The story behind a big thinker and renowned blogger.
■ Matthew Homann
■ Visual Strategist, XPLANE
■ St. Louis, MO
After finishing law school in 1993, Matt Homann went into small firm practice—and it didn’t take long before he started thinking big about ways to do things differently. As a solo he focused in on alternative billing and technology tools for delivering better and more-effective results for clients. He stepped into the blogsophere early to share his innovative concepts when he founded his aptly named Weblog, the [non]billable hour. Today, he continues to lead the edge with still further out-of-the-box thinking. He is a founder of LexThink, a company that hosts unique legal innovation events by bringing together lawyers, marketers, legal technologists and others to collaborate on ways to make the practice better. And recently he joined XPLANE, a company pioneering processes for visual thinking. Throughout it all, he continues to consider how to improve things for both lawyers and clients. So how do you go from being a lawyer to a “visual strategist”? Here’s the story.
What drew you to the law, and how is it you chose the path of a solo lawyer?
MH: Growing up, I was always told I was destined to become a lawyer or a politician. Thinking then it was a compliment—though now I’m not so sure—I entered college planning on nothing else. After getting a completely useless political science degree, I went to law school.
Like many solos, I didn’t choose the path as much as it chose me. I started with an insurance defense firm and didn’t like the work (and probably wasn’t very good at it anyway). So I joined a solo practitioner in my hometown of Highland, Illinois, and I grew fond of both the variety of things I was able to do and the variety of clients I was able to do it for. After working for him for four years, I ventured out on my own.
How did you come by your understanding that a better way to practice law was to stop flogging hours?
MH: If necessity is the mother of invention, my inability to keep great timesheets was at least one of the motivating factors in my looking for a different economic model for my practice.
I also realized that I could never recoup any investment I made in becoming a more efficient lawyer unless I raised my rate or charged for the work I did differently. Raising my rate was out of the question because as a young lawyer in a small community, my hourly rate was in essence capped by the amounts the other lawyers were charging in my town.
Instead, I decided that if I were able to charge a flat fee for the work I did, then any benefit of becoming more efficient at delivering it had a direct impact on my bottom line. Another unexpected benefit was that I could charge more for the work and that clients—happy to know the price of the work up front—were more eager to pay.
How did information technology contribute to that process?
MH: Legal technologists have often preached that having the “latest and greatest” directly results in a more profitable practice. I found that once I was able to charge a set fee for commonly done work that I did well, all of a sudden that became true.
Freed from having to “bill the file” to make money, I could instead focus on delivering the product expected by the client in the most cost-effective way. Document assembly, online research, document scanning and practice management software now allowed me to do my work more quickly and more profitably. Clients were happy their work was done faster (and at a price they’d already agreed was fair) and I was happy to get home to my family at a reasonable hour.
Your blog, the [non]billable hour, is a powerful collection of ideas on law practice and alternative billing—what led you to make that kind of effort?
MH: I started blogging for myself. The blog was a place where I could write about things that were interesting to me and know I would be able to reference them again later. What surprised me was that in 2003, when I began writing the [non]billable hour, there were a number of other lawyers who were interested in the innovative ideas I had to share.
Once I realized I’d built an audience of hundreds (now thousands) of like-minded readers, I was more motivated to not only collect cool and interesting ideas, but to share them as well.
It was also easy in those days to justify the time spent writing the blog (the original justification for the title, by the way) because there was a dearth of other innovation resources for lawyers to use. Now there are literally hundreds of amazing legal blogs that write about ways lawyers can be better at what they do. If I were thinking of starting a blog today, I’d feel like I had much less to contribute to the now-robust innovation conversation.
What has it given back to you?
MH: The most significant take-away for me is the sense that in some way I’ve helped lawyers become better at what they do. On a personal level, I’ve made hundreds of in-person friends and thousands of virtual ones. Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t send me an amazing note thanking me for the blog. It is quite an incredible thing.
Writing the blog has also given me the courage to admit to myself that I do have a unique ability to think differently about not just law practice, but business in general. It has nurtured my confidence in my nonlegal abilities and made me realize that I’m really good at a number of things I may have never explored had I remained in solo practice.
So when did you leave solo practice and what have you been doing since?
MH: I haven’t actively practiced for over two years now. Instead, during that time I’ve worked with Dennis Kennedy on LexThink, our legal “unconference” business, and have designed and facilitated several innovation retreats for law firms and other businesses. We’ve taken a year off, but we’re planning a big event for next spring that will address ways lawyers can incorporate more innovation and creativity into their practices. And then this June I joined the information design company XPLANE, as a visual strategist.
What’s driving innovation in law firms now?
MH: That’s a particularly difficult question to answer because the forces driving innovation in firms (if innovation is happening at all) are varied. In large firms, big clients have wised up and begun to demand businesslike efficiency, accountability and technology from their counsel of record. Midsize firms have recognized that innovation allows them to compete for previously unattainable clients and work.
For their part, small firms have always innovated out of necessity—and that’s never been more true than today. The lack of institutional friction inside a nimble small firm gives that firm a tremendous advantage in trying new things. What’s driving much of the innovation in small firms now, however, is that a much more educated and Internet-savvy clientele is not only expecting better service, better technology and better pricing, but is also not afraid to find a lawyer who will deliver it.
Although you’ve left the practice of law, you maintain a keen interest in it. Why did you join XPLANE and how might your new role there deliver new insights into problems law firms face?
MH: About a year ago, I started a monthly collaborative salon-type gathering called the Idea Market. Each month, I brought together between 20 to 50 people to meet and brainstorm on one another’s challenges. The CEO of XPLANE started coming to the event, and we both realized that we shared a passion for bringing people together to think creatively with one another. One thing led to another and now I’m working with XPLANE full-time.
At XPLANE, we work with companies to help them visually convey complex information in an easy-to-understand way. Lawyers have always been in the information-communication business, so there is clearly some overlap in helping lawyers become better communicators. There is also an amazing opportunity to take the visual-thinking processes we’ve developed at XPLANE and merge them with the legal retreat and conference model we’ve developed at LexThink.
In short, any methods that help people think more clearly and communicate more effectively are of vital importance to the legal community. I’ll be working over the next year to build ways that help lawyers bridge the knowing-understanding gap that too often exists between them and their clients.