What to Do Before You Leave Your Law Firm

Leaving a law firm, particularly as a partner, can feel a lot like a divorce. There are logistical, financial and ethical issues at play that can cause all kinds of chaos in the professional lives of both the departing lawyer and those remaining at the firm. All that plays out against a backdrop of emotional upheaval and change.

My friends, Jim Calloway and Sharon Nelson, hosts of the Digital Edge podcast, tackled this issue in the excellent recent episode, When Lawyers Get Divorced: Ethically Breaking up a Law Firm. Their guest speaker, Tom Spahn, offered great advice and insights, and I highly recommend giving it a listen.

Spahn's advice included making sure the departing lawyer:

  1. complies with any partnership or employment agreement
  2. continues to work full-time at the old law firm
  3. doesn't use law firm resources for planning or executing the move to the new firm

One of the thorniest issues that comes up when a lawyer leaves her firm to either go solo or join another firm is determining when to inform the clients of the change. The move creates tension between the departing lawyer's fiduciary duties to the old firm and her duty to her clients, according to Spahn. Anyone who has made a change like this would likely agree.

Spahn noted in the podcast that the trend generally is toward emphasizing the departing lawyer's duty to her clients over her fiduciary duty to the old firm. To get dialed in how the situation is analyzed in North Carolina, I reached out to Deanna Brocker of the Brocker Law Firm. Deanna concentrates her practice on professional licensing issues and frequently counsels attorneys planning to leave their law firm.

Deanna had this to say:

In North Carolina there is no rule or ethical prohibition against an attorney first informing clients of his departure from the firm before informing the law firm.  At the same time, I think the State Bar would say that as a matter of professionalism, an attorney ought to inform the firm first before clients, even where there is no duty to do so. The attorney's duty to inform clients of his departure, and to do so in a timely fashion, is clear, however.  The timing of such disclosure may depend upon a particular client's circumstances and pending deadlines. 

Spahn goes on in the podcast to discuss some of the mechanisms law firms are putting in place to penalize a departing lawyer; we're not bound by non-compete agreements, but firms are starting to turn to financial penalties such as eliminating bonuses, forsaking the return of invested capital, and so on function in some firms to make a departing lawyer think twice before leaving.

It's a great podcast and Calloway, Nelson and Spahn pack a lot of information into a short time frame (partially through talking fast - music to this native New Yorker's ears). Whether you are staying, going or just want to be informed, tune in and check it out. 

4 Questions with NetDocuments' Marriott Murdock

Cloud-based document management software company (and NCBA discount partner) NetDocuments made big news in the legal tech world this week when they announced they had received a $25 million equity investment. I had the opportunity to chat with Marriott Murdock (@MarriottMurdock), NetDocuments' Marketing Director, about what this equity investment will mean to lawyers who use, or are thinking about using NetDocuments.

Here are the four questions I put to Marriott and his answers. #2 will be of particular interest to Mac users like myself.

1. What can NetDocs users expect to see as a result of this infusion of capital?

NetDocuments has obviously been at this a long time (15 years in the cloud) and really prides itself on the personalized service and top notch customer support. We've spent so much time and focus on the technology in previous years, that this capital raise is going to be focused primarily on sales, marketing, and increased product development. For customers, they can expect to get the same top notch support even through our rapid growth. Additionally, the features and functionality will continue to improve through quarterly releases, as our product development team will put some funds to good use.

2. What¹s on the roadmap for new features, integrations or other innovations?

NetDocuments has just released ndOffice - a complete rewrite of the MS Office integrations, embedding the cloud DM inside the application. There is the 14.3 release coming that include some nice UI enhancements, and ndOneClick, which eliminates the need for ActiveX dependency - this will drastically improve the user experience across different browsers and on a Mac. 

3. What value does NetDocs offer to the small law firm or solo practitioner who has never used document management software before?

The beauty of NetDocuments, is that it levels the playing field for small and mid sized firms. Having been built for the largest of law firms (now close to 10% of the Am Law 100), all the functionality of a true enterprise DM is there, only a small firm can get that same system at a fraction of the cost because of its user based pricing. NetDocuments offers small firms the agility of a system that can scale up or down, the mobility of anytime, anywhere, any device access, and the security and compliance required by financial, HIPAA, and business continuity regulation. All of this helps set a small firm apart from the competition and improve the client/firm interaction and experience.

4. How does NetDocs complement practice management solutions such as Clio?

True document management and practice management are separate animals, and both critical to a practice. With the Clio integration you are able to have all your documents associated and visible through the PM interface. This allows a firm to track time on documents, and reference content that is in the context of the PM/case management software - it's really about having the right information accessible where and when you need it, in the context of the big picture of the case.

Does a lawyer really need both? With tools like Clio and NetDocuments (both web based) a firm can run a professional and organized practice without cumbersome technology or heavy initial capital outlay - there really isn't a technology footprint at the firm. The value of using both isn't just streamlining the business processes, but it also spills into how the practice services and interacts with clients through collaboration features. So yes, a practice that wants to run like a business should look at these two critical tools.

Why Your Firm Should Begin Tracking Client Satisfaction Today

If you've ever taught someone to drive, one of the most striking things you may have noticed is the penchant of new drivers to look at the road directly in front of the car. First time drivers have to be taught that cars move fast, so the safest thing to do is to look a middle distance down the road in front of you.

Similarly, in managing a law firm, a lot of lawyers will default to tracking revenues and expenses. These are, obviously, critical measures for the health of the firm, but they are essentially too close to the front of the car to be all you look at. If you want to know what happened with the business end of your practice yesterday, track your revenues and expenses. If you want to know what's going to happen tomorrow, track your client satisfaction.

George Beaton of Beaton Research + Consulting wrote a compelling article summarizing ten years of data which concluded that, "clients are the canary in the coal mine" for law firms.

In other words, client satisfaction is a leading indicator for the rising or declining fortunes of the law firm.

It's not terrifically surprising: dissatisfied clients don't stick around and don't refer additional business. If each client your firm serves makes it harder to find the next client, well, it doesn't take a Wharton MBA to figure out that's not sustainable over the long run. At the very least, the marketing costs for each new client acquisition will be dramatically higher than they would otherwise need to be.

An ounce of (client satisfaction) prevention is better and cheaper than a pound of (marketing) cure.

Surveying clients for satisfaction doesn't need be complicated. I'm a fan of using a simplified version of the Net Promoter Score. Ask just one question: "how likely are you, on a scale of one to ten, with one being not at all likely and ten being extremely likely, to refer a friend or family member to our firm if they need the kind of legal services we provide?" SurveyMonkey makes it quick and cost-effective to administer the survey.

It's that simple to get an insight into the future prospects for your firm: just start looking out a little farther down the road today.


6 Steps to Using Evernote for Better Meeting Notes

I'm a big fan of Evernote. It's an incredibly flexible and powerful tool for getting your digital house in order - and most of the time my digital house looks like an episode of Hoarders.

I use Evernote for several different tasks, but the one I want to discuss today is using it for meeting notes. I recently attended an excellent digital security and cyber risk conference put on the North Carolina law firm Parker Poe. I haven't had time to digest all of the information yet, but will have some thoughts on that stuff in future articles. In the meantime, it motivated me to more aggressively track what's going on in digital security using a Twitter list on digital security. The list is public and you can subscribe to it here.

But back to Evernote.

I used Evernote to keep all my notes from that conference. Here's my six part system:

First, I create a new note in my default notebook and title it appropriately. My default notebook functions like an inbox; I don't store anything in there long term, just things that need to be filed.

Second, in the body of the note, I insert the check box function. This section stays at the very top of the meeting note and is the place for my to do list (or "next action" for my fellow GTD geeks). It's a bastardization of the Cornell note taking system. As soon as I get back to my office, I can either complete the next actions (if they are relatively quick) or transfer them to my task manager (if they are longer or more involved).

Third, I insert a horizontal dividing line after the next actions section. This helps keep the next actions section separate from the rest of the meeting notes from the first session (an excellent discussion of the ACC 2014 CLO Survey by ACC CEO, Veta Richardson). That makes it quick and easy to look at a note, recall what my follow up actions are and assess whether I have completed them. I also use the horizontal dividing lines to keep the sessions separate throughout the meeting or conference. It keeps my notes organized and prevents them feeling like some weird nerd version of Kerouac's On the Road scroll.

Fourth, I take the materials from the conference and embed them directly into the portion of the note that they support. This keeps all the relevant materials in a single note rather than a series of documents in a folder. It's a simple icon that you can open and read in the same note with a single click.

Fifth, I scan the business cards of contacts I made at the conference. Evernote and LinkedIn have recently partnered to create the mother of all business card scanning mashups. It's really terrific - if you haven't tried it yet, I'd highly recommend it. Here's a tutorial.

(And no, the irony is not lost on me that fresh from a digital security conference I'm enthusiastically recommending people to connect their cloud based note taking app to a social network in some unholy NSA dream team alliance. Proceed at your own risk.)

The only Achilles heel in this set up is that I would really like to be able to embed the scanned business cards directly into the note from the meeting. Alas, using the LinkedIn/Evernote scan, that's not possible.

The sixth and final step is that after I create new notes from the scanned business cards of my new contacts, I copy the "note link" to the scanned business cards and paste those links into the relevant portion of the meeting notes. Note links (which you access by right-clicking the note you want to link to) are just hyperlinks to other individual notes in your Evernote syste, You can use these note links to embed the links in your conference or meeting note. By embedding a note link to a scanned business card, you keep the contact's card in context with the rest of your meeting notes and with a single click you can go directly to the scanned card.

That's my system for using Evernote for better meeting notes. While it hasn't transformed my digital hoarder house into a sleek, minimalist pad, it has helped me wring more productivity out of the meetings and conferences that dot my calendar.

3 Great Reads Before Your Law Firm Retreat

Pass the sunscreen and order a fruity drink. It's law firm retreat season.

I've fielded several calls from lawyers planning their firm retreats in the past few weeks. Putting on a great law firm retreat - one that does more than thinly veil a beach vacation - is complicated and evades one size fits all prescriptions. 

They do share one key ingredient, however: they want to put the past six years in perspective and start to figure out what it means for the next six years. I don't pretend to have any great personal insight on this, but I can share the things I've read on this topic that I think will be helpful.

To be sure, there is a lot of information out there on strategy and the future of legal services. But good luck trying to get your law partners to read a full-length book on the future of law before your firm retreat. I've prioritized shorter materials that still pack a punch and that are economical enough to stand a chance of being read in advance by your busiest colleagues:

  1. Jordan Furlong's article series, The Evolution of the Legal Services Market. Jordan's blog, Law 21, is a must-read, and this five part series shows why.  He tackles the changes head on, makes recommendations, and generally helps to bring a little clarity to a murky subject.
  2. Bruce MacEwen's ebook, Growth is Dead. Bruce's ebook, like Jordan's series seeks to help make sense of the "Great Reset" and give law firms - particularly mid-sized and large firms - a map for where to go from here. Bruce's blog, Adam Smith, Esq., is another must-read.
  3. George Beaton's article, The Rise and Rise of the NewLaw Business Model. The article is short and worth the read in its own right. But the fascinating discussion begins in the robust commenting below the article. 87 comments from some very smart people, articulating points and counterpoints in one of the best discussions I've seen anywhere on the future of the profession.

There you have it. Three great reads guaranteed to foment tons of conversation at your firm retreat - and they're quick enough that you can still have that mai-tai.

4 Habits Lawyers Need to Stop Right Now

One of my favorite websites for reading about productivity, motivation, and new ideas is Farnam Street.  The author, Shane Parrish, produces a stunning amount of content for the site, but even that prolific bulk pales in comparison to the mountain of books he reads each year. 

Shane recently wrote an article called 9 Habits You Need to Stop Right Now. Like most of his writing, it's lucid, crisp and contains a lot of wisdom. Some of my favorite bits include:

  • Do not answer phone calls from people you don't know
  • Do not agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time
  • Do not check email constantly

I wouldn't even know what to do with my time if I actually did (or rather, refrained from doing) those three things each day.

The article got me thinking about some habits for lawyers that are counter-productive. Here are 4 habits that lawyers need to stop right now:

  • Do not prioritize busyness over profitability
    • This is especially hard for start ups. It is agonizing sitting around in a quiet office waiting for the phone to ring, and so much more pleasant to busy yourself with non-paying work or work priced below market. The thing is, that agony is the universe's way of encouraging you to go out and develop business. If you make yourself busy without making yourself profitable, you will definitely make yourself miserable.
  • Do not bill hourly and wait until the end of the month before entering your time
    • There is no way to do this and not either have the practice management disaster of under-billing your clients by forgetting a lot of time you should have captured, or the ethical disaster of over-billing them because you didn't remember accurately how much time you spent. If you take good enough notes to wait until the end of the month, you may as well enter your time contemporaneously. If you don't, you have no business making it up on the last day of the month.  Your clients and managing partner will thank you.
  • Do not send a long email to avoid a short phone call
    • I can empathize with the desire to avoid phone calls, particularly ones likely to be unpleasant or high-conflict. There are times, though, that a phone call will reach a resolution faster than an email (or, worse, an email chain). Bite the bullet (or eat that frog, if you prefer that revolting metaphor) and pick up the phone when your email is longer than can be seen on a single computer screen. Yes, turning your monitor vertically is cheating.
  • Do not consider technological incompetence to be a badge of honor indicating how high level you are
    • In the days of Casey Flaherty's in-house counsel technology test, lawyers are on notice that clients will not tolerate increased fees due to technological ineptitude forever. If you are under 75 and/or not named David Boies, you can practice law more effectively and save your clients money if you learn some technology basics.