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Podcast #106: Can Lawyers Really Innovate? with Jonathan Tobin

Wednesday, February 8, 2017 5:34
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In this episode, Sam starts some friendly arguments with Jonathan Tobin. They revisit the question whether lawyers should learn to develop their own software, try to agree on whether the legal industry is really capable of meaningful disruption, wonder whether lawyers can really innovate, and forecast the future of law practice.

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin headshot

Jonathan Tobin provides legal advice to creative businesses and professionals using a subscription-based payment plan that has been popular with his clients, as well as through a traditional fee model. He started his firm, Counsel for Creators, in Los Angeles shortly after graduating from UCLA law school. Before he became a lawyer, Jonathan spent years as a software developer and designer.

You can follow Jon on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Thanks to Ruby Receptionists, Spotlight Branding, and FreshBooks for sponsoring this episode!

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Transcript

Voiceover: Welcome to the Lawyerist podcast with Sam Glover and Aaron Street. Each week Lawyerist brings you advise and interviews to help you build a more successful law practice in today’s challenging and constantly changing legal market and now, here are Sam and Aaron.

Sam Glover: Hi, I’m Sam Glover.

Aaron Street: I’m Aaron Street. This is episode 106 of the Lawyerist podcast, part of the Legal Talk Network. Today, we’re arguing with Jon Tobin. It’s friendly arguing, I promise.

Sam Glover: Yes.

Aaron Street: About whether lawyers should learn to code, whether disruption in the legal industry is a myth, whether lawyers can even innovate in the future of law practice.

Sam Glover: Today’s podcast is sponsored by Spotlight Branding. Learn how they use the internet to make all of your law firm marketing and business development more profitable by visiting Spotlight Branding.com/Lawyerist.

Aaron Street: Today’s podcast is sponsored by FreshBooks, which is ridiculously easy to use and packed with powerful features. Try it now at FreshBooks.com/Lawyerist and entering Lawyerist in the how did you hear about us section.

Sam Glover: Today’s podcast is sponsored by Ruby Receptionists and its smart, charming receptionists who are perfect for small firms. Visit Call Ruby.com/Lawyerist to get a risk free trial with Ruby.

Today, Jon Tobin and I are basically starting some friending arguments about a variety of technology subjects and that sort of prompted me to want to do what I often do when layers come to me to ask about technology things or innovation things or whatever is to say, “Hold on. What is the problem that you’re trying to solve?” I think that comes up a lot where lawyers, like many people, I don’t want to make this just all about lawyers but it is a specific problem that we see in the legal industry where lawyers just want an answer.

Aaron Street: There’s this hilarious irony that lawyers come to us wanting the simple silver bullet answer when they spend all day every day advising their clients on the fact solving complex problems requires complex answers with nuance and maybes and yet, when they want to know about going paperless or practice management software or how to do fees and billing, they just want the answer and they want it to be simple and obviously, that’s not everyone, but it’s very common. We see every day and I think it’s really hilarious that people who understand complexity and nuance in their work, don’t adopt themselves.

Sam Glover: Yes. For the last three weeks, we had been doing a series of presentations and webcasts locally for computer security and technology and we had a really enthusiastic lawyer who was tuning in and was communicating with me after each webcast. After the last one, he asked me some questions about security and what should he do and I said, “Hold on. Back up. Have you done a threat model? What does your threat model look like?” He said, “I just think, you know, the threat model for ever law firm is pretty much the same.” Which is a dangerous thing to think actually because it’s not true.

The thing is like until you know what your threat model is, you don’t know what your problem is and you don’t know if any of the things you’re considering will solve it. Whereas if you have put that thought in and that work in, then the answers just kind of present themselves and that’s true among so many things.

I know so many lawyers who want to adopt practice management software because they’re disorganized.

Aaron Street: Or go paperless in order to clean up their files.

Sam Glover: Yes, or they hate Outlook and they want to switch to something else because it will solve all their problems.

If you’re disorganized, practice management software isn’t an answer to that.

Aaron Street: No, in fact, it might make things worse because you’ll begin using it wrong or you go paperless and have messy online files, which is no better.

Sam Glover: The answer to being disorganized, to the problem of disorganization, is to get organized to figure it out. Practice management software might play a role in that and I’m certainly guilty of new tools make me more committed to things like organization schemes. The answer is not to just adopt something shiny and new or to ditch something that isn’t shiny and new just because you haven’t taken the time to fully understand it. Like lawyers hating Microsoft Word just because they haven’t taken the time to learn how to use it properly.

Aaron Street: I think part of the issue is stepping back for a moment to plan out your goals and needs for your firm and to recognize that all technology tools are just tools and so first you have to answer the question of what problem needs to be solved. Doing that requires a little bit of deep thought on where am I going, what are the needs and workflows of my practice, what kind of firm am I trying to build and with whom. Then, you can get to questions about should I be a MAC or PC or how should I structure my files, in Dropbox or Outlook or whatever.

Sam Glover: Any time you are dissatisfied with your existing technology stalk or processes or employees or whatever, stop and ask yourself that question. What is the problem that I’m trying to solve and why can’t I solve it with the tools I have right now or the people or the processes or the office space or whatever it is? Then, once you’ve identified the problem in the same way that you would do for your client’s legal problem, then you can start thinking through do I need new tools, do I need new stuff, new people, to move, whatever. Then, you can start working towards the solution to that.

Aaron Street: To be clear, it isn’t always you. There is actually a whole bunch of garbage law practice software especially stuff that was developed 20 or 30 years ago that your firm hasn’t updated recently that is actual garbage and is not your fault.

Sam Glover: Yes. That’s absolutely true. But sometimes even sticking with that, I would say, is often, not often, but sometimes an okay decision. That’s sort of a preface but also sort of unrelated to my conversation with Jon Tobin, which I think you’re going to enjoy. Jon and I had a lot of fun just geeking out over a bunch of subjects and here’s that conversation now.

Jonathan Tobin: My name is Jonathan Tobin. I’m a lawyer in Los Angeles. I have a law firm called Counsel for Creators with one partner. We work for a lot of creative businesses, so that’s everybody from musicians to artists to software developers to designers and one of the key parts of our practice is we have a subscription legal model where a people pay a set price a month to get legal advice and basic document review. Our practice has been around for about a year as a partnership and I was practicing a couple of years solo prior to that.

Sam Glover: Let me start at the beginning. You are interpreting creative quite loosely then if you’re going everyone from software developers to actors, I assume.

Jonathan Tobin: Yes. It’s really…We’re in Los Angeles so you have a lot of people who do a lot of different things. Things I wouldn’t have predicted prior to starting this practice. From the outset, we wanted to be sort of broad. We wanted to make sure we could encompass everybody who might have needs to set up a business or deal with intellectual property. We do only transactional works so our goal is help people set up a business to be successful.

Sam Glover: Very cool. Tell me you started out solo and then you took on a partner.

Jonathan Tobin: Right.

Sam Glover: How did that happen? How did you find your partner and decide to partner up?

Jonathan Tobin: Yes, so essentially [inaudible] sort of interest into intellectual property. I noticed I had a few areas of weakness. One of them was sort of corporate loss, you know the corporate side of things. I would from time to time get requests, “Hey, can you help me set up a corporation or issue stock or something.” Because I didn’t know how to do it, I would often bring in my current partner to sort of help me that and vice versa. He would have a client who needs a trademark and he would call me.

After a while on sort of co-counseling on projects, we sort of said, “Hey, would it make more sense if we became a partnership?” Since both of us were doing slightly different things but for the same sort of client base. Once we decided that, it took us a few months to sort of decide how we were going to work together and how our partnership would go. From there, it’s been reasonably successful.

Sam Glover: How does the partnership work? Everybody does it a little bit differently. I’m curious what the arrangement is for fee sharing or whatever.

Jonathan Tobin: One of the things that I think was key, that I think really made sense working, and this took us a while to figure out how we were going to do this, is we essentially split fees 50/50. If there’s ever partnership [inaudible] it’s even. We don’t track, who brought this client or how many hours did you put on this client. We trust each other to sort of do the best we can on the things that we do well. Each of us have strengths and weaknesses, not just in legal but also in running actually the business. I feel like, we both feel, that in terms of bearing the workload or benefiting the business, we both do our equal share.

Sam Glover: How long have you been partnered up?

Jonathan Tobin: One year.

Sam Glover: Awesome, I assume it’s gone fairly…Well, you couldn’t say it hasn’t been successful because he might hear this podcast.

Jonathan Tobin: Yes. Also, if it wasn’t successful, we’d just quit and we’d quit and go our separate ways. Yes, it has been and I think that both of us come from creative backgrounds. We have a lot of ideas and a lot ways that we want to sort of see our partnership evolve. It’s nice that we’re sort of in sync on that kind of stuff.

Sam Glover: I’m curious how you see that evolving over time. How do you make work when you’re just splitting the fees 50/50. There has to be some understanding of equity of efforts in that. I’m curious what is it about your professional relationship with your partner that makes that happen?

Jonathan Tobin: Honestly, I think it’s trust. I think it’s trust that both of us are giving our best and we’re both fairly evenly matched in terms of ability. Obviously, it’s really hard to quantify a lot of things and I think that one of the reasons we went 50/50 was we heard so many stories of partnerships that went sideways because there was an argument of sort of who did more this month or who brought in more clients or I brought this client but you closed it so who gets what. I think getting bogged down in that is a mistake. Maybe it works for some people but I wasn’t really into sort of keeping tables of who originated a matter and who closed the matter. How many hours did you bill?

We look at our hours and every months in terms of billing, we both bill about the same things, some months more, some months less. We both go to the same amount of events. We both put the same amount of effort into marketing. It may not be exactly 50/50 but it’s close enough where that difference isn’t really worth arguing over.

Sam Glover: What do you think you’d do, I’m just going to ask you to speculate rampantly here, but do you think you’d do if your partner got or you got in an accident and were laid up for a couple of months and could hardly bill anything or decided to have a kid and had to take some time off? Do you think you would reassess that fee or do you think you guys would decide, you know, that’s why we have a partnership is to hold each other up?

Jonathan Tobin: I think it’s more the latter. I think that’s really one of the reasons why we have a partnership. Since we’ve been partners might have gone on vacation for a few days or for a week and it’s really nice to have somebody sort of back tending the business. We try to plan ahead so if there was an accident, obviously you can’t plan for that, but I’d like to think that I could handle everything and vice versa, I’d like to think that my partner could handle everything if that came up. But for things that are planned, you know maybe one of us is working late the week before, to get all their matters done so I’m the only one here, I’m not having to deal with two sets of clients.

Sam Glover: You said you do subscription pricing, which was one of my favorite experiences that I do with my firm. Do you do that with all your clients? Is that the only way you bill? Are you available at other rates?

Jonathan Tobin: We do the standard legal model. From day one, we started with hourly billing, flat fees, both of which are fairly standard in our kind of legal practice but we wanted to try something new. It started as sort of a pilot program and then it sort of grew out from that. A lot of people use the sort of standard model in conjunction with our subscription program. I find that helps because you know with this subscription, we find that we have a sort of more consistent relationship with our clients. We can actually keep proactive and say, “Hey, we talked a few months ago about X-Y-Z. Maybe, it’s time to do your trademark now.” We kind of get to know our clients and a lot of them we work with, we really know. I feel like we really know them. They’re not afraid to call us. You know, because they’re not afraid of some bill.

Sam Glover: How many of your clients are on subscription versus not? Is it like half or 75% or what?

Jonathan Tobin: Honestly, I’d say of our clients maybe about a third. It’s kind of hard to tell because we have a lot one item clients, a lot of people who will come to us just for a trademark or just to set up an LLC and we never hear from them again. We have a pretty consistent set of clients who don’t have any interest in subscription model. It might be that their needs are such that regardless of anything else, we’re going to have put a lot of time into the work and so it wouldn’t make sense for us or for them to be on the subscription model.

Sam Glover: Now, I’m going to stop talking about your firm and I want to visit something—

Jonathan Tobin: Okay.

Sam Glover: Not that you have to stop entirely, but I wanted to talk about something that is the reason that I invited you to be on the podcast, which was a sort of legal internet argument broke out over whether or not lawyers should learn to code. You wrote sort of a nice summary of the various viewpoints and wrapped it up nicely and I thought it was worth revisiting because we’ve talked about it but we haven’t really confronted it head on with somebody who maybe knows something about it and so I kind of wanted to revisit that. Do you…There are two sides at least, maybe three or four, Eddie Hartman of Legal Zoom thinks no, of course not, lawyers shouldn’t learn to code. That’s ridiculous. David Colarusso thinks, you know, it’s a useful skill to have. Maybe lawyers should learn to code as just sort of a general curiosity about how the world works and to add another tool to their lawyers’ toolbox. I hope I’m summing him up fairly.

Others, like Dan Lear of Avvo have weighed in with various shades of all that. What’s your take on it?

Jonathan Tobin: I mean, I think, in general, I think the general perspective I have is it’s going to vary from person to person. If you were just to say should lawyers learn to code, the answer might be different depending on A, the kind of practice and then B, the sort of level of interest you have in coding. I think it might be a mistake to try to learn to code if you have no interest in it. If you have simply hate every minute of doing it, I mean in my opinion, then don’t do something that you hate if you can help. If had do, try and do it but if you’re making a good living as a lawyer and you absolutely hate coding, then I might say well don’t do it.

But if you’re sort of interested in innovating or you’re interested in building new tools for your practice, it might be good to learn to code and by that, I mean, actually writing something in a programming language. I think also getting familiar with what code can do in terms of purpose of code, I’d say for most lawyers and most lawyers listing, just understanding what technology does, what software actually does, then you can actually hire someone else. Most lawyers’ hourly rate is higher than most programmers so if you think of it just from an economic standpoint, it’s actually more economically efficient to hire a good programmer than to try to do it yourself, sometimes.

Sam Glover: I guess the part…Maybe what we’re really having a discussion about is we’re questioning the sort of binary that there are people who build software and they’re people who use software.

Jonathan Tobin: Right.

Sam Glover: Lawyers are software users, albeit not very skilled users in too many cases, but some are skilled users and so why cross the line into building software. I guess, maybe what this whole conversation is about, is that the right paradigm? Should we really be thinking that coding is really just an advanced way to solve the same kinds of problems that you might solve with software but that you could solve better if you could just customize your own solution. It’s like the jump from putting an equation in an Excel spreadsheet to building a short Java script app for a website or a small Python app to solve a problem that may or may not really tier it directly to your client work. It’s actually a smaller leap than many people realize, I think.

Jonathan Tobin: Yes. What’s great nowadays is somebody really does want to learn to code, there are a lot of resources out there and there are a lot of places you can go to ask or to learn or … I think if I didn’t know how to code, I would probably do something about it, take a course at General [inaudible] because you know there are a lot of parts of coding that I think are to understand and can be actually kind of boring to learn. I think you sort of need someone to help through those parts, but it can be rewarding in the sense of if you’re a lawyer and you’re looking to innovate, I think, it helps you be able to iterate rapidly.

Even if you do hire a programmer, to be able to get in there under the hood and sort of change things or tweak things, I think that’s even a good way to learn how to program, just to sort of know enough to get in there and sort change something small. I think that’s honestly how a lot of programmers learn. They’ll see a piece of software and they’re like, “Hey, we can change that.” I mean if it’s Java script that, you know, that maybe does something that you like, you can [inaudible] the Java script, change it, “I see, if you change that variable, then it changes the color” or whatever. That’s often a good way and honestly, that’s what is meant by hacking. You’re getting into something and you’re just sort of tweaking it. Not necessarily pulling it apart but sort of looking inside, trying to figure out how it works. I think if you do that enough, then you sort of form the basis for becoming a programmer if you’re interested in either getting formal training or just giving the formal training to yourself.

Sam Glover: I guess…I was an English major, which we maintain that English major is a useful thing to be because it teaches you how to learn and helps you have a broader understanding of the world. Maybe that’s why I have the same feeling about software development, which is I think if you learn how to set up and configure your computer on Linux or you take a JavaScript development course at Code Academy, you will have a greater understanding of the array of tools available to you and how the internet works. By having that, you’ll just have a better idea of what’s possible so that when you take a look at your practice and you think, “You know what, my business, my law practice would really be better if I could do this, then you’ll know that that is possible and you might even have an idea of how you’d start building and so you can manage a team of software developers who can do it more efficiently.

Jonathan Tobin: Right. Right.

Sam Glover: I guess that’s maybe where I come down on it. I have the English major, it’s just good learn. You should read Shakespeare and then go take JavaScript, I guess.

Jonathan Tobin: I think you’re right. I mean, that you need to learn. I think if you are interested in coding or interested in software development but maybe you don’t want to commit to becoming a full blown programmer, I think that if you were to learn enough where you could actually speak with a programmer or sort of communicate your ideas in a language that a programmer will understand, then that’s helpful. That might be as far as you need to go.

Another thing I think is helpful to learn how to code or to learn how to do technology things, just understand how APIs work or how you can integrate two third-party products together, get them communicating.

Sam Glover: Yes.

Jonathan Tobin: Such as tools like Zapier or something like that.

Sam Glover: I’m going to plug lawyers, too, because David Colarusso put together a tutorial on how you can build a really basic bot on twitter that takes advantage of various APIs, which I think is a pretty good place to go to get started with that.

John, if you had to pick like…If people are listening and they’re like, “I’m ready. For whatever reason, I want to dip my toes in the water.” My recommendation is usually to take the beginners JavaScript course at Codecademy. Do you have a different recommendation for what people should do for their first dip their toe in the water coding?

Jonathan Tobin: I think these days you’re right. I think JavaScript is a good start. When I first started coding, it was just sort of like, it was very basic. Now, it’s gone so far where you have things that I don’t even know about like server site JavaScript and all these other things and I think it also teaches you the sort of principles of programming, things like modularity where you’re taking functions and building them out and then sort of having a nice clean way of communicating between these functions. I think just getting into that mindset of breaking problems down into these discrete functions, if you were to learn JavaScript, you would certainly get into that mindset and I think that’s key to becoming a good programmer.

Sam Glover: We need to take a few minutes to hear from our sponsors and when we come back, I’m going to start an argument.

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Sam Glover: We’re back. I don’t actually know if we’re going to argue about this but when I said, “Hey, what else should be talked about on this podcast.” You said you wanted to talk about disruption in the legal industry and you used capital letters around a lot of those words. I wanted to call bullshit. I don’t think disruption is a word that applies well to the legal industry. So, I’m trying to start an argument with you so tell me if I’m wrong. Tell me why I’m wrong about that.

Jonathan Tobin: I would say that at least in theory, disruption can apply to anything. I mean, I think first of all, we need to take a step back and define what we mean. What do mean by disruption? Everybody seems to have a different definition or the definition kind of varies. What does that actually mean? To me that means it’s simply that you might be changing or sort of disrupting the market. That might mean that you’re taking … You’re creating product that might replace a different market or something … The job that was traditionally done by a different provider and then you’re doing it yourself. It’s hard to describe what it means but I don’t see anything sort of inherit in providing legal services that couldn’t necessarily be disruptive. The way that things are done, there’s a way that lawyers work but that’s only evolved because that’s the way that’s most efficient for lawyers over the past half century, I suppose.

Sam Glover: Okay, so, there are the classic examples. Right, like Netflix over Blockbuster, Uber over the taxi industry. That’s what classic disruption looks like. Something about the law, and I’m not in the law’s a unique and special snowflake camp, but it does seem to me that something about the law makes it unusually resilient to change.

Jonathan Tobin: Yes.

Sam Glover: It’s not just unauthorized practice of law regulations, I think there’s more to it than that and I guess I’m wondering what is it that you think is actually resistance to change and does it just mean that disruption does take place but over a longer timeline?

Jonathan Tobin: Yes. First of all, on the first point I would say that the one thing that makes law difficult to disrupt is legal ethics. They’re there for a good reason. You can’t…All lawyers will tell you, “I am not going to do something unethical.” Even if they think the ethics rule is B.S., they’re still not going to risk their license. They’re still not going to risk a bar complaint for doing something unethical.

To whit, we for a long time wanted to have sort of a referral system on our subscription program. California law, California legal ethics, would prohibit something like that so we can’t. It sort of slows down the amount of innovation we can do there. There are other ethics rules and I’m not criticizing ethic rules in any way, I simply saying they exist and as I lawyer who want to innovate or even someone’s who not a lawyer who wants to change things, you have to take them into account. You have take into account those ethic rules and they do sort of put a damper on innovation.

Sam Glover: Yes, I think…I want to walk back my initial disruption is bullshit comment. I recognize that that’s just hyperbole. There are longer term trends shaping the legal industry but I don’t see anything that’s just going to sneak up and mug the law practice industry. Like, I don’t … It’s more like nobody did online legal research and then a decade or two later, everybody did online legal research. You could argue that’s disruption but honestly, the same companies were printing the books as managing the websites so it really didn’t disrupt anything. I kind of feel like the way lawyers practice law is obviously changing.

Jonathan Tobin: Yes.

Sam Glover: Has changed, will change. The way we get clients, the type of volume we handle, all that stuff is changing obviously, but I don’t see any indication that lawyers aren’t going to be involved. There’s maybe some suggestion that drastically few lawyers will be involved but I’m not even sure I think that’s true. I wonder if it’s more just evolution than disruption.

Jonathan Tobin: It could be. I mean, it could be that it’s evolution. I think that because law is a highly-regulated industry, it’s going to be really for someone who is not a lawyer to do anything, to disrupt anything because you can’t…I’ve heard people, like a lot of people, come to me. They’re not lawyers and they’re like, “I want to do this disruptive thing for legal services.” I’m like, “Wait, that’s unauthorized practice of law.” You can’t do it. Like, it’s not available. I would have done it already if it was possible. I think 100 other lawyers would have done it or 100 other people would have done it.

You run into that. Even Legal Zoom has run into that issue in a number of states. Again, I’m not picking a side on that or whatever. I don’t really care. My point is, is that is something you can run into. I also think that because you have to have a law license to provide legal services, I think lawyers would need to disrupt the legal industry themselves—

Sam Glover: Which is an argument for lawyers learning to code.

Jonathan Tobin: Right. Right. I think that’s the thing or at least being familiar enough with code to sort of partner with somebody else who can help with this disruption. I think also, you have to have your hand in the legal markets to understand, “Okay, how does the legal market work today and what can be done differently?”

Imagine if Uber wouldn’t have been available, if they said, “You can’t give someone rides for pay if you don’t have a taxi license. I know that some cities they say that. I think they’ve found ways around it. I think in order for disruption to happen, you’d have someone who can sort of find ways around the rules without sort of going over enough lines so they get into big trouble and have to shut down.

Sam Glover: Maybe, there are some other obstacles, too. When I was Codex at Stanford last year, AI was obviously a hot topic but I heard from some of the companies involved that it’s hard to recruit talented engineers to work on AI because law is not sexy and there’s not a lot of investment money flowing into … There are some success stories but there isn’t a ton of venture capital flowing into the legal startups and so there’s an obstacle there that there just isn’t a whole lot of energy being put towards it.

I’ve gone to a bunch of hackathons over the years and I’m amazed at how talented law students are at solving problems that need to be solved. There’s a lot of…There seems to be some at least some energy and effort being expended on things that don’t need fixing. Maybe this touches on something else we wanted to talk about which is maybe lawyers just are innovative enough and there isn’t enough incentive for non-lawyers to innovate. I don’t know.

Jonathan Tobin: Again, I think I’d push back on lawyers not being innovative enough. I think most people are innovative enough, quite frankly, whether they’re a lawyer or not. That’s just, maybe, human nature or whatever. I can speculate.

I think in terms of like investment in legal, I think one of the issues is, is that a lot of legal startups that I see out there that that might have a great product and I actually use a lot of the legal tech software that’s out there. I try to be an early adopter as much as I can. A, because it helps me in practice and B, because I want to sort of support people who are doing cool things. I don’t know if I can think of any company that’s doing anything truly disruptive and by disruptive, I mean, what we were just talking about where the structure of the industry will change, where like three big law firms will go out of business because this company up or 100 medium-sized law firms will go out of business because of this company.

If you think of things like Netflix, how many video stores went out business? Many. How many chains went out of business? Blockbuster and whoever else was selling or renting DVDs. So, none of those companies will do that. They may make useful products that will help in practice but it’s never going to turn into billion-dollar companies that disrupt an industry and so I think for venture capitalists, they’re looking for like 10x or more return. They’re not looking for incremental improvements, which are great but they’re not going to invest in something that sort of optimizes a practice. They’re not going to do that. There’s no point. They might go, “Yes, that would be valuable, but we’ll make back 2x the money we put in, which isn’t our business model.”

Sam Glover: Ten years ago, practice management software was really exciting because it was moving to the cloud but the cloud has won. Maybe, you could argue that there’s been disruption of cloud-based practice management software over old school desktop practice management software and that’s true but it wasn’t a disruption in the legal industry, it was disruption in software for lawyers industry, which didn’t change a thing except what tools lawyers used. Maybe more lawyers have practice management software today but … Now, mostly what you have is a massive feels like every two days somebody’s launching a new practice management product but-

Jonathan Tobin: Yes, it’s good to have choices. Even with something like practice management software and we love our practice management software as much as you can love a practice management software, honestly, there’s nothing disruptive about it. The only thing disruptive is that rather than paying $2,000 to $3,000 to install this software on our computers, we’re just paying that money over the course of a year or two years or whatever.

Sam Glover: Disruption doesn’t mean implementing slightly better productivity schemes.

Jonathan Tobin: Right.

Sam Glover: That’s barely even evolutionary. It’s an improvement and you may feel a big improvement in your own practice as a result of it but it’s not disruptive.

Jonathan Tobin: Yes and people will pay for it. Even a slight improvement. I think that the technology, honestly, the technology that has the most potential for disruption and by that, I mean, honestly disruption, it will mean companies go out of business, like law firms go out of business because they cannot compete. I think AI has the biggest potential there. I mean, [crosstalk]

Sam Glover: Still potential though, right? It’s, I mean, let’s engage in a little unsupported speculation about the future of law, speaking of AI. What are the trends that you see shaping the future of law practice that you think are going to make things interesting over the next say ten to fifteen years.

Jonathan Tobin: Just like I just mentioned a minute ago. I think AI is number one. I think that machine learning natural language processing, I mean, I think, honestly, right now, it might take a lawyer let’s say two hours to review a contract or whatever, if you can get a piece of software that does that in ten seconds, now that’s disruptive. That’s not an incremental improvement. That’s actually a qualitative improvement, you know, where instead of having to employee a lawyer for a day to read through contracts, you might have a computer system that does it in a minute and might have the same or better results.

Sam Glover: In fairness, document review, due diligence reviews, that sort of thing, if anything, has been and will continue to be disruptive, that’s at least teetering on the brink of disruption if it hasn’t been already. You’re right. Computer-assisted review is potentially huge and could disrupt a sector of the legal industry, which will have huge ramifications for big firms that have based their business model on milking young associates and contract workers for all their worth.

Jonathan Tobin: Exactly.

Sam Glover: That’s true. That could reverberate through big law. I’m sure it has a whole lot of relevance for small firms until as you say, you can essentially plug a contract into a website and have it spit out all the advice so your client doesn’t even need to talk to you.

Jonathan Tobin: Or and my thing is, what my experience has been in terms of being a lawyer, is I think that what clients value is the actual conversation with a lawyer, the actual sort of human connection that you have when someone else is an expert on legal matters. Really what we’re selling sometimes and I kind of say this as a joke, I say, “As a lawyer, my job is to sell happiness.” Because that’s what we’re doing.

Sam Glover: Does everybody laugh at you or give you really a skeptical look?

Jonathan Tobin: Yes, they do. For that and for a variety of other reasons, but…There’s kind of a little bit of truth in there. They’re not just looking for document sometimes. They’re looking for a hand, without clients at least, in trying to establish a business. This is a dream of mine. I’m trusting you to help me and to have that trust being given to you and then sort of reciprocating by helping them do something that they’re trying to do, that’s what they’re really paying for. You know, they’re not really paying for the document.

Sam Glover: Advice counsel relationships come up a lot when lawyers talk about the value of what they do that can’t be replaced with computers.

Jonathan Tobin: Right.

Sam Glover: I agree that that is potentially there but I think most lawyers vastly overrate that value in their own practice. Right?

Jonathan Tobin: Maybe, yes.

Sam Glover: When Legal Zoom went out…Now Legal Zoom is actually partnering with law firms because it sort of reached the limit of what it was presently able to do with its document automation stuff but in doing so, they went around and checked the net promoter score for a ton of law firms. It found that most law firms barely get above zero which in net promoter score world means your clients are not happy. It means they aren’t referring people to you. It means they aren’t promoting your firm.

I think most lawyers are paying lip service to that but what your typical client relationship looks like is you make somebody come to your office, which probably means taking time off work or paying or figuring out how to get daycare for your kids, taking a different bus, wandering around town until they find your office in the office park or in the section of downtown, trying to find it in the building. Sitting down in a probably not very exciting conference room, having a boring conversation for an hour with somebody who is talking down at you the whole time or speaking words that you don’t understand and then you don’t seem them again and they take your money. Then, maybe you meet in somebody else’s conference room that is equally uncomfortable and boring and drab and then that’s it. That’s the entire client relationship for most lawyers is a couple of meetings and-

Jonathan Tobin: That sounds horrible.

Sam Glover: It is. It’s terrible. That’s not a relationship. Is it any wonder that that’s just not going to sustain people over a website. People aren’t going to pick that kind of a legal relationship over a website, I don’t think.

Jonathan Tobin: Right. I think that one of the things, just talking about our firm and I think other firms, I’ll tell you something. We haven’t met probably 95% of our clients.

Sam Glover: How do you provide a better relationship that way then?

Jonathan Tobin: I think phone conversations work. I think being responsive to questions, responsive to email, being responsive on the phone. We make it really easy for our clients to set appointments with us so they can just go on our calendar and say, “Hey, I want to talk to you guys tomorrow at 3:30” and then we call them. What we’re trying to do is take away a lot of that sort of friction where you can come and meet us anytime, we have an office and we have an Espresso machine and you can come by and we’ll make a coffee and talk but you most people, I think like you’re saying. They wouldn’t really value the experience of coming here. They don’t really get anything. Most people, some people want to meet us face to face, you know just because and we enjoy that but, I think most people, I think you’re right. I think that they want sort of, you know, the instant internet experience. I think that as lawyers it’s important to figure to out how to deliver that while still being mindful of ethics and providing quality legal services.

That doesn’t work for all practices. I know that I’m biased because we do a transactional practice whereas in litigation, I think, you have to go places, whether at the court or mediation or arbitration or deposition or whatever. There’s no way around that. I don’t think.

Sam Glover: But getting back trends, it sounds like of the trends that you’re citing is maybe it’s a refocusing away from selling documents and on actual valuable client service it a way that removes obstacles and is convenient and that people love. You keep the lawyers but you get rid of the stuff that people hate. That’s not very high tech but I take your point.

Jonathan Tobin: No, it’s incremental and it’s affected by technology but none of that is disruptive. It’s…but it’s actually what people expect. I think that’s … even though that’s not disruptive it’s good business these days. I think that it meets people expectations to have that option of like, look I don’t want to come to your office. I don’t want to go to downtown and find parking. If we can just talk on the phone about this or if we document citing online or whatever, let’s do that. I think people enjoy that. Yes, it could be that we’ve arrived at things like AI or other sort of technology that might make lawyers more efficient. It might be that we have [inaudible] the attorneys because attorneys are focused more on the client relationship than they are sitting in an office reviewing the documents for four hours.

Sam Glover: Maybe to back it up even higher, maybe what the trend is, is that the balance of power is shifting back towards clients even in consumer legal services like family law and small business transactions and IP because for a lot of reasons, right. You’ve got Avvo and Avvo people feel that it’s very polarizing but regardless it lets people rate lawyers according to the experience they’ve had. It’s easy to find a bunch of different lawyers to call using the internet. It’s easier for lawyers to talk about how they’re different and to offer different types of services so maybe the reason that lawyers don’t have any incentive to have anything other than inconveniencing clients during the day and forcing them to come to drab meeting rooms, because there’s not a whole lot of competition that gives you a benefit if you don’t do that. Maybe the bigger trend here is that clients are getting some power back and that will force lawyers to shape up and honestly that would be pretty disruptive if the average consumer of legal services has the same sort of clout as the average Fortune 500 company when it comes to choosing a lawyer, that would be pretty huge.

Jonathan Tobin: Yes. I think that obviously it’s not going to be evenly applied. I think a lot of my clients are my peers and they really expect and, you know, that’s what we try to deliver. They expect that we can work on the phone a lot or over Skype or whatever. Whereas I talk to lawyers who maybe are 20 years older than me and they have no need. They have no need to do that because you know it’s just like they’re an estate planner who’s been working with a client for 20 years. That client will still come in and they still actually enjoy spending time together.

I’ve noticed that a lot of the best lawyers that I’ve encountered don’t have a website because they’ve had the same clients for 20 years. They get all their referrals by word of mouth. Whereas me and attorneys who are sort of my age or my generation, we have to get out there and sort of provide a different service. I think that for older lawyers, they might not need to [inaudible]. I don’t want to say that they don’t.

Sam Glover: Although, I’ve offered up this antidote a few times, maybe even on the podcast, but my financial advisor, he’s a friend, too. We were riding our bikes a while back and he was saying that he meets with a ton of his clients using face time. I was like, “I guess you’re starting to pick up younger clients.” He said, “No. The age thing is a total red herring here.”

Jonathan Tobin: Right, you’re right.

Sam Glover: They were all people in their fifties, sixties and seventies who had iPhones because they were easy to use and because they wanted to spend more time with their grandkids.

Jonathan Tobin: Sure.

Sam Glover: It’s a little bit of an error sometimes. I mean I take your point. Once you have an established practice with an established system and relationships, you don’t really have much incentive to change but there are a lot of opportunities to bring a more high-tech style of practice to an older demographic. Let me ask you, do you see any anvils for the legal industry? Like, in Wily E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons, there are always anvils dropping out of the sky, usually misdirected at the coyote but like is there anything that could just be an anvil that drops on the head of lawyers, what do you think that would be? That truly is…comes out almost out of nowhere and is just disruptive as hell and the legal industry never looks the same after.

Jonathan Tobin: Yes. Gosh, if I knew I think that would be helpful. Honestly, I’m waiting to see … I’m waiting to see what the impact of AI will be because again, like you were saying, if by the legal industry you mean sort established law firms, if it turns out that you can review a contract in 1% of the time and do just as good or even better of a job, now if you have an office with 500 attorneys, you’re going to be looking around and being like, you’d actually be competing toe to toe with a law firm with five attorneys. They could do the same amount of work. That would be hugely disruptive and that would be a huge anvil. I don’t know who it’s aimed at, I don’t know who the anvil would hit, but I think that honestly it might be that small firms have an advantage.

Obviously, small firms are not going to be able to compete for the giant clients like Chevron or McDonald’s or whoever but I think that most of the market is up for grabs. We’ll sort of see what happens in the next ten years. I think that’s going to be really interesting.

Sam Glover: Jon, especially when I have somebody on the podcast who’s a bit of a tech geek like we are, I always like to know what are your favorite pieces of software, hardware, whatever and feel free to list the common ones as well as the unusual ones. What are your favorite tools?

Jonathan Tobin: One of the tools I really enjoy and I think that we’ve gotten a lot of use out of in our law firm and I feel like you guys have talked about it on the podcast before is Zapier, which is the platform or the software, the product that sort of allows you to tie together different things. So gmail can be tied to Clio can be tied to Slack. Slack is also useful. We really like Slack for sort of in house communication.

Sam Glover: Do you use it with clients?

Jonathan Tobin: We do not use it with clients. We use it for in house. Basically what we do is we use it for internal communication but we also use it for getting [inaudible 00:48:19]. Like, a new client signs up with us, we have a Slack channel that tells us, “Hey, this person just signed an agreement and they’re ready to go.” or if a payment comes in, we have a channel that talks about that. That’s what we use it for. Those two pieces are really nice. We also, there’s another piece of software that we use, it’s Smith.ai. It’s a call software sort of like Ruby but they sort of answer, it’s a virtual receptionist and it’s really good. We really like that.

Sam Glover: Is there any AI in Smith.ai because it is .ai but I’m not clear on whether or not there is any artificial intelligence involved.

Jonathan Tobin: That I don’t know. You could probably find out. I don’t want to mislead people to think that an AI system handles your calls—

Sam Glover: Maybe all the receptionists are in robot costumes.

Jonathan Tobin: That could be it. You never know. [inaudible ] there’s the basics like, you know, we use Clio as our practice management. We like that. I think everything that we use is sort of—

Sam Glover: Are you on Macs or window PC?

Jonathan Tobin: Macs, definitely. All of us are on Macs. It’s just easier to set up and configure. I’ve been a Mac person since like 1992 so it’s great.

Sam Glover: Cool. What else? Any…what apps can’t you live without on your phone?

Jonathan Tobin: Usually what apps that I have that I look at the most in terms of law practice, I like the Clio app. That one’s really good. I like any notetaking app. Lately, I’ve sort of, I don’t know [inaudible] to realize this but their voice dictation is really good. So, if I want to draft an email or even a blog post, I can actually drive it around and talking to it and it gets it pretty accurate. Then, when I get back to my office I edit it and I can post it.

Sam Glover: What’s your note taking app of choice?

Jonathan Tobin: I can either just use the microphone and then put in Gmail or email myself or just use that built in notetaker in the iPhone.

Sam Glover: I’m an Evernote user but I’m starting to think I’m the last one alive so…

Jonathan Tobin: Yes, I mean Evernote’s cool. I just never really got into it. I never quite…I think I got about 20% into it and then it just sort of stopped. It seems like an interesting program.

Sam Glover: Anything else we should send people off to check out?

Jonathan Tobin: I think, I feel like everything else that I would mention are things that either people already know about or that you guys have already talked about before.

Sam Glover: Thank you so much for being with us today and talking about why lawyers should code or not, disruption or not and speculating without any support with us about the future of law and last but not least about anvils. Thank you.

Jonathan Tobin: Yes. I appreciate it. Thank you for having me.

Voiceover: Make sure to catch next week’s episode of the Lawyerist podcast. If you’d like more information about today’s show, please visit lawyerist.com/podcast or Legal Talk Network.com. You can subscribe via iTunes or anywhere podcasts are found. Both Lawyerist and the Legal Talk Network can be found on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn and you can download the free app from Legal Talk Network in Google Play or iTunes.

The views expressed by the participants of this program are their own and do not represent the views of nor are they endorsed by Legal Talk Network. Nothing said during this podcast is legal advice.

Podcast #106: Can Lawyers Really Innovate? with Jonathan Tobin was originally published on Lawyerist.com.



Source: https://lawyerist.com/145477/podcast-106-can-lawyers-really-innovate-jonathan-tobin/

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