Modernizing Your Law Practice: Stepping Up to the Challenge of Adapting to the Complex World of Legal Technology
Today we’re interviewing Mark Brinkworth, who is one of our unbundled attorneys out of Kansas City, Missouri doing family law, and we’ve worked together for quite some time, and Mark has a unique background. He was a police officer, worked in the entertainment industry, used to live in Los Angeles for a period of time, so he’s really just worn a lot of different hats prior to becoming an attorney. Then once he did become an attorney, by the way, he’s also a martial arts instructor as well, so just a lot of different skill sets, perspectives, and when he became an attorney, a lot of these experiences from the past has informed the way he practices law. And we talk about that in the beginning of the episode, how working as a police officer helps him understand two sides to each story and sticking to the facts and relating to clients a little better, and a lot of experiences he’s had to work with clients, making sure people understand what it is they can and can’t accomplish in court, being honest and truthful to people and so forth. So a lot of really good suggestions there.
But the second part of the episode is really about how Mark has had to transition is practice into becoming a technologically enabled streamline practice, and how that’s enabled him to be able to be offering payment plans much more effectively and have that work out for him. Also, you know, enabling him to do unbundled services. And we talk a lot about how technology and implementing technology is one of the most important components to also being able to offer unbundled services and payment plans affordably and profitably. You know, for Mark it’s been a real challenge. You know, Graham is one of our representatives and he’s worked really closely with Mark for a long time and a lot of times. Every time we would bring in a new phase, there was some resistance to implementing it, and, “Gosh, okay, fine.” So we kind of had to bug, but at each phase, he shares kind of what that experience has been for him, how each tool that he’s implemented has impacted his practice in a positive way, and all the resistance he had to modernize and adapt to this significantly changing market through every single step.
So it’s a great example of some of the challenges that I think any attorneys are going through right now, trying to modernize and adapt their practice as times are changing so quickly and technology is evolving so rapidly, and being able to hear Mark’s story about how he’s been able to do that and overcome some of that resistance and those barriers. So just a really valuable episode, you’re gonna have a great example from someone that’s kind of really gone from what you would consider old school and very traditional to a tech-enabled unbundled legal service practice, and is serving just an incredible amount of clients now that he otherwise couldn’t, and do very well in his practice as a result.
So let’s get right into it, this interview with Mark Brinkworth, one of our unbundled attorneys out of Kansas City, Missouri.
Dave Aarons: Mark, welcome to the show.
Mark Brinkworth: Hey, thanks for having me.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, this is a long time coming. We’ve worked together for, gosh it’s gotta be a couple years by now, and it’s been quite the journey with its own ups and downs, but you know a gradual rise to where we are today from where we first started, and there have been lots of lessons learned in between, so really glad that we’re getting an opportunity to explore it all, unpack it, and share what’s been working for you, so I appreciate you taking the time.
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah, well thanks for having me.
Dave Aarons: No doubt. You know Mark, from what I know about your background, you’ve taken kind of a unique approach to becoming an attorney. You had kind of multiple lives before your lawyering. Maybe you can just kind of share your background as an officer and also the work you were doing before that just to give people some perspective. I know you spent some times overseas too, which a lot of our team members have done that as well. So maybe just give us a quick background on how you came to this practice of law.
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah, well I went to the University of Kansas and I was actually a film major. So when I graduated, I moved to Los Angeles and I was working at one of the largest talent agencies in the world there, and I was there for a while in the agent training program, and I kind of realized that that wasn’t the route I wanted to take.
Then I was working as a boxing and kickboxing instructor in Santa Monica for a little while trying to figure out what it was I wanted to do. And I realized that Los Angeles is a very expensive city to be treading water while you figure out what you want to do, so I moved back to the Midwest. Then I looked at law school, and I had taken the LSAT but I wasn’t quite ready for it yet. I actually applied for a job as a conversational English instructor in South Korea, and I went there. I submitted my application and pretty much the same day I got called back by the owner of this school. And they wanted to bring me over there, and they paid for the ticket and I said, “Okay great.” So went to South Korea and I actually ended up getting dysentery about two months into my stay there and lost, jeez, probably 30 pounds and I ended up having to come back.
Then I moved back to Los Angeles, tried to get back into entertainment, but this time in creative development, and then that was around when September 11 happened, and the job market pretty much disappeared overnight. Then I ended up back in the Midwest again, and yeah. It just kind of keeps sucking you back in.
I had one of my roommates in Los Angeles, he’d been a defensive tactics instructor with the Los Angeles police department, and he had told me when I was out there, he was like, “Well I can get you a job.” “You know, I hear your stories and I don’t think that really sounds like my cup of tea.” But when I moved back to Kansas, I was teaching martial arts here, and one of my students was a captain with the police department and he said, “Well we’re hiring.” Because I told him I was looking around for another job. So I thought about it and applied and went through the process and got hired, and I did that for a while, for a couple years. And I mean I testified in municipal, district, federal court. And did pretty much everything that I wanted to do when I was a police officer, then I left that department and I actually went to work as an associate producer for a morning news show in Topeka, Kansas, then after a couple months there, I was promoted to be a producer of the show.
During that time, I had kind of looked back at going to law school again, so I started submitting applications and I got accepted to law school and started that in 2007 and graduated in 2010, then something about California was calling me back again. I tried to go back out there, I took the bar exam a couple times, that sucker is hard.
Dave Aarons: Yeah.
Mark Brinkworth: And then I realized that there wasn’t a very good job market out there, and most of my family was here, and I started thinking about it. You know, your priorities kind of change as you get older, and I realized that I would probably just stay in the Midwest. So then I took the Kansas bar exam and passed that and started taking on cases here. Then, oh, a couple years ago I started my own practice full-time. Then last year I think is when I started talking with Graham and he asked me, “What do you want to do?” And I was like, “Pretty much I’m still kind of forming that notion of what it is that I want to do.” And he said, “Well we do family law, immigration and the probate and state stuff.” And I was like, “Well I’ll do family law.”
Dave Aarons: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mark Brinkworth: And that’s how we got started.
Dave Aarons: Well I’m glad we were able to provide a bit of influence in that direction. I mean there was leads available, there were cases to be tried, and people to be served. You know, why not give it a shot, right?
Mark Brinkworth: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s been working well. I was amazed at the number of leads that came in. And the Missouri side had to bring in a partner really to work with or a contractor to work with me on the cases that have his Missouri license, so yeah, it’s been nuts. I think in the last six months or so, I think it’s been over 400 leads.
Dave Aarons: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And I think right now, for a little while here you’ve ever had I think part of Missouri just turned off. I mean its been I think just Jackson, is it right?
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah it’s just one county in Missouri.
Dave Aarons: Because you guys just succumbing to the onslaught.
Mark Brinkworth: When I first signed up with you guys, I think I had five counties in Missouri, and the attorney that I had brought in, we were both just like, “What is going on?” I mean it was probably 12 leads a day we were getting, it was just way too much.
Dave Aarons: Yeah.
Mark Brinkworth: So yeah, I picked the county and that’s kind of what we stayed with there, then I have the Kansas counties as well.
Dave Aarons: Okay cool. For those that are listening, obviously we weren’t kidding about the multiple lifetimes, you’ve kind of done a lot of different things and you have a lot of unique experiences and skill sets that come from your TV background, your entertainment, police officer, and obviously martial arts as well. There are so many different assets to your layers of experience that I’m sure to inform the way in which you work with your clients, some of your philosophies in which you operate your practice, so I think there’s a lot of room I think for us to kind of dive into that. I think first and foremost, being a police officer and being in the officer’s shoes in court and seeing from that perspective of being a witness in cases and seeing the lawyers working, I’m just curious about how being in the shoes of a police officer, which is a very unique and kind of unusual experience to have before you became a lawyer, and also seeing how the arrests happen and so forth. You know, lawyers kind of just deal with the aftermath of, “Okay now you’re charged with this, this is how we deal with it,” then obviously they’re kind of cross-examining you as well.
How is kind of being able to be in the opposite shoes from where the lawyers are and now being an attorney, how has that kind of informed and helped you in your practice?
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah, being on the stand is an interesting thing when you’re … it’s definitely helped me out, I think. You really have to pay attention to the questions that are being asked and your attorney has to pay attention to the questions that are being asked. Because sometimes attorneys will try and flip in compound questions, and if your attorney is not paying attention, your answer could really kind of hurt you later on. But I also tell my clients that their experience on the stand will more than likely not be as stressful as my worst experience on the stand, which is when I ended up having to do CPR in court. If they get out of there without having to do CPR, then it was a good day.
Dave Aarons: Yeah I mean maybe we’re not gonna spend the time unpacking that story about you doing CPR in the courtroom, so obviously that’s one of the things you as a police officer, maybe you can talk just about how you relate that to your clients. You know, obviously you’re interviewing people on the side of the road, but you know, family law is definitely more emotional, there’s a lot of things involved, and this is probably one of the challenges I think for a lot of people that are going pro-se or trying to handle things on their own is they mix the facts of their case with the emotional factors. You know, so how do you help them, perhaps you can share a little bit about your experience as a police officer in sorting out the emotions from the facts and how you relate that to your clients.
Mark Brinkworth: Oh absolutely. Yeah, people definitely get their emotions mixed up and mixed into the facts of the case. You know, when I was a police officer, when I was going through the academy they would always say, you know there are two sides to every story and in the middle, there is gonna be the truth. So when you talk to your clients, you could take in what they’re telling you, but I’m not saying that you don’t believe them, you believe them because to them that’s what happened, that’s their truth if you will. But it’s not necessarily gonna be the exact record of what had happened, so you need to help them realize that their emotions may have kind of clouded their interpretation of things. So there may be a different approach, and if we can kind of just calm down a little bit, we might be able to get a better resolution than they originally had wanted, and one that’s more satisfactory to them.
Then perhaps the other side as well, in which it keeps costs down. The last things that judges will say all day that they don’t want to have a trial because it costs too much. And you don’t want to drive up the costs for your clients, so yeah, you want to talk to them and kind of guide them through. I mean I think that’s part of the role as both an attorney and legal counselor is that you kind of counsel them on things. In the end, the decision is up to them. If they want to say, “no, I want to take it to trial,” then that’s the route you can take. You want to help them see all options, so it’s good to empathize with them, but you also have to keep your eye on the ball and you kind of do that by not getting emotionally entrenched in the case.
Dave Aarons: Hm. I wonder if we can give an example of someone that has kind of a clouded view and how you might help them with seeing the other side with them still feeling like you’re on their side. Right? There’s also that delicate balance of being representing them but also trying to get to a level of expectation then a plan to move forward that keeps into consideration what’s realistic based on the law and helping them also see other sides case and what they’re looking at.
How do you start to level with someone to take into consideration how to actually … They may feel like they want full custody and they don’t want their kid around the father anymore. I don’t know, I’m taking the extreme case. How do you bring it down?
Mark Brinkworth: No.
Dave Aarons: Do you describe the law then kind of lay it out, or how do you work around and balance that for someone?
Mark Brinkworth: That’s actually not that extreme of a case. I have a lot of people that I’ll talk to and they say they want to get sole custody of their child. It’s a pretty rare thing, I’ve found, for the courts to actually do that because the court is basically terminating that other parent’s parental rights if they grant sole legal and residential custody to that parent. So you have to … one, I usually let them vent. I mean I was on the phone yesterday with someone who you could tell she just wanted to talk during the intake or the consultation call that’s normally maybe 15 to 30 minutes, so we just talked for an hour. I kind of let her vent and then after they’ve done that, then you can kind of say, “Okay, well here’s the law, here’s what I think you’re saying, and here’s kind of what you can expect to have happened. Does that mean that that’s absolutely what’s gonna happen? No. Every judge is different, but chances are pretty good that without some pretty extreme circumstances, you’re not likely to get sole custody.”
And then sometimes you have to repeat it. That’s fine. But eventually they’ll start to kind of realize that yeah, maybe that’s not what they want to have happened, then they start thinking about how their child’s gonna feel. Most kids want to know both parents, so it’s tough sometimes to put their own hurt feelings aside and think about it from the child’s perspective, but eventually, that can happen. And usually most of the time they’ll end up saying, “Okay, well we can do this,” and we get into more of a shared custody situation. And it may just be that the other parent has supervised visits for a while, but like I said, it’s rare that they end up getting sole custody, so you kind of have to point out to them and show them why that is, and eventually I think a lot of people come around to recognizing that their expectation was a little unrealistic. And that’s not actually what they want to have happened.
Dave Aarons: Yeah. And do you kind of invite them to think about, you know, “What do you think is in the best interest of your kid? I mean think about it from your child’s perspective as far as what they need growing up.”
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah, definitely. Because that’s what the courts are gonna look at. When there are children involved, they always look at what’s the best interest of the child. So clients need to look at it from the court’s perspective too. Because they’re the decision makers, they’re gonna be the ones that decide it. And that’s not saying that you can’t present the argument to the court and try and get them to go along with it, but chances are good that the court, you know, they know the law. Judges are very good at not getting emotionally involved, so you can make emotional pleas to them and that can definitely have kind of an impact. It’s a factor that I think they look at, but it’s definitely not an over-riding factor that will get the judge to completely reverse course and say, “You know what? Yeah, let’s give you sole custody.”
Dave Aarons: Yeah. And I can see being able to be very strong and firm about what the law is, I wouldn’t say uncomfortable, but it’s a very important role you play as an attorney is to set that expectation and just kind of allow the person to receive that and get clear on that, right?
Mark Brinkworth: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dave Aarons: Because I’m sure there’s a lot of attorneys out there, and I don’t want to say a lot of attorneys, but there may be some attorneys that maybe will just say, “okay sure, let’s go after it.” And let them spend the money on pursuing a goal that in their heart of hearts know that it’s probably very unrealistic, but haven’t been able to have that meeting of the minds and the come to Jesus, whatever you want to call it moment where here’s what we can do, being very honest with them. And I would assume that a lot of the clients really appreciate that, even if it’s sometimes hard to hear.
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah. No, I think that is the job of an attorney is to tell their clients sometimes what it is that they don’t want to hear. It’s not just to be a yes man or yes woman. Your job is to tell them the honest assessment of their case and what they can expect, and what is completely unrealistic or even just moderately unrealistic, and let them make the decision, a fully informed decision on what they want to do. And if you’ve done your intake procedure correctly, I mean you should know whether or not you have a client that is completely unable to listen to reason and is just single-mindedly trying to … maybe exact vengeance upon their ex because of their hurt feelings. And if that’s the kind of client somebody wants, then more power to them. But I try and help the clients that genuinely are looking for help.
And that’s where unbundled has been great, because the gap, the access to justice is that there are a lot of people out there that really want help and they can’t afford to go and drop five grand just to talk to an attorney, but they really are genuinely trying to get help, but they just don’t know what to do. And they want an honest assessment from an attorney, they want to know what their options are, they want to know what routes they can take and they want to know if they can expect to even have a chance at winning. And you know, I feel like that’s my job is to do that for them.
Dave Aarons: Yes, yeah I really appreciate that, and I think most attorneys would agree that’s one of the most important things is making sure you’re able, to be honest, and also get feedback or feel in to whether a client is capable of understand what’s possible and what’s not or if they’re just looking for someone to tell them what they want to hear and proceed accordingly, and there are those folks too.
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah.
Dave Aarons: You’re gonna get some clarity on who you’re dealing with as a client, but for the most part like you’re saying, they want help, they want an honest answer and they also need to find a way to do it financially. And when you first came out of law school … or law school, when we first started working together, I was getting some feedback just as far as there were some differences in the way that unbundled services and working with folks and doing parts of the case, offering different payment options and so forth was either somewhat new to you or a lot of things that you’ve adapted and implemented into your practice that shifted things. And I’m wondering if you can kind of think back and go through some of the differences between the way in which you’re approaching your practice early on and some of the things that you’ve learned along the way that either through our suggestion or just from trial and error, working with the leads and working with the clients that you’ve implemented that have made the biggest impact on your practice so far.
Mark Brinkworth: I think the thing that’s made the biggest impact without a doubt is gonna be taking payments instead of expecting a large retainer up front. And that was kind of what I was doing. I remember one of my first civil cases, I think it was a civil commercial case and I felt really bad charging a large retainer, so I didn’t. Then we ended up kind of getting stiffed on that bill, so everybody that I talked to, all the experienced attorneys were like, “Well you need to charge way more up front.” So then I was trying to do that for a little while and I just found that no one was hiring me, because no one has a money tree growing in their backyard and they don’t have five grand just sitting there waiting for them to go out and pluck it off and hand it to an attorney. You know, people have lives, they have expenses, and paying an hourly rate, if you’re doing hourly rates, and I’ve been trying to get things to transition more into flat rates for most things, but for the hourly rates I mean it’s just kind of insane what the legal field charges per hour.
I mean when I was a morning news show producer I was getting paid I think $10 an hour, and I mean I don’t mind saying what my hourly rate is right now, it’s about $200 an hour in Kansas and I’m going, “Are you kidding me?” I would have to work a long time as a morning news show producer to be able to pay one hour for an attorney. So that, you know, I mean the market kind of forces you to charge that, but that’s why I like the flat rate fees and I like the payments, because people know that attorneys, that we’ve had to go through a lot of training to do what we’re doing, so it’s not that they’re upset about paying that, it’s just that they want the chance to be able to spread the payments out. You know, most people I think are pretty proud of what they do for work, no matter what it is, but they just want the ability to be able to make the payments and kind of, I don’t know, have the dignity of being able to hire an attorney and have that attorney trust them to make payments and treat them like a person instead of just a walking piggy bank. Which unfortunately doesn’t occur that often.
Dave Aarons: Well yeah, and to be honest, this reminds me a lot of the conversation I had with Charles Skinner on the podcast I think the episode was Relocating your Law Practice, he moved his practice from El Paso to Dallas, but before he became an attorney, he was working in a factory as I believe it was an iron worker or a welder. Basically just blue collar, and as a machinist, I think it was as well and did all the roles. But he knew what it was like to make $20 an hour, $15 an hour, there’s a lot of attorneys that start out that maybe never had that experience beforehand, so it seems like you have another layer of empathy because you know what it’s like to be getting paid $10 an hour and being in their shoes as most people, like $10, $15, $20, $25, $20, $40 an hour. I mean you’ve got your dentists and professionals and so forth, but the average folks, you know? That’s what they’re making and it takes a long time to come up with $200 for an hour, you know?
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah. Yeah, definitely does. Sometimes I’m just amazed at the people that will be able to come up with $100 a week. It’s just like, I don’t know how you do it, but I’m amazed, because they’re coming to you for different reasons, maybe child support issues, they’re already having to pay out $700 a month in child support, and they’ve got their own rent on top of it and regular bills that everyone else has, then they’ll work themselves to the bone, but they just want the chance to be able to make the payments. Then having law pay set up as well, Graham is really on me about that. My phone calls with Graham, in the beginning, I told him it was kind of like a relationship with a girlfriend or something that wants to get you to something and it’s like, “Ugh, hey Graham.” Then “Have you got law pay set up yet?” And it’s like, “No.” I just know what’s coming and finally, he’ll be like, “Look, we’re gonna do it now.” Then we actually ended up setting stuff up, and it’s been great. Graham was right, it’s been great. So it’s really helped out, and I think clients have enjoyed that as well because they know that they’re getting a receipt, I’m getting a receipt, and it’s just scheduled so they can budget it into their monthly expenses, and go about their business, you know?
Dave Aarons: Yeah, and I think you said something, it’s almost fascinating or I don’t remember the exact words you used, but what people are willing to do to find the money and have the dignity to be able to afford an attorney. I think that’s a really just deep point, you know, as far as if you put the faith and you give the opportunity to the client to make it happen. And it might be a stretch, in many cases a stretch for people. Like you said, people want the chance and they take advantage of it, and it’s amazing to see what they do, how they get the help. I mean sometimes you’re just kind of blown away at how people are able to make it happen, right?
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah, I mean you’ll see entire families kind of come together to help make these payments. I do admit I feel a little bit of conflict internally about that, it’s like because I’m charging something where they have to bring together their entire family to make the payments on it, but at the same time that’s usually occurring when there’s a bit of a time crunch with the case, so they need to get some payments in so that we can actually get going and get to court because there’s a court date coming up or something. I mean I have other cases where somebody can only afford to pay $50 a month, and they’re doing it, and the layaway payments are another thing that Graham was on me about, and I was kind of hesitant at first, but then people really liked it. So I was like, “Well if they like it, it seems to be working, why not?”
Dave Aarons: Maybe what we should do, Mark, is just what were the things that Graham was bugging you about, and what were the things that implemented and what were your initial resistance. And I think that’s one of the things that’s characterized our relationship to some degree is, you know, we’d suggest something and then you’d say, “Yeah, that’s a good idea,” then we’d take some time, wouldn’t implement it. But it’s interesting in the sense that there were some either you were busy or whatever it was, but I’d love to unpack it. What were some of the things that you were uncertain about or unsure of that we had to kind of push you over the edge? And what were some of the things that were more challenging to implement? I’d love to kind of share from your perspective what it was like for you to make these transitions and, you know, to overcome this stuff, yeah.
Mark Brinkworth: Well I’m pretty headstrong sometimes. And I think Graham is as well.
Dave Aarons: Yes he is, yeah.
Mark Brinkworth: So when we would talk, one, he wanted me to do law pay. And at first, I was kind of like, “No, I don’t know, I don’t really know if I want to pay a fee for something.” He’s like, “Man look, just try it. Here’s the code you can use so you can get a discount or something for three months without having to pay some of the fees,” so I was like, “Oh all right, I’ll try it.” I tried it, I liked it. Then he was asking me about the importance of not only calling when you first get the leads but then also sending a text. And I was like, “Really? I don’t want to be doing business by text.” And he starts rattling off statistics of how many people actually just use their cell phones and want to communicate by text, they don’t actually like getting phone calls. “Okay, but I don’t want to use my personal number for it.” He’s like, “Ever heard of Google Voice?” I’m like, “Not really.” And he’s like, “Okay, well this is what we’re gonna do.” And he gives me a website address to look up and he’s like, “We’re gonna set it up right now.” And I was like, “Oh fine,” so we set it up.
Dave Aarons: This is so classic.
Mark Brinkworth: Sure enough, I could just copy and paste into a text message and send them off to people and it was fantastic. It’s really easy to send text messages to a lot of people, even if it’s just, you know, kind of something saying, “Hey, what’s going on? Just checking to see how you’re doing.” You can still do it and you can copy and paste to every lead you have in practically no time. So he was right there.
Then he got me to do Clio, then when you guys partnered up with Lexicata, he was all about Lexicata. Actually, I was looking for something where I could use automated emails and he’s like, “That’s perfect. We’re partnering up with Lexicata and you can get this set up,” and he’s like, “It’s only $50 a month or something like that.” He’s like, “Come on, it’s $50, that’s like what? One lead?” And I was like, “Fine, I’ll try it.”
Dave Aarons: Oh my gosh.
Dave Aarons: If Graham is happy, we’re happy, you know?
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah. The only thing I’m having trouble with is trying to figure out the document automation on Clio, but otherwise, it’s been really nice to have everything in one place and also have the secure communications. Because before I would start to try something like, “Oh, maybe I should try this.” So I would have documents and things kind of divvied up among three different applications instead of having it all in one spot. So it’s so much faster and more economical to have it all in there with Clio.
Dave Aarons: Yeah. And I appreciate your candor with the way you’ve shared kind of the experience. And I also appreciate the fact that, you know, hey as it turned out some of this stuff worked out. And stuff doesn’t work out for everyone, but it really is powerful, I mean to be able to text with Google Voice and maybe not have to use it, I mean these are all the initial resistance points that we have from a lot of attorneys.
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah.
Dave Aarons: You know, like whether it be the texting, whether it be not having practice management software implemented, not having an automated payment solution, not having … I mean these are just the things that are part of this kind of modern, this modern era, this modern technology, people having smartphones, people want to just click a button. And there is a lot of resistance in the industry for attorneys to implement this stuff.
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah.
Dave Aarons: And if Lexicata or any of these guys listen to it, I mean we really do harp on this stuff because it’s so important and it does have such a tremendous impact. Maybe could you just share on any level of whether it be the Google Voice, the Clio, or Lexicata, obviously you’re still working on implementing the document automation, how these things have impacted your practice relative to where you were maybe a year or two when we were first talking about implementing these things? I’d love to get your perspective.
Mark Brinkworth: Well being able to add just as far as … since lawyers all love money, I can start with that and say having Clio, the ability to have that integrate with QuickBooks is phenomenal. But before that, I didn’t have QuickBooks, to begin with so I would have to … Before I had Clio, before I had QuickBooks, I would just use an excel sheet and I would have to keep track of what they had paid into the trust, then keep track of any earned fees or anything like that, and I had a separate app that I was using to keep track of the hours that I had spent on things, and it worked out all right, it was passable, but then I would also end up having to draft my own bills and invoices when I was sending them to clients.
So then when I got Clio it was pretty much already there. I just kept track of the hours, and I really just had to click the button for a quick bill and it would pop up, and I could choose what address I was gonna use if they had a billing address that was separate from saying their home address or their work address, where they wanted the invoices to be sent or just to have copies of the statements of the account sent, and just click a button and boom it’s done, then keep track of what’s in the trust account, what’s in operations account, and if I need to pay the invoice with funds from the trust account, I’d literally just click approve and apply for money from trust, and it’s done just like that.
Dave Aarons: Yeah.
Mark Brinkworth: I mean something that would have taken me maybe a half an hour for one thing I can get done in no time because you can also do batch invoices from Clio now.
Dave Aarons: Right.
Mark Brinkworth: Or maybe you always could, but I’ve only recently learned about it. But yeah, it’s definitely a huge time saver as far as that goes.
Then, Lexicata has been fantastic. Instead of having to call people up or write out an individual email reminding them of upcoming either court appearances or appointments in the office, something, I can just automate that. So when I set the appointment, it integrates with my calendar, it automatically feeds or populates in my calendar, then the reminder email is automated as well. So I can set the time that I’m gonna to have that reminder go out, be it a couple hours, a couple days beforehand, whatever, but it still then sends a reminder out. So I know that I’m reminding the clients, and if they don’t show up then that’s kind of, you know, on them. It’s not that I haven’t done my part to try and keep them on task. So that’s been really helpful.
Then you can also just set it, you know if you use the drip campaign feature in Lexicata, you can just have it send up, just send out periodic reminders to leads to let them know that you’re still out there, and if they have any issues that they need assistance with that they can give you a call. And I think that keeping yourself first and foremost in their mind is … it may not pay immediate dividends, but in the long run, it will help.
Dave Aarons: Yeah.
Mark Brinkworth: Because I think people are gonna remember that one, you stayed in touch. I mean an example the other day I had sent out a consultation follow-up email to a lead, and it was a couple weeks after I had spoken with this person, and I got an email back saying that they had talked to literally probably 50 attorneys and I was the first one that had ever bothered to follow up with them and see how they’re doing.
Dave Aarons: Wow.
Mark Brinkworth: And they were just floored that I had even bothered to do that. And did I do it? Yeah, I didn’t sit there typing up the email, but I had clicked a button to send the follow-up email. I had thought about them and thought about trying to follow up with them, but yeah I was just amazed. Like, “No one has bothered to follow up?” I mean just from a financial standpoint, that’s stupid.
Dave Aarons: Yeah. But it’s understandable, right? When you don’t have these systems in place. Do you think maybe two years ago before you had Lexicata, would you have followed up with them? I mean if you’re honest, probably not, right?
Mark Brinkworth: No, no. I’ve thought about following up, but then I was like, “Ah, it’s gonna take too much time, I don’t have time to do that.” So I wouldn’t do it. I’d think about it, and now I just go click and set it for a time. I mean I can schedule the follow-up email to go out a couple weeks after I’ve spoken with them, and I click and forget. You know, I forgot that I scheduled it, then it’ll go out, then I get something back saying, “Hey, thanks for the follow-up. We’re still thinking about it,” or “We’re trying to get together the money but we’re definitely still interested,” so then it’s like, “Alright, put you in the follow-up category again,” and just keep following up with them. So the technology definitely helps.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, it’s interesting, right? These are all these little email reminders, drip campaigns, follow-up emails, you know these are the little things that just like you said, you think, “Oh I should probably do that but it’s gonna take some time, I got these other things I’ve got to do,” and it’s not because lawyers don’t want to or don’t see that there’s value in it, it’s just that when you weigh out, right, the primary tasks at hand, you’ve got a case that needs to get filed, you got these other things going on. You have to prioritize. Right? So those things inevitably fall by the wayside, so these systems are what make it possible for lawyers to be able to, you know, to be able to do the … I don’t want to call it minutiae, but the little things, the little touches that clients really appreciate, and in your experience, all you get is an email back from the client saying, “Hey, thanks so much for following up.” You did something two weeks ago, you clicked a button when you initially set up the, you did the consultation, then you set up a couple follow-up emails, then you just scheduled them, then you’re getting emails weeks later from clients going, “Oh hey, thanks for following up, I appreciate that.” As far as they’re concerned, you sat down and wrote them an email, right?
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah.
Dave Aarons: But it’s just happening with the click of a button, and that really is what makes … if attorneys had that ability, that capacity, I think every attorney would be following up and doing it, it’s just they don’t have the tools available to them.
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah. I mean I’ve told other attorneys about that, you know, because they’ll lament the fact that having to follow up with clients or remind them about appointments and how that just is a big time waste for them and I’m like, “Oh, well I don’t have to do that because I got this thing called Lexicata,” and I was like, “It automatically will send out a reminder of the appointment.” And their eyes light up and they’re like, “What is this magic?” So I’ll tell them about it.
Dave Aarons: “What is this wizard wand you have?”
Mark Brinkworth: Exactly. I’m like Gandalf in their eyes now, because I’ve got this reminder automatically slated to go out. In fact, one of the attorneys at our office, he’s been in business for 25 years or so, and now he’s kind of getting interested by it, because he’s extremely busy, he does criminal law, and his assistant spends a pretty good amount of time calling clients to remind them about upcoming court appearances or in-office visits that they have going on, and that time could be freed up for her to be doing other more … I don’t want to say more important, but more legal in nature as far as drafting things for him that he needs to get filed.
Dave Aarons: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
Mark Brinkworth: So it’s a better use of the wage that he’s paying her.
Dave Aarons: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, it’s interesting, right? Because technology is such an important aspect of making legal services more affordable in this country, you know, because if lawyers don’t have the time … well if you look at it from the other side, if they can streamline and make these things more efficient and spend less time doing all this stuff and you’re talking about the document automation, then you have a bigger margin. You can afford to do things at a flat rate, because if you can do something for $750 but you know you’ve got all these systems on the back end that enable you to get the documents out the door instead of four hours, you know $150 an hour to $75, now you can do it in one or two, now you’re making $400-$500 an hour. You know? So all of a sudden it becomes profitable to work with people affordably.
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah. Yeah definitely does.
Dave Aarons: This is such a big deal, I mean just bridging this gap, not only from a conceptual standpoint, obviously offering payment plans and looking at the real numbers of that, and we’ve talked a lot about the podcast, but also how do we, you know, inspire or encourage or show and illustrate to attorneys how important and critical and how much it can save in their ability to streamline their practice, then how that enables them to offer services more affordably because they can afford to do it because it just takes them less time to get these things out the door.
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah. Yeah, that’s why I’m really looking forward to getting that document automation … I am not technologically inclined so other people might have a much easier time getting the document automation feature of Clio going, but that is not me. But I’m trying to get that going, because I do realize that if I can start getting these things just turned out by hitting a button, obviously there are some aspects of a petition or a motion that obviously need to be individualized. You can’t just automate everything, but still, if you reduce the time that you spend drafting from say two hours to 15 minutes, that’s a huge difference. And what would have taken you all day long to churn out four of those, you can do in an hour.
Dave Aarons: That’s right.
Mark Brinkworth: You think about the increase in how much money you’re bringing in, and it’s just like, “Oh wow.” I mean I get giddy thinking about it.
Dave Aarons: Yeah. Well I mean it takes something that … maybe you can share your thoughts on this, but a lot of lawyers I would think without that understanding or without those systems in place and it taking them four hours, they’d look at a five hour document, $750 unbundled service or a $1000 whatever, it isn’t worth their time, right?
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah.
Dave Aarons: But in reality, when you have good systems in the back end and it only takes you an hour or two to get a $750 document or $1000 service out the door unbundled, the effective hourly rate on that is $500, so it’s taking what everyone is perceived, obviously there’s a high volume of this in the market. You’ve got 60, 70% of the market filing prose and needing lawyers, and the main reason being that attorneys charge five grand up front, and the average person, like we talked about earlier, blue-collar making $10, $20 an hour can’t afford to shell out that much money up front. And most lawyers just say, “Hey, once you get the money, let me know.” Right? So there’s obviously a huge amount of people that would love the opportunity to work with an attorney for a few hundred dollars or $500 or $1000 or $1500 max up front just to get started because they can fit that in their budget in a couple payments.
So there’s a high volume, but everyone has always perceived that as low value. “Well I can’t make money doing that, takes a long time to get the consultation, then you gotta intake the person, then you gotta manage it, and just to get it out the door takes an hour or two, or takes three, four hours. There’s just no money in that.” Right? But now all of a sudden with some of these tools and stuff, it takes what used to be a low-value service to a very high value, in fact it’s almost higher than when you would just collect an up-front retainer and bill by the hour, because your normal hourly rate is $200 an hour, but if you can do something that’s $750 and do that in two hours even, that’s $375 an hour effective hourly rate, right?
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah.
Dave Aarons: It kind of flips the whole model on its head.
Mark Brinkworth: No totally. And I mean it proves you a point, the technology is definitely … it’s increasing the money you can make and it’s also increasing the access that people have to attorneys because it drops down the amount that you have to charge to keep the lights on as an attorney, but by doing that then it also opens up the avenues available to people that are working regular jobs and can’t throw down five grand.
Dave Aarons: Yeah exactly.
Mark Brinkworth: So it’s very helpful, I think.
Dave Aarons: Can you take us through maybe chronical the evolution of the types of options you offered? Originally, whether it be you were doing a full retainer, then you started maybe offering half up front, then you started doing payment plans then started implementing some unbundled. Could you take us through kind of the cascade of how that’s evolved for you as well as technology and certainly listening to the podcast and connecting with our community, then also just what you’ve been experimenting with on your own, of course, and how that’s evolved, like phase-by-phase what you did and then kind of where things stand now.
Mark Brinkworth: Sure, I can try, yeah. Originally when I started it was pretty much this is the amount of the retainer. It may end up being more, it may end up being less, but once you have that, let me know. Then I started doing this and I signed up. Graham got me to do Law Pay, then I was starting to do the payments, because I liked the idea of having it secured by the credit or debit card, so it was kind of already set up and it wasn’t something I had to wait for them to bring in the money every Friday or something. And that, I don’t know, gave me a little bit of security in doing that, and I found I really didn’t have … I had one or two people that the payments would bounce, but usually you’d call them and say, “Hey, this payment failed to go through,” then “Okay, let me get some money in there,” then they’d call me back and say, “You can try it now,” and I’d try it and it would go through. Sometimes I’ve needed to adjust due to life circumstances what their payment was, but I would do it and it would be fine.
Then once that started, then started talking about doing some of the unbundled services with people. And I found a lot of times with the family law people, they could do some of that on their own but they really just like having the attorney and not having to worry about it, they’ve got enough on their mind. You know, they’re thinking about their kids, they’re thinking about their job, especially if it’s a divorce, a lot of people, and they haven’t been in the workforce in a long time, they are freaking out about their future.
Dave Aarons: Yeah.
Mark Brinkworth: And the last thing they want to do is have to worry about the rules of civil procedure and whether or not something’s been filed within a certain time period and whether or not they’ve gotten responses [inaudible 00:50:02] that have been sent or they’ve sent out discovery, they don’t want to do that. So they want to do full representation because they like the peace of mind that comes with it, and they like having someone else worry about it and just tell them, “You need to show up at this date and time. Everything’s gonna be fine.” Then they can go about, you know, trying to find that job that they haven’t had in 15 years or worrying about their kids and how their kids are dealing with the divorce. So the majority, I think a majority of the cases that I’ve actually gotten from the leads that have brought in, I think about … I don’t know the percentage of people that we’ve actually gotten into the office for consultations, but I think of the people that have come in for consultations, we’ve probably signed up 85, 90% for full representation.
Dave Aarons: Yep.
Mark Brinkworth: So that’s been really good. So they’ve really liked the payment plan aspect. I do have … I’m trying to work on getting more the fixed fees in there, because I think, you know, if you went to go buy a car and someone told you, “Well it could be about $20,000 but it could be more, could be less depending on what happens.” You’d be like, “Yeah, I don’t know if I’m gonna buy that car.”
Dave Aarons: Yeah.
Mark Brinkworth: So if you can give them certainty, I think certainty gives them more peace of mind, they’re in a very turbulent time as it is, so people, they like having an endpoint in mind. And I think that would help out a lot. I know with uncontested divorces, I know we charge a flat rate for that, but we also put into the attorney-client agreement that if it becomes contested, that then it won’t remain just a flat rate fee, and we keep track of the hours that we spend on it until the case has ended or concluded and the divorce is finalized, because then that would transition into a retainer type situation and hourly rate, but I want to get it to the point where even that is a flat rate fee.
Dave Aarons: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mark Brinkworth: You know?
Dave Aarons: Yeah. Yeah, we’ve had a lot of attorneys that have been doing a lot more flat rates, and I think what’s been common is they’ve been breaking the cases up into segments. You know, like phase one is this, phase two is this, phase three is this, then doing a flat rate for each segment, then clients can kind of pay as they go, right?
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah.
Dave Aarons: So you can break it down into segments of the case or you can break it down right to the task, right? It really depends on the client and what you’re most comfortable with and what works well for you. The idea is really just, “Okay, how can we meet the need of the client legally to their financial budget?” And the average budget of the person is $200, $300, $400, $500 a month, right? Okay, so they can either do some work themselves and you do an unbundled or you find a payment plan or you do it as a flat rate and break it up into segments, but it’s really just bridging that gap, finding a way to fit in what needs to get done to what they can afford and there’s just a lot of ways to do that.
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah.
Dave Aarons: But it’s all this kind of unbundling, thinking about it in a different way doing the full rep up front, the big retainer initially.
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah, yeah. Well and part of that, the reason I haven’t actually gotten to that is you guys have kept me pretty busy, so I haven’t actually had time-
Dave Aarons: I mean we gotta slow down just to give you time to implement all the systems, you know?
Mark Brinkworth: … To sit down and think about the rates that I would charge and kind of calculate and go through and figure out what those rates would be, because I mean if I’m not in court I’m usually on the phone with leads. Graham, another idea of his was … Because I was having a hard time. I’ll admit I was having a hard time calling leads as they came in, so I could literally see in my mind his eyes rolling in his head when we’d talk and I’d be like, “Oh, I didn’t get to them ’till four, five hours later.” And he’s, “Oh my god,” so then he’s like, “Look, just pay someone $5 or something to set up the phone consultations so at least they contact the lead when it comes in.” I’m like, “Okay.” So I try it and I actually have my sister doing that for me, she’s a stay-at-home mom and she likes getting a little bit of extra income, and she is far more personable on the phone than I am in the beginning, I think that’s kind of a holdover from when I was a cop. I mean her nickname was doubled, and she calls people up and she’s talking with them and she’ll get the phone consultation set up. It’s great.
So they know that the request has been received, and then they know that they’re gonna be speaking with me, then I don’t have to drop everything that I’m doing ever 15 minutes. I mean in the last week I think I got 23 leads.
Dave Aarons: Right.
Mark Brinkworth: So it’s like I’d never get anything done if I was stopping to call people and talk to them for a half hour every time I had a lead come in.
Dave Aarons: Yes.
Mark Brinkworth: So that’s been really helpful doing that.
Dave Aarons: Well and also what she’s doing is really just scheduling the appointment, right?
Mark Brinkworth: Right, right.
Dave Aarons: This is something I just want to throw in there. She’s not selling them on Mark Brinkworth service, she’s just saying, “Okay, let’s get you on the phone with Mark.”
Mark Brinkworth: Exactly, yeah, she just sets up a time for them to talk with me and she has absolutely nothing to do with deciding whether or not we sign them as an agreement as a client or they hire us or anything, she doesn’t talk about the law or anything like that, it’s very personable and sets a time for them to talk to me.
Dave Aarons: Yeah.
Mark Brinkworth: And that’s been great as far as that goes.
Dave Aarons: And really it doesn’t have to be a paralegal. It almost hurts, because if it’s a paralegal or it’s someone that’s got legal experience, they’re really tempted to go in there and start talking about the case and, “Well, these are the things, the factors.”
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah.
Dave Aarons: But if it’s just someone … it really just needs to be someone that’s good with people that like people and feel warm. They’re the first experience of the firm, just say, “Hey, welcome, we’re looking forward to helping you out. Let’s get you on the phone with Mr. Brinkworth,” just someone that makes people feel good when they first start out, right?
Mark Brinkworth: Right. Yeah, I specifically and purposefully don’t talk with her about legal aspects of family law, because I don’t want her starting to think well maybe she can talk to them about the law. Her default response is pretty much, “I’m sorry, I don’t know that you’ll have to talk to the attorney about that.” Because I don’t want there to be any mistake about them saying, “Well your assistant said this.” It’s like, “No she didn’t because we’ve never even talked about that, so that’s not possible.” And she knows that, so we’ve talked about it. That’s one nice thing about having … they say don’t work with your family, but she’s my oldest sister and we’ve talked pretty extensively about things, and I’ve made it very clear to her that I don’t want her talking with them about the legal aspects, because she’s not a licensed attorney and that can get me in a lot of trouble. So she sets the consultations, phone consultations, and she’s personable and bubbly and that’s it.
Dave Aarons: Yep, exactly. Yeah, well listen, Mark, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you just kind of sharing so openly about just the journey of implementing these options. I mean this is the journey that if we are going to make legal services for everyone in this country and kind of lighten the load on legal aid and lighten the load on the courts of [inaudible 00:57:45] and really shift what’s a real problem in the United States as far as just the amount of people just going unrepresented, getting no help. This is the journey that lawyers have to go through to get to the point that they can start to offer these options and there’s the tools and implementing these tools and a lot of resistance toward that. And lawyers are going through that and you’re just sharing how it’s been for you and how it’s been kind of like, “Uh.” And you know, I guess kudos to Graham, we’ve been able to help with that and so forth. I crack up every time when you say that, but you know, we’re really … it’s not easy to implement these new systems, but gosh, on the other end it just makes things so much easier once they’re all in place, and that’s really the growth that we need to see.
And a lot of the new lawyers, we see them just coming out with smart phones and working off their laptops, and to have these tools immediately implemented and so forth, and we’re hearing about some incubators, but that’s generations ahead of us and the challenge right now is the attorneys that have been doing this for a long time, they gotta find a way to implement these things in their practice, so I really just thank you for giving that perspective and honoring the fact that you want to do this, but sometimes you got a lot on your plate, and just the way you’ve implemented these things obviously are making a big difference, and your example really helps to illustrate how that works.
Mark Brinkworth: Yep. Well, I appreciate all the help you guys are giving. Graham has been great-
Dave Aarons: A thorn in the side, you know?
Mark Brinkworth: … For not giving up and prodding me along, yeah. Sometimes I’m like, “Okay I’ll do it just to get you to stop.” And I’ll try it, but it usually ends up being happy that I did listen to him.
Dave Aarons: Well Graham listens to every podcast episode, so I’m sure he’ll be cracking up and he’ll appreciate you saying that. We don’t mean to be a thorn in the worst way of the way, but I’m glad all these things have worked out for you. And we certainly mean well when we encourage you.
Mark Brinkworth: No, yeah, I mean it’s a catch 22 because you sign up for this because you’re wanting to grow your practice, then when you tell me things that try and help me grow the practice you’re like, “You’re not an attorney, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” with attorneys we tend to get a little arrogant in our thinking and think that we’re the only ones that know the right answer to something, so gotta love him, he’s been persistent and not given up on that. And if he can persuade attorneys to change their mind, then he can do just about anything. Because we’re pretty headstrong.
Dave Aarons: Yeah, yeah. I mean, you know, it’s not easy. You got a lot on your plate. I mean we understand, we empathize, we’re on your side and we understand what you’re dealing with, and the times are changing and anyone in any industry that’s got technology impacting and shifting things and the way it is, and smartphones just came out and everyone had them the next year. I mean it’s just crazy.
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah.
Dave Aarons: So we’re all doing our best and I appreciate you for doing your best and implementing this stuff and taking the coaching and taking the direction. Because as headstrong as you might think you are, I mean we work with a lot of lawyers that we just can’t get them to budge at all, and it just doesn’t work out. I mean it just doesn’t because you have to have some of these tools in place in order to serve the people that we’re trying to serve here. So I appreciate you for applying it.
Mark Brinkworth: I think it’s kind of like when I’m dealing with clients and I’m telling them, you know, they gotta keep in mind what’s in the best interest of their child. Attorneys you have to keep in mind what’s in the best interest of your practice so it may not be something that you really want to do at first, but in the long run, it’s probably in your firm’s best interest. And if it doesn’t, I mean you can stop doing it. It’s not set in stone, you don’t have to keep doing it.
Dave Aarons: Yep. Yeah, and it’s just working on one thing at a time. You know, Bryan Reedy talked about this in his podcast episode, he’s just constantly just kind of refining and improving and implementing new tools and working on systems, it’s a daily … you know the concept, it’s a Japanese concept of Kaiza where you just small daily improvements gradually to huge advantages over time, and just continue working on improving the way you do things, implementing new systems, testing things out, and trying to modernize the best you can. And that’s the way things unfold over the course of months and even years.
Mark Brinkworth: Yeah.
Dave Aarons: all right, so with that, we wrap up this episode. Thank you again, Mark, for your time and suggestions. your perspective it’s really really helpful. For everyone else is listening we surely appreciate everything you’re doing with all these different types of systems in your practice. In this changing times, we really appreciate your feedback on you know how much is getting on the podcast. Also, we really appreciate the work you’re doing to implement these new technologies in finding more creative ways to work with folks and bridge in the access to justice gap. I think with our cooperative efforts there will come a day in the next few years when this won’t be a problem in our country anymore. With that, I’d like to wrap it up and we’ll see you in the next episode.
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