Bringing a Holistic Approach to the Practice of Law
Today, we’re going to be interviewing one of our provider attorneys, Miss. Michele Bernard, who operates Holistic Legal. And she really does take a very holistic approach to the way in which she works with her clients and that plays itself all through the way in which she speaks with them, does the consultations, the types of options she offers. We talk about a host of different things from the importance of offering alternative dispute resolution and how to find a balance between cooperative resolutions and litigation. We also talk about our big picture mission with what it is that we’re doing with this company and the network that we’re building of attorneys that are offering unbundled legal services. So, if you’re one of our providers or you’re learning more about our company in this podcast, through this podcast, it will be interesting for you … especially towards the end of the call, where we’ll really talk about the shift that we’re working on making in the way attorneys deliver legal services in this country in a more affordable and accessible manner, which Michele and I both share a similar vision and a similar purpose, and talk quite transparently about that.
This is a really valuable episode. She also gives a lot of very practical strategies on exactly the types of options that she offers. With that, let’s get right in in this interview Michele Bernard, one of our provider attorneys out of Orlando, Florida.
All right, Michele. Welcome to the show.
Michele Bernard: Thanks, Dave. Nice to be here today.
Dave Aarons: It is really nice. I’m really glad that we’re getting a chance to chat and to explore a little further about your practice, and the way in which you’ve been working with folks because I’ve really been resonating with your approach and your philosophy and the compassion and just the service options you’ve been bringing to the people we’ve been sending to you out there in Florida. Thank you for taking the time today to share more about what you’ve been doing.
Michele Bernard: Oh, you’re very, very welcome. And anything that I can share that will be very useful and inspiring to other people, I think will be very, very good.
Dave Aarons: Great. So, maybe a good place to start is your practice is … I think it’s called Holistic Legal Services or Holistic … I remember the word holistic. That comes to mind most. But maybe you could talk a little bit about what holistic … what’s the name of the practice again?
Michele Bernard: It’s Holistic Legal.
Dave Aarons: Holistic Legal. Okay, so I had it.
Michele Bernard: Yep.
Dave Aarons: I thought that was right, so … Holistic Legal. What that stands for and how you came to bring that type of a practice and what your focus is … what that means to you.
Michele Bernard: Okay. Well, that’s a really important question and I’m glad that you asked it because of many of my clients … it’s kind of the first thing that they ask me about and more oftentimes than not, they say that for some reason that name brought them to want to call me. They’ll see my website listed or see my name on a referral sheet and they just … they see that name and they don’t know exactly what it is but something within that resonates with them on a deeper level. So, the word holistic … it means complete or whole and I spent a couple years living in Northern California and … up there in Sonoma County there’s a lot of holistic dentistry and holistic herbalism and all these different things, and it’s taking the approach of that profession and treating it as a broad spectrum.
For example, if you went to someone who sorts of purports themselves as a holistic dentist. This is the type of person that you would go in and instead of just wanting to do a bunch of surgery, they would also look at your mouth. They would prescribe maybe some preventative measures for you. Maybe some things that were more natural in nature. Moving away from using the silver amalgam fillings and using the more healthier composite fillings. Keeping up to date on research on what’s good for the human body. Not having mercury vapors escape into the cranium and things like this. So, just kind of looking at the whole human being and … I thought that was really cool, the concept, that I was meeting all these people and resonating with their energy.
So, I started typing around one day thinking, “Is there some way that I can be a holistic lawyer?” And, to my amazement, I did find a few websites. They were mostly all based in California and Washington State but the very progressive philosophy on the clients and one thing that was very common was that they were always looking to do what’s called alternative dispute resolution. This is a mindset where the attorneys are looking forward to … instead of making this adversarial process with the other attorney for the opposing party and fight, fight, fight, and run up legal bills and stall things out and it takes you two years to get a divorce, they were looking at things as, “Well, how can we come to a peaceful resolution that maybe not everybody’s the happiest with but it’s something you can live with?” And you have an active participation in coming to that resolution.
You might have husband over here with 401(k) and different assets, and you might have wife over here and she really wants to keep the marital home. But they can’t agree on anything, so if you just split everything down the middle and sold it, you would find that because of taxes and real estates fees and all these different fees, what you’re doing is you’re wasting a lot of the family’s assets because you can’t agree. And even though maybe … you wanted to keep this or she wanted to keep that, if you find a different way to restructure things based on looking at the cost of selling the home and the realtor fees and maybe the taxes of breaking a 401(k) or one of these things using like a QDRO, or a qualified domestic relations order, you would find that you’re just wasting a bunch of money and if you can come to this resolution where you look at all the nuts and bolts and what’s unique to this entire family that you can come up with a resolution that saves a lot of money, a lot of time, and that’s really beneficial to the client.
And not only that but in most of these cases it involves children, and that’s what’s the most important part, I think, of any family law case, is the children. Many times, the parents can’t quite agree on what to do about the children. I get it. The relationship is over, for whatever reason, but there’s no reason to bring the children into the middle of this and just because you might not like your ex that doesn’t mean he or she is now suddenly the worst parent in the entire world because they let them stay up late at night and play on their iPhones, or have some candy or whatever it is. If you can come to a resolution that is going to keep the peace as much as possible, then that’s going to be in the best interest of your client and their family.
Another thing is after I’m finished with someone’s divorce or paternity action, guess what? There’s another 14, 15, 16 years that these people now have to co-parent and communicate with one another. I feel that if I just push all these cases to trial and then some judge, who is a third party person trying to just look objectively, meets these people for a few hours and then makes a bunch of decisions, these people and their families now have to live with those decisions. And it might not be something that either one of them really wants to do. I try to explain this to them and say, “How is that we can work towards getting something that’s really going to benefit the needs, which are unique to this family? And what each one of you is really trying to achieve and how you can live with that for the next decade or so?”
And this is just touching on little bits of philosophies and things I try to accomplish for my clients, but very, very important and in that way, I feel that I’m bringing a holistic approach to the cases, to the clients, maybe giving them some space to sort of work through some of their emotions and their attachments, their fears, their emotional hangups and feelings. Like they’re betrayed. They’re opinions don’t count. All those things they’ve done in the past are suddenly no longer valid, and getting them to the place where they can move through this process and guide them so that they feel that they’re not completely crushed at the end of this. It’s like just guiding them through to the other side and, keeping that in mind, I feel that the legal profession is not just something to help achieve a goal, like get a divorce or get an adoption, but in many ways it can be very healing to the people that-
Dave Aarons: Yeah, absolutely.
Michele Bernard: [crosstalk 00:10:49]
Dave Aarons: And when they’re separating and moving in different directions, especially when there’s children involved, to actually make the unit stronger and be in a position to be able to continue to raise that family or continue to operate in a way that is … as the court would say, “Best interests of the child,” but, more importantly, making it so that it’s not going to be a detriment to the children that those two parties are separating, in the case of a divorce, for example.
Michele Bernard: Oh, exactly. No matter what anyone says that opposing party is the father or the mother of your client’s child. It took two to bring that child into the world and the child deserves to have both biological parents in his or her life, regardless of what your client might think. You don’t just take a child away from the other parent. That’s just morally wrong and it’s inherently wrong. So many people, they … I get it. They come in and they’re like, “I want full custody. I don’t want my ex to ever see my kid again.” And it’s like … except for in extreme cases of child neglect or abuse, that’s just not going to happen and, even in those cases, the courts more likely than not to order some sort of medial amount of supervised visitation.
The sooner I can get it into my client’s head that this isn’t their child but it’s the couple’s child together, and that, after this case is over, they’re going to have to continue sharing the time, the better off everybody is because you lead them through a case for eight or nine months, and then at the end they find out, “Oh, I have to let my ex pick up the child every other weekend. Well, I didn’t want to do that.” It makes it so hard and then you know how it’s going to go. Every Friday after school, there’s going to be all this energy, all of these explosions. The people not being able to get along and then the kids have to see this stuff and they have … this is their lives. Think about the psychological trauma some of this can cause.
Dave Aarons: Right. Yeah, I really resonate with the philosophy and perspective and approach that you’re bringing into really resolving a conflict, resolving a problem, and doing it in a way that honors both parties and is something that’s going to be sustainable for the long term for all parties involved and doesn’t … It’s just like when you create a partnership or you’re working with someone else in a business, you have to be just as committed to your partner’s … that the deal is good for them just as much as you are for yourself. And you have to look at it from the perspective that the only way it’s going to be sustainable for the long term is to make sure that it’s a win-win for both parties. Otherwise, there’s going to be resentment. There’s going to be resistance. It’s just not going to be something that’s going to be sustainable and, certainly, if there’s children involved, an environment that’s suitable and comfortable for their growth and development.
Michele Bernard: Well, yeah. Dave, I think you summarized it. The whole pretense of the legal system is justice for all. So, to really be in alignment with the energy of justice that their [inaudible 00:14:28] balanced on both sides. Comprising.
Dave Aarons: Right.
Michele Bernard: But there are a lot of instances where … it depends. Ever single case is different and there’s times where there just really isn’t much room for bargaining. There isn’t much room for negotiating because, unfortunately, the other party just … their heart, their mind is not as open. And sometimes you just … okay, you’re going to have to put on the gloves and you’re going to have to go into court. You’re going to have to fight. You’re going to have to file those motions. You’re going to have to file those emergency pick-up orders. You’re going to have to let your client know, “Today, today, we have to carry the sword and we need to do what we need to do to protect the rights of you and your child.”
That’s always available but the first approach is, “How do we do this with open arms? How do we do this in the spirit of mediation and fairness?” That’s always the priority and the way I like to do things, but if I need to then I can put on that armor and go in there and do what it is that I need to do to make sure that child is safe, is in a place … it’s clean. They’re fed. They’re taken care of. They have all their needs met.
Dave Aarons: Yep. Yeah, absolutely.
Michele Bernard: My clients are very appreciative of that.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, it’s really easy to kind of say, “Oh, let’s get along. Let’s come up with something that works for both of us.” But family law, as any lawyer knows that’s done [inaudible 00:15:59], is very contentious. There’s a lot of bitterness. A lot of resentment. A lot of relational blocks that are preventing there from being a cooperative, cohesive agreement because if two parties could come up with those agreements, they’d probably both be sitting in your office hashing out an uncontested arrangement or doing it themselves.
Michele Bernard: No, exactly.
Dave Aarons: There’s no doubt that as much as we’re taking the approach of coming up with something that’s long term, I really appreciate and like the fact that you alluded to. Sometimes, you gotta carry the sword. Sometimes, you have to be willing … you have to fight for certain aspects that you know is in the best interest of your child because you’re not always going to have a cooperative environment and then, from there, do whatever you can to sort of create something that’s going to be sustainable, if possible.
Michele Bernard: Oh, exactly. I mean, look at the symbolism is the statue of Lady Justice. She’s blind. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t see. That means she has the inner sight. She allows her heart to lead her and do what’s the right thing, but in her other hand she has that sword, right? She’s ready to cut away anything that’s going to get in the way of maintaining that justice and that balance. And like what you just said, these people … they’re going through some of the hardest times in their lives. These are good people going through a bad situation, so they’re emotional. They’re not always cooperative. Not everybody wants to be in the spirit of, “Hey, let’s get along.” They have the spirit of, “We want to fight, fight, fight, fight, fight.” Well, what are you fighting for? What are you fighting for?
I was just telling one of my clients the other day, there is no quote, unquote, “winning” in the arena of family law. It’s what can you achieve that’s going to set everybody in the highest possible place, where they can get on with their lives? This isn’t all or nothing. This is let’s try to achieve a win-win for all. That’s always the goal. And when you’re first going through this it’s hard because it’s a relationship. It’s a relationship and they’re emotionally codependent and this relationship has been part of their identity. I’m the spouse of so-and-so and this is where I live and this is where I work and … these are the people who live under my roof. This is my family. This is my blood. I mean, it’s natural. It is natural for them to be like that.
It’s very important as the attorney to be 100% present, to really listen to what they’re telling you. They will tell you what it is they want, what it is that they expect from your representation, what it is that they’re looking for, and the more that you can really tune into that and … what I like to do is I just completely … I shut off my phone. No computer up. I just … I’m on the phone with them. One on one. Or I’m just sitting staring at them, taking notes, and I let them talk. And then what I do is I will repeat back to them all of the points that they’re making. So, I’ll say, “Let me get this clear, Mr. So-and-so. This is what you’re telling me. This is what I’m hearing from you and based on this, this is what I think I can achieve for you and is this in alignment with what you’re looking for?”
And once they realize that you’re actually very attentive to them and you’re not going to just treat them like another cookie cutter client of, “Okay, yeah. We’ll just file the docs, blah, blah, blah.” They say, “Wow. This attorney actually cares about me and they care about my family, and this is going to be a good fit. They’re going to be able to represent me and what I need, and what I’m looking for.” Because this is really what you’re doing but it’s important to still capture the essence of that while you’re talking to them and you’re meeting with them to reassure them that this is your relationship.
Dave Aarons: Right. Absolutely.
Michele Bernard: Like, it’s very, very important.
Dave Aarons: This has been just … I’m really glad we kind of started here with kind of more of a broader goal. Some of the overarching principles that go into being an effective family law provider. Actually resolving conflicts, getting results, but doing it in a way that is sustainable and these types of things. So, maybe what we could do is kind of dive into the process and the specifics of how that plays out during each kind of phase in the process and how you kind of overcome certain challenges, and so forth, from a practical standpoint to see how that philosophy kind of interweaves into the way in which you work with the clients. So, maybe a good place to start is … I will assume that you are the person that makes … like when a lead comes in, you are the person that makes that initial call?
Michele Bernard: Yes, I am.
Dave Aarons: Okay. And so when you do that call, do you receive the lead on your phone? Is it an email? Do you get the text message? How is that currently set up?
Michele Bernard: Well, my phone is set up where when I get an email, it pops up on my screen. There’s like a little ding. So, it’s about as effective as a text message, anyway. If I’m available, like if I’m not in court or with a client or whatever, I keep it on and I’m the person who makes the call because that’s who they want to talk to. They want to talk to the attorney, not the secretary, not the paralegal. They want to talk to the attorney.
Dave Aarons: Yes.
Michele Bernard: So, I’m the one who makes the call.
Dave Aarons: Great. And if you’re not available, do you have a secretary that like tries to schedule them? Or you just call them as soon as you’re available once you receive the lead?
Michele Bernard: Lot of times, what I’ll do is I will send them a little text message. “Hello, this is Michele Bernard, the attorney. I got your information through Unbundled Attorney from the internet. I am unavailable. I’m in court or whatever, but I will give you a call as soon as I’m able.” And then they’re like, “Wow, that’s pretty impressive. You’re busy at work, so obviously you’re busy enough. You have enough business and success. You’ve already got clients, not you’re just sitting there in your office twiddling your thumbs and you took just 30 seconds to contact me right away knowing that, “Hey, I’m thinking about you. You’re in my mental sphere and as soon as I get an opportunity, I will call you in a few hours.”” And then they’re like, “Oh, okay,” and right there, just with that little bit of contact, that person who’s out there worried, probably depressed or going through some anxiety. They’re on the internet googling unbundled attorney. They can have a little bit of peace of mind and satisfaction. Like, “Okay, my cry for help was heard. Someone’s coming. I just have to hold tight.”
Because what they don’t want, and what you also don’t want, is for them to sit there and think, “Okay, I put my information into this website browser and I got this name and I sent off this little email, but no one’s going to call me all day. Maybe I should call around to someplace else if it means I can get somebody on the phone.” Because that’s the day and age we’re in. It used to be you called the doctor’s office or you call the attorney’s office, you leave a message. Secretary will call you back and schedule you to come in that week. Nowadays, it’s, “I want it all and I want it now, yesterday.” It’s that microwave generation mentality. People can’t even read three paragraphs of an email. Everything’s Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat. The attention span of most people is … what? Five minutes or something? Not even?
Dave Aarons: Yep.
Michele Bernard: I mean, you need to get them right away. You need to make some kind of connection right away. That’s a big thing. And, also, like everything else, hiring an attorney or buying a car or whatever, usually, is an impulse thing. Like, “I need to talk to somebody right now.” So, the quicker you get on them, the higher of your probability is to make contact with them and then actually sign them up and get a contract with them.
Dave Aarons: Yep. Yeah, exactly. It’s important to actually emphasize and think about what it really takes to get someone to a state of mind where they are literally going online or reaching out … to reach out and acquire an attorney because it’s a scary thing. Especially a lot of times, they won’t know who you are specifically. Especially in lead generation, it’s a warm lead in the sense that we know that they have an existing legal problem because they’re searching for that, but they don’t know who you are. They haven’t met you yet. They haven’t done that. So, they’re putting a certain degree of faith. They’re in a space of enough disturbance and need and, like you said, impulse that they really need to talk to someone. They’re really ready for it.
And life kind of happens, and they can get distracted, kind of like you’re saying, and so if you’re able to reach out to them and connect with them, even like you said with just a text message saying, “Hey, we’ve received your request. We’re available to talk to you. We’ll be in touch with you as soon as possible.” Just they know they made that connection, because like you said, they’ll keep looking and they need that lawyer. They need to get that help and get the resolution going. So, making that connection is really, really important. So-
Michele Bernard: Yeah, exactly. And not only like looking at it from just a business standpoint of getting them in the door, talking to them, but also they’re sitting there on the internet googling around … exactly what you said, what has brought them to the state where they’re that desperate? Where it’s like I need an attorney right now. The impulse and everything. And realizing like, wow, I should have compassion for this person because they’re probably some single mum sitting around at their computer desperately thinking about what can I do. I’m in a position where now I have to go hire this attorney and what’s going on like … Just a client I met with yesterday, long story short, over the weekend, his wife comes back. She’s been gone and she was stationed somewhere and she picks up the kids and just leaves. She just leaves. She doesn’t even come back home.
He comes back from work. All the toys are gone. Some of her clothes are gone and he doesn’t even know where she is, and for three days, he doesn’t hear anything. So, the lead came in at 3:00 AM. I called him the very next day early in the morning, like very, very early in the morning. It was like seven o’clock in the morning. He was so nervous he had barely slept all night and he was so worried he didn’t even know what to do. He called the cops and the cops won’t do anything because that’s not kidnapping. She’s the biological mother and they’re not married, and there’s no ongoing court case. People don’t understand that technically that other parent can go somewhere with the child and it’s not kidnapping. But, in the meantime, what is he going to do about it? And just … I connected with him briefly. I just said, “Hey, I just woke up. I got my [inaudible 00:28:02] on my phone. I just wanted to reach out to you really quick. Is the child in danger? You put in there kidnapping.” And he said, “No.” And I said, “Well, okay. I will be in my office in a few hours and I’ll give you a call.”
Just that little five minutes was enough to settle him down enough where he said he could get ready and get up and get dressed and go to work for the day, because he was pretty much staying home all day until he found an attorney. I couldn’t even imagine being in that kind of situation where I’m sitting around all weekend wondering where my son is and so I’m at 3:00 AM googling finding an attorney and wondering when is this person going to call me? When is this person [inaudible 00:28:45]? I don’t even know if they’re going to call me. Maybe I just have to drive around and visit lawyers’ offices all day Monday and take a day off work. But this guy was able to get back to what he was doing. And then I met up with him later that day, after work, and signed him up that day for full representation.
Dave Aarons: Right. It’s funny because we work with so many attorneys and so many clients coming through at all different hours. I’ve heard from attorneys in the past, “These people are hitting me up in the middle of the night. Can you turn off the campaigns in the middle of the night because I’m not there to respond to them,” and so forth. But when you really look at the context, the big picture context, of what’s going on in this person’s life that would motivate them to submit a request for an attorney at 2:00, 3:00, 4:00, 5:00 in the morning. This is a serious situation. And when you can look at it from that standpoint, like to imagine where a person must be at to take action that late at night, for example, just as one example, and that also plays itself into every other client’s case as well. Really trying to put yourself in their shoes, then the logical action then flows from that.
As opposed to, “Well, I wasn’t able to get ahold of them. I called them in the afternoon that day and they’d already hired someone.” Well, of course. Because they really needed to know that someone was responding. So, even like you’re saying that small contact, going, “Hey, we got this.” I just love how you said, “I just woke up.” It’s so transparent in a sense that, hey, you’re really connecting with them and I know that some attorneys may not be quite comfortable. It’s just not the way they do business to be that transparent and the fact that they would say something like, “I just woke up,” for example, meaning that they’re not even in the office yet. But it’s such a level of transparency and personability that you’re bringing into that potential relationship that I’m sure … and I really appreciate and I know they can sense that, hey, this is a real human being that sees me for the needs that I have and is there to respond accordingly. I just really commend you for taking that approach and seeing the situation for what it is in that type of circumstance.
Michele Bernard: Thanks for that. Your rhetorical question was, “Where is this person at to be on the internet all hours of the night looking for an attorney?” I’ll tell you. It’s somebody who is distraught and is overwhelmed with fear, right? And, I mean, yeah, okay. So, we’re lawyers. We went to law school. We got a law degree. You hire me to come in and settle your docs and all those things. But, in the end, we’re human beings, right? I mean, we’re here to help each other up and if, as an attorney, I have the power and the wherewithal to be able to lift one of my fellow brothers or sisters up in their time of need, isn’t that what it’s all about? Because, I mean, does God turn off his campaigns in the middle of the night? No. Right?
Dave Aarons: Right.
Michele Bernard: I mean, think about it. That’s probably when he’s running his campaign the hardest. If I had to imagine … if I was working in God’s government. But people have needs all the time. They’re people. This is what it means to be alive and be a person, and how can you connect with other people and really serve them … and not just professionally serve them. I mean serve them. Really serve them as a being and help them on all dimensions. So, to me, being transparent is as part of my nature as anything. It’s just about being a genuine person because if you put yourself in that person’s shoes would you want the attorney to say, “Oh, well, I’m not in my office right now. I still need to drink my coffee and pick up stuff and do all this stuff, and then I’ll call them later.” No, if you can, you call them now and you tell them, “Hey, I don’t have a lot of time to talk to you but I just wanted to connect with you and touch base.” And now you’ve done what I mentioned before, you’ve alleviated some fear in that person’s life.
And not only that but as a natural latent consequence of that, you have now just established that heart connection with them and they’re like, “Wow, this is the type of person I can trust,” because, yeah. I mean, this is probably one of the most important things that’s happening to them in their life and they need to be able to trust you to represent them. So, I mean, I think it’s just a win-win-win-win situation to just be cool with different clients, like [inaudible 00:33:52] and care about them.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, absolutely.
Michele Bernard: I treat every single one of my clients the way I would like to be treated.
Dave Aarons: That’s great. Yeah, and certainly within the lead generation model, because there isn’t that relationship established yet, a lot of attorneys don’t fully grasp the difference between what’s a lead … an internet generated lead versus what’s a … someone that just calls your office because they were referred to your office. Or they found your office directly online, read about your firm, and then decided to call you. And the main difference is that through either the relationship of the person that’s referring you and the trust they have with them, with that person, or what they read about your firm … they know you … they know you and, on some level, will trust you, especially if it’s a third-party referral because they’re borrowing on the credibility and the trust of that other person that referred them to know, hey, this is someone that I can trust.
With internet lead generation … the exception of the knowledge of maybe our brand and the message we can convey on our site … they don’t know you, the attorney, yet and so the most important and first thing that leads to be established, which is what you’re talking about, is trust. And a relationship and to know that this attorney is in a position to, number one, help me, but also cares about what it is that I’m needing help with, and is in a position from a service standpoint to deliver options that … and we’ll get to that in a minute … that I can afford as well. But that’s really the most important thing. I can’t even harp on it enough and kind of going around, I guess, is that the first step is build relationship. Not convert sale. Not bring them in the office and try to sell … get them enrolled in the service. It’s establish relationship and build trust, and connect with that human being.
And then from there, things will naturally … the sale or the conversion or the hiring occurs naturally, if it makes sense, at that point, if it’s a fit from that point forward. That’s what we’re talking about here and that’s what you’re doing.
Michele Bernard: Yeah, and I had mentioned this before in the little video that I had submitted before but … once you’ve made that heart connection with the client and you’ve built that trust, you’ve built that camaraderie and you’ve let them know a little bit about you and your philosophy, and what it is that you can achieve for them. But most importantly you’ve answered that question that they have in their subconscious mind, which is does this person care about me? Do they care about me? That’s what it really comes down to. Because they know if you care about them or you care about their child or you care about their case or you care about them in any way, they know they can depend on you to do whatever is necessary to help them through this battle that they’ve got. And they don’t ever have to question where is your motivation? Are you going to be available to me when I need it the most? I know you’re busy and you can’t chitchat every single day or anything like this, but when things are important can I count on you? Can I trust you? And I’m putting a lot of faith in you, another human being, to represent my rights. And this is my child. This is my blood. This is the most important bond that they have.
Sometimes, it’s humbling. It really is. Sometimes … I feel a little embarrassed but … sometimes, I cry when I get text messages from people saying things like, “Thank you. You’re my family’s angel. We love you. Thank you so much for what you’re doing. God brought you in my life.” I actually got a mother’s day card from one of my clients this year. They mailed in their payment and it was in a mother’s day card, and they said, “Thank you for being the mother to our family.” I have it over on my desk up there all proudly displayed but it’s humbling because … I’m just doing what I need to do and doing it in the best way. I’m not looking for any kind of self-gratification or anything. I’m just … What’s next? What’s next? What’s next? What do I need to file? What do I need to do? Do I need to talk to so-and-so or can I just email them? Do I need to connect with these people? What’s going on here?
I mean, like if you want to see where all your work is going, you just have to look at the fruit that it bears. So, I’ve been following the philosophy of Unbundled Attorney, even before I signed up with Unbundled Attorney. I was already doing this. I was already doing this. I told you before at the beginning of this podcast. My philosophy and seeing the legal profession as a chance to be sort of like healing and taking care of people, and bringing them what they need and just helping them, connecting to them on an emotional level, getting them where they need to be after the case is over. I already had this philosophy and I was doing things like unbundled work. I was already doing flat fee pricing and payment plans. No money down for people who really honestly couldn’t afford it and, hey, you need an attorney but you’re really broke. Maybe just give me a few hundred dollars and I’ll prep all the docs and I’ll explain it to you.
Because sometimes people they go and they pay a paralegal $200 and all they do is they get a stack of forms. Okay. Now what do they do with it? How do they file it? What are some of the little things that they should include on those forms that they wouldn’t get otherwise and they don’t know to ask for? Things like this. Because I’m an attorney I can actually give them legal advice on filling out the forms, when the paralegals or the clerks at the court can’t actually give any legal advice. And this way, at least the people are getting some kind of help. They’re not getting full representation, unfortunately, but they’re getting something better than they would’ve gotten otherwise.
So, when I got the little email talking about Unbundled Attorney, I read it and then I just kind of I checked in within myself and I thought about it. There’s plenty of other referral companies out there. I haven’t tried any of them. Then I went on to the Unbundled Attorney website and I actually … I saw some videos with you, Dave, and I thought to myself, “Hey, the philosophy of what these people are trying to achieve through Unbundled Attorney … this is something I can get behind and I can put my name on because I share the same views and the philosophy.” There’s so many people out there that are trying to do-it-yourself law because they don’t have a $5000 retainer to go walk into some attorney’s office and pay them 350 an hour to work on the case. They just don’t have the money. Most people right now are living month to month and they’re what I call the working poor. They’ve got their bills, they’ve got their budget and that’s about it. And they have maybe a few hundred dollars here and there to spend on things.
So, it’s so important to make sure these people are represented and they get their fair chance when they go to court, because a lot of times after is all and said and done … they’ve gone to trial. They’ve gone to their mediation or whatever. They’re pretty much stuck with that unless there are unforeseen circumstances, which completely changes the nature of the case. There’s no buyer’s remorse. They don’t get to just do it over next year when they have the money for an attorney. It’s all or nothing and it’s now. And this is when they need people. So, when it came across, the mission of Unbundled Attorney, putting quality, affordable legal care into the hands of other people, I said, “I want to get onboard with this because I think that it’s so important to serve people and to just do good for them.” As a reward, wow, I’m growing my practice and, yes, I’m making more money, so that’s my reward.
But I think, honestly, the biggest reward is the reward in my heart and helping these people. That’s just priceless. A lot of times, I mret the children of my clients and I think of all their little faces at night and … a lot of my clients, they text me pictures of their kids and their little birthday parties and things like this, and it makes me feel so full in my life to know that I’m putting my profession and my skills into this compassionate action that is impacting other people. And the way I see it … this is my personal belief … but when you bring like hope and light into other people’s lives, it spreads. It spreads to their friends, their communities, things like this, and not only that, I think it brings light to the legal profession. It’s like lawyers and dentists, two professions that you never really want to deal with because it’s expensive and it’s usually painful, right?
Dave Aarons: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Michele Bernard: The typical stereotype of ambulance chasers and things like this. I think that being an attorney is a wonderful profession and I’m very thankful and grateful that I’ve been granted the ability to be able to be someone’s attorney. To go to court on their behalf. I mean, it’s a very admirable profession. I want to put as much care and energy back into the profession as it has shown me and so I always treat my clients, opposing parties, opposing counsel, with respect and … just trying to put that light into the justice system. I think that’s kind of where it’s all about, right?
Dave Aarons: Yep.
Michele Bernard: I mean, these times we’re trying to transform and create new … correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is kind of like the overriding mission of Unbundled Attorney. Change things and make them better and bring more light into people’s lives, and to really help and serve them in a way that hasn’t really quite been done before. And, as a result, people are going to get legal representation and they’re going to be happier.
Dave Aarons: This whole project came out of a frustration for years and most people don’t know that we came out of the legal access plan business industry. I was involved in a legal access plan business because the legal access plan model was supposed to get people a more affordable attorney. Get them legal advice when they need it. Get them the guidance they need to get through the process and know what to do to get access to their kids, when the legal system or the other party is blocking their ability to be a parent. There was so many instances in which we would get people enrolled in these services and it wouldn’t make the difference because there wasn’t a fundamental shift in the way attorneys were working with these clients. It was just giving them a small discount.
But the average human being … working poor, lower to middle income families, however you want to refer to this populace, which right now represent two thirds of the filings in the family courts and in many other courts, as well, throughout the United States. And in some cases it’s higher, depending on the populace that we’re talking about and the regions and so forth. It wasn’t making … knocking a small percentage where it’s instead of 4000 or 3000, I’ll charge 2500, like you said isn’t going to make a big difference for someone that goes to work 9:00 to 5:00. Makes a certain amount of money. Just enough to cover their bills and expenses and maybe has a few hundred dollars to scrape together.
Michele Bernard: Exactly.
Dave Aarons: To put your words … they’re getting through … and certainly isn’t anticipating and has not prepared to need to go to battle to fight for their rights as a parent.
Michele Bernard: Exactly.
Dave Aarons: Like maybe in immigration-
Michele Bernard: Especially when you find out that the other party has an attorney and your client doesn’t. They feel like they’re fighting an uphill battle. Most times they are. If you really care about them and you want to make it affordable, just knocking off a few hundred dollars isn’t really going to change a whole lot. And don’t get me wrong, I’m doing well. I’m just not really charging a whole lot of money and I’m allowing these people to make payment plans.
Dave Aarons: And here’s the thing. There’s this myth … I know, in lot of attorneys’ minds that you can’t make money working with low income families and I would make the statement that that is absolutely not accurate. It’s absolutely false. In fact, the client … the attorneys that we work with all throughout the country that have found ways to work with those folks in ways that are creative … the unbundled options, we can talk more about … and how they’re restructuring and re-crafting the way in which they work with the folks … the payment plans, the pay-as-you-go, the fixed fees all these types of things … are the ones that actually just from an economic standpoint, financial standpoint, are the ones that are doing extremely well. Because we have attorneys that do only some unbundled services, but only do it in certain scenarios, for the most part. Focus on full representation but do some unbundled. And then we have attorneys where their model is … I’m going to tailor the service to that person, so wherever they’re at in the process, whatever their needs are financially, we’re going to try to find a fit and I’m going to try to tailor something that’s going to get them into a better position than they would be either doing it on their own or if they’d never talked to me in the first place.
Those are the attorneys that we find are the most successful financially with the exact same clients. So, this is something that’s really important to address, in that attorneys can offer these types of options but the reality is … and correct me … and maybe we can kind of dive into it, Michele, and kind of talk a little bit about the types of options you’ve offered and how it is that you kind of structure those things to make it work. But, for most attorneys that we work with, an hour is still an hour. Whether they spend three hours with the client, 5 hours, 10 hours, 15 hours, the assumption that you need to take a $5000 retainer means that I need to spend at least 20 hours with this case for us to even consider working with this person. Right? I’m not willing to work with someone unless they’re willing to make a commitment upfront that they’re going to spend at least 20 hours with my firm.
Whereas with unbundled, they’re saying, “Look, it doesn’t matter if you’re going to spend one hour with me, five hours, three hours. The hourly rate …” And maybe there’s some sliding scales or maybe there’s some ways you can work with people on a different hourly rate. And you can talk maybe about if you do that or not. Some attorneys do. Some attorneys don’t. But the accessibility of being able to work with an attorney that’s willing to take the first two hours to start and focus on what’s immediately present for that client and to be able to deliver the documents or whatever services they offer. Man, that’s talking about re-envisioning and restructuring how you deliver service for someone that actually does make the difference for someone that only has those few hundred dollars, because now they can start taking steps in the right direction with the guidance of an attorney, not a paralegal like you talked about because that’s insufficient. A paralegal can’t give you advice. They can’t tell you from an experience of standing in front of a judge what they want to see or the type of way that judge evaluates that specific type of case. They need an attorney to give them that guidance so they know what to do.
So, we’re talking about a way in which now all of a sudden that person that couldn’t get help otherwise because of the requirements of other big firms, now all of a sudden can and can get the result and can get through the process, and get the orders in place that need to be apparent because we’ve rethought the way in which you can deliver service to that client that does not necessarily put you in a position of liability from a financial standpoint, where you’re having to give your services away for free. A lot of attorneys assume, “Oh, I can do full rep or I can do pro bono but nothing in between.” Correct me if I’m wrong, Michele, but I think when you’re offering unbundled legal services, even though they’re only paying you a few hundred dollars at a time, you’re still making good money for your time. Is that the case or … ? Maybe you can tell me a little bit more about how that’s been for you.
Michele Bernard: Oh, yeah. Yeah, exactly. I actually didn’t know that what you were saying earlier about working with lower income clients attorneys were very successful, but I’m not surprised. And, also, in my experience, these are the things that clients that … they love you so much that you trusted them enough to do all this work for them without charging them too much money and asking all this money for it. They’re the same people who will refer you to every single person they meet for the rest of their life.
Dave Aarons: Yep.
Michele Bernard: So, how much is that worth, right? But-
Dave Aarons: And you want to talk about how that … like if you want to approach the affluent community, for example, if that’s your approach. You can’t do that from an internet marketing standpoint because an affluent individual isn’t going to go online looking for a lawyer and they’re not going to just call someone out of the book. They’re going to get a referral from a trusted person because they have a network and that’s just the way they go about it.
Michele Bernard: Oh, yeah. Exactly.
Dave Aarons: So, the only real way to access those affluent individuals, if you’re not part of the country club or that type of good boy model, or you don’t want to be, is through referrals.
Michele Bernard: Exactly.
Dave Aarons: It’s like … [crosstalk 00:53:50] that kind of service, yeah.
Michele Bernard: [crosstalk 00:53:49] referrals [crosstalk 00:53:50]. Yeah. That actually reminds me. When I first started my own law practice, it was in 2012, and I was 31 years old, and I had been working at a very large law firm with about 100 attorneys and a couple hundred staff and whatnot. I saw how much money the firm paid in overhead, renting space, business signs, commercials, billboards, all this stuff for marketing. I saw how they did the intake of new clients because I’m working in the family law department, all I know is on Monday morning, “Oh, there’s two new files just sitting on my desk.” “Hey, you’ve been assigned these. Do them.” “Okay, cool.” But what was going on behind the scenes to all of that and I saw how much time and money was there, and screening people out because they didn’t have money to come in and put a bunch of money on their credit card.
And I thought to myself, “Hey, for some of these people, they’re not making a lot of money. Either we can give them discounts or charge them less, like maybe there can be some kind rubric for income.” Because it can either be, “Hey, we make full representation, charge them by the hour, or we make zero. And I don’t know about you guys but I’d rather have something to nothing.” So, when I first started on my own, I was working from my home and I did a little bit of advertising but not a single person reached out to me because of a Yellow Page ad or any of these other things. Every single person that found me was through word of mouth and referral. And, no, I was not attracting like what you said, the country club crowd because, yeah, you’re worth a few hundred thousand dollars and you’re going to go through a divorce, you’re going to call your buddy, who is also affluent and you’re going to say, “What lawyer did you use?” So, even here in Orlando, it’s a huge a metro area of 2.3 million people. There’s a small handful of about a dozen attorneys that they do the lion’s share of these big family law cases where there’s a lot of money at stake and the clients can pay $500 an hour for an attorney. I’m not in that league and I don’t resonate with that group.
So, who are my clients? They’re everyday Joe and guess what? There’s a lot more everyday Joe than there are country club people in this city. So, all of my friends, the places I go, the places I go to eat, the gym where I work out, everybody knows I’m an attorney and these are everyday people, and these are my clients and this is who I serve. And I know that if they did have $15,000 to spend on a divorce case they’re not going to be calling me. They’re going to be calling that guy whose name is all over the billboard downtown because it’s image. Why do people spend $100,000 dollars on a Mercedes Benz versus a different car that’s still going to get you from point A to point B? I mean, yeah, there’s some performance differences but in the end it’s a vehicle and you’re really spending a lot more because of its image. So, I’m not putting all that money into my image. I’m putting all that time and money into my practice, and connecting with my clients, and going to court, and researching things, and drafting documents.
I don’t really have the time or really the want to be going after these types of clients. I’m very happy working with the people I’m working with and, I mean, I think this is just kind of natural, really. The way it happens, the way I attract clients. Even before I was working with Unbundled Attorney, all of my clients were word of mouth. Every single one of them … they’d call me up. “Oh, how’d you get my number?” “Oh, so-and-so referred your name to me and said that you did a really, really good job for them,” and I’d say, “Okay, cool. When can we meet?” This is how I found people. So, now that I’m getting like these cold leads … what you said, there’s like a difference between a lead and a referral … you still have to make the same connection with the lead because I think it’s a little harder because it’s a cold lead. All they have is my name, my firm information, and what little snippets they read from me from my little profile on Unbundled Attorney, and they’re kind of just going off of that.
I just try to connect with them as soon as I can and let them know a little bit about me. I tell them how long I’ve been practicing law. That I’ve done hundreds of cases. I let them know my effective rate at mediation and I tell them right away about the mission of Unbundled Attorney. I definitely spend a few minutes with them talking about that and reminding them why I’m choosing to offer them these lower cost legal services. Why am I doing this? I’m not doing this because I’m not a very effective lawyer and this is all I can charge. I’m doing this because I want to help them, and I want to make it affordable. And they really love it. They love it.
Dave Aarons: And as it turns out, it’s not a bad business. The average Joe, working lower-middle income close represents the majority of our populace. So, it’s not … if you were going to do market analysis maybe 10 years ago when a third of people were filing pro se and two thirds were going representative. Maybe you’d want to be in that realm. The two thirds that are able to drop 5000 right upfront. I mean, that was probably a good business model but it’s shifted. The tides have shifted. The market’s shifted. 2008 hit. People are not in the same position to be able to put down that kind of money and so by approaching and working with those folks, therein lies just a real massive opportunity to not only make a massive shift in the way in which people get help and the way in which they are going to access an attorney, but also from a financial standpoint as well because that’s where so much more of the opportunity is. If you can find a way to serve that market and find ways to deliver service in a way that still is profitable and serves the client.
So, maybe what we can spend a little bit of time on before we wrap up is just maybe we share a little bit about when you speak with a client and you identify that they’re the type of human being that doesn’t a whole lot of money to throw up upfront. Can you talk about the different ways in which you work with them? Whether it’s … and how you determine whether it’s going to be full rep, unbundled, limited scope, pay-as-you-go, and then maybe we can explore some of the options that you have for each one?
Michele Bernard: Oh, okay, yeah. That’s a good question. And just to kind of … I just want to make a little comment when you were just talking about how the market’s changing. Reminds me of that book that I think probably everyone’s read. It’s called Who Moved My Cheese? Have you read this?
Dave Aarons: A long time ago. Yeah. And it’s a very popular book.
Michele Bernard: It’s the little mice and there was like two of them. They were just like … they knew where the big stockpile of cheese was and they were just like, “Oh, it’s going to always be there and, guaranteed, I’m just going to get up in the morning, go over there, get my cheese, come home.” And then one morning, they woke up. It was all gone. But the two little mice that were innovative and were always changing and being aware, they knew where the cheese had moved to. So, like attorneys. Where has the cheese been moved to? And then be willing to go get it and the way you go get it is you reach out to … well, where are the people and where’s what we’ve just been talking about? Where’s the largest segment of the people? Don’t just go for sitting around waiting for the big pile of cheese to flow in. One phone call a month. You can’t always guarantee or count on that. You have to go out there and find all the … just smaller packets of cheese. Varying styles and flavors and quantities.
When the person comes in, I’m doing a lot of different things at once. I’m really multitasking. I mean, I’m connecting with them. I’m reading their energy. I’m letting them know about me. I’m trying to calm them down. I’m trying to serve them on that level. I’m also trying to see what it is they need. What they want me to achieve. Do they even have a case? If somebody comes in and they’re a grandparent and they want custody of their child because they think that … it doesn’t mean they have a legal case sometimes. There has to be a resolution I can even bring to them. I need to … see, if I tell them, “You really don’t need an attorney. You don’t have a case. If I file this for you, it’s just going to get dismissed. So, why waste your money? Thank you for your interest. You can go get a second opinion somewhere else.”
But another thing I’m also assessing is how much can this person afford? This might actually come from the fact that I have a strong background in sales. So, when I was in college, I was selling everything. I sold home security systems. I sold water treatment systems for homes. I’ve sold a lot of different things. So, you always have to assess who’s your audience? And it’s just … it’s kind of natural because I’m asking my clients like, “Okay, and what’s the history of the party?” And I always ask them things like, “Well, where do you work?” Well, I’m asking that question for a few different reasons. One, I want to see what’s their work schedule? Because if I have a client who works 9:00 to 5:00 and mom is a stay-at-home mom. Well, what are we going to do? Has my client have primary timesharing and have the kids sit around in daycare all day? You have to be a little realistic. A judge isn’t going to do that when mom’s completely capable to have the kid during the day during the week.
So, I need to ask the client where they work and sometimes they’ve got schedules where they work the midnight shift, right? So, it’s kind of hard to ask for 50/50 then, if my client can’t even exercise 50/50. Right? So, I need to know where they work but, also, when I find out where they work, I can find out what’s their budget. So, if they tell me, “Oh, I work somewhere and I’m making minimum wage.” Well, obviously, maybe full representation at full price isn’t going to really work for this individual. Or if they tell me, “I’m not working right now,” or, “I’m disabled and I’m on SSI.” Or a lot of time clients, they live with their parents. We’re living in that age right now. People are in their thirties and forties and they’re moving back in with their parents. It’s like, “Okay, well, you don’t have rent. You don’t have this and that and whatever.”
I try to kind of, in my mind, plug in with how much money do they have available every month. Is this someone who’s really … they don’t have any money and they’re probably really wanting to look for paying a few hundred dollars for some doc prep because that’s just all they can logically afford? Or are they the type of person that this is a high conflict case? They really need legal help but they’re not making a lot, so if I’m willing to accept as low as $200 a month and maybe they’re paying for it for quite some time. Can they come up with $50 a week? Where do they fall in that? A lot of times what I’ll tell them is I’ll say, “Well, here’s your options. You can pay me to draft and prepare all the docs, so at least you’ll know the right thing will get filed.” Because sometimes they just need a paternity action and they’re filing a dissolution. They don’t even know what papers to file. Right?
I’ll file the correct stuff and all the supporting documents. It’ll be done correctly and whatever, and this will be the price. Or if you want me to agree to do your case for a flat fee up to mediation, because I don’t think that this case is going to go to trial. I sincerely doubt it because it’s limited to these issues. We can do that fee or if you just want to do everything, including trial, so that would include things like if I have to do depositions and things like that, like more complicated things … this would be the price. And I let them decide. I give them options so they can choose. It’s not just all or nothing. I’ll tell them … because when they start saying, “Well, I really think I need full representation.” It’s like, okay. And then they say, “How much is that going to cost me?”
And I give them the amount of money that it’s going to be and then I tell them, “I would like to see about 10% of this every month as a monthly payment but if that doesn’t really work with your budget, I don’t want to put you in a position where you’re scraping to pay me and then you don’t feel like you can go buy groceries at the end of the month.” And I talk to them in their language. You don’t sit there and talk about fancy lawyer stuff. I let them know that I know what it’s like to be a person too and they love that. They love that openness. They’ll tell me like, “Well, I really … I don’t think 350 I can do, but I could do 300.” Like, “Okay, all right. So, whatever we agree to today is just … that’s what we pay.” And then they’re always like, “But if I get my income tax return, can I pay you in full?” And I’m like, “Okay.” I just like laugh a little. I’m like, “Sure, you can pay me and if you get extra or you get a raise or whatever.” But they’ll pretty much … they’ll just pay that.
Sometimes, they’re borrowing money from a family member. So, it’s not even an issue. I’ve had people pay me in full on the day I signed them up. It just really varies. Kind of also just use your common sense. How is this person dressed? Where do they work? I don’t really want to maybe go into the pricing on the podcast here because I don’t really want be creating a kind of expectation for any potential clients that might hear this and they go, “Oh, well, she says she’ll do this for that. I want more attorney to do that for that price.” I don’t want to put that out there. But …
Dave Aarons: Sure.
Michele Bernard: Let’s say, for example, in a vacuum, I was going to charge a flat fee of $3500 to do an uncomplicated divorce. There’s no property … And I’m not saying that’s the number. I’m just throwing something out there. Let’s just say there’s no property. It’s just basically a timesharing case and I’m willing to do that for … let’s just $3500. If I can tell this person is just working minimum wage job, even $3500 that’s a lot to them. That’s a lot for them because what are they going to pay me … $350 for the next 10 months? And then their case will probably be over in 6 to 10 months. And I know from experience that a lot of times once people’s case is done this is where you start having problems collecting your money from them. Honestly. It’s like, “Well, the divorce is over. That was two months ago and … well, I had two choices, either, A, get a new car or pay my attorney bill. Well, I need a car. Okay. Whatever. My case is …” I know this happens. We all … just use your common sense.
But I try to think, well, I really don’t like any of my clients to go past about 12 months paying me because then at that point I have to expel my time and my energy writing them emails and calling them up and asking, “Can you please make your monthly payment?” I don’t like doing that. I didn’t go to school to be a bill collector. So, instead of just creating that whole nonsense of I know that even that, for example, $3500 is going to be a lot for this person. Maybe I’ll tell them something like, “Okay, I normally charge this but I’m going to charge you this, because your income’s very low. I just let them know upfront.”
In that way, I have a better chance of getting a full representation even though it’s a little bit less than the other one. It’s more money and better representation for them than them just saying, “Well, I would rather just pay the $500 for some docs to be prepped up.” Because now they’re actually getting some representation. They’re getting an attorney to go to their mediation, for example. They’re getting an attorney to go through all of this and help them with their financial disclosure and stuff, versus doc prep now they don’t have an attorney and, guess what, I just made 2000 less dollars.
Dave Aarons: Sure. Yeah.
Michele Bernard: So, when you look at it from the standpoint of … well, sometimes I’m willing to drop my fee based on that client, I can still make a little bit more money than just the doc fee prep, but also now this person is getting an attorney in the courtroom with them. So, again, it’s a win-win-win situation. And that’s essentially-
Dave Aarons: And that’s kind of where the sliding scale like … because essentially it’s … let’s say it was … that was, let’s say, 10 hours of work, for example. You go from 350 an hour and that’s down to now 250 an hour. So, there maybe is an adjustment of the hourly rate, like Bobby [inaudible 01:12:56], some of our other attorneys have talked about how they have sliding scales based on income and then that informs the retainer. Or whatever the rate is going to be because you kind of know how many hours it’s going to take. And then you can make adjustment to the hourly rate or you can do the unbundled approach, which is you know it’s going to be a couple hours. You get the full 500 or something. But, in reality, you have to kind of balance out what’s going to better serve the client and are you comfortable working at X, Y, Z rate for this type of client, so you don’t have to become a bill collector in the backhand.
Michele Bernard: Exactly. And another thing in that is for the people that I’m willing to even undercut the discount for, I have to feel like there’s an equal energy exchange. And it’s like if I’m going to go totally out there on a limb for this person and give them an even bigger discount, is this going to be the type of client who’s going to appreciate that and is going to make their payments on time every month. Or are they going to be the kind of client who’s going to want to email me all hours of the night rhetorical questions because they’ve been talking to their friends, and when I don’t write them back within an hour, they get irate with me. You know what I mean?
Dave Aarons: Yep.
Michele Bernard: I also think about that too. Because sometimes … I mean, honestly, there’s some clients that it might be best not to work with because if it’s like I’m going to have to give them such a big discount and they’re going to demand so much more of my time, I have to also think about my other clients and be able to portion my time between all of them, and not just have … out of like maybe the 40 files I have open right now, do I have like 2 people who are monopolizing 5 hours of my week with constant phone calls, emails, and wanting updates when there’s nothing to update about? I can’t give a deep, deep, deep discount for someone who’s going to monopolize my time to that degree either.
Dave Aarons: Yep. Absolutely.
Michele Bernard: So, maybe for some of them, the best thing for them is to just do a doc prep and spend a couple hours with them, do all their stuff, and send them on the way. There’s the boatman. You come to him. He gives you directions, sends you on your way. Then you have like the shepherd. He kind of guides you along the way, and then you have like the person who is like the king. They’re going to like walk with you the whole way and lead the way and open it open and create something new. So, you have to figure what’s really going to serve them? What’s going to serve me? What is this professional relationship going to be about? How much legal help do they need? What is it that I can provide for them? How much of my time am I going to give them and what are they going to expect from me? These are also things to take into consideration at the initial consultation that I think is very, very, very important.
Dave Aarons: Yep. And if you’re taking all those things into account, it’s important to note that not every single client is going to be able to work with you. THere’s just folks that, either due to financial component or due to just like their mental state, their personality type, their situation, that you’re going to need to turn some people away to be able to honor the commitments and the quality of service that you have made for all the other clients you have.
Michele Bernard: Exactly, because it’s not fair to them.
Dave Aarons: So, sometimes you have to do that 80/20 analysis. Yeah.
Michele Bernard: Yeah. It’s not fair to someone I signed up three months ago that now I have to put his stuff on the back-burner because I signed up someone last week and they are constantly … like I get it. They’re stressed out but every time their ex puts something on Facebook, they want to call me up and vent about it. That’s not part of my role to indulge that. I need to also … to be compassionate to these people also takes strength because sometimes if you get over compassionate they will … in family law, they want you to be their lawyer, their psychiatrist, their new best friend, their confidante, their spiritual guru. They want you to fill all these roles and, at some point, you have to say, “Hey, I am compassionate and I am available to you and all these things, but not at the detriment of being present and available to these other people. And when I get call from DCS saying there’s an emergency shelter petition, then I’ve gotta pick up and go over there and maybe I can’t have time to chitchat with you about how you’re frustrated that your ex is posting things on Facebook.
I started kind of giving them that little talk at the beginning of the representation, just letting them know that, listen, I am doing this discount work for you and I’m going to get you a result as quickly as I can, so also keep in mind that even though it’s a flat fee arrangement, and I’m not changing you by the hour, to also be respectful of my time. Because once they find out, “Oh, you’re not charging me every single time I call and email you,” that just means, “Oh, I’ll call and email you any time I feel like that.” But it’s not quite like that either, because if they charged by the hour, they would only call for very important things. That way, I can afford to keep giving these discounts to people because I have the available time to do it.
Dave Aarons: Yep. Exactly.
Michele Bernard: I think that’s important. If you’re doing a lot of discount work for people, you need to really manage your time and keep it in check.
Dave Aarons: Yep, absolutely. And set the right expectations so that people understand that … they’re not getting the full shebang. They’re not getting the Rolls Royce but, guess what, that’s going to get you from here to there. It’s still going to get the job done but it’s not the full package and to manage that expectation so that you can still get them where they need to go and get them that same result, without having at cost to other clients. Or put you in a position, eventually, when you can no longer offer that type of shepherd type of service because people are not understanding really the right frame to look at, or expecting too much, or don’t have the proper expectation on what’s okay and what’s not. So, it’s almost like it’s that same win-win. There’s a give and a take. I’m going to get you through this process. We’re going to focus on the things that really you need to make sure you get done, whether that be the unbundled or the unlimited scope, and then your role is do as much as you can to allow me to do the work and not take up time that is going to take away from my ability to do the work for you that I need to do and the other clients I’m working with as well.
Michele Bernard: Yeah, and don’t get me wrong. Honestly … I mean, if someone was paying me by the hour, for example, and they wanted to just call and commiserate all the time … well, first of all, I don’t have any clients that do that, anyway, and I really wouldn’t engage in that because it’s really not helpful. But that is really … that’s not even really needed to represent a client either because, when it gets down to it, honestly, the judge really doesn’t care that your ex-wrote a bunch of mean things on Facebook about you that has nothing to do with your ability to parent and things like that. It’s unnecessary and it doesn’t really help anything at all.
So, it’s not like I’m taking away from their representation because I don’t want to hear them talk about all of these things. It’s just they’re not relevant to the case. They’re not helpful or relevant to the case, anyway. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to express it and I understand that but, to a degree, sometimes expressing all these things is probably best done with your therapist or your friends or your family, and things like this.
Dave Aarons: Right. And we’re talking about the small minority of folks that could be potentially a problem client. Maybe a 1 or 2 out of 10, or something like that. But we’re still … from all the things we’ve talked about before, we’re still far, far away serving so many more clients where … when we first started we were sending them to the traditional firm that you described where it’s 5000 upfront. Maybe 1 out of 15 or one of the top 20 clients that we attract would be able to get served. Now, we’re talking about … I don’t know how roughly out of 10 are doing … maybe you could share? But now it’s not 1 out of 15, 1 out of 20. It’s more like 5 out of 10, or 6 out of 10, are actually in a position to get served. And if that was the numbers, the difference in the numbers of every attorney or most of the attorneys throughout the country and they were enabled to be able to deliver service in the way that you’re describing, such that they can help that many more people, then we wouldn’t have the same epidemic of pro se filings where the courts completely overwhelmed with folks that have no idea what they’re doing.
Michele Bernard: Exactly.
Dave Aarons: Pulling the forms off the internet and just filing and thinking it’s Judge Judy and they can just go share their story in front of the job without understanding the importance of a written argument, and following the court procedures, and don’t know what they’re doing. Then we’re going to have a completely different legal environment if these are the numbers and these are the services that were all … all of us collectively as attorneys are delivering to the clients. Right?
Michele Bernard: Yeah. And I don’t want to come off as being negative or whatever, but I think that the reason why I felt it was very important to share … If you’re giving such deep discounts to all these people, and you’re doing what we’re trying to do, it serves a bigger portion of this unrepresented amount of people. You have to be very, very mindful and very careful not to take on-
Dave Aarons: Overstep.
Michele Bernard: … clients that are going to monopolize your time because you won’t be able to keep up with offering discounted services to people, and I had to learn that lesson that the hard way. I had, in the past, taken on some people that were making it where it was hard for me to serve everyone with the amount of time they were taking from me. I had to learn the hard way how to say no to a few of them and to be really careful, because if I’m going to keep with the mission of, “Let’s do this together, people. I’m going to represent you. I’m going to give you discounts and I’m going to focus more on volume a little bit more than just … by the hour,” I have to be very careful and vigilant not to engage in stuff like allowing people to monopolize my time to that degree. Because you won’t be able to do it and then you’re going to start finding yourself charging more just to keep up, and that kind of defeats the whole purpose of the mission, really.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So, I’m really glad that we kind of brought light to that necessity to be rigorously honest with folks and say no when you need to, because there’s a push pull. We’re reaching down and trying to help as many people as we can. Being creative, being flexible. But there has to be a push and a pull, where they’re also reaching up and doing what they need to do and limiting the amount of contact. Whatever that may be. Whether it be not calling your office every hour and so forth, so that you continue to do that. And it’s a balanced relationship and that balance has to be cultivated in order for the whole model to work. So, it’s an imperative part of being able to deliver unbundled options is that sometimes you just have to say no and that allows you to continue to say yes so much more often than so many other lawyers can.
Michele Bernard: Exactly. Exactly.
Dave Aarons: With that, I just can’t thank you enough, Michele, for the work that you’re doing and for coming on today and sharing as openly as you have with how it is you’re going about it. Your philosophy and … I couldn’t be more excited about the work that you’re doing, the feedback we’re getting from the clients, and for sharing this principles with as many attorneys as we possibly can in the coming months and so forth, because I really believe strongly that this … we really do stand to make a tremendous difference in the lives of many, many people and generations to come if we can overcome the barriers that money and the legal system present to parents being able to be involved in the lives of their own kids. I thank you for what you’re doing and I thank you for the belief in our mission and our vision as well, and taking part in it.
Michele Bernard: Well, thank you, Dave. Thank you very much for starting Unbundled Attorney and everything like that and having such an open heart and mind, and I hope that everything that I’ve shared with everyone today will help motivate them and inspire them and to keep carrying the mission and do what they’re doing. And doing it with an open heart and with plenty of compassion in the true spirit of service.
Dave Aarons: Absolutely. All right. Well, thank you again and to everyone else that’s been listening, and I’m sure soaking up and learning so much for this episode and from this podcast as well, we appreciate you taking part and we will see you guys all on the next episode. Thanks so much.
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Episode 8: Bringing a Holistic Approach to the Practice of Law
In this episode we interview Michele Bernard, who is an Unbundled Attorney in Orlando, FL. She shows you how to bring a holistic philosophy into our practice as attorneys. Michele explains how this unique approach impacts the way she serves her client relationships. We also discuss the impact empowering attorneys nationwide to offer alternative resolution strategies and unbundled legal services can have on our communities and children.
- What being a holistic attorney means and how it benefits your practice
- How to strike the right balance between cooperation and litigation in alternative dispute resolution cases
- How proactively communicating empathy and compassion has a tremendously positive impact on how you interact with clients
- How to plan for and respond to clients that request help after business hours
- How a shift in the legal services marketplace has created new business opportunities to serve the “working poor” client base
- How discounting your rates can increase revenues, and reduce the amount of collections work needed at the end of a case
- A unique discussion of the mission and purpose of Unbundled Attorney, and the collective impact thousands of lawyers offering unbundled legal services and alternative dispute resolution strategies can have on our communities and children
- And much more
If you are enjoying this podcast, be sure to subscribe and receive each new episode as it is published.
For more information about Unbundled Attorney and how our Lead Generation services help grow your practice, visit: https://www.unbundledattorney.com?t=podcast