Educating a New Generation of Solo Attorneys: The Exciting Future of Legal Incubators and a Practical Overview of the Business Model of Unbundling Legal Services
Welcome to the Unbundled Attorney Mastermind Podcast. Below is the transcription of this episode from our Unbundled Attorney Mastermind Podcast. You can listen to the entire episode by clicking here.
Dave Aarons: All right, welcome to the Unbundled Attorney Mastermind Podcast. I’m here with Lee Vernon who is one of our unbundled attorneys out of San Diego, California, providing family law services, and we’ve got a good solid year I think working together so far.
Lee Vernon: Yeah, about a year.
Dave Aarons: He’s been doing a really good job servicing the clients we send him in San Diego and really excited just to have an opportunity to unpack the saga that has been our relationship, and the growth of your firm ever since we started working together.
Lee Vernon: Thanks Dave.
Dave Aarons: So just really happy to be here with a nice, beautiful view of San Diego behind us.
Lee Vernon: Can’t complain.
Dave Aarons: Yeah man. This is a terrible, terrible office you have here.
Lee Vernon: Right. It’s a horrible space.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, I’m really happy to be here. So thanks for taking the time today.
Lee Vernon: Yeah, thank you guys as well.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, so maybe a good place to start is just give us a little bit of background and how you got your start in the practice of law and maybe share just a little bit about the legal incubator that you were a part of that to get that running.
Lee Vernon: Sure, of course. So yeah, that’s a good segue Dave. I started off right out the gate after I passed the bar, so I started practicing law basically in January of 2015. My law school, Thomas Jefferson School of law has a solo incubator program. Basically it’s just in a nutshell, it’s a wonderful program that allows younger attorneys or even attorneys who have a little bit of experience to have some great resources to be able to go out and hang their own shingle, and open their own solo law practice.
One of the benefits to the program was I was able to have a very seasoned civil litigation attorney who is also a law professor, mentor myself, and some of my cohorts in the solo practice incubator program. That really allowed me to start off and even take some cases that I may not have been able to take in the beginning because I quite frankly wouldn’t have had even the resources to do so.
Dave Aarons: Like both financially and also from an experience standpoint or?
Lee Vernon: A little bit of both. Yeah, exactly. So I was able to have some guidance and from a seasoned trial attorney to be able to take a trial very early on in my case. It would have been difficult to do so had I not had the advice and guidance of a very experienced attorney. Also, just as important, the incubator program allowed us to have a very affordable office space.
Dave Aarons: Great place just to have a place to work, bring clients without having to have a lot of overhead to get to start, right?
Lee Vernon: Exactly. Right, because that’s one thing that I learned early on. You have to keep your overhead low because as you’re building your brand, your reputation, your business, you don’t have the financial resources unless you have a rich aunt or uncle who can pay thousands of dollars to give you a beautiful office space. So it was nice to be able to focus on practicing law and building up my business and not worrying about how am I going to pay my rent for the office space.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, and similarly, if you’re working at a legal incubator, I’m assuming there were a lot of other attorneys you were working with that are part of the program and then you’re able to have a collaboration. You’re working together.
Lee Vernon: Exactly.
Dave Aarons: Putting in other attorneys that are new and [crosstalk 00:03:37].
Lee Vernon: Yeah, thanks for reminding me that Dave. It’s easy to forget because it’s been a couple of years, but that was also a wonderful part of the incubator program just having, even though some of the attorneys were newer attorneys, maybe had only been practicing one to two years just to have someone who had a little more experience or even somebody who was at the same level to be able to say, “Hey, here’s what I see in the case based on the facts you’re representing. Why don’t you try this or try this angle from a legal standpoint.”
That was a wonderful resource to have because had I just hung out my own shingle open a law office somewhere in downtown San Diego and not had the mentorship, I think it would have taken me quite a bit longer to build up a profitable practice.
Dave Aarons: Yeah. Yeah. That’s one of the things we’re really focused on, especially recently, is starting to build community, and getting you in touch with ourselves as part of the reason why we’re doing the video podcasts is so that we have an opportunity to meet in person and get to know each other, but also with the retreat we have coming up in March and some of the things we’re going to be launching in the retreat, have you an opportunity to get to know some of the other attorneys on the network, share ideas, get input, talking about some of the technology they’re using or whatever it is that would be of benefit that other lawyers have implemented their practice, and having that mastermind concept of everyone sharing ideas for the betterment of everyone involved.
Lee Vernon: Certainly.
Dave Aarons: Right. So, it’s really cool to hear that the incubator had that same type of characteristic.
Lee Vernon: Right.
Dave Aarons: In which everyone’s working together cooperatively so you can share resources, and I’m assuming we could all become better attorneys as a result.
Lee Vernon: Right, exactly. It just makes you more well rounded in your practice.
Dave Aarons: Yeah. It’s been interesting to hear about a lot of the incubators have been opening up all across the country. There’s quite a few of them. The last time we checked the directory, there’s a resource directory of legal incubator’s which we can link to in the podcast show notes. I’ll make a note of that.
One of the things that these incubators have been working on is educating attorneys on how to offer unbundled legal services profitably in their practice. We’re going to be doing a presentation up there tomorrow. Do you see that as a good potential vehicle for educating a new generation of attorneys that may be able to embrace limited scope and working with people.
Lee Vernon: I really do. They actually have early on in one of my cases, I have a good case example. When I first started my practice, I did a lot of research before linking up with you guys at Unbundled into the unbundled or limited scope representation. I found that a lot of older experienced attorneys don’t even understand the limited scope unbundled option. So I had a case where I was helping a client who didn’t have a lot of money, but the client had enough money to pay me to handle a couple of steps of the case.
I remember the attorney actually on the other side threatened me with reporting me to the state bar for providing unbundled legal services. I had to basically nicely tell him, “You don’t really know what you’re talking about. I actually did research on limited scope unbundled services, and you can offer them in a family law case. Sorry you’ve not experienced this yet.”
I wholeheartedly believe that it is a great, unbundled services or would be a great way to link up with new attorneys to teach them that option from a business standpoint, because I think a lot of attorneys are really missing out by refusing or not even considering offering unbundled services. Because quite frankly, if somebody can pay you even for a couple hours of your time, that’s money you would have never earned as a business per person from business standpoint.
So yeah, I believe that 100%, and believe wholeheartedly that having the unbundled cooperative some type of program with incubators throughout the country would help both unbundled and new attorneys continue to be successful.
Dave Aarons: In your perspective, why do you think so many lawyers haven’t implemented this, because it seems like such common sense when we talk through the podcast all the time how well attorneys are doing in offering this, and being able to break things down limits the accounts receivable to basically zero, and clients really appreciate it because it’s so much more affordable, and everyone else is getting turned away.
But so it really just seems like it makes a lot of sense, but there seems to be some misconceptions or misinformation or misunderstandings around the ethical nature, or the efficacy of these options. I’m just wondering from your perspective with other attorneys that you’ve talked about it, and they just … what is the objection like?
Lee Vernon: I think a lot of it is, especially with maybe the older attorneys, they, I think they become so used to saying, “Hey, I have this experience and I’m above handling a matter where somebody walks in my door and says I only have $500.” because they’re not looking at that $500 potential client from the unbundled standpoint, right? They’re looking at that from, “Well, my minimum retainer in a family law matter is $5,000, and you’re coming in with 10% of my minimum retainer. I don’t want to talk to you.”
Dave Aarons: That’s right.
Lee Vernon: Whereas if they could easily have, especially at a larger firm, a junior associate, do the unbundled work at maybe perhaps 250 an hour, that’s $500 that the firm would have never earned prior to doing so. Going back to your point, they don’t have to worry about an outstanding invoice. You take the $500, you can do two hours of work, you draft your contract as such with the client when you’re done.
Dave Aarons: That’s right.
Lee Vernon: I think to answer your question maybe it’s a little bit of the greed, the ego that we see with attorneys.
Dave Aarons: Yeah. That’s been a really consistent kind of flavor. It’s almost like that they feel like it’s second rate, or something like that, or maybe they believe they’re not making money doing that.
One of the things that, it’s just the purpose behind what this podcast is starting to educate and build awareness around how effective it can be to deliver unbundled services and how profitable it can be as well.
Lee Vernon: Sure.
Dave Aarons: So maybe we could just talk about how you transitioned to starting unbundled services. I don’t know how you got exposed to it, if it was through us or other educational programs, or you just started doing it on your own or whatnot. It might’ve been through Marlene. I’m not sure. If you could talk about that, and then also just how that’s helped you develop your [crosstalk 00:09:52] as a result.
Lee Vernon: Of course. Yeah, it’s an interesting question Dave. Basically, I fell into unbundled in early on in my career with my practice from just doing research on the limited scope representation and seeing, hey, right now I’m a new attorney so I have a lot of folks coming to me from even legal clinics. They don’t have $5,000 retainers. I had done the research and had kind of done a little bit of Legwork to build up, not even a full blown business plan, but I knew I wanted to incorporate limited scope or unbundled services into my practice.
My very first law firm website actually does talk a lot about limited scope representation. I didn’t really know how to effectively market it though. So I was just kind of, I would offer that to clients, or potential clients who would come to me through different referral sources and say, “Hey, I have $1,000, what can you do for me?” I would break that down and say, “Hey, here’s my hourly rate. Here’s how many billable hours I could offer you. That’s better than nothing.” But I had no true sense of direction.
The way that I first learned about unbundled attorney who was formerly an unbundled client in San Diego, I was doing some contract work for her on a case by case basis just trying to build my business, and learn some things. I found out that she was using unbundled. Right.
I actually called Graham one day and said, “Hey, I’m Lee Vernon. I’m a new family law attorney. I really think what unbundled is doing is cool and I’ve seen it work really well for my colleague Marlene.” Graham unfortunately couldn’t sign me up because unbundled is a great lead generation service. It’s wonderful.
That stuck out in my mind because most other services who try to link you up with new clients, they will call your phone time and time again after you reach out to them. I wondered, hey there’s something to unbundled. It worked for Marlene, and they’re not able to sign me up right now. This has to be a very legitimate service.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, when protected, they’re exclusive.
Lee Vernon: Right. Unfortunately some things happened to the former attorney, Marlene and she wasn’t able to continue with unbundled. Graham called me up one day and said, “Hey, remember me? We have a spot open in San Diego, do you want to take it?” There was no question. So that answer being yes, I was able to sign up with unbundled and it’s been wonderful since then.
Dave Aarons: When you were working with Marlene because she was doing a lot of unbundled services as well, so you were getting some experience for the way that she was offering that in her practice. So by the time the leads became available, when she transitioned out, you already had some experience working with her as a contract lawyer to be able to start delivering it in your own practice from there.
Lee Vernon: Exactly. I unfortunately wasn’t able to dive super deep into the unbundled process, but I saw just from the outside looking in this works because 99% of her clients were coming through unbundled, and she was very busy.
Dave Aarons: Yes. She was very busy for a very long time. It was unfortunate what happened to her partner. How did you originally start researching limited scope? Was that shared with you in law school or, because obviously you’ve got a lot of clients coming to you who don’t have 5,000. Most lawyers would think, “Can’t you get no help?” Right? But you were like, “How do I help this person?” Limited scope. Like how did you make that connection originally?
Lee Vernon: A lot of it, the seed for that, the limited scope idea was planted by Lellis McCoy. She is actually, she runs the center for Solo Practitioners. I can put you in touch with her. That’s no problem. But she is an outstanding attorney. She has decades of experience in civil litigation. Right now, she’s a full-time law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of law just down the street here in San Diego.
On top of running the solo practice incubator program that we spoke about a few moments ago, she also teaches a few solo practice centered courses at Thomas Jefferson school of law. When I was a law school student, I took one of her solo practice courses and she talked a lot about the limited scope representation option.
That really planted the seed. It was just kind of a natural progression to when I was finally linked up with you guys to really having some good resources from unbundled to show, okay, how to practice law, you’re an attorney, but you also you need to look at the limited scope unbundled option from a business standpoint.
That’s something that unbundled really helped me with in terms of realizing, all right, you do need a process. You can’t just, it’s wonderful to have the idea of, okay, I’m going to offer unbundled representation for somebody who may only have $1,000 maximum to go towards legal fees, but how do I get those people in the door?
Yes, that I had that big disconnect. I had the seed was planted early on in my career as an attorney.
Dave Aarons: Conceptually.
Lee Vernon: Right.
Dave Aarons: That it’s like the practical application. right? Doing that effectively and efficiently and conveying that to the client, educating on those options and figuring out how to limit the scope properly with that client based on their budget, based on what they need help with. WHat kind of options can you offer? Can you do as a flat rate? Do you do as an hour by hour. I mean, there really is a whole business model around what appears to be a very simple concept.
So, I would love to unpack that in just a second. Some of the things that you’ve had to learn how to do to impact that we either educated you on or something like that, so we can start to unpack that.
But one of the things that, to circle back on, there was another point. Yeah, I think, so your point about the law school and it being taught in law school was actually where you got exposed to limited scope, right? We’ve had a lot of conversations with like Forrest Mosten whose the father of unbundling. He’s a adjunct professor at the UCLA.
Lee Vernon: Right. I’ve heard of him.
Dave Aarons: Yeah. Really, really solid guy. Very passionate about this industry, and how unbundled legal services can impact access to justice across the United States. We’ve talked a lot about like, okay, how do we instill limited scope and unbundled services into a much broader range of attorneys releasing new generation of lawyers? That’s what the conversation has really been around law schools, and how we can get professors, and get this taught as a course or even as a segment of a course minimum that this is available. This is something that is broadly applicable in the way the marketplace is nowadays. Very different from what it was 20 years ago.
So it’s really cool and really great to hear that, that was the seed that got you started in starting to offer these services or at least have the idea and the concept which then evolved once, obviously we started working together, and then launch into the business.
For anyone out there that’s watching this video that is involved with law schools or has any influence, or can further help the possibility of getting unbundled services taught in law schools we’re more than happy to support with sharing information, tactics, process, whatever it might be, that could be helpful for implementing these types of courses into law schools because we do feel like that’s just such a really important aspect of educating this next generation of attorneys that could really have an impact on access to justice if they only knew how to do it.
Let’s get into how you do it, right? Because it’s the one concept, yes, you can limit the scope of the involvement and only do specific agreed upon task. Great. I just read that on the Wikipedia, so I understand that concept now. So now how do we implement that into our practice effectively?
There’s some specific things all the way from when you first talk to the client, how you do that consultation, the different service options you might offer. Maybe you can start with some of the things you’ve learned as far as that process as you described that’s helped you be effective at actually delivering these services to your clients.
Lee Vernon: Sure. I think Dave one of the biggest things that unbundled taught me from the get go is it’s easy to engage with a potential client, but it’s also easy to maybe spend too much time on the phone with a client, or you have to find the happy medium not spending enough time.
So one thing that I really like about the unbundled process is you guys teach us as attorneys how to from the get go when you make that first contact with the client, how to tactfully segue your conversation into, “Hey, I offer unbundled services. I also offer full representation.” But also without maybe forcing somebody or making a potential client feel like you only want to offer them unbundled services.
Dave Aarons: That’s right.
Lee Vernon: Or you’re only interested in full representation, full blown representation with the larger retainers. I know for me that just the guidance that you guys have set up to be able to say, okay these are the key points that you need you need to hit on when you’re talking to somebody who’s a prospective client. You’re able to help me see things from this more of a business standpoint because of course as an attorney, I care about all my cases, but I also have to make money. I can’t pay my bills, I can’t save for my family’s future.
So I really like how the process basically allows you to feel comfortable in saying, “Okay, I’m going to offer this unbundled service, but how do I present this to the client without being off putting or sounding maybe even egotistical when I bring up the full representation option.”
I really liked how you guys have trained me to from the … rather not to the business, but from the business perspective or standpoint just how to make that initial contact.
Dave Aarons: The initial qualifying script. Yeah.
Lee Vernon: Exactly.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, okay.
Lee Vernon: The qualifying script was so helpful in keeping, setting a roadmap to say, okay, I need to not be on the phone too long with this person, but also not be on the phone for too short of a period of time to be off putting. By following the script, I was able to see a huge increase because when I first started I kind of tried to do my own thing. I’ll admit that, right? Graham knows this. I was kind of just talking to people.
Dave Aarons: It’s the blah, blah approach?
Lee Vernon: Right. Exactly.
Dave Aarons: Blah blah. Want to sign up?
Lee Vernon: Right. Then when we looked back at, okay Graham and I touch base, how’d the first month go? I’m like, “Well, shoot. I don’t know. I’m kind of working on trying to bring some of these people in.” So then Graham did a good job of coaching me through things and saying, “Okay. Look, you’re a good attorney, but we’re going to highlight the business side of things here. What are you doing? Are you following the script?” No, I wasn’t.
We had a great heart to heart. It was wonderful though because it was great constructive feedback and criticism. I found that once I started following the script, and finding that happy medium because it’s not ever, I don’t want to put a time limit, but I would say 10 minutes or less. I try to do most of my initial contacts in 10 minutes or less, and get the person to come into the office because if they can meet me in person, you know I say follow the script, but then we talked about bring in your paperwork, bring in your court documents. If you have an open case, or if you have previously filed the case and you have court orders.
I found that by following the script, getting people in the door, most people will hire me for some type of service. It’s everything from folks who start out with just the unbundled option, maybe a couple hours of my billable time. I have had plenty of cases turn into people who hire me to handle, maybe not their full case, but one or more difficult court hearings. It turns into a very, very good paying client.
Dave Aarons: Right. So originally were you spending a lot more time on the phone and then they were … and like trying to get them to make a decision?
Lee Vernon: Exactly.
Dave Aarons: If I were to guess, you would have had maybe only a small fraction of people actually coming in the office, but almost every one of those was retaining you. But then there were a bunch that were just not coming in, not retaining.
Lee Vernon: Exactly. Right.
Dave Aarons: Like you had a real … you’re a batting a really high percentage of those that came in the office but just not a lot of them were coming in the office because you’re having a longer call addressing their needs, giving them advice instead of spending … so maybe you can draw the contrast between the two approaches.
Lee Vernon: Right. Exactly. Yeah, and that’s a good point Dave, because I noticed for the folks that I found that happy medium and just had the conversation and said, “Hey, when can you come in? I have two appointment slots available. Which one of those spots would you like?” You get them to come in. I found that a majority of those people, high percentages, at least 70% of the people who actually come into my office would hire me for some type of service versus the folks that I would stay on the phone with for longer periods of time.
Maybe some of it was someone who wasn’t ready to hire an attorney yet or someone sometimes you get people who just, they just don’t know. They made contact, but maybe they’re serious, maybe they’re not serious about hiring an attorney. But I found that regardless of what the person’s intent or background was, the people that I didn’t bring it into the office, your percentage is almost zero in getting those people to come in.
There are a few exceptions. I’ve had folks who were from out of state who really can’t come in. But I can do like a google duo video chat or a Skype video chat with those folks. But with the exception of the outliers for people who are not actually in San Diego but have a case for one reason or another here in San Diego. Yeah, it’s pretty much a zero percent success rate on people that you don’t at least get to come in for an in-sit appointment.
Dave Aarons: Yeah. There’s been some lawyers that have had a lot of success in other regions. Enrolling clients over the phone. I think has a lot to do with the fact that they cover like a broader region. Like for example in the Bay area. Like Zoe Garvins had a lot of success, you always find someone on the phone there because they’re in San Francisco, she’s in Oakland. They’re like, “Man, that’s going to be about a 30 to 40 minute drive.”
Lee Vernon: It’s quite a commute.
Dave Aarons: That’s right, even just across the bridge. Even if their cases there, it’s just a lot of commuting. Whereas in San Diego it seems like it’s pretty tight city where people get around pretty easily. The traffic isn’t nearly as bad as LA, or San Francisco.
Lee Vernon: Not even close.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, so even just LA county for example, it could be 20 minutes across or it could be two hours across even in the same county.
There are motivating factors in other regions that could lend someone to want to just get signed up over the phone as opposed to just coming right in the office. But in your case, it isn’t really that prohibitive for people to come right in. If there’s ever a possibility that they can just come right in, I don’t think there’s any better way to have clients enroll if they just get a chance to hang out and get to know you in person and see the beautiful view.
Lee Vernon: And, see the view.
Dave Aarons: I mean, I just, I stare out that window and just want to sign up.
Lee Vernon: That’s why my desk faces this way.
Dave Aarons: Really? So they’re all just looking at the view. It’s like, “Wow, this guy’s got Mojo.”
Lee Vernon: And, I’m easily distracted when I’m, yeah, I’m kidding.
Dave Aarons: You just zone out. That doesn’t happen. That doesn’t happen with any clients lost.
Lee Vernon: Not for my cases.
Dave Aarons: Yeah. That he faces this way.
Lee Vernon: Exactly.
Dave Aarons: Okay. So you’ve got the intake call, right? The initial call qualifying, spending, being a little bit more succinct on that one, letting then talk for a few minutes, but then starting to ask them very specific questions about their case, what they’re looking to see happen, following some of that script outline, letting them know you offer both options, and that they can choose. That it puts it in the control of the amount of service that the client wants or needs in their hands.
They get to tell you how much service they want and how much they want to start with. Do you have some clients that will start with just with one specific task and then later on transition to either additional services or full representation?
Lee Vernon: I do. I actually have have an ongoing matter where that’s happening. The clients, it’s a divorce case and it is a hotly contested case. Case has been going on for years and the client previously had an attorney and realized they didn’t have any issue with the work that their previous attorney had done, but that attorney does not offer the unbundled option.
So the client realized, “I’m going to have to pay a lot of money.” But found that, “I can handle some of the aspects of my case on my own.” The client found me through unbundled. Their cases getting close to the trial phase. We’re working out some of the details. They’re probably going to be hiring me to handle a full blown divorce trial.
Dissolution of marriage in California of course, but divorce. This is someone who started off as an unbundled by the hour. Going back to your point Dave, it’s wonderful that you say that, most people don’t even know this as a client, but they’re the boss in terms of what the attorney does and doesn’t do. Yes.
If I’m the attorney of record on a case, a client can’t tell me, “No, don’t show up to the court hearing.” If there is a scheduled hearing without me formally signing off their case, and filing the proper paperwork with the court and the opposing party or attorney. But not withstanding something like that, the client is always in the driver’s seat.
The nice thing about the unbundled option is it puts the client at the front in the front driver’s seat and they can tell you, “Hey, look.” I draft agreements all the time that they expressly state I will do with … I’m not going to make court appearances under this agreement unless we have a subsequent written agreement. But otherwise if they have, let’s say an ongoing divorce case, dissolution of marriage case is what we call it in California, again, but if their case is ongoing, they’ll pay me just the hourly rate for what they need.
Dave Aarons: That’s right.
Lee Vernon: And, I’m just kind of on standby.
Dave Aarons: Well, looked at it another way it actually puts the attorney in the driver’s seat as well because they get to choose the amount of services they will provide, or at least it’s a limit. There’s a limit, there’s a barrier based upon what the person needs and also their financial budget such that they aren’t stuck providing a full suite of services without having a very clear knowledge, or being in a position where if the client stops paying, they could still be able to hope for that.
Lee Vernon: Exactly.
Dave Aarons: So at the outset, it gives you the flexibility and the control back as well. They get to choose, and you get to choose, because they can say, “Well, I only want you for these things.” Well, you can decide if you want to do that. If they want more, they can do that. But also you don’t have to do more than you know that, that client is capable of. It’s a meeting of the minds there.
Lee Vernon: Exactly. That’s a great point because also from talking to a lot of attorney mentors that I’ve met over the years in the family law realm, outstanding billables become a large problem for them. If they were offering unbundled services, they would never even get to that point to where they have a client who owes a $2,000 bill, why in the world would you, from a business perspective, why would you even allow someone to run up that type of bill?
It’s not coming from an egotistical standpoint, but just a business standpoint as law firms we’re for-profit entities and the unbundled option is a great way to continue to be able to provide legal services for folks who may not have tens of thousands of dollars to go towards legal services. But if you carefully craft your retainer agreement with the client, you can make it so that, going back to your point, you’re not ever having to provide any service without getting paid.
Dave Aarons: Has that been the case for you for the majority of the clients you’re working with, that you have close to 100% accounts receivables?
Lee Vernon: Yes, within a small margin of error. Maybe an hour billable outstanding, but I really do not have … Yeah, come to think of it, I have no one bundled cases where I really have an outstanding billable at this point in time beyond maybe an hour.
Dave Aarons: Wow.
Lee Vernon: And, even those cases were cases where the clients and I engaged in a limited scope or an unbundled contracts to allow for a court appearance and things went over an hour beyond what I anticipated.
Dave Aarons: So that was the most it possibly could have done over, it’s like, well, the court just took a little longer than we thought.
Lee Vernon: Exactly.
Dave Aarons: Right? But it’s like it’s not going from phase to phase to phase without having a clear payment and understanding of what’s being done at each phase.
Lee Vernon: Right, because if you, and especially if you’re an attorney of record in California Superior Court and Family Court for a full blown representation, if the client doesn’t cooperate with you, you have to actually file a motion to be relieved as counsel. You pay a fee, you have the time in court, the embarrassment of having to drag yourself and your clients into court and showing your peers, “Hey, maybe I’m not managing my business all that well.”
Dave Aarons: That’s right.
Lee Vernon: So the unbundled option is a great way to alleviate that problem.
Dave Aarons: Well, and this is one of those underlying misunderstandings, I think as far as the profitability of unbundled services. When you really look at a full service firm, accounts receivable can be maybe at 70% or something like that. I don’t know, what were your experiences with any … in firms you’ve worked in the past, but it’s not 100%. It’s not even close to 100%.
Lee Vernon: Not even close.
Dave Aarons: When you look at these big retainers, it’s like a lot less getting collected. So if they’re collecting 10,000, that’s only 70%, that’s really only 7,000 and they’re doing a lot of work as well that otherwise didn’t get paid. So that’s, it’s going to hit the bottom line in a great way, and especially for solo practitioners that have lower overhead and are operating a more lean practice, being able to collect and consistently rely upon having those payments come in without having that accounts receivable loss can be really key to make sure you’re maintaining and growing out a lean and profitable practice.
Lee Vernon: I’m a perfect example of having that financial stability from the moment that we entered into our agreement with … between unbundled and myself and my solo from when I first started out. I had built up my practice to where I had a decent client referral basis, but it was a constant struggle. I was networking, which is still important, but I found that I was a little bit worried from time to time about hey, how am I going to continue to bring in new potential clients?
The great thing about unbundled was even though some of the folks coming in through the unbundled service may only be able to start off with something like $500, I am a testament to that being a profitable business model. It is.
From the get go, going back to an early part of our discussion today where we talked about the reason that I think a lot of attorneys or law firms aren’t interested in the unbundled option is because of a little bit of greed or just being so set in their ways and saying, “Hey, I don’t even want to talk to someone who only has $500.”
But the beauty of the unbundled option is you can make a very, very comfortable living just off of the unbundled services just off of the people-
Dave Aarons: Because, an hour is still an hour regardless.
Lee Vernon: Exactly.
Dave Aarons: That’s excluding if you’re doing things as flat rate and then having some autonomy scale there.
Lee Vernon: Right. And, that is the, going back to the flat rate in family law cases, it’s difficult to always offer a flat rate option. However, on the unbundled-
Dave Aarons: Looks like if you give them as the whole thing whereas if you give them, to dupe these tasks under a flat rate.
Lee Vernon: Right. I offer flat rates quite often for unbundled services, especially where folks just need me to fill out paperwork. If it’s in the family court system, I know how to fill out the paperwork and I know within a reasonable degree of certainty how many hours that should take me. So I can offer folks a flat rate, and still be profitable because on the unbundled scale, I’m not tied to having to go to court for that flat rate. So it has been a wonderful business model on my side of things just in the short time that we’ve been working together for about a year.
Dave Aarons: Cool. What would be really awesome is can we like run some of the numbers?
Lee Vernon: Yeah.
Dave Aarons: Like first layout some of the limited scope options that you offer, whether it be document preparation, limited scope, maybe we could do like a few different options. What you typically charge, and what is the actual amount of time you put into each one, and how you have calculated at least so far as far as what your effective hourly rate ends up being, and some of the systems you have in the back end to speed that up.
That’s a much broader topic, but mainly let’s lay out some of those options, and let’s look at the numbers so attorneys can start to understand how they can start to … Like what is the profitability behind some of this list of options.
Lee Vernon: Probably the most logical way I could go through this Dave would be to go through starting off with maybe like the bare minimum services that I can offer. A lot of times I’ll have someone come in and they’ll maybe even be on the fence about hiring an attorney, and I’ll say, “Hey, I can work with within reason, any budget that anyone has.” We have to be reasonable about what I can offer for that budget.
For the folks who are on the fence or who have very limited means, I will say, “Hey, how about …”
Dave Aarons: Which, by the way, which is key to be able to say. There’s a limit to the amount of surface I can provide but I can work-
Lee Vernon: But I can still work.
Dave Aarons: … I can provide service within any budget, and people go …
Lee Vernon: Right.
Dave Aarons: I think they just, maybe you say that some people are in-person, but I can just imagine their shoulders just relaxing like. They’re like, “Okay. Cool. This is not someone that’s just going to hang up the phone if I don’t have five grand to get to him right now or what or whatever it might be.” Right? I’m sure a lot of clients have called a number of firms, and they finally get to you, and you’re like, “Yeah, we can work within your budget. I mean there’s a limit what I can do for that, but we can do that.”
Lee Vernon: In my experience, I’ve been able to offer even what I would call a one hour full blown legal advice session. As little as that. I’ve offered that to many clients who have actually taken me up on that offer. I say, look, we’ve had our initial consultation, the free 30 minute consultation. I’ve taken a look at your documents. I have a full understanding of what’s going on in your case. Bring a notepad.
Of course I can’t draft a legal memorandum for one hour session, but I have the client bring a notepad and we will sit there and I will just go over. All right. Here’s step one, here’s what you need to do. Here’s step two. Here’s how the process works. It could be anything from a divorce that involves no children and somebody might have a question over how does the process work with dividing the assets? Because you’d be surprised, a lot of folks who are self represented, they’ll file their petition in the family court to ask for divorce and they don’t realize if they need something like temporary spousal support, they need to file a motion with the court to ask for it.
I’ve been able to help even people who have very limited means on that one hour legal advice session really, really get a sense of direction. Some of the folks have turned into clients who have paid me for subsequent sessions, sometimes even for document prep. So one thing that I do a lot, a lot of things, or a lot of my cases involve child custody disputes. If somebody came to me and said, “Hey, I need to draft a motion to ask to change my custody and visitation …
Dave Aarons: or location.
Lee Vernon: Right. That’s something that I don’t typically do it for a completely set flat fee, but I know within a reasonable degree of certainty that just the bare bones filing the motion and drafting a declaration that needs to go with that motion to support it, on an easy case, probably start off with $1,000.
A lot of people, if they’re very serious about obtaining legal advice and representation will hire me just to draft their paperwork for that $1,000. Then I’ll offer the option of, “Hey, keep me posted on your court dates, because when somebody files motion, they’ll receive a couple of court dates. I’d love to work something out with you for further representation.”
Sometimes it’s just maybe another hour to help them prepare at my hourly rate. Or I’ve had many cases where the client hired me for that $1,000 range to help them with the paperwork. I can typically within reason, unless it’s a … there are crazy issues going on in the case, and we need to submit a lot of evidence. I can keep that paperwork too within the $1,000 range more often than not just to help them draft the paperwork. So sometimes that’s turned into the person hiring me and maybe paying me another 1,000 to go to their court hearing.
Dave Aarons: More like as a limited appearance.
Lee Vernon: Exactly.
Dave Aarons: The notice of limited appearance, which California has forms.
Lee Vernon: The notice of limited scope. Right. Exactly, and everybody is put on notice that I’m just the attorney of record for this child custody motion. I’ve even had cases where I’ve handled that type of case, and I’m the limited scope attorney for the issue of custody and visitation. But maybe because of the other parent asks for a longer hearing. Another hearing is scheduled. More often than not, those folks will retain me again to help with the subsequent hearing.
Dave Aarons: Right. Okay. So you’ve got the one hour, one or two, or whatever amount of hours you need, but like at the bare bones, like at least an hour you can sit down, I can walk you through these things.
Lee Vernon: Exactly.
Dave Aarons: Explain all the different steps and maybe take a look at what you have, give you some guidance on what needs to be done. That’s 250? 300? 200?
Lee Vernon: 275 is typically my standard hourly rate right now. I try to to find that-
Dave Aarons: To do that coaching as an hour by hour? Right?
Lee Vernon: Exactly.
Dave Aarons: So even if you’re on a $5,000 case, you’re still billing that 275 an hour, and it’s 100% receivable. That’s good. It’s money in the pocket the same hourly rate, and people can come in for a few hundred dollars and get the guidance they need to get to the next step.
Then they go, okay, well, and then you have the option to offer them the document preparation if you want to have you draft it up. That’s really around $1,000. If you look at the economics of that, do you have any kind of document automation? Do you have any staff member or anyone that helps you with the preparation?
Lee Vernon: I’m actually working on that right now. Funny enough, my law clerk has been my wife, she’s in her last year of law school. She’s kind of helping me set up some systems for … and because I started off as a solo practitioner, I have a passion for helping out other solo practitioners. So I’m going to be having law school interns assist me with some of the non attorney work. That also helps me keep the costs down to the client because if I’m not paying the intern, I’m not going to bill the client for that, because that would not be ethical.
If I’m doing work on the case, I bill for it. So it’s been a way to help me grow my practice, but at the same time help folks who maybe have a little more limited means keep more of their money in their pocket to go towards legal advice, right?
Dave Aarons: Appearances, yeah.
Lee Vernon: And, court appearances and things of that nature. So it’s been a wonderful model. To be honest that has been my business model, and I’m able to kind of give back to the law school that I went to, and law school students who are interested in starting their own firm. It’s been a great way to keep-
Dave Aarons: You’ll be able to mentor and coach them as they’re learning?
Lee Vernon: Right, exactly.
Dave Aarons: Is it volunteer on their case or is this something you could pay them hourly for?
Lee Vernon: I have a couple options like in the case with my wife, she was technically my extra. So in that regard it wasn’t ethical to charge because she was getting school credits. So we charge clients and bill them for that rate. But we do actually have a few interns who are law school students who we’re working out terms of payment. So that is another, another option that we have.
Dave Aarons: As an attorney you have to bill the amount that you’re paying those people to the client.
Lee Vernon: No.
Dave Aarons: As long as you’re paying them.
Lee Vernon: So the way that you typically write it into the contract. Every attorney has their own way of doing things, but you have an attorney hourly rate, and a law clerk hourly rate, which the law clerk hourly rate for paid law clerks is quite frankly, much more than the going wage for a law clerk because you’re really looking more at the full time minimum wage rate for a law clerk starting out.
But they’re trained, they have some experience in the legal system through their, their law school coursework and contacts That’s also a good way to help keep your clients’ costs down because let’s say you can’t send a law clerk to make a court appearance, but if it’s a financial disclosure document, you can have a law clerk prepare that, and as the attorney my, I have to do my due diligence and sign off on it.
Dave Aarons: Do you see an opportunity? I love the fact that you’re working on bringing in interns and and lower costs, people that might be able to help with some of the administrative work so you could potentially even bring the cost down or, for the appropriate candidate, offer something that might be a lower price.
Lee Vernon: Right. Especially-
Dave Aarons: Let’s say it’s $1,000, you just still can’t do that, or maybe they can do 500. Okay. So you could offload some of the doc prep work or something administrative work to an intern, and only need to put an hour or two of your own time to review it and get it prepared and that kind of thing. So you get offered that as a, that’s kind of a down step.
Lee Vernon: Right. Exactly.
Dave Aarons: Do you also see a possibility of having a higher effective hourly rate by still having a flat rate on that, and then having some staff or help with getting things done more efficiently? Or do you feel like it really still, for you personally, because all attorneys do this differently, has to tie into the time they’re putting in, has to add up to 275 an hour, whatever the hourly time is that goes into that flat rate.
Lee Vernon: I think it’s a little bit of both. I know that’s kind of a confusing answer.
Dave Aarons: Because the flat rate proposed presents the possibility that you could build efficiency and then benefit as an attorney by leveraging software, leveraging other people’s efforts and so forth, so that you’re spending less time but still delivering the same product, which obviously as far as the market’s concerned, the client’s happy to be able to have access to an attorney that would draft draft into their documents, their declaration for $1,000.
So we know that, that has a value in and of itself. The question is, does it have to take me 3.35 hours of attorney time to deliver that, which would be at 275 an hour, something like that? If it was possible once you have systems to do that in half the amount of time, like would you feel like you would have to lower the rate or would it be you would just be able to benefit from that increased efficiency for bringing in that flat rate more effectively?
Lee Vernon: Right, and that’s a good point Dave. I think realistically from a business standpoint, as long as you’re making a profit, it’s not that you want to reduce your hourly rate. But let’s say if I had several assistants doing that type of work and it pushed the the true attorney billable, so to speak down to 250, not 250, 200 an hour or 175 an hour, I wouldn’t be opposed to doing that because you’re looking at it from a, just a strict numbers perspective. Not what’s my hourly rate, but, I mean, if you think about it, if you could average $175 an hour a full work day for one employee, that’s pretty darn good money if you scale that.
So yeah, I would never say I’m going to make that $500 flat fee job that I could do in such an efficient manner using a well versed extern, or intern, or law clerk. I would never say, “Don’t do that.” That would be insane.
Dave Aarons: Well, yeah. Well, this gets at the opportunity that I think unbundled services presents. I’m really glad that we’re unpacking this because there’s so many clients that would love to have this type of service, right?
Lee Vernon: Right.
Dave Aarons: Because 90% of lawyers out there would just turn that client away as we discussed, right?
Lee Vernon: Right.
Dave Aarons: But there’s a very high volume of people that are offering these … that need these services at those price points. So you can get up a high volume, but it’s always been proceeded. That’s a low value, right? Like low profit, low revenue, right? But if you can look at it from the standpoint, I got a lot of these clients, but you can build efficiency into the model such that you can still get $1,000, but your own personal time, it might only be an hour, or maybe an hour and a half, or two hours.
Looked at it in a different way, your effective hourly rate minus what you pay out to your own employees or the people that help you might instead of being if it was four hours, that would be 275 an hour, three and a half hours, something like that. If your personal time, because you now have leverage, only took maybe an hour, hour or two, now your effective hourly rate of your own personal time just became four or $500 an hour.
Lee Vernon: Right. It could be more efficient.
Dave Aarons: On that same document, right?
Lee Vernon: Right.
Dave Aarons: So in a sense, you’ve got the high volume of clients, but now you’re actually potentially making more money for your time by just building efficiency into each unbundled service.
Lee Vernon: That’s a good point.
Dave Aarons: Yeah. So this is what, it freaks me out because it’s such a massive opportunity for attorneys to be able to help a lot of people and also increase the revenue and the income that they make for every hour in their day if they have some of these efficiencies and some of the support systems in place. They can offload some of that work and still do their due diligence to make sure that it’s done right, but have some of those things that are more … that someone else like a helper could effectively do.
Lee Vernon: Right.
Dave Aarons: Right. With some limited experience because those things are rote tasks, things that could just be done at the same time over and over again.
Lee Vernon: Right, exactly.
Dave Aarons: Have you explored or experimented with offering any form of document automation software, or using practice management tools or anything to start to streamline the actual capturing of the intake information, maybe offloading the intake to the client to fill out a questionnaire on their own and then having that implemented into software or anything?
Lee Vernon: Sure. So I haven’t gotten as far yet Dave as having automated systems for the client to fill out some of their intake information online. But I do use law practice management software. It’s called My Case, very similar to Cleo. I found that, that is a wonderful tool because I can set up payments, you can send invoices that way, clients can pay their first retainer.
Dave Aarons: With the click of a button. Yeah.
Lee Vernon: With the click of a button.
Dave Aarons: Most likely the screen on a smart phone.
Lee Vernon: Exactly. What’s wonderful about that particular system you can share documents so you can upload the retainer agreement, and it’s just, it’s forever there in the cloud. You don’t have to worry about somebody accidentally deleting an email or deleting a file on your computer’s hard drive or even I use a cloud based backup system.
But I have found that I could do better to be honest. Everyday is a learning opportunity. I learn more and more every day. So I would definitely like to move into more of a wholly electronic intake process in terms of once the client decides to retain me to say, “Hey, here, you’re just going to get an email and you’re going to be able to submit all your information via an online forum, and you’ll give me everything I need.”
Dave Aarons: Right. Yeah. Exactly.
Lee Vernon: That would be one component that I don’t yet have, but I have all the other pieces.
Dave Aarons: Do you see that as something that makes sense for you to start exploring? Like as far as, because yeah, as an entrepreneurial mind, this is what we talked about earlier was looking at your practice as a business first, and then as a lawyer second perhaps, and starting to look at how you can build systems of automation and streamlining. Yeah, because that’s one of the things about the leads is that it’s very consistent types of cases that you’re going to see over, and over, and over again. Specific types of custody case.
It lends itself well to building systems that can gradually become more and more refined and more and more streamlined. Right? So, I can just imagine that it would be something that, especially when you’re offering flat rates, they’re like these are the things that I get lit up about. It’s like wow, what if we could refine that process just a little bit more. I can either bring the rate down when necessary for the client, or I can really see a much better effective value rate as a result, and have a great deal sets financially helping these people.
Lee Vernon: Exactly. Yeah, I think that’s a good point because to the extent that, that would actually be a dream system or software for me to be able to say, okay, new client, you’re going to receive an email, and you’re going to receive a login. And, on top of the billing management software and the file management software to be able to say, hey, you’re going to fill out this form, because I actually do, I do this in a little bit of an old school way. I send it electronically, but I have a divorce checklist for new clients. It helps them if they fill out the checklist properly, it actually kind of prompts them to attach documentation that I need.
I found even early on in my practice before linking up with you guys that, that was a very efficient way of doing things because otherwise it would be calling the client constantly and saying, “Well, hey, you gave me your bank statements but you forgot your credit card statements and I need those.”
They have read. If I were to have a software program that I can fine tune to say, hey, these are the inputs that I need the client to give, that would be … I would be able to offer the type of service that we’ve just spoken about in terms of saying, okay, if I could have the staff to push down the price for it, let’s say somebody needed me to fill out a response to a petition for dissolution of marriage or divorce, that would be a wonderful service to be able to offer because quite frankly those forms are easy to fill out.
Even if mistakes are made on them, they can be amended. I help clients do that all the time. I could even possibly push that down to like $400. I mean, just thinking about it from, well, just probably on a scale-
Dave Aarons: Well, if you have that client in front of you that maybe can’t do the fine, you could do the … Like it gives you the option to be able to offer something to those that have less. It just, it allows you to help more people, right? Because you’ve built scale, and the people that can’t afford the 1,000, you can have more margin with. That gives you more room to provide more service in a more flexible manner from those folks, and it balances out, right?
So it can be profit, and it can also be room to make a difference. You’ll have enough of that contribution component. Well said, right?
Lee Vernon: Yeah. Right. Those folks would never be helped otherwise.
Dave Aarons: And, it gives you the room to be able to do that, yeah? I mean, this is really the part that I get most excited about, because it’s the promise of unbundling. Is everyone always … It seems to me that the only way to get out of this access to justice problem and to resolve it is we can’t volunteer our way out of this. You can’t have lawyers who are just going like volunteer to help the poor, because they have to run a practice too. They have to feed their family, they have to run a business, and making money.
If there’s a way that lawyers can work with those folks that are lower modest means or middle income and still make a great profit doing it, then all of a sudden it becomes attractive. So it really is, this is actually the exciting part about this is that lawyers can finally make a big difference, help a lot of people, and make a great, great income, like excellent income, perhaps even more than they would otherwise just doing the full representation when you factor in the account receivable, and the people that just don’t pay, and just also the liability of having a few cases versus having a lot of cases and that type of thing as well.
Lee Vernon: Right. Even piggybacking off of that point Dave, one thing, and I never would generalize clients, but sometimes clients who are more wealthy and have more money are more difficult to deal with. I would never just generalize everyone, but in my experience sometimes that has been problematic. I’ve found that some of the unbundled clients, because they’re so appreciative to have an attorney who’s willing to sit and talk to them, that they’re so much easier from an attorney standpoint to manage.
Dave Aarons: Yes, because they weren’t necessarily expecting that they’d be able to get that. So you are exceeding their expectations from moment one, not only by responding to them, obviously because you respond so quickly in real time like, “Wow, you’re going call me right back, and then you’re willing to work with me at any means. I mean, this is amazing. This is way more than anyone could have expected.” They’re humbled by that. They’re just appreciative of the fact that you’re giving them access to a system that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.
It’s exciting stuff, man. It really is.
Lee Vernon: Yeah, it really is.
Dave Aarons: Just so excited about the future as well. Some of the things that I can see coming online as far as software and systems that are supporting, and some of the practice management software starting to integrate this type of document automation, and building these systems out, and training this and sharing these ideas and implementing strategies just like yourself. It’s a constantly evolving process where you’re gradually improving it over time, and adding these new tweaks and so forth.
But it’s just going to … it’s amazing to think about what’s possible in one year, two years, three years from now, especially once we can all start sharing these ideas as a community and you get to meet all the other lawyers and see what their systems are using, what’s the technology that they’ve developed, one of the templates they have, and we can work together and actually share all the resources so that we can work together as a cooperative years of experience.
So we know no one has to reinvent the wheel. If people can get around like a unified concept like that, then I don’t know man, it feels to me like access to justice issues may soon a thing of the past.
Lee Vernon: I agree us.
Dave Aarons: I feel like there’s so many barriers.
Lee Vernon: Exactly, just get more attorneys on board and it’s really that simple.
Dave Aarons: That’s right. Well, this has been just an awesome opportunity to really unpack this. I appreciate just …
Lee Vernon: Yeah, thank you Dave.
Dave Aarons: … how you’ve just really broken things down. I think it’s really helpful for attorneys to really hear from someone that’s been doing it yourself, what it looks like, the types of options that can offer. I’m sure that we didn’t even get to cover some of the other things.
Maybe real briefly, do you want to talk about just about the full representation side where people might make the transition, and how you do that as a pay as you go, because it’s not just unbundled on the limited scope. There’s a lot of clients that are retaining you for full representation as well. You’re being effective to be able to manage that as well.
I mean, this is a misconception too that if you’re doing unbundled services that has it’s just unbundled. There’s a lot of lawyers that say, “Well, I only want to do unbundled. I don’t want to do court work.” But I think every single lawyer in our network that provides, works with sentimental attorney provides both services, unbundled and full representation, and the court litigation, and does it as full rep.
So can you talk just briefly about how the representations worked for you and how you might structure that with the clients for those that want that.
Lee Vernon: Sure. I mean, honestly from a logistic standpoint, it really just comes down to effective time management, and effective calendaring. I have really not noticed any inability to properly handle cases where I’m the attorney of record for full representation because I’m handling unbundled cases.
I mean, honestly your question is, you prompted the first time I’ve had to even think about that because it’s really effectively not an issue with me. I mean, it’s really not. Yes, I’ve had like we said before, I’ve had quite a few instances where unbundled clients turn into full blown clients because I’ve shown them, “Hey I, even though I’m only able to do this limited work, I’m going to do the best I can on that one piece.”
Dave Aarons: Yes. Then for those people that want the full representation, there’s also some things that you’ve been doing I think creatively around working with people’s budget, whether it’d be payment plans or on automating? Do you want to shed a little bit of a light?
Lee Vernon: Yeah. One thing that I’ve been able to do and it’s again, finding the happy mediums between being a good person, not being too greedy, but realizing this is a business. One thing that I can do with payment plans is I’ve had quite a few clients who let’s say they, they were able to give me several thousand dollar retainer to start, and maybe they had a custody issue that was hotly contested, and so we litigate that, and unfortunately, their retainer is pretty much drained. But their case is ongoing. But the other issues aren’t hotly contested.
It’s very well known in California, divorce takes forever, unfortunately, even under the best of circumstances. So for some of those clients, what I’ve been able to do is I very carefully draft my retainer agreement to protect myself from a business standpoint.
But I’ve been able to have people who will say, okay, hey, there’s the calm before the storm. We’re in the middle of it and nothing’s really going on in the case. You might have a status conference in San Diego, they’re called family resolution conferences, but case management conferences for a regular civil case, you’re only going in front of the judge to say what is or is not happening in the case.
You’re not going to be in court as an attorney for more than an hour and a half on that type of hearing. So in those cases where there’s not a lot going on, and the client’s already paid a sizable retainer, I’ll allow them to make payments to continue to build up their retainer.
Dave Aarons: Do you do that from the outside as well? Like it’s a kind of a monthly replenishment? So it’s not going down to zero and then racking up a big bill.
Lee Vernon: Correct.
Dave Aarons: It’s like you’re establishing a budget early on.
Lee Vernon: Correct.
Dave Aarons: So that it’s keeping pace with what you’re doing.
Lee Vernon: And, I’ve done that on a case by case basis, to answer your question, to where it’s like maybe the person can afford to pay me $500 a month or $400. I’m very careful that I’m not putting myself over-
Dave Aarons: Overstepping it.
Lee Vernon: Right, over more than maybe an hour outstanding billables. But I found that if a client has things going on, or their case is yet to be resolved, they’ll pay you. 99 out of 100 times they’ll pay you. Where you have to be careful is running up $1,000 invoice or a $2,000 invoice finishing a big matter for a client. You’re never going to get paid on that money.
So I’ve been able to find that happy medium. On a case by case basis, I do have to be careful and look at it and make sure, okay, hey does this person at least have $500 in their retainer account in case an emergency court hearing is scheduled?
Dave Aarons: Yes, and do they have regular income coming in? Because it’s finding that balance, because obviously if you have less time because they can pay something off, you have to be, maybe like draw a little bit stronger boundary as far as what you need to come up with, and what you can do, because you have to assume, well, they’re probably, if I finish this case and I have a big outstanding receivable, my chances to collecting on that are much … are quite low.
Lee Vernon: Are zero.
Dave Aarons: Zero, okay. Let’s just assume it’s zero. So you don’t want to be in that position, but it still gives you a lot of room that I think a lot of attorneys don’t take into consideration is like, hey like you don’t have to have all the money right now as long as they’re able to make payments over time as the case progresses, and that’s the pay as you go type of thing where they’re keeping that budget level.
Lee Vernon: That’s a perfect way to put it, the pay as you go statement, because what I oftentimes tell clients is all I ask is that you have enough money in the pot, in your trust account to cover my minimum anticipated work if I’m going to continue to help you out.
Dave Aarons: Yes.
Lee Vernon: I’ve been able to do that even in full blown representation cases.
Dave Aarons: Yeah. Have you seen, have you been able to be flexible on what the upfront will be when you’re doing full representation to some degree, or does it have to be at a certain point to make sure you’re floating the minimum?
Lee Vernon: To a certain degree I do have to be careful.
Dave Aarons: It just depends on-
Lee Vernon: In cases where there are no children, sometimes I can be a little more flexible on the initial retainer because I know, okay, if this person doesn’t have any pressing issues that require emergency court hearings or immediate motions.
Dave Aarons: Which is a lot of work upfront.
Lee Vernon: Right.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, because a lot of times it’s a lot of cases are front loaded, right?
Lee Vernon: Exactly. So if it’s not that type of issue, I can I can take much lower retainers even sometimes for full representation like 1,500 plus the court filing fees. A lot of attorneys won’t even offer that, but it’s I do have to be careful. It’s kind of on a case by case basis. You have to gauge the prospective client, how reasonable are they? But not to go into that arena too much.
Dave Aarons: Well, yeah, because if people can afford more than that, then they can go the full representation route. If they can’t, then this is where these unbundled options start to fit in where you can limit the scope of your involvement to limit the amount of time so you can suit that budget, and then do things as needed, as they can afford.
Lee Vernon: I’ve done that a lot in cases where I’ve switched back and forth. I offer that to clients when their budget starts to run out. I say look we do have to have this honest conversation. If your budget’s this tight, I really can’t continue to be your attorney of record for court hearings. But if you have a little bit of a budget, you could hire me to give you guidance every step of the way. But it’s so easy. It’s just I already have the contracts. I have the limited scope representation contract, the unbundled contract. I have the full representation contract doesn’t take me that long.
Dave Aarons: It’s probably-
Lee Vernon: [crosstalk 01:03:50].
Dave Aarons: It’s probably a little bit more common that that attorneys would go limited scope to full, but it could … it’s obviously could go back the other way too. If we’re running into a point where you’re providing more service than the client can afford on a monthly basis, then you might need to start limiting and the client might have to take on some of that, but you’re not leaving them alone to drown. They still have that guidance. They still have helped with to know what to do. They’re not being left alone, which is really the main challenge of the problem in the United States that people have no help. And, if they had a little bit of help, they have a much better shot at representing themselves effectively if you’re there to provide them the guidance they need to follow the process properly.
Lee Vernon: Yeah, and I’m still learning from trial and error, but that is a very effective service because why let that client go. They could still be a paying client. Not as much, but they could still be a good paying client.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, and you can really start to see how, like you said, within any budget, at the 250, 500,000, 1500, 2,000, you’ve got a suite of options. Then on a monthly basis as you’re working with them, is it falling low? Is it falling? Okay, we can adjust accordingly. We can drop down where I can limit my involvement. Then your involvement steps up so that we’re keeping it at a monthly.
If you’re making the payments, I can do full. I can do full, but if it goes too low then you can adjust. So it’s just for whatever someone’s at, there are services that can be provided.
Lee Vernon: Exactly.
Dave Aarons: That is what this country needs. I mean, that’s what anyone out there that is going without the help that they need, if these types of services are available to everyone in the United States, we probably wouldn’t have the issues that we’re having right now.
Lee Vernon: I agree.
Dave Aarons: We wouldn’t be so many parents that are going without rights to their kids, or visitation, or fair custody arrangement, just from simple lack of guidance and care.
Lee Vernon: Exactly. People wouldn’t have to wait as long.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, and legal aid could do the work they’re doing, and the judge wouldn’t be overwhelmed by source of litigants that are shuffling through boxes of receipts and clogging up the court system. I couldn’t be more optimistic about the future, especially working with attorneys like yourself that are innovating in this way, and applying this in their practice, and serving a ton of people that would otherwise be going completely unrepresentative results. So much great appreciation for all the work you’re doing.
Lee Vernon: Thanks man.
Dave Aarons: It’s a real privilege to work with attorneys like yourself that are committed to service and contribute in this way.
Lee Vernon: Thank you.
Dave Aarons: I couldn’t be happier about the fact that you’re benefiting financially, you’re building a really successful practice at the same time. When those two things can be combined, there’s no limit because it’s completely sustainable.
You’re doing well, you’re happy, you’re making good money, you’re building your practice and your clients are happy because they’re getting the help that they otherwise couldn’t. It just seems like a winning equation for the future.
Lee Vernon: Agreed.
Dave Aarons: Yeah. So with that, thanks again for everyone participating in this podcast and joining us in for this interview. We really appreciate the fact that you’re also applying these practices into your practices. We do see a very bright future in the legal system. It’s going to take some time to implement. It’s not a something that you can start doing straightaway. There’s some training, there’s some systems as, as Lee has shared, but these are the nuts and bolts. This is the things that you can learn and apply.
We’ve got lots of great podcasts just like this one, including with Lee, and some of the other attorneys that are outlining exactly how you can start to do this and do it very profitably and help a lot of people to same result at the same time. So I’m just really excited that we had an opportunity to have the sit down.
Lee Vernon: Likewise. Thanks.
Dave Aarons: I really enjoyed the view.
Lee Vernon: Good.
Dave Aarons: For all of you listening we’ll certainly see you all in the next episode. Please feel free to reach out to us. We want to hear your feedback. What did you learn from this episode? Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find us on Facebook by just searching Unbundled Attorney. On Twitter, @unbundledatty, Unbundled Attorney A-T-T-Y.
Send us a message. Send us a note, share any resources you have. This really is a community, and we appreciate your support, and participation. So for now, I’ll wrap things up, and we’ll see you next time.
For more information on how our exclusive unbundled leads can help you go to your practice, visit our website at https://www.unbundledattorney.com/. You can watch each new episode of the podcast on the Unbundled Attorney YouTube channel or if you prefer to listen, you can find us on iTunes or your favorite podcast app. Be sure to subscribe so you get each new episode as soon as it’s available and remember to leave us your view on iTunes. We read each and every one of them and really appreciate your support of the show. Once again, thanks for listening.
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Episode 54: Educating a New Generation of Solo Attorneys: The Exciting Future of Legal Incubators and a Practical Overview of the Business Model of Unbundling Legal Services
San Diego, CA attorney, Lee Vernon, is a product of a legal incubator provided by the Thomas Jefferson School of Law. The incubator provided mentoring from attorneys experienced in the practice of law, affordable office space, and the opportunity to collaborate with other attorneys. In addition, Lee was exposed to the concept of unbundled legal services and how it is used to help individuals unable to afford traditional retainer fees. Once Lee launched his solo practice and started working with Unbundled Attorney, he developed a complete business model built around delivering both full representation and unbundled legal services to his clients. Today Lee joins the show to explain why he made the decision to offer unbundled services. He gives an overview of the unbundled service options he provides, the price points for each, as well as the systems and processes he has developed to deliver them efficiently and profitably. Lee also discusses some of the major misconceptions about unbundled services, and why unbundling can positively impact the access to justice problem as these misconceptions are debunked and more lawyers across the country begin offering these service options in their practice.
To read a complete transcript of this interview, click here
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- What legal incubators are, and some of the ways they educate new attorneys and empower them to start their own practice right out of law school
- Common misconceptions about unbundled services that prevent more lawyers from offering these service options in their practice
- How working as a contract lawyer for another firm provides valuable experience to new attorneys
- How law schools can play a vital role in educating attorneys about unbundled services, and the positive impact this could have on access to justice
- How Lee handles the initial consultation, including how much time he spends on those calls, as well as valuable lessons he has learned over the past year calling his Unbundled leads
- Important considerations for deciding whether you should enroll clients over the phone or have them come into your office
- How unbundled services puts both the client and the attorney in control of how much legal services will be deliver
- How providing unbundled services has completely eliminated Lee’s accounts receivables
- The advantages of delivering unbundled services as a flat rate on a task by task basis, and how this can improve your overall profitability
- The value of being able to tell your clients “we can work with almost any budget”
- How to effectively provide hour-by-hour coaching, and why this can be a great starting option to offer your clients
- The processes Lee follows to offer limited appearances, including the form you can use in certain states to notify the court of your limited scope representation
- Why Lee uses practice management software, and how it has positively impacted his practice
- Practical tips for offering payment plans to clients for full representation, including how to find the balance between helping as many people as possible while still maintaining a highly profitable practice
- How to transition from providing full representation to limited scope services when clients can no longer afford to pay for full service
- And much more...
Resources Mentioned in This Episode
- Unbundled Attorney YouTube Channel
- ABA Legal Incubator Directory
- Center for Solo Practitioners - Thomas Jefferson Law School Legal Incubator Program
- Google Duo Video Calling App
If you enjoy this podcast, please head over to iTunes, subscribe to the show, and leave us a review. We love hearing from our listeners and look forward to reading your feedback!
For more information about Unbundled Attorney and how our exclusive, unbundled leads can help grow your practice, visit: https://www.unbundledattorney.com