Should You Keep Your Lawyer Job, Start a Solo Practice, or Build Your Own Law Firm? A Case Study of the Journey Down Each Path, Lessons Learned Along the Way, and How to Make $500-$750 Per Hour Providing Unbundled Legal Services
Welcome to the Unbundled Attorney Mastermind Podcast. Below is the transcription of this episode from our Unbundled Attorney Mastermind Podcast. You can listen to the entire episode by clicking here.
All right, welcome to the Unbundled Attorney Mastermind podcast. We are happy to be back. It’s been a couple months since we last released our previous podcast episode. The decision to transition the podcast to a video podcast has taken a next-level investment of time, energy and team in order to make it happen. Obviously we’ve got cameras, equipment, a backdrop, all these things.
I appreciate your patience with waiting for this next episode. It’s something we’re committed to making sure that we have a new episode every month for you. Couldn’t be happier to be reissuing the podcast with my man Clay Wilkinson here. We’ve spent many, many years working together.
He’s one of the original, the first attorneys we worked with in Texas, in Dallas, so has been fielding literally thousands of leads from our company and has gone through a lot of different changes and evolutions to his practice. We’re looking forward to unpacking the chronicle of your journey and hearing about all the lessons you’ve learned along the way.
Clay Wilkinson: Happy to be here. Appreciate it.
Dave Aarons: Really appreciate you taking the time, man. I think what would be a really good place to start, just to get started, we were talking a little about your background and that you had a little bit of a different life prior to lawyering. Maybe you could share a little bit about your initial endeavors in broadcast journalism.
Clay Wilkinson: Sure. Yeah. This is all very familiar to me, this whole setup. Born and raised in Dallas, went to undergraduate school and then lived for seven years after in Washington, D.C., got a degree in Broadcast Journalism. As part of that, I worked at CBS News, 60 Minutes, National Public Radio, did some broadcasting for them, then worked in media relations and public relations and did a number of different projects where I was in New York and Washington and other places around the country, doing a lot of really just work day to day with news-makers and press and government officials and that sort of stuff, and kind of eventually got to a point where, once you know how to draft a press release, set up a press conference, talk to a reporter, message things a certain way, it just got very routine for me.
My grandfather on my mom’s side was a judge for a number of years in Dallas. My stepfather was an attorney for a long time as well. I had lawyers in my family. I knew what being an attorney day-to-day could be like, and I saw different types of attorneys just in friends and family and I thought, this is something where, with a Law degree alone, you don’t even have to practice law, you can do any number of different things, but if you do practice law, you can do any number of different things, too. So it appealed to me to come back home to Dallas, go to law school, and then start my legal career.
Dave Aarons: Where were you living at the time before that?
Clay Wilkinson: From Dallas originally, I went to school at American University in D.C., and then was in D.C. for 11 years, and then came back, and have been back in Dallas now for 11 years.
Dave Aarons: You did law school in Dallas?
Clay Wilkinson: I did, at SMU.
Dave Aarons: SMU?
Clay Wilkinson: Yeah.
Dave Aarons: All right. Take us through, when you graduated law school, did you go straight into working in a firm or were you working with Thomas? Can you take us through just those initial stages?
Clay Wilkinson: Sure. The funny thing as a way to get into it is, as you know, I only do family law now, and that’s really all I’ve done for most of my legal career. During law school, I think the summer after my second year, I had a clerkship with a judge in Dallas, and it was a fair amount of downtime, and she would say, “On your downtime, feel free to roam around the courthouse, pop in on this hearing, that hearing, see what you like, see what you don’t like,” and I distinctly remember going into a family court hearing.
I was the only one in the courtroom, except for the judge, the two attorneys, and the husband and wife who were arguing back and forth about who knows what. It was an old courthouse, old courtroom, dim lighting. It looked like the most miserable thing I’d ever seen, and I wanted nothing to do with it. I never thought I’d ever practice it, and then here I am.
It’s funny how that all develops, but I ended up graduating from law school in 2011. I got licensed that same year. I joined briefly for about six, seven months a civil defense firm, just a regular firm that, company sues a company, we defend against it. It was primarily a desk job. It was incredibly boring. It wasn’t satisfying in any way because really you’re just helping Company X save a million here, a million there. It wasn’t really doing any greater purpose, I didn’t feel.
Ultimately, one of my best friends from law school was a guy named Thomas Howery, who as you know was one of the original providing attorneys through the first version of Unbundled Attorney, and just decided to take a break from the civil defense environment, see if I could help him on some projects. He was doing primarily family law at the time as well, was getting leads from you back then. I think that was probably 2013 or 2014 when I-
Dave Aarons: ’13 or ’14, yeah.
Clay Wilkinson: … connected with him, and just threw some family law cases my way. I ended up-
Dave Aarons: This is five years ago.
Clay Wilkinson: Five years ago.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, baby.
Clay Wilkinson: That’s crazy. Threw some family law cases my way, ended up really enjoying working with people, doing important work for them that was personally important, feeling like you’re doing things that’s impacting their financial situation, the relationship of their kids, even the relationships with each other.
Then we just grew from there. It became a partnership, literally and figuratively. We opened up a small family law firm that was called Howery & Wilkinson. It was in existence for maybe three years total. At our, I’m not sure if “zenith” is the right word or apex or whatever, at our peak, it was him and me, we had an associate attorney, a contract attorney, we literally covered every county in the Dallas-Fort Worth area-
Dave Aarons: You had an associate that was in Fort Worth, right? Or was that the contract lawyer?
Clay Wilkinson: Well, our contract attorney was in Fort Worth.
Dave Aarons: That’s right.
Clay Wilkinson: We had an associate here in Dallas, had a bunch of office space, a couple support staff, and really we’re just churning and burning and doing pretty well.
Then, as you know, after about three-ish years, I got an offer to join a family law section at a very large downtown firm. At the time, it was the sort of scenario where, in my mind at the time, I saw it as maybe a step up in my career to be surrounded by attorneys that that had decades more experience than I did, be a part of a big firm environment, have the support and security that goes along with that, of course never having worked for a big firm before and not really knowing at that point what the downsides would be, and also, frankly, the salary offer, too, was compelling at that point in my career, having only been maybe a four- or five-year attorney at that point.
I made the decision to leave the partnership, join that large firm, worked there for about a year. It was about two months into that year that I realized I was miserable and made a big mistake, but you don’t want to, for résumé purposes and all that and bridge-building, you don’t want to just cut your losses after two months.
I stuck around for a year, and then just after about a year of being consistently miserable with the work demands, the loss of control over what clients you could help and not help, the fact that literally it was 7500 bucks up as far as initial retainers went, and if somebody could even over five, they wouldn’t even take the case, which to me seemed ridiculous, and then also the over-billing that would occur to justify partner salaries and profits and all the massive overhead that goes along with a big firm, I just felt like I wasn’t living either the personal life I wanted to live, the professional life I wanted to live, and really contributing with the skills and experience that I’ve developed at that point.
Long story short, I ended up making a decision in May of 2017 to leave that firm, not really with any exit strategy other than maybe I can find another place to work. Maybe I’ll just go solo. At least I knew initially I’d be solo.
Dave Aarons: Do you remember that moment when you made that decision? Like …
Clay Wilkinson: I did, yeah. I was talking with my wife and just saying, “I can’t keep doing this. I’m missing time with you, I’m missing time with the kids.” The salary wasn’t worth it at that point. The total loss of control over, again, who you help and how you help them was just really dispiriting to me.
Dave Aarons: Was there a number of clients that you wanted to provide services to but your hands were tied as far as … ?
Clay Wilkinson: Yeah. It almost got to the point where there were a couple people that I recall that, I probably shouldn’t admit this on TV or a recording, but people that I would just help on the side, that I wouldn’t really charge anything or just charge very minimally because they had a case where they needed help, I didn’t know enough good attorneys that were affordable enough to refer them to somebody and feel confident with that, and I just said, “It’s better for me to help you and do it the right way, even if it’s off the books, than to just send you on your way and leave you to the wolves.”
There were other people that I did have to turn away either because I didn’t have the bandwidth or they couldn’t come up with 7,000 to 10,000 bucks to retain that larger firm. I made the decision to leave. I knew at least in the interim I had to be solo, didn’t have any support staff, didn’t have anyone to help, didn’t really have any source of clients at that point except for maybe the dozen or so that came with me when I left that firm.
I think pretty soon after that, I reached back out to you and just had basically a very frank conversation with you about my evolution in my practice, the thought process that went behind my decision to join that large firm, my decision to leave the large firm, and you were gracious enough to bring me back onboard, help me-
Dave Aarons: I think Thomas was still working with us at the time-
Clay Wilkinson: Right.
Dave Aarons: … and so then, we had a conversation with Thomas and he was like, “Yeah …” I can’t remember what it was. I think we were rotating in … Or did you take over his leads at some point? I can’t remember exactly, but I think we were still working with him, I’m not sure.
Clay Wilkinson: Yeah, you’re right. It’s glossing over that part of it, but yeah, Thomas still had his own firm at that point, basically the revised version of what he maintained after I left, and even before-
Dave Aarons: I think you guys still stayed separate, though. That was the thing is like, did we go from you working with Thomas, and then you started working for a big firm, and then you came back and worked with Thomas again-
Clay Wilkinson: Right.
Dave Aarons: … but I think you guys still stayed separate that second time around, eh?
Clay Wilkinson: The second time around from a practical standpoint, we stayed separate. He maintained his firm, I had my own thing, but we still cooperated in a logistical way, case-management way, and with your blessings, started to split off some of the leads again. He was still primarily … the leads would go to his firm and then I was there essentially as a contract attorney, getting reacquainted with Unbundled and the way that you guys operate, and then also some coaching and guidance from you initially as well.
Dave Aarons: I’ll make a quick segue just for those that don’t know. The way we work with Unbundled Attorney is we provide exclusive leads, and so, Thomas was servicing the counties that Clay was interested in coming onboard in, and so, we wouldn’t just bring on a new attorney without making sure that the existing attorneys are happy with splitting the volume because if it’s an exclusive lead, it’s only going to one lawyer.
That’s what we worked out with Thomas. We said, “Hey, Thomas, we have Clay who wants to come back on. Are you okay with splitting the volume or do you want to work together?” We had these conversations because, when you’re building a firm and you’re getting a high volume of clients, that requires support staff or hiring contract lawyers or getting infrastructure in place in order to be able to serve a high volume of clients. There’s no other way to do it.
If we were to help you build up a firm and then just all of a sudden brought on a couple more lawyers and the volume just dropped, and all these people are out of a job and suffer, so we take that really seriously. That was that transition that we worked through with you and Thomas and ended up working out pretty well.
Clay Wilkinson: It did, yeah. Fortunately really for him and for me, he made a personal decision a handful of months after I came back in the fold to leave doing family law to, again with your blessing and his blessing as well, leave all of the leads that he was getting primarily to then with me. He transitioned out of the family law environment more to a civil litigation, more secure, in his mind, environment, and then I took things over from there.
I think at the time, I was exclusively Dallas, and really all the other counties that he was servicing at that time, which I think are Rockwall, Collin County, maybe even Ellis County at that point, but it was four, five counties with just me.
Dave Aarons: That’s why I’m smiling is I remember that was the next phase, because it’s a high volume. Dallas is one of the highest-volume counties in the entire country. I think you would get anywhere from 7 to 15 sometimes leads a day?
Clay Wilkinson: Right.
Dave Aarons: We can certainly chronicle that a little bit as far as that process and the conversations we had around, “Hey, man, how do you want to approach this?” because when you’re dealing with how many clients, you have to grow or make some adjustments. Can you maybe just talk a little bit about that process?
Clay Wilkinson: Sure, yeah. The volume then was the same that the volume was when Thomas and I had that small firm. Like you said, seven to literally sometimes a day, 15 leads would come in, where it’s just you feel like every five minutes, your phone is binging with somebody that needs help.
When we were the small firm, it was great because we had somebody in Tarrant County, in Fort Worth that we could farm those to. We had an associate here we could farm those to. Thomas and I could split those. We had a paralegal and assistant that could help manage the volume.
When I then came back in and after Thomas transitioned out, it’s literally just me trying to handle up to 15 per day, which very quickly, of course you think in the beginning, well, this will be great, I’ll have all these potentia clients coming in, I’ll make all this money and this will be fantastic, and then the tidal wave hits.
You wake up from being washed up onshore and you realize, I can’t do this. Not only is it a matter of me not being capable of doing that, it’s doing a disservice to the people that really do need help, because frankly if you’re just ignoring or can’t properly service the people that are hitting submit day in and day out, then you’re not really doing what you’re supposed to be doing.
I reached out to you pretty quickly and I said, “I appreciate the volume. I can’t handle it. What can we do?” Again, we brought on some other provider attorneys in the area, reduced the volume, allowed me to then better serve those clients, and then again, with the other people who went through the training process, learned how to provide Unbundled the way that you think is best, it really became much more manageable, and then the quality of service that you’re providing is that much better, too.
Dave Aarons: Maybe we can talk through that just a little bit as far as how we figured out the best course of action, because there’s a lot of options as far as, hey, you’re getting a volume of clients, you’re getting so much business, you can’t even handle the amount of clients. It’s a good problem to have, but it still has its own challenge.
There was a few directions that we could’ve gone right there, like, hey, we could hire, we could get an associate involved, you could build a firm like the one you had with Thomas, but that wasn’t something you felt like you wanted to do. Maybe you can talk about that conversation we had and why you felt you wanted to pursue the direction you did at the time.
Clay Wilkinson: Yeah. I will say, to your credit, one of the things that I’ve really come to admire and appreciate about the company and the organization that you’ve created and the sort of person that you are is, I can’t think of another company that in a lot of ways is a for-profit company, of course you have the different foundation ventures that you have and some of the nonprofit things that you’re exploring into, but it’s still a for-profit company, whose CEO and founder is willing to invest personal time and in a lot of ways personal resources in having each of the provider attorneys succeed in the way that they want, as long as you’re adhering to the mission and the principles and the goals of Unbundled Attorney.
The conversation that we had was, again, to your point, you can do any of those things. You can scale up, you can stay solo, you can create a large firm, you can hire a bunch of different contract attorneys, never practice law and just manage that process, you can do really anything you want to do, and you make yourself available to say, “Whatever you want to do, I’ll find a way to support that.” I just, for a variety of personal reasons, partly I’m a control freak and don’t trust a whole lot of other people …
Dave Aarons: We’re working on this.
Clay Wilkinson: We’re working on that. My wife appreciate the work, but I just made a personal decision to say, at least at this point in my career, I feel most comfortable, and maybe in some ways it was a reaction to feeling totally restrained and constrained by the large firm environment I had just come from where, not only do you have to ask to do everything, you get one answer from one person and a different answer from the other person, and they sometimes don’t align. That was just very frustrating for me.
I know at the time, I really felt the desire to do my own thing, be accountable only to myself, trusting myself and the quality of my work, and whether it’s just inertia or whatever the case, it’s remained that way for the last year and a half, but I know at any point I could’ve called you, and we have had conversations since then about maybe moving in different directions, maybe we can talk about that more today, too, but I know whatever direction I wanted to go in, and if that changed at any point in the last year and a half, that you would be there to support that and help find a way to make it work.
Dave Aarons: Well, absolutely. I think it speaks just to the quality of the relationship and what we’re doing here. I really appreciate being able to work with you. It’s a privilege to find lawyers that have the same, you mentioned earlier on, a greater purpose, a desire to serve.
You literally left a full-time salary with a big full-service law firm within months or maybe a year because you just felt like you need to do the right thing, and again, about your integrity, pulled away from that guarantee with, like you said, not even an exit plan, just, hey, this isn’t the right thing to do, I want to serve these people.
You’re literally volunteering time on the side or finding ways to serve these people that the firm wouldn’t. That’s not usual. It’s been great, and it’s the best part of what we do is we get to work with attorneys like yourself that won’t settle for that kind of a life, won’t settle for anything less than doing great work and also serving people in a meaningful way, and obviously giving people access to services that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.
We love what we’re doing here, and so we’re happy to support attorneys like yourself in whatever way, shape or form that’s going to take. To what you were discussing here, there is a lot of different options and ways in which we can make that work.
We’ve had attorneys like yourself that have stayed solo, and then we just brought on additional attorneys to help handle the volume where, when a lead comes in, multiple leads come in, just one lead goes to this attorney, then the next lead goes to the next attorney, the next lead goes to the next attorney, and then it goes back. We split up the volume.
Then there’s the option of hiring in-house associates or creating a partnership, where attorneys work within the firm either as partners or you’re hiring them as an actual employee in the firm, and then you have the option where you can hire contract lawyers, where you do the initial consultation, then hand that client off to that contract lawyer, and that contract lawyer handles it from start to finish. Then you have the option where you can handle a higher volume of cases yourself if you just get some support staff.
Maybe what would be helpful is, when we look at those options, how you analyzed for yourself at the time why you went the solo route and also continue … I don’t think even at the time you wanted to have any support staff or a secretary. You were straight solo, which is, a lot of attorneys go that route, and it’s a respectful choice.
Then I think we’re also making some transitions to go more of the contract route as well, but what was your analysis given those options at the time? Why did you go that direction as opposed to others? I think that might help with attorneys that are in a similar position for better understanding how to make those decisions for themselves.
Clay Wilkinson: It’s a good question. Really, as I reflect back on it, I wish I had a better answer than this. I think the main reason I chose to do what I did was pure survival at that point. To your point and what I’ve said, I didn’t have any exit strategy. I just made a decision based on reaching a critical mass of displeasure at the previous firm where I said I can’t do this anymore.
The nature of that work at that large firm is I either had to make a decision to pull the parachute and jump ship or spend a whole bunch of time trying to sneak around and interview with other firms and with other attorneys and try to do contract work, and I literally didn’t have the time or the opportunities to go down that path, either. Who knows how long that would’ve taken? It could’ve taken a month, six months, a year. Who knows? When I made the decision to leave that firm, and then again just land on my feet and try to get things going in a way that would produce enough income to support me and my family and our expenses and all that, I didn’t really have time or an opportunity to find a partner or hire an associate or even find a good paralegal or a legal assistant that could help at that point.
As time went by, I certainly could’ve done a lot of the standard things that people do like hire an assistant or a secretary or find an associate or a contract attorney to help. I just think at that point, and as time went on …
The other part of it, too, is at that time, Thomas was still actually using the office space that we’re in. He’s since vacated. I’ve now taken over this office space, but at that time, I didn’t have an office space, either, and I didn’t know in theory, am I going to find a paralegal who worked from home and I’ll work from home, and how do you make that work?
In my mind, there were enough survival-based obstacles to me doing anything but just being purely solo at that point, and then as enough time went by and I was able to not only survive but really thrive and do well at it, then you get to a point, well, if I can do all this and still have a personal life and not be totally burned out, why do I want to then write 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 bucks to somebody else if I can just do the work myself and keep it myself?
Now, that calculation has changed over the last several months as the volume has ebbed and flowed and we’re in a different position now than we were then because there’s some county-shifting and things like that, which we’ll talk about, but that at least was the initial analysis, for lack of a better word. There really wasn’t a whole lot of analysis, but that was the thinking going into it.
Dave Aarons: At the time, so you didn’t have office space. Can you just talk about how you were making it work as a solo without an office space, at what point you then got the office space, and for solos that, maybe you’re just coming out of law school or transitioning away from a firm, how they can maybe manage it a little bit in the meantime and get their feet wet?
Because I think the decisions you made were completely understandable given your situation: coming from a firm, didn’t want to deal with managing a lot of people. Obviously you were feeling constricted from that. Also, you didn’t have office space, so you didn’t want to take on more overhead than you’re confident that you can cover, so you want to run a lean ship at the beginning and make sure you’ve got your bases covered, then make the next step.
Could you maybe walk through like, okay, I was a solo, I didn’t have office? Take us through the steps that you followed to then get the office space and maybe arrive to where we eventually arrive before we go in here.
Clay Wilkinson: Sure. I think in March of 2017, so maybe two, three months before I decided to leave that firm, my wife and I, and this is another testament to how crazy and out of my mind potentially I was when I left that firm, we bought a new house that was an upgrade on the house we had before.
One of the features of this house was I had a home office. It really appealed to me to actually be able to work from home as much as I could and just wake up and roll into the office and work on my own time and all that. That appealed to me.
Dave Aarons: Less traffic.
Clay Wilkinson: Exactly, a lot less traffic. That was part of the decision.
Another bit of context is when Thomas and I were still Howery & Wilkinson before I left that to join the large firm, we signed a five-year lease on the current office space that I’m operating out of that we’re doing this broadcast from. When I left, I still helped out from time to time with the rent. Thomas was primarily in charge of that, just because he was using the space and using all the office space here and including this conference room that we’re in today.
When I came back and started going solo again, he was still here using this space. I was, again, still helping pay that rent, so it didn’t make sense, again, like you said, from an overhead standpoint, I don’t know what client’s going to come in the door tomorrow, I don’t know what expenses I can meet, I’m already paying this mortgage, I might as well use that primarily as my office space.
Then what I started to do with him is just say, “Hey, from time to time, could I come back into the conference room as long as you’re not using it and use this to meet clients and potential clients?” Eventually, as you know, when he transitioned out of not only family law but out of this office space, I then came in and took over. I still work from home, primarily, but I do use this space to meet clients and potential clients and I also, as you saw, sublease out the actual office space to other practicing attorneys.
Now, I will say, to get to your point about for people that are deciding to go solo or make their transition, how do you find space that’ll work for you, not everybody can-
Dave Aarons: Or at what point do you even make that decision. Obviously, you get a certain amount of clients. How were you doing when you were working from home? Did you meet people at coffee shops? Where you going into coworking spaces?
Clay Wilkinson: Yeah. I’d met people from time to time at coffee shops or if they had an office we could use. Inevitably, you have enough people that are like, are you really a legitimate lawyer that you’re meeting me at a Starbucks in the afternoon? Maybe if I was 30 years in and they’re thinking, this is cool that he’s leaving the office to go do this, but not as somebody who looks a little bit younger and all that. It looks like I don’t know what I’m doing or don’t have an established practice, which in some ways I didn’t.
It just got to a point where I realized, even if for nothing more than just appearance purposes, I needed a professional place that was consistent, that people could come to and meet me with at, and it’s a shame you can’t see the whole setup here, because it’s a nice wraparound conference room space with a lot of natural light and looks out on a nice highway and all that, to the extent a highway can be nice, but it’s a great space to meet clients and potential clients.
Again, Thomas at the time was generous enough to just be a good friend and a good former business partner and say, “Sure, you can use it whenever you want.” Then, when he transitioned out of it, then it really became my primary place to meet clients and potential clients.
My situation’s unique in the sense that I always had that home office there as a way to just do work at home. I had this space available to meet clients and potential clients. This lease actually ends in April of 2019. What I’ve already started to looking into doing, which I would really recommend to other solos who don’t have that unique home office, this kind of setup, is there are a number of places like Regis, Le Méridian that offer a …
You can pay just a regular, normal monthly fee, you can either have an actual work office space or not, but typically one of the benefits is they have a conference room like this that you can share with other attorneys. You can book it as you need it. They give you a certain package of hours. It’s a way to not have to invest a ton of overhead in an exclusive space but have all the amenities and the things that you would need to run a successful practice.
The last thing I’ll say, too, is, which we were commenting on before we started, with all the technology and apps and everything that exists now, you really can be a full-functioning, efficient, productive solo practitioner without a whole lot of necessity for a big, sprawling office space that you own exclusively, whether it’s Dropbox on your phone, Clio, Google Voice, any of the other apps, Calendly, things that will help you with your practice.
I would just encourage people to be as creative as they can be about finding space, understanding there are a variety of different options out there, and then with all the technology that exists, that can only further maximize what you can get out of any particular office space.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, absolutely. We can maybe unpack some of those tools that you’ve implemented that have made a pretty big difference in the way in which you do every initial consultation and how you book people and all these types of things, Calendly being one of them and practice management software. We can do that, well, maybe cover that towards the end.
What I’d love to do is just bring us up to date, because obviously you were working from this conference room, we started to explore a little bit about contract lawyers and starting to figure out a way to handle this volume, because as the business grows, you get more referrals, obviously with our lead generation, continuing to ramp up, as it does.
Take us through where things are at in the last maybe couple months and some of the decisions you’re now making and some of the relationships you’re now forging and what was it that made you want to start to switch, obviously the volume being one of them, of course, and that might be the main one. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about what that next stage is, so as you started running for solo for a long time and now you’re starting to consider getting some of that work off your plate.
Clay Wilkinson: Sure. You and I have joked that the nature of the leads is it’s either feast or famine in some ways. There’s never a consistent sweet spot where you’re like, okay, day to day, this is perfect.
Over the last year and a half, there have been different versions where I started out with Dallas and all these counties exclusively, I reached out to you. I said, “It’s too much. I can’t continue to do this in a way that makes sense.” I think you brought on, at that point, at least [inaudible 00:31:00] in Collin County, who split some of the Collin leads. I think she’s still there.
Dave Aarons: Yep.
Clay Wilkinson: There was another Dallas attorney who helped split the Dallas volume. I may still be exclusive in Rockwall. I can’t recall. I think I didn’t do Tarrant at that point because Fort Worth, for my office location, is a little bit too far. It didn’t make sense.
It almost got to a point where it went a little bit too far maybe in the other direction, and so I reached out to you the last handful of months and said, “I love the work that I’m able to do with the clients that come through your service. Is there a way that I could maybe expand out to Denton County, for example, which is in the northwest part of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and just tinker with some of those relationships?”
Ultimately it’s to the point now where I may be exclusively in Denton, I think, Dallas, I believe, is between one provider and me, Collin, same thing, still have Rockwall, and I’m getting probably … Today it was nutty, as you know, but generally, it’s probably four to six to seven leads per day, which, for a time was great, but again, as you know and as we talked about, it gets to a point where, when the volume is okay for a while, inevitably you start to fill your plate more and more to the point where now it’s at the point where if somebody calls me today and I look at my calendar and I’m setting an appointment for, today’s Monday, I’m setting an appointment for Friday because I’ve got a hearing tomorrow morning, tomorrow afternoon, appointments in the morning on Wednesday, today’s Monday again, basically just booked solid because of all the work that’s come in the last couple months.
You get to a point where you don’t want to decrease the volume, you want to continue being able to help people in a way that we’re committed to helping people. What I’ve been doing is reaching out to other attorneys that I know and that I trust to say, “Would you be willing to come onboard, commit to serving people in the way that Unbundled is committed to serving people, and I’ll handle all the administrative, logistical stuff about billing and practice management and all that? You have the opportunity to get essentially clients handed to you, you practice law, and that’s really all you do.”
The benefit of that, frankly there’s a financial incentive for me to do it because that’s passive money in my pocket essentially-
Dave Aarons: Leveraged income. That’s right.
Clay Wilkinson: Right. There’s a benefit to them because it’s work that they can do that’s the unbundled model, and then there’s the global benefit of that’s more clients that are being served in the way that we’re committed to as unbundled provider attorneys.
It’s really a win-win. I’m still in the interview decision-making phase. I’ve had a number of calls over the last week or so, but it’s getting to a point where, again, I think literally I’ve got about 10 leads that have come in today and it’s just now about 7:00 in the evening, I’ll probably get another one or two tonight, and if I have a good call later tonight with somebody and also with the other person I spoke with this morning, they’re ready to set up to take the clients now. Those are people that can be served that I at this point may not even be able to serve this week that would just get passed on to who knows who at that point forward. It’s been an evolution, but a good one.
Dave Aarons: At each stage in the game, there’s new decisions that had to be made. That’s just the process of building a firm, of course, and it’s not just our lead generation. The more clients you serve, the more clients they’re referring you, you get a reputation going, and you go off different kinds of sources. At each different level, there’s just new challenges in order.
If you want to be able to continue to, like you said, be the one to serve those clients and ensure that they’re receiving the types of service options that we provide, that might actually be a good point for you. Maybe if you could verbalize or share what your vision of what unbundled services commitment is, how you’ve integrated that in your practice, some of the service options you offer that, when you’re going to be hiring a contract lawyer, this is the types of things that these lawyers would have to be want to be a part of in order to work with you and your firm.
Clay Wilkinson: Sure. I think one of the stories that I told you when I was leaving that large firm and going back to being solo at the time was the story of somebody who literally had a no-child, minimal-property agreed divorce that I represented, that the client was handed to me by a partner at the large firm. I had to do a little bit of legal research on the case, draft some pleadings, eventually walked into court to get the divorce finalized.
At my current firm, as a solo, that type of work could potentially be less than $1,000 total, maybe a little bit more just depending. That could be unbundled, could certainly be an hourly rate retainer deal, just depends. At that firm, I think the final bill for their case, because partners were involved, I was involved, there was over-billing that occurred on the partner side, it ended up costing that person I think over $7,000 for an agreed divorce.
Again, no children, no appreciable property to divide or split. The marriage, I think literally that was maybe a year and a half old. I was personally put off by that and I had to try to put on a good face to the person and justify what the costs were, but even then, I was conceding, this is ridiculous.
What I see the benefit of unbundled attorney being and being a provider attorney as part of that is, and especially as a solo, too, in some ways, is when somebody contacts me and you get a sense for, even if you don’t get a sense for what their income is, because frankly it really shouldn’t matter, being able to offer them a whole range of options and opportunities for, I can charge you a flat fee for this or that, I can charge you by the hour and do regular retainer if you feel that’s more appropriate, whatever the case may be, the fact that I and other unbundled attorneys are willing to look at any scenario and say, instead of, “Unless you can pay me $10,000 today, I can help you to call somebody else,” it’s, “What can you do? How can I match my services up to what you can do in a way that makes sense for you and me?”
That’s really the literal opportunity. What I do with any initial telephone consultation and then later when I meet somebody if they come into the office, is run through the pros and cons of both sides of it, run through their budget and their finances and what they’re comfortable spending, and then being as creative and open as I can be to meeting their goals, both on a legal side and also on a financial side.
The last thing I’ll say about it is, if anyone, and I encourage every potential client to do this, to Google my name, read my client reviews. I literally, over the course of my solo career, and when I was with Thomas at that previous firm, have never had a single person complain about a bill, about a charge, contest anything, and I’ve represented hundreds of people over that time. All the reviews that you find online for me are all five-star reviews. I don’t manipulate that. That’s just what people have left. I’ve literally never gotten a bad review, at the risk of jinxing myself. Knock on fake wood.
I think a lot of that comes from the fact that if you’re willing to be creative and flexible about how you offer your services, if you’re willing to meet their budget and expectations with your services, then there’s never going to be a time where they feel like they’re being taken advantage of or manipulated in some way because the conversation at the very beginning starts with, what do you want, what can you afford, and how can I meet that, rather than, pay me 10 grand, and the next thing they know, they’re getting a $30,000 bill that didn’t make any sense.
Dave Aarons: All right. Maybe it would be helpful if you could unpack some of those service options that maybe attorneys either have a little bit of experience using or maybe this might be the first time that they’re hearing about unbundled services and maybe they had a traditional big full-service retainer and that was it, and so this could be an opportunity for them to start to explore some new different kind of options they could offer so that they could tailor the amount of service they’re providing to their budget and be able to meet people’s needs more affordably.
Maybe if you could unpack a little bit about the suite of options that you could potentially offer, and again, that’s evolved over the course of the year. We’ve worked together and all the different conversations we’ve had, so maybe you can even start a little bit with what you started offering and then some of the things you developed over the years and how that’s helped.
Clay Wilkinson: Well, maybe a good way to try and explain it, and if ultimately you want some more information than this, let me know, but-
Dave Aarons: Sure.
Clay Wilkinson: … a good example of it is a guy that I’ve told you that I represent now fully in a divorce in Collin County that has both children and property.
He started out a classic scenario where he told me upfront he doesn’t trust attorneys, he has the money to pay a full retainer, but didn’t want to necessarily do it, felt that he was smart and diligent and productive enough that he could do some work himself and research some things himself and we could be a partnership in that way, but felt more comfortable at the time both financially and also practically really representing himself in court and having me do on a case-by-case basis some unbundled options.
For example, what I did for him was, his case was filed I think in spring of this year, the judge set a very quick trial date just a couple of months after filing, and he wanted to get a continuance on the trial date, get it pushed back some, and have the judge order some other things as it relates to the case.
I charged him a relatively low flat fee to prepare the paperwork for him, file it for him, meet with him in advance of the hearing and advise him, okay, you’re going to go to court, here’s how you introduce this kind of evidence in Texas, here’s how you make this sort of legal argument, if you want a witness to appear, they don’t want to come, here’s how you subpoena them, here’s how this particular judge likes to hear and consider certain things, and really just prepare him to go to court and be fully armed in a way that, without any sort of help, he’d be swimming without a life raft.
I did a number of different things for him like that, whether it was drafting discovery for him later, responding to discovery for him when it was served on him, doing some other pleadings along the way, and ultimately he got to a point where he came to me one day and said, “You’ve so impressed me not only with the quality of work that you’ve done, but the fact that you were willing to do that at first and be creative in that way and trust that I’m not going to screw up the advice that you’ve given me and trust that I can go to court and execute this in a way that I think makes sense,” so he came back to me and ended up hiring me fully and paying a retainer and billing by the hour, and still he continues to be impressed with how respectful I am with his time and his money and all that.
I’ve got in my own practice my own list of things that I offer in an unbundled basis, and to further clarify, I do it really one of two ways. Texas is a difficult state, as you know, for unbundled because most judges, if not all judges, expect that when you get on a case and your name is on the pleading and your law firm’s associated with it, that you’re on the case until either you go through the whole hassle of a withdrawal process or formal withdrawal process or the case ends.
What I either have to do is do unbundled paired with a motion to withdraw and an order already signed by the client approving the withdrawal if things get out of hand and they don’t want to continue to pay for it, or I stay officially out of the case and I advise them and do paperwork and documentation behind the scenes. That works really well. Literally, the sky is the limit as far as how far you can break down your practice into all its different components and the different services that you can offer.
One thing that I’ll say, and I’m happy to go into whatever detail you’d like, but one thing that I remember you telling me when we were talking about how to further break it down to into all its different components, is my initial pricing on that and my thought process was, okay, if I look at how many hours it would take me to do X, I’ll then multiply that by my hourly rate, and that’s what I’ll charge the person.
You came back to me and you said, “Well, that’s fair, that’s fine, but also recognize that there is a premium in the fact that you’re offering that in a way that nine-plus out of ten other attorneys are not going to. You can bump it up a little bit because you’re offering them benefit that many other attorneys are not going to. Ultimately, even if you do bump up a bit, it’s still far less expensive than a lot of other attorneys who charge for the same thing under a traditional expensive retainer hourly rate model.”
To that point, if I was going to charge X for a pleading that would take I think about an hour, maybe I charge the equivalent of an hour and a half’s worth of time, again, because I’m providing the benefit and the service. That’s how I approach it now as far as how I price it, what I offer, and again, you can break it down as far as you want to go in terms of what your particular state’s litigation models offer.
Dave Aarons: Maybe it would be helpful if we can unpack an example of what something you would normally look at and do the hours of and then … It is important that we flesh out this idea of, well, is unbundled mean, okay, if something takes me three hours to do, then I just charge them three hours times my hourly rate, and then there is the money to what I charge, but the reality is, like you said, maybe 1% or 2% of attorneys on a whole are offering unbundled legal services and are willing to give someone a service in a family law case that’s contested, that cost anywhere from $300, $400 up to $1,000, anything less than $2,500 or $2,000, even the new solos, if they’re doing for a presentation, it would be $1,500 to $2,000.
To be offering a service option that’s $500, $700, $1,000, whatever it might be, it’s such a … I’m sure the clients respond that way. They’re like, “Well, yeah, of course I can fit that in the budget. That sounds great.” “If we could do this, this and this, would that work for you?” “Yeah, that would work for me, man! I wish I had found you a long time ago!” Because it really isn’t available, and there’s obviously hundreds, if not thousands, of clients out there that lead to that service that are otherwise going unrepresented because they just don’t even have access to and don’t even know what’s available. Right?
Clay Wilkinson: Right.
Dave Aarons: To them, they feel very appreciative that there’s even an attorney that’s willing to work with them and provide them advice, help with their documents, getting them through the process at a rate that is roughly about a fifth of what most attorneys would charge as a starting retainer.
That’s a value. That’s a value in the sense that you’re open and willing, and also, you’ve gone through the process to understand, okay, how do I do a limited-scope retainer agreement, what are the ways in which I can structure it, what are the different service options I can provide? There’s a whole process to figuring out, okay, how do I deliver it? That’s just a great benefit just to be open and willing to figuring out, okay, what do I need to do to effectively and ethically deliver this? There’s that piece. That’s a value to the client.
Then as far as your building of it, the other piece of it is, okay, well, does it have to take me three hours to do it? Because when you’re doing a traditional hourly model, is there a benefit really to becoming more efficient? Not really. From an integrity standpoint, yes. If I can do this faster, ought I? Yes, you probably ought to. You don’t want to waste the client’s money. That’s something you obviously believe in wholeheartedly.
As at running a for-profit business, it doesn’t inherently, necessarily have a benefit to do so, whereas if you’re offering unbundled services on a flat rate, and let’s say you do the math on it, your hourly rate is $250 an hour, you should be $750, you add in a bit of a premium, you charge $850 or $900 for delivering the document services, advising and whatever the package is. We talked about a few different ones.
What if there was a way where you could automate some of the document preparation or you could hire a paralegal? The value of $950 to a client is still what it is. They’re really stoked about that. They’re receiving a service that 95%, 98% of attorneys won’t provide them, and the only other option is to have to do it themselves. They’re obviously happy. That’s a great value to the client.
Now, the question is, does it have to take three hours? Are there ways in which we could streamline, automate the process? As far as the things that have to happen over and over again, for every family law case in every type of situation, the intake procedure, the data entry of that case information into the documents, who’s going to prepare it? Are you going to review it?
Using a paralegal or support staff doesn’t necessarily cost as much as if you do. There’s a lot of things that can be done there where, now for $950, what if we could change that to, instead of taking three hours, now it’s two hours or one hour? Right now, the effect of hourly rates start to change. These are the opportunities that unbundled presents, and rightfully so. Rightfully so that the attorney should benefit from that.
Maybe you could talk just a little bit about … maybe give a couple of examples and maybe some things you’ve done to become more efficient now that you have a more clear incentive to do so in ways that have worked well for you.
Clay Wilkinson: Sure. The easiest example that I have of that is, usually an agreed divorce scenario where somebody comes to me and either they have children and property or they don’t have kids but property, or they don’t have either, but they know that they’ve worked out all the terms with their spouse, they’re both onboard with the divorce, they don’t want to spend a whole bunch in going to court or even mediation, and they come to me and they say, “Here are the terms of our agreement. Can you help me with the paperwork?”
Ultimately, going to court in Texas, you have to show up in court at the end of the process to appear in front of the judge, run through a series of yes-no questions, have the judge grant the divorce and sign the decree. Under that scenario, what I’ve managed to do as a way to illustrate this is, I typically charge anywhere from a flat fee of on the low end, $1,000, on the high end maybe up to $1,500, that typically includes the filing fee, which can be $300 to $350, that the county collects when you file for divorce.
There is no service fee to have them literally serve because usually they’re signing a waiver. It’s like a waiver divorce. What that includes is all the paperwork from start to finish, the initial divorce petition, the divorce decree and any closing documents, and then also my time going to court with them at the end of it to, again, prove up the divorce in front of the judge.
What I do is, even though I don’t have a full-time paralegal or an assistant or another contract attorney at this point, I do have a virtual paralegal who works for a number of other attorneys in the area who does most of my paperwork, including initial divorce petitions and divorce decrees and closing documents.
Under that scenario, what I do is I pitch the flat fee unbundled service, it’s cost-controlled, it’s far less than a large retainer that they would pay at most other firms, and I then farm the literal work out to the virtual paralegal, who literally charges me $19 an hour to do that.
Of course I review everything, and I know she’s got 25 years experience doing all this, she has all the right forms, I review it as a quality control check at the end, but I say, over the course of each particular agreed divorce case, maybe I spend at most an hour’s worth of my attorney time reviewing documents and going to court with them, but if you’re making three to four hours’ worth in profit, it makes a lot of sense.
Again, to your point, they’re getting good quality work that’s being checked and managed by an attorney, they’re getting a financial benefit and a service that gets them from start to finish without having to pay a lot more, and then on the attorney provider side, you’re getting the financial benefit, too, of knowing that you’re committing a minimal but good amount of time on something, but realizing more profit as a result of how you’re handling it.
Dave Aarons: This is so important, I think, for attorneys to recognize and understand, because a lot of attorneys think, well, if you do unbundled legal services, you’re helping lower-income people, you’re going to make less money, and that’s second-rate, low-class, and you can’t build necessarily a very profitable business doing that.
That is a myth that, it’s been like a mission in a sense with the podcast and all these different examples to dispel, because it’s just absolutely not true. Because you take that same client, and how long did it take you … It used to take you, if you didn’t have the virtual paralegal, maybe, was it two, three hours, something like that, to do the same thing if you were doing it all?
Clay Wilkinson: Sometimes more, because I’ve never really taken the time to get acquainted with some of the document-building software that she uses. I would literally start with a by-scratch divorce decree, which in Texas if you have children and property, can end up being 40 to 50 to 60 pages long, and just craft the whole thing from start to finish. Sometimes those could take five, six, seven hours, depending on how complicated it would be.
Dave Aarons: So why probably a lot of attorneys charge two, three grand for that same thing, because they’re looking at it and it’s like, hey, I’m $300 an hour, it’s going to take me about six hours, so $1,800, $2,000, $2,500 for a little bit extra just to make sure if they’re doing it as a flat rate. Now, because of the fact you’ve leveraged a little bit and doing it as a flat rate, you’re charging about $1,000, $1,500 or so?
Clay Wilkinson: Right.
Dave Aarons: With a virtual paralegal, how much does she usually charge for you to draft that for you?
Clay Wilkinson: I’d say the total, $20 to $40.
Dave Aarons: Cool. $1,000, $1,500, you put in about an hour or two, usually of your own attorney time, to make sure … Does that include the consultation? Does that include the initial setup and so forth, the intake?
Clay Wilkinson: I offer them one of two options. I should go into a point because you mentioned this before, making sure that you’re doing unbundled and limited scope representation ethically in a way that not only protects the client, but protects you, too, both ethically and also practically, because what you don’t want is any sort of misunderstanding later in the case about what you’re actually agreeing to do and the scope of your representation.
What I offer at the outset is really two options. I can say, I’m happy to do an essentially document-based final court appearance-type model where you’re not getting legal advice from me, you’re giving me your agreement, I’m handling all the logistics to get you from start to finish and get you divorced. I can offer legal advice, I can offer a whole host of other services in the event this becomes contested and breaks down, but that’s a different agreement and different compensation.
As you know, the two different types of things that I offer any potential client that comes in the door is an initial free phone consultation, followed by a $200 paid consultation for an hour in my office if they want it. Under the agreed divorce scenario that I’m describing, for their convenience and their budget, what I say is, I can email you an employment agreement that’s clear, that protects you and me. I can email you an intake form that you can fill out and get back to me. Here’s a website through LawPay that you can use to make your debit or credit card payment.
In other words, we never have to meet. You never have to take time out of your busy day to come sit with me in my office. I don’t have to take up that time to meet with you. If you want to have an hour-long consultation and get all the advice in the world so you can then have a productive conversation with your spouse about kid issues and property issues and how to divide everything, I’m happy to, but that’s the additional $200 consultation fee.
The point of it is that I really offer both options. They can just pay the flat fee, get divorced from start to finish, they give me their agreement, or I can do all that, plus the $200 consultation, and still make some more money off that time as well.
Dave Aarons: If they come in, they pay the extra $200, that’s a separate thing, but for the uncontested divorce, $1,000, $1,500, if they do it online, it’s about an hour or two of your time roughly?
Clay Wilkinson: Right.
Dave Aarons: So your typical hourly rate is … ?
Clay Wilkinson: $275.
Dave Aarons: $275. So your effective hourly rate when providing this type of unbundled document services for an uncontested divorce, so it’s about an hour or two of time, you’re collecting about $1,000, $1,500, that’s about $750? Well, if it’s $1,000, so it’d be $500 to $750 an hour, right?
Clay Wilkinson: Right.
Dave Aarons: It’s almost two or three times that to deliver a service that 95% of lawyers wouldn’t necessarily deliver at that price point, but your effective hourly rate is two or three times what you would normally make on a full-service retainer of $10,000 upfront.
Are there a lot of clients that would be pretty happy to receive services for these rates? Yeah, of course there is. It’s an entirely a new way of looking at the marketplace and so forth that has worked well, but this is a really easy example. It’s an uncontested divorce. Any attorney can do an uncontested divorce unbundled.
I would like to talk about a contested issue, because a lot of attorneys won’t look at a contested. Maybe we can cover ethics in doing this unbundled services or these types of options, Texas being one of the most conservative states. We’re going to have a number of attorneys coming on the podcast in Texas because we’re doing a Texas swing, so we’re going to be talking about this a lot, but maybe, we mentioned that briefly, how do you protect yourself?
Let’s talk about contested. Just like that client you gave as an example, you were dealing with a contested matter, you’re helping him with pleadings, you’re doing responses, you’re advising. How would you go about delivering unbundled services within that frame, both protecting your firm as well and for the client’s sake?
Clay Wilkinson: Sure. From my perspective, what I try to do, again, to protect the client, to protect me, to make sure there’s no miscommunication or ambiguity going forward, is to be very clear in a written employment agreement right at the outset of exactly what I’m agreeing to do, and also what I’m not agreeing to do.
You have to be abundantly clear. Even if you feel like it’s going to put them off as far as saying I’m not doing this, I’m not doing that, blah blah blah, it just behooves you, again, on both sides of it for you to be totally clear about what the employment agreement actually is.
Also, feeling totally comfortable if they start trying to take advantage of it at some point down the road and ping you with this or want to know this or want you to do that for extra for free, respecting yourself and your practice and saying, I’m happy to do whatever you’d like me to do, but I will remind you that the employment agreement said X, and so either we stick with that or I’m happy to prepare a new subsequent agreement that covers what you’d like me to do.
Dave Aarons: Yes. Setting boundaries, in other words. From the outset, and also enforcing the boundaries, courteously and respectfully, but, yeah, this is the line that was drawn, we were clear on this line at the beginning, and if you’d like me to step … You’re obviously open and willing to provide the services, but this is the original agreement, let’s create a new one, or let’s modify our current limited scope retainer agreement, right?
Clay Wilkinson: Right. I would say, out of the people that have come to me and said, “Can you do X?” and maybe don’t think about offering something additional for that, and then I come back and I say, well, I’m happy to, but it would cost X, Y and Z, nine times out of ten, they pay for that additional service, because they want it and, again, the cost is still reasonable, it’s affordable, and why wouldn’t they?
That’s what I do at the very beginning is I craft a very specific employment agreement that has all the standard language in there that all my full retainer agreements have all the basics that you want, but it’s very clear about for a flat fee of X, I’m agreeing to do A, B and C, and then I’m not agreeing to do whatever else that most commonly may come with representation, like for example, if it is the behind-the-scenes representation, that I’m not agreeing to become attorney-of-record in the case, or if I am attorney-of-record and the case goes in the direction where certain things that happen that you either can’t or don’t want to pay for, then you’re agreeing to have me submit this agreed motion in order for withdrawal so that I can officially get out of the case.
Ultimately, look, if they’ve paid for things that haven’t happened yet, but the case goes off the rails and they can’t or don’t want to pay for you to continue to stay on under that model, then maybe you do refund some of the money, to be respectful and ethical of their time and their money, too.
The point of all that is you really have to think through and be careful about being clear about what the relationship is at the outset, because it only creates problems down the road if you don’t.
Dave Aarons: What we’re talking about here is the two planes of unbundling, which Anthony Sanders, when we were at the retreat obviously unpacked this in depth, but I don’t think we really talked about it that much on the podcast, so horizontal plane being a timeline of what’s going to happen in the case as far as initial petition, then the hearing, then if it becomes contested, it can go these different ways.
It’s basically like a fork, like a tree of possibilities, of what could happen. It could remain uncontested or it could go on contested and they could not respond, or they could submit a response to that with additional terms or something, and then you would need to go to a hearing and you want a mediation, and if that doesn’t work … There’s all these different possibilities.
You can help someone on the horizontal plane for A to this point, but then if it doesn’t go this way, then we’d have to come up with a new agreement. You can limit the scope of involvement on the horizontal plane and provide unbundled services in the sense from, I can do it from here to here, but if this scenario happens, then we need a new agreement, because if this scenario happens, it becomes contested or this thing happens, then we might need to go to trial, or we might have to do something that’s way more complex.
You don’t necessarily have to make a decision of, I need to provide for [inaudible 01:01:34] from A to Z in all scenarios, which would be the traditional form. You can cover some other contingencies and offer something that’s more affordable, as long as you’ve been able to create an agreement with the client that says, if these things happen, then we would need a new agreement, or otherwise I would have to be off. That’s why I can extend this flat rate that is going to be a lot more affordable and can fit in your budget, cover the [inaudible 01:02:01] on a horizontal plane.
Then you have the vertical plane, which is, at each phase of these steps, there’s going to be a number of services that need to be performed. Who’s going to provide these services? If the client is empowered to do some of the work themselves, then that obviously is going to reduce the amount of billable time for that specific segment.
If we’re looking at just the segment of B to C, okay, well, there’s all these services that need to be done. If I do all of them for you, then it’s going to cost the usual hourly rate of me doing all the work for you, but let’s say if you file the documents, you prepare these things, you complete these questionnaires or you do the X, Y, Z, or you go to court, and I just advise you and then you actually try to do the mediation yourself, you don’t have to pay me to do those pieces of it. You don’t have to pay me to go to mediation. That’s going to reduce the cost.
It creates a much more creative and solution-oriented thinking about how you can get someone from A to Z, because what happens most often when clients is they’ll start, they’ll jump in the water and start helping them, and then the person runs out of money, and then basically left out to drown, but if you can look it backwards and say, well, maybe we should’ve limited the scope earlier and looked at the realistic budget of the client and not start on a pathway that ultimately the client could not afford to bring to fruition from the outset. Right?
Clay Wilkinson: Right.
Dave Aarons: It’s these two planes that all of a sudden you can start to think on and put into the employment agreement, that make sure that there’s a meeting of the minds between you and the client on what you’re providing and what you’re not and what phases, and then if you have these assurances in the agreement, and you have that agreement with the client, it gives you a lot more flexibility to be able to craft something that’s going to be a lot more tailored to their budget.
Is there a way you could give an example of, just to make it a little more real, like a contested case of, well, I can offer this option, I can offer this, I can offer this, here would be different price points? That’s a little bit challenging, but can we think of how you might think through ways in which you could help someone if they come to you with a contested custody matter or visitations, certainly within the contested realm of different ways you could go, depending on where people are at financially. Right?
Clay Wilkinson: Sure, yeah. A good example that comes to mind is, there’s a person who went through a divorce about a year ago. Mother of two children, wife in the divorce, obviously, has a bunch of family money, has some personal money, too, and based on nothing, then prestige and reputation, went with one of the largest firms in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, who inevitably had a paralegal billing on her case, an associate attorney billing on her case, and a supervising partner billing on her case, where the effective hourly rate she was paying, when you add all three of those up, is anywhere from $700 to $950, and I want to say spent $50,000-plus on a divorce that had lasted less than a year. It didn’t really have a whole lot more than a hearing or two and mediation. I don’t even think they did discovery at any point.
She came to me after that whole process and, without getting into the details of the case and really what the issue was, there was just one minor contested issue that the now-mom and dad have a fundamental disagreement on that their divorce decree itself didn’t really cover or plan for.
She said, “I’m so burned by that experience with the endless retainer, endless invoices and billing, the over-billing that occurred. Can you come up with some flat fees and some limited-scope ideas that will help me manage this case in a way that where you’re fully representing me, I’m getting that benefit, but also helps me feel like I have some security and control over-
Dave Aarons: Control.
Clay Wilkinson: … how the cost goes?” because again she felt totally out of control and just bled to death at the previous firm.
I said, “Absolutely. It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve done for a number of years.” At each phase of the case, and the case, I’ve been representing her fully from start to now and it’s still going forward, is at each phase of it, I just sit down and I say, okay, here’s what you want to have happened next. How can I best get you there? What can I charge you for that, again, that respects my right and ability to make a living as an attorney, and also give you the control and the security that you want on the financial side of things?
To break it down even further, what we had to do initially was prepare … Well, actually what we had to do initially was go to mediation before we could even file anything. That was easy. I just charged her a flat fee to propose mediation, go to mediation, and handle that from start to finish. That’s easy because that’s one contained event.
Dave Aarons: So then you create an agreement, I’m going to do these services for this phase, and that was it at that point, right?
Clay Wilkinson: Correct. What I literally did, because again, you want … I can see how some attorneys that are not familiar with this concept may look at it and go, that’s going to take me forever to sit down and think about what are all the different things that I can do in my practice, all the scenarios that can come up? What would I charge for each of those? How would I manage all that?
Really, that’s no different than having a potential client come in and sit with you and say, “Here’s my case. What direction could that case go in?” In your mind, you’re thinking, well, you may go to mediation, you may have to do discovery, you may have to have a hearing. It’s the same analysis. It’s just that, under unbundled, you’re assigning a price point to each of those events that you would still talk through with the client, right?
Dave Aarons: Yes.
Clay Wilkinson: It’s the total same analysis that you would do.
Dave Aarons: And it’s the same events that are going to occur with client after client after client. It’s just a matter of taking the time, once, and really figuring out, how long does it take me? What would be involved there?
Clay Wilkinson: Right, and again, it’s all the things that inherently you learn how to do as an attorney under any sort of state litigation model. Here are all the tools and options available to you. You know all that if you’ve practiced for even a year or two at this point.
I sat down with her and I said, “Okay, for mediation, I will charge you a flat fee of X.” Can’t recall what it was, but, “I’ll charge you a flat fee of X.” I think I may have even broken the fee down into saying, you pay this amount. If we go to mediation and he doesn’t show up, then I only keep, say, half of it, because at that point, we’re not spending the full day there, it’s still a lost opportunity from a business perspective for me because I’m carving out some portion of that day, right?
Dave Aarons: Yes.
Clay Wilkinson: And I’m preparing an ongoing, but it’s not fair for me to keep 100% of it if I’m not spending the whole day there. If he does show up, then I am entitled to keep the full percentage, and then we go from there.
You try to be creative and flexible about respecting their budget, respecting your time, making them feel like you’re hearing their concerns and addressing them on the financial side of things, but that’s what that agreement looked like. I’m agreeing to go to mediation, set it up, and then we’ll figure out what the ultimate keep is, depending on what happens at mediation.
In that particular scenario, he did show up, we went to mediation, had a full session, I kept 100% of the fee. We didn’t settle. Then we had to file and set a temporary orders hearing after that. I then came up with basically a fee for that, filing the modification, having him serve, paying the fee, and then covering my time preparing for and executing a temporary orders hearing.
What then happened about a month-
Dave Aarons: New agreement?
Clay Wilkinson: New agreement, totally new agreement. Totally new agreement that she signed and I signed and kept on file separate and apart from the initial agreement, also separate payment. Between filing the modification and the hearing, that side unexpectedly served discovery. Discovery is, I’m sure most if not every attorney knows, is where you can request documents or answers or information from the other side in anticipation or preparation for a hearing.
They served discovery. At the time, I actually couldn’t recall if our agreement covered discovery or not. I went back and looked at the agreement, and it did not cover discovery, so I reached out to her and I said, again, politely, “They’ve done this. We now have 30 days to respond, pursuant to the rules. I’m happy to respond, and I have to, but here’s the fee that I would charge for that because it wasn’t contained in our original agreement.” She goes, “Absolutely.” She paid the fee and then I got right to work, respond to the discovery.
To your point about vertical and horizontal, something popped up, it wasn’t anticipated, but because I still offered the security and the flexibility of another limited-scope thing, and again, we crafted a new agreement for that discovery, that was the third agreement now, with the third compensation model, and it proceeded like that.
Just to finish the point, the hearing came and went, the case still goes on. We’re now on our fourth agreement, as we moved toward us serving discovery and then moving toward a final trial. It’s taken on different aspects along the way, but again, I have made financially as much, if not potentially more, doing at that model.
As long as you’re, again, respectful of the boundaries that you set, not giving away your time for free, and coming up with a price point that makes sense based on your experience and your time, too.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, exactly. Also, if you’re doing each step as a flat rate, you can build in a little buffer in the fact that you’re willing to offer this that otherwise attorneys wouldn’t, and not just taking a big-time retainer upfront and you’re willing to work with her one phase at a time, that’s a huge value, and then you can build in the margins of efficiency that help with each phase in the process. More than likely, you probably would be making more on these than if you were just doing them full rep, I just bill you, that kind of thing, if those things are in place.
Let’s run the scenario and then let’s just suppose that she didn’t want you to do the 30-day, but you’re attorney-of-record at this point. Or not? Let’s say she didn’t want to pay you for that. How does it work? Have you come across that? I know that doesn’t happen very often, where you’re working with them unbundled, and then all of a sudden, well, I don’t want you to do that part, I want to do it myself.
Clay Wilkinson: It’s a good question. I will say, truthfully, I have not had a scenario where something has happened where you have to do something in response to it, like discovery, and the person just flat out couldn’t pay for it, couldn’t afford it.
If I have to think, maybe there’s been a time or two where somebody says, look, I’ll pay you over time for that total cost, but I can’t come up with all that now under the 30-day timeframe, and maybe they’re stretched thin to that point.
I’m usually happy to do that, because if at that point, they paid for every previous agreement, I trust them at that point, they trust me, I’m willing to give them a little bit of leeway at that point and say, sure, pay that out over time. I know you’re good for it. I know you’ll get there. I’m not going to risk you being sanctioned or literally legally hurt in the case because I’m not willing to take anything but 100% today. You just be a little bit more flexible with them at that point if you need to be.
Dave Aarons: There’s a bit of a tic-for-tac there. There really needs to be as far as like, there might be a scenario in which they need something done and you’re doing things one phase at a time, and you maybe say, okay, pay that over time, and maybe something that happens there, but you’ve got all these margins of efficiency.
I think that’s the piece that a lot of attorneys also don’t take into account is, how many more clients could you be providing services for if you weren’t just offering $5,000 or $10,000 to start? I remember when we were at the retreat and I said, “Think about all these different clients. How many of them would you have actually been working for? Would you have actually been able to help if you had been requiring $5,000 upfront and doing this?” All the hands went down.
When we talk about attorneys adapting and how many clients they would have had before, it’s five to ten times more clients that they otherwise would be turning away. There’s this huge upside of opportunity cost, and then an attorney might go, well, in that case, I might have had to do that for free. You’re not going to pay it upfront. Yeah. Unfortunately, what happens is it’s really easy that to become a stigma. Like, “Oh, I didn’t get paid for that piece of it. I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.”
We talked about payment plans. A lot of attorneys offer, all of us, all our attorneys offer payment plans. They look at the one client that didn’t pay them, and they did some work and got head of the billing, and then they got burned on that one. It’s like, “Ugh, I got burned. I don’t want to do that ever again,” without ever necessarily looking at it from a strictly business perspective and go, well, look, I’ve brought on 50 more clients than I otherwise would have if I had been rigid with this this month, or in the last six months, 50 more. This one client of those 50 burned me, which is the actual numbers when we really look at it.
I’ve interviewed a lot of attorneys on this podcast. It’s like one of the 50. One out of 45, maybe, something like that. It’s like 5% burn you on the payment plan, but there’s all those clients you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to serve, and you wouldn’t have collected any money on.
When you look at advertising ROI, you’re spending money on a billboard, you’re spending money on bringing clients in, lead generation, whatever it might be, or on your website and SEO and all these separate things, you want to make sure every call that comes in, you’re monetizing. It’s so easy, I think, to look at it and go, oh, well, that was a loss there, but it isn’t a loss overall when we really look at it, right?
Clay Wilkinson: Right. To further reinforce that point, and what you mentioned a moment ago, is when you do the hourly rate traditional retainer model, which, again, you’re not, again, it’s necessarily some cases are better suited for that, some people are willing to pay that and have you represent them that way and they prefer that. The point of this, of course, is to offer the whole spectrum of options and try to make your services fit what they really want, what their goals are.
Even under the hourly rate retainer model, to your point, it’s a one-to-one benefit for the attorney. You charge by the hour … and if you’re billing ethically, of course. If you’re panning it and over-billing, well, that’s not ethical. That’s not the point. If you’re like me and other provider attorneys that are being ethical, it’s a one-to-one benefit. You do one hour’s worth of work, you get paid for that hour. Under unbundled, you can spend less time and make even more. Right?
Dave Aarons: Right.
Clay Wilkinson: Then you have the benefit of, once the money is paid, it’s there. You’re not over-billing and chasing an invoice that you’re lucky if they ever pay, and then spending quality billable time trying to catch money that may or may not ever get paid. There’s a number of benefits that flow from this model.
The other part that I also should mention, too, from my protection standpoint, and I want to follow up with a thought that I am flexible about this, of course, because you don’t want to be this rigid, but on most of the unbundled services that I do, I at least put into the contract the notion that once you make the payment, whatever it is, that it’s non-refundable, because what you don’t want to do is create the scenario where they want to quibble about this or that or they don’t like the outcome of the case or something and they want to start demanding a refund.
You want to be clear at the beginning that it’s a lost opportunity for me business-wise if I take your case and commit that time. Also typically, once the work is done, I’ve already expended the time doing the work, and so you get paid for the work that you do. You don’t get paid for the outcome.
If people balk at it, which most people don’t, then I typically say, well, you’re welcome to research me. Read my standing with the Bar. Read my client reviews. Get a sense of how I work and how I operate. Make sure that I am trustworthy and ethical.
Also, the reality is, truthfully, at the end of the say, if somebody really had a problem with something or if I made a big mistake, I’m not going to risk my law license and my reputation for a couple hundred bucks. I’ll either give them back half or some portion of it, or the whole thing if I really messed up and acknowledge that.
I also think, again, to set boundaries and to set expectations, they’re paying for the work that you’re providing, not for the outcome, and so I think you want to make it clear to the extent you’re comfortable saying, when you pay this for all these reasons, it’s non-refundable at that point. Again, that locks in the profit that you’re making and further reinforces the financial benefit of doing things in an unbundled way.
Dave Aarons: Well, that means that you don’t have an account receivable or outstanding receivables.
Clay Wilkinson: Right.
Dave Aarons: From my understanding, I think account receivables for a traditional firm is 70% to 80%? Or is it the other way around? 20% or something like that? Oh, they don’t collect?
Clay Wilkinson: Right. To give you an example, with the last firm that I was at, I think they had a collection rate of maybe 65% to 75%. Again, part of that is under the theory that you bill $20,000 on an invoice, knowing that you’ve really padded a third of that, so that if they pay half of the third, it’s bonus money, whereas for me, whether it’s unbundled or even an hourly rate retainer, literally I’ve got about a 97%, 98% collection rate-
Dave Aarons: Wow.
Clay Wilkinson: … where I’m not spending valuable time chasing down money or invoices or trying to harass people, which, again, it leads to the next thing. It increases client confidence of you, it increases referrals to you, it increases good reviews and a good web presence, it increases the amount of time that you have to provide good services to people and make money that way. So, you’re right, it’s money in the bank that you don’t have to spend chasing, and then it has all those other benefits, too.
Dave Aarons: Exactly. I would be remiss if we didn’t touch a little bit on technology, because things have evolved a little bit for you. You talked briefly about Calendly, a little bit of practice management software, and just how you’ve been able to build those efficiencies in, obviously the virtual paralegal being a great find.
Maybe you can talk about how you found her and settled on a virtual paralegal? Because obviously if you’re going to start doing a lot more unbundled services on a flat rate or pays one task at a time, it presents the opportunity, like how can we become more efficient? How can we find ways to get these things done in faster periods of time?
Because then it’s only going to increase your effective hourly rate at each phase of the process in a contested case or if you’re doing each individual case as a flat rate. What are some of the things that you’ve done to build in these efficiencies, like we talked about?
Clay Wilkinson: Sure. I’ll walk you through from an initial lead coming in and how that goes over the course of a case if they hire me in some way. The caveat that I’ll give is I’m not the most technically savvy or proficient person in the world, so certainly I could be doing a lot more, but I think what I do do is very easy that anyone else could do and also really benefits the practice.
Here’s the point, ultimately. As a lead comes in, as you know, through Unbundled, you have the option to receive an email, a text message, really whatever form of communication you want. I have the whole range. As soon as somebody hits submit through Unbundled, I get the email, I get a text message on my phone. For my business phone line, I just use my cellphone, but I have Google Voice. The text message comes through Google Voice. I have a voicemail set up so if people called that number and has a professional business-sounding voicemail.
If I happened to be busy either in court or mediation or some other commitment where I can’t call them within the first five minutes, which as you know is critical to converting those leads, then I text them and I email them in the first five minutes. That’s where Calendly comes in. Just to be clear, it’s spelled C-A-L-E-N-D-L-Y. Calendly.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, Calendar, but drop the “er,” E-R, and just put L-Y, yeah.
Clay Wilkinson: Right, Calendly.com. The great thing about that service is it’s web-based. I think it cost me literally 15 bucks a month. What I use it for are the 15-minute initial phone consultations that I do and also the paid hour-long in-office consultations.
If somebody contacts me through Unbundled, I get the text message, I text them and I say, “My name is Clay Wilkinson. I’m a family lawyer. You found me through Unbundled Attorney. I can’t talk right now, but I wanted to reach out. To schedule a time to speak with me, please visit this website.”
Then I copy-and-paste the 15-minute phone consult from Calendly into the text message and into the email, so hopefully either way they’re getting it. I swear, eight to nine times out of ten, I check my email within a few minutes and they’ve booked a Calendly telephone consultation.
The way that it literally works is, it syncs up to whatever calendar you use, I happen to use Google Calendar, it syncs up to that, and so it automatically knows the days and times that not only am I available, but that I want to be available for something like that. You can make yourself available 24 hours a day if you want. You can make yourself available for certain days during Monday through Friday or certain hours each day.
Dave Aarons: Or Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 2:00 to 6:00, and there’s all these different windows that they can choose from, right?
Clay Wilkinson: Yeah. You can include your own websites in the confirmation email that they get once they book something. You can include questions that they have to answer as they’re filling out their appointment. I would certainly encourage anybody who listens to this to go check it out and see how you can use it in your practice.
That’s one way where it used to be, before Calendly, that I’d be in a meeting or a conference or a mediation or a hearing, somebody comes through, and then six hours later when I’m able to call them, they’ve long since either forgotten about me or moved on to somebody else or even hired somebody else, whereas if they actually have a firm time they know they’re going to speak to an attorney, they tend to hold off until they get the chance to speak with you, because they’re also getting the message through Unbundled that this is somebody who handles things differently than other attorneys, so why would I continue to surf for somebody who’s going to make me pay a $5,000 to $10,000 retainer if I’ve got this guy who either later today or tomorrow or even the next day I can speak with, and maybe get something different-
Dave Aarons: At a time that’s convenient for them, because Calendly, you can see all the times that the attorney’s available, and then, what you’ve specified in your calendar, and then obviously if you have a conflict, it doesn’t show up, like if you’ve got a trial at that time, then as you book things in your calendar, it’s also removed from Calendly, so there isn’t a conflict.
That’s constantly updating. It looks at Google Calendar, is there already an entry there? Yes, no. If there is already an entry there, then it doesn’t show that option to the client. They’re choosing at their own convenience, but also, you can only select times that you are still available in your calendar and that you’ve specified that you choose to be available, right?
Clay Wilkinson: Right, and even further what you can do, especially on the ones where they’re booking it themselves without any real input from you is you can say, for example, I don’t want anybody to be able to book a back-to-back-to-back phone consult, three different people back-to-back-to-back. I want a 15-minute buffer between each of those. You can set it up that way, too.
You can also set it up so that, at various times before the meeting, they’re getting a text message reminder of it, an email reminder of it 24 hours before, an hour before, whatever the case may be. It is literally one of the best tools that I’ve implemented in my practice to make sure that, from initial contact to possible hiring, that you’re helping foster the conversion.
Calendly is great. On the flip side of that as far as the actual in-office consultation, what I do if I speak with them during the phone consult is I offer that option, if they want to come in for that paid consultation, what I do is I say, okay, I’ve got you on the phone right now. Let’s find a day and time that works for you and me, and then I go to the website myself at that point and literally input all their information and book it myself so that I don’t leave it up to them to hopefully do it on their time. I take care of it myself.
Then what I also make sure to do is, as soon as I hit submit on the Calendly side, I say, can you check your phone right now, make sure you got the confirmation email, make sure it got directly to you? Because another feature of Calendly, not only do they get that confirmation email, which is important because it has all your address and contact information, the websites, et cetera, but they have the ability-
Dave Aarons: Right, because you configured that confirmation email to be like, here’s the attorney’s office information, here’s his website, here’s more information, read his reviews. You’ve crafted this custom email so they can do their research in the meantime and just get more clear about who you are, what you do and learn more about you and all that stuff. They’re going to get all that info.
Clay Wilkinson: Right. The other part of that email, too, which I point out to them, because again, you want to be respectful of your time as an attorney and not have a bunch of no-shows and all that, so I say in that email, you have the option, if you need to, to cancel or reschedule.
There’s a link in the website or in the email that you can do so that, again, they click on that if they need to, something comes up, doctor’s appointment, emergency, whatever, they can go back to the website through that email, see the subsequent days and times I’m available, and then rebook if they need to. It’s very self-sufficient.
I’ve had plenty of people do that, and it’s better than me, because I work primarily from home, as you know, I just meet with clients in this office space, it’s better than me coming to the office and they’re not here, and I’m wondering where they are, if they have that option. Calendly’s been great on both the phone consult and the in-person consultation as well.
The other things that I use are pretty basic. There’s a practice management software called Clio, C-L-I-O, which I’ve used for years. It’s always been great. It continues to improve. I’m not all that familiar with Lexicata, although for those that are, it’s my understanding that Clio recently purchased Lexicata and is going to be integrating in some way.
I also use Dropbox for all of my case files and things related to the practice of running my business, and then again, I basically run my practice from either my laptop at home or my iPhone. As you know, as we talked about personally off the broadcast, I travel as much as I can and it’s very easy for me on my iPhone to run a full law practice if I’m out of town using Calendly and Clio and Dropbox and Google Voice and all that. It’s been great.
Dave Aarons: Just taking the calls, setting up the links. You’ve already got the template emails ready to go. It’s all configured in Calendly so you can book the appointments just fine. You can look up people’s case records just by going in and logging into Clio and taking a look at what’s going on. You can make notes and all that.
Clay Wilkinson: Yeah. Also, again, from time to time, people say, if I’m out of town, they want to do an hour-long consult with me, but I’m not back for another couple days and they really want to meet with me, then I’m okay with spending that time at that point.
Even something as simple as WhatsApp, you can do a video conference with them. They can pay the fee for the consult online, send them a LawPay link, you carve out an hour of your day, you do a phone consult, and then they hire you a couple days later when you get back in town.
There’s a variety of different ways that even 5, 10, 15 years ago was just not available that allows you to be self-sufficient and productive and profitable now with all those options.
Dave Aarons: It’s really exciting. We’re definitely in a new age as far as the types of tools that are available. If you can go to a legal conference right now, there’s just lines of vendors providing all different kinds of suites of services and software to make your life more efficient, and also to make it a lot easier for clients to move forward and retain you.
Now, LawPay is just a click of a button, you make your payment, you set up Calendly, they just click a button if they want to reschedule, they can just do it right there, right off their phone as well, so they don’t have to call in your office to pay someone to answer that call. It’s a hassle for them to have to do that. It makes it easy. They can sign a retainer agreement, all that kind of stuff.
The whole process of practicing can be a lot more efficient, and then that obviously gives you the capacity to deliver these services more efficiently, less time, and obviously that’s really conducive for unbundling and these steps that we’re talking about. It’s almost like they really have to go together.
We still have a lot of lawyers that are pretty old-school. I shouldn’t mention, but Jerry, I don’t know if he listens to this, but Jerry Silvia, I think he has his support staff print out all of his emails for him and then does it all on paper and stuff.
You can do belly-to-belly. You can do it hour by hour. It doesn’t have to be super tech, but there are all these tools you can take advantage of to make things a lot more efficient, a lot more effective, and help you keep up with the volume of clients that continues pouring every day. Thank you for your thoughts there.
Before we wrap up, any … What we could cover is just, we’ve worked together for five, six years now. We’ve had a good, quite a journey. Anything you look back on that were important lessons that you learned or anything that would be worthy of mention just given your experience of working with thousands of leads you can take in any direction you want, but just anything that you think would be valuable to share that just comes from the many years of working with clients in the way you do?
Clay Wilkinson: The thing that comes to mind is, as a family law litigator in Texas, I’m in court easily at least three, four, five times a week, sometimes seven, eight, nine times a week in different hearings in different counties. It doesn’t matter what county you’re in; inevitably, your hearings get set at the same time with other seven, eight other cases.
Anywhere from a third to half of those cases are self-represented litigants, usually on both sides, two pro se people having to fight about money and debt and kids and protective orders and all sorts of thing. Inevitably, you not only see judges get frustrated with that experience, you see people not getting the results that you know you could provide them if they either knew about unbundled, approached you about unbundled, have more people that offer unbundled services.
The lesson I think that I’ve learned is, if you’re willing to be creative and flexible and offer a full suite of options, unbundled, full representation, a combination of all of that, you’re able to reach a lot more people than otherwise would be able to get legal services and hopefully get a better outcome.
I think even studies have shown that, and I can’t remember if this was reinforced at the retreat that we had March, or maybe I saw this somewhere else, but I think it was at the retreat, that somebody presented and talked about a study that showed that if you have representation through a proceeding-
Dave Aarons: That was Woody. That’s right. Woody Mosten.
Clay Wilkinson: Right, that if you have representation at a proceeding, then the outcome is infinitely better in your favor than if you didn’t. Through Unbundled, you’re able to … It didn’t have to be full representation start to finish. My clients see a value even if they represent themselves and still getting good advice based on years of experience and good-quality work throughout the years to then go armed in to court on their own with a lot more information and knowledge and wisdom than if they were going it totally alone.
The point of all that is, what I see Unbundled being able to offer and why I’m so proud to be a part of it, is you’re helping a lot more people than otherwise would be able to afford besides these types of things on some of truly the most important things in their lives, their children, their money, their financial freedom if it involves debt, those other things, and for the other areas that you serve, immigration. What can be more important than your right to live in a certain place and be employed and stay there?
It’s a great service. I’m happy and thrilled to continue to be a part of it. I’m just pleased that this has come along and enable to help the people in the way that it has.
Dave Aarons: Well, I can’t agree with you more. As these years have gone by, it’s been just a privilege to work with an attorney like yourself and hundreds of others that we work with that are committed to serving clients in this way, and it feels really good to know that you can be in alignment with a greater purpose, you can serve people in this way, and also have that be something where you can do really well financially at the same … Right?
In the past, you’d have to provide pro-bono services or volunteer and all this kind of stuff, and it’s good things to do and it makes you feel good, but you don’t necessarily benefit as well. I think the beauty of this is that there’s a tremendous amount of people that need this service, and there’s ways in which you could …
There’s obviously more and more attorneys that are open and willing to offer it. They were getting the education through the podcast and through some of the national trainings that have been going on that Forrest Woody Mosten has been hosting, which I would encourage anyone who watches this to follow his work and some of the webinars he’s doing and trainings.
We’re considering putting together an online CLE for attorneys to learn the nuts and bolts of our mental services from start to finish, on how to implement all of these strategies in depth and so forth, is that once you have the skillset and knowledge to know how to do this, that you can help all these people that would otherwise not receive help, but also make really good money, too. It’s a win-win for you and the client, and that’s wonderful to see that.
Clay Wilkinson: Can I reinforce that point? Because I think it is a critical point for people that are listening to this to understand that, of course there’s the feel-good component about the work that you’re doing, the services you’re offering, expanding that access to people that otherwise couldn’t afford it, but it’s not just the feel-good component that ultimately drives us, there’s … To illustrate the point without being gauche, when I worked with the Thomas the firm that we co-owned-
Dave Aarons: Gauche.
Clay Wilkinson: Gauche.
Dave Aarons: Haven’t heard that word before.
Clay Wilkinson: In other words, I don’t want to go into what I make, because I don’t know how appropriate that is in this particular form, but to illustrate the point-
Dave Aarons: No, forget it.
Clay Wilkinson: … at the small firm that Thomas and I co-owned when we first got onboard with Unbundled, I made a certain amount. When I then joined the large firm, my salary doubled at that firm, and that to me again was a clear reason why, let’s at least see what it’s like. There was the financial incentive.
Leaving that firm and now being on my own, and offering a healthy mix of unbundled services and full representation, I now literally make double what I made at the large firm. I’ve gone from one, to then double, to then double by working for myself and offering a whole mix and suite of unbundled options.
For all those out there that say, “Well, why would I do that?” because it sounds cut-rate or discount or pro bono, or this or that, I’m here to personally testify that there is a great financial incentive, again, if you respect your own boundaries, if you’re clear from the beginning, if you set the price points at the right way, that it can be a great financial benefit to you as well.
Dave Aarons: Yes. I think if you have a commitment to want to contribute and make a different in people’s lives and give access to services that people otherwise can’t afford, I think that’s where most lawyers that go to law school, where they start out. They want to help people, because their father was a lawyer or their grandfather was a lawyer or they were helped by an attorney.
Unfortunately, oftentimes you get into certain environments or areas of practice where it’s not so much about contribution to make any difference and stuff, and so maybe that spark’s been lost, but I think a lot of lawyers had that spark, and if you do and that’s been one of the reasons you went to law school, this is certainly an opportunity to rehydrate or reinvigorate that spark and still be able to make an excellent living than most partners or associates at a law firm may be able to make even more. Right?
Clay Wilkinson: Right.
Dave Aarons: That’s great to hear.
With that, we’ll wrap up this episode with Clay. It’s been a real privilege, like I said, to sit next with you and to continue to work with you in the way that we have for the years we have. Couldn’t be more excited about the future and what’s to come, both with the development of your practice now that we’re talking about expanding it up a bit and getting some contract lawyers on and of course continue to work with you on that to help it evolve phase by phase and step by step to expand the vision of the Wilkinson empire, and gleefully, too, because that just means that more and more people are going to get served in the way that you embody. That makes us really stoked. Also of course all the things that we’re working on with our for-benefit launch and serving even more people than we otherwise have that need access to the services that can afford it.
To you as well, thank you so much for listening and being a part of this podcast. Once again, I want to apologize for not having an episode out for almost two months now. It is a testament to the fact that we had to make an investment in the gear and the equipment and the time of our videographers and so forth to make this happen. This is a full production effort here obviously with lights, cameras and action.
And obviously our time to travel and come in person to Mr. Wilkinson’s office here and many other attorneys as well, but now that we have it all in place, it’s something we’re committed to continuing and being very consistent with from now on. We’ll be releasing a new episode every single month, and at times maybe more, but that’s something we’re committed to going forward. We’re on a trip right now to film a bunch more so that we can stand behind that commitment.
We appreciate you being a part of everything that we’re doing here and implementing these service options in your practice. Certainly follow the show on YouTube. If you want to watch in person, that’s www.YouTube.com/UnbundledAttorney. You can see all the episodes that we’ve done in video format like this, or of course you can subscribe to the podcast through whichever way you listen, on Stitcher, we’re now on Spotify as well, so you can find Unbundled Attorney Mastermind podcast through the Spotify app, and of course on iTunes through Apple Podcast and Google Play.
Plug in, learn these practices, implement them, share how it’s working. We have a blog where you can share some of the things that you’ve done. We’ll be continuing to develop things that can continue to support you and educate you on how to implement these options the way that Clay has as well. With that, thanks again, Clay, for taking the time to join us today. Thank you for participating. We’ll see you all in the next episode.
For more information about how our exclusive Unbundled leads can help you grow your practice, visit our website at UnbundledAttorney.com. You can watch each new episode of the podcast on the Unbundled Attorney YouTube channel, or if you prefer to listen, you can find us on iTunes or your favorite podcast app.
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Episode 55: Should You Keep Your Lawyer Job, Start a Solo Practice, or Build Your Own Law Firm? A Case Study of the Journey Down Each Path, Lessons Learned Along the Way, and How to Make $500-$750 Per Hour Providing Unbundled Legal Services
Dallas, TX attorney Clay Wilkinson’s journey in the practice of law started with a partnership in a law firm, then he became an associate with a large firm, and now he has a new role running his own solo practice. Along the way he has experienced what life is like as a lawyer in these different roles and learned the advantages and disadvantages in each position. Today Clay joins the show and shares the “why” behind each of his decisions, lessons learned, and what finally led to his success as a solo legal practitioner. We take a deep dive into how he has successfully developed unbundled services during his 5+ years as an Unbundled Attorney. Clay shares real-life experiences with clients that involved both uncontested and contested legal cases. He provides a detailed breakdown of how to deliver unbundled services for both kinds of clients, the rates for each, and systems he uses to establish his effective hourly rate at $500-$750 per hour. We also give an overview of the legal technology he integrates into his high-volume practice, and how he streamlines booking appointments and the delivery of his services.
To read a complete transcript of this interview, click here
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- Why there was a delay in release of our new podcast episodes and a summary of Unbundled Attorney’s podcast schedule going forward
- Clay’s philosophy of practicing law with integrity and in genuine service to others, and how this influences his decisions
- An overview of how Clay transitioned from being a partner with a new small law firm, to his position as an associate at a large firm, to finally running his own solo practice and what he learned from these experiences
- The importance of growing a practice gradually and not taking on too many clients in the early stages
- Why Clay decided to temporarily reduce the number of clients he was receiving from Unbundled Attorney and focus on remaining a solo practitioner instead of building a small law firm
- The many ways lawyers can grow and scale their practice, including hiring staff, the use of contract lawyers and associates, and how to decide what path is right for you
- Clay’s analysis of the benefits and costs from working for a law firm versus running your own practice based on his own experience in both roles
- How Clay kept a low overhead by working from home and using virtual office spaces when he left his job to begin a solo practice
- What made Clay decide to hire contract lawyers and why this was a win-win relationship for both him and the contract lawyers
- A comprehensive overview of unbundled service options Clay provides that enables him to tailor his services to his clients’ budgets
- Two real-life examples of clients with uncontested and contested legal issues that Clay helped with unbundled services
- Why Clay is able to make $500-$750 per hour delivering unbundled services with a flat rate instead of a billable hours model
- A walk-through that details how Clay delivers unbundled services from start to finish, including how he uses an outsourced virtual paralegal for document preparation
- Best practices that set boundaries with unbundled clients, and how to effectively craft limited scope retainer agreements
- The difference between vertical and horizontal unbundled services, and how they enable creative and flexible delivery of legal services for your clients
- Why providing unbundled services substantially reduces your firm’s accounts receivables
- How Clay uses Google Voice and Calendly to streamline appointment scheduling with prospective clients
- The potential impact of unbundling on the increase in pro se litigants filing in family court and why Clay has become passionate about working with Unbundled Attorney and being a part of this movement
- And much more…
Resources Mentioned in This Episode
- Google Voice
- Forrest “Woody” Mosten - Unbundled Legal Services Training
- Forrest Mosten’s Unbundled Attorney Podcast Interview
If you enjoy this podcast, please head over to iTunes, subscribe to the show, and leave us a review. We love hearing from our listeners and look forward to reading your feedback!
For more information about Unbundled Attorney and how our exclusive, unbundled leads can help grow your practice, visit: https://www.unbundledattorney.com