law practice management

Ernie's Background

Ernie is an award-winning coach/consultant focused on helping solo and small firm attorneys learn the secrets to working smarter, not harder. So you can work less, earn more, and relax more.

How is this possible, you might be asking?

Ernie Explains...

If you want to work smarter, not harder you need to be systematic—and leverage technology.

Preface

I learned the secret to working smarter right out of law school. A few years later, I discovered that technology was the key to working at the genius of smarts.
Here’s how I learned this...

Judge Duplantier

After law school, I spent two years clerking for a well-respected federal trial judge. The lesson on how to work smarter began on day one. The Judge didn’t welcome me or offer pleasantries. He was on the bench trying a case when I first arrived. He expected me to hit the ground running without any guidance on his part.

That would have been an unreasonable expectation, except that he had this thing called “the Bible.” It was a 40-page document that detailed all the responsibilities of his two law clerks. It took him three years to create the Bible. But after that, it paid huge dividends year after year.

The Bible was one part of his overall system for working smarter. A system that allowed his chambers to run smoothly, with almost zero effort on his part.

Using systems freed up a lot of time. So, unlike most of the other judges, he never came in on weekends. He took lots of vacation time. And, compared to the other judges, yet he had the lowest number of cases on his docket.

The other judges were envious because they worked much harder. They couldn’t figure out how he managed to get so much done so quickly. They didn’t appreciate the power of systems.

A lot of people have trouble appreciating the power of systems. Especially lawyers in big firms, as I soon found out.

The Big Law Firm

After my clerkship, I went to work for a Big Firm in downtown New Orleans. It was completely exhilarating. I was now paid twice as much, and given a lavish 40th-floor office overlooking the city. I was assigned an amazing secretary who drafted correspondence, prepared pleadings, organized files, made copies, and even brought me coffee.

The firm had a state-of-the-art library, expensive word processing computers, an office supply room with free legal pads, pens, staplers, binders, folders, and briefcases. There was even a lunchroom with a full kitchen where you could get free popcorn and sodas anytime you wanted.

My first day at the firm was dramatically different than when I started working for the judge. The partners treated me to lunch at a snazzy downtown restaurant and then presented me with a $2,000 check: it was a starting bonus so I could get a whole new wardrobe. Yeah, my first day there was completely different than my clerkship.

And there was one more difference. No one explained what I was going to be doing to earn all the money I was going to be paid. There was no written manual. Apparently, I was expected to figure things out on my own. This hit home when a partner told me that I was being assigned to take a deposition in a big case.
I mentioned that this would be my first deposition, and asked (since it was an important witness) if he had any recommendations for how to take the deposition. “Ask lots of questions,” he said offhandedly.

I figured out how to take depositions, and I figured out a bunch of other things. And I noticed that no one cared how long it took me to figure things out. Obviously that was because the firm billed for all of my time. Basically the clients were paying for me to figure things out.

The lawyers at my firm were really good at practicing law. But they were horrible at other things. For example, anything related to managing their business. Their ineptitude wasn’t a big problem in the 1980s when big firms were making money hand over fist doing things like charging clients .25 cents a page for making copies.

But later on, when the economy started tanking and clients got picky about their bills, lack of management skills became a problem. Clients wanted their work done more efficiently. But the partners couldn’t figure out how. They had no instinct for efficiency.

They had been conditioned to work stupider, not smarter.

Technology

Meanwhile, I started using computers to do more of my work. I realized that computers could do a lot of work that humans did, but ten, twenty or a hundred times faster. And computers did that work perfectly. Every time.

Computers were amazing. But you did have to figure out how to use them properly. So that’s what I worked on.

For example, I discovered powerful database software that enabled me to manage my cases with less reliance on associates or paralegals.

I discovered how to scan documents and dispense with paper, which completely eliminated the need for secretaries and paralegals. In short, I could organize documents faster, better and cheaper without help just by using my computer. I could find any document in seconds just by typing in search terms and letting the computer locate what I was looking for.

Having this new system made me a much more confident and formidable adversary in trial. I shared this discovery with my law partners, assuming they'd be eager to learn. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

They thought I was weird and completely ignored me. I felt dismayed and slightly humiliated. But I kept obsessing about how to better use technology.

And the more I did so, the more I began to realize something.

Stubborn Traditionalists

The lawyers in my firm were stubborn, lumbering traditionalists who had no idea how to meet the challenges of running a modern firm. They had no systems. No strategies. No clues about how to manage a firm or make any meaningful improvements.

Of course, when technology started creeping into the practice of law they were especially clueless. For example...

  • The management committee hired a series of useless “tech guys” because they had no idea what kind of person they were supposed to hire. One of the people they hired spent most of the time in the server room running a porn site.
  • The firm refused to pay for high-speed internet because it cost three times what dialup cost. So the online legal research done by associates was done at a snail's pace (which probably helped billable hours stay higher)
  • We gave all the partners laptops which cost twice as much as desktops even though none of them ever used their computers outside of the office. They just wanted the laptops as “elite” status symbol.
  • When we were involved in class action tobacco litigation the partner in charge thought it wasn’t useful to have his laptop loaded with all the case documents, even though the judge had ordered everyone to create digital files. In court, the judge, the special master, and the opposing party all had laptops with digital files so they could pull up any document in seconds. But our lead lawyers were using a cumbersome bucket-brigade of paper in hundreds of boxes ferried around with paralegals using hand carts.
As I mentioned, when the economy turned bad, and clients started getting pickier about bills, the firm’s profitability declined dramatically. The management committee hired a consulting firm to help them figure out how to meet the challenge. 

The consultants pointed out all the ways that the firm was misspending money and misallocating resources. For example...
  • Hiring people based only on law review status, not social skills or practical resourcefulness. These folks often turned out to be prima donnas who caused more trouble than they were worth. 
  • Letting lawyers do whatever they wanted if they had power, which bred resentment and caused many good lawyers to leave and start their own firms. 
  • Paying an extra $70,000 per year on case reports that we were already getting via our flat-rate Westlaw online subscription. Why? To appease an old partner who occasionally liked to visit the library and look at the books.
  • Having attorneys spend hundreds of hours writing a firm newsletter that was supposed to go out four times a year. After three years of doing so, we learned that none of the newsletters had ever been mailed out (after the supply room manager was let go we found all of the unmailed newsletters stacked up by the freight elevator)
  • Letting a junior partner dictate that the firm spend thousands of extra dollars to have WordPerfect installed on ALL of the firm’s computers (when all of the computers came with Microsoft Word free of charge). Most of the attorneys and secretaries had switched to Word, but the junior partner had a meltdown so we spent the extra money just to appease her. 
  • We spent $30,000 extra for premium placement in Martindale Hubbell attorney after the world had shifted to using the Internet to research attorney biographies. Why? Because a senior partner wanted to ensure his lengthy Martindale Hubble biography was preserved.

Obviously, the consultants picked up on the firm's tendency to waste money in ridiculous ways. And they wrote a lengthy report and delivered it to the management committee

The management committee read the report and finally realized it was time to start to do some cost-cutting. But when the management committee announced what the cuts were going to be everyone was shocked. 

First, the free popcorn in the kitchen was being discontinued. And so were the staff's end of the year bonuses. 

That’s when I knew that the firm was never going to be properly managed. And that’s when I decided  I wanted to leave. But, as you might imagine, I was apprehensive about leaving a steady paycheck and starting over on my own.

I might have continued to procrastinate, but then Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and everything changed. Including my apprehension.

During Hurricane Katrina, the disparity between the firm’s managerial cluelessness and my desire to use technology grew even starker. The firm no disaster recovery plan so everything stopped working completely.

New Orleans was under a mandatory evacuation order for six weeks so everyone had to disperse to other cities. Most of us wound up in Houston where we huddled together in a conference room and tried to figure out how to return to normal.

Step one was to send out our bills so we could at least collect some much-needed revenue. But the servers we needed to pull data from were back in New Orleans and we had no backup to work from.

And if we couldn't access the word processing documents we'd been working on because those were also on the servers back in New Orleans. Well, when I say "we" I really mean all the other lawyers because I had all my files on my laptop. 

My email and website were up and running. The firm's email and website were down. 

The final moment of realization came when our beloved old rainmaker informed us that he was unable to contact clients to drum up more business.  

“I left my little black book on my desk back in New Orleans and I now don’t have any of my clients’ phone numbers,” he exclaimed.

The firm wound up relying on my website and email to communicate with the outside world. And they were suddenly eager for my advice on how to use technology to restore order to the firm. 

I helped as much as I could. But the whole time I felt like the little pig who'd built a house of brick surrounded by people who insisted on building out of straw. 

That’s when I finally knew I was ready to leave the firm.

On My Own

Three months after Katrina I walked out of the firm with nothing more than my laptop. On that laptop were all of my client files and all my form documents. I had all of the information and documents that I needed to run my solo law practice. 

The question was whether my corporate clients would be willing to trust me to do the same work I’d been doing outside the firm as I did while working for the firm.
Most of my corporate clients came with me. They didn’t care if I was solo. They didn’t care if I worked from home. All they cared about was if I could do the work I needed to do.

I got new clients easily because of my website, and also because other lawyers in small firms started referring me business. It seemed like everyone was aware of how inefficient and overhead intensive large firms were. I was surprised and delighted.

I went to court against large firm lawyers and relished exploiting their inefficiencies to gain tactical advantages and keep my costs down. The judges also loved my efficiency. I discovered I had a huge advantage whenever I went up against opposing counsel who were clueless and arrogant. 

And, no one was more clueless and arrogant than the lumbering, change-resistant lawyers in big law firms. So it all worked out. I systematically created the law firm of my dreams—a Ninja-efficient practice that made maximum use of technology.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable practice because I could work as much as I wanted, making as much money as I wanted but without the ridiculous overhead or mindless bureaucracy.

Paying Forward

Other lawyers started noticing what I was doing and wanted to know how they could do the same in their practices. These were all solo and small firm lawyers, obviously.

Unlike my old colleagues, they weren’t averse to finding sensible ways to lower their overhead and finding new ways to get more done, more easily. I felt a strong kinship with them. And I was eager to help them figure out how to connect the dots.

Eventually, I went all-in on my teaching and transitioned away from my full-time practice. So, for the past 10 years, I’ve been helping hundreds of lawyers all around the country, even some in foreign countries like the U.K. and Australia.

The ABA and other bar organizations have invited me to speak and write books, all in service of helping lawyers learn how to create better systems for managing their practice by using technology.

After working with over a thousand lawyers I managed to distill the essential principles into an online course that I call LawFirm Autopilot. The name comes from the idea that, if you set things up properly, you can create a practice that runs so smoothly it feels like it’s running on autopilot.

So that's how I wound up creating the first course, which then led to other programs all of which are available through this website. I hope that you find these resources helpful to your practice.

And I look forward to helping you improve your practice in any way that I can.