Women in the Law: A Candid Discussion. A panel of women lawyers, including Gail Groy (left) and Rachel Monaco-Wilcox (center), discuss the exodus of women from law firms and the legal profession, and what law firms can do about it.
Visit the State Bar’s Facebook page for more photos of this event, or click here.
Oct. 26, 2018 – There has been more change in the legal profession in the last 15 years than the previous 50 years, according to some industry experts. Embrace change and innovation. Adapt or die. Those are clear messages from the 2018 Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference (WSSFC), which is happening now in Wisconsin Dells.
On day one of the three-day WSSFC, a Ted Talk-style panel discussed what solo and small firms should be doing to prepare for law practice in 2023, five short years from now. Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, a small firm lawyer before taking the bench, discussed the waves of change that lawyers are experiencing.
He noted a software demonstration his friend attended recently. The computing application took research questions, in normal conversational phrasing.
“The computer’s response was not just to produce a list of relevant statutes and regulations and case opinions, like you might expect. Instead, it wrote a legal memorandum. Think about that. A computer wrote a legal memorandum,” Kelly said.
The memo wasn’t that good, he noted. But “this [intelligence] wave will keep building, and the memos will get better. What else will this intelligence wave bring us? We don’t know. But I do know it will bring opportunities we can’t even imagine yet, and it will bring a new set of practical and ethical issues with which we will have to grapple.”
“Our profession is experiencing a hurricane of technological developments like we’ve never seen before. But if you approach these developments wisely, your practice can sit in the middle of the hurricane’s eye. You know what it’s like in the middle? It’s calm.”
The art of negotiation. An arm-wrestling exercise demonstrated the give-and-take of negotiations, in M.U. Law Professor Andrea Kupfer Schneider's presentation on "Five Skills to Improve Your Negotiation Effectiveness."
It doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Small steps, over time, can make all the difference, panelists noted. What’s one thing solo and small firms can do now? Online payments.
“There’s an expectation that businesses can take online payments from their customers. This expectation applies to law firms as well, so get ready to be treated like any other business,” said Shannon Yocum, of LawPay. “Say goodbye to cash and check.”
WSSFC Tip 1: Document your systems and processes. “While memory can work, most of the time, it will regularly cause problems, inefficiency, inconsistency in our work, and occasionally – errors.” – David Krekeler, Krekeler Strother S.C.
David Krekeler, founding principal of Krekeler Strother S.C., an eight-attorney firm, said change is happening. “We can embrace it,” Krekeler said, “or become irrelevant.”
One way to embrace change is to build better systems and processes. “This has begun at our firm,” Krekeler said. “It’s part of our culture. We believe that everything we do should have a standard, and that standard should be the best way to perform a task.”
While panelists discussed the changes ahead, other speakers at the 2018 WSSFC are discussing how to deal with them. From substantive changes in the law, to business considerations, from technology to practice management. It’s happening now.
Hundreds of solo and small firm lawyers, legal and business consultants, and technology vendors, have assembled to bring ideas and challenges to discuss with colleagues while learning and networking at the 2018 WSSFC. It’s a good time.
Similar Joys, Similar Pain Points
Lawyers of all experience levels, from new attorneys to veterans, value mixing with colleagues who may be experiencing the same challenges in their practices. Through networking, CLE sessions, and a packed vendor hall, they can find some answers.
Mark Metzger discussed how meditation can help solo and small firm lawyers deal with stress.
“I am specifically looking to learn about options for outsourcing answering phone calls, updates on how to maximize the tech equipment I bought after the last conference, and learning more about what else might make our office more efficient,” said Ginger Murray, a family lawyer who founded Madison-based Your Family Law Center in 2014.
Learning to maximize efficiency is a common thread among solo and small firm attorneys, who must often manage both the practice and business aspects of the firm.
WSSFC Tip 2: Develop Your Negotiation Toolbox. Social Intuition Matters. “When we are arguing for your own point of view, we want to keep [the opposing party] as open minded as possible.” – Prof. Andrea Kupfer Schneider, M.U. Law School.
“I am looking forward to meeting other attorneys who have a similar practice and hearing how they manage their time and business for maximum efficiency,” said first-time attendee and Cedarburg-based Collin Schaeffer of Ogden Glazer + Schaefer.
Practice management and technology sessions are providing attorneys with information about the tools they need to improve processes, work flows, and overall productivity.
For instance, attorney Paul Unger, a law firm consultant, is teaching lawyers how to improve time management and deal with distractions that can derail a lawyer’s work.
Michael Yang (left) and David Krekeler catch up in between sessions.
He noted that managing distractions in the 21st Century – with instant messaging, social media notifications, emails and “internet curiosity breaks” – can kill output. Here’s a couple tips: turn off all notifications and practice “single-tasking.” Focus on one thing.
Thomas Burton, who runs his solo law practice in Chippewa Falls, attended WSSFC for the first time last year, and he is returning for more substantive and practical tips.
“I like how the whole conference is designed around the needs of solo and small firm attorneys in particular,” said Burton, who does business and estate planning.
Burton said sessions on substantive and business topics and very useful and he enjoys the camaraderie and exchange of ideas from meeting like-minded attorneys.
Virginia Bartelt, a real estate and estate planning attorney at Middleton-based Bartelt Grob S.C., has years of experience but says the WSSFC provides new ideas.
“It helps me by bringing together speakers on a diverse range of relevant topics and by exposing me to new products and services relevant to my practice,” Bartelt said. “I always learn something new, whether from a speaker, a presenter or a fellow attendee.”
Solo and small firm lawyers say they enjoy the flexibility of solo and small firm practice, and the ability to be the primary decision-maker on cases and clients.
Ginger Murray left a medium-sized law firm, where she became president, to start Your Family Law Center. She has not regretted that decision.
“I am so happy to be back in control and deciding what type of cases the office handles,” Murray said. “I love being able to focus solely on family law matters."
Tom Burton, a solo lawyer in Chippewa Falls, talks with another attendee at WSSFC.
WSSFC Tip 3: Set Yourself Free. “As solos, we do everything. I think we should not be doing everything. Embracing technology will free our time to do those things that only the lawyer can do.” – Odalo Ohiku, Law Office of Odalo Ohiku.
Murray also likes the flexibility to work from home and on the schedule that works for her and her family. “And I prefer the stability of knowing the cash flow and not worrying about huge expenses that come with the loss of a personal injury case,” she said.
Still, like many solo and small firm attorneys, Murray says there are trade-offs and challenges to being chief executive officer in charge of the law firm business.
“Some of the biggest challenges have to do with administration: securing the work of capable and reasonably priced accountants, dealing with the struggles of health insurance for employees, retaining staff, keeping up with agency reports, knowing which companies can best support our team’s needs, and knowing which software/computer purchases will be user-friendly and provide more efficient processing,” Murray said.
Thus, the flexibility and profitability of solo and small firms hinge on the ability to run productive and efficient practices. Other solo and small firm attorneys agree.
“I appreciate that a small firm gives me the ability to be flexible and to adapt to evolving client needs and the changing legal environment,” Bartelt said.
“We need to be great lawyers, first and foremost, but we also need to be great managers, leaders and marketers. The challenge is to do all at the same time.”
Tom Burton, the solo in Chippewa Falls, said he likes controlling his own destiny, setting his own hours, and establishing quality relationships with clients who value his work. “The biggest challenge is probably achieving work-life balance,” Burton said.
Attorney Dan Bestul, in Darlington, enjoys the satisfaction that comes from building a high-functioning team within the firm and focusing his practice in ways that work well for him, rather than trying to fill a position someone else has defined for him.
Lederer recipients past and present join together to celebrate Wisconsin Lawyers Mututal Insurance Company.
WSSFC Tip 4: Women are Leaving Law Firms. Let’s Fix That. “Rather than looking at the problem being ‘why aren’t women fitting in,’ let’s ask why law firms can’t keep 50 percent of our graduates involved in the practice of law. We can do concrete things that are easy to implement.” – Ann Jacobs, Jacobs Injury Law S.C.
“But it can be a challenge to find the time to take care of the business end of the practice, especially when it comes to providing good training for our staff,” he said.
Bestul said he has attended have several WSSFC’s, and always leaves with ideas for improvement. One concrete example was learning about credit card payments. The firm resisted for years, but now it has resulted in a big, positive impact on the bottom line.
Networking and Camaraderie
About 80 percent of lawyers in Wisconsin are solo and small firm lawyers, many in rural areas or areas far-removed from the urban centers of Madison and Milwaukee. Thus, it can be lonely out there, and WSSFC provides a chance to connect with colleagues.
Enjoying a cool treat at WSSFC! Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, Conference Planning Chair Sarah Ruffi, David Krekeler, and Amy Salberg share a laugh over ice cream during a break at the Solo & Small Firm Conference.
WSSFC Tip 5: Meditate. “It can and will change your life. It deserves your attention as a tool to prepare you for the change that is coming, for the change that none of us can avoid, for the change that our brains are hard-wired to reject.” – Mark Metzger, Law Office of Mark Metzger.
Elizabeth Rich, who practices business and real estate law in Plymouth, said she has built relationships with many lawyers during her 30-year career, and has attended the WSSFC most years in the last two decades. She says isolation is a challenge.
“The older I get, the more I value opportunities to connect with my colleagues,” Rich said. “The conference is an opportunity to re-connect with colleagues, meet new ones, and network with others who work in the areas of practice of interest to me.
“I have always made a point of building community in my personal and professional life, but I appreciate the value of that community more and more as the years pass.”
Are you a solo and small firm attorney? What can the State Bar do to help you be more productive, efficient, and profitable – to achieve an optimal work-life balance? What other topics, speakers, or vendors would you like to see at the 2019 WSSFC?