Building the 21st-Century Law Firm

27 ABA Journal articles on Building the 21st-Century Law Firm.

Ask Daliah: 5 reasons why I love being a lawyer
This morning, I woke up extra early to prepare for a complicated hearing in federal court. After court, I returned to my desk to deal with a barrage of emails and voicemail from hostile opposing counsel. By 2 p.m., I felt especially tired, frustrated, and depleted. As I was laying my head down on my desk, I received an unexpected visit from a client who was "in the neighborhood." He brought me two bottles of wine and personally thanked me for everything we have done for him this past year. Shortly after he left, the mail came in. I opened two handwritten thank-you notes from other clients.
Ethics opinions have to reflect the present and future—not the past

One of the most enduring purposes behind the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct and corresponding state ethics standards is to protect clients and the public from “overreaching, overcharging, underrepresentation and misrepresentation.” (See Ohralik v. Ohio State Bar, 1978.)

More than a century after the 1908 adoption of the association’s first set of guidelines, the ABA Canons of Professional Ethics, the clients whom ethics standards protect and the lawyers governed by them have changed drastically. Yet in substance and form, ethics standards remain stagnant—and the same lofty principles that once inspired the best in lawyers will soon render us irrelevant.


In substance, today’s legal ethics standards are so utterly out of sync with the lifestyle, social conventions and technology savvy of today’s consumers that they actually breed mistrust.

Imagine an encounter with an alien that hails from a planet where placing one’s hands around a new acquaintance’s throat is intended as a sign of respect. Yet without this background, you’d understandably feel distrustful and threatened if greeted by a stranger who has a firm vise around your neck. The same is true of ethics standards in the modern world: They require lawyers to act in a manner that is so alien in today’s society as to arouse suspicion. Consider the two following scenarios.

Case 1: Penny Prospect, a mom seeking a divorce, arrives at your office for a consult. You think the meeting went well, but you never hear back. It turns out your instincts weren’t wrong—Penny was leaning toward retaining you—until she viewed your profile on LinkedIn and saw a disclaimer that states: “This profile is attorney advertising.”

In a decade of using LinkedIn (including as recently as that morning when she updated her profile in anticipation of searching for a higher-paying job), she has never seen a disclaimer like this. She knows LinkedIn’s user agreement prohibits advertising. Doesn’t this lawyer understand terms of service?

Penny’s concerns aren’t allayed when she clicks a link to the lawyer’s blog and once again sees “This blog is attorney advertising” underneath the blog caption. Penny doesn’t bother to read the posts; she assumes that if they’re advertising, they won’t be very valuable.

Penny wonders what’s wrong with this dude. He’s so caught up in promoting himself online that he won’t have time to handle her case. Ultimately, Penny heads to LegalZoom, which doesn’t have the same advertising disclaimers, and signs up for the do-it-yourself divorce package that includes attorney review.

Case 2: Noah Newbie is a recent business school graduate seeking to incorporate an online business. After the meeting, you hand him a 15-page retainer agreement and ask him to sign it and send it back with a check.

Noah leaves the office and tosses the retainer agreement into the trash can. He doesn’t understand a word of it. Plus, he’s always paid bills by credit card. He’s not sure that he still has a checkbook.

He decides to search his lawyer’s ratings online, but there’s not a client review or testimonial to be found. Because Noah always checks ratings before making a purchase, he’s disconcerted about why he can’t find any for his lawyer: Were they so bad she paid to have them removed?

Then Noah discovers a site called Avvo Answers, where he can ask questions about incorporating a business for $39. Noah searches for a New York lawyer. When he can’t find one, he discovers that several bars, including New York, have banned lawyers from doing business on Avvo. Apparently, it’s unethical for the site to take a cut of the $39 fee you pay to talk to a lawyer.

Noah doesn’t get it. Isn’t it a common online business model for the platform providing goods or services to take a cut of the sale? That’s how Etsy and Airbnb work—heck, Uber is killing it. Noah can’t believe this rule is really intended to protect clients. It’s probably a way to force clients to have to trek to a stuffy, old lawyer’s office and fork over $1,000.

It looks like his mentor, who heads a successful startup, was right after all: Noah is going to have to start his corporation at Rocket Lawyer by himself. Noah sighs, thinking it was easier to find his fiancée online through a dating site than it is to hire a lawyer.


These aren’t fantasy scenarios; they are based on actual ethics opinions. New York County Lawyers Association Formal Opinion 748 (2015) requires disclaimers in LinkedIn profiles. State Bar of California Formal Opinion 2016-196 treats a blog as advertising that’s subject to advertising rules if the attorney makes known their availability for service. And New York State Bar Association Ethics Opinion 1132 (2017) finds Avvo Answers and similar sites to constitute unethical fee splitting, as did a 2016 advisory opinion from the South Carolina Bar.

Building the 21st-Century Law Firm: See the rest of our coverage.

As these examples bear out, the parade of horribles that regulators envision—fee splitting with nonlawyers injecting their interest into the attorney-client relationship, testimonials and reviews that might dupe clients into hiring an unqualified lawyer, making objective and useful information online available through a LinkedIn profile or a blog without prominently labeling it as advertising (I’m stumped to figure out what kind of harm that could ever cause)—doesn’t intimidate today’s clients at all.

Most of today’s clients have seamlessly, thoroughly integrated social media and “sharing-economy” platforms, as well as online payments and content-based marketing, as part of their daily lives. They’ve acclimated to the cultures of each online universe they inhabit and grown adept at distinguishing between causal informational websites and biographical profiles, and chatty personal exchanges and paid advertising. So when lawyers can’t conform their conduct to these mores, they’re first viewed with suspicion or annoyance and, ultimately, ignored.

Ask Daliah: 5 ways to wish clients happy holidays (without the clutter of cards)
Dear Daliah: What is your opinion on mailing out greeting cards to clients for the holidays?
Start financial protection before opening your law firm
Here are a handful of insurance tools you should consider heavily when starting your firm. Some are necessary at your firm’s inception, while others should simply remain on your mind and be explored further as your firm evolves.
Ask Daliah: Stand tall in your use of body language
Dear Daliah: You’re only 5-foot-2? You seem … taller.

Dear Reader: It’s a question I get quite often and one that I thought would be a great segue for this month's article.
Practical cybersecurity for law firms: How to batten down the hatches
How do you protect your law firm from ransomware, malware and other cyberthreats? The costs of ransoms have significantly gone up from a few hundred dollars to the $1,000-plus range for the decryption key to unlock the affected files.
Ask Daliah: Opening your law office to open spaces
Dear Daliah: What is the best way to set up a 21st century office?

21st Century Law Firm: Ask Daliah

Attorney Daliah Saper has been answering readers’ questions online about building a 21st-century law firm. This augmented version of her column looks at time—timekeeping and time-saving.

Dear Daliah: Any tips for tracking time better?

Dear Readers: We have all faced the black-hole time warp. You worked 10 hours, but your billable hours only record 4½. Where did all the time go? You were so busy that you had a granola bar for lunch at 4 p.m. just to soak up all the coffee from the morning client marathon.

Keeping track of all your time often fails because you’re distracted by the hundred different things coming at you or because you can’t re-create your day at the end when you finally have time to breathe.

Here are three ways to capture your time effectively.


Stay ahead of the game, and use practice management software that integrates your billing and has customizable workflows all in one. Not being able to consistently reconstruct time can bankrupt a practice.

I asked my friend Alvaro Arauz at 3a Law Management, a legal practice consulting firm in Atlanta, for some technology recommendations. He says cloud-based software you can access from anywhere with an internet connection, such as Clio, MyCase or Rocket Matter, is used by many firms. These platforms can automate standard billable tasks, such as basic discovery, emails, text messages to clients, court hearing confirmations or cover letters.

The 0.2 and 0.1 hours can add up in a day but can be easily lost. With the proper services, predefined tasks convert into time slips with a click of a mouse without having to remember if everything was billed in the scope of the assignment. Keep in mind, the time slips can always be adjusted in the prebill phase.

The two things any firm of any size can streamline, Arauz says, are phones and accounting. Not managing either effectively also can make or break your practice.

Part of the accounting headache is the chore of reminding and following up with clients about payments. Then there’s the actual collection of payments; in some firms, it’s a bookkeeper’s part-time job.

New options are available to the modern lawyer, and PaySimple is exactly what it says—a simple software program that lets you schedule payments and accept e-checks and credit cards while it automates your billing process. Even the established merchant services LawPay and QuickBooks allow you to send a link to clients via email for them to pay their invoices or retainers.

Arauz says to take it all a step further by using practice management software that syncs with LawPay and QuickBooks. If the structure of your website allows it, which most do these days, there also are payment portals that can be added for either potential clients scheduling a consult online or existing clients who received an automatic emailed invoice.

The second thing to delegate are the phones. There are a variety of live answering services that range from $99 to $800 per month—services such as Ruby Receptionists, My Receptionist and PATLive. They give your clients the impression that your practice has a front desk ambassador. Just remember the old adage that you get what you pay for, and try to stay in the $200 to $500 range.

Ruby Receptionists is a quality and tested company. Script how you want your phones answered—when they get transferred immediately, i.e., when a judge calls; when to email your staff—and monitor it all with monthly reporting logs.

If you have a high-volume practice or a large number of weekly potential intakes (personal injury, bankruptcy, med-mal), Legal Intake Professionals will handle your entire intake process. Equally customizable on how to prioritize calls, it adds the extra level of capturing details that most answering services do not provide.

Once the intakes come in, a paralegal or an attorney contacts the potential client to engage them formally. However, the monthly price is slightly higher than most services but still less than the salary and payroll liabilities of an intake specialist plus a receptionist.

For the ultra-high-volume intake firms, there are plug-ins for your website or case management software that will email intake forms to potential clients and then enter them into your internal system automatically. Capturing the case information and data entry is the bottleneck of the intake process. Delegate it to the potential client and technology, Arauz says, all from an iPad on a couch in your waiting room.


Ask Daliah: Want media attention? Take these four steps toward making the news
Dear Daliah: You've been in newspapers and on TV. How do you attract media attention?
Be relevant and grow clientele by really using social media

Eighty-one percent of people use social media to connect with one another, engage with news, share information and entertain themselves. This number is up from just 5 percent in 2005, and it includes the more educated and affluent at all age levels.

Not using social media is akin to being unconnected from the rest of the world. No internet. No email. No cellphone.

It’s saying: “I’m not looking to receive information from people I trust, to learn from a growing network of industry leaders or to achieve all I can by building a name for myself. Leave me alone.”

Whether it’s blogging, Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, lawyers are using social media, professionally and personally. Ethics rules are not an impediment.

Unfortunately for lawyers and the public we serve, not enough lawyers are using social media. And the vast majority of lawyers using social media are doing a darn poor job of it.


Every day, lawyers, bar associations and law schools talk about making legal services more accessible. They first ought to talk about making lawyers relevant to the public.

Fred Headon, an assistant general counsel at Air Canada, told a Chicago audience of lawyers last fall that lawyers are making themselves irrelevant to most people by refusing to communicate like everyone else—on social media.

The only thing lawyers and legal associations talk about more than access to legal services is lawyers starving to get a job as a lawyer. This is at a time when getting a job and building a book of business has never been easier.

The internet, and especially social media, is the great equalizer for the average law student and lawyer. Never before could lawyers make a name for themselves as fast. Never before could lawyers build relationships with their target audience as quickly.

Having a strong name in a niche and building good relationships are how the best lawyers get work. You’ll not see these lawyers advertising or building websites to chase traffic and stats. The internet has not changed that. Relationships and reputation rule.


Utilizing social media is not about setting up a blog and starting to use LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter. Do that and you’re just wasting your time.

Be strategic. Establish clear goals. What type of work would I love to do? What type of clients would I love to do work for? And be careful when you wave the magic wand, as you are likely to get what you wish for.

Measure success not with traffic, clicks, hits, subscribers and followers. Measure success with the bottom line. What is my target for increased revenue as a result of relationships I will have developed and the name I’ll have built through social media?

Don’t sell yourself short. Many lawyers have increased their annual revenue by $1 million or more, some by $2 million to $4 million, through blogging and social media.

Building the 21st-Century Law Firm: See the rest of our coverage.


Social media, by name, is social. Social media is not a broadcast or distribution channel.

Law firms and marketers use social media as if it were television advertising: What can we push at people? How many people can we reach? How many followers can we get? Who’s looking at our stuff?

But the internet was invented as a communication medium, a medium where computers (people) could talk with one another. Social media is more conversation than marketing.

We’re not talking shotgun communication. Going where your audience of influencers, clients, prospective clients, referral sources and business associates are “hanging out” is the key. That room doesn’t exist until you frame it.

And once in that room: Listen, don’t shout.

Imagine going to a networking event with clients, prospective clients and influencers and shouting out “content” with a bullhorn. And having someone there with you running around shoving content into people’s pockets.

You’d have reached your target audience and achieved a high penetration rate of delivering content. But you’d look like a darn fool.

Listen. Just as you would offline: Listen first, engage second.


Ask Daliah: Here’s help on tracking your time
Dear Daliah: Any tips for tracking time better?

Dear Readers: We have all faced the black-hole time warp. You worked 10 hours, but your billable hours only record 4.5. Where did all the time go? You were so busy that you had a granola bar for lunch at 4 p.m. just to soak up all the coffee from the morning client marathon.
How to build a clientele through contacts, communication and confidence

Toya Gavin started her solo law practice really lean—like “no clients to speak of” lean. That was in January 2015. She now has a thriving practice in South Orange, New Jersey, with referrals that come in regularly from current clients, former clients and other attorneys.

Gavin, a prosecutor in Newark for 4½ years, now specializes in law for small and online businesses.

“I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship and business,” Gavin says. “And after my years as a prosecutor, I wanted to work with folks who were following their dreams or looking to build or add something to their community. I wanted to be part of those dreams and help people accomplish them.”

How did she make that jump? The actions were all her own, but they can be summed up in one word: marketing. She also drew on her network connections to get client referrals.

“My initial network included many defense attorneys. Then I expanded by joining groups online and talking to friends and family members in small business,” she says.

Toya Gavin

Toya Gavin. Photo Courtesy of Toya Gavin.

“I used my initial network for client referrals, advice on practice management [and] courses,” Gavin says. “I also found Solo Practice University online and signed up. SPU was very helpful because there are courses and discussions on every facet of a solo practice.”

Within two weeks of starting, Gavin was handling per diem criminal law work for other defense attorneys she had met as a prosecutor. “I covered court hearings. These opportunities happened because of my network,” she says. About two months later, she had her first official client.

“I was optimistic and fearful, but I am also very determined,” Gavin says. “So I did a lot of work prior to starting my practice to manage my fear. I ultimately knew that the worst thing that could happen was that I would have to get another job.”


Coleman Watson, an intellectual property and patent attorney in Orlando, Florida, started a solo practice in July 2015 without clients but with two prospects who eventually became clients.

Building the 21st-Century Law Firm: See the rest of our coverage.

Less than a year later, Watson had two part-time contract patent attorneys on his payroll. And now he has a three-attorney firm.

Watson attributes his quick ramp-up to aggressive marketing. “The first thing I did to acquire clients was to advertise on FindLaw,” he says. “The advertising was directed at people seeking an attorney in the tech space.”

Watson’s second marketing initiative was hiring a public relations company. The PR firm “helped secure opportunities to write and publish seven articles in various magazines,” he says.

“I wrote about tech issues, matching the interests of readers of these magazines. The result was some people who read my articles contacted me and became clients.”

He quickly acquired clients, and his first year in business was profitable. But “it was not enough to make a living. I made up the difference with a line of credit,” Watson says.

Ask Daliah: Four steps to making social media work for you
Dear Daliah: How do you use social media to market your law firm?

Dear Readers: I use social media on a daily basis to learn about recent legal trends, build my network, stay connected with existing clients and attract new ones. If you haven’t already leveraged the power of social media, you should start today.
On-demand lawyering is our future: What will it look like?

Recently, I saw a TV ad recruiting Uber drivers. It showed a young guy, apparently a family man, seamlessly moving back and forth from earning money driving to “chilling.” Whatever you think about ride-booking services in general, or Uber in specific, it certainly made driving for Uber seem like an easy way to earn some money.

Ask Daliah: Free client consultations can cost you
Dear Daliah: Should I offer free initial client consultations?

Dear Readers: Unless you have a very streamlined process for fielding new clients or can delegate the task to a non-attorney, my recommendation would be to charge.

Read more ...

Your Voice

Articles and commentary ...

Digital Dangers logo with thumbprint lock.
Cybersecurity and the law

A guide for practitioners ...

Poll: Pick the purrfect caption

View Results