Jason Atchley : Legal Tech : How Technology Can Fuel Small Law Firms

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How Technology Can Fuel Small Law Firms

Julie Pearl and J. Craig Williams outline key ways to incorporate tech into transactional and litigation shops.

Monica Bay, Law Technology News

June 27, 2014    | 0 Comments
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Attorney and technologist Julie Pearl can give the Energizer bunny a run for its money. Her resume gives you a clue to her high-octane personality: bachelor’s from Stanford, master’s from Harvard and a law degree from the University of California-Hastings College of the Law. She’s also the former California deputy attorney general.
In 1995, she founded The Pearl Law Group, a San Francisco-based immigration law firm, with Alan Nelson, the former head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. But she’s the first to tell you that the secret to her success is technology—and a terrific staff.
Pearl and J. Craig Williams, founder of The Williams Law Corp. in Southern California, presented the opening panel on Tuesday at the Westin Bonaventure in downtown Los Angeles. The presentation was the first of three in a new LegalTech track: “Exploiting the New Legal Ecosystem.” The fast-based discussion, “Can Tech Save Fuel Small Firms?” focused on how both lawyers base their practices on a foundation of technology.
In Pearl’s case, it wasn’t just buying existing technology to fuel her law practice. She also runs a separate technology company that creates apps and other technologies to help lawyers automate repetitive tasks to bring down costs for their clients and provide quality control. Within three years of opening her shop, she developedImmigrationTracker software, a management system that is widely used, even by her competitors, she notes.
From day one, Pearl told the audience, she never billed a client by the hour. Among the keys to her success: “Lots and lots of templates,” she said. And Pearl is constantly looking for new ways to trim costs. For example, the firm uses email auto-responders to keep clients informed of the status of their matters. “Streamlining the process for clients is crucial,” she said. Her philosophy is to provide transparency and self-help to her clients. “We use [Microsoft Excel] pivot tables to help clients get info as they want it,” she said. “We let the clients ‘own’ a piece of it, so they don’t have to do their own spreadsheets,” Pearl explained.
The firm also makes a habit of getting feedback from clients. “We go back to the clients to see what else we can do with data. Any improvements?” she said.
One of the most interesting points she raised was how technology can actually create more work that otherwise would be deemed too expensive to process if done manually. For example, the cost to manually review I-9 forms would far exceed the cost of fixing the inevitable typos or mistakes, so a risk-management assessment would be to not spend the money to proof them, and just react to mistakes as they become visible. But a machine can catch those typos and automatically fix them—and flag other errors—at a very low cost. Thus, the automation actually generates billable work that otherwise would have been lost and could have embarrassed the firm when mistakes were spotted by clients. “Machines can catch errors,” said Pearl.
Williams’ business is litigation, not transactions, so he has a somewhat different agenda than Pearl. But both lawyers’ firms also rely heavily on off-the-shelf technologies, in addition to using custom technology. Pearl said her team relies on Trello, Salesforce, Skype and other tools. Those technologies help her attain her goal of allowing most employees to work two or three days a week off-site, which enhances productivity, she has learned, by reducing commute time and other distractions. Plus, it can be a recruiting incentive. “We are heavily leveraging technology to enable work from home,” she said. “We will lose our best talent if we don’t allow work from home.”
Whether large or small firm, “you have to bring in the business,” noted Williams, who has worked in Big Law and in a small law firm. He started at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, then started his own firm; he later spent three years with Sedgwick before returning to his own firm in 2012. For marketing, Williams has been an active blogger, and has a long-running (nine years) twice-monthly podcast called “Lawyer to Lawyer,” with Boston solo Robert Ambrogi, on the Legal Talk Network. The podcast, he told the audience, has been a very effective marketing tool, reaching an audience far beyond his local region.
By effectively and nimbly using technology, “I think I’m more capable as a solo than at a 2,000-lawyer firm,” said Williams. Big Law, for example, can’t add a new technology on the fly like a small firm can because of the sheer logistics, he noted. “It’s hard for large firms to change tech because of size. With a 15-attorney firm: I buy it, plug it in, and we are ready to go.”

Read more: http://www.lawtechnologynews.com/id=1202660983982/How-Technology-Can-Fuel-Small-Law-Firms#ixzz369rGC6ns

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