JD Bliss (JDB): Your career in the law has involved ongoing innovation in billing, client service, and now the use of blogging to create virtual and physical forums to share strategies for improving legal practice. Did you intend to be a pathbreaker in your career?
Homann: Certainly not at first. After I got my J.D. in 1993 from Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, I went to work for an insurance defense firm. I simply didn’t like practicing in the big firm environment: we were pressured to bill as many hours as possible, yet our insurance company clients were equally intent on cutting costs for our services. I decided to return to my hometown of Highland, Illinois – which is about 40 miles east of St. Louis – where Tom Hill, a leading solo practitioner, asked me to work for him. I spent four years with Tom learning the ins and outs of practice in a small town, and by 1999 I had built up a base of clients and experience that enabled me to start my own firm, Homann Law and Mediation.
JDB: What was your practice focus, and has it evolved since you started on your own?
Homann: I’ve had a general practice, which is almost a necessity in a smaller town. If you help a client with a will, they expect you to handle a tax or real estate problem also. I defined my role as helping people navigate the legal system. I represent individuals planning their estates, taking care of their disabled children, buying and selling their homes, and starting their dream business. I also advise many local companies coping with the many legal challenges all small businesses face, and devote about 20% of my time to mediation of family law disputes. In 2004 I asked a partner to join me and our firm became The Silver Lake Group, maintaining the same general practice focus. And now in 2005 I’ve transitioned again – I’ve taken a sabbatical from the firm because my wife has accepted a special assignment from her employer that could last up to 18 months, and she, our two year-old daughter and I have temporarily relocated to Southern California.
JDB: That kind of flexibility is one advantage of having your own firm; how else have you used it to develop a unique practice approach?
Homann: When I started my own firm it was with the determination that I was going to do everything differently and right, as I saw it. It hadn’t taken me long to realize how broken our profession can be, particularly from the standpoint of billing and client service. I committed to doing a lot of reading and research on how to do things better, on the premise that it was my own billable time that I was using. The ideas that I evolved and applied to both Homann Law and Silver Lake included billing clients by monthly or per-project Service Pricingsm rather than at an hourly rate and offering a money-back service satisfaction guarantee. Our next steps include hiring a “client concierge” as a coordinator of client contact and satisfaction efforts, and establishing a foundation to use ten percent of our profits for local educational efforts. As part of establishing my own practice philosophy I resolved to share what I was doing with others to encourage all of us in the legal profession to move away from the billable hour and toward a saner, customer-centered way of practicing law. And that led me to start my own blog in January 2004.
JDB: And very successfully so – in the past year legal technology guru Dennis Kennedy, who we’ve profiled on JD Bliss, named you Best New Legal Blogger and another survey named the [non]billable hour as one of the “Top 50 Blawgs.” How did you start blogging, and what has it brought to your practice?
Homann: I got my introduction at the ABA Tech Show three years ago. I knew of blogs but didn’t know much about them. At the show I learned about Typepad as a blogging platform, and decided that a weblog would be the ideal way to collect my own research and ideas and to interact with other lawyers who had similar interests. I began blogging as www.[non]billablehour.com, a name that reflected the facts that I was using my own time to blog and that I had done away with filling out a timesheet. I like to say that I blog for opportunity, and my “return on blogging” has been phenomenal. In my past year of blogging I have met more interesting people, have been exposed to more amazing ideas, and have been involved in more cool projects than in all the rest of my legal career. On average I spend an hour or more a day on blogging, and it has tremendously enhanced my satisfaction with practicing law.
JDB: Your blog is unusual in that you’ve used it to involve other professionals in virtual forums. Why did you take that approach, and what are some examples of how you’ve done it?
Homann: I simply don’t like to play by myself, and blogging has brought me into a community of fascinating individuals who share my commitment to doing things better. In my first major innovation, the “Five by Five” series, I asked five unbelievable women who write marketing blogs how lawyers can better serve female clients. They contributed superb ideas, all for free, and started an ongoing series that now has involved more than 40 people making contributions on various topics. I also started “Think Tank Tuesdays,” a combination of web and telephone conferencing in which ten people from business and law join together to incubate new ideas on growing our businesses. We even have a private blog to share ideas between calls.
JDB: And now you appear to have taken the concept even further with LexThink! What is it, and what will it aim to accomplish?
Homann: We’re having this interview right before the first LexThink! session on April 3 in Chicago, so I can only share expectations; but they are truly exciting. LexThink! will bring together a select group of innovative, big-thinking people from the worlds of law, business, technology, marketing, and consulting for a full day and ask them to design the perfect professional service firm. We’ll have no speakers, no agenda, no PowerPoints, no formal panels.
We’ll meet in an open space that will allow participants to bring up any ideas they want, and display them on large note panels. We’ll use tablet PCs to collect and distribute notes. And a private blog will enable the community we’ve built to continue to share ideas after the meeting.
JDB: How did the LexThink! concept evolve?
Homann: A year ago I met Dennis Kennedy for the first time at the ABA Tech Show, and we began talking in a general way about innovation and technology. Our discussion turned to the idea of what we could accomplish by getting together other service professionals who are committed to innovative ideas to improve the way we interact with clients and each other. During the past year Dennis and I joined with another committed blogger, Scheherazade Fowler, and created our dream list of people we’d like to see at such a meeting. We worked up the courage to start inviting them, and the response was overwhelming. We’ll have nationally known authors, CEOs of small companies, bloggers and speakers who have challenged and motivated us over the years. It’s as far from an all-lawyer conference as we can get, and I expect that together we’ll generate the kind of enthusiasm and energy that will help all of us make positive changes in our practices and lives.
JDB: Speaking of change, you’ve mentioned a major one in your own life – your move to California. How do you expect that to impact your career?
Homann: I truly enjoy the practice of law, but I’ve agreed with my law firm partner that it isn’t practical for me to attempt to continue it while I’m on the West Coast. I’m going to use the time to keep expanding my blogging activities and to consider whether my future focus should be more in the directions where blogging is leading me – for instance, to consulting, or to more emphasis on speaking and writing.
JDB: Your satisfaction with your practice seems directly related to your ability to approach it creatively. What advice would you share with other lawyers who are looking for something more positive from their careers in the law?Homann: It seems cliché, but the one bit of advice I’d give to lawyers is to think more. Lawyers, as a group, are among the most creative and intelligent people I’ve ever met. Most of us, I think, are drawn to law practice because we are looking to challenge our intellects on a daily basis. What happens, however, is that many who leave law school for large firms grow to hate law practice rather quickly – due to the crushing demands of the billable hour and the lack of immediate client contact. What other profession takes its brightest and most ambitious over-achievers and crushes their enthusiasm and exuberance in such a short time? If all lawyers took just a bit more time to think about and work on their businesses, instead of just in them, the profession would be a much healthier one. I hope that the things I write about in my blog blog encourage lawyers to think more about improving the practice of law, instead of just abandoning it.