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Matthew Butterick on ‘Little Big Firms’

Below is the complete interview I did with Matthew Butterick on the topic of how small firms can do many things better than larger firms, if they use technology intelligently. The 'little big firm' catch-phrase arose in this post I did a few weeks ago.

(Sorry for the delay, but I was at the ABA TechShow in Chicago last week and too enthralled with all of the great speakers and the great information that they shared —more on that soon!)


Matthew, you are currently a solo lawyer. What, if any, are your experiences with large firm culture? 

I didn't go to law school wanting to be a big-firm lawyer — I wanted to work solo or in a small firm. So I never worked in a big firm. My wife did her 2L summer at a big firm. In my work as a lawyer, I've been opposite some big-firm lawyers. As part of other business dealings, I've also been a client of some big-firm lawyers.

I know it's traditional to draw a divide between the big-firm and small-firm worlds. I even had a law-school professor who taught a civil-litigation class and described them as the two “hemispheres” of legal practice. And on obvious levels, some of those contrasts are true. For clients with big, multinational problems, the solution is a big, multinational law firm. A solo attorney in a home office just isn't going to cut it. 

But as someone coming into a legal industry in the midst of a significant retrenchment, I've also noticed some similarities. For instance, partners in large firms are expected to bring in their own clients, and when they stop being able to do that, they face consequences. (Google “de-equitization.”) It seems to me that large firms increasingly operate as a network of solo attorneys — the partners — who find it convenient to share infrastructure and refer work to each other. Maybe there was an era where big firms were organized more communally, and maybe some firms that persist in that approach, but it seems to be on the wane.

Also, as a new attorney, I've had plenty of friends from UCLA who have had problems finding a job, or have gotten laid off from big firms, or have had other career disruptions. The traditional wisdom that big firms provide stable employment has gone out the window. So folks who thought they would be fourth-year associates by now have had to hustle and make other opportunities — in other words, behave like solo attorneys.

Do you have the sense that there are certain kinds of legal problems that solo or small firm lawyers can handle today that they wouldn't have been able to handle 10 or 15 years ago? And, if so, what factors have changed to make that possible?

I wasn't a practicing lawyer 10–15 years ago. But obviously lawyers have benefited from the same advances in office technology that have buoyed everyone else: high-speed internet connections, high-resolution color printers, internet-capable cell phones. 

Though I would add a key qualifier onto all of these: not only are they available, they are all cheap. I had a T1 connection to my office in 1998 — I don't even want to think about what it cost. But these days, my $20 / month DSL connection does the job just as well.

The changes in economic incentives play out in three ways. 

First, big cases cost less. This one everyone knows about. For instance, in civil litigation, discovery is the big cost driver. Handling stuff digitally cuts a lot of cost and complexity.

Second, cases that were formerly too small to handle can cross over into profitability. This one is sometimes overlooked. But when I think about taking a case, I can count on a certain irreducible number of court filings, communications with opposing counsel, and so on, regardless of the ultimate case value. By making those fixed costs cheaper, I can afford to do smaller cases. 

And by “smaller” I don't mean small claims. In a place like LA, there ends up being a lot of clients whose cases are too small to interest LA litigators who pay for offices and secretaries. They're not going to take a contingency case with $20K in likely settlement value. But can I do that case profitably? No problem. 

Third, the shift toward the internet allows me to protect my time better. I don't bill at $350/hr, but I don't have any more hours in my day than the $350/hr guy. Letters, phone calls, personal meetings — to a solo attorney, those are forms of regressive taxation. I'll do them when I must, but if I can handle those issues with email, I will.

If one of your friends at a big firm confided that they planned to leave to start their own solo firm what advice would you give them as far as mustering key resources needed to practice law in today's market?

My advice wouldn't be any different than any other new client-services business. You need a source of capital (the cheaper the better). You need patience. You need to be comfortable with risk, and the fact that outflows tend to be steady, but inflows can be erratic.

And then you need clients. To get clients, you have to compete successfully, and my view is that the essence of competition is differentiation. This is something people grasp intellectually but it doesn't always translate into action. Too many solo-attorney websites say bland things like “What makes me different is my commitment to client service.” Well, no. You're a lawyer. You're supposed to be committed to your clients.

In California, we have relatively liberal rules about referral fees. So for someone going solo here, another consideration is whether you want to be marketing yourself to clients or to other attorneys. There's always a niche to be filled, if you look closely enough.

Furthermore, the legal profession is so gigantic and diverse that not only is it important to differentiate, it ought to be relatively easy, because most niches are still big enough to sustain a solo attorney.

Many solo lawyers either don't have websites, or their only web presence is through a third-party service like Westlaw or some other vendor of legal services. How important is it for solo and small firm lawyers to have a custom website? And for what's your response to those who say it's too expensive or complicated to get a personalized website?

These days, having no website is like having no voicemail. It’s a basic expectation among potential clients. Even one page with your name, address and phone is better than nothing. 

Past that, I have something I semi-jokingly call Butterick's First Law of Typography, which is that “given multiple documents, readers will make more judgments based on typography as they find it harder to make judgments based on substance.” 

That principle applies equally to websites. The message is more important than the presentation. But if  other lawyers have a similar message, presentation becomes more important. 

Lawyers sometimes suffer from an imagination deficit when it comes to this stuff. I can't count how many lawyer websites I've seen that have a picture of a gleaming office building on the home page. What message is that supposed to send? “I need your business because my rent is so high?” You can do better.

That's where a professional designer can help. A designer can help take something that's substantively not that differentiated and put a novel spin on it. If all 20 of your biggest competitors have office buildings on their home pages, it's not going to be hard to break out of bland land. 

Is that more expensive? Sure. But what's really expensive is having potential clients ignore you because they can't tell the difference between you and everyone else.

What about Blogging? 

I'm a contrarian on blogging. I know the conventional wisdom for the last few years has been that lawyers who want to promote themselves online should start a blog. I think it's a bad idea. Not because blogging is intrinsically bad. But blogs are sort of like puppies. Easy to get one; expensive to maintain one. You can never stop writing and promoting it. 

For most lawyers, when you compare that investment of time to other marketing activities, it doesn't pay out. Two exceptions: lawyers who have already established themselves as an authority on a topic, and blogs that cover a niche practice area whose practitioners would benefit from a blog.

What's your take on lawyers that have email addresses that end in .hotmail, .aol, .yahoo. or .gmail? And, assuming that they don't have their own domains because they're simply intimidated by the prospect of obtaining a domain and setting up email with that domain, what can you say to diminish their stress?

Three big problems with free email services. First, they have very aggressive spam filters that sometimes discard legitimate inbound messages. The filters have improved, but why take chances that you'll miss something important. Second, some of them tack ads onto your outgoing messages. Not exactly classy. Third, given that having your own domain name for email is so easy, persisting with an AOL-type address signals a slight cluelessness.

I'll make an exception for Google Mail because I've always found it significantly better engineered than the others. I get my primary email boxes through Rackspace ($2 per box per month) and then I have copies of all my mail sent to a Google Mail account that acts as a searchable archive. Having two email services also means that if one goes down, I can use the other.

But you can also use Google Mail as your primary service as part of the Google Apps for Business. Google will get your domain registered and then set up email (and everything else) for you. So “intimidation” is no longer an acceptable excuse. It's very easy.

Are there any areas of your practice where you could spend money or effort to look more like a big firm, but opt not to? 

(For example, I spend the money to be able to print postage, through a company called Endicia. They charge $15/month just to have the service, and then whatever the postage is. I like the “professional aura” that metered mail creates, but I understand that some lawyers think stamps are fine)

I have the Endicia service with the Dymo printer. By far my favorite office gadget! They don't charge me a monthly fee so I guess I'm ahead of both of you guys. 

But you mention “professional aura.” Every solo attorney has their habits that they consider signifiers of professionalism. Each of us will pay for those, and not for the others. Metered mail? For me, that rates a zero. But obviously, I have a weakness for luxury fonts, which many lawyers are immune to.

That said, I'm generally averse to things that with a fixed recurring expense of more than $10 a month. Metered mail would be the smallest example. I don't have an answering service or even a dedicated phone line — instead, I have a Skype number with voicemail. I don't have office staff — I have a personal assistant who helps me out from her apartment. I don't have an office — I work at home and have a UPS Store mailbox. 

Bear in mind that in a prior career, I had a big office in downtown San Francisco, a salaried staff of 15, and even a postage meter. What I remember most about those times is “geez, I didn't need all those people. I just needed to make myself more productive.” So these days, I keep my office indulgences restricted to a few fonts. If it doesn't save me time, I don't need to buy it.

And that reaches back to a premise of your project: how to look more like a big firm. I'm a solo attorney by choice. I want to look like a big firm sometimes — for instance, if I'm in court, opposing a big firm, I want my work product to look just as good as theirs.

But beyond that, I don't care about looking like a big firm. Because at a certain point, it becomes an exercise in puffing yourself up to seem like something you're not. Being candid about who I am and how I do my work really makes it easier for me to find compatible clients and projects. I ran across a solo attorney who had rented space with one of these office-suite networks and his website said something like “I have 12 offices across Southern California.” Seriously, dude? If you're uncomfortable just being yourself, the solo-attorney path is probably not for you.

You spent a lot of time and effort writing the book Typography for Lawyers, which strives to make lawyers aware of the importance of typography in their practice. Have you been pleased with the responses you've gotten? And to the extent you've encountered resistance, what parts of your advice do lawyers seem to have the most trouble accepting or understanding?

I can't complain at all about the response I've gotten. I expected TFL to be an obscure little project, to be enjoyed by a few dozen like-minded attorneys. So each new wave of enthusiasm still surprises me. 

Resistance — a little, here and there. I'm sure someone will always want to step up to argue in favor of two spaces after a period. or about why Times New Roman is empirically superior. That's OK. Lawyers get irrationally superstitious about many things. Typography is no different. They worry about consequences. Once they find out there are no consequences, the resistance ebbs. I'm starting to get emails like “I totally thought you were wrong about one space after a sentence, but then I finally tried it and …” You can guess the rest.

Can you tell me to what extent you minimize the use of paper and share any challenges you encountered in reducing your reliance on paper.

Paperlessness is easy for me because I never had an existing paper dependency to overcome. When I started practicing law a few years ago, the tools were good enough that I just committed to PDF and never worried about it. Like a lot of solos I have the Fujitsu ScanSnap. I switched back to the Mac early in my practice, which helped because I find the Mac has superior file-handling and desktop-search functions, especially if you learn a few command-line tricks.

To be fair to those who resist paperlessness, some parts are harder than they ought to be, and I'm a technically adept guy. I see three realms of paperlessness. 1) Paperless communications: email instead of letters and faxes. That's easy. 2) Paperless storage: PDFs instead of filing cabinets. That's easy too. 3) Paperless search & retrieval: that's not so easy. I have to do a fair amount of pre-processing to get my PDFs into a usable state. I want to be able to type something into my desktop search and boom, there's page #3206 produced by defendant #8. So I can understand why some attorneys still like to put things in binders and add colored tabs. It's simple and it works.

Any other tips for solos as far as technology and productivity tools?

1) Free stock photos

You can search Flickr's collection of Creative Commons-licensed photos and use them on your website, for free. Make sure you're using photos under the standard CC “Attribution” license (you can limit your search to these). On my website, I have a rotating selection of photos, many of which are from Flickr.

2) Business cards

I like 4× for cards, but the fact that you have to submit your own design makes it difficult for most lawyers. So I just launched my own card-printing service called TFL Print Shop. At TFL Print Shop, I've already designed the cards — you just plug in the fields. They're also printed by letterpress, which I think gives the nicest results.

3) Harvest

Web-based time and expense tracker. Simple & indispensable.

4) Basecamp

Web-based project management. Many people in law have never heard of it, but everyone who works on a project with me ends up getting their own account. Free trial.

5) Don't take calls from other lawyers unless they're scheduled

This will sound hard-hearted to some, but for me, an inbound phone call is just as much an interruption as someone walking into the office unannounced. My policy: make an appointment. 

6) The best place to spend your technology dollars

Multiple large LCD screens. You don't need a fast computer for all the email and word processing you'll be doing. Nice screens will last you years and genuinely make you more productive.

7) Get trained in Microsoft Word & Adobe Acrobat

You'll be using them every day, and if you don't understand how they work, you'll be suffering daily.


P.S. If you're a practicing lawyer, check out this Law Practice Assessment . After answering a few questions, you'll get detailed recommendations for improving five key areas of your practice.

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