In today’s episode we’re sharing a presentation from MaxLawCon 2020. Our originally scheduled MaxLawCon 2020 speaker Jess Birken presented LIVE to the Maximum Lawyer Guild community and today we share her presentation. Jess discusses making the switch to subscription based services!
Would subscriptions work for you?
Are your clients not calling you because they don’t want to get a bill from you?
Could it take away the pain of the 6 minute increments?
Could it mean no more time tickets?!
You can also watch the video here.
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Transcript: “Making the Switch to Subscription Based Services” with Jess Birken 245
Run your law firm the right way. This is the maximum lawyer podcast, podcast, your hosts, Jim hacking and Tyson metrics. Let’s partner up and maximize your firm. Welcome to the show.
In today’s episode, we’re sharing a presentation from maxlife con 2020. Our originally scheduled Max con speaker just Bergen presented live to the maximum lawyer guild community. And today we share her talk, why switch to subscription legal services and how you came to let’s get to it.
All right. Hey, everybody, I am Jess, you might know me from the group. If you’re in the max law Facebook group, I’ve been in there a lot. So I’m going to talk to you today about why I switched my practice to subscription services, and how you might also think about that for your firm. So if you if you like what I’m saying, I would suggest you connect to me on Twitter. I’m at Jess Birkin on Twitter, if you don’t like what I’m saying, connect to me on Twitter anyway, because it’s fun to fight on the internet, right? So lot Twitter, if you’re not there is amazing. And it’s super fun. And it’s the only like thing that like makes my morning complete. So I wholly recommend you get on there and follow me and let’s connect. And we can talk about innovation. So yeah, so I’m Jess, I’ve got a private practice that I’ve been running on my own. I’m a true solo, I have one full time staff that works for me who’s not a lawyer. But before I went into private practice, I worked in house at a large nonprofit. So my practice is, is solely focused on serving nonprofit clients, I work with small mid sized organizations, I’m kind of like a small business attorney that has extra compliance knowledge, right, because they have special rules that apply to them. So in 2016, I left my old law partner, and I hung my own shingle. And you know, I have great clients, I’m good at my work. But eventually, I just started to feel a little frustrated with my my job, I was just sort of like, you know, more and more and more frequently. And I, I was working for myself, you know, I had this cool co working space, I couldn’t quite figure out what was becoming so dissatisfying in my work. And so I started to think about it. And the problem for me, in my practice was not running the business, like I absolutely love that part of the business. And I’m actually pretty good at it. I love tech, I love creating efficiencies, I’m not afraid to try new things. I’m not afraid to like abandon something that’s not working. And I absolutely adore the nonprofit sector. I have a master’s in nonprofit management. Those are my people, right. So I feel great about the kind of work that I do. But I was starting to feel really overwhelmed and just kind of annoyed by my clients and their problems. So they were just really driving me kind of nuts. And I found myself having a lot of fires put out all the time, people would contact me with emergency situations like that they should have asked for help. With a long time ago, you know, oh, we fired this employee and now they’ve they’ve filed a complaint against us. Or oh, I’m I’m finalizing a real estate deal tomorrow. And could you just look at these papers really quick? Well, you know, this, like these last minute drinking out of the fire hose firefighter mode all the time. And for me, that is just not why I wanted to be a lawyer. I don’t find firefighting to be the fun part. Some people do. Some people need to like live in that crisis mode all the time. I think those people need to go to therapy because it’s not healthy. That’s a different topic. I want my clients to be strong nonprofits, strong companies, right. And it bugs me when they wait too long to get advice, or go all in on something before figuring out if it was a good idea. And then they call me at the last minute to fix the problem. So too many clients were showing up with these like super short deadlines for projects where they were, you know, 90% in and just wanted me to like check it over quickly. And I think regardless of your practice area, you know, we all know people who are, you know, family law attorneys, and the person comes to you and they’ve already done a bunch of self help and they should have contacted a lawyer A while ago, whatever the case may be, right? You’re familiar with this client. We’ve all had those people. And I also had sort of a suspicion that customer satisfaction was becoming a problem for my clients also. Now I am practicing in Minneapolis, Minnesota and the surrounding area. Yeah, and so one of the things about the Midwest, but Minnesota in particular is that Minnesotans are very indirect communicators. I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I’m on the east side of the Mississippi River. So I’m a much more direct person. But here in Minnesota, people are very indirect. And they just won’t tell you to your face if they’re unhappy, unless it’s really bad. But they had some telltale signs, right? So I had clients that and these might sound familiar to you, I had clients that wanted to limit the scope of work, right? Oh, I’m gonna do all these things. And I just need you to do this one part that I feel like is lawyer work, or I had clients who would rarely call me, I had clients that were trying to do the legal work by helping because they think that it will cut their costs when you and I both know, that doesn’t work, because they probably did it wrong. Or they made it worse, right. And then I would have clients who I would have talked with about something, and then they would just disappear for six months, only to show up with a big problem, because maybe they didn’t want to call me and pay for the 10 minutes to ask the question, right. But on the flip side, I had some clients that were super happy. And there was one in particular, that was my first private practice client. And I took them on pro bono, because they asked me to be on their board of directors. But what they really needed was a lawyer. And that’s really what they wanted from me was legal services. So I said, Look, I’ll be your lawyer for free for a while, how about that instead. And they were happy with that. And it led to lots of referrals. And it was totally a good move at the time. But this client was always happy. They included me on everything they did, if they were going to do anything that had some sort of like legal angle, they would see see me on the email when they were first discussing it. And they would make sure that they were doing the right thing on the front side of everything they did. So they got advice early and often. And in the five years that I represented them, they had virtually no legal problems. And I even took them through like a emotionally difficult merger with another organization where we merged both of their org cultures and their boards. And it all went brilliantly. And that’s not just because I’m amazing, although, you know, whatever.
But my my light bulb moment. So I’ve got this like, client in the back of my mind, right, like, they’re really happy, and they don’t pay. So who doesn’t love that. But then my real lightbulb moment was when I offered to take this long standing client of mine, they’d been with me for a really long time before I hung my own shingle when I was with my partnership, like we worked together for years. And I just hadn’t seen this executive director in quite a while. So I emailed her and said, hey, you know, I haven’t seen you in forever, would love to take you for a cup of coffee just to connect. And she wrote back and asked me if there would be a charge for the meeting. And I was like, Oh, my God, what? Like, alright, we have a problem here. Like, this client doesn’t even want me to buy them a cup of coffee, because they’re worried that my six minute increments will be like running. And then I’m going to nickel and dime her at the, at the coffee, if we ended up talking about something that was sort of a wake up call for me that this client that knows and loves me was feeling that way. So that’s kind of when it really, really clicked that my clients are not contacting me, and I’m putting out fires, because they don’t want me to give them a bill for six minutes. They don’t want to call and ask the question and say, Should I do this? Should I not do this? We’re thinking about doing this? Because they’re like, well should probably say it’s fine. And you know, I don’t want to get the bill for the 10 minutes just to hear it’s okay. So they just don’t contact me until there’s a burning garbage fire. So I really started thinking, you know, how can I, one get clients to talk to me earlier and more often. So I enjoy the work more to how can I help them avoid those big expensive problems? Because for me, my goal as a small business, nonprofit attorney, is to do risk management, right not to like, make money off of them having big dumpster fires, even though that could be lucrative. I really want them to be healthy and grow strong and not waste their time and resources on big problems that shouldn’t exist. And then three, how can I help them control their costs, but I still need to make money, right? Because the pro bono client was very happy, but they never paid. So that’s obviously not a viable business strategy. I’m a huge fan of, you know, entrepreneurs Jim and like, thinkers and people like Gary Vee and Seth Godin and Ramit Sethi and I go to like weird legal conferences like lawyers sold TBD, law. And I go to like Clio cloud and listen to podcasts. And I’m into all of this stuff. And I started thinking about what a subscription service actually worked for my law firm. I got very into online courses and thinking about content and content marketing, and how do I get what’s in my head into a course. So I started by building an online course. And then all of this stuff with my clients led me to think about subscriptions. And trying to take away the pain of, of the six minute increments, right. So I started looking at the market to see who was already out there doing this, I took a class from Ramit Sethi who I love, and one of the things were roommate talks about is like, verifying your idea, and whether your idea is a good one. And actually seeing that other people are doing this thing that you want to do is basically market validation of your idea. So I wanted to, to have some market validation, like, are there other legal services that are on subscription. And of course, when I looked around the world on the internet, I’m seeing, of course, this is a thing, right? We already have group legal services through legal shield, and our org and Legal Zoom was starting to get into that. I know Alan Rodriguez, who used to be at LegalZoom, and who’s now at one 400. And like, he was, you know, huge into their legal subscription program. And then they found other solo practice and small practice attorneys that were doing this, like John Tobin, who has the creators legal program, he’s awesome, you should check out his stuff. Kim Bennett, of course, is a very outspoken lawyer who’s got a whole subscription model. And my friend, Aaron Levine, who runs Hello, divorce out in California has built this huge divorce family law platform for DIY people where they can upgrade to have a lawyer help them. So these are all already out there. And existing. And for me, that was a great big green light. It was like, Go run, like you can do this. That’s basically how I sort of decided like, this is what I’m going to do. So I had been mulling this over. And I actually had a really bad breakup, I had this like jerk boyfriend dumped me, right before I was going to lawyer’s lab con. And I was like a crying mess. I was just like, Oh, I’m going through this big breakup. And I have to go to a lab con like tomorrow. And I just decided that I would be damned if I was gonna let this guy ruin my experience at lab. So I just decided I was gonna go to this conference with 75 of the smartest, most innovative people and legal and I was gonna get the most out of that three days. So I basically went into lab con saying I’m building my version 1.0 subscription plan, we’re gonna do this, Screw that guy. I’m coming out of here bigger and stronger. Like, let’s go. So I sit down and I said, I need to create my own thing. Chad Burton, who’s in the maxilla group gave me a really great piece of advice, which was don’t just repackage what you already do. And call it a subscription, you need to create something new. So I really started thinking about what can I create that’s new? And what do my clients actually want? Right. And everybody likes to think that, you know, our practice is like magical and different. And our clients are sensitive, special people, and we can’t possibly change things for them, because they’re so high maintenance and all the excuses. But I think, really, a lot of clients want the same things. And you know, so I think most clients really want to know how much something costs, right? When’s the last time you paid for something that you didn’t know how much it was going to cost? Lawyers are almost the last place where that experience happens. But I think clients want to know how much something costs. I think they want to feel like they’re getting something of value, right? You don’t want to buy something that’s not valuable. That’s a waste of money. They want to be able to quit, if they don’t want to keep going. And they want to access legal services when it’s convenient for them, not necessarily when it’s convenient for us. And they also want to feel safe and secure. Like they’ve made a good decision. So that was sort of my baseline like all clients want these things. And then I looked at what do I want? Because I am the person that has to come do this work every day. And if I am miserable, that’s no good. Right. Or if I am drawing in clients that are a terrible fit and terrible to work with, that’s also no good. So, for me, my list of wants was these things. And these may be similar for you, but you may have your own things that you want, right? So my list was, I don’t want to go broke, that would be nice. I want to provide value that doesn’t involve time tickets. And I wanted to provide value that was scalable, and evergreen. And so that’s, you know, that’s that whole online course content, side of me coming out, I want to get paid for the things that I usually don’t charge for, but are still super valuable. So in my practice, a lot of times people would ask me, oh, you know, I think I need to have a participant waiver for our nonprofit. And I would just be like, Look, I have this form here. I’ll email it to you just take it. It’s, uh, I’m glad you’re using that. Or, Oh, we don’t know what good board meeting minutes look like? Well, here, here’s, here’s some sample meeting minutes. What am I going to do? I’m going to charge them, you know, for the 30 seconds, it took me to email them that document and never felt right. But I am providing them something super valuable. So how do I kind of capture the value, right. And I also wanted to, to Chad’s point, create something new and not just repackage the same old, same old, and I really wanted to have more fun and enjoy my work, because it is me that is doing the work. So what I created was my mission Guardian program, you can totally check it out, you can go to my website, Birkin. law.com/mission-guardian. Or just go to mission guardian.com. There’s like a sales page light on mission guardian.com. I’m not hiding anything. The prices are right there. What you get is right there, the sales pitches right there, feel free to go poke around and look at everything, get inspired for your own ideas. People always want to like, go deep on like, well, what’s in there? And how did you build it, and what’s your tech stack, and this, that and the other and I have a whole other talk I can give about how I literally built the website and what tech I use and all of that. And a lot of times people want to, they want to pick my brain about the subscription program because they’re thinking about doing it for them. And I’m always happy to do that I give talks like this, whatever. But I think the thing that you need to know is that what works for me and my clients, and my practice doesn’t necessarily translate exactly to you and your clients and your practice, right thing that you need to know is that this is worth doing. So I mentioned Alan Rodriguez from one 400. He used to work at LegalZoom. And he told me that once LegalZoom started offering subscription, legal services, those services accounted for 20 24%, that’s almost one quarter of legal zooms revenue, after just 12 months. So that is a huge consumer, like we’re all raising our hands saying this is what we want. So the thing you should definitely know is that this is doable, and people do want it. So what you have to figure out is what do your clients want from you and your practice, right? They want to know how much it costs, they want to feel like they’re getting something of value. But what else is unique to your clients? Right? And you should ask them, you know, what do they like about working with you? And what is valuable about your service? And you don’t personally have to ask them you could use you know, if you use Smith AI for your calling, you could have them do outbound calls and survey your clients for you. You could do a focus group, you could have an admin do it you can have an intern do it is maybe you know, it’s too scary to get some of the feedback directly. Or they might, if you live in the Midwest or in Minnesota, they might not want to tell you all the feedback. But I think it’s important for you to actually ask them, what is it that they like about working with you so that you can double down on it and figure out what else you can offer? Because we need to think about what we can give them besides our billable hour, the billable hour is not what we sell, right? Is it your clients need educational materials? Are you a divorce lawyer and you’re always putting people in touch with good counselors or giving them advice about how to manage their kids adjustment? What do you do to coach your clients through their situation that’s got really nothing to do with the law. And can you expand on that to make it more of a service offering? And then think about what makes your job more fun? Who are your ideal clients and why are they great? That’s really important because if you create some thing that attracts those people that you love to work for, and work with, you will be much happier. If you create a subscription plan, or any sort of, you know, practice plan that attracts your worst clients, you will make yourself miserable, because those people will be your target market accidentally. So that’s super important as you go into this is understanding the kind of people that you’d like to work with and what their persona is.
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And then the big one, how do you avoid going broke, um, it sounds funny. But like seriously, though, the thing that everybody is most scared of about flat fees or subscriptions is getting screwed on the work, right? So or maybe you’re afraid of like getting stuck with clients. So make sure that you’re not make sure that you’re not gonna go broke. There are different ways to accomplish this. Like there’s an episode of the lawyers podcast, that it’s pretty ancient now. And I forget the guy’s name, but he was a divorce lawyer who did, it was kind of like a subscription, more like payments, but it was like his clients paid for a four month block. And every four months, they mutually decided whether they were going to continue or not. And he had figured out in his practice, that the four month window is about the right amount of time where he’s at, to get people through this sort of like initial phase and decide whether they’re going to trial. So they’ve gone through mediation, and it’s like shit, or get off the pot, pardon my French. So if you’re gonna go for the next phase, you’re going to pay for the next four months, Chuck, if you aren’t, you’re probably done because you’ve already settled. And that works for him in his practice, because he figured that out. And he figured out that he wasn’t trapping himself in with somebody for this flat fee. The other thing is, you know, mastering your scope of work, whatever that looks like for you, whether it’s the boundaries of the subscription plan, or if you’re doing flat fee projects within that plan, you need to define your scope and stick to it. And it’s okay to make mistakes, you’re going to learn from that. And you’re going to iterate this, and you’re not going to make something perfect the first time. So my recommendation is create a on paper, subscription plan. And then beta test it, you know, bounce first of all, get feedback from your best clients and say, Is this something you would be interested in or would have been interested in? While we had our time together? Don’t make some big flashy announcement, just get people’s feedback, then when you feel like you have it in the good place? Test it, right, the next client that comes in the door, say this is this the choice for how you work with me, or say, this is how I’m I am working with new clients, try it and see how it works. I offered a choose your own adventure plan, basically, like my retainer letter looks like. Here’s how subscription works. Here’s how the old traditional hourly model works. At the end of that retainer agreement, they actually ticked a box, which one do you want? Now, of course, like, this engagement letter was like an incredibly good sales tool, because I’m like, subscription is amazing. And here’s all the reasons why. And that really blows because I’m nickel and diming you the whole time. That was an obvious choice. But the thing is that after one year of offering that you can pick, I’ll either bill you hourly, or we can do a subscription with flat fees. Nobody ever picked hourly ever again. And so after the first 12 Months went by and exactly zero new clients chose hourly billing. I just don’t even offer it anymore. And now my retainer agreement looks like this is how I work with clients. This is how other lawyers work with clients and at the end they just saw Fine, and they become either a subscriber or they pay me a flat fee, or both. The other piece of advice that I have for you is to get comfortable with new systems and use them if you have been doing hourly billing, and that’s, that’s the world you’re coming from, which is most people, you need to start understanding, like a new way of thinking, right? You don’t have to make everything yourself, you don’t have to make a whole website like I did, you can go higher, one 400, you can use gravity payments, you can, you can find the tech stack that’s user friendly for you. But you cannot just do things your old way and expect to make money on a subscription plan or a flat fee plan, we have to change how we work, right? Because the hourly model is basically built for like, the more time you suck up, the more money you make. And this whole thing throws that on its head and says just you need to be super efficient, you need to have systems and you need to like Master automation and delegation. So that you have a margin on your, your you know that there’s a profit. So that might look like outsourcing some of the work to lawyers on Locklear. Right, I do that all time law clerk that legal, it’s a great resource, I charge my clients flat fees, I ship the work off to somebody at law clerk that legal and it gets done. And I know exactly what it’s going to cost me that might look like online scheduling to manage client expectations. Or it might be having a secure website or portal, just all of these things that create efficiencies for you so that you don’t get broke, but they’re new to you. And so you’re gonna have to get comfortable using new things, if that’s not your everyday norm. If it is your everyday norm, you should be switching to flat fees and subscription as quickly as possible. Because you are worth slowly, slowly declining your revenues, the more efficient you get on an hourly basis, right. So that’s really the advice, you know, avoid going broke, make stuff your clients will, like, attract your ideal clients, and, you know, make stuff and break stuff, it’s okay to make mistakes, we tend to be type a driven overachievers. And, you know, that can kind of lead to paralysis by analysis where we’re trying to plan the perfect thing. And if you’re like me, you have very high standards, and you like have an idea in your head of how something is supposed to be. And even if you put out what you think is the most perfect God’s gift to whatever, your clients are gonna get in there and break it. And you’re going to find out things and you’re going to end up with version 1.2 and version 1.3 and version 1.4. And then eventually, you’d be like, You know what, actually, we need to go to 2.0. That’s how this works. It’s okay, you are going to learn along the way. So I think this is just about the end of my schpeel. So if you have questions, throw them in the chat. And we can answer some of those.
So we did have one member just say that one of their big concerns is pricing so that they’re not doing work for free.
Yes, amen. Right. That is, that is the scariest thing. And if you look at my my mission Guardian program, what I offer is to my clients as part of the beta. So let me just give you the, my subscription works like this, people pay a recurring monthly fee, and it’s pretty low. And they get a certain amount of service as part of that base subscription. And that doesn’t cover everything, right. So if they actually need me to work on the document, help them with a real estate deal, respond to the IRS or you know, like meaty things that are not covered by my base subscription. We do those on a flat fee project. And so my promise to them as subscribers is that I will always quote you a price for any work that we need to do outside of the base subscription. So I think one of the things that people get scared about is that, oh, I need to have I need to have this like one price that encompasses everything and how can I possibly do that? Because every case is a little bit different and every client’s needs are not exactly the same. Well, don’t do that. Right. Unless you want to do like a structured payment plan like that divorce lawyer I mentioned whose like, I know, most cases are going to settle within four months and I’m really comfortable taking four months as a flat fee. Whatever comes right, okay, fine. But if you’re really trying to do a subscription, you need to decide what’s in the subscription and what’s not in the subscription. So like my subscription includes unlimited scheduled calls with me. And that sounds scary. A F right. It’s like that was the thing I was most terrified of was like, Oh my God, I am going to die. Doing these scheduled calls every day, eight hours a day, it’ll just gonna eat me alive. And it. And bear in mind, like I do this with the whole city of Minneapolis, there are 70 neighborhoods, in addition to all my other clients, I work with all 70 neighborhood associations for the city. And so like the prospect of like, this many member calls was, like, terrifying to me. And the reality is, I tried it. And I was like, Well, I’m gonna put it out there. And if it doesn’t work, I will figure it out. Guess what, nobody use those calls. I’m like begging people to schedule calls with me, because I’m trying to be like, hey, use your subscription, I don’t want you to like decide this isn’t worthwhile. And also, my flat feet project work goes up, the more of those calls that I do, because then I’m identifying issues with them, right? So it’s actually proven to be I sometimes I’m like, Oh, crap, like I haven’t heard from so. And so like four months, they’re like, We need to connect. Because A, I need to know what’s going on with their, their company, their nonprofit, and be like, I don’t want them to feel like they’re not using this. So sometimes you’re going to just be terrified of what you’re building. And just remember, like, that’s why you’re going to pay to test it. Because you don’t actually, you’re right now you’re just afraid of it. But that’s not reality that like we have an incredible capacity to like wind ourselves up, because we’re risk managers, and we’re cautious and we’re trained to be cautious. We think of every possible way this could go wrong. And that ends up stopping us from doing the things that we need to do, right. And that’s why we’re in the max Law Group or the guild or whatever. Because we need that little like, no, come on. You need Tyson to be like, you’re going to do it. And so you know, yes, the pricing can be scary. But you just need to build it in a way that you, you feel like you can take that leap. And no, you can always change it because you’re going to beta test. I will say that for me. It has ended up that I have three levels in my subscription. It’s like a like baby, nonprofit level growing nonprofit level and super established. And the super established level like nobody ever goes for. I fully intended for that to be a thing that I had clients in, but it ends up just making the other two look very reasonably priced. I have no subscribers at that level. I’m happy to have some, but people are my clients are just very cost conscious. So they want the middle one or they’re brand new nonprofit, and they go with the one that’s right for them. So there are things that you can’t predict that will happen, that will just be just fine.
I’m not seeing any other questions. That was great. Awesome. Before we go, though, if somebody would like to connect with you get a hold of you. What’s the best way to do that? Yeah.
So you can like I said before, you can find me on Twitter. I’m very active there. That’s act just Birkin. Je s s Birken. And you can also go deeper with me on my website, which is hack your practice that lawyer. And it’s I just like talking with other lawyers about this stuff. And I don’t have the bandwidth to like, talk one on one with everybody. So I ended up just puking all of my stuff out onto my YouTube channel and my website. And I had the cutest lawyer on LinkedIn the other day said, I watched your YouTube series about x. And I’m just wondering if it’s okay, if I do that in my practice, and I was like, Oh, yes, please do that. That is why I’m putting this stuff out there. Please do the things so connect to me. Watch the YouTube videos find me. Let’s change the law for the better.