Transcript: Why Family Lawyers Must Keep Up with New Technology – David Lederman
My name is Dan Couvrette. I’m the publisher of Family Lawyer Magazine and DivorceMag.com and have the pleasure of speaking with David Lederman, a top family lawyer from Northern California. This is part of our Thought Leader Series and I’ve invited David to speak with me today because of his background in technology. He’s one of the techie family lawyers out there, one of the early adopters of technologies.
Let me give you a little bit of background though because he’s not just a techie; he’s a top family lawyer. He’s a Certified Specialist in Family Law and a member of the Board of Directors of the Contra Costa Family Bar Association’s Family Law Section. He has served as a section president and advisor to the California Lawyers Association, Family Law Section. He’s very active in the bar associations, very active in the practice, loves what he is doing. He eats, sleeps, and breathes it.
I know David through the California CFLS and he always seems to have something to do with technology at these events. I asked David specifically to talk about the business of family law and technology. His office is just north of Silicone Valley in Antioch and Moraga. David, you must be eating and drinking the same food and water as the other tech firms because of your techie-ness. Thank you very much for taking the time to join me today.
Thank you for having me, Dan. Always a pleasure talking with you.
My first question is what had you jump into technology as part of your family law practice? Was there an inspiration or your background or what was it that got you going?
Fear. When I started my practice back in 1996, it was me: I was the only attorney, and I had to compete against lots of other firms that had a much larger infrastructure. They had a bunch of attorneys and paralegals, this whole group of people supporting them, and I figured there were two ways to go. I can hire all these people. At that point, I was kind of too new to the practice really to know how to do the hiring and how to create this company. I figured the other way is to maximize my effort. Let’s make me as efficient as I can and use and whatever technological tools I can find, then I can start scaling up from there, hiring people that are also adopting the same tools so that we’re all running as efficiently as we can.
But the whole concept wasn’t to adopt technology for technology’s sake – it was to become as efficient as we can. At the time, people were getting more used to using email, we were doing legal research online, but that was really the end of it. I was st looking to create as efficient a business model as I could to increase our efficiency as attorneys to provide a better product to the clients.
You mentioned already having used technology. It’s made you more efficient. Has it also brought a benefit to your clients?
Absolutely. Right now, I have about 11 people working for me. We’ve got four attorneys, paralegals, and administrators. I have the two offices that you mentioned in Antioch and Moraga, but the reality is the work is being done in 11 locations because we’re not tied to the terrestrial location of the office. When COVID hit, it took us about an hour to simply point the phones to cell phones. People took their laptops, stayed at home, and we had no downtime. Absolutely none. And as the pandemic continued, we discovered that we were a lot more efficient than almost everybody else out there because we already have the digital infrastructure.
We have all of our data on central secure servers. When we look at technology, one of the things that I think of when I look at adopting technology is what I refer to as the Four Ss: it needs to fit the standards of Speed, Security, Stability, and Scalability. As we grow, we want our technology to be able to grow with us so that we can all use this and become trained, efficient, and productive with the tools that we have. If some technology we’re looking at didn’t meet those standards, I wouldn’t spend time with it.
There’s nothing more frustrating than hitting a button and waiting for something to happen. If it wasn’t efficient, it wasn’t stable. It didn’t work.
Now, we have virtual courts, we’ve got hearings that have to be done remotely like we’re doing this interview by Zoom. From my perspective, it’s fabulous. Saves you time. Saves your clients time, saves them money, and is more efficient.
The only way we can charge for our services is by time. If an attorney goes from the office to the courthouse and that transaction takes 45 minutes, and then to hang around at the courthouse to go through with your boxes of paper files and stuff, and then come back, there are two choices. Either the firm has to eat the time or the client’s going to pay for the time, or we’re going to ultimately split that cost. But that’s a transaction cost that’s completely unnecessary if we’re doing virtual hearings.
Trials are profoundly more efficient using the technology, using Zoom. I hate to say this because there’s been so much pain, that’s come out of the pandemic, but it was the kick in the shorts, the legal profession to adopt technology to create better lawyers, to create a better process.
Two years ago, when I had a trial, I would have a flatbed cart with boxes of papers, trial binders, notes, and a computer to access my data. The witness had a trial binder, which could be several volumes. The judge had a trial binder, the opposing counsel had a trial binder, the court clerk had a trial binder marking exhibits. Each exhibit would take this transaction time of mark, identify, and okay, everybody gets to the same page. It’s exhibit S on page 395. No, the other binder, you’re in the wrong binder. Let’s get to the same page. Does everybody have this document in front of you? “No”, “no”, “no”.
That process was painful.
Now, with a Zoom trial, it’s: “Your Honor, let me draw your attention to Exhibit C. May I share my screen?” “Yes, you may counsel.” Now, it’s on everybody’s screens. Then I use the highlighting tool. “Let me highlight this provision because you asked questions about it.” The increase in efficiency in a trial setting is profound. It wouldn’t have happened without the pandemic. I wrote an article may be at the very beginning of the pandemic and I had researched. There was a study done with the Department of Health and the courts, the judicial council on what to do in the event of a pandemic. This report was from 2006 and this report had a list of recommended actions for the court to adopt virtual technologies and have remote hearings. The technology existed back in 2006. Do you want to guess what the court did to comply with these recommendations from this star-studded group of health providers and judges?
“File for future consideration”?
If even. They did absolutely nothing: not a single one of the recommendations made by this commission was filed by the courts, so when the pandemic hit most of the counties in California, the courts slammed shut. Contra Costa was closed for three months. Most of the courts were simply shut down. If you had a hearing on a Friday and had something to do on Monday, you’d go to court because their information sending wasn’t so great, and you’d find their doors closed.
There was no court for a significant period of time, which meant there was no access to justice.
So now we’re up and running. How does it look to you for the future? Are we going to keep on moving in a more progressive direction?
I don’t think there’s a choice. For example, the Department of Child Support Services, where there’s a lot of people that don’t have a lot of wealth, including Indigenous people with lower income levels.
Before COVID, before they went to virtual, about 30 to 40% of the time the litigant wouldn’t show up because they would have to leave their job, take a bus, take a train, find some way to get from wherever they were working to the courthouse and if they’re paid by the hour, by the day they were losing out. These people weren’t getting to the court, and you had this calendar where these hearings were being held and they had to get dropped repeatedly because the litigants couldn’t make it. After the pandemic, after the Department of Child Support Services went virtual, there was an almost 100% attendance rate for these hearings.
The increase in access to justice has been amazing and the efficiencies for the courts, the efficiencies for the attorneys for the money-saving for the litigants. I think it’s really hard to justify going backward.
There are a lot of, there are a lot of people that say, “I want to be able to see the witness in person.” But look at the distance between you, me, and the screen. You can see my face; you can see my facial expressions.
I really don’t think that’s a true reason to oppose what I think is an almost unstoppable march forward with virtual technologies.
Technology is only going to continue to improve. If we remember back to TVs 10 years ago, and how a TV picture looks now, you feel like you’re sitting in the room almost with those people, and that’s only going to be further enhanced, right. The sound quality, the feeling of it, everything,
I’ve taught several courses at this stage on presenting virtual trials. One of my recommendations is always there’s a relatively inexpensive microphone – it’s under 200 bucks and it’s called the Yeti.
When I’m taking notes at a hearing or a trial the microphone is facing my mouth, my voice. You can hear my voice, but you can’t hear the keypads. It’s just fabulous. Toss a screen or a video recorder on top of the computer. You’re good to go.
The quality right now is very good. You look perfect. You’re clear.
My video quality is not as great as yours here because I’m using a laptop as a camera.
But this isn’t bad. You can see my facial expressions.
Absolutely. When you look at lawyers who are not as enthusiastic to adopt, what’s going to happen with those folks? Are they going to have to leave the legal profession or are they just going to have to go in kicking and screaming if they’re not wanting to adapt to these new systems?
There is a term that comes out of the early change: digital disruption, where those people that can’t keep pace with the evolution of any given business fall behind, then fail. That’s the natural course of the evolution of any business. If you can’t keep up with the tools that make that enable you to become more efficient and better at your job, then you can’t keep up and you won’t keep up.
Some people have asked me, well, David, if I’m not comfortable with this, what can I do? Unfortunately, the answer is, well, maybe you should think about retirement because it’s not going to be going backward. It’s only going to go forward and it’s in your benefit to adopt the technologies available to you, as long as it meets the “4S standard” I mentioned earlier.
It improves your ability to deliver services. It improves the quality of your work product, your presentation to the court. It cost efficiencies for your client. It’s really almost unconscionable not to adopt tools that make you better at what you do.
Where do you see the practice of family law? Do you see it keep on going in this direction of technology, better serving you, the clients? Is there any advice you could give somebody – other than saying, “You just gotta do it” – who has one foot in but they’re not fully into the techno legal field yet in terms of a course they could do, what websites that they could go to?
My website has a lot of articles I’ve written about technology. I wrote the local rules for trial practice from my county, for Contra Costa county. The articles that are seminal to me to the writing of those rules or on my website. The articles were published in the Association of Certified Family Law, the specialist magazine, and the California Lawyers Association Family Law News Magazine. These are local family law or not local, but they’re statewide family law publications.
You can take a class. The class that attorneys should be taking now is how to use Adobe Acrobat Pro, because that’s the tool you’re using to create your trial binders. If you don’t have Adobe Professional, download it. They have online tutorials you can take. Take them, take them all.
Attorneys are intellectual service providers: our product is our thoughts, our brains, our analysis. If you can practice law, you can adopt the technological tools you need to become more efficient at practicing law. “Let me talk to my grandson because my grandson knows technology better than me, or they’re more technological than me,” is a cop-out. The reality is, if you’re smart, if you’re trying to run a business, then you need to learn and adopt the tools that can make you better at your job.
Software companies like Clio or Smokeball, or any number of other products that are available for family lawyers, will offer you trial periods. They have video tutorials on their websites you can go through. The salespeople are always, of course, anxious for you to become a client, so they’ll walk you through the process. There’s a lot of help and guidance out there. You just really have to throw yourself into it, kind of make yourself enthusiastic about it whether you’re enthusiastic or not. “Fake it until you make it.”
You need to have an infrastructure. You need to have a system in place to deal with this stuff. For example, Smokeball. My firm uses Smokeball. I love it. One of the things I love about Smokeball is that they are responsive. You can say, “Hey, there’s something you can do to make our jobs better. In your next upgrade, in your next round of improvements, why don’t you think about using this?” and they’ll do it. As we onboard any staff, literally any staff coming into the firm, there are a number of certificates that they can take through Smokeball so they are able to use the tools that we use in the firm..
For full disclosure, I have done work with David’s firm through my company, Divorce Marketing Group, and he gets the staff on a Zoom call and everybody’s looking at the same information, sharing information. It goes very smoothly. There’s no, “I’ll get back to you tomorrow” about it. You have access to the information, which as you said at the beginning makes you more efficient and more effective with less frustration and anxiety. I think we’ve made a great case for why they need to get on board and give them some good ideas for how to get on board. Anything else you want to say in conclusion?
Sure. Before that, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with you this afternoon.
I think the reality is it’s not changing. Attorneys have a fiduciary relationship with our clients. A duty to help them save money. A duty to defend their interest. A duty to represent them and operate in their best interest. Really, you need to leverage the tools available to do that. If I have a trial against another attorney who hadn’t taken my course in creating trial binders, and they don’t know what they’re doing, it’s not only a disservice to their clients – it’s a disservice to the judge and to my client because we’re all waiting for them to figure out how to present their evidence to the court.
What I’ve done in the past is if an attorney who’s not created a trial binder indexed it and mapped it out so that it’s efficient. I will take an opposing party’s exhibits. I’d create my own trial binder and I’d offer to give it to them. So, I’ve organized your exhibits for you. But here, it’s going to be our trial, our ability to present this evidence to the court is going to be a lot less frustrating to the judge and a lot more efficient and save both of our clients’ money if you have this. So, I’ll give it to them.
The benefit of that is, frankly, I look like a really nice guy to the judge. I’m getting brownie points with the court because I’m not obstructing the system. In fact, I’m making it more efficient. That pays almost unexpected dividends.
And it benefits the client. A client might say, well, why are you doing that? Well, I’m doing this to save you money and get to clean up this case and get it presented to the courts. The court can make a decision and it definitely doesn’t hurt you. In fact, this will make you look a lot better subconsciously in front of this judge.
The more cooperative you look, the less contentious you look, the more likely you are to get what’s best for your client as well. We have a duty: in family law, there’s a duty to cooperate. There’s a duty to meet and confer, and this just shows that you’re doing it in spades.
David, I want to thank you for your time. It’s been a real pleasure. For lawyers who do want to go to David’s website. It’s www.ledermanlaw.net. David, thank you again and those people watching, thank you for watching.
I thank you, Dan. Always a pleasure to talk with you. Take care.