Lessons from 50 years of Practicing Law: Empathetic Listening, Limited Scope, and the Disrupted Legal Market
I am thrilled to be presenting this episode. We are going to be interviewing Richard A. Shannon, who is one of our provider attorneys out of Austin, Texas. Mr. Shannon has been a practicing attorney for over 50 years, so over half a century. We’ve had a lot of newer attorneys, brand-new solos, attorneys making transitions in their practice in the most recent episodes, but happy to have a veteran-experienced attorney practicing family law for over 20 years on the show today, talking about limited scope representation.
Then he has a really unique and very broad perspective of the legal marketplace, and how the shrinking of our middle class and the income inequality has affected the practice of law, and what lawyers have to do nowadays in order to thrive in this marketplace. He had been offering limited scope representation and limited scope options before we had ever gotten in touch with him. He makes some recommendations to some books and resources, and all kinds of different strategies that you can look into to learn more about the changes in the marketplace, as far as the shrinking middle class, increases in pro se filings, increases in the number of attorneys graduating these days, and the amount of competition there is, and the adaptations he’s had to make and many lawyers are making, along with those on this podcast in our network to continue to thrive and serve clients in this new market.
He goes into the types of options he offers, the consultation approach he takes. He spends a lot more time than some other lawyers do on that first call, and goes through and really talks about empathetic listening, and the types of questions he asks, and how he shows compassion, making sure that clients feel heard, understood, and also, qualifies him financially and asks a series of questions there. Talks about how he uses the script, so there’s a lot of practical strategies here as well, as well as a big-picture perspective from attorneys that have been practicing for years and years and years, and has as very unique and broad perspective on the marketplace these days, and what he can do to thrive within it. With that, let’s get right into this episode, this interview with Richard A. Shannon, one of our provider attorneys out of Austin, Texas.
Dave Aarons: All right, Richard, welcome to the show.
Richard A. Shannon: Thank you, Dave, I’m happy to share.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, absolutely, I’m surely excited to get a chance to jump online with you. We’ve been working together for some time now, and you’ve certainly got many years of experience under your belt, well before we had a chance to work together. I’m looking forward to getting to know you better, getting learn a little bit more about how well things have been going, the strategies you developed to achieve such good results, and overall, just have a good chat about what’s working well for you. Thanks for taking the time today.
Richard A. Shannon: You’re welcome.
Dave Aarons: Right, so maybe a good place to start is to maybe just give a little bit of background on maybe how you got your start in the practice of law, what the focus of your practice is nowadays, and the reason you serve.
Richard A. Shannon: All right, I’d be happy to do that. I’m in Austin, Texas, I grew up, I was born and reared in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, south Texas. Brownsville’s the county seat. I went to the University of Texas, studied liberal arts, for which I’m very grateful, gave me kind of a love for lifelong learning, and then I went to the University of Texas School of Law. When I graduated, I went to the Attorney General’s office, worked as an Assistant Attorney General, actually condemning land for interstate highways. Then I moved to the Department of Insurance, worked as a lawyer there, then worked as a bureaucrat.
I left the Department of Insurance when the private practice … I had to practice mostly regulatory law, and transactions law, dealing with insurance companies and agencies. Did that, that was a successful practice, kind of a boutique practice, but I got bored with it. Got out into some business ventures. One of them had to do with relationship marketing. In relationship marketing, I learned a great deal about human relations and the human relations aspect of law practice. Of course, in law school, at least at the University of Texas when I was going through school, we didn’t have many offerings in clinical experience for how to hang out your shingle and practice law. I mean, the expectation was that the law graduates would join either a big, medium-sized, or small law firm, and be mentored by lawyers that had experience, despite the fact that we now know that 50% or more of all lawyers graduating are going out solo and hanging their own shingle.
After I got back into law, and I did that. I re-entered law through studying conflict resolution and mediation and got very interested in that, and that led me to family law practice. I’ve been doing family law practice almost exclusively now for over 20 years.
Dave Aarons: Okay, great. I think, gosh, it’s been probably about six months or so, we’ve been working together so far?
Richard A. Shannon: Something like that. I [crosstalk 00:05:47]
Dave Aarons: Maybe three, four months, something like that.
Richard A. Shannon: Yeah. I was offering limited scope, or unbundled legal services prior to working with Unbundled Attorney, but I’ve been very pleased with the leave program offered by your firm, and it’s worked really well for me.
Dave Aarons: Great. Maybe you could give a bit of context. You mentioned a couple of things, conflict resolution, mediation, some other things I really want to dive into, because I’m sure that informs the way in which you work with clients, any types of options you offer, and how you resolve some of these conflicts in a way that could be more amicable, and more cost-effective for both parties. But can you give a little bit of context on what has happened since these last three months, anything you can recall that either is how many clients you’ve been able to convert, or haven’t worked well for your firm, and then we can dive into how you were able to achieve such results?
Richard A. Shannon: Yeah. Well, Scott Graham, one of your associates who contacted me, and was a person that helped me get established with Unbundled Attorney, has been very helpful in guiding me through learning from other people’s experience, so that I can make this program work well. I really appreciate the kind of hands-on support that I’ve received. One of the things that I got, which I really liked, was a script that had been developed over time, which, I think, framed the initial interview with the clients in a way that helped it be very efficient. Anyway, I found that script to be very helpful in guiding the interview with a client after I got the lead. Of course, we’re encouraged to contact them by phone, email, and text, because those are the modes that are people are using today, and that’s very effective.
But I’m pretty successful getting what I want to get people on the phone. In fact, some of the times, the leads will call me before I get a chance to call them. When they do call, I like to follow the script pretty well, pretty closely. That helps both the client and myself figure out, “Well, are they a match, or unbundled legal services? Or are they just kicking tires, or are they really a candidate for full-scope legal services?” I spend generally, and I know some people may be more time-efficient, but I do really spend maybe 20, 25, 30 minutes, not with everyone, but with a lot of them, to figure out really what they are looking for, are they serious?, and then, of course, the obvious question: Do they have resources to work with? Because the services are not free. Once we get down to the point of figuring out they do or don’t have resources or can schedule an appointment.
I would say for those that qualify for an appointment is somewhere probably over 50%, 60%. Then once we get an appointment, I would say for those people who come in and have an appointment, my conversion rate is, I would say, rather high, about 80%.
Dave Aarons: Right. About half of the clients. About how many do you speak-
Richard A. Shannon: Fifty to sixty percent go to an office meeting. Of the people that come into the office, I would say 80% or more become clients.
Dave Aarons: Right, so you’re looking at maybe three, four clients out of ten, retaining them, which is fantastic. It’s outstanding. That’s almost about one out of three, so it’s really great and it’s a good testament to how these last three months have gone given that you’re serving a pretty large region of Austin. We’re sending you a lot of clients, so things have gone pretty well. You brought up a number of things, though, I’d love to dive into and that is that your initial consultation and attorneys take a wide range of approaches to doing the initial consultation over the phone. Some of them do it as a quick touch-base to have them come right in the office because they want to meet with them right away. Others will take 10, 15 minutes, and then others like yourself will take a little bit more extended time to really have that first phone call be a lot more valuable to dive into their situation, understand what they’re looking for help with, and, as you coined it, kind of qualify that person as to whether they are a good candidate to take that next step.
Richard A. Shannon: Right.
Dave Aarons: Could you talk a little bit more about how the script has helped you, what aspects of it have been most helpful to you, and also what it is that you do in that first phone consultation to qualify or not qualify and what that criteria looks like and the types of questions you may ask to determine that?
Richard A. Shannon: Yeah. Well, I really follow the sequence of the script pretty closely because I think that script has, built into it, a lot of qualifiers and it’s free a two-way conversation. It’s finding out not only what the client needs, but also, from my standpoint, am I going to be able to help them? It’s also part of building a relationship. People want to have somebody, feel that somebody is hearing and understanding what it is they’re concerned about, why they have a lawsuit in their life. In that short period of time, I try to establish, through empathetic listening, begin to build trust, because trust is at the heart of a good attorney-client relationship. It’s a two-sided thing really because I want to know what they need in the way of legal services, begin to establish that trust relationship.
I also want to know if it’s going to be a good use of my time and expense to meet with them in the office. Now, I have a virtual office arrangement, so my production facilities are not at the place where I meet clients. I think more and more attorneys are beginning to do this. I don’t want to spend the money for a meeting space if they’re not a good candidate. On the other hand, I don’t want them to waste their time coming into the office. Sometimes people, and I understand this, sometimes they just kind of are confused and dazed and they want just a little bit of information. Frankly, if they’re just a little confused and dazed, I’m happy to spend a little bit of time with them if that’s all they get, even if they turn out not to be a good candidate-
Dave Aarons: Right.
Richard A. Shannon: For a variety of reasons. I understand there’s an attitude out there, some attorneys have it, I can understand it. They want to have a greater kind of detachment, a professional detachment. They want a little more rigid structure to the relationship and they want to get an upfront fee of $300 to $500 to come in the office. You don’t get to … they call the office. They get a legal assistant. He gets a little bit of information and then if you want to see Mr. XYZ, you need to pay X number of dollars and come visit the Great Poobah and gain from his wisdom. But that can be a little bit off-putting to people and it may not be intended that way, but it can come across as being a little … somewhat of professional arrogance and I think people, they want a professional they can feel is competent, but they also, even more importantly, want somebody who’s going to be a good communicator and a good listener.
Dave Aarons: Right. Exactly.
Richard A. Shannon: In fact, some people that speak, I have a little chart somewhere that … what lawyers think clients want and what clients want from lawyers are not the same.
Dave Aarons: Right.
Richard A. Shannon: They’re kind of upside-down. Lawyers think they want competence. Clients want a lawyer who’s going to be readily available. They have good contact and they have good communication and they have good listening.
Dave Aarons: That’s really interesting and that’s something that we’ve certainly as a pattern across all the podcast episodes and, of course, all of our networks, is so many of the attorneys, in fact, the vast majority with actually few exceptions of the attorneys we work with make those initial calls themselves. Sometimes, you’re not always available because you’re in court or you’re doing other things, so you’ve got to schedule around that and make that work. I mean, not everyone can respond to leads immediately, but I think, for the most part, and maybe you can your experience, but clients are really happy to hear, when they get that call, that it’s the attorney.
Richard A. Shannon: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Dave Aarons: That you’re going to take the time, listen to them, and get to know what’s going on with their problem.
Richard A. Shannon: Absolutely. I fully agree with that. I believe there’s that little survey, “What clients want.” What clients want? Lawyers think they want competence, communication, accessibility, accountability, collaboration, respect, and courtesy, but the survey says clients want collaboration, accessibility, communicator, accountability, respect, and courtesy, and competence is at the bottom of the list. I’ll send you this. You’d like this.
Dave Aarons: Okay. Yeah, I would love to see it. Maybe we could put it in the show now as a perfect example. This is kind of what we’re talking about, so taking the time to listen, really understand what it is they’re going. You talked about empathetic listening. Can you share a little bit about what that looks like in practice for those that aren’t familiar with that term and that concept?
Richard A. Shannon: Sure.
Dave Aarons: Just so we can maybe pull out some ideas to that.
Richard A. Shannon: Absolutely. Empathy is not the same thing as sympathy. Sympathy is, “Oh, I know how you feel. I felt the same way and gosh, isn’t that awful?” That’s giving sympathy. Empathy, on the other hand, is listening actively and then feeding back to somebody, you’re saying, “Listen. I hear you and I understand you.” Now, that doesn’t mean that I have the same emotional response that you have to the experience, but I understand what your emotion is and I understand why you’re having that response. Now, if you have empathy, you can then move to the next step, which is kind of a spiritual step, and that is compassion. Compassion is where you’re out of your own ego enough that you can understand their suffering and you can take actions and help them take actions to remove suffering from their life. People who are in litigation are suffering at the human level and we, if we want to be servers of mankind, we need to help relieve their suffering.
Dave Aarons: Absolutely, and especially within family law. There are so many emotions going on. There’s so much uncertainty. There’s so much on the line that there’s a lot of that.
Richard A. Shannon: When we get around to talking about my nonprofit, I did some research and I found an amazing quote from none other than United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger. In the early ’80s, while he was Chief Justice, he said that “Our profession,” mean the law, judicial profession, “is about healing human conflict.” Now, I daresay that most people who come out of law school, as well as the public, do not think of lawyers as healers, but I think that’s a great frame of reference for us to have about our profession.
Dave Aarons: And if you’re coming at it from that perspective, there are so many more layers to the relationship and even the professional relationship when you think of yourself. Instantly, when you think of yourself as a healer, that’s someone that’s soothing someone, making them feel comfortable, making them feel better, listening to them and somewhat understanding them, in addition to being a competent provider of services in the traditional legal sense.
Richard A. Shannon: Absolutely.
Dave Aarons: But instantly, when you start to look at it through that frame, you can start to imagine how that would change the dynamic.
Richard A. Shannon: Yeah. Of course, we lawyers, we’re trained, we’re hired to provide legal services, but especially in the family law area, it’s so much about relationship because the entire reason these people are in court is because important, fundamental, primary relationships in their life have become dysfunctional, painful, and are causing them suffering in some way. They’re entangled in it and they don’t know how to get rid of it. In my view, and I don’t have formal training, but I’ve done a lot of work too, I think, make myself effective as kind of a life coach in addition to being a law practitioner.
You’ve got to be careful with that because I’m certainly not a psychologist, not trying to give psychotherapeutic services. If they need that, we need to refer them, but I think that the counselor … my law license says I’m an attorney at law, attorney, and counselor at law. Well, what’s the “counselor” role? I think part of the counselor role in family law is not only are you know the law on the books and you know the law in action, but you know a lot about relationships and you can give people some guidance with respect to their relationship issues, counseling about it. I call it coaching.
Dave Aarons: Right. Exactly. Can we try to translate that practically into some of the things that you’ll do on the call, aside maybe from the very beginning when you first chat with them? You ask them what’s going on with their situation. You listen to their problem. You’re asking questions. You’re asking what they want to see happen, then you get into the qualifiers. Can you talk a little bit more about how that perspective and that approach and that intention threads itself into the call as far as the steps that you follow on that initial call to identify their needs, what they need help with, make sure they’re clear, and then qualify them, and then convey the services you can offer them?
Richard A. Shannon: Yeah. Well, of course, each one of these calls is a little bit unique, depending on their situation, just like our conversation is. I try to make it conversational. I don’t want them to feel like I’m following some rigid script, but I will explain things as we go along if I feel they have an understanding. Oftentimes, they don’t know what “unbundled” or “limited scope” means. I have a little way to explain that. I’ll tell them, “It’s sort of like going into a restaurant that has a big buffet and you can pay one price and get the buffet all-you-eat, or you can order a la carte, so ‘unbundled’ is a la carte.” Other things that come up, I’ll try to give them little explanations.
I’ll try to, if I’m using legal terms, say, “This is kind of a fancy word lawyers use, and this is what it means for people who are not trained as lawyers,” so I’m a little bit of kind of a professorial tone, I guess you might say, but not trying to be condescending and just being a little bit educational. They seem to appreciate that. Then by the end of it, we’ll figure out, “Well, it’d be a good idea to come in and have a meeting.” I had one guy call me, I mean I’ve had more than one people say, “You’re the guy I need,” after this conversation gets underway. They’re beginning to feel the value of the relationship.
Dave Aarons: And the quality of your compassion, caring for what their situation is, they may want us to take a listen, be real with them, that’s all come out at that point.
Richard A. Shannon: Well, then we get in the office and I learn more in-depth and I have a better opportunity to demonstrate my level of knowledge about the law in the books and the law in action, that demonstrates competence and experience.
Dave Aarons: Right. Let’s say you’ve gotten the call and you’ve done your best to be empathetic and have some capacity for the situation, make them feel really heard and understood. You mentioned that you have kind of qualifying criteria. Obviously, there’s going to be some case qualifications. “You can’t move forward because you have to wait this amount of period” or maybe you don’t have a pathway, so there’s that, of course, then there’s also financial. What is that qualifying criterion for you, and how do you determine if someone is qualified or not? What is the basis for that, and is it strictly financial, or is it the case, and what are the types of questions you may ask to figure out is this someone I want to go ahead and take the next step and meet with?
Richard A. Shannon: Yeah. Well, kind of several levels. One, I kind of have a sense of what is the competence level of the person I’m talking with. How much can they take on? I tell them, I say, “This unbundled thing is you ask the attorney to do some things, and then you, the client, have got to do other things, and I have to determine, you and I together have to assert and determine how much you can take on and handle with confidence, and what you want me to do. Then how much you want me to take on is going to be related to how much money you’ve got to work with. Then that gets us into how much money you have to work with.”
Frankly, I’ve got so much business since I’ve been working with “Unbundled Attorney,” that I’ve had to expand my capacity and I’ve had to slow down on taking cases, so I could build up capacity and catch up. I’ve recently had someone who says, “Well, I’ve got this and this going on and you’re saying you need something by this date. I don’t think I can get it done, so I think you probably ought to call somebody else who’s got greater availability.” I’ll let them know if I can’t give them prompt service.
Dave Aarons: Right, if someone’s got to respond to something within a few days or something like that, and you may not be in a position to do it.
Richard A. Shannon: Sure. Yeah, I’m not going to … I try to shoot straight with them. Well, I do shoot straight with them and let them know. Anyway, then we talk about the money and I say, “Well, fine. Why don’t you come in and let’s see what we can do? We’ll get something started.” Then we set the appointment. They come in and oftentimes, that’ll lead to the limited scope and I have the limited scope agreement. It lays out the whole long list of things that can be unbundled, a la carte, and, “How much of this do you want me to do?”
Dave Aarons: Right. If we could, I kind of find there’s a lot of value in the details, the actual specifics of what’s said, because attorneys are always on the phone. They’re trying to determine the same things, but there’s always little things, like that analogy you gave of if you think about unbundling the service kind of like when you go to a buffet and you can just pay one fee and get the whole service or you can just buy something a la carte. That’s a nice analogy. That’s a useful analogy that an attorney could use.
What are some of the questions that when you kind of start talking about you’ve got to understand what their situation is? You’re starting to talk about unbundled versus full representation. You’re starting to talk about the various ways you can work with them. How do you explain the different options you offer? How do you ask them, “Okay, where are you at financially? Are you working? What can you afford?” Do you ask them point-blank, “What do you have available?” Or do you ask them “Which option sounds best to you and can you fit that in your budget?” I mean, how do you flesh that out?
Richard A. Shannon: Well, I typically say something like, “Have you thought about” … I go through the part about-
Dave Aarons: “Spoken to any attorneys about this yet?”
Richard A. Shannon: Yeah. What do they understand about the cost of legal services in the marketplace, and I want to find out first what they are thinking legal services cost. Some people have very unrealistic ideas. Sometimes, they’re unrealistic or too high. Sometimes, it’s too low, and so the first thing to do is to kind of learn how … get on the same page with the expectation about the cost for services. Then I’ll ask them, “Well, what kind of budget do you have to work with?” or “How much did you plan to spend on this? I can do several different levels of service based on how much money you got to work with.” I mean, that’s just-
Dave Aarons: That’s right off the script too. I mean, it’s just-
Richard A. Shannon: The fallacy of it and they tell me, “Well, I only have $500, but I can come up with $1,000 a month from now.” I said, “Look. Well, we could get started with $500 and we could do this.” Then I kind of guide them as to what we could do and I’ve had several of them say, “Well, I’m going to call you back,” and then they get some money together. They call back and they say, “I got my money together now. Let’s get started.”
Dave Aarons: Right. Maybe we could talk about some of the options that you do offer for someone that, obviously you’ve got your full representation and you’ve got your retainer fee for that, whatever that may be. Then you’ve got folks that maybe don’t have that available right out front, so could you maybe give a snapshot overview of the types of different options you offer-
Richard A. Shannon: Surely. Surely.
Dave Aarons: For someone that maybe doesn’t have the ability to pay the full amount immediately, upfront?
Richard A. Shannon: Well, kind of the rock bottom is just coaching, maybe over the phone. I’ll quote them a fee for just giving them guidance. Look, there are a lot of forms that are available in Texas and people can go and a lot of people actually come in the office and they already have those forms, and they’ve already used them and they’ve already got their own case started, but they realize the complexity is more than they expected and because of that, they need the help of a professional. If they have a little bit more money, I can say, “Well, I could help you prepare some documents that maybe are a little bit too technical for you.”
If they’ve got more money in addition to assisting with document preparation, I can actually draft some more complicated documents or get into the more limited scope where I’m not only giving them coaching and assisting, or actually drafting the documents but developing strategies and maybe even going in. In Travis County, the local rules allow us to make a limited scope appearance, so we can file a notice of limited scope appearance and go in for just one hearing. They’re not here for the full case, which is really nice. I may say, “Okay. I can represent you in this one hearing because you only have enough for one hearing.”
Dave Aarons: Right.
Richard A. Shannon: If they’ve got still more money, I say, “Fine, well I’m available, then, to do more than that.” Then, after we work, sometimes we’ll get started on a limited scope and convert to full-scope because they realize. They’re going through a learning curve of what it’s like to handle a law case and they’re beginning to see and appreciate that, “Yeah. I need professional service and it’s worth what it takes and yeah, I need you to handle the whole thing.”
Dave Aarons: Right.
Richard A. Shannon: I had one guy and he’s a really bright guy. I mean, this guy is in high-tech. He works for a couple of big high-tech companies and he’s got a pretty good income. He’s got an excellent income, as a matter of fact, but he got started out using a popular website that provided forms. He quickly realized that he wasn’t going to get very far because he kind of have a difficult spouse to work with, and so it was not going to be amicable and he realized that. I started out just coaching him, and then finally, we went to full-scope. He gave me, it’s posted on the website, he said, “I started out with these legal forms and I realized he had a clever way to do it.” Actually, I’ll go ahead and use the name. He said, “I was using Legal Zoom, Legal Doom.” Then he realized that he needed a lot more than just how to fill out a form.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, I can see the review right here. “My divorce was long because I initially attempted the Legal Zoom, aka Legal Doom, route. Richard A. Shannon knew I needed to save some money. After discussing my situation, I opted his limited scope representation. It gave me the option to do as much paperwork as I wanted in order to save on expenses. When it became clear my ex-wife would not cooperate in any reasonable manner, I was forced to have Richard provide full representation.”
Richard A. Shannon: There you go.
Dave Aarons: Then he goes on to, obviously, give you glowing reviews on the services you provided, but it’s true.
Richard A. Shannon: Yeah. I have a very good relationship with that client.
Dave Aarons: What you find is it sounds like you kind of meet people with where they’re at what they believe they need help with to start with and let them come to their own knowledge of what it’s going to be experientially. “Wow, one step at a time,” as opposed to trying to sell them from day one, “Well, you’re going to really need full representation.” I think in a way, they’re going to figure that out on their own eventually, either way.
Richard A. Shannon: It’s better. It’s much better for them to figure it out and say, “Oh, I need you,” rather than feeling like, “You’re trying to sell me.”
Dave Aarons: Yeah, exactly, and once they realize it for themselves, then they are opting in, as opposed to you trying to convince them against their will of something that they haven’t come to know themselves, on their own accord.
Richard A. Shannon: Or they’re going to have resentment. Their likely to have residual resentment. You may be right, and you sold them, and they finally ponied up the money because they think, “Oh, I got to. Maybe I don’t have any other choice,” as opposed to, “Oh, I see what it’s like. I really need this person.”
Dave Aarons: Yeah, and then be grateful that you’re then taking over and taking care of all the stuff that they had to deal with themselves.
Richard A. Shannon: Yeah, and then they don’t feel so resentful about paying the fees.
Dave Aarons: Not to mention the fact that when you offer these unbundled options, they’re lower cost. It’s a lower barrier to entry, and so you get a chance to start delivering service to these folks and offer options that maybe it would have been a tougher sell if you had to sell more service to start.
Richard A. Shannon: Well, look. Some people report to me that they’ve been in the marketplace and they go and they have a custody case. They say, “Hey, I’m getting quotes of, ‘Okay, you ought to come in with $5,000. You got to come in with $10,000.'” I remember one case where they said, “Custody case, $25,000.”
Dave Aarons: Wow.
Richard A. Shannon: That’s just such … Well, first of all, people don’t have the money, so now they feel, “Oh my God. I know I need a lawyer, but I’m totally priced out. I feel helpless. I’m powerless.” They feel terrible because they got this demand for something that’s way beyond their means, and they won’t talk to them. They’re getting this from some legal assistant, and so if they come around through this route, they feel, “Oh my God. What a different experience. Totally different experience. Now, I got the lawyer on the line. He’s not charging me for the front-end conversation. He’s listening to what I have to say. He understands. He’s willing to start out with the little bit of money I got. I’m going to get some help. I don’t know how this is going to work out, but at least I’ve got somebody to hold my hand and listen to me.”
Dave Aarons: Right. Like you said before, it really just makes people feel heard, understood, and cared about. That’s what they need as far as that confidence to pull that trigger and then, not to mention the fact … you take that component. That’s like, “Wow, I actually got to talk to the lawyer and he spent 25 minutes and he was listening to me. Oh, my goodness.” Relative to everything else that’s going on, that’s good. Then, not only are you not asking for $5,000 at that point, which they’d surely be more willing to come up with the money at that point but now you’re saying, “Well, look. Why don’t we just start with your documents? Why don’t we start with step one? Five hundred dollars,” or whatever it may be.
Richard A. Shannon: Exactly. By the way, and we do it the way, they get a lot more creative about how they can raise money. They start thinking, “Oh, I could do this. I could do that,” and they’re more willing to do those things.
Dave Aarons: Right, but when they see a target that’s so far out of base … because the reality is the case is going to take … some cases just take that much money before it’s all said and done. I was just having a conversation with a lawyer earlier, but ultimately, it’s like trying to drive across the United States. If you’re trying to look at all the time it’s going to take and, “Then I got to go here and then I get in my car and I’ve got to drive across the state. Then we got to stop. Then we got to stay.” If you just look at what the next thing is in front of you, you can deal with it kind of one bite at a time.
Richard A. Shannon: Absolutely. That’s absolutely right. Besides, if they hear a big quote way beyond their means, they just kind of … hope goes out the window and despair sets in. That is not a good place to be, so you want to keep hope alive.
Dave Aarons: Absolutely. By offering that, even as a starting point, it gives them an opportunity to get to know you. You get to deliver some service.
Richard A. Shannon: Right.
Dave Aarons: They’re feeling comfortable and then-
Richard A. Shannon: Right.
Dave Aarons: Once they get to the point where they’re realizing that it’s going to be a little bit more complicated than maybe they thought, of course, at that point, you have a great relationship with them. Who else are they going to hire but the person that helped them with their documents and got them started?
Richard A. Shannon: Absolutely. You create loyalty.
Dave Aarons: Right. Exactly. And it’s interesting to-
Richard A. Shannon: So-
Dave Aarons: Go ahead.
Richard A. Shannon: Go ahead.
Dave Aarons: Nope. It’s okay.
Richard A. Shannon: I was just going to … because we’ve talked about … Before I got involved with Unbundled Attorney, I actually acquired the American Bar Association Law Practice Management Section has published a book on limited scope legal services. Stephanie Kimbro is the author and she talks about the disruption in the legal marketplace from things that are happening. Your attorneys might want to take a look at that book.
Dave Aarons: It’s called “Limited Legal Services” by the American Bar Association?
Richard A. Shannon: Yeah. The title is “Limited Scope Legal Services: Unbundling and the Self-Help Client.” The author is Stephanie L. Kimbro. K-I-M-B-R-O.
Dave Aarons: Oh, yeah. She’s definitely a pioneer in this industry as far as offering these options, for sure.
Richard A. Shannon: Her book is published the American Bar Association. She talks about the disruptors and how the legal profession needs to respond. Of course, you respond one attorney at a time. It doesn’t need to be the whole profession, but if we’re going to be servers of the public, we need to take the public where they are and begin to meet their needs in the current, modern marketplace and I think that’s part of what Unbundled is doing, but there’s something that’s bigger here. That’s what I’d like to get into, and that is the nature of family law practice itself and the court system because attorneys are given a role in the current system. Our role is to be an advocate for our client. Now, that word “advocate” has meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
It used to be in the Canons of Ethics in Texas that you were supposed to be a zealous advocate. Well, what is a zealot, and is that really helping families, to be a zealot? They took that word out, so now we’re just to be advocates, but what does that mean? The overarching principle and an overarching policy for family law courts is to serve the best interest of the children and even when children aren’t involved, I think the best interest of the family. The question comes up: What about the adversarial system itself? Does the adversarial system that we have actually do harm? Does it to harm? I formed the conclusion that it does, that the adversarial litigation system, by its very nature, does harm to the litigants. It is, I think, inefficient and very costly with very uncertain results.
I formed this opinion some time ago, that the adversarial system itself does harm to families and children, so I set up a nonprofit. It’s called “Enlightened Family Justice Institute.” I pulled together an interdisciplinary board and sort of operating like that think tank to come up with strategies and options for how to introduce innovations in family courts and innovations that would lead us to something that is more therapeutic and collaborative, and not adversarial. The idea and the vision are that courts would continue to resolve legal issues because that’s what they’re supposed to go through due process, but they would also facilitate or help the healing of human conflict. Well, that’s a new paradigm, a new add-on. Now, there are quite a few people out there, it turns out, who think that the way the court systems work today are broken and are not helpful to families, but a lot of people don’t know exactly what to do about it.
We think we have some answers and very recently, I got the attention of the Texas Supreme Court’s Office of Court Administration and some top professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. The three of us, or three organizations, are going to host a convening of stakeholders from around the state in late January of 2017 and the purpose of the conversation is going to be around the lines of this: Should the courts follow the “ethic first do no harm”? Doing no harm in-
Dave Aarons: That’s the creed of the doctor too, right?
Richard A. Shannon: Yeah, exactly. That’s the prime bio-ethic. That’s ancient for physicians. The idea of first do no harm, the legal phrase we have is “for non-malfeasance.” Malfeasance is doing harm to others. Should the courts apply the concept of non-malfeasance to themselves? Now, obviously, I think they should. I don’t know. We’re going to get together stakeholders, lawyers, judges, mental health professionals, all kinds of people, professionals that have something to do, in one way or another, with how the family law court system works and have a big, facilitated dialogue and see what comes out of it. It’s going to be interesting.
Dave Aarons: That’s exciting.
Richard A. Shannon: I’ll keep you posted.
Dave Aarons: Yeah. I mean, you’re talking about making shifts on a systematic level and taking a closer look at really what our system promotes.
Richard A. Shannon: Exactly.
Dave Aarons: In many ways, it’s conflict and you’ve-
Richard A. Shannon: Absolutely.
Dave Aarons: Obviously got that experience in conflict resolution and so forth. Maybe we can talk a bit about that. Certainly one of the things that … it’s because it’s such an adversarial system and so complicated, as well, just to get things filed-
Richard A. Shannon: Right. Right.
Dave Aarons: Get things processed, that limited scope is necessary because people can’t-do these things on their own because it’s just too darn complicated-
Richard A. Shannon: Right.
Dave Aarons: And there’s too much at stake-
Richard A. Shannon: Right.
Dave Aarons: And they’re trying to fight. They have to go in there and fight for their own rights-
Richard A. Shannon: Right.
Dave Aarons: As opposed to trying to come up with a solution that works for all the parties and the family, like you said.
Richard A. Shannon: Right, and we may … out of this is the very possibility that we create some new roles for lawyers as problem-solvers.
Dave Aarons: That was one of the things that I really appreciate about when you had mentioned that you were doing limited scope representation before we even got introduced or started working together. A lot of times, we reach out, start talking to attorneys, and then start educating them on how to offer unbundled and then they start offering them into the practice, but this is something that you’ve been doing even before we worked together and one of very few, honestly, that came out and just started offering these options before our influence and so forth. At least, among a small percentage of attorneys that is doing it anyway among Stephanie Kimbro and, of course, many other lawyers. What was it for you that originally led you to start offering these options in the first place?
Richard A. Shannon: Well, I like that question. Look, I watch what’s going on in society and what I see is that the middle class is being hollowed out, that the income disparity over the past 30 years plus has been growing more and more, and that the wealth disparity is growing to be greater and greater. People have fewer resources to hire legal services, so the fact that if it’s true that the middle class is being hollowed out, and I think it is, and that people who are on the lower end of the income scales are being squeezed even more, that hurts all of the professions because they don’t have money to buy services.
It’s important that we have a robust middle class if we’re going to have a prosperous economy because they have effective demand, so there’s a demotion in effective demand for legal services as well as other professional services. That’s part of the disruption that Kimbro talks about, so if that disruptor, the fact that they have more limited resources, means that this model of you’re expecting somebody with a custody case to come in and plunk down $5,000, $10,000, $15,000, $25,000, is unrealistic. You’re just not going to have very many cases if that’s your filter. That does a disservice, also, for the people who simply don’t have the means, so to me, it made sense to offer that kind of service.
I know there’s been a lot of resistance, because I’ve also worked with Lawyer Referral Service, which is another local service, and they have Lawyer Referral Services around the country. That’s kind of how I first found out about it because the local Lawyer Referral Service was trying to promote limited scope and they were getting great resistance from the people who were providing services, the lawyers on their panels. That’s how I started digging into it.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, we’ve really tried to flesh out the actual numbers to show attorneys what’s actually happened to the marketplace. In fact, we put together a webinar recently that’s on our website now that’s free to watch. What we did is we did the research and came up with the numbers. Literally, we’ve seen an increase in pro se litigants, people without representation of an attorney, from, I think it was one percent back in the early ’70s and then it was 40% in the mid ’90s and now most statistics say it’s as high as 70% or more in most jurisdictions, as of the last five, 10 years.
Richard A. Shannon: That’s a huge sign of disruption and I’ve been tracking that too. Since I’ve been working with the Office of Court Administration in Texas, they keep stats on that. That very statistic is, I think, one of the reasons that are going to open the door to innovation and how family law courts work. The very fact that there’s so much pro se representation-
Dave Aarons: Absolutely, and it’s essential not only because of that, but also because, at the same time, and this is one of the things we talked about as well when we did the numbers on population growth versus new attorney graduates, and we find that there are actually three times as many lawyers per person now as there were during the same period of time back in 20, 30 years ago.
Richard A. Shannon: Absolutely.
Dave Aarons: Now, you have basically gone from one percent to 40% to 70%, so there is a third of a number of clients available if you’re offering only these high retainers, and there are three times as many lawyers competing for that one-third of clients. Then you’ve got Legal Zoom and you’ve got all of these other companies that are coming in here saying, “$1.99 for divorce and forms,” and you’re trying to compete against that at the same time. The marketplace has completely shifted.
Richard A. Shannon: Those are disruptors. That’s what Kimbro’s talking about, so if there’s a disruptor, you’ve got to figure out a new strategy.
Dave Aarons: That’s the strategy you start implementing, is finding a way to meet people where they’re at and finding a way to … the reality is, very few lawyers are aligning their firms to serve the 70% of the market. There’s a lot of people, attorneys, that assume that if you’re working with lower income people, you’ve got to make low income. There’s just no way to go about it, but obviously, by your example and some of the other examples of the attorneys on the podcast and all throughout our network, there are creative ways and solutions that you can offer these unbundled options where folks can still fit it in their budget, and you can still make good money at the same time.
Richard A. Shannon: Yep. I think that’s right.
Dave Aarons: That’s the limited scope you’re doing. It’s interesting to see how Travis County especially, in a very conservative state, has been supportive offering limited scope options. How have you seen that unfolding, being someone from Travis County, to see how the Bar Association has been adopting it in your local area?
Richard A. Shannon: I think most of the members of the bar and the Family Law Bar are still highly resistant to it. I mean, I suspect you’re learning from the people who contact attorneys how much resistance there is. I mean, that’s a big challenge. You’re trying to educate attorneys to these disruptions and shifts in the marketplace, but they’re being resistant. Now, if they get enough pain in the pocketbook because they’re not getting cases or their caseload is down, I guess someday, they’ll have to think, “Hmm. Maybe I need to change.”
Dave Aarons: I think a lot of attorneys just believe that if they offer unbundled options or lower retainers and fees, they’re not going to make as much money, or the people are going to screw them over. Can you speak to, for attorneys that may be listening that are considering offering these options, or they’re still beginning and exploring these things, can you speak to the economics of limited scope and unbundled option? We have been a little bit on this episode already with talking about how people can get started easier and pay a little less and the transition and so forth, but can you talk to how offering these options has impacted your practice?
Richard A. Shannon: Yeah. The reality, I think, at least from my experience is you’re probably going to have to do a little bit more work on the front-end for which you don’t get paid, or I’ll put it this way. You’re going to have to spend a little bit of time to get the client enrolled and on board and some of that, you may not get to charge for some of that time, but that’s just kind of a cost of doing business. If you’re getting a bunch of leads and you’re getting a pretty good conversion rate, there’s not a real high marketing cost. Every business has some marketing cost and, I mean, in our profession, advertising was not allowed for a long time.
It was a heck of a long time before lawyers got commercial speech, the constitutional right that was literally deprived them. But now that they’ve got commercial speech, what do you see? I mean, how costly is it to advertise on TV, on the radio, in print? And what kind of legal services can you offer by those mediums that would be cost-effective? Well, I suggest that they’re fairly limited. Most of us are out here practicing family law. We’re not likely to do that. We’re not going to do print media or TV media, but the internet, now, is another thing. A lot of people are having pretty successful websites that are highly optimized, but a good leads program like this brings in a lot of leads for you to consider.
A young attorney can, without a great deal of marketing cost, get a lot of cases that they can look at, even though they’re going to have to spend some time on the front-end that’s not going to be compensated, they can still build up a pretty decent book of business and get a loyal following. For a young attorney, you want to get clients that like you. At the end of your service, they’re pleased with what they got. They feel they got good service at a good price from somebody who could listen and understand and you know what? They’re going to refer friends and family and that’s the best form of business is to get a referral from a satisfied client, but if you’re getting started, you have to get people in the door. I think a leads program like this is really helpful.
Dave Aarons: Well, especially for those old, experienced attorneys as well.
Richard A. Shannon: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s working for me too. I mean-
Dave Aarons: How long you been in practice for, Richard?
Richard A. Shannon: You kind of ask about the younger attorneys and I’m speaking to them, but what I said is true, equal, for more experienced attorneys, especially if they find that they had a drop-off in their caseload because of the shifts in the marketplace that we just talked about.
Dave Aarons: Well, yeah. I mean, you’ve lived through these shifts. I mean, the ’70s, ’80s. I mean, how long you been practicing, for now, Richard?
Richard A. Shannon: Well, of course now, I had my earlier stage of my career. I’ve been doing family law 20 years, but I’m a 50-year-plus practitioner.
Dave Aarons: Wow, so you’ve seen this entire shift in the trend. Obviously, the coming of the internet, the depletion of the middle class, the effect of inflation. I mean, it’s just a completely different market than it was 20 years ago.
Richard A. Shannon: Absolutely.
Dave Aarons: So, adapting and being able to find a way to serve those folks that are in that vast majority of the market is what we’re finding to be a really important, critical determining factor and we’re getting attorneys that have been in practice for many years as well coming on board and starting to learn how to offer the options. It’s challenging. If you’ve doing practicing one way for so long, it’s tough, sometimes, to have to find a way to adapt and start offering these options.
Richard A. Shannon: Yeah. Well, I think the first thing if you’ve got to make the adaptation in your own mind. You’ve got to shift your paradigm, and a lot of people just don’t want to shift out of an old paradigm. But once you make that shift, you’re going to make some adjustments, but, I mean, it’s certainly doable. I really think the first place, though, is the paradigm shift in the mind of the practitioner.
Dave Aarons: Do you have any recommendation? Obviously, reading that book would probably be a good thing to kind of better understand the market and understand where these trends are going. Are there any other suggestions you have for someone who’s looking at this limited scope thing and maybe was originally opposed to it? Maybe feeling the pinch a little bit from the market, or maybe just wants to help more people and find more ways to do this? What’s a good way to start having that paradigm shift and start getting their feet wet and offering these options?
Richard A. Shannon: Well, look. I mean, people get in the profession for all sorts of reasons and so they have different motivational drivers for why they got in and what they want to get out of being in a practice. If they’re driven mostly by money, if that’s their big driving motivator, I would suggest that maybe law is not the best field for them, because you may make a nice living if you handle it right, but you’re probably not going get to be wealthy, at least only a very few lawyers get to be wealthy. Most of those lawyers are practicing in other areas of law, such as tort law, personal injury law, where there’s big money at stake on contingent fees.
Dave Aarons: Right.
Richard A. Shannon: We don’t do that in family law. We’re selling time and we only have so much time to sell. We only have so many hours a week that we can bill out, so we’re going to have a cap on how much we can make. Now, if you’ve got a cap on the hours, then the way you increase your income is to increase your hourly rate, so look.
Dave Aarons: Your effective hourly rate.
Richard A. Shannon: That’s where our other driver comes in. “Why am I doing this? I want to make, obviously, a decent living. I need to make a decent living for me and my family, but if I’m here as a service profession, then I need to balance out my concern for money with how I’m serving people.” People have got to get clear in their thinking about what their motivational drivers are. If it’s all about money, well, maybe they’re not in the right profession.
Dave Aarons: Absolutely. There are ways to improve the effective hourly rates. We’ve talked about that on some other episodes as far as offering some flat rate unbundled services and just because you charge $500 or $750, even if your hourly rate’s $250 an hour, it doesn’t mean it has to take you two hours to get the job done.
Richard A. Shannon: Right.
Dave Aarons: You can leverage the time of the paralegal and some document automation software, for example, and maybe get the job done for an hour and maybe a little bit of consultation time. Now, all of a sudden your effective hourly rate became $375 an hour, so there are ways to get creative around offering these flat rates and option where that effective rate can start to become higher. But at the same time, it’s got to be about making money and making a difference. In today’s day and age-
Richard A. Shannon: Yeah. There you go. I like that.
Dave Aarons: And that’s what people are looking for.
Richard A. Shannon: If you’re going to be in this profession, I think you need both. You’re making money, but you’re making a difference in a positive way in the life of other people.
Dave Aarons: I think that’s what people look for. That’s what people are looking for-
Richard A. Shannon: Yes, they want somebody who’s-
Dave Aarons: There are attorneys that really care, and they’ve kind of got a smell or a sense of what your motivations are, right?
Richard A. Shannon: Yep, they sure do and they do want somebody who cares. We want that out of our physicians too and why not from our lawyers. Somebody who listens empathetically cares, and that work with them, and I agree with you. There are strategies to kind of up your effective rate, but even so, you only got so many hours to sell. Day, week, month, year. Even if you up your effective rate, there’s a cap on what you can make. You’re not going to make millions. You’re not going to be super wealthy doing this, so anybody who’s got that kind of thinking, I think, has got an illusion. Well, maybe there’s something else they could do, but this is not a good fit for it.
Dave Aarons: Right. But, of course, on the flip side, to play the other advocate, it’s a great profession. Obviously, you may be [inaudible 01:01:24] for many years and you get a good sense of helping a ton of folks and by offering these options, man, there’s so many people and so many families that otherwise wouldn’t be in a position to even have the rights to their kids or get visitation or custody and, I mean, that changes those kids’ lives. I mean, it’s just-
Richard A. Shannon: It does. It does.
Dave Aarons: When other attorneys would have turned them away.
Richard A. Shannon: And there still remains, I think, some prestige in being in an ancient, learned profession, so there’s a little bit of status to go with it, of being a lawyer.
Dave Aarons: Absolutely, and a lot of appreciation from the folks that you’re helping. We’re sure getting a lot of positive feedback from the clients that you’ve been able to serve, and I’m sure they’re expressing-
Richard A. Shannon: Good.
Dave Aarons: A lot of appreciation for the types of options that you’ve been offering to you as well. We couldn’t be happier for the work that you’re doing and the amount of people you’re able to help as a result of these options you’ve learned how to cultivate and deliver. I really appreciate you, certainly, taking the time today to give a window into how it is that you’ve been able to do that.
Richard A. Shannon: Well, I’m happy to do it, Dave. As I learn more about this, sometime in the future, we can visit again.
Dave Aarons: Yeah. Absolutely. Maybe we could do it in person sometime next time in Texas, but for now, I thank you again for taking the time-
Richard A. Shannon: You’re welcome.
Dave Aarons: And I really appreciate your insight and perspective and recommendations. Certainly, we’re doing everything we can to start to turn the tides because honestly, if all attorneys started offering these options and were educated on how to do that, we wouldn’t have 70% of Americans filing and representing themselves, pro se. We would have-
Richard A. Shannon: Probably.
Dave Aarons: A completely different legal marketplace and legal system. Then certainly, combined with some of the work you’re doing on the systematic challenges as well, there’s a real possibility of changing the way this is done. It doesn’t have to be the status quo, so I appreciate the fact that you’re doing your part to do whatever you can to make that change become a reality.
Richard A. Shannon: Well, thank you for that.
Dave Aarons: All right, so with that, we’ll go ahead and wrap up. Richard, thanks again, and for everyone else that’s been listening to the podcast, as always, we really appreciate your participation. Please share the podcast with anyone you know that could benefit from these strategies and these tools. Certainly, jump on iTunes on your computer and leave us a rating, review, or any feedback you have. We read every single review and we really appreciate the support of the show. We thank you again for listening, and we will see you all again in the next episode. Thanks so much. For more information about how our lead-generation services can help you grow your practice, visit our website at www.unbundledattorney.com. If you’re enjoying this podcast, please be sure to subscribe so you get each new episode as soon as it’s available and leave us a rating and a review on iTunes. Once again, thanks for listening.
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Episode 20: Lessons from 50 years of Practicing Law: Empathetic Listening, Limited Scope, and the Disrupted Legal Market
Richard A. Shannon is an exceptional attorney with over 50 years of experience. After studying liberal arts and graduating from UT School of Law, he served as an Assistant Attorney General of Texas and Special Counsel to the Commissioner of Insurance, before starting his private practice in family law over 20 years ago. Today Richard joins us on the show to share his broad perspective on the changes that have occurred in the legal marketplace during the past 10-20 years. He explains ways that attorneys may need to adapt in order to continue to succeed. He also discusses practical strategies to improve how you serve your clients, including empathetic listening, limited scope representation, and the true meaning behind being a “counselor” at law.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- The difference between empathy and sympathy, and how expressing empathy and compassion can alleviate suffering
- Richard’s interpretation of the meaning of Warren Burger’s quote, “Our profession is about healing human conflict”
- Why good lawyering not only involves knowing the law, but also understanding how human relationships work and how to stay in touch with your own motivational drivers
- Why Richard typically spends 20-30 minutes on each phone consultation, and how he uses this process to “qualify” each client before he meets with them
- How the shrinking middle class has become a major disruptor in the legal industry, and why Richard feels offering limited scope options plays a critical role in adapting to these changes
- The costs of the adversarial court system, and how the non-profit that Richard has founded is beginning to explore some fundamental changes that could mitigate some of these costs.
- The cost and return on investment from internet leads and how this compares to traditional forms of advertising
- The different types of limited scope options he offers his clients, and how he evaluates his clients’ competency and determines what they can afford
- And much more...
- Limited Scope Legal Services: Unbundling and the Self-Help Client by Stephanie Kimbro
- Enlightened Family Justice Institute
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