Ernie Svenson is a New Orleans lawyer and regular industry speaker who has been running the Ernie the...
Adriana Linares is a law practice consultant and legal technology coach. After several years at two of...
Among solo practitioners, Ernest “Ernie the Attorney” Svenson is well-known for consulting on technology and, specifically, going paperless. But what many lawyers don’t know is how Ernie transitioned from a commercial litigator in a big New Orleans law firm to a tech savvy solo. In this episode of New Solo, learn all about how Ernie’s experience practicing in a big firm and Hurricane Katrina led him to go solo. He talks with Adriana Linares about using technology and automation to lower his overhead for an increased chance of success and, quite frankly, happiness. Adriana and Ernie then discuss the more difficult aspects of transitioning to a solo practice including loneliness, retaining clients, and wanting a paralegal. No longer a practicing attorney, Ernie talks about why he decided to become a technology consultant for other solo and small firm lawyers. If you’re planning to go out on your own, tune in for some tips that might make the difference.
Ernest Svenson, also known as “Ernie the Attorney,” practiced commercial litigation for 26 years in a big firm in New Orleans. After starting his own solo practice, he switched to consulting other lawyers on computers, going paperless, and automating tasks.
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Adriana Linares: Hello and welcome to New Solo on Legal Talk Network. This is Adriana Linares and today I’m back in New Orleans and I’m actually in the Paperless Chase Studios. If you listened to our last episode, I interviewed Andrew LeGrand, an attorney in New Orleans at the Paperless Chase Studios and I decided maybe it was time I actually interviewed the Paperless Chase owner, Ernest Svenson, so I’m here with Ernie. I’m going to ask Ernie to introduce himself in a second but before I do that, I want to make sure to thank our sponsor, Solo Practice University. Make sure you check out their website, learn about all the different CLE sessions and webinars and seminars and content materials for solos. Hey, Ernie.
Ernest Svenson: Hey, how’s it going?
Adriana Linares: It’s going good. Thanks for not only lending me your studio again but actually lending me you.
Ernest Svenson: I’m happy to do it, I always enjoy talking to you.
Adriana Linares: I know, it’s fun. So our listeners have maybe heard your name. You’ve been out there in the legal technology professional as a blogger, as a lawyer, as a speaker, as a well-known writer, as a Katrina survivor, and now as a consultant. So why don’t you tell the listeners a little bit about you and where you are right now.
Ernest Svenson: Okay. So I practiced law for 20-something years in a big firm, big by New Orleans standards and enjoyed it very much; I did commercial litigation. I worked on complex cases with lots of documents, lots of lawyers, and it was fun until it wasn’t and it became not so much fun – I’m sure we’ll talk about that. I went out on my own because I wanted to see if that would be a more satisfying way to practice and it was. Then after a couple of years, I found myself talking to a lot of lawyers that were trying to do the same thing I did or started to do what I had done; lawyers in small firms which is not what I had spent most of my life doing. So I liked those lawyers in small firms, I liked helping them, and one of the big issues was how do they incorporate technology in their practice. So about two years ago, I quit practicing law so that I could devote full time to the thing I like doing the most which is helping those small firm lawyers.
Adriana Linares: That’s great. So the reason I asked you on the show and what we’re going to talk about is what it took for you to actually take the leap to leave a big law firm. How you did it and then the same types of questions maybe that lawyers like David Sparks, I had on the show not that long ago and he kept referencing how much you helped him and how helpful you were not just as a friend but in a weird way as an advisor in saying here are the things you need to consider, here are the things that you’re going to get asked; so that’s what we’re going to talk about today. I think that’ll be a good topic for us. And then we’re also going to talk about Paperless Chase and how you came around in really deciding that practicing law wasn’t for you, because that’s a whole ‘nother topic. So you were in this big office in New Orleans, and it was maybe ten years ago?
Ernest Svenson: Yeah, it was 2005 was when I came to this solution. I remember it because it was when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and I was at the benchmark.
Adriana Linares: So how long before you actually decided to do it? Which I know was around the time of Katrina and you can tell us more about that. How long have you been thinking about it and why? Why would a lawyer who is with a big firm and has all the resources of a big firm and all the things at his fingertips – a secretary, probably, a pool of paralegals, associates to help you; why would you want to leave and how long have you thought about it before you did it?
Ernest Svenson: I think I had probably thought about it not in a conscious way for probably a few years longer than I thought I had. Only after I left did I kind of piece it all together, but basically, when I started practicing law I worked for a judge for two years and the federal judge was a great mentor, taught me a lot of things. But one of the things he taught me was to be resourceful. His idea was don’t be a primadonna, learn how to type your own stuff, operate the copy machine, do what you have to do yourself and just get it done; that was his mentality. So when I went to work at the firm, I took that same mentality and I walked in the back room where the copy machines were and said show me how to use them with the idea that if I was there on the weekend or late at night, I’d just be able to do things. So I was one of those attorneys in the firm that did a lot more of that stuff and didn’t see it as a stigma or something. My firm was pretty cool, they weren’t the kind of firm where if you fraternize with the staff that was somehow wrong, which happens in some firms. So I just was naturally gravitating towards using those tools. I learned how to use the word processing system; so I was self sufficient and I liked using those tools. So I think I enjoyed working that way because it just was more natural for me to get things done more quickly without having to jump through as many hoops. I did have paralegals, I enjoyed working with them, and when I showed up they knew a lot more about practicing law than I did. So it was nice to have them around, but overtime, I worked on cases and as you moved up, the cases got bigger in the firm. And as the cases got bigger, the paralegals got sucked over into the big cases and I tended not to like working on the big huge cases. So I needed them to figure out how to do that same kind of stuff that the paralegals were doing for me myself. So I used technology, I scanned documents, I was paperless; and so about the time that Katrina hit, I really was kind of functioning as a solo lawyer in a big firm.
Adriana Linares: That’s interesting. In my experience with big firms, that’s almost as if that’s how most lawyers operate. But the fact that they suck so many resources out of the legal assistant pool and the paralegal pool. So in a weird way, they act independently but they don’t work independently, so you were both acting and working independently. So Katrina comes along, turns the whole city upside down, and that’s when you think to yourself, “Hmm…”
Ernest Svenson: I started to think consciously about it because a friend of mine left the firm about a year or two before that and he went out and he was on his own and he was showing me tools he was using and things he was doing, and I thought okay, that’s interesting. He had a complex practice and now he’s a solo lawyer and he’s getting by. So I started experimenting with some of the tools that he was using. But it was really Katrina that did it, and it was because at this point all of my documents were scanned. I had them all on a shared drive-
Adriana Linares: There was no Cloud back then.
Ernest Svenson: Yeah, there was no Cloud so it was all about checking the documents out and synchronizing them. It was more complicated than it is now. But it was still simpler than having paralegals assembled and having the briefing book and putting everything in chronological order. So I wasn’t using paralegals and I wasn’t using my secretary in a traditional way. So when Katrina hit, the firm’s website was down, the firm’s email was down, the firm’s fax machines were down; the firm’s time and billing system was down. Everything was down. Meanwhile, I had all my documents on my laptop; I knew how to use my laptop. I had a website that was up and running. I had an email, I was using Google Mail back then.
Adriana Linares: And you had your client email addresses and contacts and phone numbers so even though you couldn’t use the firm resources, you had some sort of – even if it was personal backup – a way to communicate with clients. That makes sense.
Ernest Svenson: Yeah. So all of my stuff was functioning and the firm was paralyzed. And that’s when I started to think, huh. 50 cents of every dollar I collect supposedly went to pay for overhead. I wasn’t using the overhead and if I had been using the overhead, I’d be worse off. So I thought maybe I could do this on my own. I mean, how hard could this be if I already know how to use the web to get clients, I’m getting clients through the web, I know how to be paperless, I won’t need a big office with a lot of machinery and I won’t need a paralegal. So I just started to wonder if it was crazy but it seemed like I could totally go out on my own and do the same type of law but without all the administrative burdens and agony that I had come to despise.
Adriana Linares: So you decided to do it, you’re like that’s it, I’m going out on my own. You told the law firm and they were-
Ernest Svenson: They were fine. They wanted me to stay but they said we understand.
Adriana Linares: So before you left, had you thought about what type of practice? Were you going to continue the same type of practice or were you going to be willing to take any kind of case you could get because you were starting as a solo?
Ernest Svenson: Well, I was hoping I wouldn’t have to take any type of case but I was willing to do that for a while if that’s what it took. But I crunched the numbers and I wasn’t going to need as much overhead. So my guiding principles were I don’t want to lock into any long term contracts, everything has to be month to month. So I wasn’t going to negotiate for a lease at a fancy place because that would lock me in and everything was month to month. As long as it was month to month I could keep evaluating and tweaking things as I needed to.
Adriana Linares: So here’s a question: I was recently helping a friend of mine who wanted to go solo and who am I to help other than I just had one piece of information from him and it actually came from E-Myth. And I’m sure you’ve read the E-Myth, everybody’s read the E-Myth, but there’s also now the E-Myth for Lawyers. Specifically in the E-Myth for Lawyers, they had this formula; it’s very specific. You take 365 days out of the year, you deduct 20 holidays, two weeks off for vacation, all the weekends, and you end up with something like 220 days that are potentially billable, all things in a perfect world. You decide the amount of money that you want to make, so if it’s $250,000 a year, you take 250,000, divide it by 220, and that’s your daily billing goal. So how have you done it?
Ernest Svenson: Well, to be very honest, I was not that strategic when I did it. And it was because, first off, I knew that I was making way more money than I actually really needed in my life so that was one thing. So I didn’t really know how much I truly needed to be happy. I knew it wasn’t as much as I was making, so that was one thing. And also I knew I didn’t need to meet the overhead requirements; so I was kind of ballparking. And like I said, that’s why it was important for me not to have any long term commitments.
Adriana Linares: And what did you tell your clients? What happens? You tell the firm, they’re like, “Fine, good luck and have a nice life,” and then do you turn to clients and say, “Hey, I’m going out on my own, do you want to come?” Or there are certain clients that you think, “Oh, thank god, I don’t ever have to work for them again.”
Ernest Svenson: Yes, there were a few those, for sure, and I did the happy dance when I thought about them. But there were two categories of clients. There were the ones that I was surprised went with me because they had complex practices and I figured they might think I couldn’t handle a complex matter even though I had already been handling the complex matters because I had been doing the same thing. I was just going to do it in a different place without having the firm. And then there were the ones that surprise me which were there were these kinds of cases where you’re the local counsel for somebody and your job really is to just be the eyes on the ground, by the local guide, maybe file some motions and help them out; but really, all the heavy lifting is done by the big national firm. And a friend of mine represented one of those companies and I thought, well, he’s my friend, he’s the one that brought the case in in the first place; surely they’ll give me the case, and they didn’t. He said, “Look, I’m really sorry, if it had been up to me, obviously you’re the one we hired, you’re the one who we wanted to work on the case.” But they just have this idea that it’s just you, and if it’s just you something could go wrong and you wouldn’t be able to handle it. It’s misguided but I understood that people had that view and it was fine. So most of the clients that I wanted to came with me came, and that was good.
Adriana Linares: And then when you told other lawyers, whether they were your friends or opposing counsel that you just occasionally run into on the streets, when you said you’ve gone out on your own and left your big law firm, what were the reactions like and how did you deal with them?
Ernest Svenson: Many of them thought I had lost my marbles because after Katrina a lot of people did some bold things and I think there was part of that to my decision and I couldn’t really say for sure that it was going to succeed. It was kind of an experiment so I wasn’t brash or bold. I kind of said I just wanted to give it a shot, I thought it was going to be more satisfying. They kind of looked at it like, “Well, okay… hope it works out.” They were rooting for me, weren’t really hoping or expecting but they were rooting.
Adriana Linares: What other types of questions do you get a lot now? You made the leap and then we mentioned earlier David Sparks comes to you and says, “Am I going to get lonely?” Did you get lonely?
Ernest Svenson: Yeah, that was one thing. A couple of friends of mine said, “What’s it going to be like? You’re all by yourself and what if you want to go to lunch and what if you want to talk over a case with another lawyer?”
Adriana Linares: God, it’s not like you moved to the moon!
Ernest Svenson: I know. What they didn’t understand first off is that because I had started that blog in 2002, I had a lot of friends throughout the country that were lawyer blogger types. So if I had a question about trademark law, I’d call Marty Schwimmer. If I had a question about internet law, I’d call Evan Brown. There were all these lawyers I could call and pick their brains. And then locally, if I wanted to go to lunch, I’d just call up a friend and go to lunch. It wasn’t like I didn’t have access to those people, I did. And what was great was when I didn’t want to be disturbed, I was at home alone and nobody walked into my office and asked me to look at something. So I actually got more work done, it was more satisfying working by myself then I was in the firm, which I know is kind of weird but that is true.
Adriana Linares: And then eventually did you continue to work from home or did you get an office?
Ernest Svenson: I got an office at a coworking space and what happened there was a friend of mine who’s a lawyer, really smart, innovating young lawyer, had hooked up with some folks who were starting a coworking space and they needed some folks to come down there and sort of start it out and I said I would. And I did it really to just kind of help them out thinking it’s the Summer and my kids were home from college; gone was the idyllic point where I was by myself and nobody would barge in and interrupt me. My kids were coming in and interrupting me, so I thought, okay, I’ll go down there for the Summer, hang out and then I’ll go back after my kids go back to college. But what I found was that it was really exhilarating to be around people that were starting their own businesses and they’d have questions about the law and I’d have questions about how to tweak my website. It was kind of like being part of this wonderful tech commune where everybody got along and they were all happy. There were no disgruntled employees, there was no gossip about horrible things happening. Everybody was bright-eyed, bushy tailed and working on something cool and interesting; and it was really great and I loved it.
Adriana Linares: Awesome. Well, before we move on to our next segment, we’re going to take a quick break to hear message from our sponsors.
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Adriana Linares: Welcome back to New Solo, I’m Adriana Linares and with me today is Ernest Svenson. Ernie, before we took a break we just talked about things that you thought about and went through before you left your big firm and then we last left you at having had co work space. So you got yourself an office space and you had some comrades who weren’t necessarily lawyers but you liked that. Tell me a little bit more about things like what if you needed help. What if you did decide that you needed someone to do legal research for you? Or maybe did you ever wish you had a paralegal?
Ernest Svenson: Oh yeah, I wished that all the time. Of course! Who wouldn’t wish for that?
Adriana Linares: Okay, so how did you deal with it?
Ernest Svenson: I tried getting virtual assistants but back then it was harder to do. The Cloud wasn’t as mature, it wasn’t as easy to collaborate. I still had the dream that I would have a paralegal, but the problem was you would have to coordinate, train and establish what the rules of engagement were, and I’m not a really good manager of other people and I realized that wasn’t going to work. So I just started going all in on anything that either would help me automate my practice or working with people who are already tech savvy. So if I had a case that involves something that was a legal ethics problem or was in federal court, my friend Dane Ciolino, very tech savvy, and he and I would have no friction in setting up something collaborative. So we would work on cases together and it was real easy because we knew how to get along. And if I needed somebody who was kind of the bulldog lawyer who was going to go in and charge and be aggressive – because I didn’t like doing that – there was a friend of mine who did that who was pretty tech savvy. So the minimum criteria was they needed to be tech savvy up to a certain point and then they would fill a role that I either didn’t want to fill, wasn’t good at, or if I just needed help I would collaborate with those people.
Adriana Linares: So it sounds like the secret to your success at the time, which is probably not any different than it would be today, is being able to find, learn, and use technology resources as best as possible and having a good network of other lawyers or legal professionals that you could reach out to on a pretty regular basis sounds pretty important.
Ernest Svenson: Oh yeah, that was key. That was the best thing.
Adriana Linares: So that’s a very good tip that we’ve got to make sure really sinks in. I can’t imagine that that would be very hard. If you’ve been a lawyer practicing law for X number of years in any town, even a big town, but a midsized town like this, you’re going to know who those people are; or like you said, you’ve got your internet resources as well. Did you find that you were able to give more attention to clients out on your own after you sort of hand picked the ones that you got? Or it didn’t really matter? You were able to deliver just as good a service with a big firm backing you as a small firm by yourself?
Ernest Svenson: I definitely think I gave better service to the clients I had, because I had fewer of them. They were of paramount importance to me, obviously, and it was easier. They knew that they could contact me directly and it was great. It was trickier with clients that were prospective clients who were kind of feeling me out. That was one area where I kind of bungled it at first because I was trying to automate everything. So I set up this service with Ringcentral where people call and then I rented somebody who had a British accent to make it seem like I had a sophisticated practice. But in the end they weren’t talking to a voicemail machine, and that’s not very good. And then if they’d talk to voicemail, they’d want to hear from me so I’d have to call. So that was one where hiring real human people – and what I did was I used Ruby Receptionist. And I didn’t want to use them at first because I thought they were too expensive, but they turned out to be – even though they were one of the more expensive things that I pay for per month – they were very valuable because it was the human touch and people wouldn’t expect that from a small firm or a solo lawyer and it also allowed the clients or prospective clients to feel attended to because somebody was talking to them and I could keep working.
Adriana Linares: So did you end up hiring a paralegal or secretary at any time? You mentioned Ruby Receptionist and it being able to work with other lawyers when you needed another lawyer on the case. But did you ever end up hiring?
Ernest Svenson: I had somebody who had been a paralegal at my old firm who was unhappy where she was working and she was moving to New Orleans and she wanted help and she came to work at the co working space. So I told her I’d get her work and I gave her work. She wasn’t working for me full time, although she probably worked for me a lot. And we knew the old system that we had operated under. So that was the closest I ever came, but that was a brief stint that lasted about a year.
Adriana Linares: When attorneys come to you today and say, “Ernie, how did you do it? How do I do it?” What are the top three or four things that you make sure and remind them and tell them?
Ernest Svenson: The first thing is I am like – and lawyers like me have the same experience; It’s like Ellis Island. Because you did it, foreigners come check in and say, “Hey, we’re here, how is this going to work? What’s life going to be like?” But what’s weird is the main thing that most of them want affirmation and validation of is if they’re really going to make it. And it’s a really interesting conversation because this is a conversation I had with about 3 or 4 different friends of mine. I thought I’m going to jump, but am I going to land on firm ground; and they said, “Ernie, you will not believe how much work you’re going to get because you’re a solo that you’re not getting now because you’re part of a big firm,” and I said what are you talking about, and that explained it and I didn’t get it. I say the same thing to lawyers now and everybody all gets it. And the thing is, there’s something about working in a small firm where people know you have to be efficient and you’re watching all the pennies. They will come to you and give you a case that they wouldn’t if you were in a big firm, which I guess they instinctively know is more than they could afford. So that was absolutely true for me and that’s been absolutely true for every single lawyer that I’ve talked to, and we’re all astonished that this is the case, but that’s the way the world works.
Adriana Linares: No matter how many times you hear it or they tell it, nobody believes it until it’s been a couple of years. I think David Sparks said that same thing when I interview him. He said, “Well, everybody kept saying that this would come and I don’t know where it would come from, but holy cow, it actually came.” So we keep talking about your solo law practice in the past as if it is no longer around.
Ernest Svenson: It’s kind of not because I don’t do it anymore.
Adriana Linares: Yeah, I think that’s interesting, and that could be a whole ‘nother episode, how to use your law degree in a creative and different way that is not practicing law. So I’m going to ask you what you’re doing, but before that I have a background question. So I know that you don’t practice law anymore, you do basically consulting. When you left your law firm and went on your own, was this your long term goal or did you leave thinking you’re going to be a solo practitioner or your goal is to be a solo practitioner until you retire?
Ernest Svenson: The only thing I thought if I could do something other than practice as a solo, I might have said, “Oh, that’s great, I could use that as a jumping board.” I might have thought that, I had no way of thinking that I thought it would be amazing enough if I had a solo practice that I was happy with and that’s really all I was looking for. I knew I liked practicing law when I started, then I stopped liking it. I liked the firm, I liked the people, I liked most of the clients. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was exactly. I complained about things like committee meetings and I complained about the usual large firm organizational bureaucracy, but I wasn’t sure that was really the problem. And I also wasn’t really sure I could make it on my own and be happy. So that’s really all I cared about was figuring out whether that was true or not and if it wasn’t true, how could I go back to a world that could pay me money and I could get by because I need money to pay bills. But it turned out that I could make it out on my own and I was happier and I talked to other people who were solo lawyers and they were happier and that was good enough for six years.
Adriana Linares: And then what happened?
Ernest Svenson: Then I got asked by so many lawyers and I was invited to speak to groups – mostly small firm lawyers – and they were trying to figure out how to use technology. I was able to describe to them how to connect dots in a way that I guess they couldn’t figure out. So I gave more of those talks and the more of those talks I gave the more I liked it. I was even invited to speak for money and i thought that was great. So I figured there’s money here, I liked doing it-
Adriana Linares: There’s a need. There’s a need, there’s an opportunity, there’s money.
Ernest Svenson: And I liked doing it-
Adriana Linares: Which is actually not that different than having gone solo, right? There’s a need, there’s an opportunity, and you liked it, so-
Ernest Svenson: Yeah, and what I liked about it the most is I’ve been frustrated with the way the legal system works. There are a lot of things about it that are inefficient that I know could be changed if we all could just let go of some things and adopt a new way of going about it. And I can’t change that all by myself and I certainly can’t do it practicing law. But I feel like I have a greater influence if I help lawyers improve their practices. That scales, that has a multiplier effect that I can’t get just being little old me practicing law.
Adriana Linares: And so how do you do that?
Ernest Svenson: I show lawyers in small firms how to connect those dots and there are a lot of dots to connect, which I didn’t realize when I started this. I thought, how hard could this be? Get a scanner, be paperless. But I guess what I didn’t realize was that I had been doing a lot of small things, not noticing that that was something that was going to lead to something else or that was a skill that was going to help me acquire another skill. And when I talk to these lawyers, I realize they really need a lot of help. Talking to you, you’re in a lot of firms and you have a perspective I didn’t have and I thought, wow, there’s really a lot of need here and it’s big and it’s not going away because there’s more technology being rolled out all the time. So what I think lawyers wanted that I was able to give them that maybe some other people can’t give them as readily is okay, I did it not because I was a techy, because I’m not a techy. I’m willing to roll up my sleeves and I think that’s what the judge gave me, that sense of some independence and so forth. If you’re willing to play with this stuff and just mess around with it – it’s not going to break – you can learn a lot. Or if you don’t want to learn it all yourself, there are people now that can help you accelerate the learning path, and it’s really just the question of finding some low hanging fruit. What’s the next thing that will have a big impact on your practice and finding the people that can help you that are trustworthy. And that’s where I have gotten to know and am fortunate to know many people like you and others who I say are tech consultants. I call them fiduciaries. They have a fiduciary mindset instead of a transactional mindset. They don’t go, “Oh, let me go tell Joe to get this thing and it will make his life better because he wants it and I’ll make a sale.” People like you and the people I trust are like, “How can I help that lawyer improve their practice?” And even if what I tell them to do isn’t something I sell or it is something I specifically sell something else that’s similar, if I make them happier and improve the practice, that’s better for everybody. So there are people like that out there and you just have to find those people, learn how to connect the dots, and your practice can improve dramatically, like really quickly.
Adriana Linares: Well, I sure know that’s true because watch it happen all the time. Unfortunately, it looks like we’ve reached the end of our program so I want to make sure and give you an opportunity to let your guests know how they can learn more about you and of course your great new services and Paperless Chase and what you do. So tell everybody how they can get ahold of you, ask you questions and learn more.
Ernest Svenson: I’m really easy to find, Google Ernie the Attorney and there’s all kinds of websites. But the two main ones are PaperlessChase.com, which I started to help lawyers figure out how to go paperless. And then more recently I started one called SmallFirmBootcamp.com where I try to help lawyers and small firms figure out how to connect those dots from the beginning stages of messing around with technology to more advanced, sophisticated things.
Adriana Linares: Well, thank you so much. I appreciate your time, Ernie, and of course lending me your studio again here in New Orleans, everybody’s favorite city.
Ernest Svenson: Sure
Adriana Linares: For all you listeners who would like more information about what you’ve heard today, make sure to visit New Solo at LegalTalkNetwork.com. Of course, we’re on all the usual channels, iTunes, RSS, Twitter, Facebook. Make sure you check us out, we’re all over the place. So that brings us to the end of our show; I’m Adriana Linares. Thank you for listening. Join us next time for another great episode. And remember, you’re not alone, you’re a new solo.
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|Published:||December 16, 2015|
|Category:||Best Legal Practices|
New Solo covers a diverse range of topics including transitioning from law firm to solo practice, law practice management, and more.