Hire an Esquire's Sidebar with Lee Rosen, Legal Globetrotter
Lee Rosen’s North Carolina family law firm operates with a 100% remote, distributed team and has an incredibly extensive digital presence with interactive client tools, webinars, and many educational resources. We were excited by the success of Lee’s modern law practice, so we called him while he was on the Singapore leg of his adventures, right before he and his wife hopped over to Vietnam, to learn more about how he makes the legal nomad life work as a firm founder. Read on to learn more about how Lee built and maintains his practice.
Q: You have a pretty unconventional practice. Can you describe it for our readers?
A: There aren’t that many constraints to service your client. When you think about it, lawyers mostly meet with clients at the beginning and end of representation - the bulk of the contact in between those meetings is via email or phone. What we do isn’t very different except that we need to account for time zones.
Our team of attorneys is distributed geographically with no central office. We have 12 conference rooms around the U.S. in various professional buildings, and we use those exclusively to meet with clients. I stopped going into an office in 2007, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not a phone call or an email away.
Q: How did you make this “legal nomad” life possible?
A: I really focused on building a business and a significant reputation. The average lawyer is focused on learning to practice law and delivering client service. I invested heavily into marketing and did everything I could to build a practice where I could take myself out of the moment-by-moment client touch.
The “law firm” is an idea, but many lawyers don’t realize that it’s just an idea. Lawyers tend to be literal people and they can’t see the firm without the desk. That’s true even for millennial attorneys. Law schools haven’t done very much to change that; they are training students to work for firms, not work for themselves. In that sense, law schools haven’t innovated enough.
Q: What does this mean for hiring? What traits do your associates need to have to be successful in a distributed firm?
A: Lawyers have to be willing to talk to the client. That sounds obvious and essential, but we are constantly looking for that. Most lawyers do not believe that practicing law is about client communication. They think “legal work” means contracts, pleadings, going to court, etc. Communicating with clients is the work.
In our practice, we absolutely need to communicate with clients all the time. We can’t have attorneys that think, “I can’t get any work done because I’m talking with the clients all the time.” To me, an attorney that says “I love texting with my clients,” means they have found a great way to avoid speaking with their clients.
There is no correlation stronger than the amount of time spent talking with clients and client satisfaction. It doesn’t matter how the case is doing, or whether the attorney is smart or not. If they’re talking to the client, the client is happier.
Q: Are clients aware of how the firm is structured?
A: No, and no one cares. A client is happy when they are being communicated with. You can be on another planet as long as you’re paying attention.
For us, the physical office didn’t offer a competitive advantage. Many clients hired us right over the phone. Only some clients ever saw the office, and even then, it only mattered to the extent that it impacted their impression of us and our business. After that first impression, it never entered their thinking again.
Q: What are some of the challenges of running a distributed firm?
A: Almost none. If you look at the average law firm and go into their space, many of the doors in the fancy office are closed. They might as well be in another country; the people are islands. If they are sitting in an office with the door closed in Saigon, it’s no different than being in San Francisco. There’s just not a huge change in the overall dynamic.
It’s true that really social people sometimes feel like they are losing something when they don’t have a group of people to go and interrupt all day. We’ve found that Slack is a reasonably good replacement for that lack of social satisfaction. Attorneys that crave socialization will organize “workdates” and will hang out in a coffee shop or go to lunch.
But once the leashes are off, attorneys slowly drift further away. Our managing attorney now lives in Charleston. Another travel-loving attorney schedules all litigations around a 2-month long trip. Of course, they stay in touch with clients to the extent necessary.
Having a decentralized firm also helps parents with young kids. It averts the child crises that always come up, and the parents appreciate the flexibility. It also helps with attracting high-quality talent and retention rates.
Q: What’s your response to lawyers that have security concerns when it comes to integrating technology?
A: When a lawyer says, “I’m worried about security,” they’re often just afraid of change.
Q: How do you define success for your firm?
A: Fundamentally, this is a business. This isn’t a non-profit or a social justice organization. We have opportunities to help the community and contribute, but business metrics apply today just like they always did.
We run the company like a corporation. We are very metrics driven and our people are compensated based on commission. We operate using fixed fees for our clients. It really gives attorneys the opportunity to decide how much they want to earn - how much or how little they want to work.
There’s no logic to associating “time in the seat” with a job well done. We incorporate extensive client surveying with 1:1 conversations to determine whether we’re succeeding. We have a team of people that handle that and the managing attorney speaks to each client once a month by telephone. If you want to be successful your clients need to be happy and to find out if they’re happy, you need to ask them!
Q: How do you balance the unpredictability of travel with the rigor and deadlines associated with legal work?
A: We move slowly, this isn’t like a vacation. We’re not in a rush to do and see everything in five days. We spend time in each location which allows us to work full days the same as we would do if we weren’t in Singapore or Jordan.
The other thing is, we normally switch cities on a weekend. That avoids disrupting the work week. We also research most of the places we go in advance to see if there are coworking places and check internet speed at hotels. We look at a calendar to make sure that we have a plan. We often book trips with points which requires us to book far in advance.
If I know I have an important call, I’ll scope out a 5-star hotel and check the wifi beforehand to make sure it’s fast and reliable enough.
If you think about it, the average lawyer has a house that they live in and when something inevitably goes seriously wrong with the house, they have to arrange the logistics of being there to meet repair people and deal with it. I don’t have a house. All that time is freed up!
Q: Last question: what will the practice of law look like in 10 years?
A: There will be fewer lawyers and the work that they do will be at the higher end of the complexity scale. Technology will do so much more of the job.
Attorneys will spend the bulk of their time soothing clients and backing them away from the ledge. We will be doing the thinking that needs to be done to solve complicated problems. And our teams will include more developers than they do now as the blockchain technology becomes more prevalent. Drafting documents and agreements will look more like what software developers are doing right now.
Things are changing fast. You have to always be prepared to look forward and see what’s next.
The good news for lawyers is that most lawyers are afraid of change, so there’s a whole world of opportunity if you’re the kind of lawyer that thinks ahead.