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  • InsideTrack
  • October 07, 2020

    Apart but Together: Solo and Small Firm Lawyers Prepare for Virtual Conference

    The clock is ticking. Learn why you should attend this year's Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference from the lawyers who make attendance a priority.

    Joe Forward

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    Learn why you should attend this year’s Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference from the lawyers who make attendance a priority.

    Oct. 7, 2020 – More than 20 years ago, the State Bar of Wisconsin organized a regional solo and small firm conference for practitioners in the Midwest, which has evolved into state-based conferences, including the Wisconsin Solo & Small Firm Conference.

    “We saw the need for a gathering to discuss the needs of rural and urban solo and smalls that had no partner down the hall to go to for advice,” said former solo Steve Sorenson, who helped organize the regional event as State Bar president (1997-98).

    In 2020, amidst COVID-19, creating an opportunity for solo and small firm attorneys to discuss common themes and challenges is as important as ever, Sorenson says.

    “Today the need is even greater,” said Sorenson, who moved from solo practice in Ripon to a mid-sized firm in recent years. “I appreciate the importance of providing the tools to those who still do want the quality of life that a solo or small firm offers.”

    Sorenson said the benefit of the Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference includes substantive and procedural knowledge, but also invaluable contacts.

    Sorenson said the Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference (WSSFC), now in its 15th year, is where solo and small firm attorneys can gather to discuss the challenges of law practice and learn about evolving tools to help them succeed.

    That will be no different this year. The 2020 Wisconsin Solo & Small Firm Conference will be held virtually Oct. 28-30, with a virtual platform that will still allow attorneys to network and connect from their homes and offices without the cost of travel and lodging.

    Going Virtual

    “It’s going to be different for us all,” said Nerino Petro, past chair and current WSSFC Planning Committee member. “The value of the conference is much more than CLE. It's that interpersonal interaction and ability to connect. But this platform will allow for that.

    “It’s a really intriguing online conference platform,” said Petro, noting the traditional four tracks of CLE – technology, practice management, substantive law, and ethics/work life-balance. A virtual vendor hall will allow attendees to interact with vendors one-on-one.

    And there are additional benefits: every breakout session will be recorded and attendees will have access to seven sessions, after the conference, as part of the registration package. In previous years, only selected sessions were recorded.

    Petro, former practice management advisor at the State Bar of Wisconsin, is also the co-chair of the WSSFC’s Technology Track. He said the sessions will “get into the forest” of how to manage and implement technology to improve workflows.

    “We've got sessions on making the leap to Microsoft Office or Microsoft 365, which lawyers are still slow to adopt,” he said. “We'll talk about automating your law practice with simple technology. And we’ll talk about why you should be using video in your practice and what it takes to do that without breaking the bank.”

    Petro said the Technology Track includes a line-up of how-to sessions that will give lawyers the information they need to implement useful technology immediately.

    Law Practice in Challenging Times

    Small firm lawyer Erin Ogden and solo attorneys Matthew Underwood and Tom Burton have attended WSSFC for several years since starting their own law firms. They keep coming back for a reason: the information they bring home helps them succeed.

    State Bar Practice Management Advisor Christopher Shattuck (Practice 411) recently moderated a WSSFC Roundtable with them to discuss the challenges they are currently facing and how the WSSFC helps provide tools to overcome them.

    Ogden practices intellectual property and business law at a four-attorney firm, Ogden Glazer + Schaeffer in Madison. Underwood and Burton both practice estate planning and business law through their solo law firms, Underwood Legal LLC, Monona, and Burton Law LLC, Chippewa Falls.

    Ogden said COVID-19 has forced lawyers to embrace technology to provide legal services, but lawyers must also ensure their clients are comfortable with it.

    “Some of our clients tell us we’re old school because we're still relying on email but we have other clients that we were a little worried about embracing technology,” she said.  

    “It has been really amazing how many people have embraced not just video but other online tools, such as online forms accessed through our website.”

    Ogden said her firm introduced a portal that allows clients to access documents to review anytime. In the beginning, some clients were not quick to embrace it.

    “But so many of them have taken this opportunity to really figure out how to make it work and how to use it,” she said. “We've been able to talk to all of our clients across the state and across the nation because of this new embrace of technology.”

    Ogden said technology and practice management tips she learned at previous WSSFCs has helped her firm keep operations running during a challenging time.

    That includes the importance of security when using technology. She said the firm consistently reviews security protocols and annual updates from WSSFC allow the firm to stay current on the latest cybersecurity threats and how to deal with them.

    But Ogden also attends for the networking. “It's not just the presentations, but it's the discussions. Those can still happen in this virtual space,” Ogden said.

    “I love talking with other people and hearing what they're doing, what new things they're experimenting with and what has succeeded and what has failed for them … and I love telling other people about our mistakes and what we've learned from them.”

    Make Your Life Easier

    This year will be solo attorney Matthew Underwood’s third year at the WSSFC. For anyone thinking of attending for the first time, Underwood said you should plan to fully immerse yourself in the experience and go beyond the CLE offerings that will be available in virtual breakout rooms and other networking tools.

    “Don't just go for the CLE programs. Go to the networking events. Talk to the vendors because there's a whole lot of great advice out there,” Underwood said. “Reach out to people and connect with your peers.”

    Underwood noted one of the biggest challenges of solo practice: you and you alone are responsible for all aspects of the firm’s success, including marketing and administration.

    “Not only do you have to be the lawyer, but you have to be the marketing person, the IT person, and the HR director,” Underwood said. “If you try to do everything, you'll just have a lot of headaches and that'll really make it tough for you to grow your practice.”

    But that’s where the WSSFC can help. Underwood says he learns the tools and technology, such as automation, that he can use to make his life easier.

    “There's really great cloud-based software systems and tools that allow you to delegate work to other people,” Underwood said. “So, if you don't want to be answering your own phones, there are services that can do that for you.”

    “One of the things that was really helpful is learning to make my life easier through technology,” Underwood said. “I can spend more of my day focusing on legal aspects and using my time in the best way possible.”

    WSSFC also helps solos like Underwood understand that they are not alone. “It is helpful for me to know that there are other attorneys out there who are going through some of the same challenges that I'm going through,” he said.

    Get Value, Propel Your Practice

    “When I go to WSSFC, my goal is to get as many credits as possible because you get a huge value,” said solo attorney Thomas Burton of Chippewa Falls. “You can get all your credits for the year if you just go to this one conference.”

    Burton says the WSSFC helps him learn the tools he needs to succeed, serve the clients he wants to serve, and create strategies to be a better lawyer. He said the WSSFC exposes attorneys to methods or tools they may never thought of before.

    “If you're on the fence, just do it,” Burton said. “You'll benefit from the community. Even though we're all being socially distant, you need that time with other thought leaders to propel your practice forward.”

    WSSFC registration is $309 for State Bar members who register before Oct. 9, and $329 for those registering after that date. The event will be submitted the BBE for up to 15.5 credits, which is more than half needed for two-year CLE reporting period.

    Register Now

    2020 Wisconsin Solo & Small Firm Conference

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