Today on the podcast Jim and Tyson sat down with Brita Long, the creator and founder of The Happier Attorney, LLC. For over 22 years Brita practiced law and saw how peoples lives, including other attorneys, were negatively affected by complexity, a lack of purpose and a miss match between what they said was important in their life vs what their behavior showed was important in their life. This is why she now teaches other attorneys how they too can identify and then reduce or eliminate the thought patterns, and behavior that is getting in their way and preventing them from living the life they truly want to live.
4:40 growth and burnout
8:00 real soul searching
14:14 flat fees
16:45 publishing fees
19:45 getting paid for results
22:54 underestimating time
24:15 set and monitor
Jim’s Hack: David Neagle Podcast
Brita’s Tip: The Happier Attorney podcast with Brita Long episode with Mark Chinn
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Run your law firm the right way.
This is The Maximum Lawyer Podcast.
Your hosts, Jim Hacking and Tyson Mutrux.
Let’s partner up and maximize your firm.
Welcome to the show.
Jim: Welcome back to The Maximum Lawyer Podcast. I’m Jim Hacking.
Tyson: And I’m Tyson Mutrux. What’s up, Jimmy?
Jim: Oh, Tyson, my friend. I’m excited about our guest today. I’m excited to be with you. I feel like we haven’t recorded in a while, so I think it’s going to be a great show.
Tyson: I agree. Are you in DC still?
Jim: No, I’m in St. Louis. I’m just on dad duty driving the Nooranator to tennis camp for her week-long tennis camp. She’s really come to like it.
Tyson: Very cool. I love it.
All right. Well, let’s go and get in with our guest. Our guest is Brita Long. She is the happier attorney, which I love how she calls herself the happier attorney. And she’s the author of the book The Happier Attorney: A Comprehensive Guide to Charging Flat Fees for Legal Services. She coaches attorneys on how to use flat fees as well as mindset and intuition.
Brita, welcome to the show.
Brita: Well, thank you for having me.
Jim: Brita, why don’t you start off by telling us– I mean, you are you an attorney yourself, why don’t you tell everyone sort of your story, your journey from law school till the present?
Brita: Well, I went to ASU Law School, and graduated in ’97, and moved to the Seattle area. And my first job didn’t take– I was in the middle of nowhere. But my real first job was as a deputy prosecuting attorney in the Pacific Northwest, and did that for a couple of years, and looked around and saw what people were doing on their own. And I had always wanted to go out on my own. That had always been my intention.
I think I had $3,000 saved and a borrowed computer. I went out on my own in 2000, practicing family law. It’s been a while. I did the empire building thing where I had the big office, and associates, and the whole nine yards.
And in ’08 – ’09, when the economy crashed, so did I. It was just too much. And I went back down to simple. And that is what works for me. And I transitioned from family law to estate planning.
And then, about three and a half years ago, my father was not doing well, health-wise, and him living in downtown Seattle, in my house, was not going to work well. And he was going to need to live with me. So, we – I and the intention was he would move as well, moved to Texas.
And I had grown up in the sun and I needed sun back and came down to Texas and started writing. And I loved writing. Just, I found my gig with writing. And that is what I’ve been doing and teaching other attorneys how to use flat fees and trying to teach what I’ve learned in 20-plus years of having my own practice, and learning from other attorneys, and calling things as they are. Let’s put it that way.
I found that there was a lack of not integrity per se but not calling out elephants in the room. And all of the attorneys that I knew were going through the same thing, but we didn’t talk about it. We didn’t share our struggles. And then, that doesn’t help solve any problems. So, that is what I do now is coach attorneys, and teach, and try to have attorneys get a little bit more honest with themselves about what is working, what isn’t working so that they can be happier. So that’s the short version of it.
Tyson: So, Brita, you said something really interesting. And you were talking about, you know, empire building versus then making it a little more simple. Do you think that that’s a pretty common thing where people think that they want to build the empire but then they realize, “Oh, my gosh, this needs to be more simple to be happier,” but then they keep going down the path of empire building?
And for me, at least, and for others that I talked to, we think that’s what we’re supposed to do. Like if you want to grow and especially if you are in more of a business mindset, if you recognize, if you have a practice, you have a business that means you’re an entrepreneur, which some attorneys don’t realize, but for those who do, then everything that you read and now everything online is to grow, grow, grow. On paper, it sounds great. On paper it works out, especially when you’re getting burned out. Especially when you’re overworking, getting burned out, it seems like a simple solution. Well, I will just hire some associates. They’ll do all of the work. I will manage the practice. I pay them X. I charge over X. We all walk away happy, right? It’s the perfect solution. Well, it’s not for a lot of people. And if anyone has ever tried to manage attorneys, they would know it really is easier to herd cats a lot of the time.
But we think that’s what we’re supposed to do and we don’t think. Many times, we don’t do the introspection of, “Is this even really what I want or is this my ego getting in the way?” And not egotistical but my ego of “Oh, you’re supposed to want the big firm. You’re supposed to want the fancy. You’re supposed to want to have the prestige that growing a firm gives you.” Whether that actually fits you or not is another question.
Jim: What effect, do you think, that the pandemic has had on people’s willingness to think that an empire-building scenario is not the best thing for them?
Brita: Oh, I don’t know the answer to that specific question. But I think, in general, the pandemic has been good for people to take a step back and do some soul searching as to “What do I really want?” And it certainly has shaken up all of the old, “Well, you can’t do that. You have to have an office. You know, you can’t work remotely.” Well, clearly, we can where, you know, years ago, I would say even three or four years ago, the common thought, at least in my circle of people that I knew, was, you know, if you didn’t have an office, it was subpar, right? I mean, were you a real attorney if you didn’t have an office and staff? That, obviously, has been switched on its head. So, I think people are examining all of the rules that we have, as attorneys, of what makes us attorneys. How do we work? How do we not work? And some of those very stringent unspoken rules, I think, are getting blown out of the water which I don’t think is a bad thing.
So, as far as empire building, I know people are looking back. And if people want an empire, have at it, have at it – as long as they are honest about it and have done that real soul searching and understand what it takes. It takes a lot. It takes a lot. And be willing to do that.
I’ve talked to so many attorneys who want to build an empire and I’m like, “Do you like managing people?” “Well, no. Well, I’ll just hire somebody to do that.” Okay, you know.
So, if you go through all of what it really is going to entail and if you still want it, great. But I do think that the pandemic has caused people to take a step back and really examine what they want in life.
Tyson: Yeah, if you don’t like managing people, you definitely don’t need to be building an empire because it’s built upon people so it’s definitely not what you want.
And, you know, I think a lot of it has to do with, you know, client expectations. I think you’re right. I think the pandemic– I don’t think it’s completely changed it, but it definitely has allowed, you know, clients and other attorneys to reassess and say, “Oh, you know what? Maybe this is not necessary.” The expectations of an actual office aren’t as much. A lot of the communication has been done via Zoom and phone call over the last 18 months. I think you’re right about that.
But let’s segue into The Happier Attorney. So, tell us about this. And what’s the inspiration for this?
Brita: Well, I had used flat fees for a long time. And I’ve use them in family law. I’ve used them in heavy-litigation family law. And, at the time, I was the only family law attorney that I had known in Washington. Certainly, in Seattle and the surrounding areas, we use flat fees and they worked very well for me. It took me a couple years to figure it out and make the mistakes, and those mistakes are costly, but I love them. I absolutely love them.
And, when I was starting to write, I really had a choice of, “Okay, I can start practicing again and build that all up” which is fine or I can do something else. And I was surrounded with people who were doing courses which I’d never even heard of. Quite frankly, video courses and such and I was like, “Wow! I could do that.” And then, of course, the fear comes in of, “Well, who would ever pay me to teach them flat fees? It’s so easy.” Well, yeah, it’s easy after you’ve been doing it 15 years.
And I took a chance. And, sure enough, people really are interested in flat fees. And it is very important to learn how to do them properly because they are a very powerful tool that, if you don’t use them properly, you will get burned badly.
And what I found– and my intention was just to start teaching flat fees but, almost immediately, it turned into so much more– so much more mindset issues, and intuition, listening to your intuition, learning how to recognize it, and then listen to it and trust it. And this work, with flat fees, has just opened a wonderful Pandora’s box with attorneys having an outlet to express their feelings. And it’s not woowoo. It really isn’t.
But, again, to examine what they’re doing in their practice. Is it working? Because to use flat fees really well, you need to be able to communicate well with your clients which a lot of attorneys don’t do. You need to have healthy boundaries with your clients which a lot of attorneys don’t do. I didn’t either for years. And that takes more than just learning the 1, 2, 3’s of flat fees. That takes a lot of internal work. So that’s what I do with my clients.
I don’t think that flat fees are the answer to everything in our profession. And our profession is pretty unhappy. I don’t think anyone would argue that. But it goes a long way. It goes a long way to improving your well-being as an attorney, and burnout rate, and being able to just come back to why you’ve gotten in the profession in the first place – just to come back to doing your work and not getting paid for your minutes.
Jim: Running your own practice can be scary. Whether you’re worried about where the next case will come from, feeling like you’re losing control over your growing firm, or frustrated from being out of touch with everyone working under your license, the stress can be overwhelming. We will show you how to turn that fear into a driving force of clarity, focus, stability, and confidence that eliminates the rollercoaster of guilt-ridden second guessing and mistake making to get you off that hamster wheel for good.
Tyson: Maximum Lawyer in Minimum Time is a step-by-step playbook that shows you how to identify what your firm needs and how to proactively get it at every stage of the game so you’re prepped and excited for the inevitable growth that will follow. Name the lifestyle that you want and we’ll show you how to become a maximum lawyer in minimum time. Find out more by going to maximumlawyer.com/course.
Jim: You’re listening to The Maximum Lawyer Podcast. Our guest today, Brita Long. She’s an expert attorney on the issue of flat fees. She’s trying to revolutionize the way we lawyers handle our billing.
Brita, give us some basic groundwork on how to sort of set the fees. We do everything on a flat fee. I’m an immigration lawyer. We do everything on a flat fee and I love it. And I remember, early on, getting some resistance from other lawyers because they said, “There’s going to be some clients that take up all your time and all your money.” But, in my mind, I just try to see if it ends up awash if one client ends up taking too much time and others don’t. But in my mind, it all sort of balances out. And the benefits of the flat fee and not having to bill the client, and invoice him, and all that stuff is just so much better.
Brita: Yeah. a friend of mine, Regina, says, “Any issues that attorneys have with flat fees are not a flat fee issue. They’re an attorney issue.” And I completely agree. And that’s one of the concerns that attorneys bring up.
In my experience, the issues with flat fees do not happen half as much as attorneys think they will but, when they do come up, that’s the attorney issue. That issue that you just described, that’s a client boundary issue. So, if you are having clear communication and expectations with your clients from the get go of, “This is how I work. This is what constitutes an emergency. This is what doesn’t. I want you to call me when there’s an issue, but I don’t want you to call me, you know, every day if there’s not.” And you enforce those boundaries. And you can do that politely. Then, clients– it’s very rare when they really push it.
And if we’re being honest with ourselves, every client that I have had that there was a boundary issue, where I really had to dig my heels in, you know, I knew that from the get-go. That is a client that, looking back, I knew from the get-go that, “Oh, this person’s going to be a problem.” And either you charge accordingly. And with flat fees, you can do that where you can say, “Okay, this client’s going to need more hand holding, so I’m going to charge more for that.”
And in the case that something happens, and it really blows up, that is unexpected, which every, you know, once in a blue moon will happen. When you’re using flat fees, you don’t care. You really don’t care because, overall, you are working far less. You’re not overworked. You’re making more money. Your life is simple.
And so, if, you know, once every few years, a client takes up or a case takes up more time than you expected, but you’re making 200 to 300 more than you were and you’re working 35 to 40 hours a week as opposed to 50 or 60, who cares? Right? I mean, you really don’t. It absolutely washes out.
Tyson: So, Brita, do you have an opinion on whether or not attorneys should publish their fees? For example, like on their website, or in brochures, or anything like that?
Brita: Well, I’m an attorney so the answer is going to be it depends. I mean, you know, what did you expect?
I do. I think it really depends if– you know, part of flat fees, the beauty of it is that when you can adjust for each case. So, if you publish your fees, then people are going to expect that. And so, if you say, you know, a dissolution costs between this and that and somebody comes in – Jeff Bezos comes in. Well, clearly the fee that you publish is not going to be appropriate, right? Well, you’re going to have to explain that to the client of, “Yeah. Those fees on the website, uh-uh. No.” And you’re going to have to explain why and that might be awkward. And if you’re starting out, I would absolutely not publish any fees whatsoever because part of starting out is experimenting and figuring out the sweet spot. So, I would err on not publishing,
I do see the beauty of if you are starting your dissolution, say, your smallest, you wouldn’t take anything under 10-grand. If you’re getting a lot of people that that is out of their range, well, you don’t want to have them come in and think that they can hire you and then not. However, I think if you’re charging for an initial consultation, and you’re charging well for that, that gives them a pretty good signal as well that, “Oh, this person’s going to be a little higher.”
So, I would err on not publishing. Personally, I know that other attorneys who use flat fees disagree on that. So that’s what I’ll say. I think there’s other ways that you can cue in a potential client that the price is going to be a little higher.
Jim: When I think about flat fees, I think about when Tyson and I first met, I was teaching a class at St. Louis University Law School on law firm management. And one of our first guest speakers was a guy who’s been around for a really long time and been in the tech space. His name’s Dennis Kennedy. And he told a story about how, in the old days, he worked at a really big firm and they would do things on an hourly basis, including estate plans, which I think is one of the most amenable practice areas for flat fees, but they would do it on an hourly basis. Can you believe that? And he would write out the will or the estate plan. He would give it to his secretary who would make all the edits. And then, he’d get it back. She’d type it up again on a typewriter. He would edit it. And she’d get it back.
And they do it like three or four times. And then, he started getting into word processing. So, that’s even before computers. But he figured out a way to script out a basic will and it cut his time by 80%. And he was completely freaked out because he thought he was doing away with his business model. And then, it dawned on him, eventually, that what he’s really selling is his expertise not his time looking at red ink marks and making edits.
And that’s the beauty of flat fees is you are getting paid for your judgment. You are getting paid for your work product. You’re getting paid for results. And I know we can’t guarantee results but your focus changes, with flat fees, on what are you actually providing for your client. Why is your client here in the first place? They’re not here to get some documents. They’re here to get peace of mind. They’re here to get a divorce as quickly as possible unless there’s a strategic reason not to. They’re here to get out of this or to, again, have that peace of mind that, you know what, that contract it might not be bulletproof but it’s as good as it’s going to get.
They don’t care how long you took to do something. And this is people– attorneys think that flat fees are just so– they’re so scared of ‘em. This is how we buy something every day of our lives. This is how we buy everything, every day. It’s no different.
You know, if you hire someone to replace your roof, do you care if it took two days or four days? Actually, it’s better if it took two days, right, because that’s two days that you have them out of your lives and out of your house and all of the rest. That’s how clients think as well. They don’t care how long something took. It’s better for their life for it not to take as long, generally. So, you know–
Tyson: That’s a pretty solid point. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody say it like that. I think that’s actually a pretty solid point – the way we look at it as consumers, for sure.
Before we start to wrap things up, Brita, I wanted to see, do you have any advice on people on how they can set those actual flat fees?
Brita: Well, I do but it’s not appropriate for this context and that might sound self-serving. But flat fees are like an entire recipe. And you have to know the entire recipe before you say, “Well, how much salt do you put in it?” Because people ask all the time, “So, what do you charge for this?” I can’t tell you that because that’s like asking, “Well, how much salt do I put in that recipe?” I don’t know. I don’t know how many people you’re feeding. I don’t know the other ingredients of the recipe. I don’t even know where you’re making it which factors in. So, it is all encompassing.
But, essentially, if you are practicing, you’re looking back at old cases to see if you have track time which I can tell you most attorneys that I talked to are horrible about tracking their time. It’s like the Clio study that had attorneys averaging two hours a day that they’re getting paid for which is absurd. If there’s no other reason to use flat fees, that’s it. But it’s looking back and seeing how much this case actually cost because we underestimate in our heads.
And if you just start using flat fees, with no basis, with no research, it’s going to take longer, and you’re going to underestimate. I have never had an attorney overestimate a fee ever, ever. So, you’re going to underestimate. And if something’s supposed to really cost $10,000 and you charge $2000, you’re still doing $10,000 worth of work. And then you come back and say, “Well, flat fees don’t work.” But you are looking at how much time it’s going to take. But that’s just one factor – one factor.
You’re looking at the complexity involved. How much expertise do you have? Maybe it takes you 10 minutes because you’ve been doing it 20 years, right? Do you have some special thing that you’re bringing? Do you have some special knowledge that you’re bringing to that case? Special relationships that you’re bringing that help your client? And you’re basing your fee on all of– even down to your client? “Is this going to be a person that needs more hand holding? Who’s opposing counsel, if you know?” We all know those opposing counsel that you’re like, “Oh, geez.” Well, with flat fees, you’re going to be charging more for that because it is more work. It is more of a pain in the rear so you’re going to be charging for that.
And where you are. Of course, if you’re in rural South Dakota, you’re not going to charge what you charge in LA. And you set it and you monitor. Okay, was that too low? In the beginning, I can tell you, it’s probably going to be too low.
And the sweet spot for flat fees is in between a little excited and a little scared. If you’re setting a fee and you don’t have any butterflies in your stomach about it, it’s probably too low, at least in my experience with attorneys. Again, I think I’ve even heard of one or two attorneys that would overcharge. But, really, it’s all encompassing. You have to treat it like a recipe and have all of the ingredients.
Jim: I’m glad you brought up the topic of opposing counsel because– I mean, one thing that our friends in the contingency fee field always talk about are these insurance defense firms that want to bill up to wazoo and do everything hourly. But I’m thinking too about my friend, Jim Mcmullin. He’s a family law attorney. And he came down the hall and said to me one day, “Jim, I just finished a divorce in which I did every single thing possible that you would ever have to do in a divorce. My legal fee was $16,000 and the opposing attorneys legal fee was $60,000.” Obviously, you can’t pick your opposing counsel and sometimes you have to set your fee ahead of time. How does it come into play when you’re talking about adversaries who are incentivized to drag things out and bill out the bud?
Brita: Yeah. I can just talk to my experience. My experience was that those were pretty few and far between. So, again, when you’re looking at big picture, when you get those cases, you really don’t care because you’re doing so much better than you were that it’s not that big of a deal.
But, when that happens, then you are going to have your timeframes involved so that there is an end date to the bleeding, so you’re not just hemorrhaging forever. There’s an end date where if the case isn’t completed, you’re going to be having a conversation with your client of, “I’m going to need more money. We didn’t get done. You can see why we didn’t get done.”
But the beautiful thing about flat fees is that you’ve already been paid. And you’ve been paid well. And your focus is on the case. And all I can tell you is, my experience, you don’t care. You just don’t.
I had one case, a family law case where the opposing side hired a new attorney. The first attorney was reasonable and the client didn’t like that – the opposing party didn’t like that and he got someone who’s not. We never had depositions in Seattle. This guy scheduled. I think it was nine. He deposed two preschool teachers. I mean, it was just absurd. I mean, he was just churning for the sake of churning. And it was so clear and obvious to everybody. And his client didn’t care. His client had a war chest and didn’t care. Well, my client did have to pay more because we had the timeframe where we should have been done. We weren’t going to be done. She knew why. And so, I did get paid an additional fee.
But, really, those cases are few and far between. And my focus was on the case not ”Oh, this is going to cost my client more. Can my client pay more? Oh, that deposition. Shoot. My client, that’s going to be another whatever for my client.” You just go in and you do your job which you do a better job, quite frankly.
So, it’s going to happen. But you do have stop gaps in your feet that prevent a lot of it. But every once while one gets through and you don’t care. You just go in and protect your client and do your job.
Tyson: I think what you just said was really, really important about the stop gaps. I think that that is absolutely crucial. And having the right agreements in place is what really protects you when it comes to flat fees. I haven’t done flat fees in years, but I had ‘em whenever I was in criminal defense and the stop gaps were definitely the things that saved me whenever I did bill ‘em.
But, Brita, we’re going to we do have to wrap things up. So, I could probably have this conversation a lot, for a very long time, because I actually enjoy talking about this side of things. But I do want to wrap things up.
Before I do, I want to remind everyone to go to the Facebook group, get involved there. There’s a lot of great activity. Getting close to 5000 members, so a lot of people in that group. If you’re interested in the Guild, go to maxlawguild.com. And then, if you want to go to the conference, hurry up and get your ticket, as our most recent email said, ”Run, don’t walk because the tickets are going to sell out soon.”
Jimmy, what is your hack of the week?
Jim: So, some members from the Guild, Elise Buie and Paul Yokabitus have tuned me in to a guy named David Neagle. He has a podcast called The Successful Mindset Podcast. I’m really enjoying it and I highly recommend it.
Tyson: I like his podcast. Here’s what I’ll say, one caveat. It’s daily and it is a lot to consume. But he does have some really good stuff, really high-level stuff. I agree, it’s a really good podcast.
Brita, we always ask our guests to give a tip or a hack of the week. It could be a book. It could be a podcast. It could be anything. Do you have a tip or a hack for us?
Brita: Well, I have a podcast and, as self-serving as it may sound, we just yesterday released an episode with Mark Chinn who is a family law attorney in Jackson, Mississippi. I tease him, you know, he’s been practicing since the Earth cooled. I would absolutely not only listen to that podcast, but he has books out on the ABA website, Mark Chinn. And just, if you want to really learn your craft, and not have it based on all of these new strategies but learn your craft, I would start reading his books. And he also has an ebook on flat fees called Dump the Billable Hour. So, that’s my tip. Start following Mark Chinn. In practice, be Mark Chinn and you’ll have a pretty successful career.
Tyson: I like it. Very good. Very good advice.
So, for my tip of the week, it actually comes– I’m going to take a tip that Guild member, John Ting, gave to me and Jim last night. And it is actually kind of cool because people were talking about answering services all the time. They’re talking about VA’s all the time. Well, he found a service. Go to getwingapp.com. And it is VA services and answering services for flat fees all wrapped into one which is kind of a cool idea. He’s actually testing it out. I went to the website. I’m thinking about tinkering with it, but I told him he needs to try it and test it out first. And then, I’ll try that.
But I think it’s an interesting concept. I think it’s especially appropriate maybe for smaller projects, not necessarily higher end stuff need like paralegal help. I don’t think it’s good for that. But I think it’s something cool to try out.
So, it’s something similar to what Jay Ruane had recommended a while ago, Magic, I think. But what makes it different is that it does have that component where they answer the phone as well which is kind of cool. So, that’s my tip of the week.
Brita, thank you so much for coming on. This has been a lot of fun. I think this is a conversation that a lot of people need to have, so thank you so much.
Brita: Well, thank you for having me.
Tyson: Thank you, Brita. Have a great day.
Brita: Okay, thank you. Bye-bye.
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