Running a Leveraged Solo Practice from Home: Hiring Staff and Delegating Tasks, Adaptive Payment Options, and Enrolling Clients Over the Phone

July 31st, 2017

We are really excited to share this episode with you, this interview with Lisa Brown, who is one of our provider attorneys in northern Virginia and has been for almost a couple of years now. And in the process has fielded over 827 leads now, over the last couple of years. She has a ton of experience working with these clients, offers a lot of very flexible options, especially with regard to the payment plans that she offers her clients to the point where she will take as little as $300 or $200, up to $500 a month. And sometimes only starts with the first month alone, that they need to pay to get started, so no upfront retainer. Obviously, she takes a separate retainer whenever she can, but she works with folks. And she’s been doing that forever, and it’s worked out really well for her. She shares how that has worked for her.

This episode covers two main things: number one, she was originally doing everything herself and over the past couple of years, has brought on some staff, initially part-time, and now she has a full-time secretary, someone that helps her with documents, and basically has a support system. She’s still a solo practitioner, in that she’s the only attorney in the firm. But has some support staff she’s put into place and talks about some of the tasks that she’s had them take over, basically offload so that she can either have more time with her family or serve more clients, and really impacts that whole process.

And secondly, she enrolls about 5 or 6 out of every 10 leads into paying clients, so she converts over 50 percent of her leads and two-thirds … she’s had about 3 or 4 out of every 5 or 6 enroll out of 10, three or four of those enroll with her right over the phone. That’s very powerful as far as the impact that can have on attorneys being able to be more location independent. She doesn’t necessarily have to be in the office if she doesn’t have to meet with them, and she unpacks the whole process of how she completes that over-the-phone enrollment with the clients so effectively. It’s a little bit different than the way in which other attorneys in other episodes will do it. She takes a lot of time with the client, 30 minutes to an hour and she explains all the pieces to make that work.

There are a lot of great tips and ideas in this interview with Lisa Brown, one of our provider attorneys out of northern Virginia.

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: Hey Lisa, welcome to the show

Lisa Brown: Hi Dave. Thank you for having me.

Dave Aarons: I’m really excited to unpack the relationship we’ve had for quite some time now, I guess it’s got to be well over a year, isn’t it? Maybe even coming up on two years here?

Lisa Brown: Yes, that’s right, over a year.

Dave Aarons: Yeah, and there’s been lots of growth and improvements in all different types of things that have come out the clients we’ve been sending you for all this time, so I’m really looking forward to unpacking it. I want to thank you so much for being willing to take the time to share your story and what we’ve learned here.

Lisa Brown: You’re welcome. I’m excited too.

Dave Aarons: Okay great. Maybe a good place to start, Lisa, just gives us a little bit of background for those that don’t know you. And maybe a little background on how you got your start in the practice of law, and then what is the focus area of your practice and the regions that you serve.

Lisa Brown: Okay. I attended George Washington Law School in DC, graduated in 2002. I did a clerkship with a judge in Washington DC for a year. After that, I actually went to Georgetown and got an LLM in tax law. I worked for about six years doing employee benefits law in DC and then started my own practice in northern Virginia around 2009.

I had family at that point. Before that, I actually didn’t go straight to law school after undergrad. I did medical research for quite some time and started my family while I was doing that and then went to law school.

My own practice has been mainly centered on criminal and family law. Since I started my practice because of my family, I wanted to have more flexibility even though I certainly learned that I wouldn’t be working as much but I do have some flexibility. I can work from home when I’m not in court and not meeting with clients so that works well for me.

Dave Aarons: Being that you have a family and you’re managing that, which is also its own full-time job at times, what systems or processes have you put in place to be able to be effective at working at home? Do you work in the cloud; do you have staff at … how do you manage that balance? How do you find that balance between, … I know it’s hard to say, I mean if you’re always trying to…

Lisa Brown: Yeah.

Dave Aarons: It’s a little chaotic at times I’m sure no matter what, but what’s worked well for you?

Lisa Brown: Well I do have an office and I have staff at the office. We work together, email and text, and by phone. And I always meet my clients obviously, at the office. I talk to my clients on the phone a lot; sometimes I meet them at the courthouse. I think the main thing though, is that I do put my family first so if there’s something that I really need to do, I either try to find a way to have someone else do it, maybe one of the oldest siblings, or I’ll change my meetings around.

That’s the benefit of having your own practice, that you can do that, you can make your appointments, … you obviously can’t change your trial dates and times and things like that when you’re in court, but other than that, I can try and arrange things around, … what I need to do for my family. That has changed, obviously, over the years. I’ve got two adult children who are both in college and they’re actually in another city so obviously, I’ve got a lot less to do for them, other than pay for college. And I’ve got one at home now, and that’s responsibility on that front.

Dave Aarons: Right. And I’ve heard that they’ve helped out from time to time over the years in running the practice, doing some books and keeping things running along?

Lisa Brown: That’s right, yeah. Both of my sons are finance majors so my oldest one has at times helped with billing. Billing’s always a big thing when you have your own practice and you’re trying to do so many things, like trying to do the legal work and manage employees. But obviously, it all comes down to bringing money in and being able to pay people and being able to continue to do it. So that’s a big thing and my oldest son has been able to help with that. My husband actually, helps with that too. Right now he does the biggest role with regards to billing. And staying in touch with clients who are not paying their bills or whatever is going on there.

Dave Aarons: What would you say are the tasks or responsibilities in a practice, in your practice that you’ve found to be most suitable for delegating? So for example, if an attorney is getting to the point where maybe they’re getting, … maybe they’re a solo or a small firm, and they’re getting to the point where they need to get some additional help in their practice, what are some of the things right off the bat that you’ve found really easy to offload to free up some more of your time?

Lisa Brown: Sure. Sometimes we need to be in touch with courts to confirm what the court date is, or if a client comes in and they know they have a court date, but they don’t really know what it’s for, I’ll have my assistants contact the clerk’s office to find out if it’s a pre-trial, if it’s a trial, or what’s going on.

Certainly mailing, getting motions out, and writing letters to opposing counsel, sometimes to the client as well, motions like asking for continuances, some simple motions. Actually, sometimes, I just have one of my assistants draft even a complex motion for me. I just want to have the outline of it. I just want to make sure that the stuff that needs to go in there, like the certificate of service, and the parties names and all that is there. That just helps me get a start when doing it, so when I get that, I can just fill in what needs to be filled in.

Dave Aarons: Are there things that beyond … so we’ve got contacting the courts, doing some mailings, writing letters, preparing some simple petitions and so forth. Why don’t you just share who is in your staff and do you have a paralegal as well? Are there higher-level tasks you have someone supporting you and doing as well?

Lisa Brown: I’ll say I have changed my administrative staff a little bit. I started off with a paralegal who had her own business so she would do work for multiple law firms. She knew what she was doing; she’s a bit expensive. And I’ve had people who are in college at the time they’re working for me, so I’ve had to flexible with their schedules. But now I have a full-time secretary, an administrative assistant at the office, eight hours a day. And I have somebody who’s not at the office, but she does a lot of the discovery work for us so she acts like a paralegal. I’ve had to train her on how to do discovery, so I don’t have to pay her at the same rate that I would somebody who already is familiar with those kinds of things. I have one other person who helps me, she works about 10 hours a week. And like I said, my husband works and then my kids help now and then. My daughter actually helps with fax and making copies and that kind of thing. The secretary does that too.

Dave Aarons: It seems like for a period of time you were balancing having some people work for you part-time, work around your schedule, and there was a point in which you said, “Look, I just need to hire a full-time person.” Because before that, you were working kind of like a solo with some support help here and there to delegate some tasks to, but then while you’re still a solo attorney … or do you have another attorney working in your office now, or is it just you still?

Lisa Brown: It’s just me.

Dave Aarons: So you’re still running a solo practice, but now you have some dedicated support staff, someone who’s there full time. At what point was it for you that you said, “You know what, I really just need to get someone full-time.” And for someone that maybe doesn’t have that staff member yet, at what point would you say would be the time when you say, “You know it really is time to get someone in the office full-time”, doing the work and were you reluctant to do it at first and once you did, did you feel, “Why didn’t I do this before?” that kind of thing?

Lisa Brown: Yeah. I think most attorneys probably do need a person who’s consistently in the office. Yeah, it was difficult for me to do it, to make that decision because I was afraid that I would not be able to pay the assistant. Because sometimes there’s money there, sometimes there’s not. I pay my full-time person every week and I was just afraid of that.

I haven’t ever had a time when I couldn’t pay her. There’s a time when I have to change things around. I’ve never had a time when I haven’t been able to pay any of the employees. I think when you’ll know when things that you need done aren’t getting done and you’re really working all weekend and that kind of thing. I think it’s clear; it becomes clear that you need somebody.

I’ll just say for me, most of my practice is family law. Once in a while I’ll do some other things, but it’s an emotional area of law and I think we do need to have a break sometimes, even if it’s just one day over the weekend; If you’re not getting that, it’s easy to get too stressed out, and not being able to be effective though.

Dave Aarons: When you finally got that full-time person in place and you addressed and overcame that fear of how am I going to pay this person consistently, and there are times that are up and times that are down, and obviously you’ve been able to do so. Do you look back on it now and you still have her with you, otherwise if you didn’t, it probably wouldn’t have worked out and she’s still with you; she’s been with you for some time, looking back on it, what has it helped you with the most, having that person to support you?

Lisa Brown: It’s given me peace of mind that if something comes up, if there’s an emergency that comes up, like I find out that there’s something that wasn’t on my calendar and the court calls the office, that somebody knows how important that is, and is going to reach me no matter what. Whereas I work in an office where there are some other attorneys too, so there’s a receptionist and that receptionist, she doesn’t work for me, she’s a general receptionist so if something happens, she won’t necessarily know the significance of it, for me. Whereas my assistant does, she knows that if something is an emergency.

Just today I had a case where there was something … I was in court and I needed something from the office that I didn’t have, and she was able to get it to me. So she faxed it to me; I was able to access it on my phone. That made a huge difference. Now, instead of being panicked, if I don’t have it with me, then I could just forget it because there’s nobody to help me out. I know whenever I go that at least I’ve got somebody who’s working full-time and if I really need something, maybe I’m in a trial, but I need somebody to contact opposing counsel or a client about something that’s just come up, I know she can do that. She can also run to another courthouse for me and file something, and sometimes we run into, … someone will come and they’ve let the time pass and the deadline is right there so that becomes essential to keeping that client that we were able to get there, the motion or whatever response filed on time.

Dave Aarons: Yeah and certainly I might even be able to help you with backing you up on fielding some of these leads. I was just looking at the report a few minutes ago and since we’ve worked together in September, you’ve received about 827 leads. You’ve obviously got a lot of, … it may be hard to believe, but you always got a lot of experience taking these leads and developing processes in order to field them effectively. You’ve got lots of people on the phone so I’d love to dive in on that.

Are you the person generally that calls the leads or does your secretary call them and schedule them to speak with you? What’s the initial first step when you first have a lead hit your box?

Lisa Brown: Somebody on my staff gets it to their phone; they call right away and set up an appointment for me that same day. They also get some preliminary information about the client and what their issue is, what they’re worried about. Are they worried about the money, or they’re worried about the time because they’ve got something next week, or whatever it might be. So then when I talk to them, I can … I have some information about what’s going on and I usually, even if it’s late into the evening, I do try to talk to them that same day. Sometimes I do, … the leads have my phone number so sometimes I talk to them first just because they call and so I may speak to them. Then right after that, I try to get a retainer letter out to them and someone does that. I’ll send the information to somebody on the staff; this is what rate I gave them; this is how we decided to break up their payments and then they try to get a letter out to them right away.

Dave Aarons: Right. This has been … we’ve had some attorneys that do all the calls themselves and respond in real time on their phones and then there are other attorneys that have had staff supporting them and doing those calls when they’re in court and so forth. And attorneys have had success with one or the other, and sometimes have not been able to be successful at having staff effectively because they’ve found that their conversion rate went down, because maybe the staff member was getting too into the details of the money or whatever it will cost and so forth.

Can you share what are the specific things typically; you will have your staff ever do and how they would address any concerns around the cost of the services and so forth? Do they cover that at all or do they kind of shelf it and say, “That is something that Ms. Brown can speak to you about.” How do you balance out, getting someone to call and respond in real time, or as close to real time as possible to the lead, which is really important, when you can’t. But also making sure that they’re not losing any clients in the process, I guess would be the easiest way to say it.

Lisa Brown: Sure, sure. So it’s changed, but what I do right now and what I think is working well is that I don’t have my staff talk to the client about what we charge. They usually do say, “An attorney will talk to you about that issue.” They just try to get information about what the client is concerned about. When I talk to them, I usually don’t tell them the rate until we’re wrapping up the conversation.

I change the rate depending on whom I’m talking to. I keep it pretty close to my standard rate but I will change it. I’ll also offer a monthly payment plan. I like to do that. Once I’ve done that, then I don’t really like to talk to the clients about finances anymore. When I talk to the client, I like to just talk to them about their case. I like to have somebody else remind them that their payment is due or that they were supposed to make a monthly payment last month and they didn’t. I try not to be involved in that unless we get to a point where we think that the client really isn’t going to pay and then I need to talk to them about the fact that we may need to withdraw from the case.

Dave Aarons: Right. And for you, to have someone else addressing the financial components, then maybe you’ll give them the quote and the fee, at that point do you delegate them to then send out the retainer agreement and follow up on that? Or do they sit down with someone else and they work out that payment plan and what it looks like? To what degree do you delegate the discussion of the finances and then I’m assuming again that, that must be helpful for you to just focus on the practice of law and not having to have your relationship change around … “Now that we’ve dealt with your case, let’s talk about the money, let’s talk about where you’re at financially”.

Lisa Brown: Yeah. Usually, in that first conversation with them, I tell them what the rate’s going to be and what the retainer will be if it’s going to be a monthly payment, and then that goes into the retainer letter. I send that off to somebody, it goes into the retainer letter, and then they get that link. I do use Clio and LawPay and when the retainer letter is sent out, it includes the link so they can make the initial payment.

Then obviously, we start once they make the initial payment. They don’t really have to sit down and talk to anybody about the payment arrangement after we’ve discussed it the first time. I try to make sure that it’s something that they’re comfortable with, the first time that I talk to them. Obviously, things could change so they’re having a monthly payment arrangement but they can’t do it for a couple of months, they’ll either talk to somebody on my staff or they’ll talk to me depending on who they’re comfortable with. Sometimes they’ve been dealing with whoever is doing their discovery a lot and they’ve been talking to them and so they’ll just tell them. So it depends on whom they’re comfortable discussing it with.

Dave Aarons: Right. I want to ask you, what percentage of the clients that you speak to over the phone, enroll with you over the phone, and then click a link, versus comes into the office?

Lisa Brown: That’s a good question. Some people … I would say most of them pay using the link. Some say that they want to have an initial meeting first before they pay. So when they do that, obviously, I will meet with them in the office and sometimes they’ve already signed a retainer and fax it back to me. But before they pay, they want to meet me first, which is certainly reasonable. Sometimes they’ll bring the retainer letter with them and they want to wait to decide whether to sign it and pay at the same time. Most people just decide that they want to go forward just after the initial call and they pay using the link.

Dave Aarons: So roughly out of 10 leads, about how many of them are usually retain you for services. I know you may not have the exact numbers but if you were to ballpark it, what would you think?

Lisa Brown: I think about half. Sometimes I think it’s six, maybe 6 out of 10, but really to be conservative, I think it’s about half.

Dave Aarons: Wow, that’s awesome. And out of those five or six that do enroll, roughly how many of those just enroll after the initial phone call, or just do it over the phone, without you meeting them in person to get started?

Lisa Brown: I would say maybe three or four, I don’t know. Most people do.

Dave Aarons: So the lead comes in, your staff sets an appointment, you get on the phone with them, initially. When they set that appointment, do they give them an option, “Do you want to come into the office, or do you want to speak with her over the phone?” or do they say, “Okay, your first step is to speak with Ms. Brown for a phone consultation?”

Lisa Brown: The latter, they arrange a phone meeting. Most people don’t object to that because the phone consultation is free. And I don’t just talk to them for a few minutes. I actually talk to them anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour; they appreciate that. And I don’t try to keep information from them. I talk to them pretty much the way I would talk to my client. I tell them what I think about their case.

Dave Aarons: Hmm, and yeah that’s … this is really interesting because you tend to take a little bit more time with each client on the phone. But it’s paying off in dividends in the sense that many of these clients you don’t … they’re enrolling with you over the phone and not having to come in the office and schedule an appointment and you being at the office so that gives you the flexibility and sometimes you’re making these calls from home or from other places of course, right?

Lisa Brown: Right, yep, absolutely.

Dave Aarons: Not necessary to be in the office, so if you have a family or you’re raising children or that type of thing, it gives you some more additional flexibility. From a location, standpoint to not always have to be in the office, if you’re able to effectively enroll someone over the phone, in the way that you do, right?

Lisa Brown: Right, yes.

Dave Aarons: Yes, because we’ve seen a couple of different styles, one being just spend a little bit of time on the phone, maybe 5 or 10 minutes, get the details and schedule them to come into the office. Whereas, you’re taking a lot more time with that client to develop rapport and spend, and get into their case, and give them some guidance and getting very specific about what you can do for them. So maybe can you unpack a bit what you focus on, on that initial call? Maybe we can talk a little bit about what the options you provide, but what are those initial things you’re going to cover? Obviously they’re going to share a little bit about their case, you’re going to ask some questions and then your transition, but maybe you can walk us through what your process is for that initial call, given that you’re having so much success with having clients elect to enrol you just from that first attempt.

Lisa Brown: Sure. The initial call, it depends on whether somebody’s never, they’ve never talked to an attorney about their case or not, or they already had an attorney, and they want to change for some reason. A lot of times, people are … they’re concerned because they’ve talked to some attorneys about how much a retainer they have to put down and so they may be focused on that. You know, I don’t have $5,000; that’s what I’ve been quoted. But usually, people want to talk about their case. They want to talk about what’s happening and why they’ve decided that they need to go to court because of it. So I generally talk to them about that. I just tell them, “Tell me what’s going on.” Often I’ll have questions about it.

I’ll just give you an example. Someone I spoke to for about 50 minutes, a couple weeks ago, she just had some ideas that weren’t … she was young and she thought that she really should dictate everything regarding her child and that the father really shouldn’t have anything to say about it because he wasn’t paying support. And she really went on that line about a lot of things. But it really came down to; she thought that he shouldn’t have any rights to make any decisions, that he shouldn’t have any visitation and all that.

So what I really did was just tell her why that wasn’t the right … that’s not the way the court looks at it and that the issue of support is really different from custody and visitation, as far as the court is concerned. And that I thought that it sounded like to me that she had some thoughts that really had, that were not really related to her child, they were related to something else. Maybe her relationships with the father, or something like that, and that’s what I told her. When she called, I think her intention was to get advice and then say she would do it herself because she actually works for a law firm in DC, herself. I’m not sure what her role is, whether she’s a paralegal or something like that. It was an employment law firm and her intention was to do it herself. So after we finished that call, I thought, she said, “You know what, she said I think I’m just going to be pro bono.” But a couple of days she called back, she emailed and said that she wanted to retain.

Dave Aarons: How do you balance that out, Lisa? I think that’s probably one of the primary concerns that we hear about attorneys of not putting too much time on the initial call and giving so much forthright advice and guidance, is the concern that person is going to take the advice and just represent themselves. How do you find that balance between just telling people … obviously, there’s advising them about their rights, how the court views things, and then there’s explaining what to do and how to do it? So there’s a difference there, there’s a distinction between the types of guidance you’re providing someone versus where they stand on their case. How do you find that balance between being really in depth and developing rapport and getting into the gritty of the situation and still making sure that the person … and not end up spending a whole lot of time with someone that may inevitably just going to do it themselves and just take that information and do it. Or do you just know that’s going to be part of it?

Lisa Brown: I feel like that’s going to be part of it and because I’ve been working with Unbundled, I have a lot of clients and I feel like if I wind up talking to somebody and they, in the end, don’t retain, I wish that they would, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world. I understand that they’re not in court every day, or sometimes at all, and there are basic things that it’s good for them to know, as far as I’m concerned and I don’t mind telling them. I think in the end, from that, they often feel like if they can’t retain, that they wish that they could.

Dave Aarons: Right, yeah. You said something I think is really important there. You said we’ve been working for so long, and you’ve got so many clients, it’s almost like you don’t have … for you, did it take away … I can only imagine if you’re hard up for clients and you really need money because you don’t have an influx of clients like we provide, leads every day, every single day, new leads coming in, you can start to rely on that, that you’re coming into the space from a standpoint of abundance. You know that the leads are always going to be there, and there’s a certain security in that, that informs and kind of dictates the way you can communicate with your clients. There isn’t that attachment to the result of whether they decide to make a decision or not, right?

Lisa Brown: That’s true. Yes, that’s a great way of putting it. Yes, that’s true.

Dave Aarons: So that’s evolved for you over some time where, because you know … this is one of the things that I think about lead generation that a lot of attorneys underestimate when they’re looking into participating in this, is that it becomes a very consistent and reliable source of new clients. It certainly impacts your, … maybe you can just talk about that, how that’s impacted your way in which you relate to the initial calls and just almost energetically or dynamically how that’s changed, how you relate to the client.

Lisa Brown: I think when I talk to potential clients, I’m able to focus a little more on them than I would have been in the past, where I would be thinking about how I was going to turn them into a paying client. For now, I think what I do in terms of turning them into a paying client; I’ve done that before. I’ve got a good idea of the best way to talk to them and, I’m not fearful of that I think, at this point. That I’m going to say something that’s going to stop them from being a client. I think that if there’s something that’s going to stop them, it’s going to be because they realize that they can’t … even if I was to offer them a payment plan of $300 a month, they still couldn’t pay that. When I talk to them, I feel confident about being able to relate to them as a potential client, and they’re somebody who’s going through a hard time and just need some basic direction and information. That’s the initial call I think.

But beyond that, it’s helped me to be able to realize that if I want to expand, then I probably could expand. In fact, that’s really the area where I am right now. I would really like to have another attorney working with me and I do have some attorneys who sometimes I do some things with like I may work with them on a case and we may split some of the funds that come from the case. I’ll tell you that I did learn that you have to be very careful whom you work with. I don’t really want to rush into that before I find somebody who would be good to work with. But that’s where I am now. I’d like to find an attorney to work with.

And I’ll just tell you, I had a case where the lead came from Unbundled and I could just tell that this person who had a case coming up, it was less than 5 days, but I wanted to work with her just based on our conversation and I had another matter that day. Fortunately it was in the same courthouse, but I was concerned enough that I thought, you know what, I’d like to have somebody else come in and just to make sure that even though the times of the cases were different, I just thought I wanted to have somebody else come in because she was really kind of nervous and just the way she was. So I did.

I hired this attorney. I asked her, could you be there just in case my case goes … I’m not able to be there the whole time. Anyways, that didn’t work out perfectly. It wound up, in the end, being okay, because I was able to get finished with my case and I was able to handle the motion. But it turns out that, that attorney also had another case in that courthouse and she didn’t tell me. So she wound up being split herself, which is exactly what I didn’t want. I wanted somebody who could focus on that client.

Dave Aarons: Yeah, there’s a number of ways to get, to bring on contract lawyers, both in a supportive role, supporting you and representing the client, and then also being someone that you can work together on a case with. Or third being, where you can take a client and hand it off to one of your contract lawyers and just have a simple fee split as they represent that client.

There are a couple of podcast interviews, one with David Gross from Vancouver, WA. I think it was called “Chronicling the journey from new solo practice to a small firm, how to hire contract lawyers and make a limited appearance“, I think. That would be a really good episode for you to hear and for those that are listening to be able to check out as far as, as you’re making the transition from being a solo or a small firm, you’re considering hiring contract lawyers, that’s a really good episode.

Also, one that was called “Scaling up your practice; how to expand from solo practitioner to small firm in under 3 months.” That was with Rhonda and Jayshree out of Oklahoma City and they really break down … one of the things that David Gross talked about was some of the mistakes he made in hiring contract lawyers and what that’s taught him about the importance of the process of going through an in-depth hiring process, so that should be really helpful if you haven’t heard that. And also Rhonda and Jayshree talk about the very specifics of what they pay and how they work in their firm, and how they’re dedicated to their firm so those might be really good resources for you to explore if you’re at that point where you’re looking to bring on some other attorneys.

Lisa Brown: Oh thanks, yes, absolutely, that sounds really good.

Dave Aarons: I’ll shoot you an email with those links. One of the things that I’ve known about you since we’ve started back in 2015, is that you have been always been very flexible and willing to work with clients financially in as best ways as you can. From the get go, you’re offering the bundled services, you’re offering the payment plans and I’ve really love to continue along the lines of how to do the enrollment over the phone and how you, once you’ve got a good glimpse and understanding of what it is that you’re looking for help with, you’ve given them some guidance on what to do, how do you transition to determining, specifically the amount of service you’re going to provide. Maybe you can share some of the different options you provide and then what the first step would be for the various types of options, we can unpack that. But maybe you can talk about the different types of options you provide financially to work with folks, whether it is unbundled or full representation payment plans and how you communicate that first step.

Lisa Brown: People who tend to clients will tell you what their concerns are. If it’s a financial concern, they’ll focus on that, they’ll tell you why they don’t think they have the money for an attorney and what’s happened to them in the past with another attorney. I try to pay close attention to that but the different types of representation that I offer are, obviously, unbundled.

Just last week, somebody hired us just to write a change of address letter. I did try to ask her, does she really want us to do that in a way, but it became clear to me that she was uncomfortable with doing that for some reason. So it’s good, that was an example of just doing something very specific.

Sometimes people want … I just started with a client last week, last Friday, where the Dad, in a visitation case has a girlfriend who’s also an attorney but she practices in another area. And she actually is the attorney of record on the case. But she decided that she wanted to have somebody else, another attorney as well. She does some things like she drafted a few motions to squash some subpoenas. She did all that and she asked me to review it earlier this week. I did that and then I filed it. In that case, they really want to have an attorney who’s going to be there at times for trial, but many of the things I think that she’ll do, this attorney will do. Or it might be they just want me to answer a divorce complaint. They’re going to be the ones who … or they just want me to draft it, or look at something they’ve done, or just do a settlement agreement, so that’s the unbundled piece.

In terms of the payment arrangements, I start with thinking, it’s either going to be a retainer, about a $3,000 retainer and an hourly rate of $300. But sometimes I change the rate down considerably. In its space with my conversation with the individual, even if I change the rate, sometimes I think people are uncomfortable. They want to know how much they’re going to pay, specifically. In that instance, I may make a monthly payment arrangement, where they’re paying anywhere from $300 to $500 per month. I’ve even gone down to $200. I’m trying to think, earlier, I had a payment arrangement that was $150 a month, but I don’t usually do that, but I might, I might do it again too. It just depends. Otherwise, then it’s just a straight, we bill them every month, and they pay based on the hourly rate.

Of course, the last thing is that some people want to have a flat rate and the thing about a flat rate, which is good, is that it means that I know too, how much it’s going to be. It’s less administrative commitment on our part. Some people really want that and I sometimes do that too. But I also explain that they themselves may not want to do it that way because we always start trying to settle a case. If we settle a case and their flat rate is more than the time spent then they still agree to pay the flat rate.

Dave Aarons: Right. So when you do the retainer with the monthly option, do they typically pay as much as they can afford, as the initial retainer? Do you have a minimum there as far as what you take to start a case, or do they just pay the first month?

Lisa Brown: That changes too. Sometimes I include a retainer and then after they pay the retainer, they’ll start a monthly payment amount. And sometimes they’ll just start with the monthly, maybe $400 a month. I won’t include any retainer. They’ll just start that way.

Dave Aarons: Yeah, exactly. So there might be a lot of attorneys out there that would never consider starting a case with just the first month’s payment, whether it be $300, or $500. Contrast that with attorneys that a lot of the clients have talked to you, that $5,000 required upfront to get started. Whereas, for almost two years now, just working with us, and I’m sure before we even started working together … we’ll say, okay now, well if you can afford to pay an upfront retainer, obviously that’s advantageous, money in the door is always better than not. But you’ve been, for the most part, willing to allow folks to just start if that’s all they can afford with that first month. Maybe you can talk about that and how that’s worked out for you over these last couple of years. Obviously, the fear being, if they don’t get enough money up front, that they’re going to stop paying, and they’re going to be representing someone that isn’t paying for their fees. Have you run into that challenge? And overall, has that worked out for you? How has that worked out for you, being so flexible and willing to work with folks financially?

Lisa Brown: I think, for the most part, it’s worked out fine. I haven’t had to withdraw … I have had to withdraw from some cases and to do that if I feel like, not only is the person not paying, but they really don’t have any intention of paying, they’re not going to. They’re basically not trying to stop for one month, and then pick it back up. I just have the feeling that they’re not going to pay so in that case, I will withdraw from the case. But for the most part, I think it works out. People can tell we’re working on their case and they, I think they feel, some people don’t feel guilty, but for most of the clients that I’ve had, they would feel guilty if they didn’t pay. We’re working with them, not just me calling them, but it’s also other people in the office trying to make sure, just checking on how things are going, and sending them drafts of what we’ve done and just to confirm that things are the way they want it to be. So it’s worked out fine on my end.

I think the other thing about it though, in terms of being flexible, is that it does require some, having some staff to recognize that there are different arrangements for different people. You do have to make sure that whoever is working on the billing that they always have that in mind, that it’s different for everybody. We may just be calling about a payment arrangement, we might be calling because we sent the bill and they haven’t responded.

Dave Aarons: That’s really helpful to get a long view perspective of how that pencils out. So it sounds like it’s pretty rare that you have to withdraw and for the most part people are willing to pay consistently. And that’s what we’ve heard across the board. It really seems like, if you’re serving clients and you’re continually being in contact with them and working with folks, you’re going to get a sense for the one out of maybe 20 or 30, like you said, that have no intention of paying. But for the most part, they pay consistently and you can offer that flexibility. It almost seems like attorneys have to make a leap of faith and trust that clients are going to make it and then there’s going to be an off one here and there, but the part that seems to be that most attorneys forget is that you’re able to work with so many more clients. I mean 5 or 6 out of every 10 leads we send you, are paying you for your services. If you were charging $5,000 bucks, the numbers would be a little different.

Lisa Brown: Absolutely, absolutely.

Dave Aarons: And your cash flow is affected as a result. The final thing that I’d like to cover for today and then we’ll wrap up, just for attorneys that maybe up until now, haven’t been able to be successful in doing, or haven’t explored doing the enrollment over the phone. It may be that it would work well for a lot of attorneys that need to have time flexibility or location flexibility, whether having a family or need to work from home, or want to have that, just generally speaking.

You’ll be talking to a client, appreciate you laying out the different options, you offer the unbundled services, the doc, and prep, representing and also the payment plans, how do you basically determine … obviously, I assume you would ask the client, you would lay out the options and ask them, what they see as most fit. Maybe you can just walk through how you do that and then how you complete what the mechanics are of the enrollment, as far as having them send a fee agreement, or do you do it over the phone, just so that you can complete that enrollment process done over the phone?

Lisa Brown: I’ll just start with the last part, your last question first. In terms of the enrollment piece, some clients are, most of the clients are comfortable with the retainer letter, coming to them by email. They respond by email. They usually fax back the retainer letter and they use the LawPay link to make a payment. Sometimes clients prefer to give me the information over the phone and then I enter it into the LawPay website and do it that way.

A few aren’t comfortable getting their retainer letter by email or make a payment online, so they come into the office. They may come just to pick up their retainer letter and sign it and make their payment. Or they’re coming because they want to meet me in person and start talking about their case before they retain. But for the most part, clients are willing to utilize the link and they get a receipt and I think they like that, they get it automatically and right away. Once they’ve done that the first time, then I think they’re comfortable making their payments, once they receive their bill, they’re comfortable making their payments that way.

Dave Aarons: You mentioned a second ago, that sometimes you’ll take the card and just enter it right into the terminal. So you’re taking the card number over the phone, that’s one, that obviously would be live. But if you do the link, do you say, “Okay, I’m going to send you the link, you go ahead and take care of that.” Or do you send it with them, do you have access to a computer and do you send it with them while you’re on the phone?

Lisa Brown: I don’t because I’m not usually the one sending the retainer letter. What I do is, as soon as I get off the phone, I text that information, the payment arrangement that we’ve come up with, to somebody else and then they send the retainer letter out. It includes the link and that’s the way it normally goes in terms of how they receive the retainer. Sometimes people say, “You know what, my case is coming up right now, I just want to take care of this right now.” That’s even better. I don’t have any problem with that. But for the most part, it’s that way, that somebody else sends the retainer letter out. The thing is, is that it goes out right away, within a day, usually the same day, but it might be the next day. Even if it’s over the weekend, we try to do it the same day or the next day.

Dave Aarons: And have you found that to be of real importance, making sure you get that payment link and the retainer agreement out as quick as possible?

Lisa Brown: Yeah, I think so. I think so because if you wait then they may talk to other attorneys. So I don’t know, I think … and also sometimes I think people, maybe they’re concerned about something, and it’s easy, with everybody being so busy, for them to decide that it’s less important than what they thought it was when we talked.

Dave Aarons: Yeah, you have to strike when the iron is hot and they’re still in a state of mind where they’re taking action, and they’re in the state of empowerment because you’ve given them information. They’re empowered with knowledge and a clear picture, and have a clear idea financially so certainly that’s when you want to give them the opportunity to take that first step. That’s the best time to do it.

Lisa Brown: Yep that’s true.

Dave Aarons: Okay, then I guess the last thing I’ll ask you, Lisa, then we can wrap up, is just … we’ve been doing this again, for a couple of years and you’ve fielded hundreds and hundreds of leads. Is there anything else that you would like to throw in that you’ve learned over these years and working with all these leads and clients, that you’ve learned, or you’ve adapted your process from a mistake you’ve made or mistake you were making, that you’d share with someone that maybe is just getting started with working leads, or even someone with experience, that you’ve found works really well, or something that wasn’t working very well that you’ve changed.

Lisa Brown: One thing that I’ve learned, is that the clients, for the most part, they don’t have a whole lot of, … they don’t know what we do, in terms of how many clients, other clients we might have, or often we’re in court, or whatever, and they really just want to know that we’re focused on their case, that we care about their case that we haven’t forgotten about them. So I think it’s important, especially if you have a lot of clients, to have somebody who’s making sure that we stay in touch with the client.

People are very different so some people are patient, they actually do have some concept that their case isn’t coming up for four or five months and then we don’t have to talk to them as often. But some don’t have that viewpoint. They believe that we should be talking to them. The thing about it, is that once they’re billed, if you’re being charged hourly, then sometimes, they will then, recognize that if you want to talk to an attorney for 20 minutes, once every three days, then you’re billed for that. But the main thing is that I think the clients want to know that we understand their case, care about what’s happening, which is easy to do in family law, even if it’s immigration or whatever. A lot of times these situations are ones that the attorneys do care about, and the attorney just wants to know that, I mean the clients just want to know that, that’s the case, that we care about their specific situation.

Dave Aarons: Yeah. And do you have some kind of guidelines for your staff or for some of the things that you do to make sure that you communicate that? Whether it be they get a call once a week or every couple of weeks, or an email, or any specific practices that you’ve found worked well to make sure that clients feel like they’re being thought of and considered?

Lisa Brown: I think initially because we did start using Clio, quite a while ago, which I got from another podcast. I got that advice from somebody, one of the attorneys. Because of that, sometimes I don’t always see all the clients, who they are, in front of me and often I’m not specifically in office, so I’m not looking at the file. So one of the things that my assistant does, sends me an updated client list, and then we all can look at that client list. We keep up with what’s … we make contact with them, and that’s reviewed to see who needs to be contacted.

Having that list really made a big difference for me, just because sometimes the case is, they’re over, but they might, … I need to see specifically what cases we’re working on now, make sure that I don’t forget, and make sure that the office doesn’t forget about a case even though it may be seven, eight months from trial date.

Dave Aarons: Yeah, so maybe, … do you do that once a week or every couple of weeks? It sounds like a pow-wow and like, “Here are all the cases, here’s where everything is at.” Is that once a week? How often do you usually check in on that list?

Lisa Brown: It’s updated and it’s reviewed. The goal is once a week, but it’s at least once every two weeks.

Dave Aarons: Yeah, exactly, so you can keep abreast of everything that’s going on.

Lisa Brown: Yep.

Dave Aarons: Alright, well Lisa, I really want to thank you again for just coming on, taking the time, sharing so openly. I think there are some really compelling tips on how to do that enrollment process over the phone. A lot of client’s attorneys would stand to have more freedom if they can learn how to do that and it’s a certain style and approach in doing that, that attorneys can learn to do. And obviously, you’re a perfect example of being able to be successful with that. Obviously, you offer the option for them to come into the office, but you’ve done really well for quite a long time of just taking the time on the phone and then people feel comfortable when you do take the time and address their concerns. And obviously you offer such flexible payment options; it’s pretty hard for them to say no.

Lisa Brown: That’s the goal. And Dave, let me tell you, I really appreciate you and what the Unbundled has done for me and for my practice and really I think it’s clear that you want to make sure that attorneys are getting everything that they can, having these leads come our way. The information that I’ve gotten from other podcasts is really made the world of difference. So I appreciate it.

Dave Aarons: Yeah, well thank you for sharing that. That’s certainly the goal, is how can we serve as many clients as possible, that’s going to certainly benefit everyone financially, but it comes at the root of how can we serve working families all throughout the United States of America and pretty soon Canada, in the most affordable, effective manner. This has been a real pleasure to be involved in the project and to create this platform and to continue to support you with these ideas in any way we can and now we have lots of ideas from you that attorneys can learn from as well. So thank you again for that too.

Lisa Brown: Wonderful.

Dave Aarons: So with that, we’ll go ahead and wrap up. For everyone else that’s listening, thanks so much for taking part in this community and listening and taking good notes and sharing it with other attorneys that can benefit from this show. It’s been growing really fast, we’ve had record month last month, as far as downloads and listens and lots of great feedback from the shows as well. Thanks again for participating and we’ll see you all in the next episode.

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Episode 37: Running a Leveraged Solo Practice from Home: Hiring Staff and Delegating Tasks, Adaptive Payment Options, and Enrolling Clients Over the Phone

Lisa Brown began working with Unbundled Attorney less than two years ago. During this time, she transitioned from handling 100% of her practice alone to hiring a team of trained and competent staff to support her. Today Lisa walks us through her procedure for successfully hiring and training new staff members, including what tasks you should delegate and which ones you should not. Lisa often works from home and she has developed systems that enable her to enroll the majority of her new leads over the phone, without the need for office appointments. She explains what these systems are, as well her unique approach to the first phone consultation with each lead.

To read the complete transcript from this interview, click here.

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How to find a balance between family and business if you work from home
  • The steps for hiring support staff, including which task you should delegate first
  • When to hire a full-time secretary, and an effective training program to avoid losing clients in the process
  • The most important considerations while training staff members to call leads when you are unavailable
  • The monthly payment plan options she offers her clients, and how she communicates fee structures to the rest of her team
  • The core strategies that enable Lisa to enroll at least ½ of her leads right over the phone
  • How to detach from the results of each call, so you can apply your complete focus towards serving each client
  • The creative unbundled options Lisa offers, and how she adapts these options to the needs of each client
  • The typical retainer fees she quotes, as well as pricing for each unbundled option and different payment plans she makes available to her clients
  • The pluses and minuses of quoting flat fees
  • The technology and processes behind enrolling clients over the phone, including online practice management and billing tools
  • How to ensure each client feels cared about and their case is important, especially when you are handling a high volume of cases
  • Lome tips and tricks for tracking each case, and keeping your entire team updated every step of the way
  • And much more…

Resources Mentioned in this Episode

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