ALPS In Brief Podcast - Episode 14: Am I Solving the Right Problem?
Staying relevant. Embracing technology to increase efficiency. Investing the time it takes to improve. Attorney and cultural ambassador at his firm in Tacoma, Washington, Jordan Couch connects with with Mark and offers his perspective on what a law firm can become simply by looking at everything a bit differently.
ALPS In Brief, The ALPS Risk Management Podcast, is hosted by ALPS Risk Manager, Mark Bassingthwaighte.
Hello, welcome to another episode of ALPS in Brief, the ALPS risk management podcast. We’re coming to you from the ALPS home office in the historic Florence building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. I’m Mark Bassingthwaighte, the ALPS risk manager. I have the pleasure today of sitting down with Jordan Couch. Jordan is an attorney and cultural ambassador at Palace Law. He has done some writing on redefining lawyers and we’re just going to have a conversation today about relevancy.
Jordan, before we jump into our conversation, would you take a few minutes and just share a little bit about yourself and can you kind of fill us in on what’s this cultural ambassador all about?
Yeah, so I actually grew up out in eastern Montana, so part of me wishes I was in Missoula right now. But I am a plaintiffs workers compensation personal injury attorney out in Tacoma, Washington these days. In my office I carry a few roles, but the main one is I’m an attorney. And then in addition to that, I am the cultural ambassador of the firm. What that comes from is a couple years ago, the management team sat down at the firm and decided we needed to lay out what our mission is, what our values are, who we really are as a firm and we need to define that.
Our mission is to help the injured and every community and we have a list of seven core values that we think help us do that. My job is to make sure that we are living up to that as a firm and that we are promoting ourselves based on that, and kind of conversing about that. Because it’s one thing to define your values and your mission, it’s another to live them. And so, my job comes from everything from talking about it to others, to making sure that when we hire people on, they’re people that share our values and are going to stay with us because they believe in those values. And also, encouraging conversation right and in the office. We have monthly values that we kind of focus on. We talk about them and share stories about them.
And then I’m also around encouraging people whenever they want to try something new in the office or pitch a case to take, or new idea for the office. I tell them make sure you put it in terms of these values and sell that to the team and talk about it that way and have it be a part of our everyday life, instead of something that we define and set aside. That’s that job.
Yeah, no, I really like that. It’s a tangent here for a moment, but you find businesses of all types, to include law firms. But just sitting down and talking about mission statements and all these kinds of things. It’s one thing to kind of do the preliminary work of defining who you want to be, and it’s another thing to walk the walk consistently, day after day, throughout the year, year after year. I love that. That’s a great idea.
Yeah, it’s unique position and it’s taken some trial and error, but we’re making new efforts on it. We constantly try it and we have to find ways to encourage people to talk about it every day. So, we have big posters around the office too, the talk about the values and are posted up everywhere. So, you can’t walk into the opposite of seeing them, and our clients see them the second they walk into our office too.
Very good. One of my interests in again having this discussion, yeah, I do over the years, quite a bit of CLEs and a lot of consulting. But in a number of the CLE programs we do, and we tend to focus on risk management, malpractice of wings, ethics, that kind of thing. But in recent years, I’ve been setting up some high bows and just talking about changes in the law. I find it interesting when I talk about the rise of Avvo advisors and example, or Legal Zoom, you see so many lawyers really starting to get, I don’t know if it’s threatened or upset.
To my surprise, one of the comments that keeps coming up over and over again these lawyers get up and they’ll say, because we’re on a panel typically with bar council or ethics council and this kind of thing, they’ll start yelling at the bar, “It’s your job to fix this. To do something. It’s the unauthorized practice law go out and make these entities go away.” And we all sit here kind of … It’s it’s not the role of the bar to do that, obviously. But we sit here and say, “These guys just aren’t getting it.” Law is changing and evolving very, very rapidly.
Now I’m not here to say that’s a good or a bad thing. I have my opinions about it, but I sit and say these guys that had these kinds of opinions in from my perspective seem to just not understand. I understand that they’re frightened by it, but they don’t see how they fit in going forward. And so, the answer is to bury their head and trail others to try to make this go away. You and I both know that just isn’t going to happen. So, sort of with that premise, you know, speaking to the solo small firm lawyers in particular, what thoughts do you have about how to stay relevant? What does it look like?
You’ve been referred to as a lawyer futurist as well. Can you kind of start to navigate this direction for us?
Yeah. So, there’s a lot there to talk about. I always begin with telling lawyers that at the end of the day, right now we are bad at what we do. Because you ask lawyers, and I’ve done surveys, “What do you do?” And they say, “Oh, we’re protectors and we’re problem solvers and we’re helpers.” But over 75% of legal needs go unmet. Now not only is that kind of a shame and a stain on our profession, but at the same time, that’s a huge market that is untapped. Those are people out there that have legal needs that want us to do the things that people pay us to do, and we’re not doing it.
And so, I think solo and small firms especially are in a good opportunity because they’re flexible. That’s part of why I like working in a smaller firm. We can go after that marketplace. And so, instead of seeing Avvo and legalism competitors, think of them as people with really good ideas we should steal from, and then go after that same market. Because at the end of the day, they’re not going after the clients that we fight over. Most law firms fight over 10% of the clients. The rest of us fight over the other 15% of the clients, and then 75% is just out there waiting for someone. They’re not people that can’t afford an attorney. I do continuously work, everyone can afford me. But it’s their legal needs, that just tend to go unmet.
The first thing I always tell people is this is opportunity. The way you have to go about addressing this is instead of looking at people as competitors going against your business, redefine your business. Because if your business is writing stock, wills and trusts for people, your business will die and it will die soon. It’s time you need to start inventing new ways to better serve clients. To not only go after that 75% of people that are not tapped into, but also to do your own work more efficiently and make more money of the work you’re doing and have a better work, life balance and a better life.
Solo and small firm attorneys are highly overworked and do a lot of administrative stuff that they’re not trained to do that they don’t enjoy doing, and there’s a lot of opportunity there. One of my favorite examples is actually a friend of mine, Forest Carlson, who is a wills and trusts attorney. He looked at our legal zoom and looked at Avvo inside of this was competing against him by offering low cost services. So, he built his own website, washingtonwills.com or wa-wills.com, that allows people to create a will online, on their own, and it’s completely free.
So, he’s undercutting legal zoom, he’s undercutting Avvo and serving these people. But what happens when things get a little complex and they can’t do it on their own? Is they get routed to him to hire an attorney, and they want his services. They’ve already got the basics of work done, so he gets to focus on the higher-level work. Or as I like to call it, practicing at the top of my degree.
Interesting. So, he’s using this tool then, as I understand it, as sort of a screening. It’s going out and finding the clients for him, and at the same time providing a service.
Absolutely. We have a similar thing on out office we’ve just launched, what we call the Patbot, because my boss’s name is Patrick. It’s a robot on the front page of our website. It’s right next to a calculator that will tell you how much your case is worth for free. And then it’s this robot that will look through your case and talk to you about it and tell you know where your case is, what steps you need to take, because it gives us more informed customers coming to us.
Some people will look at that and say, Oh, I can do all of those things and they’ll go and do it. And those are the clients we don’t want in the first place. Because they’d be mad at the end and saying, “Well, you didn’t do anything. Why am I paying you?” Right?
I could have done this on my own. Now they know exactly what we’re going to do, and they know when it’s done in their case. And if we can’t offer value to them, they’re not going to hire us. But if they look at that and say, “I want someone else to do this.” Then they come to hire us in there. We get better clients and we get to focus on the more intricate interesting legal work.
Helped me understand sort of the journey that you guys took. What I’m trying to understand is, what advice do you have if I’m sitting here saying, “Okay, I need to be something different. I’m stuck.” In other words. What can you share from for folks just saying, “Okay, I kind of get the gist of it, but I have no clue how to move forward here.”
First thing is to just stop. You’re going to have to stop and take time and kind of take a leap of faith in this system that mean something. Where our office began is my boss had been you know bar president for a while and he’d been speaking about these issues. I had been in law school with some really great mentors that had taught me about these issues in the legal profession, got me looking at this. He finished up his term and a little while later I came into the office and we had a lot of good innovative people in the office had supported this idea. We sat down, and it was just time to say, “Okay, what do we need to do differently? How can we do things differently?” We decided to take a step back from our work and actually invest time in what needs to be done now.
It takes an initial investment and it takes looking out there and kind of asking yourself, “What am I doing that I don’t like doing? What am I doing that I don’t need to be doing? What are the things I like least in the day?” And we actually did surveys in our office asking the entire staff, “What don’t you like about your job? What is your biggest hindrances?” Start by identifying those and as you start listing those out, ask yourself, “What do I have to keep doing then? Can I outsource this? Can I automate this?” And that’s just the beginning of it, right? Of looking at just the things you don’t like.
And then there a lot of things that can be done about this. There are a lot of processes that can be learned on designed thinking, where you start focusing on what your clients need and try and get their perspective and getting them involved in the process. But it really begins with just sitting down and taking time to think and taking time to act creatively and practice creativity. There are a lot of books on how to kind of train yourself to be creative, and I taught a CLE where we talked about that a little bit. But they are little things. Like just practice coming up with crazy ideas, like what would be a really weird practice area? Like what if I wanted to be a food lawyer? Or what if I wanted to go out and invent you know the next Legal Zoom, right? Just come up with these crazy ideas. Or, have a robot that would answer all my clients/ questions, right?
Some of them will be impossible, but some of them will start to turn into really good ideas and can be developed. Don’t be afraid to test things. I think one of the biggest hindrances that lawyers face is they’re afraid of failure. At the end of the day, as long as you are afraid of failure, you will never innovate. Because you have to be open to it and recognize it. Because what happens if you’re not open to failure is you don’t catch on to it quickly enough, because you don’t admit that you failed. Whereas in our office, our goal is to fail as fast as possible, right? So, if this isn’t working, we want to identify it right away, so we can adjust and try something different. And we do that a lot.
I’ll give one example on that. We spent a lot of time trying to kind of get our clients to call us less, because that was a big hindrance. We noticed in our surveys, there’s just lots of client calls coming in. We thought, “What if we made it easier for them to communicate with us?” So, we spent a lot of effort into systems that allowed them to have a portal to communicate with us. Email, phone calls, letters. We allowed them to text us and made it easier for that to happen. We did all this work, and calls didn’t go down at all. Okay. What’s wrong here?
Soon we went back to our clients to kind of asked them as part of the design thinking process, like why are you calling so much? We started looking at and we realized what they’re calling is they’re afraid of things. They’re on workers’ compensation. They want to know when their check is coming in, and that’s every two weeks. And so, they’re calling every day. Check every two weeks, right? Is my check here, as my check here? And we thought, “Well, why don’t we just tell them when it’s here?” We took the tools we built in that whole project that was something of a failure, and kind of rehabbed them into a system. And now, our clients get automatic notifications of updates in their case. And those calls went down a lot quickly.
Yeah. Interesting. What I hear is, we … I really like this because we’re talking about redesigning the entire delivery system as opposed to, can I get a new computer and some new software and try to be a little more efficient? That this is not throwing a little money and try and create, and there’s nothing wrong with creating efficiencies, but what I’m hearing is we’re really talking about total redesign and questioning, challenging our own assumptions about how law should be delivered how the legal services should be delivered. I really like that.
Can I also have you comment a little bit, I noted in your article you were talking about, and you mentioned this earlier, this 25% is the traditional client base we are all competing over, and you have kind of looked at and talked about collaborative efforts here. Can you kind of explain where you’re going with that?
Yeah, there’s a couple things to say on that. One is, you talked about kind of redesigning it. I like to talk about this concept called reframing, which is a new method of problem solving. Most lawyers, the older model was you have this problem, you apply this solution and it’s the solution your dad applied when he was a lawyer, right? And it goes back and back. Now you’ve got the more innovative attorneys out there that are applying like what different solutions can I have to this problem?
Reframing is about taking a step back further than that and saying, “Am I solving the right problem? If you look at in the legal new study in Washington, low income families had on average more than nine legal problems in a given year. Solving those problems doesn’t solve anything. You have to step back and say. “What’s really going on here?” And really investigate what’s happening. It’s hard to do that as an attorney. That’s one way that collaboration really comes in and is important. You have to bring in outside people to work with things on you. In our office, we have a project manager whose job is just to find ways for us to do things better. She has legal experience and then she’s been in our office for a while, but she has no legal training. She’s not a paralegal, she is just someone who is in charge of projects.
She runs a team that brings in stakeholders from around the office from different departments to try to find better ways to do things, because it’s really hard as a lawyer to think of something new. We’ve gone to law school for three years, we’ve had internships, we’ve trained on this old model and to come up with new ideas is cognitively almost impossible in some ways. But if you have someone come in who has no training in this and says, “Wait, why are you doing this?” It gets a lot easier. And so, there’s that collaboration. Collaborating with lawyers outside of your community, there is a growing movement of phenomenal attorneys all over this country and out of the country that are doing amazing things. Little things just in their office that can make a big impact if they become more broadly accepted.
The nice thing about this is, they’re not competitive people. I think those who in this community have realized that a rising tide raises all ships, right? We all work together on this. I’ve found, I’ve been traveling around the country a lot over the last year and meeting with people. Everyone I meet with has been phenomenal, and we work together on projects, and we find ways to make all of us have a better relationship with our clients, better services for our clients. We share ideas, we work together on things. In our office we’ve worked with outside partners too. We have I think five tech companies right now that we’re collaborating with. And we’re collaborating with Suffolk Laws IT Lab, because of a friend of mine there who’s a professor there.
So, lawyers don’t have all the answers and it helps to have outside people come in. One of the more remarkable experiences I had that kind of led me down this path is about three years ago when I went to a legal hackathon that we did. It was amazing to see all these lawyers come here and present these problems that they saw is really complex problems and have the tech people in the coders that’s there say, “Well, that’s really easy. Why haven’t you done that already?”
I love it. I’m also, as you’re aware, a risk guy and something of a tech. When you think about just your own experiences here, are there I guess some tech tools or risk advice that you might share for people thinking about moving in this kind of direction, so that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel?
Yeah. One thing I actually like to talk to people a lot in this kind of new future model of legal services is trying to commodities legal services. There’s a good reason for that. If you look at the legal system, it’s a very unique and bizarre market where everything is based on ours. And so, imagine if you went to Amazon and you bought a package and they charged you for how long would take them to mail the package to you, and you may or may not get that package. That’s the legal system in a nutshell, and it’s because lawyers don’t know what their services are worth and that’s a problem.
And so, when I tell people to look at this, I tell them to try to find ways to commoditize, to really define and market. It’s not they’re hiring this attorney for their expertise, they’re hiring this firm to provide the product that this firm provides. One thing that’s really essential for that is having systems in place and definable measurable systems, so that every client comes in and gets service that will be on timelines, that will be on specific things. That’s a huge bonus for risk management, because the biggest risk is human error in everything that you do. If you have, in our office with workers compensation, we have a lot of issues that have statute limitations and we might have 10, 20 things at a time on my table easily that have statute of limitations that I need to address, that could be harmful for my client if I don’t That’s a lot for a human being to manage.
We used to have it documented written down multiple places and there was human checks and a lot of room for errors, and that’s Bad. Because the more humans touching a system, the more room for error there is. So now, we created actually automated systems for all of that, for all of our kind of regulatory stuff, so that every time a letter comes in that we have to respond to within a certain timeline, it automatically creates tasks in our practice management system which is Cleo. It automatically creates cards on our workflow system which is Trello, which is kind of a visual workflow system. And, it automatically notifies us of all this and creates notifications with deadlines attached to them, so we can see the deadline coming up.
This is all automated so that we don’t have to worry about, oh, did this person into the wrong date here the wrong date here? Everything’s done automatically. There are human checks on that because you don’t want to get rid of humans entirely and just trust machines. But it’s all automated for us and that allows us to provide a better, more safe system for our clients where they can know that we are on top of everything that comes through us. We do the same for just staying on top of cases. We have technology aided systems for our file review process to go over all of our cases, to make sure we’re managing them on a regular timeline. The technology really helps with that.
Again, started looking at what are the things we hated doing, and a lot of people said, “Well, all this manual you know, data entry. I really hate doing that.” Thought, but that’s an easy thing to automate. I call it being you know tech enabled lawyer.
Yeah. Sort of a final question from myself and I’ll give you a second to have any closing thoughts, excuse me. There are a lot of lawyers out there that I have worked with it are what I would describe perhaps it’s mid-career or a little bit further beyond, as opposed to the millennials just starting out in so many ways. When you think about all that you’re talking about here, are these opportunities really limited to the millennial group? Or, if I’m in my 40s or 50s can I still do this if I’m somebody who’s not highly trained with tech and comfortable? Do you have any thoughts about that? Because I do see at times when lawyers just say, “I don’t understand any of this.”
It takes a little more work. Although I know millennials that are not good at this, but I think millennials are a little better poised for this growing up, kind of in this tech generation of being taught to kind of question some of these ways the legal profession has worked before. But my boss is in his 40s or 50s, I can’t remember which for, and he does this. What it takes is not necessarily having all the skills to do it, but having the knowledge to say, “I need to do something differently. What can I do differently?” And then going out find people because at the end of the day, you don’t have to be the expert on all these things.
There are some who disagree with me on this, but I don’t think every lawyer should learn how to code. I don’t think lawyers need to have all these skills. They just need to have a baseline so that they can get into a situation and know who they need to talk to, and how to find the experts. So, we have a big data analytics project in our office that we’ve been working on for a while. It’s been kind of a pipe dream of mine. I was lucky enough to make some friends at Suffolk who I of course couldn’t do all the coding and build the algorithms for this, but they did, they could.
They said, “Well, can we do this as part of our class? As part of our education for our students.?” And I was of course happy to say yes, you want to do my work for me? That’s a pretty good deal. And we’ve kind of built in that partnership, just because they have the skills that I don’t have. We have people in our office whose jobs is just working with tech and working with client relationships, things that are not legal, because those are the things we don’t know. I’d say a simple analogy that I think attorneys will understand a little better is, how many of you run your own marketing campaigns versus hire someone to consult with you on marketing a little bit? Tech is no different. Or, how many of you have accountants that you go to, right? Tech is no different than that.
It seems different because it’s scary and it’s new, and I understand that fear. But at the end of the day, if you can hire an accountant, you can hire a tech expert to come in and help you. If they can’t demonstrate the value to you, then it’s not the right expert.
That’s an important takeaway for me. Because I do think lots of lawyers that have not quite grown up in the way that my own [inaudible 00:23:22] and I’m in my late 50s now. In terms of our children’s generation, computers are a very different thing. I do feel, lawyers, we are taught to problem solve and to be creative, some of us anyway. To have the ability to take the leap of faith, you don’t have to be a computer whiz kid to do this stuff. It’s about having the idea, that’s what I’m hearing, and then finding the right people to help you make that idea a reality through testing and talking to your clients. But I like that, it’s a hopeful thing to me.
Do you have any final comments you’d like to share before we wrap up?
I don’t think I said it yet, but there’s one other thing that I think is important to this as well.
Is having a culture. Because sometimes I meet attorneys and one attorney will say, “Yeah, I really love this idea, but I don’t know how to convince the other partners in my office.” Or, “I don’t think my staff would get on board with this.”
Real good point.
I mentioned earlier, you have to demonstrate the value to people. If you can’t go to them and say, “Here’s the time you’re saving. Here’s the value you’re getting out of this product, you’re never going to get buy in.” People always ask me like how do I convince people to do this. Don’t convince anyone. Because if you’re convincing, you’re starting off on the wrong foot. Show them the value. Build a culture around this where people can communicate with each other and work together on things, so that you see the issues as they arise. And if you have to be convincing people rather than them coming it because they see the value of it, then it’s not going to work. It takes buy in from team.
One really helpful way to do that is go out to them and it really do, just ask them like, “What don’t you like? What do you wish you didn’t have to do every day? What do you wish was easier for you? How can I make that happen?” Because if you get that kind of buy in or people feel ownership of it, they really take to it and they really get excited about it. We have the first of our core values, although I wouldn’t say that any is more important than others is being creative, innovative and adaptable. That’s really important in client service.
Because if you’re going to be asked, “Why should this client hire you instead of the other 15 firms in there that do the exact same type of law?” I would like to tell my clients, “Everyone else cares, everyone else does these things, but I’m going to provide a team of creative, innovative adaptive people who are going to invent new ways to better serve you.”
Yeah, that’s an important point. Thank you for sharing that. We are out of time. I would like to say thanks to Jordan. It really has been a pleasure. I’ve enjoyed our conversation today.
To our listeners, I hope you found something of value out of the conversation. If in future any of you have any ideas for a topic or if you have questions or concerns you’d like to see addressed in one of these podcasts, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at email@example.com. Thanks for listening. Bye bye.
Thanks so much.
Jordan L. Couch is an attorney and cultural ambassador at Palace Law practicing plaintiff’s workers’ compensation and PI litigation. He’s been called a legal futurist for the work he does both in and out of the office, seeking out new ways to build a more modern, client-centric law practice. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on social media @jordanlcouch.
Authored by: ALPS Guest Bloggers