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Today on the podcast Jim and Tyson sat down with Megan Zavieh. Megan focuses her practice exclusively on attorney ethics, representing attorneys facing State Bar disciplinary action, providing guidance to practicing attorneys, podcasting about legal ethics on Lawyers Gone Ethical, and writing about ethics including her most recent book for the ABA - The Modern Lawyer: Ethics and Technology in an Evolving World
2:50 reducing stress for colleagues
4:10 focusing on investigating
6:35 communication issues
7:20 feast or famine
15:20 running a law practice in modern times
Jim’s Hack: Jim is a 10 quickstart and 3 follow through on the Kolbe Index and recommends using Finilize for accountability.
Megan’s Tip: Set up a 10 minute limit in the screen time setting for your email app on your phone.
Tyson’s Tip: Questions to ask your kids: What was the best day of your life so far and what was the worst day of your life so far.
Watch the interview here.
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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, Jimbo?
Jim: Oh, man. Tuesday is like our day. We had our Maximum Lawyer meeting with Becca. We are recording now. And then we have a hot seat later on this afternoon so it's quite a day.
Tyson: Max Law Tuesdays, baby. I think I need to block out my entire Tuesdays for Max Law. But, yeah, those are our days, man.
Jim: I'm looking out the window and there's this construction crew. They're getting ready to pave the street, I think, and the guy putting out cones. But he's flipping them like that stupid flip bottle thing that Noor drives me crazy doing. He's into his job, man. He's like jumping, and throwing, and seeing if it lands. And so far, he's one for--
Tyson: Is he good at it?
Jim: He's one for six.
Tyson: Oh, so he's not very good at it. No. That's not very good. What’s that? Like 14% or something like that? Never good.
Jim: Let me go ahead and introduce our guest today. She's a repeat guest. We haven't had many repeat guests on the show but we're certainly glad to have her. Her name is Megan Zavieh. She's a ethics lawyer. And she specializes in lawyer ethics, I should say, and in California, predominantly, but I know she practices around the country. And we brought her on today because she has a new book out.
Megan, welcome to the show.
Megan: Oh, thanks for having me. I am honored to be repeat and not that many repeats. That like tickles me. Thank you.
Tyson: Love it.
So, Megan, before we get to the book, tell us a little bit again about your journey and how you got to where you are today.
Megan: So, I do mostly state bar defense in California and also kind of general ethics counseling. Again, mostly California lawyers. That was where I was born and raised and actually not where I started practicing law. My first bar exam, but I was really a New York lawyer for a long time. But that's the meat of my practice. I actually do that work in California while sitting in Georgia. So, I'm admitted here too in New York, New Jersey. So, yeah, that further out in the country.
I wasn't always an ethics lawyer. I started out in big law in New York. So, a lot of what I do today is kind of framed by that past experience and what I, in no way flippantly, refer to as big law PTSD. And I preface that with not flippantly because I'm also highly sensitive to, you know, full blown PTSD, especially in our military veterans, some of whom become my clients. One of whom was my first client. So that's a lot of what brought me into the ethics space in the first place.
And you know, much as I love defending bar complaints, and I do, my real mission is helping my colleagues. This is a terribly stressful profession. And so, a lot of what I do is to try and reduce that stress for my colleagues in various ways.
Jim: It's been a few years since you were on the show, Megan, how has your firm developed over those last couple of years?
Megan: Well, it runs a lot smoother than it once did thanks to, you know, being part of a network of other lawyers, including the Max Law crew, especially through the Facebook group, and like the lawyerist group.
Back in the day, TBD law, which is now over five years ago, I met a lot of similarly differently minded, I think might be it, as opposed to like‑minded fellow lawyers sort of in that vein, who liked to practice a little bit differently and still find a way to have a life and enjoy what we do.
So, I have a pretty streamlined practice at this point. We've really focused on the state bar defense and California admissions work. So, I don't do the some of the peripheral work that at one time, I was “Anything in this space, I'll take.” I don't do that anymore.
We have a really streamlined intake process. I have a team developing which is really awesome to do. I had to be pushed and prodded to delegate and have a team. But it's been about three years now that we've been developing a team and we have an associate now which is really exciting for me.
And all remote. It's been remote for years. But with the pandemic, my bit of travel I had to do became zero. And now we've really started to tweak our marketing and our focus away from court work because I figure, at some point, the State Bar Court will re‑open in person, even though the judges say they'll probably introduce it as a hybrid model which would be great. I think a lot of my clients have really been well served by remote trials. But I want to eliminate the risk of having to travel. And so, I am really focusing my practice more and more on the investigation stage and avoiding trial work as much as possible at this point.
Tyson: So, tell us a little bit about your podcast. I'm curious to hear about that.
Megan: So, my podcast is called Lawyers Gone Ethical. And if you look it up, you'll see there have not been any new episodes in some time. We really developed it to create a library of resources on common topics that we see coming up in ethics. And, along the way, we also have had some awesome guests about emerging issues, bar exams that are online and the technical issues that go with it, some more like evergreen topics such as addiction with some really wonderful guests for that. Then, we created this great body of episodes that get a lot of replays still.
But then we kind of peer out on the newest latest topics. We thought, “Wow! We’ve really created this kind of encyclopedia of resources.”
So, we haven't shut it down. That's certainly not what we plan to do with it. But it's now-- like it's out there as a resource for us where we can just hop on and create an episode when there's a new cool issue to talk about or, you know, some set of questions I'm seeing coming up. I actually have a list going now of some recent client inquiries where I go, “Ooh, we should do a podcast on that.” So it's less frequent now but definitely still out there. And, you know, kind of all about ethics and really trying to do it on a broad scale. So, it's not all California based.
Jim: Megan, I have a little bit of a strange question. So, obviously, there are different ways that lawyers get in trouble, right? And I'm wondering, if you take a step back from that and not necessarily diving into what gets each attorney into trouble, but maybe some trends, or actions, or mindsets that you see in the people that do get in trouble.
Megan: So, yeah, that's a really good question because there are some really clear issues that we see. So, underlying so many bar complaints, it's a communication issue. And that can, you know, manifest itself in various ways but I always try and tell clients-- and we have a subscription service where we counsel lawyers through like the tough part of a client relationship before it all blows up. And so, this is totally the thing I'm saying all the time, “Communicate with your clients. Tell them when something's gone wrong. Tell them, you know, what change, how to manage those expectations. If you are more in contact and giving even the bad news, or even that just “I can't get to you this week” kind of news, it’s just being in touch, you’d avoid a ton of the bar complaints.” So, that's really like substantively the biggest issue that I see.
Mindset though is a really good question. A lot of the lawyers who find themselves in trouble are either scraping by. So, they're basically in a feast or famine mindset and they think it's always famine so they are desperate for work. And whether that's really true or not and what their finances look like, that's their mentality, right? They feel like they have to take everything and make every penny. So, they're not only taking on work that doesn't really suit them. They're also trying to squeeze every penny out of every case. And that doesn't put them in a good headspace to do the work and serve the client. And it puts them in a very adversarial posture with their clients. And so, I hear that in their voices. Like the clients are the bad guys as opposed to the person, the party, on the other side would be.
Tyson: I just wonder if-- when you were talking, it made me think that maybe therapy would benefit a lot of lawyers like maybe to get out of that mindset. I mean, what are your thoughts? Like, because maybe it's just a mindset thing where they can get some therapy and it can help fix it. I don't know.
Megan: Therapy or just other colleagues to not just commiserate with. Like, sometimes I talk to lawyers and I say, “You know, it's so important that we have a network.” Especially for solo’s and real small firms. Like, you’ve got to have a network of other lawyers that you can talk to about the stresses of the profession and how you run your business.”
And some of them, I'll hear, basically, explain that, “Oh, yeah, I've got friends that I bitch and moan to.” Like, okay, but that's not really what-- it's not just a venting session. It's that supportive network where you can say, “I'm having this problem. How do I fix it?” And it's actually constructive.
So, if you don't have that, maybe a therapist will do with the right angle. But having some influence in your life that's intended to be positive. I mean, I think that of business coaches. And there's a huge industry of them designed around lawyers, right. And just other layers. Therapist is a good one. You know, someone to help build you up and see where you're starting to go down a negative path.
Jim: One of the things that struck me with a lot of law firm owners is the imposter syndrome. Now, this is not something that I suffer from. I have grandiosity and I think I can do anything. So, I'm sort of the other end of the spectrum, in some parts of my life. But when it comes to running a law firm, there seems to be a lot of comparison. And people really talk negatively to themselves and they say-- they just-- you know, you heard that saying many times, “You would never talk to a dog the way you talk to yourself,” right? So, do you see a lot of that, Megan?
Megan: Oh, tons. Absolutely. Yeah. And then we shoot ourselves in the foot.
The comparison is a really good one because, you know, how bad-- there's all kinds of things out there,memes, like the social media is everyone's highlight reel, or, you know, that kind of concept. We, as lawyers, often are full of puffery, you know, and you-- even if it's just a cocktail party, man, you think everybody, there is a multimillion dollar practice, and they're just raking in the bucks, and they've got a team, and they must have a Lamborghini downstairs, you know. And it's like you just think everybody else is doing so great.
And that always reminds me of something that my dad told me, when I was-- must’ve been a teenager, one of those times when you think every other kid has everything you don't have. And he had pointed out to be the idea that someone else might have a lot more than you, but you don't know if they're actually wealthy or just in debt. And I think about that with lawyers, that you really don't know how everyone else is doing. You just know what image they craft. And if you really look realistically at yourself, you've probably crafted an image that isn't quite your reality too, and you've put that out there, and people think things about you that may not be entirely true. And not that you’ve lied but just there's a persona about each one of us. And if we could just step back and say, “Well, that's great that they have this, or think they have this or appear to have this but this is me and this is what I want, and I want I want to grow.” And focus more on what makes us happy, we would all do so much better.
I'm not sure the imposter syndrome completely falls away but maybe it just becomes a little bit less relevant.
Tyson: So, I wonder what your perspective is on this. I feel like I see in the Missouri Lawyers Weekly, every week, there's a new lawyer getting disbarred for this and that. And from our-- and it kind of looks like they're being really, really hard on people. But a friend of mine, she was friends with someone that used to work in the disciplinary department and she says that they give lawyers every chance to fix the problem or whatever it may be. So, I just wonder what your perspective is on that. Are the bars typically very lenient? Are they very harsh? What's your experience with that?
Megan: Well, it certainly varies state to state but, in California, I would say they're overall quite harsh. They give every opportunity for you to show up and defend yourself. I mean, if that was-- those were words coming out of a California Prosecutor's office. Like, “Well, sure, there's-- you know, you're not going to get disbarred by default, instantly. There's lots of notices that go out and you have lots of opportunities. But, you know, I'm taking a case to trial where they want disbarment and everyone that I've spoken to had run the case pass is like, “Isn't that a slap on the wrist?” [inaudible 00:12:14]. In my view, yes but the bar is insisting it's a disbarment case. So, when it comes to actually prosecuting the cases, California certainly is very difficult to deal with and very harsh.
Other states definitely differ. I mean, one reason I don't do a lot of work here in Georgia, where I live and I am licensed is that, when I looked very seriously at doing that, I discovered that, essentially, there's not enough work to keep me busy if I had every case that ever gets filed because bar complaints are dealt with just so differently here. You know, if the bar can work it out between the lawyer and the client, then there's not even a record of there having been a complaint. And that just doesn't happen in the other state where I practice. So, it really depends. But I don't really trust any bar prosecutors who say, “We're easygoing or give the lawyers every chance.”
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Jim: You're listening to the Maximum Lawyer podcast. Our guest today is Megan Zavieh. She's the author of a new book, The Modern Lawyer, published by the ABA.
Megan, talk to us about the book, what inspired it, how did you feel writing it, how did that part go, and how has it been received?
Jim: Well, imposter syndrome is a good topic when you talk about what does it feel like writing it as you spend hours and hours laboring over a book like this and you start going and saying, “Do they want to read what I'm saying?” But I wrote it largely because of this topic that we first started with, how I got into the ethics work in the first place. I really think that my colleagues can avoid a lot of problems that face us. And when I've done-- you know, I've done enough state bar defense now, over the years, to see certain things that we fail at - things that we just kind of stink at, that we were never taught how to do. It's not where our time tends to go. When you start practicing, you just take on the substantive work and focus on it. And I thought, “What if we put together kind of a compendium that was like a guide to those things we should be doing differently that would really help us avoid having bar problems and ethics issues?”
So, the book is a really practical guide to essentially running your law practice in modern times. There's a lot of old school books out there that are, you know, starting your law firm and talking about subscriptions to West's Reporters and things that we don't-- we're not there anymore. So, it's intended to be very, very current, very modern, and, basically, how to run your practice without getting yourself in ethics trouble.
Tyson: All right. So, I think most people think ethics and they want to run away from it. They say, “Oh, it's ethics.” You know, like whatever it is. That's why there's like one or two hours we have to get for Missouri when it comes to ethics hours and those really the last one people get.
Tyson: So, what are some nuggets in there that might encourage them to pick up the book and start reading it?
Megan: Well, it's not so much about like the rules. I know ethics, you're right, is people go cringe. I always tell people, “Go read your rules. The first of every year, make it a habit, you go read through your rules of professional conduct.” You're like, “Seriously? I'm not doing that.” I know. You really should because you never know what's in there. But I don't think I get too many takers on that.
So, the book is in really intended to keep you from violating those rules, not those daily tasks where you're thinking about the ethics rules. I think a lot of my colleagues never think about the ethics rules. But these are things you are thinking about every day, like just using technology efficiently in ways that can help you avoid problems. And this isn't just, “Oh, you’ll avoid a bar complaint. You’ll probably avoid malpractice too, keep your clients happy, run the firm more efficiently. You make more money. You have more time,” right? So, it's ways to leverage technology. Things like having automatically populating deadlines coming out of your case management system and onto your calendar.
There's things about being paid. That's a chapter I enjoyed writing, because I think lawyers do a terrible job of that basic, basic business function of getting paid. I actually have a lawyer that I'm working with right now, like we hired him to do some work, and he snail mails me a bill, and I have to mail him a check back. And I just-- I've only had to pay him twice because it's flat fee but I'm like, “Seriously?” Like, each time I've had to, I just go, “Why?” And I'm looking all over his bill. Like, “Is there some electronic payment here?” And there's not.
But that too, actually, you might not think that's an ethics issue but it really is. For one thing, if you're not getting paid, you're not making enough money to really continue serving your clients effectively. Then, you become that desperate person taking every bit of work that comes in and maybe dropping balls.
But also, how you set it up. You know, some people will say, “Great. I'm going to do electronic payments and they walk down to their local bank and set up credit card processing and say, “Oh, my habits go into my trust account.” And they don't even realize that that's not the way to do it. So, that is actually a nugget in here that's ethics and business related.
Also, we talk a lot about communication in the book, managing client expectations, both on the substance and your modes of communication. We talk about burnout and that goes right hand in hand with client communication. Lawyers make themselves either totally walled off and unavailable, which makes the clients very upset or so accessible that we go crazy and we do burnout. So, there's a balance to be struck. And the book is about all of those practical ways of running your law firm so that you're handling these everyday issues in a way that keeps your business running, keeps you sane, but also keeps you on the right side of the ethics rules.
Jim: I always think of you as sort of on the forefront of changes in the law, and the regulations, and all that. I'm wondering what your impressions are of the changes in Arizona and other states where there's now going to be-- and I'm probably never going to phrase this right, but I think there's the ability of lawyers to partner up with non‑lawyers in running a firm.
Megan: Well, there's definitely a lot of change and, you know, welcome change, I'm happy to see coming. At the same time, it's interesting to watch it unfold. So, social media is a great place to take some temperatures of sort of what people think, right.
And some very traditional lawyer groups. There's lawyers who are just appalled at the changes. And this is just horrible for the industry and it's horrible for the public. And then, on the other end, you have more access to justice‑minded people who are just over the moon about it, “This is so wonderful.”
I tend to fall somewhere in the middle because I think that, used correctly, these changes can both help the public and help the profession. We can start to take on, for example, just investment in our law firms in a way that doesn't-- you know, we're not so hindered. In the past, it's been like take on debt or don't have any other sources of cash flow. You know, make the money yourself. And this gives solo’s and small’s some options where we may be able to have some other investors and might be able to grow our practices in a really good scalable way that can be super positive for both us and the public.
On the other hand, I'm concerned like just even the past several years where you see the big four accounting firms launching full blown legal practices. Well, that's not what we talk about, as we talk about amending the rules, we're saying, “Oh, access to justice” and having someone who's not fully licensed as a lawyer being able to help, you know, domestic violence victims, family law.
Well, now, we're in this completely different realm. And then, I am concerned about how this might have backfire on us both as a profession and for the public. So, I'm watching it carefully, and seeing the success stories but then also sort of watching with some caution.
Tyson: It is interesting because, I was telling Jim, I looked into Arizona, and I can't remember what they called ’em. It's like a special business unit or something like that. And it's a $6,000‑application fee and then $3,000 renewal fee each year. So, you can kind of tell where they're headed with it. They want well‑funded companies because, you know, a solo practitioner’s not going to have $9,000, basic, for the first year, and then $3,000 a year just to throw away. So, it is interesting. I know that's not a ton of money but it's still enough money to-- the application fee, especially, to deter a bunch of people. Especially if it's people that are just wanting to help people. If you just want to help people in a new state in Arizona, you're not going to spend $6,000 on the application fee. So, I just found it interesting. And it's something we're looking into because I'd love to have an office in Scottsdale so it’d be kind of cool.
But, anyways-- well, I guess, just what are your thoughts on the future of your firm? Like, how-- like, is this something you're wanting to scale because it doesn't seem like it's something that--? It sounds like something you might want to keep small. But I just-- I'm just curious, like what your thoughts are for the future of your firm.
Megan: I love that question. I've actually given that a ton of thought. So, originally, you know, I started out and everything's on my name and people are calling me. And this is actually one of those questions of following the herd and getting too caught up in what someone else tells you you should do with your firm.
Really, right out of the gate, I've started hearing, “Well, don't build it all around you. And they shouldn't just be calling for you or you can never sell it. You can never scale it. You can never stop being the figurehead and the one doing all the work.” And I did toy with that for a while. “Oh, do I want to scale this or, you know, open more offices, even franchise the model? What do I want to do with it?”
And, really, where I came down was I love helping people directly but I also have a very busy outside life and I want to live that life and enjoy that life. So, I envision my firm, in the future, still being me as the primary person. I am kind of the public face of the firm. And I think people will continue to call because it's me out there. But I am starting to grow, having a team around me, to do more of the substantive work so that I can help more people. So, part of it’s scale. But also, I can have more time outside of work and to work on the business.
So, like that's how I see it. It still be kind of a pyramid. But I think, as I have associates who come through, who really love the work as much as I do, I hope some will stick around. Maybe we’ll become a partnership at some point. But I do think it'll stay small. I want it to stay small.
Jim: I'm wondering if you've learned things in specific cases that have helped make you a better lawyer.
Megan: Oh, absolutely. I learn from every single one of my clients. And not only what not to do. For example, I have a client who actually was exonerated at trial. So, he's, you know, not done something even in the eyes of the state bar court. Like, he runs a small firm that grew very quickly. And he has a lot of associates and this big team around him. And I watched how he balances work and life and how he treats his staff. And I've actually talked to many of his employees, just as part of our case, not like I was out, you know, digging around on him or something but during our case and in similar projects from his firm.
I've talked to a lot of his staff. And I noticed how well he is received by them. And it's not that he's everybody's best friend but, as a boss, how he handles them and how he handles their real life. That's been, you know, incredibly enlightening for me and really kind of affirming for me because it's how I think I should be and how I try to be but to see somebody else doing it was really helpful.
Also, I see how intake is done at other firms. Intake’s a big issue for me. I've learned so much from Billie Tarascio about intake in a very different setting than mine and I've modified her teachings to fit me. But then, I watch how some of my clients do it because I'll get their whole file, right? They'll usually dump their whole file I mean, from a bar complaint, and I’ll be like, “Ooh, that's a good idea. Oh, no, I don't like that part. Oh, yeah, that part, I might integrate that.” So, it’s like an inside peek into all the lawyers’ practices.
Tyson: That's very cool.
All right. Well, we do need to wrap things up. Before I do. I want to remind everyone to join us in the big Facebook group, lot of great activity going on there. If you want to join us in The Guild, go to maxlawguild.com. And, if you don't mind, just at the end of this episode, right now, as you're listening to the end of the episode, give us a five‑star review. We would greatly appreciate it.
Jimmy, what's your hack of the week?
Jim: We talk a lot about the Kolbe Index and the fact that I am a 10 quickstart and a 3 follow through. One thing that's helped me with my follow through is an app that was designed actually by our friend, Jay Ruane and his brother Brendan. It's called Finilize. It allows you to send a text sort of to yourself. The text goes to Finilize. And then, the next day, it checks in on you a couple of times a day to see if you've gotten your three tasks done. It's a task sort of accountability thing. It's not an app. So, it's nice. You don't have to like open up the app, it just sort of it's in text where everybody lives anyway. So, it's been helpful.
Tyson: Very good.
Yeah. It's something that I use. We've been using it since before the conference. It's really good. So, check out Jay’s stuff. Jay's doing a lot of great things, for sure.
Megan, we always ask our guests to give a tip or a hack the week. do you have a tip or a hack for us?
Megan: I do. So, I presented last week, on parenting during the pandemic while running a law firm, which was really fun. And my co‑presenter mentioned taking email off of his phone as a productivity hack and life hack. And I've heard that before, but I can't. Like, I just can't wait to get there.
So, I came up with my version this morning like my using in. So, I've moved my mail app to the back page of my phone so it’s sitting there by itself. But that wasn't enough to stop me [inaudible 00:26:18]. That was yesterday. It didn't quite work. So, today, I set a 10‑minute limit in the screen time setting in my iPhone for mail. So, I'm going to see how that works. But I totally advocate for the idea of not having our email in our back pocket all the time, especially when I'm out at the park with the kids. The point that was made to me was you can't respond very well right now anyway, right, so I need to stop just checking it. So, that's my hat for now. I have to report back as to how well it works.
Tyson: I love it. Good stuff.
So, mine is a parenting thing. And I'm not going to give you all of the questions I asked yesterday but I had an opportunity to sit with my boys last night and just we were waiting on my daughter, Emma, to get done with gymnastics. And we actually just got to sit there and we got to drink, you know, soda at the table together, took a little walk and walked to a restaurant. And I asked them these questions. And it was-- I'll give you the actually the first two. And they were really enlightening. They're really enlightening questions. And I encourage everybody to do these.
And the first one was, “What would you say was the best day of your life so far?” And it was really cool to hear their answers. And then the second question was-- I actually asked them a bunch but these were a couple of ‘em. The other one was, “What was the worst day of your life and why?” And it's just really interesting to really hear like what answers they gave me. So, it was really cool. And I encourage you to ask your kids those questions, especially if they're young. But I guess if they're old too. But you'll get some really amazing responses.
I think Hudson's response to the worst day of his life had to do with a friend at school, something that his friend said to him. So, it was really cool. So, I highly recommend it.
Megan, before we wrap things up, how do people get in touch with you?
Megan: My website is just zaviehlaw.com and you can contact me there. And on Twitter I'm @zaviehlaw.
Jim: Awesome. Thanks, Megan.
Tyson: Yes, excellent. Thank you so much for coming on. We appreciate it.
Megan: Thanks for having me.
Jim: Bye, guys.
Tyson: Bye. See ya.
Thanks for listening to The Maximum Lawyer Podcast.
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