Last year, I merged my law firm with another firm, owned by Carole Bess. It was a good fit: I had retired in 2006 after 21 years in the United States Air Force and started my firm a year later, having earned my law degree by night while in the military. I had a strong background in technology, but I needed a mentor with more experience in law. Carole had been practicing for 20 years, but needed someone to help her use basic technology to update her business model.
For instance, when Carole's clients filed for bankruptcy, they wrote their financial information on a paper form, which then had to be transcribed into a computer. This was time consuming, expensive, and led to errors.
By contrast, my firm's clients entered their information on a secure website, which processed and relayed the relevant information to us. Going from paper to a Web-based system allowed my old firm to increase its caseload by 40 percent, increase its profit-per-case by 6 percent and cut our paper use by 60 percent. Carole had twice as many cases as I did, so when she began adopting new technology, it saved her firm even more.
Paul Daley and Carole Bess merged to form a new, streamlined law practice.
Naturally, there was tension — the staffs of both firms were reluctant to merge. My staff relied heavily on technology and trusted one another to get the job done — but they weren't so sure if their process would work for Carole's staff, who were used to doing everything on paper. Carole's people didn't want to relearn their jobs using my firm's technology. It was a challenge to get them to work together and communicate. Each group was constantly looking over the other's shoulders.
We had some missteps. In one instance, we filed a court document late because my staff hadn't communicated with Carole's, and then Carole's staff didn't use the filing software properly. Our client was angry, though we were fortunate that the courts let us correct our mistake.
It took six months for the staff to begin to feel comfortable as a group. I wound up spending a lot of one-on-one time with Carole's people, evangelizing the benefits of technology. If I saw an employee printing a document and then scanning it, I would show him how to save the file as a PDF directly from Microsoft Word. Once employees began to see the usefulness, they became more willing to make the switch. But it took effort and patience.
How I reallocated responsibilities
When we combined our staff we discovered some overlap. I had a person for writing letters; so did she. We each had an employee who did Chapter 13 filings. And each of us had our own templates for the various forms and letters we use. It only took a couple of irate calls from clients who didn't receive the proper information, or received it twice in two slightly different forms, to realize we needed to reorganize the way we allocated work to our employees.
I used a technique I learned while working in network operations in the Air Force. I held a series of meetings at which everyone wrote down their responsibilities. Many weren't doing enough, and some were performing identical jobs. Over the next few meetings, we eliminated redundancies and made sure employees all had enough to do. Now, for example, my staff is assigned to do Chapter 7 filings, and Carole's does Chapter 13 filings. One employee writes letters for both of us.
We're ready to grow
Since we merged in June and July of 2009, we've taken on two new attorneys to help us tackle a broader range of cases. Before we merged, my firm was making $300,000 a year and Carole's was making about $600,000. If things keep going the way they are, I project that we'll reach $1.5 million collectively by the end of this fiscal year.
— As told to Harper Willis
Paul Daley is a partner at Bess & Daley Law in Merritt Island, Fla., and a member of the Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity and the Florida Bar Association.