“If You Aren’t Leveraging Tech As a Small Law Firm Owner, I Don’t Know How You Survive” — Andrew Lacy, Jr
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 Andrew Lacy, Jr, owner, and founder of The Lacy Employment Law Firm, LLC, a Pennsylvania-based boutique law firm “that aims to bring corporate-level representation to everyday people.”
Before founding his own law firm in January 2021, Andrew worked as an Associate at the international law firm Reed Smith LLP and completed a clerkship with the Honorable Cathy Bissoon in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
Hi Andrew! Thanks for being here! You had worked for Reed Smith LLP, an international law firm, for six years, give or take. What was the best part of the job?
There were two best parts. The first one was learning from some really smart attorneys. As you know, a big law firm usually brings together very intelligent attorneys from the top of the profession. Learning from them was really great! The second part was that I got to write a lot of briefs — and I enjoyed it.
How would you describe the relationship between lawyers at a U.S. law firm and technology?
I will say it varies, actually. At my big law firm, I thought the relationship between technology and lawyers was poor. I thought that things could have been done much more efficiently, and we could have leveraged better systems and technology. Even our Microsoft Word was from 2006 to 2017. That should tell you what you need to know about how advanced they were.
There is the other side, though. I’m on the plaintiff’s side at a small firm right now. I’m amazed how small firms and plaintiff lawyers leverage technology to automate systems, how everything is in the cloud, and how things are readily accessible. A lot of plaintiff lawyers and small firm lawyers understand programs like Zapier, Slack, CRM, or case management systems. None of that stuff existed or was talked about at my large law firm. Now that I’m in the smaller firm setting where efficiency is everything, I think that we actually do a semi-decent job.
Let’s switch to the present. You launched The Lacy Employment Law Firm, LLC in January 2021, amidst the pandemic. What was your “why”?
My “why” was that I actually thought the time was right. My practice area is employment law. For lack of a better term, the pandemic was good for that practice area — with a lot of confusion, people being off work, and a lot more people needing help. So, I thought that there were a lot more people needing help than there were lawyers in this practice area.
“I also liked the fact that things were moving virtually and depositions were removed. Today I’m able to cover the entire state of Pennsylvania thanks to that. I can compete in one market, Pittsburgh, on SEO and the Internet residents, and in the other market, Philadelphia (where I spend most of my time) on referrals.”
Also, I thought that it was a really unique opportunity because there were not a lot of in-court appearances anymore, as far as being a lawyer goes.
To sum up, I believed that I could really do a lot pretty quickly, and, luckily, I’ve been right about that.
How did it feel to start your own firm? Were you afraid or excited?
I was really excited. I worked in Big Law for six years. I had the money saved. My wife still works at a pretty large law firm. At worst, I would just beg Reed Smith for my job back. A lot of them indicated that they would give it back to me. I don’t know if they were being truthful or not, but I hope so. 🙂
I always felt like I had a Plan B. Also, a lot of people at my large law firm were very supportive. They wished that they would have had the courage to try this before they had big mortgages, kids, and that type of things. So there was not a lot of fear there. Mostly just excitement.
What was the tipping point for you? So you’re working for six years for a larger law firm, and then suddenly you decided to start your firm.
I think it was always in the back of my head. I interviewed for a lot of different things like the federal government, state government, and in-house jobs when I was at the firm. These different paths had more cons than pros. That’s why I always went back to the firm.
Ultimately, I thought that working at a law firm was a better option for me than having an in-house job. Taking it one step further by having your own firm was the only thing that I thought could combine good compensation with a better work-life balance and more flexibility.
I don’t think there’s anything else like that out there in law.
Why have you chosen employment and civil rights law as a focus for your law firm?
Well, I didn’t really do much of it when I was at the large firm. At Reed Smith, I mostly did private liability work and commercial litigation. But then I went to trial to handle a pro bono case which was an employment case — and I really liked it. Similarly, I liked a civil rights case in federal court.
Ultimately, I always thought that I would be more of a civil rights public defender type of lawyer when I went to law school. Opening my own firm gave me the opportunity to pivot to those areas. It is also not hard to get cases in those areas as it would be in personal injury, which is very competitive all over the country.
Your LinkedIn profile reads: “The Lacy Employment Law Firm, LLC is a boutique that aims to bring corporate-level representation to everyday people.” What helps you compete with law corporations and ensure the same level of services?
I think it’s the training I’ve got. There are certain habits you can’t break. Let me explain. When I was a young associate, I didn’t attach a PDF to an email before sending it to the client. The partner got mad at me saying: “It’s your job to make the client’s life easier. These are things we do. We attach documents to emails. We don’t make the other person go out and dig out documents.” It’s really that type of stuff.
Another thing is responsiveness. Some of my reviews say that my clients are surprised at how quickly they get to me and how responsive I am.
The last one is the work product. I wouldn’t say it’s better than everyone’s in the world, but I think it’s a pretty high-level work product. Because it’s house-trained in Big Law — and they have a very high-level work product.
So I think when you combine those three things, clients are getting something that’s fairly unique to my firm just because of my past experiences.
Thank you! Do you have a team?
Right now I do sort of have a team. It’s myself, a paralegal — she is a brilliant person who’s much smarter than me and makes a lot of this stuff go, — and then I use Smith.ai, a virtual receptionist company that takes your calls and gives you an intake. I believe I can say Smith.ai is a part of my team because their services are invaluable. For a small firm attorney, to be able to have a full-time receptionist even though you’re not paying a full-time receptionist’s cost, that’s crucial.
The Lacy Employment Law Firm has been up and running for roughly six months. Congrats! What lessons have you learned so far as a business owner?
That’s a really good question.
“I think that number one lesson is just that you have to really continue to work ON your business at all times and not just IN your business.”
When I get really busy in the legal work, I don’t carve out the time to work on systems, technology, automation, and making things better as far as that goes. Then two things usually happen. As months go by and you don’t do these things, then it’s tough to bring new people in because you haven’t created an organized system. Another thing is that you’re losing out on a lot of time because you’re not leveraging technology as well as you should.
And what is lesson number two?
Lesson number two is that you can’t move too fast. Even though you have to be efficient.
I’ve made a few mistakes that I wouldn’t have made at the large firm. These are small human mistakes, but I wouldn’t have made them if I wasn’t moving so fast.
So, slow down a little bit. It’s still worth it to be diligent and attentive, and even though efficiency is so much valued on this side of the law, you still have to be diligent, too.
What has been your biggest victory since the firm’s launch? What do you attribute it to?
It’s a great question!
The biggest victory since the launch has been to be ranking in Pittsburgh as far as the SEO goes. It’s not a law-related thing, but I feel like it makes my business sustainable, which is fantastic.”
I learned it myself, I did everything myself, and I get phone calls every day from it. Google could change everything and then I could slide back down and get no phone calls again, but right now that’s been by far the greatest victory.
If I’m going to go more the legal route, I would say I just have a pretty diverse caseload. I represented everyone from a custodian to a CFO in the six months. I like the fact that I’m helping a lot of different people out and it’s not just my certain type of person. I have every single socio-economic demographic and ethnicity. It’s been great: I just really enjoy working with different types of people.
I have clients that definitely don’t look like me. I have clients that probably wouldn’t be friends with me in a different setting, but we’re getting to know each other on the cases. We have nothing in common except me being the lawyer trying to help them with the problem. We’re learning a little bit about each other and the way we think. All those things are just fantastic to get to do on a daily basis.
That’s lovely! What has been your biggest surprise as a small law firm owner so far?
I guess just how much every little thing costs. You don’t think about it. Okay, you think about your office and payroll expenses. But you don’t think about payroll tax, your receptionist company, or these little things for SEO.
I feel like I’m spending money on something small every day. Then it ends up being thousands of dollars a month. Then I’m waiting for someone to come in and actually pay for this stuff. So I’m definitely in the negative still, even though I have lots of cases and lots of potential settlements coming in the next six months. But until that comes, every single thing that I have to pay for hurts 🙂
Yes, I get it 🙂 Thank you. What are the biggest mistakes you’ve made as a boutique law firm owner?
For sure, it’s not hiring an accountant. I know I’m making this mistake right now and it is going to cost me. I guess the reason I haven’t done it is just that I’ve been so busy. This is the part about working on the business and not in it. When every single Friday comes, I realize I need to hire an accountant. Then it’s Friday at 6, and I don’t really feel like working anymore after having only 5 hours of sleep. 🙂 Not having a clear setup for files and organizations is also definitely a mistake. I’m trying to rectify those things.
What would be your piece of advice to those who are thinking about launching a law firm?
If you’re under the age of 35 and you have no referral sources, there is no excuse for you not to learn one or two things well: social media and search engine optimization. Even if you don’t think that you’re on the tech side, you need to learn how to market on social media. You can make a flash in these areas and get business because the older generations with their established law firms may not be doing that. That’s definitely the biggest advice.
Good old fashion referrals are great. You still might get some: being a young person, a young man or woman on the scene, people might feel bad for you and give you some referrals to get you started. But it’s all about social media and the Internet now.
How do you promote your law firm? Do you have anything else to add to SEO and referrals?
When you take someone for lunch, referrals think of you as a good lawyer and send you a case. The pros are that these cases are usually better. The cons are that you have to give a referral fee, sometimes 20% to 33%. That’s a big chunk of the money you’re going to make on a case. You’re giving it to someone who hasn’t done anything. That’s one way to do it.
SEO is another way of doing it that may give you a very huge margin. SEO is the practice of figuring out ways to get your names on top of Google in some ways — it’s complex enough to go into it, if you want to learn about it, then Google it. Just remember that the whole purpose of SEO and Google is to put the best content on the first page right in front of you.
Then there’s Internet marketing. Instagram, TikTok, and all the social media platforms. I have all the social media platforms and I post occasionally. My big push for the next six months and next year is social media. The thing is I don’t really love it. There are some people who love being on camera and giving advice, tutorials, and sharing their lives, taking pictures of their food and their dog. 🙂 I’m another person. So it takes a lot for me to do these things. That’s the reason why I went the SEO route first — because it allows me to be behind the computer in private. Meanwhile, Instagram does not. It’s all about putting your face out there and getting yourself out there.
I’m trying to overcome that hesitation to put myself out there because there’s a lot of people doing amazing things with social media. I’ll give an example. It’s @lawbymike. He probably has the most social media followers than any lawyer in the country. We left Reed Smith at the exact same time. I went the SEO route, and he went the Instagram route. He’s doing way better than I am. So there you go.
Interesting. I’ve never thought of Instagram as a great place for lawyers to find their audience, because Instagram is something more about entertainment, food, and fashion, but not law.
Well, it’s all about the content. Mike produces valuable content that people like and that helps them out. It’s funny and catchy. His videos are fantastic. They’re about 30 seconds to a minute, each one provides you a tip from criminal law. The guy doesn’t even practice criminal law, he does personal injury law, but he figured out that people are most interested in criminal law. So, he started out doing that, and then he went viral. BuzzFeed even picked him up and now he’s doing other things. But yeah, he’s done really well.
Let’s talk a little bit about LinkedIn. The engagement of your LinkedIn posts is really high. What would be your tip to those who are just starting posting on LinkedIn?
That is one area of social media where I do pretty well. I do even better there than on Facebook — and I do pretty well on Facebook actually. LinkedIn is really easy. Yes, you have to know what your audience is: your audience isn’t like a regular everyday person. Trying to educate them on the law or some type of thing like that is never going to work. They all think they’re smart and they don’t care all that much because they’re professionals themselves.
The angle you have to take is to share a bit about yourself. This makes you vulnerable. But you should also understand that the post is really about the reader and not you. So if you go on for six paragraphs about something that you went through, you may get some engagement. People might feel bad for you. It’s usually an “I graduated from law school” post that gets a ton of engagement but it is a one-off thing. That’s not going to work. But if you say something along the lines of “I made this mistake when I started my law firm. Here’s some tips I’ve learned over the past five months”, you’re going to get some engagement. It happens because people are going to say: “OK, this person was a little vulnerable.” Then they come back and even tell me something valuable. You’re going to get likes. Some people will see you.
The person who does it the best I’ve seen is Katie Lipp. I’m going to give her the first shout-out. She does a very good job. I even bought one of her little checklists, namely, a “How to start the law firm” checklist, and that was great.
I think, in one of her posts she said: “give away something that your readers will like and share a little bit about yourself. But remember: it’s not about you, it’s about them”.
I’m sure Katie will be glad to read this 🙂 What is the role of technology in the life of a small law firm owner?
It’s the heart of a law firm.
“If you are not leveraging technology as a small law firm owner, I don’t know how you survive. Technology allows you to compete with firms with hundreds of people. Thanks to technology, in my small law firm I can do things that I couldn’t do at my big firm. It’s astounding.”
Buying a new Mac mini with the M1 chip was the biggest leap in technology I’ve seen! I’m so excited because nothing freezes on my Google Docs, my computer runs like it’s an amazing machine! I’m sorry, I’m sort of a tech nerd, which you probably could tell from SEO and these types of things, but that leap in technology! The fact that you can store everything in the cloud, the fact that with Google Docs I never have to worry about something not saving ever! At the firm, I would crash my Word documents all the time and lose half of my work and start over again. That was like a once-in-a-month occurrence, now that’s a no-month occurrence.
The fact that I can collaborate with my paralegal in the same document and then go and send that same document to a virtual assistant on Upwork and have that person proofread it for me is amazing. After I’ve set up everything, it’s all seamless. And the sharing of information within your firm through things like Slack, and Messenger, and Zoom. It just makes one person be able to do a job of five people 20 years ago.
What part of small law firm operations should be tech-enabled in the first place? Why?
I think the better question is where you should not apply technology in the first place.
I mean, every single thing I do — if I want to create a new brief or a letter — I have a Google Doc with the template already created. Then I just make a copy (I already have half of the document populated in some cases, depending on what it is).
If I want to — I’m not working on this — but there are ways to get your receptionist company to automatically zap your contact information to a spreadsheet, which then triggers an email, which is automatic and says: “Here’s the form. I want you to fill it out.” Those are things I’m working towards.
I don’t even have a printer anymore, because I don’t print anything. I’m paperless. I don’t really know an area where I would not apply technology. It just doesn’t make any sense.
How do you choose tech solutions for your business? Where do you look for them? What are your selection criteria? What are your measurements of adoption success?
I’m in a Facebook group of like-minded small firm attorneys. I really take their recommendations. I’ve built my own website and do my SEO, but even I don’t understand some of the programs they are talking about. That shows the level of technology and the know-how in this group. So, if they recommend something for a specific task, I’d usually listen to them.
Other than typical Google things, I am still figuring out what I need. Again, the mistake I’m making here is that I am working in all of my business. That’s why there are gaps where I should have a better process for automating, gather and take information to my automatic trigger, into my spreadsheet, to my form. I don’t have it set up yet, but it’s possible. So, there are definitely things that I need to do better. I need to do better with templates and those types of things instead of just drafting a document every time.
There’re add-ins that I use in Google Docs like Grammarly. There’s constantly stuff that I’ll work in like add-ons. I think they are great.
How do you envision a small law firm in the 21st century?
It depends on what you want. Let’s say you want to stay small. I think John H. Fisher’s firm in New York is the ultimate example of a small law firm that is succeeding on every level. He wrote a book called “The Power Of A System: How To Build the Injury Law Practice of Your Dreams.” I always plug this book in wherever I go because it was one of the things that inspired me to start a law firm. When I read this book, my mind was going like “Boom!”.
He could write down every single thing his firm does, automated with the technology, and sat on the beach in Mexico while doing this. In his book, he says he does three things: he writes, he takes depositions, and he trials cases. He has every other thing in the litigation process automated. He has great paralegals who are loyal to him. He pays them unbelievably well. He just has this incredible practice where he makes good money — I don’t know how much he makes, it’s not important. But he can make great money on a beach from anywhere and he just seems to be super happy.
There is another attorney with the best story I’ve ever heard. I feel like this is what I want to do. I want to aspire to her goals, I guess. Her name is Chelsie Lamie, she’s located in Florida, but her firm has been virtual. She is a personal injury lawyer who has maybe 10 to 15 employees, the same thing as John, but she spends a lot of her time in Mexico. So she’ll stack her appearances and come back from Mexico to Florida just to do depositions or trials. I’m okay with saying this because she’s shared this information on a podcast.
So, I guess it depends on the perspective. If you’re the owner, those are things you’re striving for. You’re striving for technology automation to bring you to the next level of “I can be on the beach and my firm runs itself.”
If you’re the consumer, I think the best part of this is that you’re getting the same product every single time when there are automations. It doesn’t really matter if John or Chelsie are doing the work themselves. You’re still getting the same exact level of service and attention because they’ve created the perfect system that makes sure that every single time the product is at the door. It’s perfect. It’s almost as good as if they had drafted it themselves from scratch, and that’s pretty great from both perspectives.
Could you please elaborate on the concept of a perfect system? If I understand it correctly, it’s the combination of human expertise and technological power, right?
Let’s give an example. John has gotten near to perfection on this. He might have a discovery pleading which is a form pleading that goes out to the other side and just requesting certain documents. John has probably spent 50 hours of his own time creating the perfect template of questions to ask. There’s no question that this is the best way to do it. It auto-populates. There’s probably some type of highlights that shows the paralegals that “OK, this is where you need to fill in the document.” There likely are instructions telling the paralegal “OK, at this point, three weeks out you need to ask the client for this, this, this, and this” or “Three weeks out make the follow-up and ask for this, this, this, and this.” Then the paralegals put that all together according to the system. Even those reminder emails are probably automated, too. So the paralegal probably doesn’t even send the emails, they just pick the button and say “Time this.” And that’s it. Documents are better because the information is in the attorney’s hands sooner. When it gets to the attorney, all John’s probably doing at this point is checking to make sure if everything’s good and then sending it out.
And there’s another way to do it. An attorney who overworks drafts the first draft himself, doesn’t have any templates, is randomly calling up with the client, doesn’t really remember when the deadline is, gets busy on something else, calls a client again, and the client says “I don’t really have the index stuff. I haven’t thought about it,” attorney’s scrambling. Ultimately, the attorney produces a product that is half as good. That’s the power-up of not having a system.
So, the perfect system has three elements: humans, technology, and processes.
Right, you’ve got to have the processes, you’ve got to have the technology, and you’ll never replace the human element completely. But if you are a lawyer in a small firm or an interference defense lawyer in a small firm, you could automate a lot and make your life easier.
Thank you, Andrew! What interview question would you like to be asked and how would you answer it?
I think the question is the following: “Should people start their own law firms?” The way I would answer that is: “I think that it’s a really great thing to do.”
I think that starting a law firm is probably one of the easiest small businesses in the country if you think about it.
If you start a restaurant, you’re operating on razor-thin margins. Meanwhile, the owner — and this is the distinction — does not have to be a world-class chef. They can be any single person in the country. If had the money, I could go right now. But it’s probably going to fail like all the other restaurants do because they are operating at razor-thin margins.
Meanwhile, being a law firm owner, the number one is that you are a licensed attorney. Not everyone can do that. That restricts the pool so much. Then number two: it gets to be barred in a particular state. That keeps all the other attorneys from all over the country out from competing in your state. Then number three is that the margins are amongst the highest in any business. So either way, if you’re billing by the hour or you’re doing contingency fee, if you’re hiring someone, chances are that they’re only taking roughly 30 to 40% of your bottom line. And you’re keeping that 60% or reinvesting a lot of them in the business. Where else can you get a 60% margin in business? I don’t think you can get this in very many places.
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. Yes, there’s some risk, and you have to say yes to a cut-down salary for a while, and you’re not in the comfy confines of a big office and you’re not the prestigious lawyer anymore. But probably most of my friends in the small firm lawyers’ space make more than I made when I was in big law. So I would say that you absolutely should do it if you’re tired of being overworked and under-compensated and are looking for something different.
Thank you, Andrew!
On October 7, 2021, we at Loio hosted a webinar on fostering innovation in small law firms. This time, we were discussing legaltech ad...