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November 17, 2021 Vol. 47, No. 2

Steady guidance in changing times: Practice management advisors help lawyers move forward

By Marilyn Cavicchia

There’s no question that COVID-19 has both prompted major technological changes for lawyers and hastened or intensified some shifts that were already under way. For many, practice management advisors (or similar professionals with a different title) have been there to help guide them through this transformation.

When we think of lawyers, technology, and the pandemic, we often remember funny stories of dogs barking during Zoom calls or the lawyer who accidentally enabled a filter that made him appear to be a kitten. Bar Leader wanted to get beyond those initial anecdotes and dig deeper into how practice management advisors have been helping lawyers change in order to keep working. Here’s what they shared with us.

‘The customer is always right’

Lawyers used to be able to ignore the axiom “The customer is always right,” says Jim Calloway, director of the Management Assistance Program at the Oklahoma Bar Association. But no more: “Client expectations have been changed by the pandemic, and both lawyers and bar associations ignore that at our peril,” he believes.

One client may prefer meeting on Zoom, and another may prefer meeting in person. Evening appointments can help a client avoid having to take leave or face adverse consequences at work. Lawyers should get used to being as flexible as they can to meet these varying needs, Calloway says: “The main thing on the horizon for lawyers is more change, fueled by technology advances and evolving client attitudes about what superior service means.”

Some clients, especially those with underlying medical conditions, may be unable or hesitant to sign documents in person because of COVID-19, says Reid Potter, who spent two years as practice management advisor/attorney at the State Bar of Arizona. (Potter recently transitioned to intake bar counsel, handling disciplinary matters.) In that case, he says, a lawyer needs to know how to offer an authenticated, secure method for e-signature through a paid service such as DocuSign. 

Laura Keeler, practice management advisor at Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers/Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program (LCL/Mass LOMAP), sees the same trend toward increased attention to client needs and preferences. “As more alternative legal service providers home in on wanting to serve clients’ legal needs with commoditized services, lawyers need to up their ante,” she says. “The way to stay competitive when clients are seeking faster and more affordable services is to utilize technology in ways that allow practices to become more efficient.”

In the past couple of years, Keeler has seen broad adoption of law practice management systems, several of which offer secure portals to facilitate collaboration between lawyer and client. Clients enjoy the ease of communication (lack of communication is frequently cited in bar complaints, Keeler notes). Portals also create “enormous efficiencies” for law firms themselves, she adds, including “not having to mail paper documents, having electronic invoices paid faster than paper bills sent out, limiting the number of times clients call the firm for status updates, and allowing your internal team to be on the same page with the client.”

Automation and artificial intelligence

Automation and artificial intelligence are key to how alternative legal service providers can assist clients more efficiently—and lawyers, too, can adopt some of these same tools, PMAs say.

“There are so many ways to gain efficiency with even simple automations,” says Catherine Sanders Reach, director of the Center for Practice Management at the North Carolina Bar Association. “For instance, you can migrate information from an intake form to a practice management application to a form letter that is emailed for e-signature, returned electronically, and filed automatically. That one automation workflow saves a lot of steps and re-keying of information.”

Why wouldn’t a lawyer want to save steps in this way? “If those [unautomated] tasks are billable, there’s potential impact on revenue,” Calloway notes. “For the price-sensitive consumer market, we are well into the shift where flat fees and task-based billing should be replacing hourly billing in many, if not all situations.”

When it comes to artificial intelligence, says Anne Haag, law practice management advisor at the Chicago Bar Association Law Practice Management & Technology Center, one key is to help lawyers understand a concept that may sound more unfamiliar than it actually is. “We break that down,” she says, “explain to them that they may already be using it, then explain that they will probably need to start using it in more conscious ways in order to have a more effective and competitive practice.”

But there’s such a thing as becoming too familiar with artificial intelligence or the “internet of things (IoT),” especially when lines between work and home are blurred, Haag says. “I’ve long cautioned lawyers against having an Alexa or Google Home device in their office,” she explains. “IoT devices jump out at me as something that people quickly adopt because of convenience, but lawyers in particular need to really think about before implementing into their practice.”

Smaller changes important, too

Automation, portals, and artificial intelligence are big concepts for lawyers to reckon with, but PMAs are noticing some smaller changes, too, including in systems that seem more basic or tools that lawyers already had and weren’t using as fully as possible.

“I would point at Microsoft 365 as the most important service that bubbled thanks to COVID,” says Adriana Linares, who provides practice management assistance for members of the San Diego County (Calif.) Bar Association through her firm, LawTech Partners. “While many, if not most firms were paying for it, they were not taking advantage of all its features and services.” One such feature is Teams, which many government agencies, bars and other organizations, and law firms now use instead of Zoom, Linares adds.

Potter says Teams can even be used as a client portal and that he wishes it had existed when he was a solo lawyer before joining the Arizona bar staff. Another tool that lawyers have found unexpectedly helpful is the payment app Zelle, for disbursement of client funds. Unlike other such apps, Potter says, Zelle allows a direct transfer from the lawyer's bank to the client, rather than having the funds sit with a third party during a transitional period. 

Even phone lines are getting a second look, both Potter and Reach say. Potter is a fan of Google Voice, which he used when he was in solo practice; it allows the user to have two numbers on one phone and set different parameters for each, he explains, which means less temptation to deal with work-related calls during non-work hours.

"Wellness and mindfulness are a big part of the practice management advice we give. You need to be able to disconnect," Potter says, and this includes the phone. Lawyers often don't maintain appropriate boundaries when it comes to vacations and other chances to take time off, he adds. 

Reach has seen many lawyers switching from traditional and hybrid PBX systems to cloud-based PBX. Why? “No more closet full of equipment, no more focus on the desk phone, better options for voicemail to email transcription, multi-device support, plus efax, business text, and more,” she explains.

Speaking of text, this may be another case where client needs and preferences are driving technological change. “I think more lawyers are warming to the idea of using text with their clients, especially for meeting reminders and quick missives,” Reach notes.

Security above all

In the past couple of years, Haag adds, lawyers have become significantly more aware of the need for security in all their systems—but this awareness hasn’t necessarily led to consistent action. “Everyone knows they should be using a password manager,” she notes, “but many just haven’t made the leap yet.” At the CBA, she says, she has found success in offering programs that zero in on one aspect of security—such as passwords—and give clear, concrete instructions on “actionable topics” such as implementing a password manager.

Linares agrees that lawyers should pay much more attention to security. In fact, if she had to choose one area where lawyers really need a boost in education and in being proactive, it would be “taking security more seriously and to the highest level they can.” PMAs can help by offering seminars, webinars, articles, resources, and practical how-to’s on this topic, Linares notes.

What is the role of the practice management advisor?

With so much self-help information available from other sources, including from tech vendors themselves, why is it still important for lawyers to have access to practice management assistance via their bar membership?

“The help from the bar law practice management advisors is unbiased, confidential, and keeps the lawyers’ ethical duties top of mind,” Reach says.

Calloway agrees and says PMAs’ lack of any “agenda” other than offering help gives them extra credibility with bar members. Information from vendors, other lawyers, consultants, or the internet all can have certain biases or gaps compared with the comprehensive view that a PMA offers, he notes. “A common response we give our bar members is, ‘There are several tools that can accomplish that, but here are links to reviews of two of the best for you to compare,’” Calloway says.

Adds Haag, “I think bars can provide information that can help you formulate the questions. A tech vendor or online community can help you troubleshoot a specific problem within a product or platform, but bars can be the resource that makes you aware of the platform—and why you need it—in the first place.”

And it isn’t just solo and small-firm lawyers who need this kind of help, Keeler says: PMAs often advise mid-sized firms, larger firms, in-house counsel, government and public interest lawyers, judges, and, in some jurisdictions, even law students.

“I’ve met several hundred lawyers through my front-facing work for bars and related entities,” she says, “and built relationships with them.” Because of those relationships, she adds, she will often recall a previous conversation and get in touch with a lawyer if she hears about a new tool that could help them with a problem they had.

PMAs’ work changed by pandemic, too

Just as lawyers’ work has been changed—perhaps permanently—by COVID-19 and resulting adoption of new technology, so, too, has the work of many PMAs. For one thing, both Calloway and Keeler appreciate the reduction in their time spent behind the wheel.

“Committee and section council meetings that I would normally attend in person can now be done remotely,” Keeler says, “which makes it easier as opposed to commuting to the evening meeting and then back home.”

Notes Calloway, “I went from driving all over Oklahoma to deliver CLE presentations to county bars and lawyer groups to Zooming across Oklahoma to do the same.” At the start of the pandemic, he adds, many lawyers passively watched the presentations, but within a few months, they became much more comfortable with participating and interacting.

Haag has seen increased attendance at her law practice management technology programs since the COVID-necessitated switch to remote format—and has also seen real advantages in terms of how well the information comes across. “I can see how this would be less engaging for other bar programs, but LPMT programs often involve demonstrations of platforms,” she explains. “By only having to make it look nice for one audience set, you have to balance less and can focus on making it truly effective.”

Reach’s experience has been similar; she also notes that the digital format eliminates the common in-person problem where not everyone in a large auditorium can see the screen well—and there are other advantages.

“Showing lawyers how to do something, versus telling them how and illustrating with a gazillion screen shots, is far more effective,” she explains. “Also, attendees can ask the presenter questions [in the chat window] and the speaker can choose when to answer the question, even after the program if necessary.”

The human side of law

“Practice management advising is far beyond helping lawyers with tech tools,” Keeler notes; PMAs cover all aspects of starting, maintaining, growing, or winding down a practice. They’re also tuned into the human side, including well-being and the isolation many lawyers feel—especially during the pandemic.

While the calls Potter received from members in 2021 were more straightforward, in 2020, a lot of lawyers seemed lonely. "They'd call with their question, and then they'd just be chatting," he says, "because they needed that connection, beyond technology questions."

One key finding from the recent Survey of Pandemic and Post-Pandemic Law Practice, part of the ABA Practice Forward initiative, is that the pandemic has had an especially heavy toll for women lawyers, who often have disproportionately more caretaking responsibilities on top of their work duties.

PMAs can help, Linares says, by tapping into asynchronicity to make access to helpful programs and information more equitable. “Resources that can be consumed at a convenient time are critical,” she says, listing recorded events and on-demand libraries as two examples. “Holding virtual events at varied times and holding them often is helping in trying to give [women lawyers] more opportunities to participate.”

In Massachusetts, in conjunction with the Women’s Bar Association Parents’ Forum, LCL/Mass LOMAP runs a peer support group called SuperMom, through which lawyers and law students participate in moderated monthly meetings “to find practical and emotional support for the challenges faced in managing responsibilities as both mother and lawyer,” Keeler says.

Just as he thinks hourly billing will need to give way to other models if lawyers are to fully embrace efficient technologies, Calloway believes a deeper cultural shift is needed to make many law firms less “toxic” and better suited to human beings—and better prepared for whatever lies ahead.

“Many suggestions, like a four-day work week, will be resisted by the traditionalist lawyers running law firms,” he says. “But fewer deny that much is broken and needs to be fixed so law firms can confidently move forward into the future.”

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