For this week’s podcast, Aaron and Sam discuss whether lawyers should learn to code, and Sam talks with Davis Senseman about what it is like to create a small business law practice from the ground up.
Developing an Innovative Small-Business Practice, with Davis Senseman
Davis founded Davis Law Office in 2010 after nearly a decade of practicing in the corporate department of a larger law firm. Armed with this experience and knowledge of legal solutions used by large entities, she set out to bring the same level of service to smaller organizations and individuals. Davis now teaches the Business Law Clinic at Mitchell | Hamline School of Law and serves on the boards of PFund Foundation, the Midwest’s only LGBTQ community foundation and Still Kickin, a non-profit dedicated to building a braver, more supportive world.
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Sam Glover: Hi, I’m Sam Glover.
Aaron Street: I’m Aaron Street. This is episode 88 of The Lawyerist Podcast, where we talk with Davis Senseman about her creative approach to small business law practice.
Sam Glover: Today’s podcast is sponsored by Xero: Beautiful legal accounting, simplified. Find out more at Xero.com. That’s X-E-R-O.com.Aaron
Aaron Street: Today’s podcast is also sponsored by Ruby Receptionists. Ruby answers our phones at Lawyerist so that we don’t have to worry about getting interrupted when we’re being productive, and we love the job that they do for us. You can visit Ruby at CallRuby.com/Lawyerist to get a risk-free trial with Ruby.
Sam Glover: Aaron, today I want to bring up a topic that has sort of become a hot topic. That is the question whether lawyers ought to learn to code. Meaning, should lawyers be able to write software code, build their own software, build their own web apps, things like that? It’s come up in a variety of contexts, and most recently, our own David Colarusso did a three part series that is actually part of the materials to a class he’s teaching to law students, but it is sort of walking through the basics of learning to code and building your own fairly basic law bot. It’s sort of the getting your toe through the doorway kind of course, and it’s really cool, and you should check it out, but he does start out with a very brief discussion of learning to code where he presents three sort of perspectives on whether or not lawyers should learn to code. The interesting thing is that all three of them believe that, yes, lawyers ought to. I thought it might be interesting to talk about that.
Aaron Street: As soon as he wrote those posts, I bookmarked them for later, because I am intrigued to follow along and do some of this learning. As to the question of whether lawyers, as a general proposition, should learn to code, I feel like I have very strong mixed feelings about that.
Sam Glover: Let me propose that asking whether lawyers ought to learn to code is not the same as asking whether lawyers ought to build their own software.
Aaron Street: No question.
Sam Glover: In general, I think the idea that lawyers should be building software as part of their practices is mostly wrong.
Aaron Street: Although we know a bunch of solo and small firm lawyers who are actually building really cool software on their own, on the side, to help their law practices.
Sam Glover: That’s true, and if you want to do that, and you feel like you have the time or the inclination, then that’s awesome. I guess the question is really about, should coding be part of the law school curriculum, in an ideal world?
Aaron Street: You lay out David’s three arguments for, and I’ll tell you why I’m not convinced.
Sam Glover: David puts together sort of three personas that he calls the disruptors, the liberal arts majors, and the pragmatists. For each of them, he says kind of, “This is the perspective on why this group of people would believe that you might need to learn to code.” For disruptors, these are the people who believe that coding is just a tool in the toolbox of the modern lawyer, that coding is a force multiplier that allows you to become faster, better, and stronger as a lawyer. For the liberal arts majors, he believes that coding is sort of like logical thinking. Of course lawyers should learn to do it, because it’s sort of the way that you think online. It’s the way that you build things. It’s more about self-improvement and knowledge than actually putting it into practice. Then, he says the pragmatists, learning to code is more about literacy. It’s about knowing how things work so that you can call BS on tools and technology tools that aren’t going to solve problems, but also so that you can know what you can do and be more effective with it.
I think I’m sort of a pragmatist slash liberal arts major under his sort of three-part thing. Then, I suppose there’s the naysayers, which he doesn’t really spend much time on, and those who believe that lawyers shouldn’t learn how to code. That’s somebody else’s job.
Aaron Street: I guess my feeling is, for the disruptors category, those people have already self-identified. We don’t need to talk about who should be a disruptor. If you feel like you’ve got an idea for how to hack the law, you’re already doing it, and you don’t need any motivation from us. You may very well want David’s resources on what’s the first step to take, but I think that one’s kind of off the table as far as, “Should lawyers learn to code?”
Sam Glover: Those lawyers are learning to code, regardless.
Aaron Street: Right. They’re going to do it on their own, whether we tell them to or not. The pragmatist perspective is the most compelling to me, in the similar vein to the conversations you and I have been having on this podcast about tech competence, which is, coding is a part of the future that is happening, and therefore having some minimal, reasonable understanding of it just so you know what’s going on in the world, I find that moderately compelling, which, again, doesn’t mean you need to build software, but it might mean you need to understand conceptually what the difference between front end, and back end, and SQL, and Ruby, and these things are, but really at a basic, bare competence level, and even then it’s kind of a “maybe” in my mind.
I find the least compelling argument to be the liberal arts one, because I think lawyers constantly get in this trap of, “Lawyers are so smart, and therefore with reading half a book, I can know anything, and I can be an expert in medicine, because I practice med mal, and I can be an expert in coding because all I have to do is read half a book.” That attitude gets lawyers in the weirdest traps where they’re forgoing paying client work in order to work on their own WordPress website, rather than just hiring someone who is an expert in that. There’s a reason people are experts in things, and why you’re a professional lawyer, and other people are professional accountants, and all this … I am a liberal arts advocate in general, but all this dabbling that lawyers get into is just so unproductive.
Sam Glover: I think that’s right. I think I fall more …
Aaron Street: That’s my rant.
Sam Glover: Yeah. I mean, I am a liberal arts major, as a matter of fact.
Aaron Street: As am I.
Sam Glover: I tend to do things like that generally, but I agree that that’s not the most productive. Me building my own websites has never been all that productive. It’s more because I want to.
Aaron Street: It’s because you more fall into the disruptor category.
Sam Glover: Potentially. I think I like the pragmatist’s side of things, where of course you need to understand how things work, this is kind of a part of it. I guess I’ll take a moment to share, at one point I got fed up with Windows because it was terrible, and I decided, kind of just on a whim, to try using Linux. I don’t want to go into a long digression about this, but I ended up using Linux for two years. Ubuntu Linux, which is a different operating system, right? It’s not Windows. It’s not Mac. It’s Linux, and it powers most of the web servers on the internet. One of the things I realized about using it is sort of what a network really is. Linux is built as a networking tool, whereas Windows has always tried to hide that. You just install Windows, and you make yourself an administrator, and you never really think about what’s going on underneath, what kind of security is going on. The way your computer is talking to other computers.
After using Linux for a little while, the entire way that networks and the internet work made so much more sense to me, just by dabbling in that. Then, recently, another lawyer, David Zvenyach, who does code, and has written about lawyers and coding …
Aaron Street: And who was on the podcast.
Sam Glover: Right, and who we’ve had on the podcast. He was walking me through setting up a database on a web server and connecting it to a front end app, and all of a sudden there was this moment where it blew my mind, and I got how cloud software works. All of a sudden, I appreciated how Clio, and MyCase, and FreshBooks, and Basecamp, and Gmail were put together. I couldn’t go out and make them, but it just, all of a sudden, it snapped for me, where I understood how it all works. I think once you understand it, it demystifies and simplifies software and even hardware in a way that lets you appreciate what’s possible. Before you get to that point, all that’s possible is what you can pay for and what somebody provides you, but if you start realizing, “Oh, I get how APIs work,” which is kind of what David’s learning to code course will show you, everything about the internet makes so much more sense. I think you do have a better appreciation for what kinds of tools you can bring to law practice.
Aaron Street: I totally get that, and as a liberal arts advocate, I am hyper curious about everything I see. You and I read widely, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. The question, though, is whether it is fair to say, as a general prospective, whether we are supposed to be prescribing for all lawyers, generally, that you must learn to code, or that you must spend two years dabbling in Linux. The answer can’t be that you all have to do what Sam Glover did, as far as experimenting with technology. Therefore, I’m not sure that the answer has to be, “You have to learn how to code.” Maybe it will, and maybe the lawyers who didn’t learn to code will be left behind in 10 years. I have no idea about that, but I don’t think it’s yet the case that lawyers have to learn how to code.
Sam Glover: I’m not comfortable saying that lawyers have to learn to code, but I am very …
Aaron Street: Some people are advocating that.
Aaron Street: I want to take those courses, but if I was a mid-career, small firm, family law attorney in Columbus, Ohio, I’m not sure that that has to be on the list anymore than learning how the Federal Reserve works and learning how nutrition and metabolic disorders work. These are things that, in theory, curious people should all know a little bit about everything, about how the world works, but I don’t want to prescribe that for everyone.
Sam Glover: I’m going to throw in here, this is a little bit of a tangent, but it’s related, I promise. In talking with some of the lawyers at the Clio Cloud Conference last … Well, it would be two weeks ago by the time you hear this. This idea, in my head, started forming about the way that modern lawyers … We think of lawyers who, sometimes they’ll get an idea for a product or a software product, they go out and build it, and then we talk about them as if they’re leaving law practice. Very often, they haven’t left law practice. They’ve just figured out a different way to deliver legal services.
I guess maybe what I’m thinking is that by opening up the window, by learning how to code, learning what’s possible, it lets you see a different way of serving clients and solving legal problems, and part of me thinks that, as new possibilities come online, new ways of serving clients by building tools that fix things, like this parking ticket app, like a service that allows lawyers to build a referral network that makes them look more like a giant, spread out firm, and other things, as these possibilities come out there, you can stop thinking about serving just one client’s legal needs, and start thinking about solving that legal problem for anyone who comes to you.
Aaron Street: Specifically, and this is kind of more on that disruptor side, it used to be the case that if you wanted to be a lawyer who did software, you had to quit your law practice and start a software company. Now, because it is easy to learn to code, we know lawyers who aren’t getting rid of their practice. In fact, they’re building the software themselves to support their practice. Our friend Tom Martin, from TBD Law, just today announced that he’s putting what he calls “the law robot” on Facebook, and this is a chat bot on Facebook that, in California … I’m not advocating for it, it’s just, like, what he’s doing. That it’s a free chat bot, on Facebook, to form a California corporation for free using his chat bot.
Sam Glover: Very cool.
Aaron Street: He’s just doing this as a side project to help solve a legal need for free, to test out his software abilities, and potentially to drive traffic to his firm having nothing to do with free corporations.
Sam Glover: That’s really neat. Love that.
Aaron Street: We know other people who are doing similar things. On that side, if you can learn how to code, you can just build cool little tools that will support your practice, and solve access to justice questions, or disrupt existing competitors, et cetera. That part’s cool.
Sam Glover: It seems like we’re arriving at, “No, lawyers shouldn’t have to learn to code, but if you want to, it can open a lot of possibilities and you might be able to practice law in a completely different way.”
Aaron Street: You shouldn’t have to do it, but if you do, we will think you’re cool, and you’ll probably be on the podcast.
Sam Glover: That sounds about right. I’ll use that as my transition. Let’s move to my conversation with Davis.
Davis Senseman: My name is Davis Senseman, and I’m the founder of Davis Law Office, which was started as a strictly transactional, corporate-type firm for small and growing businesses, and have evolved into a pretty full service firm that still has quite a bit of emphasis on serving the needs of business owners, but we have expanded to also practice in the areas of family law and estate planning.
Sam Glover: You’re about six years from start now, right?
Davis Senseman: Yes.
Sam Glover: Congratulations.
Davis Senseman: Thank you.
Sam Glover: I’ve always felt like every small business administration cites the same figure, about 90% of small businesses fail within five years. I always felt like five years is where you throw your party.
Davis Senseman: Yeah, we’ll be seven years in February.
Sam Glover: Fantastic. I was observing that I have known of you for about three, three and a half years, because you ended up hiring one of my very best students, Emily Buchholz, in 2013, I think. Is that right?
Davis Senseman: Yes.
Sam Glover: I’ve known of you, but I haven’t known much more than that, and what I hear from Emily since then, which is all positive, I promise. This is a great opportunity for me to learn more. Why don’t you start by … I got from your website bio that you used to be at big law and went solo. Tell me about that. How long were you at big law, what did that look like, and how did that transition happen?
Davis Senseman: I went to a pretty fairly sized, probably 35, 40 attorneys, law firm, straight out of law school. I got hired there through on-campus interviewing. It was actually a really good fit. I worked only in the corporate department, but it was a good size, because we weren’t big enough that we were super siloed, and we also had a lot of leeway right from the get go to build our own client base. My fees were low enough when I was just starting out that I could work with a lot of small businesses.
I worked there for, including my time clerking, probably six years. Then, a few things happened. The economy was not great. It was 2010, so a lot of my smaller clients, they were tightening things at their companies. My rates were going up, because I was pretty much … Every few years, sometimes a few times a year, your rates go up. You really don’t have any control over that when you’re in a bigger firm. I was just reaching the point, I often tell people, that kind of I felt my firm curved as much as they could to kind of allow me the practice I wanted to create, and I curved as much as I could to kind of fit in the typical, bigger law firm box. It just reached this point where I just thought, “There’s got to be a cheaper, easier, more nimble way to do this.”
In February of 2010, I just decided that I was going to kind of go serve the clients that I liked to work with, and not have to deal with the bigger clients, either. As I became more senior, my rates were higher, there was an expectation that I just kind of work with the bigger clients we had, and just like that more. That was pretty typical for most corporate attorneys. They liked working on bigger deals, but I really still liked kind of the ins and outs, and the strategy stuff with the smaller and medium sized businesses.
Sam Glover: You had a pretty clear picture of what kind of clients you wanted. When you went in, what kind of informed the way that you built your firm? What were you really trying to do in the way you structured it, and I guess, what were some of the big things that didn’t work, if anything, when you went in, or did it all just pan out the way you hoped?
Davis Senseman: I think one thing was that I really wanted a website that did not look like a typical lawyer website. Our current website is actually kind of iteration two of that. That was one thing. I wanted to make sure that my marketing and everything was pretty accessible to business owners, and I wanted to kind of adapt to what they needed, not just kind of set up exactly just a smaller version of the firm I had come from. I was lucky, because I had a good handful of clients who came with me.
Sam Glover: It sounds like the firm really wasn’t interested in those clients, either.
Davis Senseman: No. They weren’t the priority. You know, they were fine for someone less senior to work on. I think that’s typical in a lot of bigger firms. It just doesn’t make economic sense any other way, and it doesn’t make sense for the clients.
I had a good idea that I still wanted to just do transactional work. I talked to a lot of folks who were like, “Oh, I don’t think you can have a small firm that just does transactional work.” That was all I knew.
Sam Glover: There are a lot of small firms that would disagree.
Davis Senseman: Right. That’s what I thought. I just thought, I just want to not have to worry as much about when I have a phone call or an e-mail, kind of billing for that, and doing more flat fee work. Responding to all of the issues that my clients had brought up. Not officing somewhere where they have to pay an astronomical sum to park, and kind of in a space where they walk in and think, “Oh, I’m probably paying a lot of money for this.” I just wanted to be really responsive to what I was hearing from my clients.
Sam Glover: It’s really interesting, because we don’t think about it in those terms. Lawyers love to talk about how we serve clients, and it’s a really grave responsibility. All that stuff is true, like this is a service business, but we really aren’t very good at client service, when you get right down to it, right? We put our firms in places that aren’t convenient for people to get to. We bill in ways that don’t necessarily make sense to clients. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. We don’t really build our firms in a way that’s meant to work the way our clients want to, and it sounds like a big part of it was you wanted to try and do better on that.
Davis Senseman: Yeah. That really was it, and I was lucky because I had a lot of family members at the time, a lot of close friends, who were business owners. I felt like I got to have a really behind the scenes look at, “Here’s the things that don’t work.” The kind of things that you might only uncover if you did a pretty in-depth client survey, or some sort of study. I heard a lot from them as I was leaving, about, “Here’s what I didn’t like, and here’s what I didn’t like.” I just figured, well, let’s just see if there’s a way for our firm to survive, and us to also respond to the needs that clients actually have, instead of just saying, “Well, this is how lawyers work. This is how we bill, and this is where we office.” That was kind of, from the beginning, the plan, was just to respond to what business owners wanted.
Sam Glover: What were you really wrong about? I don’t mean to imply that you screwed things up, but when we all start our businesses, we all end up being really wrong about some things that we thought were going to be the big deal going in.
Davis Senseman: Absolutely. I think I was wrong about … I thought that clients would just want to know that if you could just give them an estimate, “Here’s my hourly rate. I think this will take this long,” that they would be fine with that. It was interesting, because a lot of my clients were on their second attorney. They had worked with someone before, and were switching. They just didn’t believe you. I kind of understood, because they had just been burned in the past. I didn’t realize …
Sam Glover: That’s a really good point. Lawyers are terrible at estimating.
Davis Senseman: Right. I didn’t realize that they really could not believe that something was only going to take two minutes, or, I mean, excuse me, two hours, or was only going to take a half an hour. Business owners are really used to just doing everything themselves, and I think they thought, “Well, if it would only take a half an hour, I would do it myself.” It’s like, “No, it’ll take me half an hour. It’ll take you forever.” I was wrong about that, and I realized they really would want flat fees, even when, to me, the flat fee for something, I knew, and this still happens today. Sometimes I’ll say, “I know that if we do this hourly, it’ll be cheaper,” but a lot of clients on the first time in, they would rather just pay a flat fee, because they’re just so happy knowing kind of how much it’s going to be.
Sam Glover: Can you estimate a percentage of the work that you do that is flat fee versus hourly?
Davis Senseman: Yeah. I’d say that probably now, we’re probably at about 40% flat fee, 60% hourly, just because we have a lot of clients who now … It feels like after we earn their trust, they like us to be hourly, because they realize we’re pretty efficient. Still, most of the clients who are knew, the first work we do for them is almost always a flat fee, because then they can establish, “Okay, I know it will only be this much.”
Sam Glover: That’s interesting. I had never really thought of flat fees as almost a marketing pitch, to get new business in the door.
Davis Senseman: I didn’t at all, when I started the firm. The other thing was, I was wrong about kind of needing to advertise. I did a couple of traditional advertising and things like that when we first started out, and none of it … I mean, we don’t advertise at all anymore. Also, I was wrong about, I thought my clients would want a space where they could come and park for free, or for not very much, but me still have a typical office. I rented space from two other attorneys, and there was free parking, but I found that clients still weren’t super excited to come to the law office. I didn’t use it as much as I thought I would, because I worked with a lot of clients who had … They were at their own business during the day, and wanted me to come there. That’s really how I kind of fell into running the firm out of the COCO co-working spaces, because I realized, “I don’t need to spend this money on overhead, because clients really don’t care.”
Sam Glover: You’re in COCO, and so are we, or rather, we will be back soon. COCO is a co-working space that people can actually see by looking at your website, which I want to talk about in a minute, too. Beautiful spaces. Clients can not help but be impressed when they walk into these beautiful spaces. I see you meeting with clients there, so I know that you are reserving the conference rooms and using that space. Is it ever a problem, or does it ever feel weird to get people to come there?
Davis Senseman: No, and I thought it would be. When I thought about moving into this space, a lot of attorneys that I talked to were like, “Oh, what about client confidentiality? What about …?” Like you said, there are conference rooms. There are private conference rooms here. We have permanent space here. When I started out, I just would come and go, because it was just me. Then, I pretty quickly realized there were a few other folks here who serve business owners, and so we kind of banded together to rent permanent space. I thought for sure there would be some clients who didn’t like it, but they’ve all loved it. You’re right, they’re beautiful spaces. They’re convenient. We’re at three of them, so it’s kind of wherever a client wants to meet is fine, and there’s a lot there. A lot that we wouldn’t have, if we were in a space on our own.
Sam Glover: Like what?
Davis Senseman: Like someone to greet them when they come in. Coffee, and tea, and water all the time. One of the big ones is, access to the network of other folks that might provide a need that our clients have. We have access to folks who can help them with their servers, or folks that can help them with their marketing, and with their PR. It’s a little bit beyond, “Here’s a referral of someone I know,” because it’s like, “Here’s someone I know and who I will be working next to all the time, so they probably …”
Sam Glover: “I can walk you over there.”
Davis Senseman: Right. They probably will treat you right, because they won’t last long here if they don’t do good work for people who refer to them.
Sam Glover: You mentioned doing flat fees, and before we take a brief break, and switch, and talk about your website and innovation, I wanted to get an idea of how you set those fees. First step is convincing lawyers that maybe they ought to consider flat fees, and the second one is convincing them that flat fees aren’t just an estimate of their hourly rate, which you’ve done a great job of pointing out is wrong-headed anyway. How do you figure out what to charge?
Davis Senseman: Well, some of it took some trial and error. It began with, “Okay, here’s an estimate. I think it will take me about this long on average.” There’s also the fact of, you just have to realize sometimes it will take a lot longer, and sometimes it will take a little shorter. We revisit our flat fees a lot to make sure that they’re kind of correct, and that they’re not … Sometimes we actually move them down, as we get more efficient at things, or find new technology or something that allows something to be easier.
Sam Glover: You’re still doing them with time in mind?
Davis Senseman: A little. Not as much. I feel like we used to, but if something drastic changes, we’ll kind of look at revisiting them. For the most part, we just try to think, “About what’s that worth? What do clients … What seems fair to them?” Our clients are pretty good at letting us know, like, “Yeah, that’s a fair price.” I kind of consulted with some of my clients just through social media when I was first setting a lot of these, and said, “Is that a good rate? Here’s what you get with it. Here’s what we’d include with that.” We also still take it kind of case by case. I mean, some of our flat fees are, like, “Here’s the starting point, but if you’re going to have five different investors and we’re going to draft a really complex kind of operating agreement, it’s probably going to be more.”
Sam Glover: I want to take a two minute break for our sponsors, and when we come back, I want to talk about your really pretty great website.
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We’re back, and Davis, I’ve seen your website before, and I know you recently revamped it, and I’ve got to say, I love your website. I feel like you’ve really nailed kind of the tone and the warmth, the feeling, and friendliness that most law firm websites lack. It’s got this beautiful auto-playing video that would ordinarily drive me crazy, but it’s used as the background for the main site. You and your partner and Emily all look very friendly. There are bulldogs and children. I want to hire you, just from seeing this. I don’t even have anything for you to do, but I want to. You’ve chosen green as a highlight color, and blue, which are not the typical lawyer highlight colors. Even I was looking at your blog, and it looks like you must have a goal of publishing about once a month. They’re useful posts that sort of answer people’s questions, and they’re kind of sunny and happy looking, actually. I really think you’ve nailed it, so tell me about the process of getting to this website.
Davis Senseman: The original website I had was pretty much just me, because the firm was just me when we started. I worked with a developer, and she had kind of a custom back end, and it was easy enough for me to learn, and it also didn’t look like a typical lawyer’s site, but as we expanded the firm …
Sam Glover: I remember that website, and that was also a good website, but this new one is great.
Davis Senseman: Thanks. It just felt more and more like it didn’t reflect who we were now, so last year, we were thinking about possibly … We knew we needed to expand and do some more estate planning type stuff, and family law stuff, because our clients were really asking for it. We were looking to bring someone in who does that, but we figured before we found the right person, we might as well start redoing the website, because it really didn’t reflect kind of the team. I just felt like it was too individualized to me, and we wanted to use a different … I wanted to put it on WordPress. I had other websites that I had used through WordPress. There are a million WordPress developers around COCO. It felt like it was time for a switch, so we worked with pretty much exclusively other COCO members, and we hired Lindsay Gish, of Gish and Co, who does kind of marketing and PR, kind of a generalist. She led us through the whole process, and really helped us identify, “What are our typical and favorite clients like? What do they have in common? How do we convey who we are to them, to the other potential them?”
She handled the design. She got us one person to make our logo, one person to do the design of the site, one person to do the kind of actual development of the site. It was really nice, because she kept it moving in a way that if we were in charge of it, it would have … Client matters would have come up, and we would have dropped the ball.
Sam Glover: Lawyers don’t appreciate the value of that enough. We briefly were building websites for lawyers, and we let people say, “Oh, you’ll provide the content. Okay.” After two years, there are still websites that have no content on them. Not because the lawyers can’t write it, but because they won’t get around to it.
Davis Senseman: Exactly. It was a really fun process for us. It was pretty painless, and we came, and she had the idea of, “What about a video that just plays in the background? We need to convey who you are, and where you work, and everything that kind of sets the firm apart.” We worked with a local video person, Erica Hannah, and she’s great. The nice thing was that everyone we worked with also was really familiar with the firm, because they work in the same space as us, and they see kind of what our clients like, and they’re pretty personal friends, many of them. It just turned out, when they said “a video,” we were all like, “Ugh. We have to be in a video?” But it was pretty painless.
Sam Glover: It totally works on this.
Davis Senseman: I hate videos, normally, but we reserved COCO one Saturday, and brought all our dogs in, and our kids, and the nice thing is, we have a ton of footage that we can update this and kind of use other places, too. The colors is a funny story because I’m not entirely colorblind, but I’m what they call “color deficient.”
Sam Glover: I’m laughing so hard, because so am I. There’s a reason why all of my websites only have one highlight color on them.
Davis Senseman: Right, so I just let Emily … I said, “Lindsay, Emily, go to town on the colors.” I thought my old website was orange, and then everyone was like, “No. It was definitely red.”
Sam Glover: It was very red.
Davis Senseman: When people are like, “The green is great. The blue is great,” I’m like, “That’s fantastic. I take no credit.”
Sam Glover: That’s funny. I should mention, by the way, the URL is DavisMeansBusiness.com, and we’ll obviously throw that in the show notes, so if you’re listening to this in a place where you can’t easily get to it, you don’t have to worry about it. It’s very worth checking out.
Davis Senseman: Thanks.
Sam Glover: We’ve talked about kind of how this all came around, and there are definitely some unusual ways about where you put your office, you use flat fees, you definitely have a different attitude about it. In a lot of ways, even though the word “innovative” is one that appears on your website, that you’ve used during our podcast, and that you use to talk about your firm, a lot of people might look at that and go, “What’s so innovative about that? She’s still just serving clients.” I kind of felt that way about my own firm. I went into it with a similar attitude, like, “If everyone else zigs, I’m going to zag.” In the end, I wound up representing clients in a pretty typical-feeling and looking firm, even though I still felt like it had innovative aspects.
I guess I’m curious to know, what does it mean for the way you have built the firm and the way you think about it? How does innovation inform that?
Davis Senseman: For us, a lot of it is our willingness to use tools that aren’t always geared towards law firms. I mean, we do use a practice management system, but we use a lot of … I guess there’s a lot of behind the scenes things that I feel like are kind of innovative for a law firm. Then, I feel like we approach it a lot, because we’re surrounded by startups and small businesses, I feel like we use a lot of those concepts in how we do things. For me, one thing about being innovative was, little things. Little tiny things, like we don’t generally bill clients for phone calls or e-mails, or we don’t really have a big hourly target that you have to hit monthly. We kind of grow in relation to, “Oh, hey. We met a lawyer who really we feel like would kind of fit in well.” Not, “We need someone who has zero to three years of experience doing X, Y, and Z.”
Another way, and kind of it’s more behind the scenes, we do a lot of sort of business advising, I would say. I feel like that’s pretty common for accounting firms and places like that. They often will say, like, “We do business consulting as well.” We end up, when Emily first joined the firm, she first said, “Do you have any concern that I have literally no experience with business law?” I said, “No. I think it’s great, because you know things I don’t know, and I can always teach you the substantive stuff, but I can not teach someone to have people skills, or to have common sense. You have those things.” She also noticed when she started, “Wow, we do a lot of not lawyering. A lot of what we do is not just, ‘Well, here’s the law and here’s what you need to do.’ It’s, ‘Here’s something that we’ve learned from other clients that we think would be helpful for you,’ or a client will call and say, ‘Hey, I’m the only owner, and I need to do reviews with my employees. One of you come over and do it,’ or, ‘Will you come in and teach our folks about this or that?’”
We do a lot of that, which I can imagine in a larger firm, there would need to be great discussion about, “Can we do this, and should we do this, and how should we charge for this?” Our clients are really just like, “We need someone to tell us how to do this. We think either you do it pretty well, or you can do the research to do it. Come on over.” It’s much less formal, and we’ve actually recently started pulling together some of our clients who either are in similar places in their business, or have similarly sized staffs, or have something in common, and we just pull them together for little lunches, where we kind of cover a topic. They all just kind of also ask each other, “What are your best practices for this?” One thing that business owners really lack is ongoing, continuing education. There’s nothing for them to tell them, “Hey, here’s a way to do this,” or, “Here’s a way to do that.”
Sam Glover: You’re sort of building your own networking group, too, by doing that. You’re connecting your clients to each other, and providing a resource.
Davis Senseman: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. We often are the conduit to that, like, “Oh, wait, don’t do this. We had a client who did this, and here’s the terrible outcome.” It’s often easier to just put them all together and say, “Here. Trade your best practices.”
Sam Glover: How do you charge for stuff like coming and sitting in on employee evaluations and stuff, or do you?
Davis Senseman: It’s pretty case by case. I mean, sometimes if we’re just going … The default is, we just charge our hourly rates. We always make sure, even if there’s more than one of us, we only bill for one of us, so we never double bill for a meeting or something. I remember thinking when I was at a larger firm, like, “Oh, there’s like $1200 sitting here every …” We don’t do that. We sometimes will say, “Hey, if you want us to come in.” We have one client who said, “Well, I’d like you to come to these evaluations and reviews, but I can’t pay you for meeting with seven employees for an hour and a half each.” We sometimes will just say, “Well, let’s just figure out a flat fee that feels reasonable, feels like it’s paying us enough, you feel comfortable with it.”
For us, a lot of times when we need to figure out a fee for something, we kind of go to the client and say, “I don’t know. What do you think is fair? Help us figure out …”
Sam Glover: I love doing it that way, actually. You can always evaluate on the back end, like, “Do we feel like we got ripped off, or …?” If you did feel like you got ripped off, then you learned something really important from it.
Davis Senseman: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.
Sam Glover: Maybe you wasted an hour of your time, but …
Davis Senseman: How many hours do you waste in a week?
Sam Glover: Totally. You briefly alluded to some of the technology that you use, and because I geek, I have no idea if our listeners care a lot about this, but I geek out on legal tech, and so I’d love to know, what are some of the most useful, essential technology tools that you use in the practice?
Davis Senseman: I love this kind of stuff, too. We use Clio as our practice management, because the hands-down thing I like the most about them is that they understand integration. They understand, “You will use more than just this, and everything should talk to each other, ideally.” We use Google Apps for our e-mail and things like that, but the big things that we’ve found that are super helpful, we use Zapier to kind of make any of our software that we use that doesn’t automatically talk to each other, to make them talk to each other. We recently started using, and we use Slack as a messaging tool, because we may be in three different locations for the greater part of a week. We use Slack.
Sam Glover: Let me get really granular. Do you create a channel for each client, and do you invite clients to your Slack team?
Davis Senseman: We haven’t created a channel for each client yet, but we definitely do for clients who have, like, a bigger ongoing thing. Every piece of litigation kind of gets its own Slack channel. We hadn’t invited clients to our Slack teams yet, because to invite people to just one channel is the paid Slack, but then Slack realized we were using them quite a bit, and gave us one of those teaser, “Would you like to try this?” We were doing a tech audit for a client as a part of litigation, and the person doing the tech audit said, “You know, can you invite me just to a channel?” That was great. We communicated with our tech person all through Slack, which was super helpful.
We have been kicking around the idea of possibly kind of upgrading to the paid Slack, and then creating a channel for every single client, and then kind of communicating with them primarily through there. One nice thing is, then they can’t forward it on, so you don’t have the possible, “Oops, you just ruined the privilege of that piece of information I sent you, because you forwarded it to three other people.”
Sam Glover: I haven’t met too many lawyers who do that, who invite their clients in Slack, but I don’t think there’s any reason not to. It’s more secure than e-mail, if anything. I’m just pretty curious about it. It seems, especially for ongoing relationships like you have with some of your business clients, it seems like a generally good idea.
Davis Senseman: Absolutely. I don’t think there’s any reason not to, either.
Sam Glover: I noticed that you’re using Lexicata, and I noticed this because I was poking around your website code trying to figure out who designed it. There’s some Lexicata code in there, so I saw that you were using that.
Davis Senseman: Yup. We’ve used that, because we use Ruby for our phones, and those calls can just go right into Lexicata. Lexicata feeds right into Clio, which is nice. We actually started using Trello recently, which at first I thought, “We don’t need Trello, because we have all these other tools,” but we have a team meeting once a week, and I mean, each of us, there’s three attorneys, a clerk, and a part-time assistant, and each of us can be working on five to ten different matters at a time, and there’s just no really great way of keeping track of that or looking at it in Clio. You can look at it at an individual level, but not really a full team level.
We just started using Trello recently because I was going to create an Excel chart. I was making an Excel list of all our open matters, and I thought, “Well, first, this is ugly, and second, only one person can have it open. There’s so many limitations.” I asked our tech advisor, “This is what I want to do.” I was describing it to him, and he said, “I feel like you’re describing a Trello board.” We just have this master Trello board now that is all of our exist … Everything that we’re working on right now, and we just have different columns of, “It’s in process, we’re waiting on something from a client, it’s pending, this person isn’t yet a client but we’re kind of doing something for them.”
Sam Glover: I had a light bulb moment when we had John Grant on our podcast to talk about using Kanban boards to organize like that, and when you have things that are in stages, when you can divide your work flow up into stages, Trello is amazing for that.
Davis Senseman: It’s just great. We’ve been using it, and we just pull it up every team meeting, and we just go through it, and say, “What’s the update on this? What do we need to do with this?”
Sam Glover: It’s sort of your tickler, I guess.
Davis Senseman: Yeah, exactly. It’s also, Trello and Clio, we connected them through Zapier so that when a new client, when a new matter is open in Clio, it automatically creates a Trello card, which is just amazing.
Sam Glover: That’s pretty cool. Any other essential technology that you use?
Davis Senseman: I feel like Slack is the, I can’t say enough about it.
Sam Glover: I mean, it’s so funny, right? Nobody has ever been as excited about a business communications product as we all are about Slack.
Davis Senseman: Yeah. I mean, I serve on a few boards, I teach a class at Mitchell. I have one client, and I’ve gotten them all on Slack. It’s nice, because then as people send me things throughout the day, I can just ignore it, and then it’s all together. Everything for a particular thing is together.
Sam Glover: I’ve just wrote down that I should try to get one of the boards I’m on onto Slack, because that’s a great idea.
Davis Senseman: Yeah, so nice. We use MailChimp for our e-mail list, but now we have too many subscribers, so we have to pay for it, so I’m like … There might be a better paid option.
Sam Glover: I was going to ask you, you’re using a lot of different tools, and I always worry about subscription fatigue. It sounds like you’re obviously paying for Clio and Google Apps. You must be paying for Zapier, and Lexicata, and Ruby, but it sounds like you’re still on the free plans for Slack, and Trello, and maybe some of the other things you’re using.
Davis Senseman: We’re actually on the free plan of Zapier, because some of our Zaps we don’t have, they’re not instant. They can go every 15 minutes. It doesn’t really matter. Some of the things, like I use Evernote. I don’t feel like I use it well. I don’t organize it like I feel like it could optimally be organized.
Sam Glover: Nobody does. Nobody actually knows how to use that optimally, actually.
Davis Senseman: For things like that, I realize that you can’t make … There are very few things that you can get everyone to use. Trello, I told everyone, “Listen. I can be in charge of kind of updating this as we go through every team meeting. You can learn as much or as little as you want about this piece of software.” The only things that everyone needs to know are basically Clio and Slack. The good thing is that when you realize how many e-mails Slack can keep out of your e-mail inbox, it’s like, anyone will jump on board pretty [crosstalk 00: 52: 08].
Sam Glover: I suppose most of the rest of this stuff just sort of happens in the background. It doesn’t need to be something that people are actively engaging with.
Davis Senseman: Exactly. Exactly.
Sam Glover: That’s a good point. We talk about that a lot at Lawyerist, at my firm. It’s true with clients. You want to minimize the number of things you’re asking them to do, like logins that you’re asking them to create, right? If you’re going to use Clio to communicate with them, great, but talking about getting Slack accounts for clients means you’re asking them to create another login for something, and it’s a big barrier, actually. Bigger than we think. We talk about that a lot, and you want to use as few tools as you can, but as many as you have to. Two, Clio and Slack, is a good number for your team.
Davis Senseman: Working mainly with business owners, I mean, they have very short attention spans. It’s really great, as someone who is a service provider to them, because as you earn their trust, they turn more over to you. We don’t use Clio Connect to send our invoices, even though we send them via e-mail, and most of our clients pay using, like, LawPay for credit cards. Most of our clients pay that way, but we just don’t do it that way because it’s just another thing that clients would have to learn. It’s just like, “Nope.” They don’t have time.
Sam Glover: Davis, thank you so much for being on our podcast. I’ve learned a lot, both about you and about law practice. I really appreciate it, and I hope we’ll have a chance to have you back, and maybe get an update on your experiment with using Slack with clients.
Davis Senseman: Sure. Yeah. Thanks.
Podcast #88: Developing an Innovative Small-Business Practice, with Davis Senseman was originally published on Lawyerist.com.