Retro or Different

It’s pretty clear now that what looked like it might have been some kind of counterculture is, in reality, just the plain old chaos of undifferentiated weirdness.Jerry Garcia

Different seems to be the watchword for today’s new breed of lawyers; these rising stars with their different philosophies on billing, on marketing, and on the practice of law in general. We are seeing the birth of a legal counterculture, marked not by long-hair and tie-dyed T-shirts but by iPads, smartphones, and SaaS clouds. Out here in small town America, the trappings of old, republican, conservative law die hard (there is still the expectation of brick and mortar offices, three-piece suits, and varnished oak desks) and one has to sneak different into one’s practice slowly.

It is not that clients aren’t receptive to different, it is just that they really don’t care about it. Clients are interested in outcomes; more specifically, they are interested in paying you for solutions to their particular problem – they don’t care about the process or what technology you use to expedite your research, they just want the solution to be palatable. For the rural lawyer, technology’s role is not as practice differentiator (well, there may be a few referral sources that will be impressed by a law firm’s use of technology to implement a stream-lined, systems-based approach to handling client matters, but the average client won’t care if you have a new smartphone or a 5 year old flip phone); technology’s role is to simply improve your efficiency and reduce your costs.

In my one-man-band solo practice, technology is what keeps me sane. It allows me to have a human voice answer my phone and direct calls to me and it allows me to spend 30 minutes dictating a contract rather than 2 hours typing all without the overhead of having to employ actual staff. Technology allows me to run a paperless office secure in the knowledge that between my RAID arrays and backup software my business data will always be readily accessible. Tickler systems keep me on task, and e-mail filters help me manage information distraction.

The only thing different about my technology is that it’s not different – no cutting edge open source software, no public SaaS clouds, no smartphones or tablets. The only new piece of technology I could really use is a typewriter (I’m really fed up with filling out the 3-part Certificate of Real Estate Value by hand). Perhaps retro will be the new different.

Do it yourself

water pump

There are times when duct tape just won’t do

Rural communities pride themselves on their independent spirit and the idea that an individual or a community can accomplish anything if they just set their mind to it. This is the land of do-it-yourself; there are few things these folks won’t or haven’t done be it a simple matter (say rebuilding a tractor’s motor) or the more complex (building a home). Sure, they’ll hire a “pro” to handle the tricky bits, but out here the term “pro” can mean “someone with more tools than you” or “someone who’s done it at least once” – it does not, necessarily, mean “someone with actual training, skill and expertise”.

This do-it-yourself spirit also extends to things like sewer and water – things generally considered basic infrastructure items in metropolitan areas. Given the lack of population density, private sewer and water systems are far more cost-effective than their public utility equivalents; when the distance between homes is measured in terms of miles (or fractions of miles) and not feet or yards, it is hard to recoup the cost needed to install and maintain a public water system. And, for the most part, private systems work well and once installed are reliable and simple to maintain – that is until they stop working and you realize that getting water out of the ground is a bit more complex than simply turning a tap.

One of the advantages of being in solo practice is that it’s fairly easy to get your boss’s OK to stay home and deal with the crisis du jour. One of the advantages of being a rural solo is that your clients understand when you call them at 7:00 AM to tell them you can’t meet with them that day because your well pump is out and you are hand-watering your livestock. The big disadvantage is that once you’ve cleared your calendar, you now have to (a) actually see to your livestock one bucket at a time, and (b) fix your well pump – if you are lucky the problem is electrical, above ground and easy to fix (provided you remember to turn the circuit breaker off first), if not, then there’s a couple of hundred feet of slimy, wet pipe that needs to be pulled out of the ground and it’s time to call in a pro.

Besides putting a kink in your morning ablutions, this rural fascination with DIY can put a kink in a rural law practice. It is the rare rural client who’ll see a lawyer at the first sign of a legal problem (cherish these people for they make your life simpler), most will either put things off until the last moment or try to handle things themselves. While these DIY’ers can have significant impact on your bottom line (inevitably, it costs far more to fix a problem than prevent one), they represent a far more valuable marketing opportunity and can become some of your biggest fans. When the DIY’er reaches the call-the-pro stage, they are (a) looking to resolve a very immediate problem and (b) are at a very teachable moment – if you can find a satisfactory, cost-effective solution and show them in a non-judgmental way (a) how much more cost-effective this solution would have been if… or (b) how many more options would have been available if … these do it at the last-minute consumers can be transformed into loyal call-at-the-first-sign clients — plus, pulling someone’s butt out of the fire (it may be a small fire to you, but it’s a big fire to them) is always good for positive word-of-mouth advertising.

Now, it’s time to get back to watering the critters.

Road Trip

The saying “Getting there is half the fun” became obsolete with the advent of commercial airlines. — Henry J. Tillman

The Rural Lawyer is hitting the road this week. My thanks to the South Dakota Bar for their gracious invitation to speak at their  Annual Meeting, I’ll be filling the dead space between the good speakers and the mid-afternoon break with my take on technology and marketing for the rural solo/small firm.

There is a lot to be said for travel – it’s broadening (though give the current state of the coach seats on commercial aircraft, I’d dispute that sentiment – though my hat’s off to the air crews; any one who can keep smiling after dealing with the hoi-polloi that generally occupies coach either is of a more pacific temperament than I or has access to some high quality mood stabilizers), it’s educational, it’s relaxing – but for the rural lawyer, travel is just part of the job.

While those charming wide open vistas of rural America are part of the attraction of small towns, they also mean that there is always going to be some distance between where you are and where you want to be – usually only a practice located in a county seat will find clients and courthouses in close proximity. So, the rural lawyer finds that reliable transportation and a good GPS are just as important as  form books, laptops, and practice manuals.

Paranoia and Security

I’ve always found paranoia to be a perfectly defensible positionPat Conroy

Let me make something clear right from the outset, when it comes to the security of the technology that supports my business, I am not a raving, paranoid lunatic; I am completely capable of carrying on calm, quiet, rational conversations.

Back in the day, when hard drives were the size of washing machines, tape drives consumed half-inch tape on 12 inch reels, computers were huge blue boxes serviced by a cadre of adoring acolytes, and networks were comprised of tin cans, bits of string, and acoustic couplers security was simple – those without the blessing of the high priest (the systems administrator – a god-like being capable of patching a OS binary on the fly). The concept of an external attack was practically inconceivable simply because (a) it was the rare computer that supported even dial-up access, (b) dumb terminals and acoustic couplers were not your typical household appliance, and (c) an attack coming in at 300 baud (about 30 characters per second) is something you would notice. It was a halcyon time, carefree and innocent. A time where security was a backup tape and a warm blanket. A time doomed by its own success and the crushing inevitability of Moore’s Law.

Today, if your tech is connected to the outside world though anything other than a electrical power cord (and I have my suspicions about those), it is vulnerable to attack; it is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when. Therein lies the faustian bargain we make with the Internet – access to untold amounts of knowledge, pleasure, and power in exchange for our tech’s soul. But fear not, for tech also offers some hope of salvation if not complete redemption. Continue reading

Rural Transformation

To Imagine, To Create, To LearnThrough out America, rural communities are changing, evolving, and transforming themselves as they work to reverse the effects of  a few decades of outmigration, youth drain, and the general malaise of the rural economy. Big ideas whether from the rush to alternative energy (nothing helps an agrarian economy like $9/bushel corn) or the information economy sweeping in as high-speed internet slowly but surely marches into small town USA.

ReImagine Rural  explores how people are building a new future for rural communities. I can across ReImagine Rural thanks to Bob Morris’s post: I Guess I’m A Rural Lawyer — Go FigureA great essay on where a rural practice can take you, even if you don’t know you’re a rural lawyer. Sarah Larson’s post: Downtown to Small Town: A “City Girl’s” Transition to Rural Practice also speaks to me as her path to rural lawyerdom mirrors mine. 29 years ago, This city boy married his college sweetheart, a wonderful gal whose soul was drawn to rural and wild places, and learned to enjoy rural life.