Starting a Solo Practice in Your Forties: Embracing Tech, Leveraging an Assistant, and Flexible Payment Plans
This was a great episode with Kathy Orr who’s one of our provider attorneys at San Antonio Texas. And we do cover a lot. One of the things really unique about Kathy is that she didn’t begin the practice of law until her 40s, when she graduated and has basically, right out of law school started her own solo practice and has done so for the last 15 years, running a solo practice right out of law school. And she talks about that transition and one of some of the things that helped her make that transition in those early days.
We talk about a lot of things as well. Such as how she … Important it is to have an assistant in her practice, some of the things that her assistant does, how it helps her to increase her effective hourly rate when she is offering flat rate unbundled services by leveraging her time and having her assistant help her with some of the drafting, and also how she’s been using document automation software. She talks about ProDocs in Texas being a software that she uses to get these documents out the door so much faster and more streamlined.
We also talk about the payment options she offers. She works with clients for as low as $100 a month and she shares the economics of how that’s worked out very, very well for her and her ability to work with more clients and increase her monthly cash flow. So, it’s a very wide-ranging episode, a lot of great takeaways here. So let’s get right into it. This interview with Kathy Orr, one of our provider attorneys out of San Antonio, Texas.
Dave Aarons: Hey Kathy, welcome to the show.
Kathy Orr: Thank you.
Dave Aarons: Yes, happy that we’re getting a chance to talk today and catch up after these many months of working together, and from what I’ve heard, it’s been a wild ride and a very successful one thus far as well.
Kathy Orr: Yes, it has. I’m glad I found you, or you all found me, whichever way it worked.
Dave Aarons: Yes. So I appreciate you taking on the … Jumping on today to share what that journey has looked like for you and talk a little about how you’ve been able to achieve such result in such a short period of time. So, before we jump into some of those specifics, maybe you could talk just briefly about your background, how you got your start in the practice of law, and the regions you serve and the focus of your practice.
Kathy Orr: Okay, the focus of my practice primarily family law, which is what I intended it to be when I went to law school. Because I had an unusual path toward the law. Because I graduated from … I’m an older … Is that okay to say? An older woman.
Dave Aarons: Yes.
Kathy Orr: And, at midlife, due to some bumps in my own personal road that involved legal issues, I decided to go to law school. So, I was in my 40s when I went to law school. And those bumps in the road mostly involved family law issues. And I kept seeing how my case was being handled, and I think my attorney was competent, but he wasn’t really meeting my needs. Legally he did a competent job, but I needed more than that.
And I said, “I can do this better than he’s doing it. And I can be more compassionate than he’s being, having gone through these experiences.” And I went to law school. I had a really successful law school career. And I noticed when I was in law school that it was not unusual for the older students to actually outperform academically the younger students. Because you seem more dedicated somehow or another. And-
Dave Aarons: And they, maybe they’re there because … Maybe for you, you’re there because of you really, really wanted to be an attorney. Not to say the younger attorneys don’t, but maybe their motivations are because of the influence of their family or because of their parents went to law school or something like that. But it’s true … When you’re going to law school in your 40s, for you, it was because you just really wanted … You were very clear that you wanted to be an attorney.
Kathy Orr: Yes. So I actually graduated Magna Cum Laude.
Dave Aarons: Oh, nice.
Kathy Orr: That was nice. And then I discovered that being a female, middle-aged, even with a Magna Cum Laude law degree, nobody wanted me. And I wanted to do family law anyway, which predominantly small firm solos. There are some larger firms that do family law, but they’re the great minority. So I said, “I’m just going to do this on my own,” and I strove out and have been doing it that way since I graduated law school and got my license in 2001.
Dave Aarons: So, you started as a solo practitioner right out of law school?
Kathy Orr: Yes. I did have the benefit, at that time, of having worked in the law school’s legal clinic for about a year by then. So, I had actually already been appearing in court. I’d even handled a trial. And I had my supervising attorney there with me, but I did everything. So, I had some practical experience because of the clinic that I worked in. And my first office was in a … Another attorney had purchased an old house and converted it into offices.
So, it was very small, and that attorney also, in some ways served as a mentor. Was willing to help the newbies coming in. So, I did try, I had a partnership for a while, which was unsuccessful. And that was a couple of years. And I’ve been solo … So, 15 years I’ve been practicing, and almost all of that’s been solo.
Dave Aarons: Yes, and for attorneys, it seems like there are a lot more lawyers that are taking, or considering, and have been making the jump straight from law school and to becoming a new solo, either because of the unavailability of jobs, as it was your experience. Or because of the availability of the internet and being able to market one’s practice individually a lot more sufficiently perhaps.
For you, looking back on that experience and having to make that jump, for other attorneys that either have considered making the jump to run their own solo practice out of law school or from a firm shortly out of law school, was there anything that you found in that transition that was particularly useful for you, to be able to make that transition? You mentioned you had mentor attorneys that you worked within the office, that was able to guide you in those initial steps. You mentioned that you worked at the clinics.
Is there anything … Whether it be those things or anything else that you found was particularly useful for you to make that smooth transition from, into starting your own practice?
Kathy Orr: You got to keep overhead low, low, low. Because you’re not going to start off with a load of clients. And you’ve got to keep your expectations of the type of clients you’re going to get … You’re not going to start off getting $10, 000 divorce. So, you’ve got to keep your expectations reasonable, your overhead low, and not expect to put much money, if any, in your pocket for a while.
Dave Aarons: Okay, so let’s fast forward here. We believe we got started maybe, working together about five months ago as of the recording of this episode here. So, it’s been quite a journey from what I understand. So, maybe you can share a little bit about where you were at when we ended up linking up and started together, and what this last five month has looked like for you as far as a transition. And that way we can start to dive into the tactics and the strategies you’ve developed to experience the results you had, or whatever it is that has developed over these last few months.
Kathy Orr: Sure. At the time I started taking these cases, frankly, my caseload was too low. I needed more work. I have a very able assistant who has many years of experience in the legal market, marketing for attorneys, and can do a lot of really good things. But she and I were not being worked to our full ability. I had more time on my hands than I wanted. She had more time on … Could’ve done more work.
And she wanted to do more work. So, she was very supportive. Like, “Let’s get these people. Let’s go.” And so, she was actually very supportive of me. Delving into increasing our workload. So, I started getting referrals from you all and started jumping on the first one I got. And by jumping on them, I mean I was calling those people as soon as I had … Sometimes I was free when I got the email from you and I would call the people right away.
Sometimes I was not free when I get the email to you, but those people got a phone call that evening. So, you have to be conscientious about contacting these people as soon as possible. Don’t let the water run under the bridge. You’ve got to jump in while it’s nice and juicy.
Dave Aarons: Yes, and do you have an idea of … You’re serving San Antonio, Bexar County and some of the surrounding counties as well when they have cases in those Counties. About roughly how many leads have you been receiving, and do you know how much this has ramped up since you have originally started about five months ago, and then we can maybe start talking about how it is that you’ve been able to work with these clients, in addition to obviously calling them in real time, which is a really core component of building internet leads.
Kathy Orr: I haven’t sat here and counted up how many leads I’ve been getting, and it has recently ratcheted down since you all have thankfully hired someone else to service this area as well, which I’m happy about because I was getting really more than I could handle. It was okay at first, I could handle them at first when my existing workload was lower, but as my existing workload, due to the leads was ratcheting up, it was becoming more difficult to handle the new leads.
Dave Aarons: Right.
Kathy Orr: Because I had less and less time available. So, I’m guessing I got probably 20 in the first couple of weeks, maybe 25.
Dave Aarons: Yes, I’m just going back here and looking, and it looks like you were getting at least 30 or 40 a month, at least. So, yes, maybe about 10 to 15 new leads a week. Just in Bexar county, yes.
Kathy Orr: And for a solo, that was too much for me.
Dave Aarons: Yes. And so, we ran things down, but obviously, it became too much because so many leads that you were talking to, ended up hiring you for your service. So, you had to obviously start delivering the services that they’d hired you for and then also, balance out how do you fill the new leads as well.
So, how did you find that balance, as a solo, between obviously making sure that you’re performing the services that the attorney’s clients have hired you to do and focusing on those tasks diligently while also making sure that you’re making time to [inaudible 00:12:09] the calls and the leads are from new clients that are requesting your services as well?
Kathy Orr: That’s a good question. And actually, I’ll say, you can’t work eight to five and do it. Because, as your workload increases due to you all’s leads, your spending more time at that courthouse. And I can’t be working on you all’s leads while I’m at the courthouse servicing somebody.
Which meant that frequently I have resorted to, in the last few months, mostly it gets followed up on in the evening hours. And people will frequently be surprised, at eight o’clock at night they’re getting a phone call from me. But that’s what works for me is those hours when it gets calm and quiet, that’s when I sit down and return phone class to leads.
Dave Aarons: And do you find, when you call leads in the evening, that you’re able to … I would assume, because a lot of the clients are getting off work, that that might actually be a very good time to be able to reach folks, in those evening hours.
Kathy Orr: I’ve had great success in reaching them. I’ve gotten from you very … In fact, I think there’s only one lead, that I can remember, that had a bad phone number. Did respond to email and had a bad phone number. And that’s out of all the leads I’ve gotten. Only one that I could not reach because I didn’t have any way to get in-touch with them, except email, and I got no response to an email.
Dave Aarons: That’s out of about 230 leads so far. So, for the most part, you’ve been able to get … Reach out and connect with most of these folks.
Kathy Orr: Yes, sir. And I’ve even had … And I think it’s becoming more common lately from, say, the last month or so, that these leads are calling my office before I’ve had a chance to call them.
Dave Aarons: Yes, that’s some of the work we’ve done on the profile page to make that more prominent and have a very clear call to action, to have clients calling your office right there in the descriptions. And that really helps with giving people instruction on what they need to do, which is go ahead and call the attorney we’ve matched up with.
So, we’ve been hearing that across the board that, that’s been really helping with getting more clients to call your office in person. Because there’s nothing better than, as far as being able to have a conversation around serving a client, then to have them call you immediately when they submitted the request when they first decided and took action to reach out to an attorney to get the assistance they need.
Because they’re conscious of what’s going on, they’re feeling whatever emotion it was that incited them to take that action. And so, they’re very receptive to hearing your feedback and the guidance you’re going to provide for them to help them take that next step.
Kathy Orr: Okay. So, of course, some of them I’m not in the office when they call, they just get a return phone call that evening. But I think that’s good if you’re encouraging them to call immediately. Because you can’t sit on these leads. If you sit and wait a day or two they’re gone.
Dave Aarons: Absolutely, yes. They’re serious about hiring someone. If they don’t hear from you. So, why don’t we dive into now … So, you have received the leads via email, you call them when you can during the day, but if you’re not available, you get back to them in the evening. So, let’s suppose you reached out to them in the evening, you jumped on the phone with a client, what are some of the things that you focus in that initial consultation over the phone, and what is your next step you’re helping them get to on that initial call?
Kathy Orr: I would say my main focus, although, not my only focus … And first talking to them, is giving them an opportunity to basically vent, tell me what their problem is. So, I can see, is there any legal solution to this problem? The vast majority of them there is a legal solution, but not everybody. And so, I think it’s important that you give the potential client the first impression that you’re interested in what they have to say.
Dave Aarons: And what does that look like for you? Does it mean you let them just talk about whatever it is they want to talk about for 10 minutes or do you … Is it a couple minutes and then you start asking questions? Where do you find that balance between letting them go off on a tangent or just talk about whatever they want to talk about and also keeping that conversation focused?
Kathy Orr: Yes, that conversation frequently needs to be redirected by throwing in a question here and there. Because you’re right, they would just go off on tangents. And no, I’d say it’s considerably more time than a couple of minutes, and sometimes more time than 10 minutes.
Dave Aarons: Right. Okay, so it could be 10/20 minutes, where you’ll just have a conversation around what it is they’re looking for help with, let them describe to you the problem that they’re having, before you will start to discuss the strategy, or basically give them feedback on what it is they need to do and what it’s going to take to get that done. Just so they feel like they’ve been heard.
Kathy Orr: Right. I think it’s really important to make sure they feel like they’re heard.
Dave Aarons: Yes, absolutely. That’s a step one. Okay, so then, let’s say you’ve given them a chance to vent, share what it is they need the assistance with, you have some good clarity around the main facts and considerations of their case. What are some of the next steps you take, you go through to qualify the client and then you help them take the next step, with whether it be meeting with your office, or you’re enrolling them at that point, or where do you go from there?
Kathy Orr: Well, you need to make, in my opinion, some conversation about money. Because I don’t really want people coming in if they haven’t got any. Because I’m not going to be able to help … I’m not a pro bono, I’m not working for you for nothing. So, if you can’t come up with some initial money, I’m not going to want to do your case, and I’m not going to waste time having you come into my office.
So, you need to have some conversation about money and what their expectations are about money. And how much they can come up with.
Dave Aarons: Would you be able to give us some examples of how you’ll transition to talking about that? So, let’s say they may want to … They told you they want to file for custody, they’ve given you some reasons why. They feel it’s for the best interest of the kid to do so. And so, you’ve reflected that back. And then from there, how do you start the discussion of, “Okay, here’s what needs to be done.” And then, how do you go about determining where they’re at financially so that you can then speak to the offers you can provide to them based on that?
Kathy Orr: Well, I usually start off by asking about their job. You can learn a lot from their employment.
Dave Aarons: Okay.
Kathy Orr: And you can put this around that you’re not being nosy about their money, as you’re wanting to know what time would be good to see them in the office for instance, “Do I need to work around your work schedule to set up an office visit?” “Oh, really? That’s interesting, what do you do for a living?” So, you can get a feel for their financial viability as a client by first finding out about their employment.
And then I usually ask them if they’ve spoken with any other lawyers and do they … and did these other lawyers discuss with them a retainer? And a lot of time you’ll get a yes, and they’ll come up with a figure, “Yes, I talked to another lawyer, and they said a retainer of $5000. Well, I just haven’t got it.”
Dave Aarons: That’s right.
Kathy Orr: And then I will lead into, “Well, I can work with that. I can work with a lower initial payment if you can make monthly payments. Could you do something along those lines?” And usually, we’ll lead into, depending on what their case is. If they’re wanting me to file … Say, defend them on something, and I’m not going to be spending a lot of money filling paperwork, I may start as little as $500.
But if they’re wanting me to file a divorce and serve their spouse, I’m not going to start on $500, because it’s going to cost me $400 to file the case and serve their spouse. So that’s just not a realistic goal. So, I need to have a feel for what the case is to talk about money as well.
Obviously, some cases are going to simple and quick and cheap, and some cases are going to be involved and expensive.
Dave Aarons: So, on that call, once you’ve got a general idea of where they are financially and where they can fit payments in their budget or what it is that they can afford. How specifically do you get into, exactly, what you think it’s going to cost for them to get it done, or at least what that starting fee is? Do you quote that right over the phone and say, Well, this is what we’re looking at to get started. Can you fit that in your budget?
Or do you say, “Well, this is going to be a arranged, this is probably what we’re thinking about, we have unbundled, we can also do … We have a payment plan we, can get into it. And [inaudible 00:21:00] come in. Or do you really get into the specifics on here’s what I expect it to cost, so that they know exactly what they need to bring in for that appointment?
Kathy Orr: All right. I bill by the hour just like almost every family attorney I’ve ever met, which means, estimating total cost is sometimes an exercise in futility.
Dave Aarons: Right, of course.
Kathy Orr: So, you can say: what you’re talking about may cost more than $5000, but we will start working with less than that. So you let them know that this ain’t going to be cheap. But you can make it work for them financially.
Dave Aarons: Okay, and you’ll give them, maybe a starting point that they can see and work towards [inaudible 00:21:43] that they have right now that you can start working with, or as a starting target, if they can fit that in their budget, then you can start working for them?
Kathy Orr: Yes.
Dave Aarons: Okay. And so, maybe what will be good, is if you could start talking about some of the different options and the ways in which you do work with folks, that maybe can afford $5000 or $3000 right up front to be able to retain you to get started on their case. One of the types of options that you will typically offer someone that is in that position, that maybe only has a few hundred or a thousand or something like that available to get started on a typical family law case.
Kathy Orr: Okay, that again depends on if I’m going to be spending very much money filing and serving. Because in Bexar county where I’m working. Let’s say we’re doing a divorce with kids, that’s a little over $300 to file the case. Same thing for a SAPCR, and I’m assuming you know enough about the law to know what a SAPCR is. If you don’t know I’ll explain it.
Dave Aarons: I do to a certain degree. [crosstalk 00:22:43].
Kathy Orr: A SAPCR. Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship.
Dave Aarons: Okay, yes.
Kathy Orr: Generally speaking, if we’ve got kids involved, it’s going to cost more money. Although, not always. If people are being reasonable and reach agreements it can be less, but people are not reasonable a lot of times. So, if I’m going to be filing a new case like that, then I’m going to have to be serving one or two more people on a case. There are sometimes I’d have to serve two people. Then, of course, then they’re going to have to come up with enough money, not only to give me some motivation to start working but to cover those initial out of pocket costs.
So, on those types of cases, the minimum I’m going to start working for is more than if maybe they’ve already got a divorce file, and they just need it finished up. That’s easy and quick.
Dave Aarons: So, can you maybe give a gradient or some examples or specifics, especially for attorneys that are starting to consider offering options, and maybe in the past were only offering full representation 3/5000 upfront. What can some of those retainer agreements look like? Whether it be what the starting fee is and then how you figure out what works for the client on a payment plan basis.
And obviously from what you’re saying, it sounds like you have to take into consideration how much is going to cost for file, what’s it going to cost to get the case filed, and make sure have at least that amount paid upfront, so you can accomplish those initial filings, and then how do you structure it from there.
Kathy Orr: Generally speaking, it varies from case to case. If they’re wanting full service, which most people are, and in a family law case, they don’t want to have to do it themselves. I’ve had some that are do-it-yourselfers, but most people want an attorney to take care of the details. Because they don’t know what those details are, and they don’t want to have to worry about it. And they’re busy taking care of their own lives and their own jobs.
And so, they don’t necessarily have enough time to do a lot of research and figure out what they got to do, and then frequently, even if they do that, they do it wrong. So, a lot of people … Well, I wouldn’t say a lot of people. Some people can, if it’s really simple matters, you can say, offer an option of, “I just do the paperwork and I’ll tell you what to do with it, and here’s the process you follow. And here’s what I’m going charge you just to do the paperwork, which is your cheapest option.”
And then you start explaining what the procedures are going to do, and a lot of those people, suddenly, they don’t want to do that. They want somebody else doing that for them. I lead into, “Well, we can do that, it’s not an issue, but it’s going to cost you more money.” “Oh well, I’d be willing to pay for it.” So you just have to feel them out as to where they want to go.
And like I said, there’s been some that, it’s not infrequent, especially in Bexar County where the people Pro Se divorces, discover there’s this huge, long six-month waiting list to get in and do [inaudible 00:25:47] up on their divorce, which is required by … In Texas, we have to do a very short court proceeding in front of the judge to get the divorce granted. You can’t get it granted just on paper. You’ve got to get the client in front of the judge.
And an attorney, assuming you’ve got a case that is not contested, which some of these are, can walk in during certain times of the day because there’s an uncontested docket. So the attorneys can just walk the clients in and do it whenever. I can pick a day Monday through Friday, “which one do you like?” This was my schedule. But they have to wait this six months to get this uncontested docket, which a lot of people don’t like waiting those six months.
So, I get people coming in when they’ve found out that in order to get a court setting on their Pro Se divorce, it’s going to take six months.
Dave Aarons: So, that gives them a little extra motivation for them want to retain you to expedite the process?
Kathy Orr: Right. So, if all I’m going to be doing is drafting up a divorce decree, and go into court to prove it up and I’m located right now just a few blocks from the courthouse. So, going down to the courthouse is not a problem, I can probably do that for $500, and I’m making money.
Dave Aarons: So, it takes you maybe a couple of hours to get the documents drafted up? And then get a file at the courthouse?
Kathy Orr: I have a really good assistant. She’s going to be drafting the documents.
Dave Aarons: How important is it for you Kathy, especially when you’ve been ramping up your practice in the way that you have over these past four/five months, how important has that assistant been for you to get some of these tasks done, get some of these documents prepared. And for attorneys that maybe don’t have an assistant, what are some of the things that you’ve had her do that really takes some of the workloads off your chest?
Kathy Orr: I say, having her is indispensable. What does she do? She schedules appointments, she answers the phone, she drafts … She can draft divorce decrees. Now, I’m going to go through there and make changes in them and she’s going to fix them after I make changes. So, no document leaves my office that I haven’t personally okayed and frequently made changes too. But if she can sit down and draft up this divorce decree, and she can do it as fast as I could do it. So, she can sit down and do it in a couple of hours.
That, of course, is lots less expensive than me spending two hours of attorney time drafting it up. So, it takes me 10 or 15 minutes to go through and make changes or to okay it, which sometimes happens, but frequently it changes. So, having her has made all the difference in the world. Because I can’t substitute her for doing things like going to court. She can … Clients that call in and have a question, most of those are … Or at least a lot … She can handle herself, instead of having me to use my time to do that. So, she does a lot of client contact and that saves me a lot of time too. So, yes, you got to pay somebody to do it, but it’s not worth attorney time to do all those tasks.
Dave Aarons: Absolutely, and have you experimented with having your assistant do lead calls when you’re in court, to touch base with clients and set appointments for later on the afternoon? And if so, what does that look like, and to what degree has she been involved in that?
Kathy Orr: The only degree she’s been involved in that, is now more recently that people are calling me instead of waiting for me to call them. She’s the one here answering the phone. But generally speaking, they want to talk to the attorney. They don’t want to talk to the assistant. So, she’s not making the initial calls to them when we’re making initial contact. At least not yet.
Dave Aarons: Right, and when you do the document service option, for example, which you said around 500 and you have your assistant do the drafting and then you review it and so forth, do you charge that as a flat rate? Or is it a representation of your hourly rate? So, you think … Do you say, “Okay, well I only need to spend 30 minutes and it’s going to be that, and so I just bill for 30 minutes of our time.” Or do you just charge a flat rate, say, 500 and even though it only takes maybe 30 minutes of your time, an hour or two of hers, which is a different bill value rate, is it still a flat rate so your effective hourly rate is still very, very good.
Kathy Orr: Usually I do those on a flat rate, and how much I charge them depends on what documents they want, and how many documents they want.
Dave Aarons: Right, well, we’ve heard from a lot of attorneys as well. It’s interesting that you do the flat rate, is that for the client, especially one that just maybe got quoted $3000 or $5000 from another attorneys, being able to have an attorney draft up all their paperwork for them, make sure all the I’s are dotted, T’s are crossed, everything’s done properly according to the rules of the court in that local jurisdiction. For $500 or $750, even if it’s a flat rate, it’s a great value.
But the question is if your hourly rate is, say, $250 an hour, does it have to take you two hours in order to get that done, well, if you can leverage the time of your assistant to do maybe an hour and a half or maybe two hours of that time, and then you only have to spend 15/20 minutes, put the client on the front end, maybe review 15 minutes on the back end, it took you maybe 30 minutes of your time to deliver that $500 product, and maybe $25 an hour, two hours of time with your assistant, but your effective hourly rate can still be very, very good when you’re offering these types of flat rate model and you’re also leveraging the time of your assistant.
Has that helped for you to see a very good, effective hourly rate because of the fact that you’ve been doing that on a flat rate?
Kathy Orr: Yes. I’m assuming you want me to say more. They don’t know how much time these documents take. And a divorce decree with kids maybe 50 pages long, so they get really impressed, even a large portion of that is done through computer software. I’m not sitting down and writing all 50 pages of that.
There are, at least in Texas, I don’t know what other states do. But in Texas, we have what’s called a family law practice manual, which has approved forms in it for family law cases approved by the state bar of Texas. And some smart guy named Schoolcraft, a number of years ago started a company called ProDoc, which he has sold out to Thompson West. Somebody’s made a ton of money off this program because almost every family law uses it. And it uses the language straight out of the family law practice manual, which is the language that the state bar tells us to use.
So, this program works by answer questions that individualize the document for each client. So, by the time it comes out of the program, you’ve got a 90%/95% complete document that you just may need to, in some places personalize some more. So, utilizing that software, and then someone else to put it through the software, she’s not coming up with all this language, the software’s coming up with all the language. She’s just answering the questions, which we have on our intake form.
So, by the time you coordinate using your intake form and using this software, the document preparation is streamlined.
Dave Aarons: Exactly. Yes, this has been a very common thread in many of our podcast episodes and throughout the network is attorneys utilizing these types of document automation technology and document preparation software to start to, like you said, streamline the process and lower the amount of time it takes for you and/or, in your case, your staff, your assistant, to be able to get these documents prepared and back to you for review. And into the hands of the client, so that when you offer these flat rates, the faster you can prepare the case and the document, if you’re doing it on a flat rate, the higher your effective hourly rate and the higher your margin.
So, by implementing these technologies, it sounds like that’s really made a big difference in your ability to get these done, get the tasks done quickly and efficiently, which allows you to make a much higher hourly rate when you’re working on a flat rate unbundled.
Kathy Orr: Yes, and of course, the software’s not free, you got to … And the computers that are running the software are not free. So, and the person running the computer that’s running the software is not free. So there are still costs involved in addition to the time, but it’s lower than the addition of more man-hours, or woman hours as the case may be.
Dave Aarons: Exactly, yes. Okay, so that’s a great example and I appreciate you going into a little more depth about that flat rate document service option. Let’s say for example that they really do want to have an attorney handling the case from start to finish, but again, don’t have the 5K upfront. Can you share a little bit more in detail about the types of payment options you have offered, and what that typically looks like for clients, and how you figure out what that payment plan is going to look like, I’m sure by asking questions is important.
But how do you figure out what that balance is going to be? And of course, depending on what needs to be done.
Kathy Orr: Well, before I was doing unbundled I had, and it was basically in my head … After talking with a client, I’d quote a retainer amount. Usually about, depending on what the case was, in the neighborhood of 15 to 25 hundred dollars. Sometimes higher, sometimes lower. But mostly in that neighborhood. So, I kind of use that as a basis for putting in my contracts with these people. They’re paying a retainer of that amount, but they’re paying it in this matter.
So, they’re paying it, number one, to get me started working on the case. They’re paying me a certain amount at the time they sign the contract. Although there have been a few people who want me to agree to take payment … I tell them, I won’t start working on your case until you’ve paid this much for instance. And if they say, “Okay, well, what if I just pay you as I get the money? Then can you start working on the case, when you get that balance?” And I say, “Sure.”
So, I’ve even had some people that are paying money and I haven’t started working on their case. And I’m not going to start working on their case until they reach that minimum balance.
Dave Aarons: Has that been helpful for some clients, to know that they’re putting money aside …attorneys will just say, “Okay. Well, look, we need a minimum of $500, a minimum of a $1000 or $15 000 … ” whatever it is, ” … to get started on your case. Give us a call once you have it.” And they just turn that client aways.
Whereas, it sounds like in certain circumstances you might say, “Well, if you don’t have that right now, then you can just start making payments towards it.” And then, once they have it, then you just take action. But at that point, you’re getting them started working towards making payments towards their balance.
Has that really helped them with their commitment taking that first step, even it’s only $100, a couple hundred dollars, or whatever they can afford, towards paying that balance off?
Kathy Orr: I think it has. And it makes them feel more secure because they know they’ve got somebody lined-up to do the work. So, it’s kind of like somebody’s put you on layaway. They go to the store and they pick out what they want, but they don’t get to take it home until they’ve paid for it. So, they’re motivated to make those payments to get you to start working. So, that has worked in some instances where they can’t even come up with $500 to get me started.
Dave Aarons: So, what’s an example of a payment … Would you take a $100, $200, $250, is there a minimum, or do they just kind of. Do they take a credit card payment every week or so and that just goes into the trust account? How does that work? What’s been the logistics of making those payments, collecting those payments from the clients up to that threshold when you can actually file for them?
Kathy Orr: Okay. Yes, it goes into the trust account, of course, because you may have to refund if you don’t ever do anything on their case but collect payments for a while. But I think … I haven’t had one so far that has not gotten me the minimum amount before I started working on the case.
Dave Aarons: That’s great to hear. Okay.
Kathy Orr: And at that point, if they’re just wanting to start making some payments, I don’t put them on a schedule. I say, “When you want to make a payment, you call and you tell me how much you want to pay, and that will go towards your case. And the more you pay in, the more frequently you pay, the quicker we’ll get to work on your case.”
So I don’t at that point make a, “You have to pay a certain amount every so often.” After they’ve signed a contract … Well, actually, I’m making them sign a contract that is going to specify, that until we receive that minimum balance, we’re not going to start working on their case. But once that minimum balance is reached, then they need to be on a regular payment schedule.
And what I am doing, mostly, is you pay once a month. If you want to pay more often, then that we can certainly do that, but you need to pay at least $100 once a month. And this is … If you only pay a $100, you’re probably going to be paying for a really long time. So, if you’d like to pay more than that, if you can afford to pay more than that, it would be better for you. Because we’re going to get this paid off a lot quicker.
So, I have people paying various amounts. The least I’ll do is a $100 a month. And they need to give me a credit card and authorization to just automatically charge their credit card on a certain day each month.
Dave Aarons: Okay, and do you use a LawPay or automated payment solution, payment processing solution to make that payment automatically, or do you just, at a specific time each month, you guys just do all the payments and so forth?
Kathy Orr: Well, we’re doing it in-house right now, and Graham keeps telling me I need to start using LawPay.
Dave Aarons: Yes, we’ve certainly had a lot of lawyers using that as a platform, because it just takes away the administrative component of having to remember to make that charge, and it also … you can time it so that when people are getting paid on that date, is the date that the payment’s coming out, so it increases the amount of times that, that payment’s going to go well.
But certainly do it manually as well, it works just as fine. It just takes … You just have to do it. You have to schedule it [crosstalk 00:39:08].
Kathy Orr: Well, we just set up a calendar that has listed on it who’s paying when.
Dave Aarons: Yes, exactly.
Kathy Orr: So, every morning my assistant checks the calendar and I charge so and so today. And she runs the credit card.
Dave Aarons: Right. Okay. So, you mentioned a $100 a month. I would have to think a lot of attorneys would think, “Wow, that’s such a small amount for a client to be paying, for you to be representing him on a case.” Do you get into a situation where you provided a lot more services than the $100 that they paid or you’re getting behind, the clients are getting behind on paying you for your services? And has that become a challenge for you to collect on … Do some clients fall pretty far behind, or don’t end up making those payments? So, have you had any of those types of challenges? And is it consistent or not?
Kathy Orr: I’ve had pretty good luck with consistent payments. There have been a couple, one of whom I’m still representing, who’s … Two of whom I’m still representing, who are behind with their payments. But if they call in and they explain to me what the problem is, maybe I’ll give them a break for a month or two. I just want them to notify me before … And if it gets too bad, I’m going to withdraw.
As to, do people go upside down? Absolutely. Because a lot of the work of the family law case is done at the very beginning. Especially if they want a temporary hearing, which is the quickest I can get them into court to get some relief about kids, which is a couple of weeks after I filed the case.
So, if I’m going and maybe spending at least half a day or maybe all day in court, a couple of weeks after I filed this case, I go upside down right away.
Dave Aarons: And was that kind of a leap of faith for you? I don’t know if you’ve always offered these payment plans, or maybe you just started? I think you mentioned you used to do the full retainer before unbundled, and you started offering these payment plans. Was that a bit of a leap of faith for you to start offering such flexible payment plans, as low as a $100 a month? When did you know that you’d be providing more work than you’ll be getting paid for? At least on the very front end?
Kathy Orr: Yes. And so-
Dave Aarons: And how has that worked for you?
Kathy Orr: So far it’s worked well, which is why I’ve been building up a base of about $3000 now, and it’s gradually increasing the base of payments that I’m receiving every month.
Dave Aarons: Yes, and this was something that was mentioned in the previous episode. We have attorneys that were scaling up their practice in Oklahoma, and they talked about how good it feels to know, they had about 6000 or whatever it was that they had in monthly cash flow, coming in every single month and how comforting it was for them to know that their bills were paid, their overhead was covered, because that money was coming in every single month no matter what. How helpful has that been, or how comforting has that been for your practice, knowing that you have that steady cash flow that’s there every single month, to cover some of your expenses?
Kathy Orr: I think it’s really been helpful. And of course some … Every case doesn’t need attention every month. So, I’m still getting that little bit of cash flow from cases that are sitting in my file, because they have to wait for the next thing to occur before we can do anything. There are certain deadlines. And maybe if their next deadline is not coming up, I’ve got to wait.
So, there may be a file, you’re getting paid on that one or two hundred dollars, that you haven’t even looked at that case that month.
Dave Aarons: Right, and you also mentioned before, that you don’t … You won’t file the case until they have a minimum amount covered, which covers the filing and your time to get the documents in order and get things prepared. And so, you’ve covered yourself on the front end there, and then a lot of these cases, like you said, have time frames, where you may not have to work on the case for two or three months, depending on the waiting times of the court.
What percentage would you say, of the clients that you go on payment plans, are you lockstep with what they paid you, versus what you provided a service, versus clients that have fallen behind, because you’ve had to provide more service than they paid for up to that point?
Kathy Orr: I haven’t really sat down and analyzed those figures, but I’d say probably have more clients that are owing me money.
Dave Aarons: More than not, yes?
Kathy Orr: Yes.
Dave Aarons: And from the-
Kathy Orr: But I’m good with that. As long as I finish their case and they keep paying me.
Dave Aarons: Yes, and from the last few months, six months or so that we’ve been working together, that they’ve been pretty consistent about making those payments, even when they’re done with the case. Have you had some clients that you’ve done with the case that continued paying you from there?
Kathy Orr: Well, since I haven’t this but a few months, I haven’t had a lot of those, but I’ve got a couple of those, and they’re still paying.
Dave Aarons: Yes, we’ve heard the exact same feedback from just so many other attorneys in the network. And I think that, again, like we talked about. It is a bit of a leap of faith, and there’s a certain degree of trust you have to have for, that you offer those options. But from what we’ve heard, overwhelmingly, like you said, there’s one or two out of 50, maybe 2/3% most that won’t make those payments.
But when you start to think about the amount of folks that you’re now opening the door, to be able to offer these options, offer services to them that otherwise couldn’t afford it, and the amount of additional revenue that brings in as a result, it seems to be it more than offsets the couple clients here and there that may not be up to date or may not make those payments with that increase in revenue. Have you found that it really just balances out that way for you?
Kathy Orr: Yes, it does. And I think that you get because you’re offering these clients options that they didn’t know were available, that they’re really grateful that they have found somebody that will work with them in a way that they can afford. And therefore are more compliant in paying it. Because they just think, “What a prize, I’ve found somebody who can work with me.”
Dave Aarons: Right. Yes, and how important has that been for you in being able to provide that access to clients, in the way that you do, by offering these options?
Kathy Orr: To me personally or to the client?
Dave Aarons: To you personally.
Kathy Orr: Well, of course, it’s opened up my workload. It’s increased my workload, which is … I’m workaholic, so I like that. And It has given me a greater sense of satisfaction maybe if it’s the right word? That I’m helping more people and seeing … Even in cases where you do not get the result that these people are wanting, when they first walked in your door, most of them are grateful that you’re working for them. And so, that makes me feel good.
Dave Aarons: Yes, absolutely. Because at the end of the day, when you’re able to make that difference for those many people, and you’re getting that appreciation, it’s … Attorneys go to school for a lot of reasons, but most attorneys, I would assume, go to school because they want to help people, they want to make the difference, they want to level the justice and help people get through the process and get custody. So that’s really what it comes down to is how you are able to serve those in your community.
And it sounds like by offering these options, it’s been a real God sent for some of the folks that you’ve been helping.
Kathy Orr: I think so, and I think they show them … I get lots of hugs and thank you’s, and that means a lot. At least it does to me. Now, there may be other people who, having a bigger paycheck, or a bigger office or a fancier chair might be more important. But to me, the sense of helping people and them appreciating is more important.
I know I need to have money coming in, I know I need to be … My office cost money to run. Those have to be met. So there’s got to be money involved. But the sense of appreciation is very important to me.
Dave Aarons: Yes, and from a business standpoint, if we look at it from strictly a business standpoint, the money is there. These are clients that you would otherwise be turning away, and now you have $3000 a month in monthly cash flow, that you otherwise wouldn’t have if you weren’t offering these options. So, there’s a major assumption that if you work with lower income families, you have to make a low income.
And from what we’ve heard from most of our attorneys offering these options, that just really isn’t the case. It actually makes great financial sense, because it gives you the capacity to serve two, three, four, five times as many clients as most any other firm would that doesn’t offer these options.
Kathy Orr: Well, I’m not offering them cheaply the services, I’m just offering them more reasonable payment alternatives.
Dave Aarons: Exactly. Right, it’s not about cheap or low quality, it’s just about adapting the payment options and the solutions that you’re providing. So whether it be the unbundled fixed fee option or the payment plan solutions. Such that people can actually afford to fit in their budget.
Kathy Orr: Yes. People don’t go into a car dealership, or at least not very many people go into a car dealership with $30 000 in their pocket to buy a car. That’s why there’s car financing, right? It’s just not something that has been widely done in the legal profession. Lawyers want the people coming in with the $10 000 in their pocket. And that’s just not realistic for many people. Doesn’t mean they’re not willing to necessarily pay the $10 000 to get their work done.
But they’re not able to pay it when they walk in your door-
Dave Aarons: That’s right, and there are … Yes, go ahead.
Kathy Orr: So it gives you the opportunity to help these people and still get paid.
Dave Aarons: Exactly.
Kathy Orr: People that would be walking away with no help and just living in bad situations.
Dave Aarons: Yes, exactly. And like you said, some of these clients, they may end up paying you the 10,000 just because of what’s involved and the amount of time that’s involved and what it’s going to take to get their case to fruition, but they’re just not going to have the full amount upfront, they’ll just get there over time by offering these flexible payment options, and so the money’s still there, you just have to … You just may need structure a little differently, so that that person can continue to fit it into their budget over time.
Kathy Orr: Yes, and once you start building up that downline to where you have more and more people that are making the monthly payments, it becomes easier and easier for you to still maintain your standard of living, and maintain your law office.
Dave Aarons: Yes, exactly. Okay great. Well, this has been really helpful, Kathy, to shine a light on some of these options you’ve been offering. We’ve just been getting some great feedback from the clients on how grateful they are to be able to work with you and having you be able to help them in such an affordable manner, and certainly couldn’t be more pleased with the results it’s brought for you financially, to be able to be offering the folks these options and helping you grow your practice and increase your revenue and so forth.
Before we maybe wrap up, is there anything else that you found over the course of these last five months, in filling leads, that you’ve had to adapt or just … Or have found to be particularly effective. Either in getting clients to come in the office or mistakes you may have made that you’ve changed, that has made a difference for you in your experience over these past few months, as we wrap up?
Kathy Orr: Yes, I’ve had a problem with people that set up appointments and don’t show up. So, for a while, I was using Graham’s suggestion that we charge them $50 bucks to set up an appointment, and if they come in and they don’t hire you for anything, they get their $50 bucks back. Well, nobody was getting their $50 bucks back. They were spending it with me for something or … And lately I have not been as rigid about that and I need to go back to it.
Because you get appointments set up and you make sure you’re there, and then they don’t show up. So, some of the unbundled leads have … You need to give them some more motivation. Get their finances on the line at least a little bit to come in your door.
Dave Aarons: Yes, exactly, and did you find that when you started collecting that $50 deposit, that that was making a difference in the amount of how often they would show up for that appointment?
Kathy Orr: Absolutely.
Dave Aarons: And were you charging that payment when you collected it right away or is it a deposit? Were you taking the credit card and only charging it if they didn’t show up?
Kathy Orr: No we took the credit card and charged it. And then-
Dave Aarons: Okay, and did you get a … Go ahead.
Kathy Orr: [crosstalk 00:50:46] retained me for something, I gave them credit for that 50 bucks. All right, I keep your 50 bucks, but I give you credit for it, to whatever I’m charging you. If you don’t show up, I keep your 50 bucks. And if you show up and don’t retain me for anything, I’m going to return your 50 bucks. I bet I returned one 50 bucks, one time.
Dave Aarons: Right, exactly. It’s such a risk-free offer. You can come in, you make this deposit, $50. If anyone’s really serious and wants to invest in their case, $50 is not going to break the bank, or even folks that are of limited means. That’s very reasonable. And if you come in and for whatever reason, you don’t feel like what we’re going to provide for you as services isn’t a match for what you’re looking for [crosstalk 00:51:31].
Kathy Orr: Or maybe we’re not the right fit.
Dave Aarons: Or maybe you didn’t like the fact that I went to this law school or maybe you’re from … Whoever or whatever, it could be anything. They’re going to get the $50 back. So it seems like it’s a fair enough offer. To put somebody on the line, to be able to come in and value your time, and at the same time, it’s very low risk for them. Because even if it doesn’t work out, they’re not putting that money on the line.
Kathy Orr: Right, and there’s going to be some people that come in, and I’ve had some people come in and not hire me, and tell me to keep the 50 bucks anyway. But it works really well. And I need to start doing it faithfully again, which I have not been recent. But I need to start doing that faithfully.
Dave Aarons: Yes. And one thing I’ll suggest, just while we’re on the topic. Tera-Lee, in one of our recent podcast episodes called, “Proven sales strategies to get more leads and eliminate no-shows” shared that. He used to take a $50, or maybe it was a $100 payment to secure the appointment and would refund it if they didn’t show up. But he used to get … He would get a little bit of pushback sometimes.
People saying, “I want to think about it,” or, “I thought this was going to be a free consultation.” Or whatever it was. He’d get a little bit of pushback when the client had to make a payment right then and there. The knew that that was going to get charged. And so, what he actually found was just by saying, “Hey look, what we’re going to do is take a credit card to secure the appointment. And only if you don’t show up, we’re going to charge you $50. But as long as you show up for the appointment, we’re not going to charge you at all.”
He found that he was able to get the exact same result, as far as eliminating the no-shows, just by taking the credit card and not charging it, as he was by charging the card right off the bat. And so, it was an interesting experiment to hear that feedback. And then, by offering it that way, he basically eliminated any resistance or objections he was getting from the client, on having to get that card over the phone and charging it, [inaudible 00:53:25] wasn’t charging it, unless they didn’t show up.
Kathy Orr: That might be a … I might consider that.
Dave Aarons: Yes, it’s interesting. Because the end result is, “Okay, we’re doing this to get them show up for the appointment, but the lowest resistance possible, in order to still accomplish that same result, that same outcome with minimizing the amount that folks are going to have resistance or objections to doing so. It seems like that can accomplish the same thing while minimizing the amount of any level of pushback or so forth.
And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with charging them $50 [inaudible 00:53:57] tons of lawyers that do that as well. But it’s interesting to experiment with these two ways of approaching it, and see if we can still end up with the same result, without having to have the card charged right off the bat. So, if you haven’t heard that episode yet with Terra-Lee, you might find it interesting, because he specifically explains and shares exactly how he frames that and shares that with the client, and the impact that’s had on his practice. From relative to the way he’s used it before.
Kathy Orr: That might be a good idea. I’m going to try that.
Dave Aarons: Yes, all right. So, with that. Again, Kathy, I appreciate you coming on and taking the time to share with us the tactics and the way in which you’ve been working with the client. It feels really great to hear how much fulfillment you’ve gotten out of offering these options. We really appreciate the fact that you’ve been so flexible and so accommodating with people’s ability to pay.
This is what it’s really all about. We’ve got 70% of Americans filling Pro Se. And it’s not just because of the forms taht are available online, it’s because they can’t afford 3/$5000, and that’s two-thirds of our market now. And so, by offering these options, you’re really helping to improve the accessibility and affordability of legal services in your local are of taxes and collectively all throughout the United States.
And by sharing these options, I’m sure a lot of attorneys will benefit by taking good notes and starting to offer some of these options in their practice, even the ways they hadn’t considered before. So, I just thank you again for taking the time and sharing so openly about how you’ve been able to work with clients in this way.
Kathy Orr: Well, limiting the Pro Ses, of course, attorneys say, “Well, that takes away our money.” But really, what it does by helping to offer some options that are affordable to lower the Pro Ses, is that the judges don’t like dealing with these Pro Ses. And they do things wrong. And it winds up costing them more money to fix it, then if it had been done right in the first place.
So, you’re not only helping that individual person, but I think to help the whole court system to function more efficiently.
Dave Aarons: Yes, I think that has a lot to do with why so many states and local bar associations have come out with ethics opinions, giving full green lights and supporting attorneys offering unbundled legal services and ethically by the bar associations. Because they can see the benefit it has on limiting the amount of folks that are making these mistakes when they go to court and when they’re filling Pro Se because there are so many people now doing that as a result … Doing it over the last few years, how much that’s increased. So, I think that has a lot to do with why so many of the courts have supported them.
Kathy Orr: Well, I think because of the availability now of forms and companies like LegalZoom, that attorneys have to expand the base that … The way that we’re offering services, or attorneys may … Utilize this, and this, and this. So, if we want to stay valuable part of the marketplace, we’ve got to expand how we’re doing things. We go to respond.
Dave Aarons: Absolutely. Yes, exactly. And adapt, adapt to the way the market has changed. In 2006 we had maybe 30 or 40 percent filing Pro Se. And now in 2016, we’re at 60 to 70% nationwide. And back in the 1970’s, it was 1%. So this is a trend that has happened. It’s changed. It’s completely changed in the last 10 to to 20 to 30 years.
And so, it’s necessary for attorneys to adapt if they want to continue to be competitive in this market especially, like you said, with companies like LegalZoom and so forth making these forms available and walking them through it with these automated form services, to continue to be competitive and provide services that are unique to an attorney. You can give them advice, you can give them guidance, you know the local court.
And there’s value in that. It’s just a matter of finding a way to fit these services that you provide into the budget of all these clients.
Kathy Orr: Yes, and I think attorneys talk about things like LegalZoom, they’re a practice, UPL. Unauthorized practice of law. And a lot of these services probably are. And the best way for us to fight them is financially.
Dave Aarons: Because as much as LegalZoom is a valuable service in a certain scenarios, there’s isn’t a substitute in many cases. Especially in family law, for a competent, experienced attorneys that knows that local court, to draft up that paperwork, give that client guidance, be there in court when necessary as well. That is always going to be a value that no technology, no software can provide.
And so, it’s really just a matter of attorneys like yourself offering options that makes it so that the client can make the decision to have an attorney assist them with that and not having to go it alone simply because of the cost.
Kathy Orr: Exactly. So we mean to fight back by changing the way we’re doing things.
Dave Aarons: That’s exactly right. And that’s exactly what you’re doing Kathy. So, again, I really appreciate coming on and sharing how it is that you’ve been working with these folks and the work you are doing for them because it does really make a difference. And so, thank you.
Kathy Orr: Oh, can I give a shout-out to Graham?
Dave Aarons: Absolutely, please do.
Kathy Orr: He’s great. So, you all need to keep him, and he gives great advice.
Dave Aarons: Well, we certainly appreciate the feedback. And we’ve been hearing that same thing from so many of our attorneys. And we’re all committed to this team for giving you guys the best advice, suggestions, ideas, education, whatever it is that can make the difference for you to be able to reach out to more clients and offer these services to folks that otherwise can’t afford it. Because that’s what this is all about.
So, with that, thank you Kathy, and we’ll go ahead and wrap up the episode. For everyone else that is listening, we certainly appreciate you participating. Again, if there are any attorneys out there that you feel would benefit from these strategies that are being shared on this podcast, please share with them. We also released a new webinar that’s now live on our site at unbundledattorney.com. Which basically condenses some of the strategies and things that we have learned from the podcast of all the main, best strategies that our attorneys are offering, the themes that come across all these interviews.
So that webinar is now live on our website about a third of the way down. So, those of you that want to get a very condensed version of all these options can now see that in less than an hour, in one tight webinar. So, feel free to check that out, and that can help as well. So, with that we’ll go ahead and wrap up, thanks everyone for participating, thank you again to Kathy, and we will see everyone on the next episode.
Kathy Orr: Thank you, Dave.
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