Our original vision for Longleaf Breeze was that both of us would be full-time subsistence farmers. That was before. That was before the brutal shakeout in market performance depleted the value of our investments, leaving us at once both poorer and more humble. So now we know that, at least for the time being, I will need to continue working with people going through divorce, even as Amanda focuses exclusively on the farm.
To make this happen, even before we move I have begun to transform my practice. I had been accustomed to meeting with clients in my office but to providing services over the telephone and Internet when clients preferred it. I am now providing all services over the telephone and the Internet, gradually closing down the office. I’m going paperless. Because clients aren’t coming to my office, I send them documents by e-mail. That means I don’t have any paper to store in their file; it’s all on my hard drive. When they return their documents to me, they are signed and ready to file with the court, so I scan the documents in for e-filing and then put them in the shred box. When I have e-filed the documents, I notify the client by e-mail. Again, no paper. The only time I generate any paper for a client is when their actual divorce decree arrives. It bears a gold seal from the court, so a scanned copy just wouldn’t do. I print and send to each spouse an enclosure letter with their divorce decree; then I save the letter and the decree in data form. This means that there are some things a client must have (or at least have access to) in order to use my practice. She needs a working e-mail address and a way to check it, a working telephone, and a Visa or Mastercard (unless he sends payment in beforehand). She also needs to be willing to work with me on the telephone rather than coming to an office. This doesn’t work for everyone, so I know this will mean that I will lose some cases that would have come my way in the office days. There are some of us, even many of us, who still have a visceral preference for dealing with people in person rather than over the telephone. I have no illusions that I could attract enough cooperative divorcing couples to come to Tallassee, Alabama anyway. It’s a nice town, and we know how wonderful it is, but I fear the number of people who have already figured that out is just too small to sustain a high-volume legal practice. And there are still some of us who don’t use credit cards or who don’t use e-mail. I can respect that, and that means I will lose that part of my business. At the same time, however, I am realizing that my total commitment to doing business over the telephone and the Internet simplifies my business model dramatically. Here are some of the changes I am already seeing in the way I operate:
- I’m paying a lot less for paper, envelopes, postage, toner, paper clips, and staples. My usage of these items is down to a trickle. I also have stopped paying to send documents to the courthouse via UPS Next Day Air. Big savings.
- I can dress like a farmer and still provide first-rate legal services. I’ve always dressed casually, and I’ve never had the sense that my clients paid that much attention to how I dressed; but I didn’t feel right meeting with clients unless I was at least wearing khakis and a nice collared shirt. That’s out now. I dress for comfort.
- My clients are different. I hadn’t thought about this before I changed, but the restriction to people who use e-mail and feel comfortable with the telephone and the Internet means my clients tend to be a tad younger, a tad better educated, and a tad more task-focused than before. I’m not sure this is good or bad, but it is different. No, on reflection, it’s better. The more focused my clients are on getting their case done quickly and paying me less money, the more pleasant my work is.
- I am delivering services faster. In the office days, I would store up several cases before sending them all in a bunch to the courthouse. I would then find out 2-4 weeks later the date on which they were filed in and the case number. I would then send a letter to the client with that information. Now, because everything happens electronically, I’m able to file documents within a day or two of receiving them, and the client gets an e-mail the day I file them with the case number and the name of the judge. Clients like that; I know I would too if this were the fine china of my life the way it is for them.
- I don’t spend time waiting for clients to come for an appointment. In the office days, clients sometimes showed up early for appointments. They often became uncomfortable if they found the office locked with the light off, and they started calling me and bugging my next-door neighbor. “Do you know where he is?” “Can you call him and find out if he’s coming?” So if I made an appointment for 8:30, I always tried to be at the office by 8:15. Waiting. Because although some clients showed up early, most didn’t, and many were late. So I spend less time waiting now. I call the client rather than waiting for them to call me, so if we’ve made an appointment for 8:30, we’re usually under way by 8:31.
- I worry less about no-shows. When you help people going through divorce, no-shows, people who make an appointment and then just blow you off without notice, are the bane of your existence. I don’t worry so much about that now, because I always have plenty to do, and I don’t have to be at a particular place to meet with clients. Which brings us to . . .
- I’m more portable. My office travels on a laptop computer and a telephone. Wherever I have those two things and access to the Internet, I’m ready to do business. Which brings us to . . .
- I’m TOTALLY dependent on robust, dependable Internet service. I used to say that if my computer goes on the fritz, my business is shut down. Now the same applies to the Internet. I’ve gotta have it, and every minute I don’t have Internet is a minute during which I’m dead in the water as far as doing business is concerned. About that Internet. This is a continuing issue for people who live away from cities and towns, more than most town-dwellers realize. We are blessed that our Verizon Internet card works well at the farm, so we know we will always have that. At the same time, though, we would like to have something faster, particularly for uploading documents as I do routinely during e-filing. We can get satellite Internet service at 1.5 Mbps download, 256 Kbps upload, for $90 per month. That would probably get us by, but it’s slower and more expensive than we could get in the city from cable or DSL. And the satellite Internet companies make it clear they don’t like the idea of our using VoIP with their satellite service. Something about transmission delay. So we keep looking and hoping for something like the new
WiMAX standard to become available on our farm. We know that’s a few years down the road, though, so in the meantime we cope the best way we can.