COVID-19: Preparing for the Next Normal (Part 5)

Law firms have quickly adjusted to leveraging technology and finding new ways of doing business during the reduction in face to face interactions to try to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 infections. Firms are using new tools like virtual consultations, online depositions and mediation, electronic signatures, document collaboration, and more. As we move through the pandemic to the predicted recession, law firms can use these tools and many more to give clients options and provide flexibility to continue to provide legal services and rethink the firm’s business model.

See also Part 1: Awareness, Response, and Workplace Plans/Policies, Part 2: Law Firm Operations, Part 3: Serving Clients, Part 4: Firm Financial Considerations

Jump to Section: Communication; Self Help/Self Service; Pricing/Fees; Practice Areas; Customer Service; Video Conferencing; Collecting Information

High Tech, High Touch

Clients do not necessarily want robot lawyers, but they do value convenience and ease of use. They want transparency in pricing and process, proactive communication, and self-help tools to make it easy to work with the firm. Thinking about how your firm works with clients, what type of customer experience they have, and how you can improve it are all ways to make clients your fans. The three ingredients of great lawyers start with being responsive, accessible, and prompt. There are many ways to achieve these goals to serve clients in the next normal.

Communication

Texting

For immediacy, portability and for those clients who may find other communications challenging because of the need for privacy or limited bandwidth, giving your clients a text option should be considered. If you are using one of the popular VoIP providers like RingCentral, you may have business text messaging available. For a fast and free option, you could get a Google Voice number for text messaging. While certainly not the best option, you can send emails to text and receive text to email. For other texting options and considerations see the CPM article “Consider Texting with Clients”. Some practice management and CRM applications are adding text capability. Check with your provider.

Infographics and Visual Aids

Timelines, infographics, pictures, and storytelling are effective ways to communicate complex ideas to clients quickly. While lawyers are content to read thousands of words, most clients prefer visual aids and summaries.

Checking In

Clients often call to find out the status of their matter. However, whether by sending a weekly status report and/or embedding it into your invoice, letting your clients know what is happening (even if that is that nothing is happening) will help keep you out of the business of reactive communication and allow you to be proactive.

Personal Touch

Whether wishing a client a “happy birthday” or sending other personalized messages occasionally goes a long way to keep up positive communications. You can set up ticklers in your email, or create a Zap or use Power Automate if you want to automate the message. If you are a MailChimp user they have automation tools built in. A blast email newsletter is a great communication tool, but a personal note will be appreciated. You can also, of course, send snail mail cards (which you can automate with Postable).

Self Help and Self-Service Options

In 2012 the venerable and trusted Consumer Reports evaluated LegalZoom, Nolo and Rocket Lawyer to see if they really could save consumer a visit to a lawyer. They used the services to create a will, a bill of sale for a car, a home lease and a promissory note. Then they asked three law professors to review the results in a blind test. The verdict? Using any of the three services is generally better than drafting the documents with no legal training but unless the needs are simple none of the will writing products is likely to meet the needs of the user and the other documents weren’t specific enough or contain language that could lead to “an unintended result”.  The bottom line is the many consumers are better off consulting a lawyer, which is why most of these services now let you search for one, or offer subscription legal services.

Other searches reveal that these services show complaints with the Better Business Bureau, Yelp and other review sites. Lawyers who have tested the services find them lacking, including a will generated by Legal Zoom that evidently disinherited the reviewer’s oldest son. Yet, the DIY legal services sector continues to apparently survive and thrive. If consumers are being harmed or not served effectively why do they persist on using these services, or at least trying them out? Because they are “easy”, fast, and affordable. They empower the user to self-help and self-study. The services are online making them available 24/7/365.

Chatbots

Chatbots, accessed from your website or social media page, can do anything from answer frequently asked questions to generate documents to perform a “legal health checkup”. LawDroid is a service that helps firms build a chatbot and hosts it for them. They are currently offering 6 months free during the pandemic. Other tools include Docubot, Form.one, and Facebook Messenger bot Chatfuel.

Document Generation

While automating your documents in the firm can help save you time, offering document generation services to clients is a way to deliver client services and save them time. You can use tools to collect information, generate a document and review it with the client.  Community.lawyer is a powerful “no code” development platform for legal service professionals. You can automate documents, intake clients, create products for new revenue streams and more. You can also share what you build and see what others have created in the app library. For techie types Doc Assemble is a free, open-source expert system for guided interviews and document assembly. In addition to the web interface it allows for interviews via SMS (text messages). You can also collect documents, get signatures and much more. DraftOnce lets lawyers take their own documents, in any format, upload them to the DraftOnce engine and convert them to form templates. Lawyers can then invite clients to provide information in an easy online interview format with contextual help to generate a document the attorney can review, finalize and return to the client. Finally, HotDocs Cloud Services has added a client facing service. HotDocs Cloud Services enables you to embed HotDocs interviews (wizard-like sequences of data-gathering forms) in your own web pages or business applications and to generate virtually error-free, transactional documents (contracts, agreements, wills, trusts, etc.) on a subscription basis.

Creating Appointments

If scheduling meetings – whether initial consultations or client meetings – is a pain point, consider using an automated scheduling tool. It is vital that you are using and on top of an electronic calendar such as Outlook or Google calendar for these types of tools to be effective.

Calendly, Bookings through MS 365, X.ai, and Acuity are all freemium products that let you hook into your Outlook or Google calendar and let people see free/busy times and book their own appointment with you. Some video conferencing tools, like Legaler, can also connect to your calendar to let people schedule an appointment with a video conference. You can also charge for appointments, send text or email reminders and other features. To effectively leverage these tools you will need to assiduously manage your calendar. Learn more about managing your calendar in the “Defensive Calendaring” CPM Webinar. 

Client Portals

If you offer a client portal, instead of just putting “login” on your firm website create a page that explains the benefits of the client portal so that visitors to your website can see what benefits your firm offers clients.

Most all of the cloud-based practice management and document management systems have client portals available. Jim Calloway from the Oklahoma State Bar makes the case for portals versus emailing attachments, as well as many options for setting up a client portal using applications you may already use. 

If your firm doesn’t currently a cloud-based practice management or document management system and client files will be accessed via a VPN on a server, you can still set up file sharing with clients using any number of online document storage systems including Citrix Sharefile, Dropbox, Box, OneDrive, Google Drive, or Adobe Acrobat DC. One consideration when sharing files from online repositories is that your client may have a hard time creating an account to the application, or does not wish to. Many of these document platforms have the option of creating an “open” link (one that does not require an account) but is protected by a password and can also be expired, made read-only and other options. Here is a comparison of popular programs.  

Pricing/Fees

While fees may not be the single deciding factor in hiring a law firm, people do want to know what your services may cost, or how you charge. A study by the UK Legal Services Consumer Panel revealed that only 6% of consumers could find pricing on law firm websites. Many of the online legal service providers take advantage of the fears of consumers and small businesses regarding unknown fees by using phrases in their advertising like “Create Legal Documents On Your Own and Save Money” and “You can create a complete estate plan quickly, easily and without a costly attorney.” However, (somewhat ironically) many of these services will also offer to connect you with a lawyer, because many people will have complex situations that a DIY form simply will not cover.

Being transparent about fees and explaining what a fee is (do not assume someone understands what a contingency fee is), is important to clients. Having predictability and options helps clients make decisions about seeking representation. Your firm doesn’t have to post a fee schedule on the website, but should explain in the FAQ or About section generally what types of fees and options are available. Many firms are using different fee options beyond the billable hour.

Alternative Fees

Evergreen retainers help with a firm’s cash flow and may help reduce the upfront retainer fee by keeping the account “topped off”. Unbundled or a la carte services let firms provide specific and discrete services, usually for a flat fee. North Carolina has some guidance in this type of service and ethical considerations in Rule 1.2 Scope of Representation And Allocation Of Authority Between Client And Lawyer and 2005 FEO 10 Virtual Law Practice And Unbundled Legal Services.  Some law firms are using subscription services, offering specific services at set monthly fees. Here is a good example of a firm using flat fees and subscription services, though they are not a “virtual” law firm. Other firms are exploring value based billing.

For more information on pricing options see the Pricing Toolkit from the Chicago Bar Foundation’s Justice Entrepreneurs Project, which focuses on low and moderate income clients.  

Take Credit Cards/ACH

If your firm is mailing bills to clients consider emailing them instead. The invoices are likely generated electronically or generated with a time/billing/practice management or through Quickbooks or Xero. 

If you do not take credit cards online this is a good time to investigate it. If your firm uses LawPay then you already have the option of sending the client a link to pay online. Keep in mind that taking credit cards electronically requires PCI compliance so it is best to let a merchant set up for this type of security protocol handle it. Do not ask for a credit card via email or online form of your own creation. A major benefit of LawPay is that you can maintain operating and trust accounts so that you can take payments for either account without co-mingling funds. LawPay has excellent resources, tips, and tutorials for taking credit cards while staying ethically compliant. LawPay integrates with almost every practice management application, or you can add a payment page on your website

For lawyers who would like to take payments online, but can’t take credit cards, LawPay has solutions for payment online for debit card or e-check. You can add a payment button to your website, emails or invoices. Another potential for earned fees is QuickBooks Payments, which lets you take debit cards, e-check, and ACH bank transfers.  Finally, there is Google Pay for Business for earned fees, but you have to set up a Unified Payments Interface ID with your bank.

For lawyers contemplating using  P2P services including Venmo, Cash App, PayPal, Google Pay, and Apple Pay to obtain trust monies tread carefully and read the article “Proceed with Caution: Person to Person Payment Applications“.

If you decide to use P2P services for earned fees this Above the Law article describes some things to consider, like privacy settings and transfer limits.

Practice Areas

Pivoting on Current Practice Areas

Your firm may want to evaluate current practice areas in terms of immediate and future need by people and businesses effected by the pandemic. Some practice areas may experience high volume now, some may see some more activity in the future. Some practice areas will not be as busy during the economic downturn. Think about how your firm can predict and pivot to make sure your services align with client needs.

Niche Practices

While it may feel like you are turning away business, the rising popularity of niche practices – those focused on solving a problem for clients – are easier to market and may be easier to scale. There are a lot of good articles about niche practices, which you can add to your existing practice. See The Swiss Army Lawyer for more on the benefits of a niche practice.  

Customer Service

Recently the Clio Trends Report 2019 was released and some of the findings had many lawyers in a state of denial. Clio hired a third-party research company to “shop” for a lawyer and 60% of law firms did not respond to emails at all and 27% did not answer or return phone calls. However, when asking lawyers about their responsiveness 89% of legal professionals said they responded to phone calls and emails within 24 hours. Where is the disconnect and how can you find out how your firm is really doing to respond to potential clients? Do you get feedback from your clients?

Website Chat

More and more law firms are adding chat to their websites. Why? To engage with visitors and to answer quick questions to see if they would be a good fit for representation. Chat features can now keep a record for the file and are available at the times you choose (say, Monday through Friday 9-5). You will likely want to staff chat with nonlawyer support and of course avoid giving legal advice. Firms have seen success with online chat to make appointments, perform intake, and answer factual questions online.

Some options include:

Evaluate Your Customer Service

To provide excellent customer experience and to turn leads into clients, law firms should check to see how well they are responding to phone calls and emails. How are the phones answered? How are emails answered? Is pricing transparent? Are the next steps outlined?

If your firm is leveraging an answering service or virtual receptionist have someone call to see how quickly the phones are answered, if the greeting is satisfactory and how the service responds to questions.

For solos with no support, virtual or otherwise, answering the phone or responding to emails in a timely manner is extra tricky. Setting up automation may help relieve some of the pressures of a quick response. For more considerations see: Secret Shop Your Law Firm

Answer Emails/Phone Calls

To ensure a firm is answering emails and phone calls with a consistent message and customer service friendly attitude consider creating scripts for handling different inbound and outbound communication. Smith.ai has some excellent script examples.

Firms can also consider a “help desk” or ticketing system to ensure timely responses to requests from clients (prospective, current and former). See: Could Help Desk Software Help Firms Be More Responsive?

Video Conferencing

Many firms are using video conferencing more than ever before with clients, the courts, for depositions and more. Many firms are using Zoom, which has been under fire for security issues. These issues are being addressed, and firms have many alternatives. See: Video Conferencing – You Have Options.

Collecting Information

Secure Forms

Do not send a Word document to a client and ask them to “fill” it out. PDF forms do not offer much flexibility and are often not set up well. To collect information from a client, whether for intake or representation, make it easy. There are many form tools available like Google Forms, Forms with the Microsoft 365 subscription, SurveyMonkey, etc.  However, most of these forms are not secure. JotForm allows end to end encrypted forms, where only the form recipient, using private key encryption, can see the form results. Once a firm receives the form information it can be imported into a document via merge functions or input into a practice management application.

E-signatures

There are lots of ways to get signatures from clients virtually. Of course, in some cases, you will need to collect a “wet” signature with notaries on printed paper, though there are many times you do not need that. If you do not need a wet signature you can collect them via a variety of esignature tools, including through products you may already use like Citrix Sharefile, Adobe Acrobat DC, MyCase and others. There are plenty of third party options too like HelloSign and Docusign. Or, if you feel more comfortable seeing the client or parties sign, you can use the Acrobat appSignMyPad or the Office App to have the user sign a document with a stylus a mobile device like an iPad or smartphone.

See this tutorial article on sending and receiving documents for signature through Adobe Acrobat DC.

Conclusion

In his excellent and ongoing multi-part series on the pandemic, Jordan Furlong blogging at Law21 suggests in part eight on Law Firm Transitions that firms in the short and medium term will need to make some adjustments on how they do business.  He suggests that:

“many of these items might have been sitting on your “I Probably Should Do That Someday” list. Well, today is Someday. Just as is the case with flat-fee pricing, all the foregoing elements are not going to be competitive advantages in the next legal market — they are going to be business as usual. You need to be 100% ready to roll out a modern, 21st-century law business when the pandemic finally ends and a different legal world emerges. You cannot put off starting that process until the all-clear is finally given — this is one curve you need to be ahead of.”