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The Practice Corner: Building a Better Mousetrap

by Daniel DeWoskin
Trial Attorney

This month, I had the pleasure of meeting with former DeKalb Bar Association President Mike Hawkins of the Hawkins Law Firm. Mike works exclusively in the area of DUI defense and has done so for many years now. For 10 years, Mike practiced as a named partner at his former firm, but ventured out in July 2008 to establish his own practice. Mike and his former partner dissolved their partnership on good terms, and the impetus behind the change was largely Mike’s preference to design his professional life in a manner that complemented his personal life. If you have been reading this article for the past few months, you have likely found that this rationale is a common theme for the lawyers I have interviewed and who have made significant changes to their practices.

For Mike, until starting his own firm last year, his home was in Dunwoody, his office in Buckhead, and he spent many hours each week in court downtown. By setting out on his own, he was able to find office space just minutes from his home, reducing time wasted in a commute and allowing him to schedule lunches at home with his family. Because his work frequently requires court appearances in cities and counties across the metro area, having an office close to his home was much more practical for him. Such proximity between his home and office, and the increased efficiency he has found in avoiding traffic, has allowed Mike the freedom to arrange his schedule to occasionally go grocery shopping with his family or handle other personal business.

At his prior law firm, Chestney-Hawkins, there were three attorneys and two support staff. Now, for the time being, Mike is the only attorney and has a full-time assistant to help coordinate the day-to-day office operations. With respect to the operations of the office, Mike was keen on the idea of building his practice from the ground up. Although the Hawkins Law Firm functions with fewer personnel than Mike’s former firm, taking advantage of services like those offered by Cbeyond provides the necessary resources to perform more effectively than ever before. While there is no doubt the practice will continue to grow and Mike will need to hire an associate or two, for the moment, he has focused his attention on developing a savvy, effective business model.

By “savvy,” I am referring to Mike’s focus on how technology can make his work easier, more efficient, and more cost-effective as a whole. There are many CLE seminars about the practice of law and technology, but Mike’s approach is not geared to accounting or scheduling issues, but in the use of technology to enhance his client relationships. Mike explained to me that as a lawyer, using technology effectively goes far beyond getting email on the go from a Blackberry.

More specifically, Mike is working on developing a system in his office that will allow clients to have proprietary access to certain elements of their files. Whenever documents are generated, court dates are scheduled, or some other activity in their case takes place, the clients will receive electronic notices. This system will keep the clients apprised of updates in their cases, and also keep clients current on the incremental work that goes on during the weeks and months prior to court that they may be unaware of without time-consuming calls to their lawyer.

I found this particularly remarkable and, in some ways, counterintuitive. It seems only logical that a client seeking good customer service from his or her attorney would want a great deal of personal contact with the lawyer. As advocates, we are constantly reminded that one of the most common complaints to the bar year after year is that attorneys have failed to return telephone calls. However, with the system Mike is pioneering, there are fewer calls to return and yet the client is better informed of the progress in his or her case than ever before. Clearly, this use of technology does not take the place of client consultations, but it reduces unnecessary status checks from clients and reminds them that Mike is acutely aware of their cases.

In addition to enhancing his client communications, this system is also much more “green” in the sense that it alleviates the need to draft letters and incur postage to send discovery or investigative reports to clients. Instead, everything is maintained securely and generated electronically until the need for use at trial. As the only controlling voice in his practice, Mike was easily able to implement innovations like these. When practicing as a partner, especially in an environment and firm that has a successful business model, it is very difficult to introduce change of any sort. “It is easier to design the practice that suits your needs and goals as a dictator than as a vote in a democracy of equals,” he says.

I was very curious to know whether the success of Mike’s former firm had created a brand of sorts that was difficult to walk away from. Mike explained that there was no question that with a practice dedicated to DUI defense, there was absolutely a “firm reputation” or brand. However, when he took a step back and evaluated the factors that comprised that brand, it was the quality of the work and the service that he and his partner had provided through the years that ultimately gave the firm its character. Having spent years preparing cases, arguing motions, and trying cases before judges and prosecutors in the Metro Atlanta area, Mike knew that his brand was as much his own name as it was that of his previous firm.

The Hawkins Law Firm has not strayed from the basics with which Mike has already found success. Instead, Mike looks to continue building his practice to new specifications, this time with more consideration to balancing his work and home schedules.

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