Law firms combine latest technology with traditional practice to retain, attract new business
Paul A. Leonard Jr. has been practicing law for more than three decades, but he still remembers his first day of employment in a law office.
“I was presented with a Bic pen, a legal pad and a telephone,” said Leonard, who still uses those items, but now also uses software, a mobile phone and other technology in his office at Burke, Costanza & Carberry LLP. The general civil practice has locations in Merrillville and Valparaiso.
“Right now, I have two computer monitors on my desk with several programs running that give me access to our client databases and legal research,” said Leonard, who specializes in family law.
Technology, market forces and clients’ needs and expectations have changed plenty through the decades since Leonard first started practicing law. His firm and others throughout Northwest Indiana are adapting to changing forces.
“The main thing that’s evolved is technology,” said John Hughes, managing partner at Hoeppner, Wagner & Evans, a general practice firm with offices in Valparaiso and Merrillville. “It used to be that every attorney had a secretary, documents were produced by a secretary and letters went out.”
Today, email is the most common form of communication, he said.
“Secretaries may (work with) three attorneys instead of one,” he said.
While the rise of technology has provided attorneys with research tools and other conveniences, it also has changed the expectations of clients who, in an age of Uber and other on-demand services, seek immediate answers to even the thorniest legal problems.
“People expect a prompt response when they send an email or leave a phone message,” Hughes said. “Sometimes it’s a little hard to think about a problem and give it some time and research.”
There’s a danger in responding too quickly and not having a thoughtful response, he said.
“It’s too easy to respond with whatever the emotion is at the moment and then, perhaps, wish you hadn’t,” Hughes said.
Leonard agreed, saying the expectation is that answers are expected fast. Gone are the days when he would dictate a letter and let it sit overnight in case he had additional thoughts.
Courtney Smith, an associate specializing in elder and family law for the past two years at Burke, Costanza & Carberry, said sometimes an answer can be provided quickly but others it cannot.
“Sometimes you can reply by email in a couple minutes, and sometimes it takes a couple hours to research and get an answer,” said Smith, who lets clients know if she can respond immediately or not.
Benefits to change
Technology might have altered clients’ expectations, but it also has provided benefits as some aspects of an attorney’s work have become less time consuming and costly.
Filing a deed, for instance, does not have to be done in person.
“Instead of walking over to the courthouse to file a deed, you can submit it electronically, and it’s done,” Hughes said. “You also save time and money (filing documents electronically) because there are no fees and postage.”
Thanks to mobile phones and laptops, attorneys are not necessarily tied to an office.
“It changes how we run our business,” said J. Todd Spurgeon, president of the Indiana Bar Association. “I can run my business from my laptop if I need to.”
The evolution of the internet brings other new challenges, including easy access to legal documents for anyone who wants them. Attorneys are feeling competition from online legal services.
It’s common today that individuals might try to handle basic legal paperwork on their own, but attorneys say many times they are called to sort out problems created by someone who tried and failed to do it on their own.
“There are some things based on technology that people can do online, like file for divorce, and the court will help (complete the form),” Leonard said.
It’s not uncommon, however, for his firm to be presented with divorce cases that come to them mid-stream; or zoning and regulatory cases and landlord-tenant cases in which parties used online templates and ended up with some issue requiring an attorney.
“I think, ‘if only they’d taken the time to talk to us, we could’ve saved them a lot of time,’” Smith said.
Another form of business pressure comes from corporations that are expanding their in-house legal teams.
“They pay the attorneys on staff and then they have control over costs,” said Leonard whose firm focuses on attracting clients that don’t employ in-house attorneys.
“We go after smaller and mid-size companies because they don’t use in-house lawyers or use firms in Chicago or Indianapolis,” he said.
The desire of corporate clients to better control costs prompted Barnes & Thornburg LLP, a full-service firm that has an office in South Bend, to launch a Legal Operations Department this year. The firm, which has 14 offices across the nation, first noticed businesses wanting more control over legal costs during the 2008 recession.
“All things came under scrutiny as large companies looked at cutting costs and mandating efficiencies,” said Jared Applegate, chief legal operations officer for the Indianapolis-based firm.
The department evolved over the past four years as the firm has worked with clients under an initiative branded BT ValueWorks. It establishes alternate fee structures that are not based on billable hours. The fees are customized to each client’s unique needs.
“I look at what keeps clients up at night and what they’re going to engage in (in terms of legal needs) within the next year,” said Applegate who has a background in banking and finance rather than law.
Applegate, who has a team of six, works with clients to develop a fee structure based on such factors as time, scope of work, client input and even whether the firm is successful in achieving a client’s goal for litigation or a transaction.
“We take in a lot of data points to come up with a value-priced fee,” Applegate said.
At Barnes & Thornburg, in-house legal executives collaborate with attorneys and full-time legal project management professionals, pricing professionals, and use technology products to address day-to-day business and legal operations challenges.
“This firm has always had a creative bone and was positioned to say, ‘how can we best serve clients?’” Applegate said. He added that clients appreciate knowing upfront what their legal costs will be and are able to budget for them.
He said it has improved interactions between attorneys and their clients.
“We’ve removed friction from that relationship (between client and law firm) as it relates to cost,” Applegate said.
Since Barnes & Thornburg launched BT ValueWorks in 2016, it has managed more than 370 legal matters. In 2018, $100 million of the firm’s total revenue of $406 million was attributed to the program. More than 200 of the firm’s 557 lawyers have received training in legal operations.
The firm is building a new five-story office building 201 S. Main St. in South Bend. It will open in 2021 and is the first new office building constructed in the city’s core in the past 20 years.
The new office will allow the firm’s Northwest Indiana team to expand.
“Our new location enables us to continue to grow and support the needs of our clients throughout the area,” said Philip J. Faccenda Jr., managing partner of the firm’s South Bend office.
As the world has gone digital, so have attorneys who use websites and social media to connect or provide helpful information to potential clients. Some websites provide a contact form for clients who want an initial consultation with an attorney or the opportunity to chat live with a staff person.
Based on his company website, Leonard said, “when they pick up the phone to call us, they already have a pretty good idea of what we can do for them.”
The firm also is looking for innovative ways to connect with people online. It has posted quick-tip videos on Facebook with attorneys answering questions about immigration.
“That’s made our immigration practice boom,” Leonard said.
Protecting a profession
Attorneys say operating digitally has benefits, it also poses challenges that law firms and other businesses need to guard against. That includes the possibility that their computer system and client information might be hacked.
“Business is conducted in a digital age,” Leonard said. “We all operate on the internet, and we’re all vulnerable.”
The choice of a provider for storing information in the cloud was an important decision, according to Leonard who said his firm’s business manager thoroughly vetted their cloud storage provider before hiring them.
As the business world changes so do the activities of law firms who tailor their areas of focus according to the needs of clients. During the 2008 recession, Burke, Costanza & Carberry handled a lot of foreclosures. Today, that demand has lessened, and the firm is working more with entrepreneurs, women-owned businesses, immigration, personal injury, environmental and elder care cases.
“Client mix changes with the passage of time,” Leonard said. “Our task as attorneys is to constantly retrain ourselves to serve clients.”
Employment is an area where Hughes said his firm is finding clients who need assistance.
“People don’t stay at the same job the way they used to,” Hughes said. “It is important to have a structure to the employment relationship.”
He noted that his firm can make recommendations regarding employee handbooks, benefits and obligations between employer and employee.
In the era of MeToo, Leonard agreed that clients are becoming more aware of the consequences of a sexual harassment case. He said employee handbooks should include a detailed chapter on the topic.
Another area of growth is elder law, according to Smith at Burke, Costanza & Carberry. The firm handled 45 guardianship cases in 2018 and has done 20 so far this year.
To build relationships with seniors, Smith attends local chamber of commerce meetings, does presentations for senior groups and even calls bingo at a senior living facility.
“I make sure I’m connecting with my community,” she said.
The popularity of email and other technologies has lessened the need for face-to-face meetings or phone conversations between attorneys and clients, but the attorneys agree that these sorts of connections should not be abandoned.
“There are a lot fewer phone conversations than there used to be,” Hughes said. “I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Sometimes picking up the phone is more effective.”
He, and the other attorneys, value their relationships with clients.
“You don’t want to lose that personal contact and personal connection,” he said. “You develop trust, loyalty and respect for each other.”