simplistic idea, but you would be surprised how many attorneys don’t capture their research previously conducted. There’s no reason to recreate the research process each time if you’ve previously researched a topic. A simple research update and shepardizing should be all that’s required if you’ve previously briefed a topic.

3)   Meet with you staff, or team, to conduct an After Action Review of the file to discuss successes, and improvable areas. Don’t consider anything a failure. Only view perceived shortcomings as specific areas to improve upon, and don’t be afraid to do so.

4)   Create written policies and processes to be followed in each case for common actions such as discovery, filing pleadings, drafting documents, etc. Make sure that everyone on your team understands how he or she is expected to conduct themselves and their work in each and every matter.

5)   Execute! Precise execution every day will lead to success. Knowledge and information not executed upon is worth the paper it’s written on. Go and do!

Improvement upon processes relating to knowledge capture is critical to the development of your abilities and skills as an attorney. The successful attorney is one who is academically equipped, and with information so readily available today, the playing field is as level as it has ever been. Anyone with a sound knowledge development system will quickly find himself or herself equipped to compete on any front, and with any firm. Knowledge is our greatest asset as attorneys, and its consistent increase helps us do more, with more, and better live The Lawyer Life.

The Inevitability of a Bad Vendor.

Every attorney must deal with the utter joy and bliss that comes with dealing with vendors and service providers. (That was tongue in cheek).  I’ve had my own law practice since May of 2008, and there has been no greater source of frustration than the service provided by a few vendors over that time. When you’re running a small law firm, and you’re making payroll, paying expenses, maintaining your marketing, meeting client needs, and continuing your own personal growth, having to deal with a poor service provider is the last thing in the world you want to be dealing with.

I recently had the worst experience of any vendor I’ve ever had in dealing with my office’s long-distance and internet provider. If you’re in the market for service and want to ask me directly, I’ll discuss it more fully, but this isn’t an axe grinding session.

The experience we had was nothing short of a vendor nightmare from the beginning of our contract. The experience left us scratching our head at best, and made us feel pretty stupid that we didn’t catch certain things along the way, and demand better earlier on; but it taught my office manager and me a few valuable and practical lessons that we wouldn’t have received in two years of an MBA program. I’m passing them on so you don’t make the same mistakes. Here you go:

  1. Make sure to have a satisfaction clause in your vendor contract. Most vendors won’t give this to you but requesting it will begin a conversation that may lead you to second guess your choice of vendor. If you ask for it, you may get it, and if they say no, it may save you a bad experience.
  1. Know your needs before you sign up. If you need more than a T1 line for internet, then don’t sign up for a T1 line. Don’t trust the potential vendor to identify your needs for you. They will authoritatively tell you what you “need;” however, when it comes to the larger vendor contracts, you need to independently establish your needs.
  1. Monitor your bills. It is not out of the realm of possibility that you’ll be over-billed, overtaxed, or you’ll find fees and costs that were not identified in the original agreement. We received a bill with an additional $200.00 of fees, taxes, and unspecified costs. Make sure to have the company identify these types of costs before you sign the contact. There will be fine print language that would cover “fees and taxes” in the contract, so make sure you know what those are before entering into the agreement.  You may find, as we did, that our previous provider was less expensive after taking into account fees and taxes.
  1. Put your complaints in writing. Don’t hesitate to complain when something isn’t right. My motto with business vendors has become, “Make my life easier, or get out of it.” You’re paying your hard earned money so that you’re life is easier. Too many businesses today are concerned with the sale, but the service is an afterthought. Don’t be afraid to make sure they know when they are failing you. Although it’s easy to think you’re a small fish, social media equalizes your position. One bad post about the company from a small office on Twitter is 100x worse than silent dissatisfaction by a larger firm. Be a squeaky wheel, and don’t fee bad about it.

The practice of law is like any business, first and foremost it’s a business. Without productivity and profitability there will be no lawyers in the courtroom in many cases. Make sure your vendors aren’t a hindrance to your own ability to make a living. Keep them honest, and make sure they make your life easier, or tell them to get out of it.  And as always, good luck living The Lawyer Life.