Immigration practice and the #NewLaw

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Lately, I have been spending an inordinate amount of time reading about the #newlaw. I have been following a variety of thinkers on the topic and figuring out how it is relevant to my practice. Trying to distinguish the signal from the noise is tricky. Is this sea change for real or is it just naysayers and doomsdayers trying to freak out the rest of us?

This little #newlaw distraction caused me to haul my butt out of the house last Saturday morning to go listen to Jordan Furlong speak at the Nova Scotia Barrister’s Society’s AGM. In 12 years of law practice, this was my first NSBS AGM. It was totally worth it. I couldn’t help but notice I was a minority in the room in terms of vintage and gender. But Jordan had lots of interesting things to say about where law practice is headed. And ocean metaphors aplenty, which always go over well in the Maritimes.

At the end of the morning, I left feeling good about where my firm is now and where we are heading. It may be that our practice area lends itself nicely to these ideas, it may be that I simply like change or it may be that most of what is being said is just plain relevant to small-firm practice in 2014. Regardless, here are some of what I have distilled out of all of this.

1. A lot of people out there are really just shilling product. They tell lawyers we need their referral sites, their flashy client portals and their consultation services to be able to navigate this new landscape. There are virtual lawyer coaches helping people set up virtual law firms for what I can’t help but assume are their virtual clients. Call me a traditionalist but I am pretty sure my 5 years of 12-hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week while I built up my practice and lawyer chops was the opposite of virtual. Read: blood, sweat and tears. And stress. And mistakes. And a mentor/boss who kept me on track. This is what it takes to be a good lawyer. And no matter how kick-ass your website is, you need to be a good lawyer to build a practice. Reputation is everything in this business.

2. Tech: it’s not there yet. In this climate, it is easy to get paranoid about what the next guy, next firm, next practice area is doing. It’s also easy to buy into the idea that today’s tech can change everything. It can’t. In the past 6 months, I have been researching practice management software, either off-the-shelf or SaS. I have test-driven a few options but have not pulled the trigger on any due to a combination of:

(1) it not being exactly what we need;

(2) rather than simplifying, it ends up duplicating what we already have, i.e. Clio seems awesome, but it won’t allow us to get rid of PCLaw which (sorry, PCLaw) we really want to do;

(3) it’s way too expensive.

The last thing we need in our office is more applications and more administrative layers. So for now, we are making do with what we have: a super-secure cloud server (Wuala), and MS Office running our email and documents off our Macs.

3. Nothing beats client service: I want to be the kind of firm and lawyer I would hire if I was a client. I would be a very lazy client so things need to be made simple at the front-end. I got this amazing email yesterday from someone who had retained another immigration lawyer. He was exasperated and overwhelmed by the complexity the lawyer was imposing on him. Here’s our client portal, this is what you need to log in, if it doesn’t work within 24-48 hours try again and if your browser isn’t configured this way, try that way, etc. Here’s the name of the paralegal in charge of your file, but please note she only works 3 days a week but not the same three days every week. It was awful. And sort of adorable. And kind of sad because, first, how much money did that firm spend on IT and layers of administration, and second, what the hell are they thinking?

Our approach is simple and streamlined:

Step 1: client contacts us about a matter
Step 2: we send an opening letter outlining the process and fee and list of what we need to get started
Step 3: The client brings in the stuff we outlined in the letter – it usually comes in a box or pile, often in complete disarray but we don’t care, we actually like it better
Step 4: we do the work
Step 5: once everything sparkles (a word we use more than you may think), we send it to the client for their review and signature. Then we triple check it (literally, by passing it around between the three lawyers in the office), file it and bill it.

Depending on how prepared the client is, the above process can take as little as a day or 2. Because our interests and the clients’ interest run parallel, this approach tends to be efficient and usually goes very smoothly. The down side to this is that we can sometimes make it look too easy. Clients often report back after a road-trip to the border with a work permit package we have prepared. Wow, that was easy, the officer didn’t say anything, no questions at all. I had no idea it was going to be so simple.

4. Flat rates rule. Our fees are posted right on our website, and have been since 2010. I know flat rates don’t work for all areas of law, and one out of ten flat-rate files ends up being a doozy. But it is so worth it, as far as I am concerned for one simple reason: I never have to deal with the bane of my old billable-hour world. No surprises means no complaints about the fees. Flat rates give the lawyer and the client a measure of freedom. Lee Rosen said it best in this blog post.

I agree with a lot of what I am reading these days, from the reasons for the implosion of Heenan Blaike to the demise of Clearspire. I think there is a lot of innovation happening right under everyone’s noses, especially in small and solo practice.

I tend to think it’s less about the end of law and more about new and better ways to serve the needs of clients. Whatever it is, and in keeping with Jordan Furlong’s ocean theme on Saturday, this phrase comes from a hooked rug I saw in an antique store in Halifax a few years ago: “there are worse storms at sea”. Indeed.