My story is one about discovering the keys to working smarter by using systems and technology—which is how I shifted from a law practice filled with tedium, overwhelm and frustration to one filled with joy and peace of mind.
My story is also about how I learned to help other lawyers created their own blissful practices. Overall, it’s a lesson in what to do, and what NOT to do.
The story “officially” began in 1985…
After law school, I spent two years clerking for a well-respected federal trial judge. This is where I first learned how to work smarter, not harder.
Judge Duplantier had systems for running every aspect of his court. By the time I went to work for him in 1985 he had the fewest cases of all the judges in the Eastern District. And yet, unlike most of his colleagues, he never worked on weekends or after hours (unless he was waiting for a jury to come back from deliberations).
Judge Duplantier didn’t have to teach his clerks what to do, or how to do it. He had a 40-page document that described, systematically, all the responsibilities for each of his two clerks.
Having documented systems, and having systematic ways of doing everything that needed to be done, freed up a lot of Judge Duplantier’s time, and made his life easier. And it made my life easier too.
The other judges in the Eastern District were envious because they worked much harder than my judge. And their clerks worked harder than me. The other judges couldn’t figure out how Judge Duplantier managed to get so much done so quickly. That’s because they didn’t appreciate the power of systems.
A lot of people have trouble appreciating the power of systems. Especially lawyers in big firms, as I soon found out.
After my clerkship, I went to work for a big law firm in downtown New Orleans. It was completely exhilarating. For one thing, because I was given a fancy 40th-floor office overlooking the city.
I was assigned an amazing secretary who drafted correspondence, prepared pleadings, organized files, made copies, and even brought me coffee. The firm had a state-of-the-art library, expensive word processing computers, an office supply room with free legal pads, pens, staplers, binders, folders, and briefcases.
There was even a lunchroom with a full kitchen where you could get free popcorn and sodas anytime you wanted.
Working at the big firm was dramatically different than working for the judge. Besides all the stuff I just mentioned, I was also paid a lot more money—about twice as much money to be exact.
But there was another big difference. No one explained what I was going to be doing to earn all of that money. There were no written manuals. And no systems. Well, to be honest there were some systems, but it seemed like those evolved without much thought on anyone’s part.
Apparently, I was expected to figure things out on my own. And so I did…
I figured out what was expected of me, and I figured out how to do it well—by simply observing the other lawyers as much as I could. I made some stupid mistakes along the way —some avoidable ones, for sure— but I learned from my mistakes, and in due course I managed to make partner.
I noticed that in big firms no one cares so much how long it takes a young associate to figure things out. Obviously, because the billable hour model doesn’t place a high premium on efficiency.
So basically, the firm’s clients paid for me to figure things out.
Now, to be clear, the lawyers at my firm were exceptional at practicing law. But they were horrible at other things. For example, anything related to managing their business.
Their managerial deficiencies weren’t a big problem in the 1980s…when big firms were making money hand over fist doing things like sending associates to sit in on depositions just to observe and take notes, or by charging clients .25 cents a page for making copies.
But later on, when the economy started tanking, and clients got picky about their bills, lack of management skills became a problem. Clients wanted their work done more efficiently.
But the partners couldn’t figure out how. They had no instinct for efficiency.
Meanwhile, I started using computers because I valued efficiency and was willing to achieve it by any means possible.
I realized that computers could do a lot of work that humans did, but ten, twenty or even a hundred times faster. And computers did that work perfectly. Every time.
Computers were amazing. But you did have to figure out how to use them properly. So that’s what I worked on.
For example, I discovered powerful database software that enabled me to manage my cases with less reliance on associates or paralegals.
I discovered how to scan documents and dispense with paper, which completely eliminated the need for secretaries and paralegals. In short, I could organize documents faster, better and cheaper (without help) just by using my computer. I could find any document in seconds just by typing in search terms and letting the computer locate what I was looking for.
Having this new system made me a much more confident. I shared this discovery with my fellow lawyers, but they didn’t care.
They just thought I was weird. I felt dismayed, but kept focusing on using technology to improve the way I practiced law.
And the more I did, the more I began to realize something….
The lawyers in my firm were stubborn traditionalists who had no idea how to meet the challenges of running a firm. They had no systems. No strategies. No clues about how to manage a firm.
Of course, when technology became more prevalent in the practice of law they were especially clueless. For example…
The management committee hired a series of people to help take care of the computers we were now dependent on. But, because they had no idea how to manage the techies they hired, our computers didn’t work as well as they should have.
One of the guys they hired spent most of his time running a porn site. They discovered this after he quit. And he quit because he was making twenty times more money running his porn site than he was working in a big law firm and fixing broken PCs.
As I mentioned, when the economy turned bad, and clients started getting pickier about bills, the firm’s profitability declined dramatically. The management committee hired a consulting firm.
The consultants looked at all the ways that the firm was mismanaging and overspending. For example…
We paid an extra $70,000 per year on case reports that we were already getting via our flat-rate Westlaw online subscription. Why? To appease an old partner who occasionally liked to visit the library and look at the books.
Obviously, the consultants immediately realized there was a lot of ridiculous waste.
And so they created a report and delivered it to the management committee.The committee read the report and accepted that they needed to do cost-cutting. But guess where they started making cuts?
Remember, the free popcorn in the kitchen? Well, that was being discontinued along with the staff’s year-end bonuses.
That’s when I knew it was time to leave. But, as you might imagine, I was apprehensive about leaving a steady paycheck and starting over on my own.
After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the firm’s managerial cluelessness became even more obvious.
They no disaster recovery plan. So everything stopped working completely. For example…
After Katrina hit, we needed to send out our bills so we could collect some much-needed revenue. But the servers we needed to pull data from were back in New Orleans and we had no backup to work from.
And we couldn’t access our word processing documents because those were also on the servers back in New Orleans.
Well, I say “we” but actually…I had all of MY files on my laptop. So that’s when I started to notice a big contrast…
The firm’s email and website were down. But my email and website were up and running.
The firm wound up relying on my website and email to communicate with the outside world. Yeah, suddenly they were eager for advice on how to use technology.
I helped as much as I could. But the whole time I felt like the little pig who’d built brick house surrounded by people who whose houses were built out of straw.
That’s when I finally knew I was ready to leave the firm.
On My Own
Three months after Katrina I walked out of the firm with nothing more than my laptop. On that laptop were all of my client files and all my form documents. I had all of the information and documents that I needed to run my solo practice.
The question was whether my corporate clients would be willing to trust me with their matters now that I was a solo lawyer without massive resources or a fancy office in a tall downtown building.
Most of my clients came with me. They didn’t care if I was solo. They didn’t care if I worked from home. All they cared about was if I could do the work I needed to do, and do it cost-effectively.
And I got new clients easily because of a low-cost website, and because other lawyers around town started referring me business. They wanted to refer business to a lawyer that worked efficiently because it made them look good to whomever they referred to me. It was a win-win.
So it all worked out. I was able to create the law firm of my dreams. One that allowed me to work as much as I wanted, making as much money as I wanted—but without ridiculous overhead, oppressive billable hours, and without mindless bureaucracy.
And then, quickly after I went out on my own, other lawyers started getting interested in learning about my novel way of practicing law……