Non-traditional approaches to the practice of law
by David J Bilinsky
If I could see something-
You can see anything you want boy
If I could be someone-
You can be anyone, celebrate boy.
If I could do something-
Well you can do something,
If I could do anything-
Well can you do something out of this world?
…Dreamer, you know you are a dreamer…
Words and Music by R Hodgson and R Davies
Recorded by Supertramp
Imagine a law firm where everyone has the same sized private office (including every staff member). Where everyone gets to interview all proposed new staff and lawyer hires. Where full financial statements are shared among and read by everyone – including partners, associates and all staff members. Where legal invoices are sent with a blank space at the bottom with a heading “Value Adjustment Line” - inviting and empowering clients to decrease or increase the amount of any legal bill.
Sounds unbelievable? The time was March 1997 when the Summit Law Group was established in Seattle. It is now five years later. Summit Law Group has grown from 16 lawyers to 33. Every staff member still has an identically-sized private office with built-in furniture. The law firm is located a mile from downtown where overheads are low – a big change for many of the lawyers who came from offices located in Seattle’s highest office tower. Dress is casual. And the “Value Adjustment Line”? It is still on every one of their invoices and has resulted in up to five figure “write-ups” from appreciative clients. And windfall litigation payoffs have been shared among all staff members. Staff members, spouses (and 30 kids) are being taken on a Seattle/Vancouver/Victoria cruise this year.
The firm is not a boutique – it offers services in Corporate law, Labour Defence, Complex Litigation, Environmental and Commercial Leasing. Clients are national in scope – including Weyerhaeuser, Starbucks and Travellers Insurance. Revenues have grown steadily with double-digit growth figures. The partners listen to people like Tom Peters and other innovative corporate gurus.
The firm is based on solid economic thinking. Rent is approximately half of what they would pay in central downtown Seattle. All attorneys are partners. Junior partners have approximately 90 per cent of their income guaranteed. The remainder of their income is dependant on profits. Partners receive less guaranteed income (50-60 per cent) but stand to gain more from the office’s profits. They don’t charge their clients for long distance telephone calls, photocopies and faxes – avoiding the ‘nickel and diming’ annoyances. Clients seem to like the fact that their lawyers are paying less in rent than they are. Lawyers and clients alike share a strong bottom line, results-based emphasis.
And the ‘value adjustment area’ to their bills? It turns out that it has resulted in relatively few changes to their accounts (the notable exceptions have been some large increases to bills) – but generated lots of goodwill and feelings of empowerment and trust among clients. Marc G. Reynolds, the Executive Director of the firm, says that it “removes contention” from the lawyer-client relationship and makes the client feel like they are a ‘partner’ with the firm.
The firm believes in retreats – that include spouses and children. Growth is a discussion topic – the firm has added 11 lawyers in the last 12 months.
Will the firm continue in the form that it is currently cast? Probably not – it will continue to change and test assumptions that were deemed to be untouchable and unquestionable. Summit highlights that law firms can change and adopt new methods and new techniques without throwing out the economic realities on which any successful firm is based. Radical change can be adopted and clients attracted to firms which are willing to challenge ‘traditional’ ways of thinking about how legal services are delivered. (www.summitlaw.com)
The second example of innovation in the legal arena is Cyber Secretaries (www.youdictate.com). It, too, was started by a lawyer, in Texas in 1997. It is based on a simple premise – that lawyers would make use of a dictation service where they could simply pick up the telephone, anytime, from anywhere – and dictate a letter, a memo, a pleading or any other document – and have it sent back to them by e-mail, proof-read, fully formatted (you can send them a template to follow) and ready to print.
The advantages? You do not need to hire a temporary employee, provide a computer, software, printer or other trappings. You don’t have to pay overtime and you don’t have to do any Human Resources functions or send in any WCB or CPP or CCRA remittances. You can dictate using a telephone, fax in handwritten notes, mail in a tape, e-mail a .wav file that you have recorded using your computer or e-mail in a Olympus DSS or Sony digital dictation file. You can also use their own SpeakWrite software (not a voice recognition software but rather a voice recording package) and e-mail them the voice file. Following the templates that you have previously forwarded to them, they will format your dictation to suit your precedents (pleadings, letterhead, etc.). They will provide you itemized billing codes for cost recovery and cost tracking purposes. You can even check on the progress of your work using their Web site. You can set up an address book containing the names and addresses of people to whom you usually refer to in your dictation (so the secretaries can ensure the names and addresses are correct). Cyber Secretaries transcriptionists are bonded and have signed non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements and are stated to be legal secretaries with law office experience.
The cost? $0.01 US per word – an average cost of $3.50 US per page. This service has expanded to all 50 states and has a following in Canada (Kelowna seems to be particularly interested in their services). Considering their ‘no hassle’ manner of doing business, it appears to be particularly well suited to firms who have periodic needs for additional secretarial services. It marries the costs of production closely to the needs of a firm or lawyer.
These are two of the many examples of people who are not only challenging the traditional assumptions regarding how one must carry on the practice of law, but are thriving doing so. In some cases all it takes is to dare to dream…
David J Bilinsky is the Practice Management Advisor at the Law Society of British Columbia. He can be reached on the Internet at email@example.com.
This article was published in the April 2002 issue of BarTalk. © 2002 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.