A New Year, a New Venture

Blowing horns on Bleeker Street on New Year's Day

Marjory Collins, photographer, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,LC-USW3-013050-E

With the new year comes a new blog for me – Little Law Office on the Prairie (LLOotP for short). My plan is that LLOotP will be a place to discuss the business of running a rural law firm – everything from the marketing and business challenges rural solo’s and small firms face to the technology that makes our jobs easier. Don’t worry, RuralLawyer will still go on, but  RL is going to focus more on the why than how – more mens rae than actus reus if you will.

Now, there’s not much going on over at LLOotP at the moment, but you are welcome to cruise on over and see if I fixed all the 404 errors. And if that doesn’t set the bar low enough, LLOotP will have roughly the same posting regularity as RuralLawyer – generally monthly, some times bi-weekly, occasionally weekly but always when I think about it.

Happy New Year.

One Day

 Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, fsa 8a42222

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, fsa 8a42222

The second of May saw 13 inches of heavy wet snow descend on my little part of the prairie – a noteworthy event even by Minnesota bachelor  farmer standards (a group that is notoriously parsimonious with praise). Like all good storms worth of the title “the great ______ of [insert reference year]”  (e.g.: the great wind of ’36, the great frost of ’09, etc.) this one left a bit of havoc in its wake. One particularly inconvenient bit of havoc left me without power for 14 hours.

For those of you who might brush this aside as a minor inconvenience, here is what no electricity means for my neighbors and me. No power means no water (we’re all on private water, aka wells, out here), no heat (takes electricity to power blowers, pumps and thermostats), no internet (those DSL routers don’t run on peanuts) and no computers (well at least nothing that’s not battery-powered). And, given that I had already changed the oil in my truck and tractors from the light weight winter oil to the heavier weights diesel engines prefer during the summer months, no power means that my snow removal equipment is not going to start (under 32 degrees, these summer time lubricants take on the same fluidity as wet concrete and need a bit of coddling and a bit of electrically generated heat before they are willing to flow) leaving me sitting on the waiting list for the local snowplow – at a quarter-mile long, my driveway is not one that lends itself to being shoveled by hand.

So, here’s the question – is your practice – that digital masterpiece of paperless perfection – robust enough to go 1 working day without power? Having just completed a review the hard way, the best I can say is that mine can, but things could be better. Continue reading

End Of An Age?

If you listen to the tech-savvy pundits, the age of the transactional lawyer will soon be coming to an end as cloud-based artificial intelligence software will soon be producing all the legal forms a person could ever want at prices so low, no lawyer could ever compete. The thing is, this is not what a law practice, especially a rural law practice, is about.

A rural law practice is not about the “product” – those forms, those missives of legalese we lawyers produce on behalf of our clients – if it were, law firm size would be measured in terms of the number of paralegals rather than the number of attorneys. I have no doubt that software can produce a form that is correct in all particulars, that clever engineers can gin-up an interface that will ask all the necessary questions to have the form comply with statutory requirements, and that this cheap, elegant, correct form will be totally unsuited to a client’s specific situation.

Practicing rural law is not about asking the necessary questions, it is about asking the right questions and understanding not only what the client wishes to accomplish, but why as well and only then moving on to the how. The oft-told stories among family law lawyers about spouses asking and getting the family home in the divorce settlement who turn around a sell the property within the year simply because they could not afford the property on a single person’s income are classic examples of understanding the what-a-client-wants part of the equation while ignoring the why; understanding the why allows the lawyer to function as councilor not just as advocate and opens up the possibility of other options that may provide a better outcome and a better service to the client. Technology will always get the “what” part, but it is unlikely to ever get the “why” part and therein lies its weakness.

A rural law practice (or most solo or small firm practices for that matter) is about service – service to clients, service to community. Technology, even the most sophisticated artificial intelligence software, can’t provide service – it simply cannot make that intuitive leap that uses both “what” and “why” to get to “how”. The lawyer who forgets that his true value lies in service not in product will not last long in rural practice. If you provide quality service and market your practice on the value you provide you need not be concerned about being replaced by CheapLegalForms.com any time soon.

Library Science

A tip of the hat to SD Rural Lawyer for pointing out Susan G. Fowler’s study: “Results of Participant Observation in the Fifth Judicial District,”

 

In this 2007, Ms. Fowler takes a look at the research needs of the average rural Kansas lawyer and finds that because the rural lawyer is a generalist, their research needs tend to be limited to the basics (case-law updates, statutory changes, access to state resources) and they do not spend a great deal of time or money on specialized research materials or access to expert opinions. All well and good if you are planning on how best to restore a rural law library so that it will best serve it’s clientele.

What interested me were Ms. Fowler’s observations on the information processing skill and daily activities of the rural lawyer (not that I participated in the study, seeing one’s day reduced to frequency counts by an outside observer is something of an out-of-body experience – the initial reaction of “it can’t be” is quickly followed by “now that I think about it…”). So, for those of you who have any doubts about the adrenaline-packed, action-filled, exciting life of the rural lawyer, you are absolutely right – the top 5 things rural lawyers do are:

  1. Talk on the phone (communication reduces surprises)
  2. Use a some form of technology to obtain or transfer legal information (the adaptive generalist is always relearning)
  3. Prep for court (there is a marked preference to settle out of court, but you never know…)
  4. work on a case
  5. build relationships (rural lawyers practice in small ponds – adversarial relationships are left at the courthouse door – so building professional/personal ties to the rural bar and to the community brings in business and establishes credibility)

Ms. Fowler also observed that rural lawyers are information power-users (constantly assessing information as they learn and relearn) and hard core multitaskers – though rural lawyers tend to be “time slicers” rather than “parallel processors” when it comes to multitasking; preferring to quickly switch between tasks (spending a few minutes on one before moving to the next) in a round-robin fashion. This form of multi-tasking seems to be facilitated by the rural lawyer’s preference for print rather than digital resources.

So there you have it – a brief look at the life of the rural lawyer through the eyes of the rural law librarian.

The Four Tech Groups – Balance in Your Tech Diet

Sham Harga had run a successful eatery for many years by always smiling, never extending credit, and realizing that most of his customers wanted meals properly balanced between the four food groups: sugar, starch, grease, and burnt crunchy bitsTerry Pratchett, Men at Arms

In the spirit of Sham Harga, one runs a successful law practice by always smiling, never extending credit and having your tech properly balanced between the four tech groups: security, redundancy, utility, and cost. These are dynamic forces often in opposition with each other. If I want my systems to be perfectly secure, I must sacrifice utility (for others not to access my tech, I must also limit how I may access my tech) and invest in cost (firewalls, DMZ’s, encrypted communication, and 24/7 monitoring come with large price tags). Should I wish perfect utility – unlimited access, 24/7/365 availability – I must sacrifice security and invest in redundancy and cost. But there is a point where all four forces lie in balance – costs comfortably within our budget, security contained comfortably between extreme paranoia and laxness, and systems that are sufficiently redundant so that they can attend to the tasks required of them now and for the reasonably foreseeable future with only minor, rectifiable hiccups.

While there are undoubtedly precise mechanisms that will spit out one’s ROI when investing $X in amount Y of security or amount Z of redundancy, this point of balance is more than a simple evaluation of a couple of the forces in isolation. This is more a matter of personal intuition for what we are evaluating is a fluid system and the balance we achieve today may not be the right balance tomorrow. It is a bit like yoga – today I find my balance in child’s pose and even though I might find it in mountain or tree tomorrow, right now a simple solution addresses my needs and that is all that matters for the moment; let tomorrow bring a new balance with it when tomorrow comes.

Yet being in tech balance is more than simply being able to find the right balance between the four tech groups – there is finding balance while engulfed in the ever-present white noise of our interconnected tech; of finding those small moments of quiet midst the cacophony of social networks, list-serves, RSS feeds, blogs, and e-mail if for no other reason than to find some time to actually do some paying work. I find that when the din becomes too much and the well-considered advice of the efficiency experts no longer lifts me above the noise I take a retreat from my tech for a few days – deliberately disconnecting from the cacophony of interconnectedness – choosing instead to regress to more primal state of tech. One in which afternoon naps are more likely to be interrupted by the dulcet tones of a landline than the strident chirp of a cellphone and where word processing is a product of ink on paper rather than electrons on phosphor.

Admittedly, putting one’s tech on hiatus is not easy (a small town’s lack of reliable connectivity goes a long way in helping me ignore tech’s siren song) but I find that doing so reminds me to have a more deliberate, purposeful relationship with my tech; that my tech is there to facilitate my mission, not dictate it. Seems everything needs to be rebooted ever now and then.