I packed up my electric stapler today. That’s obviously a minor step for me, and even less important to you. What matters is its symbolism for the changes in my legal practice. I suspect it has ramifications for others as well, maybe even for you.
I’ve never had staff other than me at Alabama Family Law Center, so I’ve always been able to keep a lower cost structure than many other lawyers. Lately, though, I’ve made other changes.
During the hayday of my in-office legal practice, I used that stapler several times every business day as I printed, assembled, and collated divorce-related documents for my clients. I used it so much that I invested in a really good quality machine, a Swingline 51110. I’m not sure, but I think at the time I paid as much as you could pay for a stapler at Office Max. I needed it because I met with 4-6 clients per day, and at the conclusion of each session I printed (and stapled) drafts of each client’s documents for them to take with them as they left my office. Not only did I use a lot of staples doing that; I also used a lot of paper and toner.
I still meet with 4-6 clients per day. I still prepare documents for nearly every one and share those documents with them. But now everything happens electronically. The clients don’t come to my office; we meet over the phone. If they have high-speed Internet they see their documents as I’m working on them; if they don’t, it’s okay; I just tell them what I’m doing as I’m doing it.
When we’re finished preparing the necessary documents, I send the documents to the client by e-mail and charge the client’s Visa or Mastercard. The client prints the documents, gets with his or her spouse to sign them, and returns them to me. I scan the documents to my computer right away, and immediately send the documents to be shred. Then I charge the client’s credit card for the filing fee and e-file the documents with the court. The court assigns a case number that I see it right away on my web interface, and then I notify the client immediately by e-mail.
When the court sends me a divorce decree signed by the judge, I scan it immediately for my records and send it to the client and to his or her spouse with a cover letter. Whoa. Do you see what just happened? The only time I use my printer and use paper, toner or postage is at that last stage when I send the signed divorce decree to the client and the spouse (can’t do that one electronically because you can’t send that impressive gold seal by e-mail). And no, I still don’t need to staple anything.
Let’s talk about what this might mean for me and for you:
- I’m making the conscious decision no longer to serve clients who don’t have access to e-mail. That excluded group is getting smaller each year, but it’s still significant.
- My clients are getting faster service than they once did. In the office days, I would store up several divorce cases before sending them to the courthouse for filing. Now I e-file them immediately. In the old days I would report the filing date and case number to the client 2-4 weeks after they provided the documents to me. Now they typically find out the same day I receive the documents.
- I’m using a lot less toner, paper, and postage. My clients are using more, because the printing burden has shifted to them. I’m sending less money to UPS (and DHL before it shut down domestic delivery), which I used before to deliver all my documents to the courthouse.
- In the old days I maintained paper folders for each open case. Now everything’s on my computer’s hard drive.
- I’m more vulnerable than ever to a hard disk crash. Better make sure I’m backing up constantly.
- My clients are writing me fewer checks. I had a lady actually send me a check the other day, and I had to scratch my head to figure out what to do with it. Oh yeah, put it in the bank.
- If I’m not meeting with clients, I don’t need to dress up. I’m expecting five sessions today with clients going through divorce, and I’ll go through the day dressed like a farmer, not dressed like a lawyer.
- If I’m not meeting with clients, I don’t need to maintain an office. That’s huge. As many of you know, I’m in the process of becoming a subsistence farmer. The changes in my practice will allow me to continue a full-service, relatively high volume, statewide legal practice from our farm in Elmore County.
- If I (and others like me) are no longer maintaining offices, this will have ramifications for those who lease office space.
- Many of these changes have reduced my costs from what they would have been if I had made no changes. Coupled with some other changes my wife and I have made in the way we live, they have allowed me to leave my prices for legal services unchanged for the last seven years. This while the CPI (which understates inflation) is up by about 20%.
- If I’m typical, this will also mean higher credit and debit card volumes, fewer checks, less money for UPS, and a worsening of the digital divide. People without e-mail are going to be paying more for many basic services.
As for what all this means for you, you’ll need to process it with your own needs and opportunities in mind. Speaking of opportunities, wanna buy a stapler? Swingline 51110, never jams, priced to move . . .