Podcasts

Staying Competitive in Today’s Legal Market with Aaron Street of Lawyerist.com

Digital technology has enabled consumers to influence not only what services are being offered, but also how those services are being delivered in the legal marketplace. Clients have more choices when it comes to legal services and thus have higher expectations from their service provider. Whether law firms are able to adapt to this rapidly changing business environment will determine if they can remain successful.

Aaron Street, co-founder and CEO of Lawyerist.com, talks about the major shifts that have impacted the legal industry and the need for law firms to move towards a more client-centered practice. Some of the tactics and strategies covered include the use of technology, exploring new practice areas, and adopting new client-service models.

  

TRANSCRIPT

Greg Corombos: Our guest this week on Expert Insights is Aaron Street. He's the co-founder and CEO of Lawyerist.com. He joins me to discuss how law firms can keep a competitive edge in this rapidly changing business environment and how to make sure they're fully embracing the technological advances of the 21st century. And Aaron, thanks so much for being with us.

Aaron Street: Thanks for having me, Greg.

Greg Corombos: Well, let's begin with your own entrepreneurial journey before we start dispensing advice to partners and law firms here. How did you get to the point of deciding to launch lawyer rest? And how did you get it off the ground?

Aaron Street: My own journey is a circuitous path from a lot, for a long time, not all of which is totally relevant to Lawyerist. I started my first business at the age of 11 selling baseball cards as a card dealer at baseball card shows and grew that business to the point that in ninth grade, I dropped out of high school to open a baseball card store in a mall in my hometown town. That happened to coincide with the 1994 Major League Baseball strike that popped to the baseball card industry bubble. And so at the end of that summer, I closed my store and went to 10th grade, graduated high school, college and law school. 

Greg Corombos: Wow.

Aaron Street: So that was the start of my journey. That was, whatever it was, 25 years ago. And since then, I've been involved in lots of different entrepreneurial adventures. But the current business, Lawyerist, my business partner, Sam, and I started 10 years ago, in the midst of the small law firm law school bubble post-recession, or in the midst of the recession in 2009. And at that time, we were also kind of at the front end of a lot of the current blogging, content marketing, social media trends that we've now seen play out over the last decade. And in part because of timing, and in part because of some strategic insights into what a changing market needed, we were able to succeed and grow quite rapidly over the last 10 years. There was a lot of right-place, right-time stuff. But we also saw some insights into what was coming and tried to be ahead of that curve.

Greg Corombos: Aaron, as you well know, standing put in business usually means you're actually going backward. So how well are most law firms doing in finding that competitive edge they need to find against their competitors?

Aaron Street: Yeah, so super good question. I think what you're saying is accurate. And in law, there are some interesting market dynamics that potentially make it even more interesting; law practice has been a pretty slow to change and risk-averse profession. Which means not just that lots of law firms have deliberately been standing still in the face of change. Lots of them are deliberately five or 10 years behind normal trend lines because they want to see how everything potentially plays out before they even consider adopting a new change. And I think that the traditional mindset in the legal profession is finally starting to crack.

The reality, though, is the vast majority of law firms are still thinking about their legal businesses in very traditional ways. And that both industry and marketplace and our broader global economy are changing way more quickly than a tradition-oriented profession is able to handle

Greg Corombos: Well, there's right ways and wrong ways to differentiate yourself or to try and embrace the the the emerging trends. How are the smartest firms separating themselves from the pack? What tactics are working to land more clients and improve efficiency? And why?

Aaron Street: Yeah, I mean, there for sure are cutting-edge innovative law firms doing all sorts of things. Some of them finding success, even with AI software, or blockchain or new practice areas or new client service models. But I think, broadly, the trend line for firms that are going to be successful going forward is going to be a big mind shift and culture shift in the industry away from lawyer-centered practices and towards client-centered practices. And that has a few implications around building client experience, and client-centered services, pricing, communications, marketing, into your business model. It involves really thinking deeply about clients journeys, and what they're looking for. It involves being more nimble than firms have been in the past, experimenting with new things and trying to use data to capture what's working and what's not working so that your order your firm can be a learning organization and can adapt over time, knowing that it's benchmarking itself against things that will be successful. I think it is that mind shift that is really the thing that's going to lead to success, more than any specific tactic that any firm is finding right now.

Greg Corombos: Let's look at it a little bit from a consumer perspective, Aaron. So if I'm looking for an attorney, how is finding an attorney easier or just different than a generation ago? Before I'd have to probably go to the Yellow Pages or get a recommendation from someone I trusted. But how is that process changed now?

Aaron Street: Yeah, that's exactly right. It used to be personal referrals, or the Yellow Pages, or whoever happens to be on Main Street in your town. And you would go to them, and you would interact with that law firm in the way the law firm wanted to be interacted with. They would tell you how they were going to communicate with you. They would tell you how you were going to pay them. They would tell you how your case was going to be resolved. And you either liked it or you left. And there weren't other options.

And now, in an internet-driven marketplace, consumers have a lot more choices. They can Google firms and see what peer client reviews are for those firms. And they can pick and choose the ones that are objectively providing better client experience. They can book and set their initial intake appointments using calendaring tools. They can have receptionist trained on good intake and service answering their calls and finding the time that is convenient for them to meet with a lawyer. Potentially that law firm is communicating case updates to them through an app or text messaging or email at the clients' preference.

They're probably getting regular status updates on their case and their bill, and they're able to pay their bill in the way they want to probably with a credit card, not cash or check. And these are all ways that the industry is evolving. Internally in the law firm, it involved law firms mapping out what the workflow of a case looks like and finding ways to find efficiencies, optimizations and ways to improve the clients' outcome in the midst of the legal work the firm is doing, having kind of a more project management focus to 

And that provides better client outcomes and a better experience, while also maximizing the law firms profits.

And all of these are trends that are constantly shifting in the industry.

Greg Corombos: How do you tell a firm that's really committed to this and one that seems to have a few features in place? That, and if you're not familiar with the industry, you're not sure whether you should be impressed by the one that's got a few things going forward in that arena or not? So what's a good way to shop?

Aaron Street: Yeah, so if you're a consumer looking for a lawyer, there are any number of kind of lawyer review options, whether that's the ratings on Google My Business or on Yelp, or on Avvo. And all of those can be a good place to start. It is a thorny problem that the kind of legal market industry hasn't solved perfectly yet. And so there isn't a great guaranteed on- place solution to a client looking to find the great future lawyer.

It's a problem we're also trying to solve. On the lawyer side, we're trying to solve this. We launched last year a free small firm scorecard tool that any law firm or really any small business can take whenever they want to benchmark themselves against the 50 best practices we see as the things that a successful firm of the future will need to have in place from a structures procedures and goals perspective, to win going forward and to be adaptable in a changing marketplace. And so there's potential that as we move forward, there might be opportunities for clients to find lawyers and law firms that have gotten good scores on that scorecard. That isn't a service we offer yet. But these are all things that are evolving.

Greg Corombos: Let's get back to the perspective from the firm itself now and look at a couple of things, things that you've brought up. First of all, in addition to client service, which is obviously the most important aspect of the business, but you also mentioned other ways to get connected, including blogging, social media. Other ways just to touch base with people, perhaps just to engage and throw some free advice out there to build a positive reputation for yourself. How important is that becoming? And what's a smart way to do it?

Aaron Street: Yeah, I mean, this is one of those places where there's some interesting stuff that the tools of blogging and social media and online advertising and interaction are all probably evolving faster than the mean average of small law firms are adopting them. And so there are still a lot of law firms starting to think about getting into blogging, despite the fact that I would estimate that the peak blogging was probably 2011, 2012.

And some of those mismatches in time frames are only going to become more acute as tools and consumer usage of tools evolves more and more rapidly. Whether that eventually becomes augmented reality, or chatbots, or whatever. Or a law firm to be able to interact with clients using their currently preferred tools, if they're currently preferred tools are changing regularly on the whims of new app updates and new hardware updates. Lawyers are going to need to think really differently about how they engage with any tools, if they're going to need to change them that frequently, while still providing good client experience, but also data security, confidentiality and privacy that are core to a client, a lawyer-client relationship. And so there are firms who are experimenting with things like chatbots and Facebook Messenger. And I don't know about Snapchat, I'm sure there are. But there are lawyers in Pinterest, and all these can be things worth looking into there. There is no guaranteed perfect solution that if you pick it, it will work. And even if there were, it would change in six months anyway.

Greg Corombos: We're talking with Aaron Street. He's the co-founder and CEO of Lawyerist.com. And Aaron, just a couple of minutes left in our conversation here. So we mentioned that this is a traditional industry, and a lot of firms are holding to the way they've done things in the past. Are we noticing results in a way that's going to compel them to move more into the 21st century? In other words, are the ones that are taking the steps to engage more and make it a more customer-oriented process, are they seeing the profits follow their decision to change?

Aaron Street: Yes. And I think one of the things that makes it hard for my role in the industry as an advocate for a number of these changes is that not all jurisdictions or practice areas are changing in the same ways at the same rate.

And so even if I hold out the flag that yes, this is the right way to do it, even now and you will be more successful, someone can legitimately point to a firm doing things the way it's been done for 100 years, that's making a lot of money doing things the old way, and they're not wrong.

But as consumer preferences evolve, as our broader global economy evolves, as the industry evolves in the tools around automation and marketing and pricing evolve, even those firms are going to be disrupted if they don't have their eye out for this stuff. And they can keep the blinders on for as long as they want until they can't.

And I don't know when that will come for everybody. For some firms, they are already feeling the pressure. There feeling pressure from the ways that Yellow Pages has transitioned to Yelp or whatever it is.

And some firms aren't yet feeling any pressure. And if they're making a lot of money without needing to change, a lot of them are getting overly confident that change isn't coming for them. But it is at some point.

Greg Corombos: Well, it's going to have to, because as the younger generation gets older, they've certainly come to expect this type of engagement. And if they don't get it, it's only going to get more...expectations are only going to get higher as time goes on.

Exit question for you, Aaron. We've talked about how these advancements have made it a more customer-friendly experience, and in some ways giving the customer a lot more power in this relationship. What about the results? Are the firms that are embracing technology and embracing the customer more, perhaps becoming more efficient? Are they seeing it helps them win?

Aaron Street: Um, so win looks different in different practice areas. So in a criminal case, there is potentially just a straight up win or a loss. In an estate planning engagement, there's no such thing as a win or a loss. Was the client happy with the will they got, the estate planning advice they got? Twenty years from now, will their heirs get what was intended for them? In a small business startup advisory practice, there aren’t wins and losses. There are good engagements and successful engagements. And so it depends.

There is...I do not hold out the promise that being on Facebook or using practice management software inherently makes you a better lawyer. Being a great lawyer for your client and winning for your client needs to be your number one goal. And it doesn't need...that doesn't need to be relevant to whether you're using technology per se or not.

But part of a good client outcome is how the client feels about their engagement with their lawyer. And if it is a criminal case where the client got acquitted, it's possible the lawyer could be a real jerk. And they'll still be happy with that because they got acquitted.

But in most other engagements, a huge part of the clients' overall satisfaction with the engagement is not the document they got at the end. It's did this experience, solve my problems and make me feel whole at the end? And there are a lot of subtle, soft skills involved in providing a great client experience, the most important of which is providing just straight up core good legal work. But there's a lot more to it than that.

Greg Corombos: Absolutely. Yeah, experience is a big part of it. Even if you got what you want, even if it was a miserable experience, not likely to recommend it to a lot of people. But if it's the other way around, it could be a big boost. So Aaron, very interesting insights. So many more areas we could go to and certainly at a future time, we can do that. Thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Aaron Street: I appreciate it. Greg. It's great talking with you.

Greg Corombos: Thank you. sir. Aaron Street, the co-founder and CEO of Lawyerist.com. I'm Greg Corombos, reporting for Expert Insights.

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