Jennifer Ellis of Pennsylvania Bar Association: “The key benefit of tech is agility — at a time when agility is quite important”

Jennifer

This interview is part of Loio’s series of interviews with legal enthusiasts about the ins and outs of the legal industry.

The following is the interview with Jennifer Ellis, Chair of the Pennsylvania Bar Association Solo and Small Firm Section. Jennifer is also a legal ethics attorney in Pennsylvania running the consulting and law firm marketing company Jennifer Ellis, JD, LLC through which she assists attorneys with issues such as e-discovery, practice management, and online presence. 

Previously, Jennifer worked with a Philadelphia area personal injury firm, where she practiced legal ethics, managed the firm’s online presence, and oversaw its IT and security consultants. Jennifer also served as the Associate Director of Media Technology with the Pennsylvania Bar Institute, where she organized and presented courses on numerous issues, including law practice management, technology, and ethics. 

Dive in!

Hi Jennifer! Thank you for doing the interview! You have quite a career combining knowledge in technology, media, and law. Could you please tell me how you got where you are now?

Absolutely (Jennifer is smiling).

I think a lot of lawyers don’t find their careers. Their careers find them. My career started in the nonprofit world. It wasn’t necessarily my initial plan. My father had a heart attack right when I was trying to decide what job to take. He was only 55, and I thought that my family probably would need my attention. As a result, at that point, I decided to choose a career path that was going to be a little more predictable in terms of hours. I thought that would be supportive of my needing to be available for my family as they needed me. 

Then I just ended up liking it and I stayed there for a long time. But I also got involved in a lot of activism on the side, and the nonprofit was supporting my doing that. I was involved in LGBT rights issues. It wasn’t necessarily my career so much, but rather other things that interested me. 

Then because of my technology knowledge, I was asked to start teaching seminars. I also taught for two semesters at law school. As part of my work being at a CLE provider, I had to market to lawyers. That’s why I had to learn about marketing and business, about how technology applied to the practice of law so that I could educate through performing seminars covering the Internet, technology law, and Internet research. At that time, such things were not particularly common. I was there for 12 and a half years. By the time I left, I had become pretty knowledgeable in marketing to lawyers as well as in technology for law firms, practice management in general, and ethics. 

In my opinion, technology and ethics really go hand in hand with the practice of law. 

It just evolved that way. Just because I have a passion for technology and am interested in its implication in the practice of law and in providing ethical representation to clients, and in how it impacts the access to legal services in general, this was the path I ended up following. It was not intentional. 

After being at the nonprofit for 12 and a half years, I felt I had learned everything I was going to learn, and I wanted to do something different. A colleague of mine suggested we should become business partners. That’s how I became a consultant. 

I did that for about a year before the first client I had as a consultant asked me to come in-house. They essentially made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. And I was still allowed to consult on the side. I spent the next five years at this firm, where I learned about search engine optimization, managed their website, and also started practicing some litigation. 

As I have been sick for a long time, and, unfortunately, my health continued to deteriorate, eventually, I had to leave, because I was no longer able to work. That left me in the position of somebody who had a law degree but couldn’t really work. I still wanted to be useful, I didn’t want to sit at home doing nothing. 

I had already become involved in the Pennsylvania Bar Association and was already on the leadership track for the solo and small firm section. I ended up putting that off for a year: the past Chair agreed to stay on for the third year so I could rest a bit more. As the pandemic struck, I was just about to become Chair of the Section. Obviously, the pandemic was a huge deal for lawyers. Here in Pennsylvania, we were required to work from home for quite a while. 

My focus has been on helping my constituency of solo and small firm attorneys in Pennsylvania maintain their practice of law at a time when many of them were not necessarily prepared to practice from home. 

For the past few months, I haven’t had to do quite as much as I did during the first year. During the initial period of several months, it was very challenging to lead the Section, but I had a lot of great help from the section membership, leadership, and the staff of the Bar Association and the Bar Institute (especially Pam Kance, our liaison to the PBA). 

Despite my substantial limitations, I was still able to help. I utilized all of those skills I mentioned earlier. My marketing experience let me help people know that we were there to help them and bring them together to participate in seminars. 

Because of the 12 and a half years of experience putting together CLE programs, I was able to reach out to my connections and form many webinars. A task that might have been much harder for someone else who did not have the sort of experience I did. 

And, of course, my heavy interest in technology and ethics was particularly useful at a time when a lot of lawyers had to focus on working from home and doing so in an ethical way. 

So that’s just sort of the path that brought me to where we are now. 

Thank you! You’ve touched on the topic of ethics and technology. Could you please elaborate on that more? 

It’s important because technology has really evened the playing field to a great degree for lawyers. I joined PBI in 1999 and the first thing I did was a survey of lawyers. I don’t have access to that documentation anymore, but what I did see at that point was that many lawyers were barely using email. A lot of them would have an AOL account. They didn’t have domain names, most of them did not have websites. When we were putting our books together for CLE, the secretaries — they were called secretaries, not assistants back then — were using an X-acto knife to cut out page numbers and put them onto the attachments. These poor people were sitting there doing this for hundreds of pages of book after book. 

Eventually, one of the first things I started to do was to work on getting things done electronically, so we could have a more uniform look. What I started to see was how much faster even simple changes with technology could make in how we were working as well as what that would mean for the practice of law. 

Think about the efficiency that technology provides. If you’re doing your research on Lexis or Westlaw, especially these days, it’s much faster and much more thorough than doing research in a book. I do think learning to do research with books initially is wise, because book research teaches your mind to do things in a certain way, which is still important. But if you’re charging a client $300 an hour or more and you are looking in books and having to shepardize in books, you are going to be much slower (therefore charging more) and you risk missing things. Neither is acceptable.

There’s really not a legitimate reason to fail to use technology in certain cases. 

However, I think that the one problem with technology is it has caused this need to be always available, which you shouldn’t be. So, there are negatives to technology, too, because the expectations of clients, in general, have changed. People expect the immediacy of response and action, and law is not normally about immediacy. Normally lawyers do need a minute to stop and think. So, for example, texting with clients and answering legal questions through a text because of this expectation can be dangerous. Why? The immediacy of the answer means no time was taken to research the issue. Also, such texts need to be preserved and put with the client file. 

The positive to me is that technology enables faster, more efficient work. Such things as AI and other tools enable us to help provide faster service at a lower cost for clients. It also, in some cases, means that solo and small firm attorneys can compete with the big firms because of the technology. 

It used to be different. In the 1990s, it took a long time to get everything back and forth. You had the fax. But the faxes often were not the best looking, because they’d be faxed and copied and refaxed. It also used to be that you had to have a server in your office for email and connectivity between employees. It was difficult and expensive to have the right technology. 

Eventually, people were able to get their own domain names and start getting email through pop mail. The problem with pop mail was that it didn’t sync things. So if you deleted it from one device, it didn’t delete it from another. If you had a calendar, your contacts didn’t sync. As a result, when I would go and audit law firms, I would see inconsistencies in their management. 

Everything was just much slower and often inconsistent.

Now we have the capability to use these tools that will sync things across numerous devices. This way, you don’t have to keep all these different calendars and you can easily share calendars within the organization. This technology, when properly applied, created efficiencies and limited the risk of missing deadlines. Having a calendar that properly syncs helps you to make sure you’re sending your notices to your clients on time. 

So, today’s tech is about consistency, easy and faster communication, and, of course, better ability to do up-to-date research. All of these things created a fundamental change in how we practice law. It’s about how much you can do in a day, how efficient you can be, whether you have access to many tools and so on. 

Even Google Scholar and other things online have made the law more accessible to the public, which is both good and bad. Just like researching too much medicine online, researching law online could cause confusion because of the failure of the average person to understand how the law works. But I do think that on the whole, the sources create the possibility for a more informed public, assuming they’re willing to do the research necessary to educate themselves.

Of course, the negative is that there’s a lot of bad information. You don’t know who to trust. There’s a lot of misinformation. Law is not something that anybody can understand quickly. Understanding how the law works requires the layperson to educate themselves.

But I do think that fundamentally technology gives us access to greater tools that enable us to be more efficient and more knowledgeable when properly applied. 

OK, thank you! The Solo and Small Law Firm Section of the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s page reads: “This includes a traditional program through which experienced lawyers help those just starting out, and reverse mentoring, for those who have been practicing for a while but need assistance in a new practice area.” This is amazing! Could you please tell me a little more about this initiative? How does it work?

It’s something we’re still working on. We have informal mentoring. And the thing about the solo and small firm section is that it’s very active. People are constantly asking for help and offering help. What joins us in this section is not our type of practice, obviously, — it’s the size of the practice. We don’t restrict our membership, though. One of our council members works for a large firm. 

When I became the Chair, one of the first things I told everybody was that diversity was extremely important to me. 

One of the reasons for that is having been through interesting experiences as a result of being “other”, in my case being gay. When you’re “other” in our society, whatever other that might be, and when you enter into a field that’s conservative — like law — it kind of smacks you in the face. Especially over 20 years ago, when being gay was a negative as far as being hired. Now, as we know, being different can even be a positive. 

Going back to the mentoring initiative: as far as having a formal platform, it was held up by COVID-19. So far, we have a group of people who have been trying to create a mentoring system whereby you can get help no matter whether the issue is legal or technological.

This is as opposed to assuming that only young people need mentors, because a lot of older lawyers need mentoring about technology. And, of course a lot of younger lawyers need mentoring about practice. 

If you come into a time like we’re in now, especially during the past year, certain areas of practice fall off, while other areas of practice pick up. So you might end up in a practice area that is no longer feasible right at that moment in time, and you might need to switch. But the only way to ethically switch is to make sure you’re educated and that you have people you can go to. So we connect people as best we can. 

I have to repeat, though: it’s more an informal thing right now. If people need help, they reach out and we just connect them as best as we can. But our hope is to turn it into something more formal. 

Also, I am the liaison from the Solo and Small Law Firm section to the PBA diversity team. The team spent an extraordinary amount of time on diversity this past year, creating wonderful programs, many of which are available on YouTube or on the PBA website, or through the PBI. We’ve talked about race, disability, religion, the ADA, and everything you can imagine. It’s really been a wonderful experience to watch and to minimally participate by helping those programs launch.

Thank you! How would you describe the state of the solo and small law firms community in Pennsylvania? What has changed over the past couple of years? 

I think that most numbers in most states are pretty similar. There are more lawyers practicing in solo and small firms than there are medium and large firms. I believe that it’s been interesting because a lot of large law firms have been consolidating into the mega-firm sort of thing.  But with the market, — and the job market hasn’t been great over the past few years — I think we’ve probably seen more solos. 

Because if you graduate law school and you cannot find a job, you may start your own firm. And in some ways technology makes it easier to do that than ever before. 

For example, I don’t need an office. Once I left work because I was too sick to work, I had no reason to have any office. But I’m able to do everything I need to do from where I am right now because of technology. Just the same as I’m able to have my groceries and other things I need delivered from Amazon. Technology made it possible for me despite my limitations to maintain my leadership of the section and be available when necessary. And without technology over the past year… forget it, really. The whole country, what would we have done without Zoom, right? 

I would say we’ll probably — and I’m guessing because I haven’t seen any statistics, — see more and more people starting their own businesses. I think we’ll also probably see more firms closing and more firms being sold as the baby boomers retire. I did see a number of people who decided they were done because of the pandemic. They just couldn’t adapt or didn’t want to adapt, so they closed their firms. 

What I hope to see is baby boomers connecting with young lawyers and creating a mentoring relationship, where the young lawyer can come in and eventually take over the firm. 

Maybe that can be some sort of an investment opportunity for the lawyer who’s retiring. They have some money coming in for a time through a purchase plan or something along those lines while sharing fees or whatever works within the confines of the ethical rules. 

To sum up, I would say that you’re going to see more consolidation of large firms. And at the same time, more and more people will be going solo and small, both because of necessity and the technologies that provide the capacity to do so even in complex practice areas. 

Thank you! Last week I spoke to a lawyer who owns a small law firm in Pennsylvania. Here’s what he told me about starting a law firm: “So if you like the fact that you can have a business that is almost sure to succeed if you get the right mentors and the right people in place, and you ask the right questions, you should do it.” 

Well, I think one of the things about being a lawyer is we don’t necessarily know the business. It’s one thing to be a lawyer, it’s another thing to be a business person. 

I think that if you want to run a small firm, you need to educate yourself on business. It doesn’t mean you need to get an MBA, but you do need to learn and study, and maybe take some classes or get a mentor or whatever. The tools are there, but if you don’t have them or know where to get them or cannot afford them, then it can make it harder to succeed. I think that any lawyer can succeed with the right tools, but not everybody is meant to run their own firm. 

It’s a challenging thing to do because there’s so much to do to succeed. You have to figure out how to get the clients in the door, you have to come up with the money. Even if you’re not opening a physical office, you still need money to run your firm. So it’s not necessarily easy to open a firm, but I certainly think it’s doable for any lawyer who wants to do so.

The biggest risk if you’re brand new is that you are brand new. (Jennifer is smiling.) I think it’s better not to open your own firm right after law school if you can avoid doing it, simply because you don’t know what you don’t know. And it’s easy to commit malpractice. This is what’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect. On the Internet, people insist that they know everything about a subject, but in reality, they don’t know enough to realize they’re wrong. 

I’d say that somebody who’s had five or six years of practice is in a very good position to open their own firm. And I have seen people with much less experience do well for themselves too.

It’s important to create a good business plan and work it. Also, education and being organized are key to being successful. I have a learning disability. It’s a spatial thing, so organization out in the real world is not necessarily easy. And yes, my desk can be a mess, but I use tools to help me with that. 

Once I understood that I needed assistance, I was better about seeking answers to my problems. It is important to be willing to accept help. You’re going to need some help whether that means you hire staff or engage companies, or use tools to help you do things. This might mean you hire a company to review contracts, or you hire somebody to help you write your briefs. There are lawyers you can hire who do that work. And technology can do a lot of things for you to help keep you on track.

To sum up, make sure that you’re educating yourself, you’re reaching out to mentors and getting the help you need so you can make sure you are providing efficient, effective, and ethical representation to your clients. 

Are solo and small law firms in Pennsylvania different in any way from their counterparts in other states? 

I don’t think they’re very different. Obviously, I’ve not practiced in other states, but I’ve taught in other states and I’ve met lawyers from around the country. Especially when I was very involved with the American Bar Association. I think that everybody pretty much has similar concerns and similar issues.

Maybe one of the biggest issues in Pennsylvania is that it’s a big state and, as a result, practice can be very different in different parts of the state, almost like being in different states. We’re almost divided into Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia. Those are the three distinct regions. 

Lawyers tend to have distinct personalities in these regions. When I first started teaching, I was very nervous. So, I would give out candy to get people to ask questions or make comments. When I was in Pittsburgh, I would walk over and hand it to them. When I was in Harrisburg, I would sometimes underhand toss it to them. But when I was in Philly, I would peg the candy at them and they loved it. 

So that’s the biggest thing. When you go to different parts of the country, it’s important that you understand what the practice is like in general. What the speed of practice is, how confrontational the practice is, all those sorts of things. It’s important that you educate yourself and normally you do that by talking to other lawyers. 

Thank you! What are the advantages of small law firms over their larger counterparts? 

They’re more agile. It comes much easier because there are fewer people making the decisions. Also, it’s much easier to turn a small ship than a big one. I think that the key advantage is agility — at a time when agility is quite important. 

Is technology one of the ways to achieve agility? 

Yes. 

Technology is one of the reasons why we can be agile. Technology provides things that just were not really possible for small or solo firms before. 

To provide representation in certain kinds of cases in the past would have been too much for a solo or small law firm. But now I would say that, leaving finances aside, there’s little that a solo or small firm attorney cannot do that a large firm can. 

Also, when I worked in a small firm and I wanted something, I could easily just go to the managing partner and say “Hey, I need this” or “I think the firm needs this,” and because he was a decisive individual, he very frequently said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” That doesn’t tend to happen at large firms or even midsize firms. I think that’s the biggest difference. 

As you have been consulting law firms in terms of technology adoption, could you share common mistakes that law firms should avoid when adopting technology?

The most common mistake is the failure to get buy-in from everybody at the firm. Often what happens is somebody up high doesn’t want to use the technology or didn’t invest in it and just refuses to use it.

Everybody needs to buy in and be invested when you bring in new technology. Then you need to enforce its use. For example, if you bring in a program to help you manage your documents, everybody has to use it. If you’re going to have specific naming conventions to help you organize your files, everybody has to use it. 

The lack of buy-in, the lack of enforcement, and the lack of training to support the use of the technology are the biggest errors. 

Thank you! How do you envision a successful small law firm of the 21st century? What should it focus on? What should it have? What should it get rid of?

I think it’s hard to answer that question because there are so many different types of practice. What’s right for one type of practice may not be right for another. 

I think it’s really very important for 21st-century law firms to be people-focused, meaning the care of themselves, their staff, and their clients. 

They can use technology to do that. There are all sorts of tools that you can use to help you manage your workload, but also to shut things off. For example, you could put your phone on “do not disturb” at certain times of the day. There are apps for mindfulness. There’re lots of different ways law firms can help their employees in distress. The first thing is to take care of your people and take care of yourself.

Meanwhile, I think that using technology just to use technology is unwise. Every time you add technology to your firm there should be a reason behind it. I would say look at the technologies that are available for your specific kind of practice, and take advantage of the ones that will add value to your business. 

I think one of the things I see is that law firms will buy that technology, but not train their employees on it. Or they just train everyone once or twice. You have to keep training and retraining to make sure that the tools you’re spending money on are being used properly and to their full advantage. 

I think that flexibility will be and continue to be important. I’m sure this is not the last pandemic we will have. So, forward-thinking and being prepared for a disaster is critical. Disaster planning is a critical part of creating a successful law firm. 

So I would say, a combination of just old-fashioned traditional lawyering with modern technology and a focus on the proper treatment of your people, whether that be your staff or your clients or just other people in general, is going to be very important for the modern law firm. 

Thank you! You are well-versed in online promotion. Why do you think law firms and solo lawyers should have an online presence? What should they focus on? Should it be LinkedIn or a website? And a follow-up question is do you think that a growing number of lawyers are embracing the power of the Internet? 

Most people in the United States hire lawyers by looking online. 

Most people, especially younger people, look at reviews. So the first thing you have to have is an online presence. But it’s critical that you be able to control that presence, which is why you need your own website. 

A lot of solos and small lawyers still do not have websites, and then sometimes if you ask them why, they’ll say “Well, we get all our cases through referrals.” That’s common, but the problem is that when somebody makes a referral, what the potential client is likely to do is go online and research you. 

And if you don’t have a website, you don’t have any control of what your presence online looks like. In many cases, you won’t be findable. 

You’ll just find some incomplete listings that have been automatically created for you, and it just doesn’t look very good. So the first thing is every law firm should have its own website. It doesn’t need to be a complicated website, just a basic website that explains who you are. 

Every lawyer should be seeking, in an ethically appropriate fashion, reviews from their clients, because that is something that helps people decide to hire you. Hiring a lawyer is very challenging. It’s really very difficult to know what you’re going to get. And most of the time your average person hiring a lawyer is stressed when they’re hiring a lawyer. They need help making decisions, so you need to help them make the decision to hire you whether that be because they learn about you from somebody else and then go online, or they go online and start researching and find you. So you have to have a website — and I absolutely encourage reviews placed both on that website and on other appropriate websites. Asking people, ethically, to put them up. Obviously, only ask your really happy clients and make sure you’re aware of the ethical rules about what can and cannot be said in reviews, of course. That’s the first thing. 

As far as what else you should do, you should claim listings on LinkedIn for yourself and for your firm and make sure they’re robust. Every lawyer should be on LinkedIn. It’s basically your online resume. It’s a way for people to find you. A good LinkedIn profile is very important. You may or may not create a profile for your firm — it just depends on your firm. 

Whether you should be on Facebook depends on your kind of practice: consumer-oriented, direct-hire, family law, personal injury, plaintiff side, all that sort of stuff — yeah, be on Facebook. Consider ads, but at the very least create a robust Facebook presence and page and make sure it’s complete. People sometimes start to fill these things out and publish them but never finish them. It’s worse to have an unfinished public open profile on something than to not have it at all. 

But you have to look at where your potential clients are. If you’re in media and sports, maybe Twitter is the place for you. LinkedIn of course is more business-oriented, while Facebook is more consumer-oriented. But at the same time, your CEOs and people making decisions may very well be on Facebook. So, you have to figure out where your audiences are and then you market to that audience in an appropriate fashion. 

OK, thank you! Let’s move to your experience as a business owner. What are the biggest lessons you have learned so far?

I’ve got a lot of lessons. 

I’d say, continuing learning, applying, and looking forward are probably the most important things in running a business. And don’t forget the past. Always learn from the past. 

Also, I think one of the biggest issues you see is that a lot of small businesses have no written plan. So every time you open a business, you should have a business plan in writing. That plan is adjustable, you should revisit it, and you should take the time to stop and look at how your business is doing and what you can fix. 

You should always be looking to improve and figure out what’s right for you in your particular business. Because everybody is different. What works for one person might not work for another person. You should try to be aware of your limitations and be honest about them so that you can fill those holes. Nobody knows everything and you have to be willing to take wisdom from other people.

Thank you! What do you enjoy the most about being an entrepreneur? 

I like the freedom. Working for other people is fine, but not having to answer to anybody is very nice, too. 

Creativity in law is sometimes hard to find. But when you’re running your own business, you can be more creative and do things differently if you want to. It’s nice that you don’t have to answer to quite so many people. I like that. 

I second that. What are the biggest professional wins, whether as a business owner, as a consultant, or as the Chair of the Solo and Small firm section? What’s something you’re proud of in this regard?

I like helping people. As the Chair of the Section, I think that pretty much from March 2020 through a few months ago, I have had the opportunity to work with really generous people. These are lawyers who are more than willing to help other lawyers during difficult times. I appreciate the generosity of the lawyers and non-lawyers who have been so generous during this time. 

I’ve also really enjoyed the camaraderie, I would say, that has come with being Chair of the Solo and Small Firm section. And the support from the legal community that I’ve experienced. So I would say that this past year was very challenging but in terms of the work that we were able to do also edifying. 

In terms of being a lawyer, probably the most important work I did was when I was more involved with activism. I was very involved in responding to Westboro Baptist Church as well as local protesters in the early 2000s. Being publicly out in a very conservative geographic area, being involved in and pushing for change probably are the things I would be most proud of as a lawyer.

I love being successful at work. I love helping my clients whenever I can. Even though I’m not really working very much, I still answer questions online and I am still involved in the Bar and do interviews with people such as yourself. 

I just like helping people, and that’s the main reason I became a lawyer. 

And one of the nice things about being a lawyer is that it does empower you, because you understand the law or can look it up and get enough information to at least guide people in the right direction, to begin with. I like that aspect of it. So helping people whether it be as a lawyer or somebody who’s been involved with technology or ethics — all of those things have always been very satisfying to me. 

If you could have lunch with any prominent legal industry figure, who would that be? Why?

It would have been nice to have lunch with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But I guess we’re not going to do that. She changed the law as a lawyer. She changed the legal profession fighting for equality. 

Right now it would be interesting to meet some of the people involved in the Black Lives Matter arena like Ben Crump who has really just been extraordinary over the past few years. 

I also had the opportunity when I was involved in some of the diversity programs with the PBA to talk with some fascinating people. It was a bit of a gift to have that opportunity. 

Thank you very much, Jennifer!

As told to Jane Kuhuk, PR Manager at Loio.

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