Leading a law firm throughout the pandemic has been no easy task, but the lessons learned have helped many attorneys position their firms for a more tech-focused, efficient approach to business. Jim Calloway and Sharon Nelson talk with Mary Vandenack about how she has managed her law firm through the many changes wrought by the pandemic. She describes their transition to remote work, ways to support team communication and tech needs, and her firm’s focus on redesigning legal services to increase automation and accessibility.
Mary E. Vandenack is the founding and managing member of Vandenack Weaver LLC in Omaha, Nebraska.
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Intro: Welcome to the digital edge with Sharon Nelson and Jim Calloway, your hosts. Both legal technologists, authors and lecturers invite industry professionals to discuss a new topic related to lawyers and technology. You’re listening to Legal Talk Network.
Sharon Nelson: Welcome to the 160th Edition of the Digital Edge Lawyers and Technology. We’re glad to have you with us. I’m Sharon Nelson President of Sensei Enterprises, an information technology, cyber security and digital forensics firm in Fairfax, Virginia.
Jim Calloway: And I’m Jim Calloway, Director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Management Assistance Program. Today, our topic is Managing Your Law Firm Through Change.
Sharon Nelson: But first, we’d like to thank our sponsors. We’d like to welcome our new sponsor, NODA, powered by M&T Bank. NODA is banking built for lawyers and provides smart, no-cost, IOLTA account management. Visit trustnoda.com/legal to learn more. Terms and conditions may apply. We would like to thank Alert Communications for sponsoring this episode. If any law firm is looking for a call, intake, or retainer service available 24/7, 365, just call (866) 827-5568.
Jim Calloway: We’d also like to thank our sponsor, The Black Letter Podcast. A show dedicated to making law exciting and fun with informative interviews and advice from esteemed guests. We’d also like to thank Scorpion. Scorpion is a leading provider of marketing solutions for the legal industry. With nearly 20 years of experience serving attorneys, Scorpion can help grow your practice. Learn more at scorpionlegal.com. Today our guest is our good friend, Mary E. Vandanack who is Founding and Managing Member of Vandanack Weaver, LLC a tax, trust and estate and business boutique in Omaha, Nebraska. Mary is a frequent writer and speaker on the substantive areas she practices in, as well as legal technology and practice management. Thanks for joining us today Mary.
Mary E. Vandanack: Thanks for having me, Jim. It’s a real joy to be here. I think this whole last year as you know I’ve always been pretty technologically inclined and trying to be innovative, and the pandemic has kind of given an opportunity for us to really to take some time partly, I wasn’t traveling all the time this year so at the office and getting things done and it’s kind of amazing how that works but thanks for asking me today.
Sharon Nelson: Oh, we’re delighted to have you. You know managing law firms through change has kind of been a topic that we’ve discussed over the years for a variety of reasons. But did the pandemic bring any particular issues to the forefront do you think?
Mary E. Vandanack: So, I do think it did. I think we’ve talked and talked about technology and remote work and a lot of the way that the legal business is changing, but lawyers in general have been busy so they haven’t really been forced to change. At a meeting one time so, what are the economic forces driving change? I think the pandemic has brought some of those to the forefront. I’ve been one of the lawyers who has long worked remotely. My clients joke about the fact that I could hang upside down from an airplane and work, but one of the things even I found that was different and challenging was, well, it’s great to be techie and for me to be able to be remote, but a lot of lawyers were still dependent on having staff back in the offices.
I worked with like Marty Shenkman and a couple others on some of these presentations earlier in the year and found out how many law firms are still depending on somebody at the office, opening paper and mail, they don’t have a distribution method, a scanning method, they aren’t paperless. So, it’s one of the things that I’m hoping a lot of law firms that are still living that way will finally get serious about making these changes.
Jim Calloway: Mary, as you noted, your firm was pretty sophisticated about technology already, but what changes did you make regarding technology to respond to the new situation that you think makes sense going forward?
Mary E. Vandanack: So, there were several things and I have to tell you, I had a couple of people suggest to me and I was resistant to this concept of docking stations with laptops, but when we went remote and in Omaha, we didn’t have to go fully remote, we were considered an essential business here, supporting the financial industry, but to keep our people safe, we were limiting to five people in the office at a time. We live in Nebraska where a lot of our people live rurally and internet was a problem, telephones were a problem, there are phone calls like I couldn’t get on. So, what we’ve done is we’ve done some significant upgrades both in the office and in some of our key attorneys’ homes to have improve the internet services. We have backup internet service now.
We’ve changed the way we provide, but one of the big things is I’m finally a convert to this docking station with laptops because it’s like, okay, not even in a pandemic if we get hit by a tornado or any other types of situations. The other thing that I hadn’t used a lot of video conferencing, some in my practice area have but this was kind of forced upon us through the pandemic, and as we’ve adopted that video conferencing technology, I’m finding a lot of things. It’s a little more efficient, it takes less time, you don’t have somebody greeting, having to get coffee, spending ten minutes, people tend to want to get off and on, their dogs are running through the pictures, the kids are running into the pictures, so people kind of want to get on and get off those calls so they’re super-efficient and they force us to prepare. So always when I have a video conference, I’m likely to send out a detailed agenda. But the other really great part of it is is like these zoom calls, I record every single one and then I have a transcription service that charges me like ten bucks to transcribe it.
Now, some of the transcriptions, the first one I got back included the f word fifteen times. I’m like, “I’m quite sure I didn’t use that word in this meeting.” So you have to do a little editing, but the end of the day, most of the time we can make out if we have a question about exactly what was said that we can do it. And so we’ve decided to adopt a policy of just you’re in this cancel culture era and this diversity and inclusion era, and we are concerned about both protecting employees and protecting clients. And so we just think doing conferencing, video conferencing, taping meetings is technology that we should just be using all the time now.
Sharon Nelson: Very interesting. I see a lot of people object to recordings around here. They have to promise that they’re not doing it, but I certainly see the point of why you are doing it. Mary, what were some of the key management strategies that you adopted during the pandemic that you think makes sense to continue onward with?
Mary E. Vandanack: That was like the big challenge because trying to lead a team in the office, people really become dependent on what we call the water cooler culture and we sort of have a standing joke that we have a restroom area and we call it our back conference room and people will follow each other back there and have a conversation. And so we had teams going remote so we’d have three-fourths of the office remote on any given time, and you have some of your teammates are great working remote, but we even had managers who really didn’t know how to manage without having the person in their office.
So, we used Microsoft Teams for internal meetings and what we asked each of our team leaders to do, so we designed like teams, and everybody there was a team leader and we had three people assigned to the team. And the team leader’s job was to hold and mini huddle. It’s just five minutes every morning to talk about what are you going to work on this day? What challenges are you running into with your remote technology? How can we help with that? We’d have that same meeting at midday and again at the end of the day, and the end result this was just really an effort to do a better job managing remotely, but we found this so effective and we’ve been here back in the office since July, but we still practice this every day.
We don’t do the full — this many huddles a day, but we have beginning of the day and end of the day huddles, as well as some team huddles during the week. And we were doing some feedback sessions the last couple weeks and our associates and Paris were telling us how much better they felt about being part of a team and how this was creating a culture, because we would also use these for fun sessions like just at the start and everybody would share something like if you had ten million dollars, what would you do with it philanthropically if it were for that type of purpose. The other thing is we’ve always been strong on automated project lists, but what we wanted to do to help coordinate when we’re not in physical proximity is so we started creating daily work plans so everybody here would say, “here are the five things I’m going to work on today” and they would copy the attorneys that they were doing that work. So it might be two associates copying a couple partners and that really helped us
to kind of take a look at what people were working on and reprioritize.
We used to do that once a week with a weekly project list, but we found that once we started doing that on a daily basis, we coordinated better, we are more efficient and frankly our effective billing rates went up with it. So, we’ve decided that that’s a permanent change that we’re making. Everybody had different challenges with technology and we have some people who are skilled and some who are not. So, our weekly huddles on the technology and sharing to keep people on the same page, we’re also keeping those on top on a weekly basis going forward.
Jim Calloway: Did you make any changes to the legal services offered or the way you offered them during the pandemic?
Mary E. Vandanack: So, we did both. So, we’ve had in mind some changes we wanted to make for a long time and it was kind of we have a certain view of the Amazon.com type of practice which you know their approach is to be formed by the consumers. So you have marketing approach number one, just try and sell what the attorney knows how to do, marketing approach number two, be informed by your consumer, and marketing approach number three which is Amazon’s be informed by your consumer. And so we had over the last five years been building some services that we thought might make sense. But the first thing we did is we do a lot of trust in estate work, and so this remote signing and people in nursing homes where you can have visitors was a huge issue.
So we became the first law firm in the state, I don’t know if anybody has done it since but we got authorized to become online notaries so that we could notarize documents and we did that for people all over the place. In fact, it was such a popular service, we had several requests that we would respond to proposals for that, but we don’t have quite enough people to serve other than our own clients but it’s certainly that actually has us thinking about that as a business idea.
We’ve long used DocuSign and other stuff, but we did a lot more of that. We got really good at it. We’ve also long had client portals available, but the things that happened during the pandemic is you had financial companies who were all working remotely and coordinating things became really challenging, so we redesigned our portals so that different access and security could be given to different people to allow more information to be put together. So, we did drive by will and science. And the other thing that we’ve done is we’ve launched a concierge service in our market and I’ll talk a little bit more about that in business models but we’re kind of in a high-end service so we decided we’re just going to up our service.
Jim Calloway: Before we move on to our next segment, let’s take a quick commercial break.
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Sharon Nelson: Welcome back to the Digital Edge on The Legal Talk Network. Today, our subject is, Managing Your Law Firm Through Change. Our guest today is Mary Vandanack, the founding and managing member of Vandanack Weaver, LLC, a tax, trust and estate and business boutique in Omaha, Nebraska. Mary is a frequent writer and speaker on the substantive areas she practices in, as well as legal technology and practice management. Mary, I know you’ve had some fair degree of fame for having historically offered some non-traditional services using technology. Can you speak about those?
Mary E. Vandanack: Yes. When it started once upon a time, so my market, so I’m in a fairly high-end market, and so I used to say my clients won’t ever use LegalZoom. And then I was at a board meeting and I spoke with this gentleman who was a very successful businessman and he was actually the client of a former partner of mine and I was talking to him and he said, “Well, I just went on LegalZoom and formed this LLC.” And I looked and I said, “Wow, your attorney is John Doe who is one of the greatest business attorneys around.” And he said, “Yeah, but I formed hundreds and hundreds of LLCs, so if I called John, I was going to get a bill for 5,000 dollars for a simple LLC, so I just went on LegalZoom.” And so then I told him that we’ve been working on this formyourownbusiness.com which is competitive with LegalZoom in the sense we don’t quite try and go to the level of it, it’s a little more limited in terms of for our clients who are like this guy, I just want to form this consulting LLC, this guy beta tested it for me, ran through it, he was so happy with the service that he’s been my client ever since then. And so we’re like well we’re on to something there and we’re in the process of improving that, so we have that.
We also have the ability online. So we don’t do online document delivery, our approach is like a full service because we’re really using that, we’re relational. Some law firms are transactional, they want to do a transaction, bill as much as they can and move on. We like to create relationships with clients over the long-term, so that’s our approach. So we also have and the really popular this service this past year was creating those healthcare powers of attorney online and we got that down to an art so that we could get somebody to enter their information, complete a healthcare power of attorney, have it zipped right around, download it to a portal because the thing is historically you would still print a piece of paper and somebody would have to show up, well, you have this pandemic going on and you can’t even let anybody in the hospital. We have an online portal but what we did is created a phone app so that clients could download their healthcare power of attorneys onto these phone apps. So it’s kind of like those are some traditional services that we’ve offered but those are a few enhancements that we added on this year.
Jim Calloway: Mary, we understand that you’re a proponent of the data-driven law practice concept, can you explain a little bit about that for our audience.
Mary E. Vandanack: Yeah. And so that all started for me when I was early in practice and I had a client who is an extremely successful international business woman, and she wanted to give me a shot at a job that I hadn’t done which was to take her company into all the provinces in Canada. I never done it; I had no idea. And she says to me, “I just need to know what it’s going to cost.” And I was like, “I have no idea what it’s going to cost because I have never done this before.” And she said, “Mary, I’m a business person and I need to know how much it cost.”
So, I became an advocate to start of looking at legal services as processes, and I believe that you can take any legal service that you provide and you can break it down into a process. And with those processes, so like in the estate planning area which we do a lot is one of the places that we have really good data, I break that down in our billing system too. I can tell you the last 100 estate plans I’ve done that meet criteria A, B and C, and I can tell you the last estate plans that we’ve done that meet criteria X,Y and Z and I can tell you how much time got consumed and how much it got cost.
So we track all of our costs and we use that data and one of the ways we use that is how to price our services. And we don’t just do a flat fee, we break it down into a process-oriented fee because that’s what makes sense and that keeps you out of the issue of somebody you quoting 5,000 and the law firm down the street says, “Oh 47.50.” So we do that. We also pay really close attention to the marketing trends and our referral sources. Someone once said to me that you have this tendency to think that somebody refers to you a lot of business, it might be a pretty person who talks nice to you, but then you think about it or you look at your data and you’re like, “Oh, they have actually never referred me a single client.” While I noticed and I actually had this happen, I have this accountant who has referred me a client after client after client and I’m going, “Wow, she does this so quietly, I just haven’t noticed it.”
So we’ve gone to really tracking referral sources and we also track because we now get a lot of traffic through the website. So that’s the way we use the data. The other thing is in 2020, the way legal consumers are buying services and wanting them delivered has changed dramatically, so we are right now gathering and reviewing the data on those changes to figure out how to incorporate that going forward.
Sharon Nelson: Well, this has certainly been one heck of a year, and now a year plus, and everybody has evolved in some way or another. How have you evolved your services in this past year?
Mary E. Vandanack: Well, what I’m most excited about is that I long wanted to do a concierge level service. So again, I think as the legal service world changes, there are a variety of business models you can choose, but we’re in again a high-end market. So for one asset as well, okay, you have Arizona authorizing non-lawyer ownership and we do a lot of high-end estate planning, so if you see that evolve, you’re going to see some of the big investment banks hiring attorneys and doing what we’re doing. So, we’re like, we need to create a model that either will be sellable or that’s not just going to get taken over by that.
So, we actually have a concierge, we have two of them. you can call, you can get a concierge, so a lot of days I don’t have time to return all my calls in a day, one of our concierge, you can call with any question. Our concierge will educate you on the services we’ve added. We have a digital asset service. So if you want to store information on your digital assets, you can do that. The service also includes the ability, so one of the big issues in the pandemic was re-titling accounts, it was a nightmare in the financial industry to do simple things like titling financial accounts and trusts which is typically simple. So, this whole electronic service does that automatically.
We have an affiliation with an international move service who in this last year has moved a five-million-dollar statue for us, who has moved classic cars for us, but has also done senior moves, moving clients in and out of senior facilities, and that’s done in conjunction with an online service that it’s an auction service, but what they do is they inventory personal effects. So, if we move a senior into an Alzheimer’s facility and then that patient is like, “I think the nurse stole my diamond ring.” We can show them “No, the diamond ring is given to your niece Jane, she’s got it. It’s safe.” Then let’s say that that client dies, the senior movers company moves the stuff back home and during COVID, this was great. We divided everything into lots, those lots, the family members didn’t have to come in fight, in the house about the nativity set that they had under the tree at five years old, instead they could pick all the things online and they got points so that if they were in disagreement, they could vote a number of points on things, and then we just drop shipped everything to them and then had an online auction to dispose of the rest of the personal effects.
We also have family office services so we can take care of pretty much anything and everything that — so you have clients that don’t have quite enough or just don’t want to have their own family office and manage it but we’ve added those family office
Services. So, that’s kind of what we’ve been doing this year and I wasn’t sure how that would go. We also have a care management service where we help find care providers for clients. We help them find facilities to live them in or how to stay at home. Been a super popular service. So what we decided that our approach was was to create an affiliation of services so that it’s not just about legal documents, and it’s been really amazing and to be honest quite rewarding.
Jim Calloway: You spoke about different law firm models, what do you think is important there?
Mary E. Vandanack: So I think there’s different types. So the one that I think what’s really important is to be aware that you need to consider different models. So we recently interviewed a lateral attorney and we don’t have – our law firm has a very different structure from anything that is traditional. And partly we do that, we know that younger generation who wants to be promoted more quickly, so we have a base law firm, but we have our concierge services in a different entity, we have our care management services in a different entity, and so the right to become a partner at our firm isn’t going to give you a right to be a in a partner in all of that. So, I think people have to rethink this idea of everybody becomes a partner after so many years for one thing, but there’s also other ways, there’s other types of models to consider.
There’s this truly virtual law firm, right? You are totally only doing work online. There’re the law firms that are doing some remote work which my understanding is more in bigger cities where getting to work takes time. So, I’m hearing about 3-2 schedules and the way firms are kind of redesigning how they function to do that. There’s the commodity service. So there’s certain areas of practice that really do land itself to we do the same thing a hundred times a day so we can do this for low price and be super-efficient, and drive this out. And I think there’s room for a lot of those
I think the thing is that you have to think about what area do I want to do, where can I create that model and how will that work because there’s still a little too much of trying to be everything to everybody and I know our experience over a few years when we went through some changes as we tried to expand into different practice areas, take on different things that were in our skill set and what happened we’re like, we brought in a consultant who said, “Well, you’re trying these things and this is where you’re losing money, that’s what the data is showing us.” And we said, “Okay. This is our core business. This is our ideal client. This is where we focus our service, our marketing dollars.” And having done that you know we’ve had a few phenomenal
Jim Calloway: Before we move on to our next segment, let’s take a quick commercial break.
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Welcome to the Digital Edge on Legal Talk Network. Today, our subject is, Managing Your Law Firm Through Change. Our guest is Mary Vandanack, the founding and managing member of Vandanack Weaver, LLC, a tax, trust and estate and business boutique in Omaha, Nebraska. Mary is a frequent writer and speaker on the substantive areas she practices in, as well as legal technology and practice management.
Jim Calloway: So Mary, when we talked about different models, what is important for lawyers to consider in designing different business models going forward?
Mary E. Vandanack: So, there were I think step one is to really identify and become familiar with what the consumer wants. The conversation I have with my young lawyers all the time is you learn how to do a certain type of trust. So, it’s easy for you to try and sell that type of trust to all your clients as opposed to doing objective based planning. And you see changes in the market, you see things that are going to be commodities, you see these things that aren’t going to be commodities, so what I think is super important is for lawyers to say, “Look, where do I add value.”
If I look at that value to say with myself and the reason I’m with the concierge practice, I’ve done thousands and thousands of trusts, I’ve helped a lot of people through transitioning their businesses, that is what I do. Artificial Intelligence may replace me someday but it’s not going to be tomorrow, this is just an experience that you can’t replace. You need to think about where can I add value that isn’t going to be easily replaced by technology. And also, what are the consumer trends, what is out there? What are the needs? I think there’s like a lot of times I will just google, what are the current legal trends, what are the legal needs, I had just a young associate come in and she got Instagram and I don’t even do Instagram, but just by following Instagram she was coming to our business development meetings and identifying all these things that new business owners were asking, and from that we were able to identify some practice areas by saying, “Wow, this is what consumers want to know.” So I think it’s figuring out what consumers want, how they want it delivered and how the attorney adds value in that equation, and that will help drive the type of firm that’s going to make sense to create.
Sharon Nelson: Well, I know Mary that Jim and I have both admired your work for a long time as a legal innovator, someone who is forward thinking and always scanning the horizon, and I think you’ve done a just a superb job of creating a business model for law firms for our time. So we are very grateful that you could take the time to be with us today. Thank you.
Mary E. Vandanack: So very much appreciate being asked. I always enjoy talking about what I do because I’m one of those geeks who actually loves what I do.
Sharon Nelson: And that does it for this edition of the Digital Edge Lawyers and Technology. And remember, you can subscribe to all of the editions of this podcast at legaltalknetwork.com or on Apple podcast. And if you enjoyed our podcast, please rate us in Apple podcasts.
Jim Calloway: Thanks for joining us, goodbye Ms. Sharon.
Sharon Nelson: Happy trails, cowboy.
Outro: Thanks for listening to the Digital Edge produced by the Broadcast Professionals at Legal Talk Network. Join Sharon Nelson and Jim Calloway for their next podcast covering the latest topic related to lawyers and technology. Subscribe to the RSS feed on legaltalknetwork.com or in iTunes. The views expressed by the participants of this program are their own, and do not represent the views of, nor are they endorsed by Legal Talk Network, its officers, directors, employees, agents, representatives, shareholders, and subsidiaries. None of the content should be considered legal advice. As always, consult a lawyer.
Podcast transcription by Tech-Synergy.com