Note: This article was originally printed in the January/February 2021 issue of the ABA GP Solo Magazine.
Lawyers use all sorts of tools—word processors, legal research engines, electronic discovery tools, e-mail, and cars to get to and from the courthouse. Most of these simply facilitate a lawyer’s completion of a discrete or specific task. And, as such, understanding how they work “under the hood” isn’t that important. But law practice management is central to law practice. The process that a firm or lawyer uses can affect everything from the number and nature of typographical errors, to the comprehensiveness of legal research, to the breadth and precision of discovery. Some firms suggest that the system they’ve developed to manage and deliver legal services is a valuable differentiator, central to the firm’s success.
From this perspective, it’s surprising that so many law firms buy “off-the-shelf” practice management software. How a firm manages and delivers its legal services can be as important as the services themselves.
The power and value of practice management technology are undeniable: These systems facilitate client communication, document management, and scheduling. And this is to say nothing of the ease with which they allow for distributed teams to collaborate. But at their core, these systems still make some basic assumptions about what legal work is and how lawyers or law firms should deliver legal services. And while some firms’ systems (or, more cynically, standards) are facile enough to adapt to an externally imposed structure, some are either too stubborn or too finicky to accept any system that doesn’t “get” their firm’s way of doing things.
For these firms, the best option is to “build.” What follows are profiles of three lawyers or law firms that have built their own practice management systems. As you’ll see, each firm had a different, specific reason for pursuing this path, but common among them is both a general dissatisfaction with what the market offers and a compelling vision of a possible future in which every firm builds a system to suit its specific needs.
Todd Miller’s military background comes out right up front. “I’m as good an employee as I have management,” said Miller, a real estate and business attorney and former Marine. “And lawyers don’t tend to be great managers.”
“Having worked at a couple of small firms, I realized that I wasn’t going to fit in at yet another one. So, I decided to build my own firm.”
Miller left both of his prior firms without a solid sense of how to manage or run a law firm. So, he set out to teach himself. He read law review articles, blogs, and books and talked to other lawyers in a quest to figure out how.
The resources he read and heard all strongly encouraged him to identify a practice management system and implement that in his firm early on. He resisted: “These systems were going to force me to practice law a certain way when I wasn’t sure how to practice law.”
He realized that, at least for the legal work that he wanted to do, there were two key activities: (1) intake, which included taking a call, gathering all the necessary client and legal information, dealing with engagement, etc.; and (2) what Miller called “the business stuff”—the work that needs to be done.
Miller decided to invest in himself and build a simple practice management system. He hired a developer, “paid a bunch of money,” “went through the phone calls,” and built a system based on a Microsoft database product called Microsoft Access.
“It does what I need it to do: It takes clients’ name and contact information, creates matters, creates tasks within those matters, keeps track of time and fixed fees, and generates invoices. You don’t need much as a solo.”
Miller uses the legal-specific Gravity Legal payments platform for billing and payments . The Microsoft Access database queries Gravity Legal, generates clients and links, then copies and pastes the payment links onto a client’s invoice.
“It’s not pretty, but I’m not concerned about that. I’m concerned that it works for me.”
But looks are rarely everything. The real question is: Was all this effort worth it?
“Definitely,” Miller says. “Investing in this system was as much an investment in myself—to figure out my processes and get my head straight about how I wanted to practice law—as it was in the technology. I needed to understand what to do to deliver a legal product. If I spent $50,000 on my own system, which I didn’t, and accidentally made a copy of an existing cloud-based practice management system, that would be okay.”
That doesn’t mean that Miller will stick with his own system forever. “I recognize that what I’ve built may not always work for my firm. Doing this helped me refine how I look at the law, how I practice law, and helped me get better at solving client problems. There may come a time when either getting this software to do what I want it to do or maintaining it is too costly. I’ll make a decision at that point.”
Regardless of where Miller’s practice ultimately goes, Miller feels strongly that this is an exercise worth doing. In his view all lawyers are solos, operating largely independently. There’s room for each lawyer to develop and implement their own systems.
“Not every lawyer should spend four or five figures to develop their own system, but I found this process valuable—and one that created a competitive advantage for my firm. I haven’t seen anything to convince me that small firms shouldn’t be just solos that scale up to take on big projects.”
Mark Metzger has been coding since he was a boy. When he became a real estate lawyer in Illinois—a state in which lawyers heavily participate in the closing process—he noticed there were a lot of inefficiencies. Metzger realized that the seller representations were a huge time sink with a number of complex but routine financial calculations. He built a spreadsheet to handle those calculations.
This caused him to step back. He realized there were 43 discrete pieces of information required for the closing documents, all of which came from some other document. This sent Metzger on a quest to automate the closing document. “If there was any piece of information that I had to enter more than once, I wanted the computer or the team to do it.”
Having automated the closing document, Metzger and his team (by this time he’d built a small team) were still manually inputting the tax information. The Chicago area, in which Metzger practices, has a complex matrix of state and local tax calculations. Mark built a tool to automatically estimate the taxes for any given property.
Over time Metzger’s system has continued to evolve. Given the close relationship between real estate attorneys and title companies, Metzger adapted his system to service title companies in some very specific ways. They’ve also built in CRM-type features for opposing attorneys.
The system has become a significant competitive advantage for Metzger’s firm. The firm can handle far more closings than its competition. And the automation has so significantly expedited the closing process that when agents and opposing counsel attempt to blame their procrastination and tardiness on Metzger, title companies who know Metzger’s firm call their bluff: “You’re not waiting on that firm,” they say. “They’re too fast.”
Another law firm against whom Metzger frequently negotiates (and who is effectively his competition) recently remarked, “I love when you’re on the other side of a deal. Things always go so smoothly.”
This commitment to efficiency and speed has also created a unique culture at Metzger’s firm. He intentionally hires people who are fearless about technology. Add to that Metzger’s passion to either automate or make more efficient any and every process, and the result is a firm in which Metzger’s associate’s origination bonus is hard-coded into the system and in which the value of work in progress at the firm can be calculated at the click of a button.
What does Metzger think about other firms trying this? “If you’re not familiar with coding, I don’t think it’s worth it. I’ve been a geek my whole life, but it’s probably not a good use of most lawyers’ time. In most cases practical reality makes you fit what you do into existing tools.”
But Metzger did go on to say, “Sometimes the tools don’t exist.”
Just as they didn’t exist for him. And if title companies, his many customers, or even his competition are any indication, it’s a good thing he made the effort.
Block & Leviton is a securities litigation firm. As a part of their practice, they collect, organize, and sort through a large volume of prospective plaintiffs to identify a lead plaintiff for their cases. And they have to do it pretty quickly.
It’s a lot to track and manage. And while it doesn’t fit neatly into the category of practice management, the solution that Block & Leviton built, on a platform called Airtable, is definitely helping get legal work done.
Airtable is a technology platform that takes a so-called low-code/no-code approach—meaning a background in software development isn’t required to build technology with Airtable.
Jake Walker, a partner at Block & Leviton, was closely involved in setting this system up for the firm. “What we needed was a straightforward database. It’s more complicated than an Excel spreadsheet, but it’s not rocket science either,” Walker said.
Currently, the Block & Leviton website is powered by a technology called Webflow. Webflow integrates with a form software called Paperform for intake and that, in turn, connects with Help Scout, which Block & Leviton uses to manage inbound communications. They use what Walker referred to as “Zapier magic” to connect Webflow, Help Scout, and Paperform. All that information goes into Airtable.
Walker noted that Airtable is quite powerful. His long-term hope would be that Airtable could power the website directly. Then, the firm could use it to generate retainer letters or certifications and drive next steps for clients as they come in. He thinks they can get there. It’s just a matter of finding the time and resources to optimize the existing system.
The main reason Block & Leviton built their own system? Adoption. “We’d tried a number of the practice management systems. While they didn’t really do what we needed, our main issue was adoption. Ultimately, this was the system that everyone at the firm was ready and willing to use.”
Block & Leviton like their Airtable-based system because they can manage it and change it themselves. Although Walker did acknowledge that while Airtable is touted as a “no-code,” user-friendly program, they did hire someone for a few hours to help them with the reporting functions.
Walker has an interesting perspective on the question of whether firms should do this themselves. “Everyone thinks their practice is unique—just like we thought ours couldn’t possibly be served by an ‘off-the-shelf’ product. But at a different level of abstraction, we could probably use a standard law practice management or legal customer relationship management software and adapt it to our needs. At the end of the day, it comes down to your needs.”
Walker concluded: “If you’re hitting a wall and you can’t make one of the ‘off-the-shelf’ systems work, this is something you should be thinking about.”
The American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman wrote, “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” The last ten years have witnessed the explosion of relatively inexpensive practice management platforms that are a significant step forward in law practice management. Back when these systems burst on the scene, it would have been crazy to expect each firm to have built its own program. Firms didn’t have the understanding or the tools to do that. But this isn’t 2010. First, lawyers are increasingly technologically savvy and opportunistic. Second, with advances in low-code/no-code technologies such as Airtable (or their legal-sector equivalents such as Community Lawyer (now called Afterpattern), and Documate, and plug-and-play pieces such as Microsoft Access for a database and Gravity Legal for payments, lawyers and firms of all sizes now have the necessary understanding to see their proprietary business systems realized in software. In creating these tools, firms not only have an opportunity to better understand, refine, and improve their processes but to leverage those technologies to help more people and grow their businesses.
©2021. Published in GPSolo, Vol. 38, No. 1, Jan/Feb 2021, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American BarAssociation or the copyright holder.