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How Modern Family Law Is Revolutionizing The Legal Industry

A Conversation With M. David Johnson,
CEO Of Modern Family Law

In this interview, Kirill Kniazev sits down with Dave Johnson, the CEO of Modern Family Law, to delve into Dave’s background and the creation of Modern Family Law. They discuss what sets the firm apart from others in the industry, emphasizing its unique administrative structure and tech-driven approach. Dave also shares insights on the benefits and challenges of starting one’s own practice versus joining a firm like Modern Family Law. He highlights the qualities he looks for in attorneys, emphasizing empathy, problem-solving, and a sense of purpose. The conversation explores the importance of personal growth, compassion, and technology in the legal profession, and Dave sheds light on the Licensed Legal Paraprofessional (LLP) program, showcasing how it benefits clients, paralegals, and law firms alike. Throughout the interview, Dave underscores the firm’s commitment to providing value, access to justice, and opportunities for its team members.

A Conversation With
M. David Johnson,
CEO Of Modern Family Law

In this interview, Kirill Kniazev sits down with Dave Johnson, the CEO of Modern Family Law, to delve into Dave’s background and the creation of Modern Family Law. They discuss what sets the firm apart from others in the industry, emphasizing its unique administrative structure and tech-driven approach. Dave also shares insights on the benefits and challenges of starting one’s own practice versus joining a firm like Modern Family Law. He highlights the qualities he looks for in attorneys, emphasizing empathy, problem-solving, and a sense of purpose. The conversation explores the importance of personal growth, compassion, and technology in the legal profession, and Dave sheds light on the Licensed Legal Paraprofessional (LLP) program, showcasing how it benefits clients, paralegals, and law firms alike. Throughout the interview, Dave underscores the firm’s commitment to providing value, access to justice, and opportunities for its team members.

Dave’s Background & The Creation Of Modern Family Law

Kirill: I am here today with Dave Johnson, CEO of Modern Family Law, and today we’re going to get to know a little bit about Dave, why he created Modern Family Law, and why it’s an awesome place to work. Let’s kick the conversation off with a little bit about yourself, your background, and why you decided to create Modern Family Law. 

Dave Johnson: I’ve been practicing law since 1994, and I started out with a general practice doing lots of litigation-based cases. I started my own firm right out of law school, then went to work for a different firm as a partner, as their litigation attorney. I handled a variety of different types of cases for them. I found I did not have the same objectives as that firm, so I went back on my own and started building what became Modern Family Law.

I decided to move away from a general practice to focus on family law because I knew I couldn’t keep handling every type of case. When you first start out, you got to kind of have a broad palette of cases, but as you move forward, you’ve got to focus. Broad implies “Jack of all trades, master of none.” I was trying to figure out where to place my focus, and it became really clear that if I want to make a big difference in the lives of everyday people and have a very broad impact, family law is where I do it.

Family law is probably one of the most litigious areas of practice you can imagine because people fight over issues because they consider family issues to be very important. Parents fight over their kids, it’s a high-conflict area, but also one that is sensitive. Family law is a field in which I think lawyers can have a huge impact, both good and bad.

What Sets Modern Family Law Apart?

Kirill: What makes Modern Family Law stand out from other family law firms? 

Dave Johnson: I could probably take up a whole hour just on the differences between our firm and other firms. First and foremost, we are a law firm, unlike some of these other companies out there that are just lead generators and distributors. We’ve got lawyers, we’ve got paralegals, we do billing, we go to court, but what sets us apart is our structure. 

Our administrative structure is based on the tech world and how they do business, and how the rest of the modern world does business. We’re different in how we treat our people. We’re different in how we conduct business. We’re different in how we view clients. We’re different in our objectives. We really aim for productivity. The traditional legal administrative structure is not designed with productivity in mind. The less efficient a firm is, the more money the firm generates because it can bill more hours. So many law firms steer clear of productivity and efficiency. Not us. 

Our goal is to make the administrative process as efficient and productive as possible so that lawyers can focus on legal issues and paralegals can focus on getting the case teed up for hearing and making sure we’re in compliance with the court’s case management orders or local rules. 

We do not model our business after law firms. Every time I talk to a vendor or accountant or another service provider, they tell me, “Well, other law firms do it this way.” My reply to that is the same every time, “I don’t want to talk about how law firms do it. I want to talk about how the best companies do it, how you recommend a company do it, not how a law firm would do it.” 

Considerations When Making Career Decisions

Kirill: If I were an attorney who was considering starting my own practice, or looking for employment at Modern Family Law or another law firm in my practice area, what would be some of the benefits and challenges to consider? 

Dave Johnson: Yeah, it’s a great question. I look at people coming out of law school, and I pay attention to law students, what they’re doing, and where they want to go. And on LinkedIn I see lawyers guiding law students, to go out and start their own firm. I cringe when I see that because yeah, it’s nice to start your own business. I did. I started coming out of law school, I went through it. And I screwed it up left and right and it’s terrible. 

While I appreciate people wanting to start their own business and be their own boss, it is just a minefield out there of mistakes and tragic outcomes that can happen. Plus, it’s a very demanding challenge to start your own firm. You can’t take a vacation. You can’t walk away from it at five o’clock at night. You have to advertise, sell, perform your legal duties, chase down invoices, do financial reporting, and file taxes – it’s a multi-person, full-time job to work as a sole proprietor, and all of this in one of the most competitive industries. You don’t have the benefits, you don’t have the free time, you don’t have the support staff, and you just don’t have the resources to adequately serve your client or to have a life. 

My advice to new lawyers is to spend some time with a reputable modern law firm, like Modern Family Law. Spend three, four, or five years learning and honing your skills, and then decide if it is worth it. Should I do it? Can I do it? Is that what I want to do? As far as going off and starting your own practice. 

Most people figure out quickly starting a law firm is not a great future versus coming over to, a firm like us where you do have a future. You can become a partner, you can become an equity partner, you can learn and work on other projects. If you’re interested in marketing and you find that interesting, you can be a lawyer and do marketing and maybe eventually one day just do legal marketing, if that’s what you want. With our firm, you have the freedom of choice. 

When you start at a bigger firm with more roles, you can chart which course interests you most. I loved being in court. I loved cross-examining witnesses. I loved getting a case ready to go, but I loved the creative side of running a business and seeing the success of running a business, but I had to figure out what that business would be, and how I would want to run it, first. 

Kirill: It’s interesting that you point out bringing in newer attorneys, and coaching them to do different things within the organization. It’s almost as if you’re looking for attorneys with an entrepreneurial mindset. Does that seem somewhat accurate? 

Dave Johnson: Definitely. I’m looking for problem solvers. I’m looking for empathy and compassion. I’m looking for people who can understand our clients’ dilemmas, maybe people who have been through a divorce, maybe people who have, I think everybody’s probably had a relationship go south, and tapping into that experience is invaluable in helping other people through it.

Kirill: Part of the entrepreneurial attitude is this notion of personal growth and continuous improvement. How does the firm support some of the newer attorneys in their growth journey? 

Dave Johnson: I want to help new attorneys develop and become really good lawyers. We have a legal development professional on staff, Ami Larson, who coordinates all the professional development programs. We have an extensive onboarding process, and after the onboarding, you’ve got the support that comes both from Ami and also from the managing attorneys. 

Once a week, every case in the firm is reviewed by the managing attorney and the responsible attorney. We provide support, direction, and strategic support for new lawyers to come in and learn how to practice. 

We also are re-instituting a mentor program for 2024 where we’re going to take new lawyers right out of law school and teach them how to be great lawyers. 

When you’re in law school, the Socratic method is great, but it doesn’t really teach you how to stand at the podium. It doesn’t teach you how to deal with an aggressive opposing counsel. It doesn’t teach you to deal with a judge who’s having a bad day for a variety of reasons. 

What we found over the years is that somebody’s got to teach new lawyers how to deal with real-world issues, and we’ve seen great progress through our mentor program. Not only do we send them to the CLEs and support them in those professional development efforts, but we also provide that direct support on a structured weekly basis to help them develop and become better lawyers and better advocates for their clients. 

Kirill: It’s nice to know that a lot of the attorneys at Modern Family Law who are more senior have won multiple awards within the industry and are experienced mentors. One of the things that you talk about on the career page, aside from personal growth, is this notion of meaningful work. What does that mean at Modern Family Law? 

Dave Johnson: I feel like a lot of people go to law school because they are looking for a purpose, for their “why”. Almost every commencement speech or swearing-in ceremony typically touches on that purpose, that unique core benefit that lawyers can provide for people. In the family law world, there is much meaningful work to be done. 

When people call us, it’s often one of the worst days of their life. Whatever happened to them to make them pick up the phone and call a divorce lawyer, that’s a powerful moment. How do you handle this moment? Do you say, “I need $5,000 before I talk to you?” Do you shuffle them off to someone and make them send an email? Or, do you connect them right away with a licensed attorney or legal professional who can provide timely assistance? 

To me, meaningful and compassionate work is helping people through that worst day and helping them have a chance at a reasonably satisfying future because divorce can be absolutely devastating. It can wipe people out for the rest of their lives. Divorce destroys families. The first phone call is a life-changing moment for many people. 

So meaningful, yeah, this work is meaningful. Not only are you helping to save that one person, that one client, but you’re also helping to reduce conflict for family members. You can learn to keep the temperature down and make sure that the case doesn’t blow up. Everybody else is tangentially connected to the client and to this family, you also impact them. So it is a unique area of practice where you can really solve great, meaningful challenges for real people. 

Modernizing Legal Practices With A Tech-Forward Approach

Kirill: So it’s definitely an area where there’s purpose in the work. There is compassion. That’s one of the core values that Modern Family Law embraces. Another value is innovation, and my experience is traditionally law firms are very paper-centric. There’s a lot of movement of documents from one area to another. It frankly takes up a lot of time. So how does Modern Family Law utilize technology to support the attorneys who work here? 

Dave Johnson: Every day we experiment with something new to try and improve our efficiency and productivity. We were doing remote work before the pandemic ever hit. I live in San Francisco and I am running a firm in nine other locations right now. 

Running a firm in nine locations around the US requires us to be very tech-savvy and to lean into the dynamic and evolving modern world of law. People are accustomed to seeing legal practices on TV where a lawyer’s office is piled high with folders and papers everywhere. Not in our office. Those piles are gone because it’s all digitized, it’s all organized. Most law firms are moving that way or are already there, but we take it a step further. One of the most expensive parts of any case is the discovery where you collect information, organize it, review it, and prepare it for a hearing. This process is often one of the lengthiest and most expensive for clients. 

We use as much secure technology as we can to get the information directly from the client, have that automatically feed into our database, and then follow up with the client to make sure we get everything. From there, a paralegal professional organizes it – all done digitally, with no paper documents exchanged. Secure technology is really at the core of our business model, and what drives us forward, while reducing costs and creating real value in savings, both time and financial, for our clients. 

Kirill: Some attorneys may hear a word like “efficiency” and think, “what happens to my billable hours?” How have you seen this impact of technology affect billable hours and this notion of virtual meetings and working from home and virtual court appearances, how does that affect work-life balance and billable hours for attorneys, and what feedback have you received on that? 

Dave Johnson: I could dive into the complex economics of productivity versus the billable hour, but the bottom line is it works for us and it works for our clients. As the country itself has become more productive, what happened to the labor force? It grew. We’re down to three and a half percent unemployment, and yet everybody was saying that productivity would burn up and everybody would be laid off because of productivity. It works, and it creates more meaningful opportunities while reducing unnecessary, mundane, and menial tasks that are often the most time-consuming. 

For us, technology lets people focus on things that clients are willing to pay for. Clients don’t want to pay for someone to shuffle documents, put them in the right folder, and do other non-value-adding activities, and yet they have to be done. So, we automate these so that the client, when they get the bill, sees valuable activity from the attorneys and paralegals. 

Many attorneys out there scoff at virtual work, virtual court appearances, technology, and new ways of thinking. Their goal is to reduce overhead and other business expenses by capturing as much time and money from each client as possible, which means high conflict cases that create stress for the client, and redundant activities that add no value to the client. 

Productivity lets us be better billers and keeps us focused on the actual hearing, the substance of the hearing, the issues of parenting time, and marital support. Productivity gives us the freedom to focus on the law and providing the best service and the most value for our clients instead of document management. 

Expanding Access To Legal Services Through The LLP Program

Kirill: Speaking of providing value by non-traditional means, here’s a new program in Colorado that’s being rolled out to paralegals, and this program is the licensed legal paraprofessional program. What does this program look like, how does it benefit paralegals, and what types of paralegals would benefit the most from this?  

Dave Johnson: I love this program, the LLP program. Who does it benefit? It’s going to benefit everybody involved, whether they know it or not, whether they like it or not. The LLP program opens a channel for experienced family law paralegals to provide direct service to clients. 

Anybody who’s worked in this field long enough knows that some highly trained and experienced paralegals know more than some lawyers and sometimes more than a judge. These paralegals can be very beneficial to clients in certain types of cases. 

The program helps the client because the paralegal’s going to charge them a much lower hourly rate than a lawyer. For the types of cases where an LLP can help with, a client could see substantial value in the form of attorney time savings. 

The program is going to decrease the overhead and the cost to that client, and it’s going to help a firm that adopts the LLP program because the firm is going to pick up clients who would otherwise not be able to retain the firm, for financial reasons. These are clients that may not need the full expertise of an attorney, but they cannot afford an attorney or a retainer to find out. Maybe they can afford a lawyer, maybe they can’t. But that channel of clients now has the option of hiring an LLP within a firm and having qualified representation and supervision. 

This program is similar to the nurse practitioner program in the medical field, where we have seen that many cases do not require a doctor’s full expertise. So in the same vein here, an LLP can resolve a lot of issues without getting an attorney involved, but like a nurse practitioner can with a doctor, an LLP can seek guidance from an experienced attorney, when needed. 

This is a win-win situation for everybody, but of course, change is hard. The faster law firms get on board this train, the better for them because we are going to have at least two LLPs on our staff next year. I’d love to have 10 on our staff because I do feel that this is a channel that is different than what we have right now and is going to, again, improve productivity and efficiency and provide fair access to justice for underserved clients who otherwise wouldn’t have access to an attorney, or don’t require the full services of one. 

Kirill: Does the LLP program harm attorneys and/or legal practices?  

Dave Johnson: No, not at all. I’ve sat in on several meetings where this program has been talked about amongst lawyers, judges, and mediators. The judges and mediators love the program because it provides access to justice and it provides a lower threshold for people to find helpful legal services. 

Some lawyers don’t like it, and they feel threatened by it. And so they assume that there’s going to be harm done to them because they have a high barrier to entry set for legal services. The truth is that this program will open a separate channel of service that even if it’s a sole practitioner if they hire an LLP, that person then is going to be able to provide coverage and support for the attorney and is going to be able to get hired by clients that otherwise can’t afford their services. 

For a firm, this is going to create a new channel of profitability, increased revenue coming in from that source that you wouldn’t otherwise have. There will be challenges around that program, but at the end of the day, the more people we can serve, the better off we’re going to be both bottom-line and mission-wise. There are always going to be clients who want to work directly with an attorney, and that’s perfectly okay as well. It’s a winning outcome for everyone. 

Kirill: You had mentioned opportunities and growth for paralegals in Modern Family Law. How is the firm supporting this program?  

Dave Johnson: We are committed to helping the paralegals get ready for their ethics exam. We’re going to pay for the registration, we’re going to pay for their licensing just like we do with lawyers. For the first year of the program, the firm is going to pay for a lot of the expenses related to this certification, this professional advancement for our paralegal teams. 

It’s available to all of our paralegal team. If they qualify for the program, then we’ll pay for it. If they want it for this first year. I want paralegals to come on board, who want to take part in this program, and I’ll pay for it because I really believe that this is a channel, this is a program that is advantageous to a law firm, advantageous to the clients and will provide more access to justice for the public. 

Join Modern Family Law

Join us in shaping the future of family law. Discover how the Licensed Legal Paraprofessional program can elevate your legal career, and explore the dynamic opportunities waiting for you at Modern Family Law. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of countless families. Get started on your journey towards a rewarding legal career with purpose and innovation. Take the next step toward a fulfilling future in family law!

By: Kirill Kniazev

Posted September 14, 2023

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