First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Elmer Thoreson: We have been lucky. No one at goodcounsel has lost anyone to COVID-19. There has been some stress related to COVID-19, but goodcounsel has always worked as a geographically distributed team, so that made for less of an adjustment for us.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined goodcounsel.
Elmer Thoreson: I took an unusual path to law school and discovered that I did not want to practice law in the traditional way. During my final year of law school, I worked as an intern in the practice innovations group of a Chicago law firm and discovered goodcounsel. I met with Ken Obel, and many of our values aligned, so Ken hired me as a contractor to assist with process improvement. After graduation, he invited me to work full-time as an attorney.
Ken is our founder, and he is a hybrid lawyer/entrepreneur. The goodcounsel theory is that company founders are innovators by nature, so they would prefer to work with service providers that embrace innovation, understand risk, and value building long-term relationships. He has been very selective and is building a firm that embraces a developmental culture.
How does goodcounsel innovate?
Elmer Thoreson: This may seem obvious but being interested in working smarter is at the core of innovation. Not all organizations approach work this way; some are perfectly content to keep working in the same ways. By contrast, after anything goodcounsel does, whether for a client or the firm, we ask ourselves what we could have done better.
We focus on understanding our clients’ needs and adjusting our practice accordingly. Our primary innovations (so far) include our drafting philosophy, fees, technology, and automation.
Drafting Philosophy. Legal documents are becoming longer and more inscrutable; it’s difficult for the consumers of legal services (i.e., clients) to understand the documents that they’re paying for. Our drafting philosophy focuses on mindfulness and brevity. We interrogate our documents to ensure that each word serves a purpose. Clear, simple documents reduce deal friction and prevent misunderstandings that lead to litigation.
Fees. We control our fees by offering fixed fees and a subscription program called Counsel-as-a-Service (CaaS). CaaS helps us build close relationships with clients, catch issues before they become problems, and educate our clients about their legal responsibilities. When we offer an hourly engagement, we estimate the costs and keep the client apprised of our progress.
Technology. Technology is essential to running an efficient, client-focused law firm. We use project management software to promote teamwork, accountability, and data-driven improvement. Timekeeping software allows us to increase transparency by allowing us to track our time for both hourly and fixed fee matters. And our CRM helps us manage client relationships, track leads and opportunities, and harvest data to help us improve our performance.
Automation. Our clients do not want to pay us to reinvent the wheel, so we maintain a strong set of automated templates to speed up the drafting process.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Elmer Thoreson: We were already set up for remote work, so we were ahead of the curve there. The biggest challenge for us is keeping up with the legal developments related to the pandemic. Things are still uncertain, and our clients need to know that we are watching out for them. We provide resources and updates to our clients about many topics, including the federal Paycheck Protection Program, changes to FMLA, and re-opening rules.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Elmer Thoreson: We cultivate an open culture where people are encouraged to ask for help or advice because collaboration is important to us. A positive side effect of this emphasis on collaboration is a reduction in stress and anxiety. We also have firm calls to check-in with one another and maintain our sense of togetherness even though we are apart.
We each have our own ways of dealing with stress and anxiety. I enjoy walking by Lake Michigan and watching terrible movies and television from the eighties and nineties. Other people at the firm enjoy biking, hiking, tennis, and Disney+. We make a point of knowing these things about one another so that we can get updates about people’s latest athletic victories or their guilty pleasure binge viewing. Sharing this information with one another is key to reducing stress and anxiety.
How do you project yourself and goodcounsel in the future?
Elmer Thoreson: We have attorneys in Illinois, New York, and California. We expect to enter at least two additional startup markets in the next five years. We are developing systems for our legal processes that will scale to support these additional locations and allow for our continued growth. We believe it is important to understand all the players that can help a startup succeed, so we are building relationships with the various stakeholders in startup ecosystems.
I will stay on the path of developing close relationships with startups and see where it leads. I hope to find other attorneys that are interested in our firm and culture to help us expand into the new markets. It is my goal for goodcounsel to become the go-to legal provider for startups and innovators.
The rates of burnout, drug abuse, and mental illness among attorneys are astronomical, and our approach to law, use of technology, and culture combat these problems. I want to help other lawyers realize that they, too, can change their practice, which will help both their clients and themselves.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Elmer Thoreson: Our traditional competitors are other law firms, which often fail to understand innovators and offer hourly engagements at high rates that can lead to shocking bills. We also compete with legal service providers who provide do-it-yourself documents but often fail to give the client sufficient individualized guidance or support. Many entrepreneurs use these tools but do not understand the limitations of the documents they receive.
We will stay in the game because we are the total package. First, we understand innovators because we are innovators. Thus, we focus on offering good, practical advice. Second, we make sure a client will never have to worry about a “the sky’s the limit” hourly bill from goodcounsel because of predictability and value matter. Third, we offer the best of both worlds. Our document automation and subscription program allows clients to self-serve when appropriate and include proper guidance and support. And most importantly, we ask our clients for feedback and act on it.
Your final thoughts?
Elmer Thoreson: Many businesses hate dealing with legal because legal can act as a roadblock and provide unrealistic or indecipherable advice. We work hard to help clients manage risk, provide clear, straight-forward advice, and help close deals. We enable startups to move forward.