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Law Firm Leader Interview With Jim Farrin

When a lawyer as successful as Jim Farrin talks, we all do well to listen.

He is the founder and head of the largest PI firm in North Carolina. Jim’s firm ranked as a Tier 1 Best Law Firm from U.S. News Best Lawyers. He also served as class counsel for one of the largest civil rights cases in U.S. history, helping to win a $1.25 billion settlement from the federal government for tens of thousands of African-American farmers.

I sat down with Jim to discuss how technology has helped power his successful firm. Jim not only shared his thoughts on the ideal solutions for a plaintiffs’ firm, but also how this tech supported a stronger business strategy.

Let’s start with a big question: Why is having the right technology important for a law firm to be successful?

There are a lot of reasons why good software is important to a successful law firm. It helps your lawyers and paralegals work faster and more efficiently. Good software can also save you a lot of time and money in a competitive business. It makes your staff members’ lives easier, so they are happier. And it helps you better serve clients.

But to me, as a law firm manager, the biggest benefit of excellent legal software is measurement. The technology tools I use not only measure our success, but also make sure we actually achieve our goals for performance. In other words, the best thing about legal technology is how it shows what we’re doing well, and what we need to improve. The data analysis from our software makes all this possible.

Data and analytics get mentioned a lot in the legal software space. Can you elaborate on what data analysis means to your firm and how it works?

Sure, think of it this way: I want my business decisions to be driven by data, not subjective feel, as much as possible. That means measuring our everyday business processes and analyzing how well we are performing. What can set my firm apart from my competition is getting reports in real time that allow me to analyze and act on the data.

But this kind of data-driven decision making doesn’t just happen. You need a way to gather all this information and make sense of it quickly. Data analysis can’t be done well if it’s painful to generate the data or if you’re not collecting and storing the data in an organized way. I don’t want to have to commission reports that would take many man-hours to compile. That’s a waste of my staff’s energy and time, and also means there will be a delay in receiving the information while my team compiles the report. Instead, I need the information at my fingertips, whenever I want it. The right legal technology can make this happen.

Can you share an example of a particular area of your law business where this data analysis is especially useful?

Marketing is a great example. I use our case intake process and software to generate marketing performance feedback. This begins by asking each caller what made them call our firm, and recording their top-of-mind awareness answer in our intake software. That’s a good, but not unique, practice among law firms: lots of us ask our clients for feedback.

So I want to look deeper. The key to making better marketing decisions is having timely, accurate information. If I can make better decisions faster than my competitors I will be on my way to improving what’s working and fixing what isn’t, while my competitors are floundering in the dark. For example, I want to be able to see which campaign is working well in each market without having to wait. I need to be able to instantly compare marketing trends, going back to last month, last quarter, or last year at this time. So when we switch our TV commercials, or our TV buy, I want to be able to judge the effects. Maybe Friday last week seemed slow, but how did it compare with other Fridays in the last six months? I can know that immediately through our intake software’s analytics.

We advertise on TV a lot, so television drives a lot of our business. I want as much information I can get on what is working on my television spending. Fortunately, we record in our software when calls come in. I then can compare our TV ad buy (supplied by our advertising agency) which tells us when commercials are running, and on which stations. Our software allows us to graph both the timing of the calls and the commercials we are running, and by overlaying them, I get a strong idea which commercials are most driving calls. That’s powerful information that we use to make our media buy even stronger.

So what metrics do you monitor in GrowPath to tell which marketing efforts are working, and which ones aren’t?

When I factor in the amount we’re spending in each category, I can quickly generate our cost per lead and cost per case. It’s not enough for me to know that I got 10 cases from the internet in a market last month. I want to know what my cost per lead and cost per case were. It may be that my cost per case is half as much on television. If that’s the case, I’ll want to reallocate money away from the internet and towards TV, where I am getting a better return on investment. Then I will watch how my cost per case goes with the increased spending on TV. If the increased spending doesn’t move the needle much, my TV cost per case will rise, and I will look to spend some of that money elsewhere.

I have a variety of marketing spending options in my portfolio, and my legal software gives me the reporting information I need to find the optimal spending levels. That means more cases obtained at less cost. That’s a recipe for future profits, especially when I combine this with the software’s ability to help me find quality cases.

Can you share what you mean by quality cases? And how the software helps?

A truth that everybody knows but most can’t measure is the importance of bringing in quality cases. By that I mean those cases that should bring high verdicts or settlements, and thus high fees. One great case is worth dozens of smaller cases. I want to know how many cases I am bringing in, but also how valuable these cases look to be. If I am getting 20% fewer cases on the internet per dollar spent than on TV, but those cases are three times as valuable, then I wouldn’t want to decrease my internet spending. Measuring quality, not just quantity, is important. But how to do it?

We have found a way. Our intake software allows us to score our cases based on criteria we set (such as recency of accident, injury type, property damage amount, insurance carrier, etc.). Anything that we believe is relevant at intake we assign a different point value, which combines to instantly calculate a quality score. Each potential case thus has an algorithmic value based on factors that we have historically found to impact case value. We can also change the scoring over time as we learn more to get more precise scores. This allows me to measure in marketing what is working to bring in quality cases, and what isn’t. If I have a relatively low numbers month but my quality scores are up, I sleep better. And more importantly, I am less likely to make faulty decisions that may chase quantity at the expense of quality.

Our software can also compare the actual value of each resolved case with our algorithmic projected value, and using machine learning allows us to improve our projections in the future. Put simply, that means our software learns how to work better for us on every case. While this once seemed futuristic, it is here today, and again, it gives us great information to make decisions. And making data driven and better decisions gives us a competitive advantage.

You’ve shared a lot about how important client intake is to your firm’s success. Besides the data analysis, what are some other ways your software makes client intake better?

Our client intake process is crucial, and the software we use helps us out in a lot of ways. It makes it easier to prioritize the right cases, store and find key documents, communicate with clients, find hidden cases, and make a smooth start in building a client’s case. That’s a lot, so I’ll go into detail on each area.

Prioritize the Right Cases

So I mentioned having a scored value for intakes earlier. That has another key benefit. It allows me to prioritize my intakes, and make sure that the good ones aren’t getting lost somewhere amidst the press of other work.

GrowPath’s intake software sends me an email each day showing all intakes from the previous day that met a certain quality threshold, and I can review them at a glance to make sure that they are being properly handled. There are times when this email showed me a good case may be drifting away, and I could jump in and make a difference by talking to the client myself or directing some other action. The scored intakes also help the staff prioritize the best cases and make sure that their follow up efforts are smartly targeted on them. I can handle losing a small soft tissue injury case if I have to, but I never want a big one to get away just because there were a dozen cases ahead of it in the follow up queue.

Store and Find Key Documents

Beyond prioritizing the best intakes, another key to turning intakes we want into signed cases is organizing documents related to the case. Here again, our software is a huge asset. We want to make quick decisions on whether to take a case, so callers with good cases don’t feel left out or neglected. So if they send us some pictures of a wreck or their injuries, the software sorts the incoming text right into their intake record. That way it’s there in one place for us to review along with the other details of their case. If we get the police report online, we can append it to the intake record and view it too. No more looking for documents in multiple places in our network, which saves us a ton of time.

Easy Client Communication

During intake, communication with potential clients is critical to gaining and maintaining their confidence before we sign the case. Calls or emails can be missed, so we like to text many potential clients. Our intake software lets us send them a text message from the app and have that record go right into our software. So nobody has to copy and paste or spend time on duplicative data entry.

And when the potential client replies, the information is automatically captured in our software. No one has to find the text and route it to the appropriate file, so we have saved that extra step and minimized the potential for error. Similarly, we can send out contracts securely via text and allow potential clients to sign with us electronically and text the document back to us.

Find Hidden Cases Within Cases

So, I mentioned finding “hidden cases” during intake. One thing that can really set winning law firms apart is playing offense with intake: finding cases that wouldn’t otherwise be there. I call these hidden cases, cases a caller isn’t calling about that can lead to a large settlement. For example, a caller may be complaining about a hopeless medical negligence claim, and miss a medical device mass tort.

So how best to find these hidden cases? I guess you could have the world’s best intake staff, and constantly train them. But then everyone who might take an intake would have to have ongoing training on the state of each new mass tort. That’s just not practical. So our software does this search for us with a feature called “Buzzwords.” This lets us program key words (like mesothelioma) into our software regularly.

So when the phrase appears in an intake form as a result of the caller’s description, instructions pop up. The instructions prompt the intake representative to ask scripted questions whenever a BuzzwordTM appears. So if a caller mentions a knee replacement, our staff will be prompted to ask questions targeting recalled knee devices. I don’t have to train my staff on any of this, I just have to update my keywords and prompts. This has led us to “find” countless cases that would have likely otherwise gone unnoticed.

Another great way of finding new cases is searching our database. When a new mass tort breaks, many lawyers have the same thought: Let’s find some of these cases from our existing and former client database. Sounds good in theory, but how long does it take to run the search and compile the data?

Again, our software is a major help. We can search all of the records in our intake and case management database in about the same time it takes to run a typical Google search. That means we can find potential new cases with lightning speed and begin contacting potential clients right away. They appreciate that we are on top of new developments, and if they have a case, we are likely to get it. Finding cases without having to advertise for them is a ticket to increased profits.

Seamless Transition to Case Management

When we sign a client, our intake software also helps us make a smooth start in running our client’s case. Gone are the days when we had to separately set up a case in a different program and manually input details we had already collected elsewhere. Our intake software is no different from our case management software (except now the client box is checked), so we are already up and running and building on the information we collected during the intake process. We’ve saved time, resources, avoided staff frustration, and are able to focus right away on building our client’s case.

In short, we view intake as a game where we first try not to lose. Our goal is to turn as many qualified leads as we can into signed cases. When we lose one (especially a good one), it hurts. Having the ability to track and prioritize high quality intakes helps, as does being decisive and communicating well with potential clients. Our software helps with all of this, so we minimize our losses. And it also helps us make better marketing decisions, find cases we wouldn’t otherwise, and get off on a better foot with our clients. But great tools are only useful if your team knows what to do with them.

So how do you make sure your team knows what to do with this great technology? Can you share more about the people side of the equation?

Sure. So another barrier to moving cases better, faster, and more profitably are black holes. That’s when a case stagnates because we aren’t doing something that is under our control. Having great software that lets us do our job more efficiently is wonderful, but it won’t help us if someone isn’t paying attention to what they need to do to advance the case.

So we have our software give reminders that pop up for each individual working a case when something is overdue or needs to be done. We also provide tracker tools that show everybody what cases they have, where they are, and point out what needs attention. We can prompt work with reminders to individuals when they are in particular cases, but also when they are taking an overview of their entire case inventory. This dual system of reminders help everyone stay focused on the next key tasks they need to do.

But even then, the fact is not everyone will do what they are supposed to do all of the time. People fall behind and cases lag. As a manager, I want to know about that in real time. Because the earlier I can get on a problem, the easier it will be to fix. I want on demand reports that show me current data about all aspects of our workflow. This lets me shine a light on dark areas. If someone is behind, do they need help? Encouragement? More training? Is their caseload too much? Should I reduce their cases for a while to allow them time to catch up?

I can provide help in solving problems, but first I have to know where the problems are, and the sooner the better. The software’s ability to show me these reports makes this a lot easier. In many firms, problems spin out of control because they don’t see them until it’s late in the game. I can manage our law firm successfully because I can watch thousands of cases progress at a time. When a case is drifting or falling off the rails, I know where to look in order to find where the problem lies.

If you wanted anyone reading this interview to remember one thing about client intake software, what would that be?

I’d say it all comes down to having the right information when you need it. Having software that allows my staff to move cases more expeditiously, and tracking and analytics to highlight areas that need attention? That’s a beautiful thing. I sleep well at night because I know what is going on at any time. The information I need to run the firm is at my fingertips and updated in real time. I spot problems early and deal with them. And cases move faster without sacrificing value, which results in more satisfied clients, happier employees, and more profit for our firm. That’s winning.

August 28, 2018