The Modern JD spotlight series is a feature on Lawyernomics that highlights attorneys that are using technology, their brand and marketing in innovative ways to connect with clients and their peers. These attorneys come from different practice areas across the country but have one thing in common: they have evolved with the times to meet the needs of their clients and practice. This week we are excited to share attorney, Forrest Carlson of Assemble Law Group.
What is your area of practice and why did you decide to get into it?
My primary practice areas are estate planning, probate, and trusts and estate litigation. I got into these specific areas because they provide me with a good balance of transaction and litigation work, a lot of direct client contact, and a regular dose of intellectual stimulation.
How has being a lawyer changed since graduating law school?
In my opinion, being a lawyer has not changed much since I graduated in 2008. It’s a slow-moving profession for a lot of reasons, but I don’t think the oft-cited techno-phobia is primary among them. There is a lot more than our own fear of technology or lack of technological training holding us back. Without the other barriers, I believe lawyers (so many of whom are deeply proud of their academic achievements) would quickly teach themselves how to use new technologies.
The problem comes from elsewhere: We have ethical rules to consider every time we make a decision about how we operate. Consider just how many law bloggers spend significant time exploring the nuances of ethics concerns (Avvo’s own Josh King as an example) and you’ll get an idea of how deeply ethics impacts our everyday decision-making. We practice in decentralized courts that each have their own nuanced sets of rules and technological capabilities and different degrees of openness to change. So much of a lawyers’ work still seems to be bespoke that it isn’t cost-effective to automate. On top of all that — and there’s more, but I have to keep it short — fee sharing and unauthorized practice of law (common shorthand: UPL) restrictions, prevent law firms from accepting investment from non-lawyer investors (read “most investors”) for innovating within the profession.
Where do you envision your practice and profession as a whole going in 5 years?
My practice: With hard work, smart business thinking and a little luck, Assemble Law Group, PLLC will be growing fast and investing in expanding our own technologies.
The profession as a whole: To be clear, my crystal ball is only as good as yours. I believe there is a watershed coming, perhaps within the next 5 years, where at least one jurisdiction within the United States is going to take concrete action to deregulate the profession (i.e., allow non-lawyer ownership and investment in law firms and/or allow non-lawyers to provide a wide array of legal services currently reserved to attorneys) with the stated aim of protecting consumers. Washington State has already dipped its toe in the water with limited license legal technicians and I believe there is much more to come, for good or for ill.
How do you think your practice is unique compared to others? What is your firm’s secret sauce?
Our sauce is no secret, as we share it with all who will listen. We believe in the principles of inbound marketing. In other words, we produce content that our potential clients find extremely valuable, and we give it away for free on our websites, most notably on wa-wills.com. Then we nurture relationships with the contacts our content generates. Doing this builds trust and confidence that leads people to choose us over other law firms when making a hiring decision.
Do you see yourself as a lawyer first? Business person first? or Client service first?
This seems like a false trichotomy. Yes, I take my oath and my duties to my clients and the justice system very seriously. At the same time, I am not a typical lawyer; I geek out on things like user experience design, legal app development, and religiously measuring key performance indicators. My partner, John H. Varga, and I rely on lean and agile development tools for our technology projects and our legal matters. I guess I’d say that even if you see yourself as a lawyer or client services person first, you still need to stay on top of business or else you won’t be serving any clients at all.
How do you use your personality or brand in creative ways to connect with clients?
My law firm (i.e., my partner, John H. Varga and I) publishes a website wa-wills.com, which provides free templates and lawyer-drafted instructions specific to Washington State to help Washington residents write their own simple wills and other estate planning documents. We have found that, consistent with inbound marketing principles (in particular the content marketing subset), merely by giving away lots of valuable legal information for free, we do very well in SERPs and see a lot more traffic than typical law firm “brochure-ware” websites. Writing the content is a lot of hard work, but it pays dividends.
On top of that, we aim to be engaging when people reach out to us. That means, of course, responding thoughtfully and being helpful to people who contact us, even if they aren’t ready to hire us. We sometimes even add new content to our websites that people ask us for.
Where do you find inspiration professionally and/or personally?
Both personally and professionally I get a ton of inspiration from my wife. She is a public defender and it seems like she works twice as hard as I do. I see how much time and effort she puts into her cases and how much she cares about her clients. She makes me want to do more for my own clients and to find more ways to give back to the community.
I also draw a lot of inspiration from other innovative lawyers and law-related startups who are as excited about the intersection of law and technology as I am. I get excited every time I hear about a new legal business model or a new bit of legal software.
What’s the piece of technology you couldn’t live without and why?
That would have to be my computer. Yeah, I know…it’s not a sexy answer, but it’s the truth…I use it to do literally 95% of my work. It’s a PC, a few years old, but still a workhorse.
Here is some other hardware that is all tied for second place: iPhone, Fujitsu ScanSnap, laser printer, and second computer monitor.
Here is some software that is equally tied for second place: Office 365, Google for Business (email, drive, analytics, webmaster tools), WordPress, cloud-based Kanban boards (Trello and LeanKit) and practice management (Clio), password manager (KeePass), encryption for cloud storage (Viivo), encryption for data in transit (a VPN), virtual dedicated servers from nfoservers.com, and so much more.
What kind of a role does technology play in your practice?
Technology is front-and-center in everything I do, and I think this is true of most lawyers.
The difference between me and most lawyers, I think, is that I go out of my way to adopt technologies that are common in other industries but that lawyers generally don’t understand well yet. For example, we use tools to encrypt client data for storage before sending it to the cloud.
I’ve always liked computers and enjoy managing my law firm’s servers and writing code for our web projects myself.
Favorite app on your phone?
My favorite app is Downcast for listening to podcasts. Really, any podcast app would probably do; podcasts are delightful. My favorite legal podcasts are currently Lawyerist Podcast and the very new Radiolab Presents: More Perfect.
The best tip or trick for balancing everyday work and life?
If you find the silver bullet, I’d love to know what it is.
The best I can offer is to work hard at communicating with your spouse, your family, whoever it is you have at home. Work on reaching an understanding that being a lawyer (with all its benefits) comes with a ton of work, and that realistically it’s going to mean working long hours a lot of the time just to get the work done. Setting these kinds of expectations can help ease stress at home when things get tough at the office.
I have also found that learning to use a Kanban board really helps keep me on task and keeps me from wasting time trying to figure out what I should be doing in the first place. For the uninitiated, a Kanban board is a lean task management process that involves organizing sticky notes representing tasks in columns — which in turn represent when the tasks within them should be done — then updating it throughout the day. I use the LeanKit app for this, though Trello is just as good in my experience. There is also a great resource for attorneys who want to learn how to use a Kanban board at agileattorney.com.
Describe, in three words, the Modern JD or the 21st Century Lawyer.
Hardworking, agile, & innovative.