Its time for my first annual retreat and thats what Ill be doing for the next few days.
I would be the first to admit that the whole notion of a law firm retreat strikes fear in the heart of any law firm partner who has ever attended one, for good reason, but it strikes me that now is the right time for this kind of exercise and I am determined to try to do it right.
I have three things working in my favor. First, we were able to obtain world-class law firm retreat speaker Dennis Kennedy to speak at our retreat. I cant wait to hear what he will have to say about effective use of technology in the practice of law, where the practice is headed and, in particular, the notion of client-driven technologies. Second, I have vowed to avoid at all costs the three worst features of most law firm retreats and partner meetings interminable and aimless discussions of associate reviews, contentious debate over amendments to the partnership agreement that seem like they should be non-controversial but you cannot figure out exactly why people are so exercised over, and lengthy explanations of firm finances backed up by indecipherable spreadsheets displayed in fonts to small to read. All of these have been banned from our annual retreat. Third, we have an agenda that has real and substantive issues.
Heres the current agenda:
1. Where the Heck are We Today? I started my solo practice a little over a year ago. If you subtract out the time it took for a longer-than-expected recovery from minor surgery, Im really at a good one-year point and we are halfway through 2004. Its a good point from which to step back and assess everything, including whether the use of the royal “we” for a solo practice is appropriate.
2. Eating My Own Dog Food. I know, this phrase all but belongs to Microsoft, but it makes a lot of sense for me today. Why do the shoemakers children never have new shoes? Several of my smartest and best advisors have recently asked me the question: What advice would you give yourself if you came in as a consultant to yourself? That strikes me as a very good question.
I have great advice and ideas that I give and would like to give to clients. How good am I at implementing that advice in my own business? Whats the holdup? Lets tally things up and see where my practice stands based on my own principles and the practices I advocate and discuss in my articles and presentations. Among other things, portfolio management is a key item.
3. The Blow Out Epiphany. Theres a new reality show on Bravo called Blow Out, which follows the startup of a new shop for Jonathan Antins hairdressing business in Hollywood. I saw an episode last week and then caught another episode and a repeat this weekend. To my credit (even though my wife spotted it sooner), I realized halfway through the second show that I watched that I was watching myself in Jonathan, or at least what I was heading toward becoming. What were the clues? Oh, things like watching him install outlet boxes, physically switch phone lines, and generally try to do everything himself when he has a group of great people around him. The question: am I trying to do too many things myself? What do I do about it? To those of my friends who have been hinting to me about this – I think I'm finally starting to get your point, but you might want to be a little more direct next time – remember the 2 by 4 and mule metaphor.
4. Collaboration Opportunities and Necessities. By the way, I dont have to think too hard to know what the answers are to the questions in point 3. The real issue is to decide what to do about it, especially since I increasingly realize that I am in regular contact with the largest group of bright, accomplished people who I admire and trust than Ive ever been around in my life. Its a virtual group rather than a local group, but I think that raises mainly logistical issues.
At least three topics on the table:
A. The virtual legal secretary or administrative assistant. I had a great conversation at ABA TECHSHOW with Sharon Quaintance at Law Docs Express about what they are doing in the area of virtual legal secretaries and how that might help me. Its time to follow-up. [Note: Done! Email sent.]
B. Hiring the proverbial bright college summer / part-time intern. I have too many projects that are close to done that require work that Im not finding time to do. Its frustrating. I had a phone call last week where I was advocating the use of a college intern in another context and gradually realized that it also makes sense for me as well. Nailing down the idea, putting together the job description and ad are all on the agenda. If you are reading this and might be interested or know someone who might be interested, let me know.
C. Throwing Open the Doors on Potential Collaborative Projects and Relationships. This is the big one, but it makes so much sense. Ive already started to do more co-written articles, so, psychologically, Im more open to the concept than I have been in the past. However, I really want to throw the doors open and consider a wide variety of ideas, projects and other relationships, with the idea of making myself more web-like than silo-like. If youve ever wanted to work with me on something on float a collaborative idea by me, now is the time. For example, Im thrilled with whats happening as a result of joining the Advisory Board of LegalRA.com, a new entry into the legal research world that gets many, many things right and is creating a fantastic tool that includes several important features that I have wanted for a long time. Check it out and tell them I sent you. (Ill write more about this in the future, but the My Library section of the service is what will blow people away.)
Let me restate the obvious. I've said this many times in many ways, but the current world of legal bloggers is tailor-made for jump-starting collaborative efforts.
5. The Product Line. Im sitting on more content and intellectual property than many people dream about. Its a matter of unlocking it and turning it into products. Thats a huge priority for me this summer and a big piece of the hiring an intern idea.
6. Services as Products and Packages. If the billable hour model is busted, then flat rates, service packages and products are clearly the way to go. Its a matter of creating the packages and then marketing to the right people in a way that they can understand. Thats easier said than done.
Here are two illustrations:
A. Executive Review Express. I offer a reasonable flat rate service where I will review and give you comments and negotiating approaches on an IT agreement or software license within one day or three days, as you choose. Many people have been very curious about how successful this package has been, because they think it is a compelling package, especially since both other lawyers and my own clients could use the service. My conclusion is that the results to date have been disappointing. I believe that the problem is one of marketing rather than concept, but Im not sure.
B. Put Dennis on Your Technology Committee. When I came up with this idea, I thought it was the best business idea I ever had. The concept: for a fixed price, you get Dennis to take an overview survey of your firms technology, participate by phone in your firms tech committee meetings, and take advantage of my expertise and industry contacts. Brilliant, right? Ive found no interest whatsoever. Again, is the problem marketing, conceptual, or, as I now believe, institutional (an unwillingness to bring outsiders in to see, if you will, how the sausage is made)?
On the agenda creating and marketing these types of approaches. Help me out on with some reactions to this idea. One of my uniquenesses is that I practice computer law at a high level and Im also one of few attorneys who understand what software is out there, how it is and can be used, et al. Given that, why wouldnt someone want a package where I audit your existing software licenses and help you set up license management practices? As a benefit, you also get my insights into software practices, program usage, purchasing methods that dont make practical sense. Other idea fragments on packages – Your IT General Counsel, Total License Audit, Helpdesk for Your IT Contract Administrators.
6. The Latent Market for Business Legal Services. Richard Granat and others have spoken and written for years about the latent market for legal services. To drastically over-simplify, the idea is that there is a large middle class group of people who have definite needs for legal services, but who cannot afford, do not understand the benefit of, or otherwise do not use the services of lawyers. As a result, they go it alone or do nothing, often to their detriment.
I believe that the same idea applies in the business context. In the latent market for business legal services, you find a large number of businesses where owners, executives (often CFOs) and others make seat of the pants legal decisions on their own for many of the same reasons Granat and others discuss. Another portion of this market routinely under lawyers the problem – i.e., uses a general lawyer for issues that should be addressed by lawyers who practice in the specific area. An example would be a company that has its real estate lawyer looking over software licenses.
In either case, mistakes are likely to be made. When I describe my practice as providing consumer protection for businesses entering into important technology contracts, I have the picture of this latent market for business legal services in mind. These are the people I can and want to help. At the annual retreat, I want to take some time to think about this concept, its implications and approaches to target this latent market, especially in ways that take advantage of Internet delivery of services, products and collaborative efforts.
7. Channels, Sponsorships and Advertising. Earlier this year, I did a small experiment with sponsoring and advertising with respect to my web efforts, given that my website drew over a million hits last year. The pace is even higher this year and the percentage of hits going to my blog has reached 60%. As a result, you will find logo sponsorships from CaseSoft, Fios, Worldox and Tabs 3 on various pages on my website. Ive all-but-decided to forego writing product reviews and turn my focus instead to using the Dennis Kennedy channel to create a limited number of sponsorships from vendors that I like and would recommend, are doing cool things, or make sense for my audience. The upcoming redesign of my website will reflect more of this channel approach. In the legal space, it is still unclear if this approach will be approved (and in what form) and how best to do it. Unfortunately, there have been recent stirrings in ethics regulations that more restrictive advertising regulations of all kinds are ahead for lawyers, with a justification/focus of the dignity of the profession involved. Since a vocal group of lawyers have suggested that lawyers should not mention the fact that they like such common things as NASCAR on their blogs (I guess that the #48 decal of Jimmy Johnson I put on my laptop to help keep an eye on it during airport screenings would be problematic to them as well), the howls about advertising or sponsorships on law firm websites will probably be forthcoming. My reaction: get a life!
8. New Tech. No, not stuff I want. I want to look into technologies that make sense for me, my clients and the delivery of legal services. No mysteries here I write regularly about these things in my articles and on my blog. The big one that I keep rolling around in my head is web services (the dot Net variety, e.g., MySmartChannels)). Personal KM, CaseMap 5, OneNote, Tablet PCs, RSS, and generation 2 document assembly are other good examples.
9. The Impending Health Insurance Crisis. Theres no question that I love my move out of the firm environment and my new approach. However, the fly in the ointment is health insurance namely a COBRA election that will run out this fall. Although I hate the idea of hanging out a will take employment for health insurance sign, the fact remains that the health insurance system is a disaster area for small businesses, the fact that health insurance availability is so tied to traditional employment in a society that increasingly sees independent businesses is a train wreck waiting to happen, and I dont see anything in the current election campaign that gives me a good feeling. If you have ideas, I want to hear them, but both pricing issues and availability issues can easily move any solo business (including mine) back to an employment model. Thats going to take some thought.
10. Other Ideas Rattling Around. I have a bunch of notes, ideas, lists, articles, books and the like that I need to take some time to pay attention to and think about. I have a lot of follow-up to do just on people Ive met in the last few months. Lots of ideas for clients, friends, readers of this blog and others. There is the small matter of collecting and harvesting those, turning them into action items using the David Allen model, and then working with my priorities advisor, Wendy Werner, to develop a solid going-forward approach. Im energized and I havent even started yet.