When Carli van Maurik shares her practice philosophy with other lawyers, she’s usually met with one of two responses: raised eyebrows or enthusiastic support.
Thankfully, most colleagues fall into the latter category.
Ms. van Maurik is a lawyer with the British Columbia business law firm Whiteboard Law. She’s based in Victoria, where she honed her legal skills at one of the city’s well known firms before branching out to follow her entrepreneurial instincts.
Most lawyers eventually narrow the focus of their practice or notice that clients could be better served by a different approach. But not many take the extra step of proactively changing the way they work. I recently had a conversation with van Maurik to find out how she’s carved her own path.
Tell us a bit about your practice…
I practice business law exclusively – I work on shareholder agreements, licensing agreements, incorporations, business sales and acquisitions, etc. I work with Jim Mutter, the firm founder who is based in our Vancouver office.
How have you aligned your services with client needs?
Most of my clients are high tech entrepreneurs or professionals; they can’t easily leave their offices for meetings with their lawyer and some of them spend a lot of time on the road.
I meet clients where they are, whenever it’s convenient for them, even if it means setting up a videoconference via Skype.
Do you use alternative fee structures?
Yes. The vast majority of my fee arrangements are fixed or hard quotes. I keep an eye on the time, but only because I want to make sure that I am efficient and fast.
When I’m determining fees, I consider a lot of factors; the client’s financial structure, their long-term potential, the complexity of the issue at hand and deadlines that must be met.
How have other lawyers reacted to your new practice?
I’ve only met one lawyer who blatantly told me I was making a huge mistake. Everyone else is curious and supportive. One senior counsel told me that he thought the way I’ve set things up will be how most lawyers practice in the future (but also that he’s too close to retirement to implement changes now).
Overall, I think most lawyers know that the practice of law needs to evolve.
What about clients? How have they reacted?
Clients love it!
They know they have to be innovative if they’re going to succeed; they can see that I’m trying hard to run my business based on the same philosophy.
I run a “lean” practice, operating with low overhead and efficient technology. This mirrors the way many of my clients operate.
I’ve tried to be very proactive in developing my client relationships. I try to think like an owner, ask a lot of questions and avoid waiting for clients to raise an issue or idea.
What has surprised you about the change in your practice?
It took me a bit of time to decide to make the leap, but I’m glad I did it at this point in my career. Even in eight years of practice, I had developed habits that I’ve had to rethink and reconsider. Now, I step back and try to ask myself “Is this the best way to do this?”
I’ve also learned how well something simple can actually work. For example, some firms will spend $3,000 on a a filing cabinet or purchase an elaborate printer/scanner with so many features that it constantly jams or needs tuning. Think about the wasted time while a staff person or lawyer fiddles with the machine or the wasted money on paper storage. I have a mid-range copier/scanner/fax and haven’t had any trouble with it. I also keep my documents on a secure cloud server.
I also have a different attitude towards quoting fees now. Two experiences last summer really hit home. The first was a quote of $1,500 to do some electrical work at my home. The bill arrived and it was $4,000. This bill included $60 for a “light bulb installation fee”. When I asked for an explanation, the service provider returned the bill to me reduced by $1,000, without any explanation. I could have interpreted this any number of ways, but it really irritated me. And then I thought about how surprised legal clients sometimes are when they receive bills.
The second experience was a conversation with a friend who owns a dog-walking company. She isn’t apologetic about her fees and payment instructions. She is very up front and clear about how her human clients are expected to keep up their end of the deal and the consequences of not doing so. She also knows what she’s worth. She said, “Carli, client service is about doing quality work and remembering that you’re running a business. Lawyers are no different and shouldn’t think they are.”
Any advice for other lawyers thinking about making a similar change?
Case law works on precedent, but you don’t have practice that way. Be creative; nothing in your practice should be immune from change.