Law Practice Magazine
ABA TECHSHOW TECHNOLOGY TIPS ISSUE
The story behind the immigration attorney renowned for the breadth and depth of tech tools used in his practice.
Cutting-edge immigration attorney Greg Siskind is renowned for the breadth and depth of technology tools that he has implemented in his practice. After launching one of the first-ever law firm Web sites as a solo practitioner, he progressively built one of the largest immigration firms in North America—incorporating state-of-the-art technology at every step. For example, his firm was a pioneer in distributing its newsletters electronically and using Internet voice and videoconferencing software to serve clients. Its Web site, which offers an impressive array of information, gets millions of hits each year from around the world. Among other publications, he is a coauthor of The Lawyer’s Guide to Marketing on the Internet, 3rd Edition ( ABA, 2007). Here are highlights of his story.
You weren’t exactly committed to the practice of law by the time you left law school. Yet you still ended up in a law firm. How did that play out?
GS: I think this is a fairly common issue with law students and young lawyers. And I was quite young when I applied to law school—only 18 years old. I was also very interested in politics and the legislative process and thought that getting a law degree would be helpful in pursuing a career in Washington.
But when I was in law school, I decided that I didn’t want to go to D.C. or even want to be a lawyer. However, I was already approaching my last year and accumulating law school debt, so I decided that I would finish school, take a job at a large firm back in Nashville (the city where I did my bachelor’s degree), and figure things out from there while I paid down my debt. I thought I would start looking at graduate programs in history—a field in which I’ve always had an interest—or possibly look at a career teaching law. So I joined a law firm at age 22 assuming that in two or three years I would be gone and off pursuing my “real” career. Needless to say, things changed—and in a happy way that I was not expecting.
You bought your own computer as a young associate. What drove you to that?
GS: In 1990, each young lawyer at the firm where I was a junior associate shared a secretary with a partner. At that time, lawyers were much more dependent on secretaries, particularly when it came to typing. Most of us dictated our work and depended on support staff to turn it into actual documents in a reasonably expeditious manner. Not surprisingly, the partners’ work always took priority. And on top of that, around this time, the firm started buying computers for lawyers, but all the computers went to the most senior attorneys—who were the people least likely to know how to use a computer!
The situation got to a point where I was having problems getting my work out in a timely manner owing to the support staff crunch. So I just went out and bought my own computer with WordPerfect for DOS. I would put my work on a floppy disk each day and hand it to my secretary so she could print it out on one of the firm’s fancy new laser printers. That worked pretty well—and it also gave me the opportunity to start learning more about computers.
How did you come by immigration law as a specialty?
GS: Growing up in the largely immigrant city of Miami and in a house where my father’s advertising business focused on travel-industry clients, I had an interest in things international from a very early age. My dad’s business allowed him to take us along on many international trips and I enjoyed the experiences immensely. I just never thought it would become the focus of my career.
The Nashville firm where I began work had assigned me to its corporate and securities department. Then one day a partner heard that I had just published a paper in the International Lawyer (the ABA International Section’s journal), and he approached me to see if I would be interested in an immigration matter that had come his way. The firm had no one in that practice area at the time and typically referred those matters to an outside practitioner. Well, I worked on the case and immediately realized that this area was both interesting and challenging! Then as similar matters began to come in to the firm, I started receiving more files. I found that, along with a great deal of satisfaction in the work I was doing, I also loved the clients.
In a short time I realized two truths: (1) I wanted to pursue immigration law as a career and put aside my plans to teach, and (2) it would take me years to build a full-time immigration practice in a large firm that expected me to bill a substantial number of hours in its corporate department.
Since there were only a few immigration lawyers in Nashville in 1994 and none were hiring, and because I was engaged to be married and not in a position to easily change cities, I decided that a solo immigration practice was my best solution.
You were one of the first lawyers to stake out territory on the Web. What was it about your circumstances and practice that made that seem like such a good idea?
GS: I had a couple of big challenges as I was planning my jump to the solo world in 1994. I didn’t have clients, I didn’t have capital to tide me over, and I didn’t have very much experience in the field. I knew I was going to be in trouble if I didn’t find a way to quickly bring in some work and build a reputation in the field.
Luckily, a friend from law school had told me about this new thing called “the Internet” and about sending letters called “electronic mail” over the telephone lines using something called a “modem.” Later I learned about USENET Newsgroups. These were discussion boards where people wrote about hundreds of different topics. One board focused on immigration. Most of the people on the site, though, were at universities and high-tech companies—the two places that had Internet access in the early ’90s—and I found that a lot of them were posting bad information. So I started answering questions for free and posting announcements about new developments in the field, and I quickly started to develop a following.
Also, by this time I’d heard about the first Web sites using a new Windows-based program called Mosaic, and it dawned on me that this would be a fantastic way to reach people. Because I practice in a federal area, with the laws the same from state to state, and my practice is all conducted by mail (and now e-filing as well), it really didn’t matter where my practice was located in terms of utilizing the Web. So as I was planning my solo practice, I also began planning a Web site.
As it happened, I was fortunate enough to have a college friend who was launching the first Internet provider, Web hosting and Web design business in the region, and he needed a site to show off to potential customers. So he helped me develop the site and also taught me about HTML, while I was able to serve as a non-tech, non-university business that could show average business owners what was possible in the new medium.
Two D.C. law firm sites went online in spring 1994, but I was able to get my site in place for the launch of my solo firm in June 1994. So my site was one of the very earliest legal sites on the Web.
As your firm has grown, you’ve encountered and overcome significant technological hurdles. How do you approach these issues?
GS: Technology continues to be an enormous challenge because client expectations for speed and efficiency keep increasing. We’ve been automating one aspect of our practice after another over the years, and as we’ve gotten larger and more spread out, the process has gotten more complicated. We’ve invested considerable time and money in trying to stay on the cutting edge, especially because our firm’s reputation on the Web has made clients assume that we’re technologically ahead of the pack and we work hard to ensure that they aren’t disappointed.
We use multiple technology tools to demonstrate our expertise and responsiveness to client needs, and frequently we use multiple tools in tandem. For example, say we get an advance copy of an important regulation that affects certain groups of clients—people in a particular industry, a particular geographic area, a particular nationality group or the like. We would quickly prepare a detailed summary, then use our case management system and slice and dice the database to generate an e-mail list that is highly targeted. We then develop a customized graphical e-mail template that draws from the database to populate its fields so all clients affected by the regulation receive a personalized -e-mail updating them on the news. It’s that kind of value-added service that separates a firm from its competitors.
There’s plenty of talk about outsourcing legal work, but you’re doing a new spin on it. How’s that working for you?
GS: We’re not “outsourcing” in the way that people commonly think of outsourcing. We’re actually “insourcing.” We recently merged with a successful entertainment immigration practice in New York City, the country’s most expensive metropolitan area. Our firm’s headquarters and largest office is in Memphis, which is the country’s least expensive large metro area. Now, because immigration law firms compete nationally, New York lawyers must charge the same—or because of local competition less—than firms elsewhere in the country. So we’ve set up an infrastructure in which our Memphis office has a team of lawyers and paralegals that exclusively handle matters sent by our New York office, working in close coordination with the New York team of lawyers. Clients get a higher level of service than many of our New York competitors can provide, and the firm realizes greater profits.
Technology plays a big role in how the offices work together. For example, a legal assistant in New York may determine that the attorneys there are booked for initial consultations several weeks out. In response, the assistant can instant-message the person in our Memphis office who schedules appointments and the two of them will use remote-control software that enables them to simultaneously see the company calendar for the Memphis attorneys on each of their screens. The Memphis scheduler can set up a telephonic initial consultation for one of our Tennessee attorneys while the New York assistant sees in real-time exactly what is being set up.
Or, a New York attorney may be supervising a Memphis attorney and paralegal on a New York-originating case. Everyone is connected to the firm’s case management system via a Virtual Private Network so the New York lawyer can see all the client data residing on the Memphis server and review and correct documents remotely. Scanning in documents and uploading them to the case management system allows the team to review the key documents in the file without having to mail or fax things back and forth between offices. Plus, the firm uses Web cams that allow attorneys in our different offices to communicate easily. In a large way, technology helps us eliminate the concept of geographic distance.
What practical tools would you love to have in the near or medium term that would auto-magically sort out some of your most vexing business problems?
GS: I’m hoping for some technology changes to come on the government side. It’s 2008, but most of our cases must still be filed by mail rather than electronically. And lawyers must still wait in long lines at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices just to ask questions about client cases. I’d hope we will be able to make those inquiries by e-mail in the near future.
On my firm’s end, we’re looking to develop a more sophisticated knowledge management system to cut down on reinventing the wheel when our lawyers work on matters that are outside of their routine. We’re also working with our case management system provider to develop more capabilities for our extranet. The extranet already allows clients to check the status of their active matters, view documents relating to their cases, and submit or update information using online forms. But the technologies in this area are not perfect, and with clients increasingly using these tools, we’re always trying to improve how we deliver this technology.
Finally, while we believe we do a great job delivering information around the world via our Web site and e-mail newsletters, we want to do a better job mining our client data-bases to get information to existing clients. We’re working on a number of tools that will make it easier to get this done. After all, every firm that has achieved success in marketing knows that your best source of new clients comes in the form of referrals from your existing clientele.
Mark Tamminga practices law at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Hamilton, ON. He is Law Practice’s Technology Editor.