© 1995 James A. Eidelman
While the Wall Street Journal and L.A. Law would give us the impression that law firms are large, impersonal businesses, the practice of law is largely a cottage industry. Over 46 percent of the private practice lawyers in the U.S. are solo practitioners, almost two-thirds practice in firms of three or fewer lawyers, and 71 percent practice in firms of 10 or smaller. This "white paper" describes the world of the small law firm, the key factors to success in top firms and the ways computers and software can be used to attain this success.
The practice of law for most attorneys is highly personal, and is viewed as a profession and a lifestyle as much as a business.
At its best, the call to the bar is noble, an opportunity to make a difference, to seek justice, to be intellectually challenged, to help those in need and to earn a nice income. At its worst, the practice of law is the overly competitive and stressful world of burnout and frustration described in the report of an American Bar Association ("ABA") conference entitled "At the Breaking Point."
The intended audience of this white paper includes members of the legal profession, vendors and the software companies who seek to serve them. We hope it is useful to all three.
This white paper provides:
Overview of Small Law Firms and Their
After World War II, both the number of lawyers and the demand for legal services exploded. The result is that a small, mostly older male profession has turned into an army of almost 850,000 lawyers - one for every 320 people in the U.S. The greatest growth occurred among young lawyers (about 43,000 new ones per year) and among women (from 6 percent in law school in 1965 to about 45 percent now). The breakdown for women and African Americans, as a percent of all lawyers is as follows:
Small firm lawyers feel the pressure from all sides-by the burgeoning numbers of lawyers graduating from law schools, by mid-sized and larger firms "invading their turf," by newly created small firms formed by lawyers involuntarily leaving "downsized" large firms and by a weakness in demand for legal services.
A new kind of "small firm" is also appearing-top lawyers from the mega-firms who break off from their old firms, and who seek to use technology and alternative billing practices to compete with the powerful firms. These attorneys face their own challenges. Large firm practice typically entails a high degree of specialization - legal and administrative. Establishing your own firm means that the attorney now must handle all the details, without being able to rely on tens or hundreds of fellow lawyers for specialized advice or being able to assign tasks to an abundant support staff.
The following spreadsheet shows the distribution of practice settings for U.S. lawyers:
|Setting||% of Total||% of Private||No. of Attys|
|No. of Firms|
|No. of Attys|
|Solo Practice||46.2%||242,674||240,141||240,141||2 lawyers||6.7%||40,822||17,501||38,640|
|101 or more lawyers||9.5%||58,431||258||49,639|
|Corp & Assn "In House"||9.0%|
|Fed. & State Gvt.||8.0%|
|Private Prac.||Total Attys 1988|
The practices of small and large firms are different with respect to the types of matters the lawyers handle, the business of running the practice, and the lifestyles of the attorneys. Some of the typical differences are described in this table:
Description Solos and Small Firms Large Firms Tradition "Main Street" "Wall Street" Types of clients Individuals Medium to Large (and some small Corporations businesses) Decision-making and Like turning a speed Like turning a change boat battleship (after a committee has decided which way to turn) In David vs. Goliath David Goliath litigation, typically represent Typical types of Divorce, real estate, Major litigation, matters handled by the basic contracts, estate corporate business majority of lawyers in planning, incorporation, transactions, firm size category personal injury and securities litigation, other "personal" environmental law, litigation, collections, employee relations, immigration corporate tax, international law, defense litigation Specialization General Practice or Highly specialized by "boutique" department specialization Income of attorneys Highest (some High end plaintiff's personal injury and business litigation attorneys) to Lowest Location and offices Diverse locations Big cities (often with (high-rise buildings in regional offices in In both small firms and large cities, rural, other big cities and large firms, the small town, suburban). state capital). offices tend to be located near the Solos and small firms Usually on several courthouse, recorder of often share space with floors of a downtown deeds, and financial other lawyers to achieve high-rise office centers for quick some of the benefits of building. on-foot, in-person larger firms (shared access. facilities, cross-referrals, and peer-companionship). Offices may be a small suite in an office building, a stand-alone building, a store front office suite, or, more recently, a home office. Management and The lawyers do it all Professional staff of administration with help of a secretary administrators, and sometimes a legal personnel managers, assistant controller, billing manager, MIS director, marketing director, and sometimes a programming staff and/or graphics department. Bar Associations Only small percent Large percentage active involved in ABA. Trial in ABA and state bar. lawyers join ATLA. Most are members of state bar, although fairly inactive. Research and library Secretary acts as Professional librarian. librarian, updating the constantly arriving "pocket parts," "advance Expansive library with sheets" and loose-leaf specialized reporters, pages. extensive use of Westlaw, Lexis/Nexis, Small library with basic CD ROMS, and other statutes, local state services. These are cases, and a few all heavily used by specialized services. associates (younger Some are beginning to lawyers) who do most of use CD ROMs. the initial research for partners. Most are familiar enough with the law in their practice areas that they don't need to do extensive research. Use the courthouse library or closest law school when they need to.
Starting a Practice
A law practice can be started with minimal initial costs - once a lawyer has a license to practice law - especially if he or she can use a computer. There are two models for how to start a small firm.
The biggest costs, of course, are not the cost of rent and equipment, but (1) the payroll for support staff and (2) the need to cover the living expenses for the lawyer and the lawyer's family and to "front" costs for clients and work without a retainer until cases begin paying off. The need for working capital is essential in all new business ventures, and law is no exception.
It is generally recommended that a lawyer taking this road should have one year's living expenses in the bank before starting an independent law practice. A lawyer should not rely on being able to take significant money out of the practice during the first year.
Most firms (of all different sizes) have one non-lawyer support staff member for each lawyer. A solo practitioner will typically have one secretary who also acts as receptionist, paralegal, billing clerk, librarian, supply clerk and messenger. (In a large firm, although lawyers share secretaries in a 2-to-1 or higher ratio, the accounting, personnel, marketing, MIS and other staff members bring the ratio back down to about 1-to-1.)
The income levels of small-firm lawyers range from subsistence to the top of the profession. Here are the extremes: Established personal injury lawyers who handle wrongful death and serious injury cases on a contingent fee basis often earn $300,000 per year, and even up to $1,000,000 per year. There are also struggling lawyers in small firms who scratch out a living representing a small number of non-paying clients.
(See notes on leverage and ways to increase leverage suggested by Robert Arndt and Ward Bower in the Appendix.)
The average after-expenses income for a small-firm (under nine) lawyer who handles trial practice, divorces, wills, small businesses, and other matters typical of lawyers in small firms, is $65,000 for an associate to $137,000 for a partner, with the following averages for regions and length of time in practice: These numbers range from $44,000 and $76,000, respectively for firms in the lower quartile of income to $79,000 and $165,000 for the upper quartile. Interestingly, the median income, which is the point at which half the attorneys earn more than this figure and half earn less is $116,000 for partners. This implies that there is a compression of incomes at the lower level and more divergence at higher income brackets.
How the Business Flows
Ethics Comes First
When lawyers are sworn in, they agree to uphold the ethical standards of the profession. A lawyer can be disbarred or disciplined for violating these rules. When the attorney-client relationship is established, the lawyer is bound to these standards. Among the requirements are:
Typical Clients of Small Law Firms and
There is such a diversity in the practices of lawyers in small firms that they can be found handling all kinds of matters, in and out of court. From divorces and sales of houses to business transactions and major jury trials, lawyers from small firms are competing with each other and with lawyers from larger firms. Nevertheless, one can say that the majority of solo and small firm lawyers do fit certain patterns. The majority of lawyers in small firms primarily handle matters that are personal in nature, rather than business problems. Of the personal matters, real estate, estate planning and probate settlement, family law predominate. Much smaller in the number of matters, in decreasing order, are auto accident claims, civil infractions and other governmental matters, other law suits, consumer matters, employment matters, and criminal matters.
Cash Flow, Sources of Revenue, and Profitability
Expenses and Overhead Items
In most firms, overhead is generally fixed. A firm can cut expenses by attempting to control such items as rent, supplies, subscriptions, and staffing, but the point of diminishing returns can be reached fairly quickly. There is a movement among some young lawyers to practice without a secretary. They use a laptop computer to handle their own word processing, drafting documents, billing, accounting, client management, and research all by themselves. However, many lawyers aren't good typists, and most find that they can easily make up in "billable time" what they would save by not having a secretary. Clearly, the cost of personnel -- usually one staff member per lawyer -- is the biggest out-of-pocket expense.
Cash Flow and Sources of Revenue.
Abraham Lincoln once said, "A lawyer's stock in trade is his time." One way or another, lawyers spend time doing legal work and are compensated for their time. The Code of Professional Responsibility lets lawyers consider eight factors in determining how much to charge a client, and historically billing was often done on the basis of a "gut reaction" as to what would be fair. Now, however, most lawyers charge by the hour, at least as a base, or estimate flat fees based on an expectation of how many hours they will spend on the matter.
When computers made it so easy to multiply hours times rate, lawyers began keeping accurate time records and charging by the hour. This led much of the profession -- and the clients -- to virtually abandon the other billing factors, and to set up billing arrangements based solely on time and rates. Billing is most often done on a monthly or other periodic basis, or if it is a one-time transaction at the completion of the matter. Large firms have reported that their average billable hours are roughly 1,800 per year, while small firms average around 1,650. In divorce cases, where a non-working spouse with children is married to a working spouse, the courts may order the working or wealthier spouse to pay the legal fees of the other, although such awards are usually based on hourly rates.
Average hourly rates charged by those firms who responded to a recent survey by Altman Weil Pensa are:
Associates Partners "Small Firms" $114 $149 (under 75) "Large Firms" $137 $201
Certain exceptions to hourly billing have been:
As economic competition increases the pressure and incentive to move away from hourly-based billing, the need to incorporate and take advantage of value billing and flat fees grows. Firms working under a fixed fee agreement that manage to cut the time needed to complete a task can increase their effective hourly rates and profits. Technology, such as document assembly software, is the key ingredient that will enable firms to make this transition profitability.
Lawyers do their accounting on a cash basis, and cash is king. Even lawyers who have been doing well for a long time are fiscally conservative. They always feel insecure, fearing that they may have a "cold spell." Other than personal injury lawyers, who are paid at the end on a contingent basis, the small firm lawyers with the best cash flow are those who require at least part payment up front and who bill regularly.
Sources of Business
Most legal work in small firms comes by referral. Happy clients refer their friends. Often, referrals come from outside professionals who respect the firm. These included other lawyers, realtors, doctors, accountants, psychologists, stock brokers, politicians, neighbors and insurance sales agents. Lawyers don't have salesmen, but successful lawyers never stop marketing. They let everyone they come in contact with know that they are lawyers, and that they would appreciate a referral. They join organizations whose members they would like to represent, they teach seminars, they send newsletters to clients and to the community and many are now publishing a home page on the World Wide Web.
The five critical success factors in law
How do you define success? High income, high quality legal work, and other factors are all important, but clients are the key. As well-known legal writer and speaker Jay Foonberg often says, "If there are no clients, there is no law firm." Top lawyers don't just have satisfied clients. They have enthusiastic clients -- and lots of them. In the following discussion of critical success factors, it must be stated that all of them are important in the context of serving and satisfying clients -- both the legal and the personal needs of the clients.
If success is measured by the goals of the lawyers themselves, it is doing their best, being happy in the practice, having a balanced life and making a good living.
Whatever the definition of success, all top lawyers who sustain a successful practice demonstrate:
1. Uncompromising integrity and love of the law
2. Excellent Leadership
3. Skilled Management
4. Top Lawyering Skills
5. Effective Communication
Uncompromising Integrity and Love of the
All truly successful lawyers love the law, love the practice of law, truly enjoy serving their clients and possess the highest integrity. They look forward to going to the office the way Pete Rose looked forward to playing baseball. And when gray areas arise in the daily ethical problems of the practice of law, they resolve them on the side of doing "the right thing," and wouldn't consider doing otherwise. While lawyers who cut ethical corners may win cases or achieve financial success in the short run, most will not have successsful careers as lawyers
Top lawyers are also successful leaders. Most solo practitioners have at least one staff member, and the practice of law does involve teamwork. From high-exposure trials to the simplest matters, successful lawyers use teamwork achieve excellent results for their clients and for their firms.
One committee of the ABA defines leadership as "bringing people together to create successful outcomes." General Norman Schwartzkoff defined leadership as "the willingness to take responsibility and the character to do what's right." (See Appendix for information and insights on the elements of leadership and the attributes of leaders of effective high-performance teams.)
Successful lawyers are effective leaders in their own firms, in court, in relationships with their clients and when they walk into a room of business people at a closing.
Successful firms have effective management. There are trial lawyers or scholars who are not successful in the business of practicing law, and they eventually burn out or start having problems in their practices.
Successful firms have good financial management, including budgeting, billing practices, and accounting procedures. They know their cash needs, set rates well, record their time and expenses, get bills out promptly and maintain excellent records.
Successful firms manage time and dates very effectively, filing papers in court well before they are due, scheduling matters promptly, following up, and taking care of things on time.
One a highly successful lawyer gave this advice:
The leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence. Leave nothing for tomorrow which can be done today. Never let your correspondence fall behind. Whatever piece of business you have in hand, before stopping, do all the labor pertaining to it which can then be done.
Abraham Lincoln, 1850
In these days of faxes, voice mail, and e-mail, it is impossible to "do it all" right away, but successful lawyers manage their affairs well and act promptly.
Successful firms have a marketing program, and understand that marketing and "sales" (lawyers don't call it "sales") are essential to their financial success.
Finally, successful lawyers are well organized. They have procedures in place, maintain files in a planned way and they have a means of bringing order to the normal chaos of the practice of law in a small firm.
Admirable Lawyering Skills
Successful lawyers do a good job for their clients. Doing so requires, at various times, that they effectively use each of the wide variety of lawyering skills on a regular basis. When in court, they must be excellent advocates, quick on their feet, sincere and with a commanding knowledge of the facts and the law. When giving tax advice, they must make an excellent analysis based on accurate and complete research. When a client is crying, they must know how to listen empathetically, how to counsel, and how to hug. They must be cautious and wise, aggressive when needed, bright, and knowledgeable. They are skilled in the technical details of the day to day practice of law. They know how to negotiate, prevent problems before they happen, and help resolve problems in the client's interest, as quickly and easily as possible. They know how to do things "the right way," and they do it.
Communication is an important part of leadership, management, and lawyering skills, but I have listed it separately because effective communication is such a critical success factor. Except for those times lawyers are sitting the library doing research or sitting quietly "thinking the great thoughts," they are communicating. They are writing letters, contracts and persuasive court documents. They are on the phone, talking to clients or other attorneys. They are in meetings with clients, at closings, on TV, or in court. They use fax, phone, dictating equipment, keyboards, pens, and face-to-face communication. The best lawyers are the best communicators. They call their clients often, send them copies of all correspondence, and their communications have impact.
How Top Small Firms Use Technology
A computer can't hug a crying client, look a jury in the eyes, or make an innovative argument in a brief. But top small firms use computers in almost every aspect of the practice to help them be responsive, accurate and efficient, and to help them do the best they can. They have networks to gather and link the expertise and experts in the firm and many carry laptop computers to court. They use computers to help them get a competitive edge, in getting and satisfying good clients, in winning cases and in making a good living.
Without exception, top small firms use computers to manage the financial side. Many use packages like PC Law Jr. for Windows or TABS Jr., both of which offer completely integrated timekeeping, billing and trust account programs. Others use separate packages for billing and accounting, such as the popular combination of Timeslips and QuickBooks. Electronic spreadsheets, such as Microsoft Excel, are used to plan, budget and analyze their financial information.
Managing Dates, People and Cases
Top lawyers today use computers to help them track critical dates and schedules. Hearing dates, meetings, preparation, investigation, due dates, follow-ups -- there is the pressure of a constant flow, any one of which, if missed, could turn into a lost client, a lost case, or even a malpractice action. Top lawyers use a variety of computerized methods to track these critical dates and events, ranging from special case management and docket control programs like LawBase, Jr. Partner, CaseMaster III, to network calendar programs like Microsoft's Schedule Plus. Many lawyers also use "personal information managers" (PIM) like NetManage's Ecco or a "contact manager" like ACT as a combination calendar/Rolodex/note-taking system.
Having a PIM or case management system open on your Windows desktop all day long can be a great help. It allows a lawyer and his or her staff to stay on top of all of the little pieces of information needed at a moment's notice. As Chicago attorney Mark Hellman noted about his use of a PIM, "Someone calls, I click up their information, the last entry says his kid broke his arm at hockey practice so I ask, 'How's Billy's arm?' I look like I am the most knowledgeable, and up-to-date lawyer there is."
Managing the Computers and Software
Successful law firms also manage their computers, software and applications well. They don't need to be "cutting edge," but they stay up with current technology, and most have upgraded to systems based on Microsoft Windows. Windows allows lawyers and staff members to use many different programs at the same time, while learning just one interface for use with all the programs. They organize their files, make backup copies, standardize forms and put a lot of effort into learning and training.
Admirable Lawyering Skills
Successful brain surgeons save lives, and successful lawyers help their clients achieve good results. When they can, they win cases, make good deals with iron-clad contracts and keep their clients out of trouble. When things aren't going their way, they make the best deal they can for their clients.
Computers are not a substitute for brilliance, wisdom, or hard work. But just as an expert carpenter has a box full of the right tools for the job, a lawyer needs the right tools to help him or her be a better lawyer. Successful lawyers use technology in a wide variety of ways to help them achieve solid results. The following is a listing of what the ABA states as the fundamental lawyering skills (see Appendix, The McCrate Report), and the ways computers can help:
Problem Solving, Legal Analysis and Reasoning
As lawyers identify and diagnose a problem, work with legal theories, develop alternatives and plans of action, and implement these plans, many do so with their hands on the keyboard. Many lawyers who know how to type feel that the "hands-on" approach makes it easier to work with ideas, and using an "idea processor" like the outliner built into Microsoft Word makes it easier to organize complex issues and ideas. And when numbers are involved, such as when modeling damages or giving tax or business advice, using Excel or another spreadsheet program is critical.
In many cases, there are off-the-shelf programs that help do legal work. Many of these packages have legal rules programmed into them. Some take the form of fill-in-the-forms programs, like bankruptcy and tax return programs, some give tax and business planning advice, and some use "document assembly" or "expert systems" to draft legal documents. There are simple automated form books to complex practice systems for estate planning, in which an attorney or publisher has already put together a questionnaire the lawyer can use to create a complete set of first draft documents. For lawyers who want to create their own "practice systems," there are sophisticated "document assembly engines" you can use to create your own systems with Microsoft Word or WordPerfect, such as HotDocs, Scrivener, General Counsel, Expertext, PowerTXT and WinDraft.
Lawyers spend most of their time in law school in the law library, reading the writings of judge, commentaries of scholars, and reams of statutes and regulations. Once in practice, lawyers must not only locate and read statutes, cases and scholarly writings that apply to their clients, but they need to keep the research up to the minute in case the law changes. For all of the business and person-to-person aspects of the practice of law, being able to quickly and economically do good legal research is critical factor.
Bound volumes will never be replaced, but the most effective lawyers today use computers as a central research tool. With a laptop and modem, a lawyer can search vast databases on Westlaw, Lexis and the Internet. With a CD ROM drive and the right disks, a lawyer can leisurely search through, review, and print large amounts of research materials, without the need to pay an hourly charge, rent a big library, or pay the librarian to keep the books and loose-leaf services updated.
Lawyers investigate the facts in many ways. They interview witnesses, review police reports and medical records, and they do independent research through the newspapers and other sources of information. Computers can help in a number of ways. First, lawyers use case management software, databases, and scheduling software to manage the process, often using databases like Microsoft Access to track the requests for information and merge letters to obtain information. With imaging and databases, the information obtained can be organized, located, sorted, reviewed, and printed easily, without the need to search through the reams of documents that fill up lawyer's filing cabinets. Finally, lawyers use newspaper databases and other non-legal on-line databases and sources on the Internet to investigate. From a keyboard, a lawyer can instantly read articles about an accident or a medical condition, look up financial information about a party and even find out about other cases against the client or the opposing party. Without using the computer in these ways, a lawyer simply isn't doing a professional job of investigation.
Effective communication skills, one of the ABA's stated lawyering skills, is discussed below as one of the five critical success factors.
I'll leave this one alone, since it simply is an extension of communication and analysis, and, frankly, there are just some things that humans have to do on their own.
Lawyers negotiate. Whether trying to settle a lawsuit, resolve a matter with a government agency, or represent the buyer or seller in a contract, lawyers negotiate all day long. Nothing can replace experience, but software can help in a number of ways. Lawyers use their databases, spreadsheets and other tools to be well prepared, to be on top of the facts, and as tools to persuade. In addition, they use tools like Negotiator Pro for Windows to help prepare for and work through negotiations. The software includes advice from the experts and information about cultural differences in 14 countries, and it helps a lawyer arrive at "win-win" solutions.
Advocacy, Litigation, and Alternative
Lawyers use computers every day to be better advocates, in trial, at the appellate level and in mediation. Communication is listed as a separate success factor, and much of the use of computers in advocacy is discussed in that part. Advanced word processing features are used to create pleadings and briefs that are convincing, while Powerpoint, Excel and similar programs are used to make an impact in the courtroom.
Organization and Management of Legal Work
I have listed effective management as a separate success factor, so I will not discuss it in detail here. However, it is worth mentioning again that successful small firms manage the "billable time" part of their work on computers, using packages such as these:
Type of Application Software Names Text retrieval and ZyIndex, WorlDOX, Microsoft Access, document management Document Summaries in word processing. Case Management Microsoft Access, LawBase, PINS, CaseMaster III Personal Ecco, Commence, ACT Information Managers Network Schedulers Microsoft Scheduler, GroupWise, Lotus Organizer, Futurus Team Shared electronic Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange databases (future), Collabra Share Imaging and Summation, inVzn/WinVzn, InfoGrator, Evidence Databases IPRO, ZyImage, Access (Lit. Support)
Most ethical dilemmas are recognized by the experience, knowledge and analysis of the lawyer, and the computer can't help too much. The computer plays a major role in avoiding conflicts of interest in large firms, but for solo practitioners and small firms, the lawyers know who their clients are. Research of ethical opinions by computer can be a big help in quickly trying to resolve a question, however, and trust accounting software is a big help in dealing with client funds.
Computers can't do much to help lawyers learn to listen carefully or to speak clearly and sincerely. But successful lawyers are great communicators, and these attorneys use computers in other ways to make an impact. From simple correspondence to courtroom presentations, computers make a difference.
Lawyers use word processing in everything they do. Letters, contracts, briefs, wills, trusts, court petitions, restraining orders, jury instructions -- the stream of documents "published" by the law firm never ends. The documents look great, and top firms use the features to improve both the appearance and accuracy of the documents and the productivity of the staff members.
Of course, spell checkers, wizards, "redlining", table of authorities generators, and other advanced features dramatically increase the effectiveness of attorneys and secretaries alike.
Microsoft Word was the first word processor designed from the beginning for laser printers, and its use of styles and templates helps the firms who use these features to do much more advanced formatting of long documents.
Those lawyers who learned how to type as children generally prefer to use a keyboard, and feel that they are both more responsive and more creative when they work on-screen. Word was also the first word processing program to incorporate "outline processing," based on ideas developed in ThinkTank, the first "idea processor." Many lawyers switch to Word just to be able to use the "idea processing" features in drafting briefs, contracts and other complex documents.
Finally, lawyers use Microsoft Word and other advanced word processing software to "crank out" documents quickly to meet client needs. They do this by integrating with Access and other databases, by using HotDocs, WinDraft, Scrivener and other "expert system" programs to draft complex documents, and by outputting to fax and e-mail.
Presentations and persuasion
Lawyers are advocates. When they are in trial or at a hearing, they must persuade a judge or jury that their client is in the right, that the facts are on their side and that the law supports their position. Most of the time, it is the facts that control, and the way the lawyers present the facts wins or loses the case.
These days, juries, and even judges, are used to seeing high-impact presentations on television, and lawyers who use video depositions and computers have a distinct advantage. An ABA Foundation survey revealed an 650 percent increase in jury retention of evidence over bare testimony and argument through a combination use of visual and sound effects. Although "low tech," video depositions make a very high impact. The modern trend, of course, is to use computers in the courtroom. We often hear about the dramatic impact of computers in the O.J. Simpson case, the Keating savings and loan case, and the Exxon Valdez case. The most popular courtroom software for courtroom multimedia presentation is inVzn's TrialLink for Windows, which allows a lawyer to use a light pen and multimedia technology to present documentary images, animations, graphics, photos, and video depositions in a high impact way. Experience shows, and post-trial interviews with jurors confirm, that when one side uses this technology and the other doesn't, the side using computers has a big advantage.
Even without imaging or truly advanced technology, attorneys are making a big impact using Microsoft Powerpoint and other presentation software. The formula is simple, yet the results are dramatic. Lawyers use Powerpoint during their opening statement to outline the points they will prove. After the evidence has been heard, they use the same outline on the screen during the closing argument to reinforce what they have proven, with key pieces of evidence aded to the outline. Every lawyer who has used this approach has reported impressive results, and again, a poll of the jury after a trial confirmed the impact.
An excellent result was achieved recently by Don McGrath, a San Diego trial lawyer with the small office of a very large firm, Baker & Mackenzie. He used both Powerpoint and TrialLink, with Powerpoint as the "bread" in a "trial sandwich" with dramatic results. "It was awesome," he said. "I think it won the case for me."
Lawyers are also using Excel spreadsheets and graphs to communicate financial information, in meetings, on paper and in court.
Thomas Bolt and Associates
Tom Bolt is the founder of a small firm in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, that began four years ago as a solo practice. His office has grown into a highly successful four-lawyer firm with a receptionist, two secretaries, a bookkeeper and an office manager.
Bolt's home has a beautiful terrace overlooking the bay, and in the evening he can often be found working on the terrace, under the cool ocean breeze, with his laptop computer. He and his wife, Jeni Smith, the office manager, use PC Anywhere to dial into the office system, work remotely and send and receive electronic mail.
By anyone's standards, the firm is "highly successful." The attorneys and staff enjoy the practice of law, and the firm is regarded as one of the top firms in St. Thomas for handling real estate tranactions and problems for small businesses. Says Bolt, "Our lawyers are very happy doing what we do. The best part is the satisfaction of helping others to succeed in business or buy a house."
Bolt is a leader, both within his own firm and within the American Bar Association. (He serves as the Virgin Islands representative to the ABA House of Delegates.) His enthusiasm for the practice of law shows, and the firm is also well-managed as a family business. Smith's effective management has been a key ingredient of the firm's success.
The firm now has 12 computers on a Windows for Workgroups network to support the four attorneys. They all use Microsoft Word, Excel, and the other parts of the Microsoft Office suite. They also communicate with each other and with the firm's most important clients using Microsoft Mail. They stay on top of dates with Microsoft Schedule Plus, and manage the billing and accounting with a combination of Timeslips for Windows and Intuit's QuickBooks. They maintain a client database for marketing and case management with Microsoft Access.
The firm always sets up a budget for each matter, and delivers the legal service within the budget. "In our minds, the critical success factor is that the client is the quarterback, and we are part of the team," says Bolt.
From a financial standpoint, working with Microsoft Word to develop a sophisticated set of forms has been very helpful. "We can provide fast turnaround, and can leverage the forms to create a win-win billing arrangement for the clients," he says.
The firm uses Excel in a wide variety of ways to make projections, fee adjustments and budgets. The firm also uses Microsoft Powerpoint to help make a convincing case for a client before the Industrial Development Division, seeking certain tax benefits. "We found using Powerpoint to be tremendously effective and successful," says Bolt.
He concludes, "We have a state-of-the-art system. When I was just getting started, I sat next to Bill Gates, Sr. at an ABA House of Delegates meeting, and he urged me to try his son's stuff. I didn't know anything about it, but I tried Windows and Word. The Microsoft software worked so well for us that we kept it, even though others were using WordPerfect. I think the technology in general, and the Microsoft software in particular, gives the small firm a competitive advantage. The efficiency has meant real dollars for the firm, happier clients, and happier attorneys. I look forward to Windows 95."
Charles Morgan and Excel Spreadsheets
Chuck Morgan is one of three managing partners at the 10-lawyer firm of Smith, Stroud, McClerkin, Dunn & Nutter. The Texarcana, Arkansas firm has a general business practice, and also specializes in real estate and oil and gas transactions. Like the other firms mentioned in this article, the firm is highly successful from any viewpoint.
What is most notable about the firm for the context of this article is the way it uses electronic spreadsheet programs. Morgan is a spreadsheet enthusiast, and he uses Excel in just about every aspect of his practice.
Morgan began using Excel when doing oil and gas division and title options. In this line of work, it is typical to divide a parcel into 50 individual tracts with 20 people in each tract. "We can't do this kind of legal work any more without using a spreadsheet," Morgan says. "We have Lotus, Quattro Pro, and most of the rest. I've looked at a dozen spreadsheets and Excel is head and shoulders above everything else."
The firm also uses Excel in nearly all their other matters. In domestic relations cases, they use it to value retirement annuities and other assets. In lawsuits, they model the present value of future wages and lost profits. They also do income and estate tax returns using templates developed by a third-party vendor, Barnes Publishing. And they use business valuation spreadsheets to create four different approaches to valuing a business.
"In just about every aspect of our practice, our use of Excel helps us do excellent legal work," says Morgan.
Harris & Graves -- Remarkable improvements
with Imaging and Case Management
Mitch Williams, a litigation partner at the Columbia, South Carolina plaintiff's personal injury firm of Harris and Graves, sleeps a lot easier these days. Although his active case load has risen to about 275 cases from 150 before automation, he now plays a more active role in each case. Whereas the 150 cases used to be handled by 4 support staff members, he now only has just one secretary and one paralegal. His clients love his responsiveness and his knowledge about their matters, and he feels more secure that because of the ability to constantly monitor the cases, nothing is going to slip between the cracks. In fact, the case management system even automatically sends him a reminder message at the 90 day and 30 day periods before the Statute of Limitations runs. He also feels the computer has given him in edge in the courtroom. As a plaintiff's lawyer, his clients usually do not have the resources that his opponents do in preparing for a case. Williams' use of Powerpoint, a graphics presentation program by Microsoft, has leveled this playing field. "I can now create graphic presentations that are as sophisticated and impressive as my opponents, who are paying thousands of dollars to have them done professionally and I can do them faster." Williams' opponents have even called him to compliment him on his responsiveness, "When insurance adjusters call and ask for a document. I can find it, make the necessary comments, and get it back to them electronically in 5 minutes without getting up from my chair. I have had numerous adjusters call me back amazed, they expected this to take a week. This shows them how prepared I am, and results in higher settlements for my clients," he says.
Paper is also an endangered species at the firm. The eight-attorney firm seamlessly handles all their matters and reduces their dependence on paper and its problems with their integrated case management program, CaseWarder, which is based on Access, a scanner, Watermark imaging software, Microsoft Windows, and OLE 2.0 integration to link these packages with Microsoft Office. Shipp Harris, the man behind the firm's automation and Total Quality Management movement, is typical of the firm's attorneys. He no longer handles incoming paper mail. The firm's receptionist scans in all his incoming mail using Watermark and sends it to him via Microsoft Mail. He reads it at his convenience, marks it up and electronically mails his changes back to his paralegal. Microsoft's Scheduler Plus has also replaced all paper calendars at the firm.
The firm's extensive use of templates and the Microsoft Access database enables lawyers to do most of their own secretarial work. It is faster for attorneys to do the work themselves, even if they can't type, than to dictate the message, wait for the turn-around, review it, make corrections and send it back.
The firm has hundreds of Microsoft Word templates that cover all the letters and steps in handling a case. When the attorney wants to send a letter, all he or she typically has to do is click on a letter icon. The firm's software pulls all the basic information out of an Access database that was set up by a secretary and the letter is immediately created. Oftentimes, the attorney does not even have to touch the keyboard. Mr. Harris estimates that the new technology has cut the need for support staff by 30 percent. Each client and case also has its own electronic folder. The attorneys never worry about a lost folder, or missing sheet of paper--they can instantaneously find it stored on their computer system. Each new client letter generated by the firm is also automatically appended to that client's electronic folder without the attorney doing anything.
Automation has also permitted the firm to reap tremendous gains in their accounting department. Despite the firm's small number of lawyers, it has four offices. When the firm used to send all its accounting material via UPS, the process took 3-5 days to get to the Greensboro, N.C. office . Now, using Microsoft Mail and the firm's customized software, a person at the home office can click on a button, pull up the case data, enter the invoice amount and other appropriate data, click another button and the check is electronically sent and printed out at the other office. What took days, now takes minutes.
Harris says, "we were out on the edge two years ago and took a short term hit, but the technology has clearly paid off--we are better lawyers, we serve our clients better, and we have the seen this reflected in the bottom line."
Ken Combs -- Research and Document Drafting
Not only has Ken Combs survived in this tight legal market, he has thrived. Combs is a very successful solo practioneer in Newport Beach, California specializing in corporate transactional work and business litigation. In addition to being an excellent attorney, one of the keys to his success is document assembly. Combs uses Capsoft's HotDocs program which can run inside Microsoft Word or WordPerfect. The program, which is the industry leader for automating simple documents, turns any Windows word processor documents into intelligent templates that can be used to create custom client documents. Utilizing HotDocs, Combs believes that he "can now prepare the same document ten times faster than before." For work done on a fixed fee basis, this significantly raises his effective hourly rate. The clients are also happy because the price they pay is still lower than that of unautomated firms and they also get the rapid turn-around that they need and desire. Combs is also a big fan of electronic research--both On-Line and CD-ROM. Utilizing West electronic research software and CD-ROM technology, he feels he has an advantage over the big firms. "I am able to utilize my knowledge and expertise to do the research myself, my large firm counterparts are relying on young and inexperienced new attorneys to do the work." By leveraging his time and expertise, not the time of inexperienced attorneys, his clients get the value and skill they need much more efficiently. In addition to West's on-line research Mr. Combs also makes extensive use of West's CD-ROM disks. "I am able to access all the California cases and statutes from my computer, this saves me time and rent on library space." When he locates the case he needs, he is able to use West's Windows-based software to cut and paste the text from the case or statute directly into the word processor.
Don McGrath -- Powerpoint at trial
Don McGrath, a trial lawyer at the small San Diego office of giant Baker & McKenzie prides himself on not being a computer guru. Nevertheless, he was able to combine and effectively use the latest imaging and trial presentation technology from inVzn and Microsoft PowerPoint to defeat his latest opponent. PowerPoint was the bread used at the opening and closing argument to organize his thoughts, lay out and present his argument and key pieces of evidence (which had been scanned in and the important pieces of evidence highlighted), and tie in the video deposition clips, while WinVzn and TrialLink supplied the "meat" throughout the trial. In fact, since the trial was occurring near the Super Bowl, in which the San Diego Chargers were playing, his PowerPoint presentation scheme used the team's colors. Away from the subliminal side, his computers also held hundreds of exhibits and thousands of bar coded documents that were instantaneously available to him throughout the trial. However, huge cases or thousands of documents aren't needed to make a big impact with Powerpoint. The jury was educated and moved by the simple act of beginning and ending the trial with a Powerpoint presentation. The opening statement Powerpoint presentation gave a tutorial about the case, linked with "blow ups" of the key pieces of evidence and a video clip that would be presented as evidence. The closing argument, also done in Powerpoint, drove home the same key points. "I never had to lose eye contact with the jury," McGrath says, "Because my paralegal had set me up with a 'garage door opener' with which I could change screens."
McGrath is now a believer in technology and plans to increase his use and knowedge. He says, "The technology was just awesome. I think it won the case for me. When I surveyed the jury afterward, they reaffirmed my belief that my computer-driven presentations were a very powerful tool in getting them to side with me and my client."
Appendices -- Extracts and summaries
-- Supporting definitions and attributes of successful lawyers
Lawyers, Clients, and Definitions
The St. Louis Report -- Lawyer's goals
A recent survey of about 2,000 lawyers in the St. Louis areas conducted for the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis found that the three most frequently mentioned goals were to:
These responses were given much more frequently than any others, including making a substantial income, serving the client, and being intellectually challenged.
(Source: ABA Journal, July 1995, p. 41).
The ABA Curran Report and Missouri Motivational
Surveys of clients performed by the Missouri Bar and the American Bar Association surprised lawyers. In surveys of lawyers as to what clients want, the most frequently mentioned items were: (1) the best results (2) reasonable bill.
Surprisingly, the items most frequently mentioned by clients were: effort, personal concern, promptness, competence and integrity.
Clients define successful lawyers as those who care about them, who try hard and work competently, who are honest, and who keep them informed and promptly return phone calls.
Although the original surveys are a few decades old, more recent surveys continue to turn up the same results.
Missouri Bar Prentice-Hall Survey: A Motivational Study of Public Attitudes and Law Office Management, Missouri Bar, 1963.
Curran, Barbara A., The Legal Needs of the Public, American Bar Foundation, 1977.
MacCrate Report -- ABA Task Force
The best place to start in looking at the elements of an effective lawyer is the Statement of Fundamental Lawyering Skills and Professional Values, published in 1992 by the ABA Task Force on Law Schools and the Profession. It goes into some detail about the elements of each of these fundamental skills:1. Problem Solving2. Legal Analysis and Reasoning3. Legal Research4. Factual Investigation5. Communication6. Counseling7. Negotiation8. Advocacy, Litigation, and Alternative Dispute Resolution9. Organization and Management of Legal Work10. Recognizing and Resolving Ethical Dilemmas
Avoiding Legal malpractice Claims
Top lawyers and firms manage their affairs in such a way that malpractice claims don't arise. Every study of legal malpractice claims has shown the same things:
Most of these claims could be avoided with effective management and procedures.
Source: Avoiding Legal Malpractice Claims, American Journal of Trial Advocacy, 1979, reprinted and published by Professionals Risk Management and Service Company.
Financial Management and Profitability
Robert Arndt, a Price-Waterhouse consultant to the legal profession, points out that there are five key "economic profitability levers" in the practice of law, which if optimized and managed, can make a firm more profitable. They can be remembered with the acronym "R.U.L.E.S." While his presentations are oriented toward larger firms, here are the key points, slimmed down and adjusted to smaller firms.
1. Rate Management
Lawyers can increase rates by using alternative approaches to billing, by raising rates, and by billing their client at the apex of on the "curve of appreciation." Lawyers who are perceived as "the high priced spread" or "expensive but worth it" tend to be successful in the long run.
2. Utilization Management
Does everyone in the firm keep time records and bill for all of their time? The failure to dutifully record time spent on client matters and to promptly bill clients for work can be a disaster, and upgrading timekeeping and billing procedures is often one of the quickest and most effective ways to improve the bottom line.
Does the firm endorse the concept of leverage, and use leverage to profit from associates, legal assistants -- and technology. The big firms drive most of their partner profits by leveraging young associates, profiting off their work. Small firms do not have this source of leverage, but they can leverage themselves, with technology. Use technology to make more of yourself available.
3. Expense Management
Does the firm take actions to keep expenses at a minimum?
4. Speed Management
Does the firm use practices to make sure it is paid quickly? This can be done by having clients pay an "up front retainer," by billing promptly, by avoiding clients who are "slow-pay," by monitoring accounts receivable, and similar practices.
Ward Bower's "Profitability Matrix"
Ward Bower, management consultant to medium and large sized firms at Altman Weil Pensa, describes a "profitability matrix," with billing rates on the vertical axis and leverage across the bottom"
Lawyers who want to increase their incomes should work to move their business up and to the right on the matrix -- higher effective hourly rates and better leverage.
High II. Low Leverage I. High leverage, $240 High Billing Rates High Billing Rates ("boutique" firms) (major established firms in big cities with blue chip clients) $160 IV. Low Leverage, III. High Leverage, Low Billing Rates Low Billing Rates (Typical solo practice (Insurance defense, or small firm, where all although Hyatt Legal lawyers are partners) Services is ultimate example) Low $80
0 1.5:1 3:1
Low Leverage High
Leadership and Team Building
David Campbell, Ph.D., director of the Center for Creative Leadership, is a pioneer in working with organizations and leadership.
Leaders in Organizations --
The Seven crucial, constant, continuing tasks
© 1993 David Campbell, Ph.D.
To clarify the general overall goals of the organization
To focus resources on these goals
To select and develop subordinates committed to these goals
To forge coalitions with peers, superiors, and important outside decision makers
To listen carefully to clients, customers or voters
To find future opportunities
By personal example, to set an overall organizational tone of competence, optimism and integrity
Campbell developed the Campbell Organizational Survey, a test instrument that is given to employees at a firm or other organization. It used by consultants to help measure and improve factors related to job satisfaction and productivity.
The 17 factors are:
Robert Ginnette, Ph.D., is a consultant at the Center for Creative Leadership and perhaps the foremost expert on success factors for "high performance teams." Such teams include astronauts, airline cock-pit crews, and surgical teams. When the plane crashes or the patient dies due to a preventable error, most of the time successful teamwork would have prevented the error. Further, Ginnette's research shows, the one thing that consistently distinguishes high performance teams from less successful ones is leadership.
He found that all leaders of consistently successful high-performance teams:
1. Spend time creating the team up front.
2. Stay calm in demanding situations.
Rather than add stress, the leaders buffer the teams from stress.
3. Learn from their mistakes, and share the information
Highly creative teams make more mistakes, but don't make the same mistake twice. Leaders and share experiences with the team and are open to feedback. 4. Develop subordinates through coaching. Good leaders act like good coaches.
ABA Section of Law Practice Economics, Donna M. Killoughey, Flying Solo: A Survival Guide for the Solo Lawyer (ABA 1984).
ABA Section of Economics of Law Practice, Richard C., Beyond the Billable Hour: An Anthology of Alternative Billing Methods, (ABA 1989).
ABA, Roberta Cooper Ramo, How to Create A System for the Law Office, (ABA 1975).
ABA Task Force on Law Schools and the Profession: Narrowing the Gap, Robert MacCrate, Chairperson, Legal Education and Professional Development -- An Educational Continuum (ABA, 1992). (Known as the "MacCrate Report")ABA Task Force on Law Schools and the Profession: Narrowing the Gap, Robert MacCrate, Chairperson, Statement of Fundamental Lawyering Skills and Professional Values (ABA, 1992).
ABA Law Practice Management Section, Beyond the Breaking Point Taskforce, "A Profession in Crisis -- Annotated Bibliography," February 1994.
ABA Law Practice Management Section, Robert Michael Greene, The Quality Pursuit: Assuring Standards in the Practice of Law, (ABA, 1989).
ABA Law Practice Management Section, John C. Landis, Access: A Resource Guide to Legal Automation, (ABA, 1994).
ABA Young Lawyer's Division, At the Breaking Point: A National Conference on the Emerging Crisis in the Quality of Lawyers' Health and Lives -- Its Impact on Law Firms and Client Services, April 5-6, 1991.
Altman Weil Pensa Annual Survey of Law Firm Economics.
Brill, Steven, "The New Leverage," The Connecticut Law Tribune, August 30, 1993, p. 3.
Curran, Barbara A., The Legal Needs of the Public, American Bar Foundation, 1977.
Curran, Barbara A. and Clara N. Carson, 1991 Supplement to The Lawyer Statistical Report: The U.S. Legal Profession in 1988. Chicago: American Bar Foundation.
Davis, F. Leary, "Back to the Future: The Buyer's Market and the Need for Law Firm Leadership, Creativity, and Innovation," Campbell Law Review, Spring 1994, p. 147
Engholm, C. Rudy, "The $150 Sunset -- and Other Reflections on Life After Lawyering," Law Practice Management Magazine, Jan/Feb, 1994, p. 22.
Foonberg, Jay, How to Start and Build a Law Firm, ABA, 1976, updated 1994.
Foonberg, Jay, How to Get and Keep Good Clients, Lawyers Alert Press, 1986.
"How Will Uniform Task-Based Billing Affect Your Firm's Economics?," Law Office Management & Administration Report, July 1995, p. 1.
McKenna, Patrick, "Best Law Firm Management Practices," Legal Management, September/October, 1994.
Missouri Bar Prentice-Hall Survey: A Motivational Study of Public Attitudes and Law Office Management, Missouri Bar, 1963.
Moses, Albert L., "Warning: Fixed Fees Ahead (Engage All Systems), Law Practice Management Magazine, ABA, March 1995, p. 60. (Computers can help meet the challenge of the competitive pressures of fixed fees and alternative billing approaches).
On-Line Roundtable, The American Lawyer, June 1994, pg. 66. (Discussion of the ethics of hourly billing).
Ross, William G., The Ethics of Hourly Billing by Attorneys," 44 Rutgers law Review (Fall 1991).
Senge, Peter, et al., The Fifth Discipline Field Book: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization, Currency/Doubleday (NY, 1994).
Allison, G. Burgess, The Lawyer's Guide to the Internet (ABA, 1995).
"The Profits of Efficiency: How Technology and Alternative Billing Can Put a Small Firm on Top," Texas Lawyer, December 6, 1993, p. 1. (On-line discussion on Counsel Connect between Steven Brill, Chairman of American Lawyer Media, and Fred Bartlit, who broke off from Kirkland and Ellis to start a new firm).
Eidelman, James A., "Brainstorming Tools for Litigators," Winning With Computers, ABA 1993.
Eidelman, James A., "Technological Edge: How Four Firms Use Computers to Win Cases," ABA Journal, July, 1993, p. 60.
Eidelman, James A., "Software for Negotiations," Law Practice Management, Jan-Feb, 1993, p. 50.
Eidelman, James A., "Windows for Lawyers," Law Practice Management, September 1992, pp. 36-40.
Gibson, William K, "Technology and Lawyering Skills," ABA Lawyering Skills Bulletin, Spring 1995, pp. 1-2.
Kinney, Hugh, Litigation Support Systems -- An Attorney's Guide, 2d Edition by Staudt & Keane (Clark Boardman Callaghan, 1992).
Lawyer's PC Annual Legal Software Directory, The Lawyer's PC, Shepard's/McGraw-Hill, Inc., November 15, 1994.
Lawyer's PC Legal CD-ROM Annual Directory, The Lawyer's PC, Shepard's/McGraw-Hill, Inc., May 15, 1995.
Marks, Richard D., "Futuredocs: The Video Revolution in Briefs, Contracts and Wills," ABA Journal, August 1993, p. 52.
Meyer, Jim, "The New Lawyering: Microsoft's Bill Gates Looks at Computers' Impact," ABA Journal, August 1993, p. 56.
Morris, John E., "Log On or Lose Out?," The American Lawyer, October 1994, p. 69. (Smaller firms already know that the new technology can be a substitute for old-fashioned leverage. Will big firms catch on?)
Tredennick, John and Eidelman, James, co-editors, Winning with Computers: Trial Practice in the 21st Century, Part I, (ABA, 1991), Part II, (ABA, 1993).
Vandagriff, David P., "Marketing in Cyberspace," ABA Journal, July 1995, p. 84.
Ewalt, Henry, Practical Planning: A How-to Guide for Solos and Small Firms, ABA (Law Practice Management Section), 1985.
Hackman, J. Richard, Ed., Groups that Work (and those that don't)
Poll, Edward, The Business of Law: Planning and Operating for Surviving and Growth, ABA (General Practice Section), 1994. (Includes 3 planning spreadsheets)
Braeman, Kathryn and Fran Shellenberger, Editors, From Yellow Pads to Computers: Transforming Your Law Practice with a Computer, ABA (Law Practice Management Section), 1987, updated 1992.
Dabney, James W., "Animation is Invading Courtrooms; Powerful Tool," National Law Journal, February 1, 1993, pg. 1.
Gore, Regina A., "Reality or Virtual Reality? The Use of Interactive, three-dimensional Computer Simulations at Trial," Rupture's Computer & Technology Law Journal, Winter 1993, pp 459-493.
Joseph, Gregory P., "In Court, One Imaging System is Worth a Thousand Documents: Computerized Technology Helps Trial Lawyers Present the Evidence, Prove the Cases," New York Law Journal, July 19, 1993, pS4.
Kashi, Joseph L., "Produce Simple Trial Graphics In-House," Law Office Computing, April-May 1992, p20.
Nelson, Diane, "Computer Animation Offers Assistance to Trial Attorneys: a New Tool for Medical Illustrators," Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, July 15, 1993 p18.
Raggio, Kenneth G., "Use High-Tech to Make the Point," Family Advocate, Winter 1992, p8.
Turner, Marshall S. and Katherine B. Posner, "Technology in the Courtroom: Preparing for the 21st Century," New York Law Journal, October 12, 1993, p5.
Vandagriff, David P., "Taking your Computer to Court," Compleat Lawyer, Fall 1992 p13.
© James A. Eidelman 1995