Start Here ⬇︎

I’m excited to announce the next iteration of my professional life. Start Here HQ is a consultancy that helps lawyers and legal teams design sustainable and purpose-driven practices so that they can better serve their clients while cultivating their own well being. 

I co-founded Start Here HQ with three amazing individuals. What may be even more amazing is that the four of us met on Twitter. 

In the summer of 2015 I had just launched my legal design consulting business in San Francisco when I connected with John Grant, another lawyer/consultant based in Portland. He was known as the Agile Attorney and focused on teaching lawyers how to use principles of Agile software development to work more effectively.

John and I spoke on the phone and he suggested that I connect with Jeena Cho, another attorney in the Bay Area who taught mindfulness and meditation to lawyers. John had mentioned that Jeena wanted to bring the “unconference” format from tech events to lawyers, and I was intrigued!

Jeena and I got coffee not long after that tweet, and we ended up co-founding Shape the Law as a result. We held our first unconference for women lawyers at Seyfarth Shaw’s San Francisco office in April 2016. 

In the meantime, John also connected me with Cat Moon, an inspirational attorney/consultant from Nashville, who was planning a trip to San Francisco to visit her sister.

During her visit, Cat and I connected over coffee (and also happened to bump into each other at Clancy’s Pumpkin Patch where she was shopping for jack-o-lanterns with her niece and nephew!). I remember that Cat had wanted to meet Jeena during her visit, but Jeena happened to be out of town that week. The two of them connected on the phone not long after Cat’s visit.

Since those initial conversations, the four of us have continued to collaborate and share notes. We were all committed to helping lawyers, but each of us approached it from a different angle—mindfulness, values alignment, workflow visualization, and design thinking.

Over time we came to realize that there is quite a bit of overlap in these different disciplines. I also noticed that my design work cannot reach its full impact without the benefits that come from these other areas—such as self-awareness, clarity of purpose and effective teamwork.

As the four of us discussed how we might join forces, we homed in on one of the themes that was present in all of our work: The idea that it’s important to simply start where you are—which is how we got our new name, Start Here HQ.

If you are an attorney who feels unsatisfied, stuck, or overwhelmed with your work, please reach out to us. As they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Perhaps more to the point, it’s impossible to start anywhere other than where you are. Instead of beating yourself up over the fact that you’re not yet where you want to be, simply begin.

I will maintain this website in the short term, but my work going forward will be conducted through Start Here HQ. If you’d like to learn more about what my partners and I can offer, please set up a call with me!

Meet the Lawyers Designing Tomorrow’s Practice Models

This post originally appeared on Law Practice Today.

Consultants like me, who spend a lot of time thinking about and strategizing for the future of law, often get carried away talking in broad-brush terms about the changes we see coming. Understanding the big picture is certainly important, but practitioners often find it more helpful to hear specific things that other attorneys are doing differently today to prepare for that future.

To bring you some concrete examples, I spoke with several lawyers who have built thriving practices by studying and adapting to the changes they see in their clients’ behavior. Three overlapping themes kept coming up during my conversations: communication, pricing and teamwork. These attorneys have worked hard to differentiate themselves in these three areas because doing so benefits their clients. The key takeaway: by putting the client at the center of everything you do, your practice will naturally evolve to keep up with the ever-changing landscape.

“Clients are now more savvy consumers and have lots of information at their fingertips,” notes Amanda Allen, a business and real estate lawyer in San Diego. Moreover, “consumers today are empowered to identify and appreciate good design,” says Jeff Skrysak, an attorney and legal solutions architect in Salem, Oregon. In other words, clients’ expectations are changing. Lawyers who respond to that, and who can adapt their services accordingly, are poised to thrive.

Client-centered Communication

Both the content and the delivery of client communications are changing. Lawyers with client-centered practices spend time learning what information their clients really want to know, and how they want to receive it.

A good starting place is the language you use to describe your practice. When I spoke with Madhu K. Singh, the founder of Foundry Law Group in Seattle, we talked about her unique website. Instead of touting the firm’s expertise in entity formation and IP law, the website describes the firm’s offerings from the client’s perspective: we help you build a business and protect its assets.

Rethinking client communications goes beyond the written word. Kristin LaMont, the founder of LaMont Law in Salem, Oregon, focuses on improving her clients’ retention of important information by providing it multiple times and in many different formats—including visual infographics and audio content.

Jeff Skrysak explained the firm’s reasoning as follows, “As attorneys we forget that much of what happens in a legal matter is new information to our clients. It is a new situation they’ve never been in before. They are also under stress, which distracts their attention. Therefore, we need to help the clients retain what we tell them by being repetitive and delivering the information in ways that they can easily absorb it (written, visual and auditory).”

Sometimes attorneys are hesitant to provide communications in the client’s preferred format because doing so might conflict with other professional duties. Amanda Allen, the founder of Aguirre Allen Law in San Diego, used to tell clients not to text her because it was hard to save text messages in the client file. But Allen recognized that texting was quickly becoming her clients’ preferred method of communication, so she went in search of a solution. She now uses Google Voice, which allows her to easily save text messages.

Predictable Pricing

Another theme I heard throughout my conversations is that clients want to know what legal services are going to cost up front. Allen uses fixed fees in her practice and commented that her small-business clients love it, because they can incorporate the expected cost into their business plans.

But deciding on the right amount to charge can be difficult. Allen developed her flat-fee offerings over time, after some trial and error. “You have to be smart about when and how you offer it and build parameters around the scope of work so that you do not end up in the hole,” she explained.

A subscription-based pricing model is another way to achieve predictability. Singh has always offered a subscription option, but it wasn’t very popular until a couple of years ago. In the beginning clients were unfamiliar with it and asked a lot of questions—Is it a retainer? Does it roll forward? But now that her clients are accustomed to seeing it elsewhere (HR subscription services, for example) they understand the concept. It works particularly well for clients who use her firm as a part-time GC—they may not have active issues every month, but there’s enough going on that they appreciate being able to spread out their legal fees over the course of the year. Singh notes that she does not sign up brand new clients to a subscription plan. “It’s best to do a project first to see what it’s like to work together.”

Some practice areas lend themselves more readily to that type of pricing. Singh noted that subscription-based pricing doesn’t necessarily work well for litigation. LaMont Law offers flat-fee pricing to estate-planning clients, but have not yet done so on the family law side. Skrysak, who entered law school after a career in IT, explained that the firm plans to roll out flat-fee family law services once they finish automating their internal processes.

Success Through Teamwork

The third theme to come out of my conversations—teamwork—is closely related to both pricing and communication.

Skrysak’s comments about automation allude to the fact that predictable pricing requires good processes so that individuals with different skillsets—not just people with JDs—can work together provide services efficiently. Communication also plays a critical role. For a team-based delivery system to work, all team members need to be able to quickly communicate with each other about the status of matters.

At Foundry Law Group, Singh uses a Kanban board (a workflow-visualization tool) to help her team manage and share work. They also use an open workspace, which fosters informal learning. For example, younger lawyers can overhear how Singh talks to clients on the phone. Another way in which Singh fosters team cohesion is with jigsaw puzzles. One of Foundry Law Group’s clients manufactures 1000-piece puzzles and brings new ones to the office from time to time. The puzzle-in-progress is set up right by the front door, which makes for a great conversation starter. Moreover, it provides an opportunity to have those serendipitous watercooler conversations; when team members want to take a break, they can work on the puzzle for a few minutes instead of browsing the Internet in isolation.

Allen is similarly interested in fostering cooperation among attorneys. She is the founder of Enrich, a co-working community for lawyers. As a solo practitioner, she had not been happy with her work options. “I could either work in an office in a random building or large firm, work from home, or work in a co-working space. None of those worked for me. I was intrigued with co-working because it is like having the brain trust of a law firm, while maintaining independence. However, lawyers need confidentiality and a certain level of professionalism.” Allen founded Enrich to address her frustrations and meet the specific needs of attorneys. After one year, Enrich is already full and has a waitlist. “People truly love coming to work here, and my own book of business has grown just from practicing around other great lawyers,” she said. In addition to providing office space, Enrich also offers programming for lawyers with an emphasis on business development, practice management and wellness.

The attorneys I spoke with are experiencing success because they are taking time to think strategically about how to deliver legal services effectively and affordably. This approach benefits not only their clients, but also their wider communities. It also means that their clients will come back to them or send them referrals, which ensures the future success of these firms. If these examples are any indication, the future of law is quite bright.

Trading Big Law challenges for entrepreneurial ones

This post first appeared on Hire an Esquire.

A year or so ago, I wrote a post for Hire an Esquire about leaving Big Law after having my first child. I observed that the billable-hour model is unworkable for many parents, and I resolved to redesign the Big Law business model in my new role as a legal designer.

What I’ve come to realize, however, is that the challenges I spoke of are more widespread than Big Law, and have many different causes—not just the billable hour. Solo and small-firm attorneys often struggle financially because they were never taught the business side of running a practice in law school. And many attorneys at mid- and large-size firms want to start their own practice—not to escape the billable hour, but to have a sense of purpose and autonomy—yet they have no idea how to leave.

I’ve also discovered that the challenges I faced in Big Law did not all magically disappear when I went into business for myself. Even though it’s “only me” and I theoretically have complete control over my day, I still struggle to prioritize tasks, avoid digital distractions, and be present with my family. On top of that, I had my second child earlier this year, which has added more balls to the juggling act. As evidence, I submit this photo of me scheduling a meeting from my phone in the hospital after giving birth to my son this spring:

What I’ve come to realize is that designing a purpose-driven yet sustainable career requires a lot of self-awareness and self-assessment—whether you’re a solo or a Big Law associate. But most of us were never given the tools to develop that mindfulness and self-knowledge. On top of that, we were not taught how to manage knowledge work properly to deliver high-quality services to our clients while avoiding overwhelm and burnout.

After spending time expanding my own toolbox to include meditation and Kanban (a way of visualizing my workflow), I realized that other attorneys could benefit from these tools as well. That realization led me to join forces with my new cofounders to create Start Here HQ, which helps lawyers get unstuck, find joy, and create meaning through their work.

What’s amazing is that we formed this new collective in my house with a newborn in my arms. My co-founders gladly embraced the rhythm of life with a newborn and offered tons of assistance in terms of bouncing the baby and being at the ready with a burp cloth.

Creating a work life that aligns with my strengths and values without overshadowing my role as a parent has been an incredibly exciting and empowering journey. I hope that more of us will embrace these 21st-century ways of working and come to realize that we all deserve—and can have—a purposeful and joyful career.

Legal design in the news (for the wrong reasons)

Last month a federal judge fined a law firm $1,048.09 for filing a document with the wrong line spacing. The story made the legal-news circuit, but was not covered widely. I imagine that if people on the street were told about it, their reactions might range from What on earth? to Lawyers will be lawyers .... 

Stories like this disappoint me because everyone takes away the wrong message. In this case, the rule that the law firm broke is outdated and silly. And the law firm’s skirting of the rule was inappropriate and foolish. But what worries me most is that other lawyers who hear this story will be afraid to experiment with the formatting of their own briefs for fear of a similar rebuke. And if lawyers aren’t willing to push back on these silly formatting rules (in a principled way, unlike the firm in this story), then it will be even harder to improve the typography and readability of court documents, which I believe is crucial for our society.

Here’s what happened

Like several other judges in the Southern District of New York, Judge Marrero’s individual practices include a rule that certain types of briefs must be “limited to 25 pages .... double-spaced and in 12-point font with 1-inch margins.” (This is a terrible way to format documents, but that’s another post.)

In CaféX Communications, Inc. v. Amazon Web Services, Inc., the law firm representing Amazon, Susman Godfrey, filed a 25-page brief using 12-point font, one-inch margins and 24-point line spacing. 

What’s the difference between double spacing and 24-point spacing? Let me use Microsoft Word to illustrate. If you click the line-spacing dropdown menu, you get a list of choices: 1.0, 1.15, 2.0, etc. The term 1.0 is known as single spacing and 2.0 is known as double spacing.

If you click “Line Spacing Options...” you get even more choices. You could choose, for example, to set the line spacing to “exactly” 24 points, which is what Susman Godfrey did for its brief.

So, what’s the difference? Matthew Butterick explains on his website Typography for Lawyers:

Most courts adopted their line-spac­ing stan­dards in the type­writer era. That’s why court rules usu­ally call for dou­ble-spaced lines. On a type­writer, each line is the height of the font, thus dou­ble spac­ing means twice the font size. So if you’re required to use a 12-point font, dou­ble line spac­ing means 24 points.
Curi­ously, the so-called “dou­ble” line-spac­ing option in your word proces­sor doesn’t pro­duce true dou­ble line spac­ing. Microsoft Word’s “dou­ble” spac­ing, for instance, is about 15% looser, and it varies depend­ing on the font. To get accu­rate spac­ing, you should always set it your­self, exactly.

In other words, you might think that 24-point spacing would be considered double spacing when using a 12-point font, but because Microsoft chose to define “double spacing” as something more than twice the font’s point size, that is not true if you’re typing in Word.

Because 24-point spacing is tighter than “double spacing,” you can fit more lines of text on each page. By using 24-point spacing, Susman Godfrey was able to submit a brief that appeared to comply with the 25-page page limit, but was in fact “substantially longer.” (Although I was not able to obtain the original brief from the case, I ran my own experiment in Word and it looks like Susman Godfrey may have gained an extra 4.3 pages by doing this.)

According to Judge Marrero, Susman Godfrey deliberately flouted this rule in an attempt to gain some slight advantage in litigation. Because Susman Godfrey acted deliberately, the judge ordered it to submit a revised, compliant brief and to tell the court how much it cost to do so. Susman Godfrey said it cost $1,048.09 to resubmit the brief, and the judge decided to impose a fine in the same amount to deter similar conduct in the future. 

Here’s why this is all so silly

This story might cause you to scratch your head for a number of reasons:

  1. Imposing a page limit (as opposed to a word-count limit) is outdated. Word processors give us much more control over the formatting of our documents than typewriters did. Two documents with the same exact word count can take up a different number of pages depending on how they are formatted. Line spacing isn’t the only variable. If the court used a word-count limit instead, no one could “game the system” by tinkering with formatting.
  2. Even if Susman Godfrey’s trick had gone unnoticed, it’s unlikely that the extra four pages would have given it an advantage. Judges generally prefer shorter briefs that get to the point. Lawyers’ tendency to write right up to the page limit annoys a lot of judges.
  3. If an attorney really felt that she needed more than 25 pages to make her argument, Judge Marrero’s rules allow her to ask for an extension of the page limit. (Though, to be fair, he says that he will “entertain” such requests “only in rare cases where the facts and issues are particularly complex.”)

If this choice by Amazon’s attorneys really was a deliberate attempt to get around the page limit without having to ask for an extension (which most likely would have been denied), then it’s a prime example of why people can't stand lawyers. This is crummy behavior on a number of levels. 

On the other hand, I think there’s a possibility that the lawyers didn’t think they were “breaking” the rule. They may have thought that 24-point spacing of 12-point text would count as “double spacing” and thus technically comply with the judge’s rule. In their eyes they were simply picking their preferred interpretation of “double spacing.” (Or, possibly, they didn’t even think about this distinction at all and didn’t realize they were getting an extra four pages.)

Given the origin of the term double spacing, I don’t think this is a totally unreasonable argument. Moreover, other courts explicitly allow even greater variations. In California, for example, the court rules impose page limits on briefs but allow them to be either “one and one-half spaced or double-spaced.” Using 1.5 line spacing instead of double spacing allows for approximately 9.5 extra pages if you’re working with a 25-page page limit! 

Curiously, I have never seen a brief filed in California state court that was not double spaced (or at least 24-point spaced). Perhaps California lawyers are simply unaware that they have this choice, or perhaps they assume that all California judges have a strong preference for double spacing—as Judge Marrero apparently does!

I worry that this story will discourage lawyers from learning about typography and will cause them to interpret court formatting rules as conservatively as possible. Instead of using formatting tricks to flout the rules and gain a perceived advantage over one’s opponent, I wish more lawyers would learn how to use typography to improve the readability of their briefs. If more judges saw how typography could be used to make their jobs easier, perhaps we could persuade them to change the outdated court rules that perpetuate bad typography.