Geo Bellas: The Changing Law Practice and the Vital Need for Understanding Technology

In this episode, Steve Fretzin and Geo Bellas discuss:

  • Geo’s long-term use of technology in law and how he has evolved as technology has evolved and will continue to evolve.
  • Reverse mentoring with new lawyers to move into a technological world.
  • The impact of AI in the law industry.
  • Using technology to your advantage.

Key Takeaways:

  • Technology advancements have drastically accelerated over the last 30 years – as a lawyer, you need to continue to grow with that technology as it will continue to advance at an even greater rate.
  • This pandemic is accelerating the pace of change – it is all going towards a technological world.
  • Technology is allowing lawyers, and others in all professions, to serve those in underserved, and previously unrepresented communities.
  • You must start thinking out of the box in order to survive in your law practice.

“The old way of practicing is going to fade out, and is fading out. We have to learn how to live in that world, make money in that world, and, more importantly, serve our clients.” —  Geo Bellas

Connect with Geo Bellas:  

Twitter: @GeoBellas

Facebook: Bellas & Wachowski, Attorneys at Law

Website: Bellas-Wachowski.com

LinkedIn: Bellas & Wachowski & George “Geo” Bellas

Justia Lawyers: Bellas & Wachowski – Attorneys at Law

Connect with Steve Fretzin:

LinkedIn: Steve Fretzin

Twitter: @stevefretzin

Facebook: Fretzin, Inc.

Website: Fretzin.com

Email: [email protected]

Book: The Ambitious Attorney: Your Guide to Doubling or Even Tripling Your Book of Business and more!

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Call Steve directly at 847-602-6911

 

Transcript

Steve: Welcome everyone, to BE THAT LAWYER, my name is Steve Fretzin and welcome to the show.

If this is a first time you’ve listened to the show be, that lawyer is all about helping lawyers to understand what it’s like to be a lawyer and conduct business development, marketing, technology efforts that are going to make you better as a practitioner. And so we try to bring on great guests and have great topics to do that. Today’s guest is a good friend of mine and just one of the best guys I know, Geo Bellas. He’s an award winning business and litigation attorney and is the principal and senior partner at Bellas & Wachowski. And I want to welcome you to the show. How’s it going?

Geo: Good morning and welcome to the world of the pandemic.

Steve: Yeah, we are right in the heart of things. I think we’re just about hitting our peak here in Chicago and Illinois. So how are you weathering the storm so far?

Geo: Well, we’ve been remote. The entire firm has been remote since the beginning of March. And we’re going to probably stay that way through the at least till the middle of May, if not longer. We’ll see how it phases in.

Steve: Yeah, it’s crazy for everybody for the purposes of just my listeners. Understanding you a little bit in your background, would you mind just sharing a little bit about your practice, how you help people and kind of what your focus is?

Geo: Our practice is a general practice. My particular area with my team, which has a total of five lawyers, is focused on business and business litigation. I’m also work on enough counsel basis with Clifford Law offices downtown, working with them on tech issues in litigation, particularly e-discovery.

Steve: Gotcha. And I know from speaking with you and from kind of watching you over the last number of years that you’ve got, you know, quite the history and reputation for using technology to win big cases. Just out of curiosity, what led you down that path?

Geo: A long, winding path – I’ve always been an advocate of using computers. I remember in nineteen eighty three I got my first computer. It was a Sony, it had a main station and a what they call the slave, so it was like a little network with a big dot matrix printer that when it printed the whole building, shook that system in 1983, cost me twelve thousand dollars and ever.

Yeah, ever since then I’ve been an advocate of using computers. I been lecturing to lawyers about the importance of using computers for years, and along came a case in 1995 that challenged my ability to handle a piece of litigation just because of the sheer volume of the documents. So I ended up using a program called “Summation” to help me organize that case and the documents. We ended up settling that case for a ridiculous amount of money. Large, ridiculous. And while I was working on that case and working with Clifford Law, Bob asked me to get involved with the Ford Explorer. And while I was working on the Ford Explorer, getting discovery for them, the recall hit the Ford Explorer and all of a sudden I became overnight a nationally popular lawyer with other lawyers because I understood the documents that led to the rollover problem. And ever since then, I’ve been using technology and advocating its use. And then in 2006, the federal rules changed and adopted e-discovery. And I went around the country lecturing about how to use e-discovery, especially for plaintiff’s lawyers. And I’ve been applying that use in my practice.

Steve: And so, you know, technology obviously has changed quite a bit since the 80s when you bought that twelve thousand dollar computer. What do you see is going on right now? 2020 and how it’s going to change continue to change in the future.

Geo: Well, the changes we’ve been talking about technology have been coming at us like a tsunami for years and it’s only accelerating. I remember a quote that I first heard in 2017 said that change has never been this fast before and it will never be this slow again. And so, technology has been just advancing at all levels. The legal field has been slow to adapt to it. Lawyers in particular have been slow to adapt to technology, just for example. Right now, lawyers are having a hard time handling a zoom meeting. I did a meeting yesterday with 10 lawyers and three of them needed help from their grandchildren to get on the zoo meeting. Lawyers are just not prepared for dealing with technology and it’s going to continue to advance and even a greater rate. So we can expect the changes that we’re going to see because of technology accelerating now, because this pandemic is forcing lawyers into doing things that they previously have been uncomfortable with.

Steve: So, is that is that also going to impact the ability for lawyers to conduct business and continue to make the kind of revenue that they’ve made? Are some people get hurt pretty badly by that?

Geo: I think that this is just my opinion. I think there is a large number of lawyers that are never going to survive this pandemic. We’re probably going to see lawyer bankruptcies accelerate people, lawyers that have been living month to month, haven’t had income in two months and won’t have income for a couple of more months. So we’re going to see a big fallout. And the only way that lawyers are going to be able to survive is to accept the fact that the old way of practicing is going to fade out and is fading out. We’re going to have to learn how to do depositions remotely. I just did a mediation last week remotely. It was all done through Zoom or a variation of – that’s the kind of things that we could expect in the future. We have to learn how to live in that world and work in that world and make money in that world and more importantly, service our clients.

Steve: Yeah, so the attorneys that don’t conform with the new with new technology and with the changing times, they’re going to be they’re going to be left out in the lurch.

That appears to be pretty, pretty obvious. Are there suggestions that you would make to the attorneys that are struggling with technology or that are not maybe seeing the writing on the wall of what’s going on for the next few months?

Geo: Yeah, I was just thinking about this in preparing for today. You know, the Bar Association has talked about mentoring young lawyers to help them prepare for the practice of law. I’m thinking that we ought to start thinking about reverse mentoring, where older lawyers, established practitioners bring in young lawyers who understand technology or better yet, are more comfortable with technology and let them help the lawyers move into a technological world that they’re not prepared for. Technology is just going to – well, let me rephrase that. This pandemic is accelerating the pace of change and it’s all going towards a technological world. You know, the technology is being used in so many different ways that we haven’t even thought about before, there’s a lawyer in England is doing a lot of radical different things. They have developed software, an online application, actually, to help service the large portion of our population that’s underserved by legal services. People are doing more and more things online and technology is allowing them to do that. And the innovative lawyers and even now lawyers, more importantly, are finding ways to make money using technology to service a portion of our population that has previously been underrepresented or underrepresented in legal matters.

Steve: And I’m trying to remember, but I thought there was a 60 Minutes episode that actually timed a high level lawyer against AI to try to research a document. Remember seeing something about that or reading that?

Geo: Yeah, I’m actually seeing it in action and I just got a demonstration of West Law’s new service, they will take your brief, run it through their A.I. and give you suggestions as to how to improve your brief. They will analyze your brief and tell you if there’s holes in your brief. If you’ve missed any cases, they will take the opponent’s brief and check all the citations and see if they accurately referenced the cases and if there are any cases contrary to it, using an art form of artificial intelligence. So that’s just a simple application. Ross has a variation, whereas he actually has a form of artificial intelligence that analyzes security agreements. And this has been going on for several years now. Morgan Stanley, a couple of years ago started running their security interests instruments through Ross to analyze and see if the terms of the security agreement conform with their requirements. It replaced 250,000 lawyer hours – and it put how many lawyers out of work. So, they’re using artificial intelligence to do routine mundane performances, document reviews are being done using technology.

The big buzzword in discovery these days is technology assisted review – TAR, where the computer creates an algorithm and you train the computer on what the find that may be relevant and searches. Huge number – I’m talking tens of millions of documents or files in a computer and finds them the documents that might be relevant to your case. So, think about how many lawyer hours there is eliminating. So, technology is taking over a big portion of our practice and it’s being it’s been going on. It’s going to be even faster now. Think about big firms, big firms have been paying a lot of lawyers to review documents, they don’t need them anymore. It’s no longer a profit center. So they’re not hiring as many lawyers as they used young lawyers to review documents. So that means that people are coming out of school and not going to the big firms, which means that they’re filtering down to the mid-sized firms, which means that the people that they were hiring in mid-sized firms are moving down to lower, smaller firms, and then smaller firms are getting smaller. And solo’s those are becoming more prevalent. And you were going to find more and more lawyers forced into their basement practicing law from their basements.

Steve: Yeah. And so let’s say that we’ve got an influx of solos. How are they going to manage to get to get their numbers up? What do they have to think about?

Geo: Embrace technology, number one. Find ways to do things in different ways. Think out of the box. You have to start thinking out of the box. You can’t just say I’m going to do a will when people could go online and get a will done very simply and cheaply if they have the wherewithal to do it themselves or are brave enough to do it themselves. But there’s all kinds of things that people can do online without a lawyer. Corporations are being formed and LLC’s are being formed online 24 hours a day. I have I have a link on my website that people can set up corporations in several states by filling out forms online, charging the fee to their credit card and end up with an LLC or corporation so that I’m making money while the world sleeps.

Steve: Got it. Got it. So the technology is actually automated, how you’re helping people do contracts and you don’t have to really be too involved in it or at all.

Geo: My involvement is minimal. It could be handled for the most part by a paralegal. And like I said, if lawyers can find a way, just like any other business, to make money while they’re sleeping, they will survive. But if they if they don’t understand how they could use technology to their advantage, they’re not going to survive. As a matter of fact, the rules of professional conduct, mandate that we adapt to the changes in technology. We have to – if we don’t, we’re actually not listening to what the code of professional responsibility says. We have to be able to service our clients. And here’s the really important thing. Our clients are becoming more sophisticated. They understand technology. We don’t have to train them on how to use email. Everybody uses email. How many of our clients are not on Facebook? So they’re on there on the computer every day. We have to understand that that’s the world we practice now.

Steve: It’s absolutely the case. And, you know, if I think about LinkedIn going back, I started teaching LinkedIn probably 12 years ago and I used to get 100 people in a room. And I’d say, you know, how many of you are actively using LinkedIn? And maybe five or ten hands out of 50 would go up today. It’s 45, 48 out of 50. So it really, you know, social media and technology and email and texting, it’s all it’s all right there. And if it isn’t embraced then that someone’s going to definitely be left behind. Let me ask you a question. You know, this is technology, but it also rolls into business development.

And I know us as a business developer who’s been very forward and growing. Is there some advice that you would give to lawyers regarding technology and business development and its importance in the future of law?

Geo: Well. Yeah, I think we as lawyers have to remember why people come to us and keep that in mind before we even start thinking about embracing technology or what to do. The qualities that we offer are number one, trust – people have to trust us because they give us all kinds of confidential information. They come to us for counseling is not just about their particular legal issues. Sometimes we’re counseling them on many other factors that affect their business, and our judgment, which is based on our experience. So once we recognize that those are the foundations of a successful practice, then we have to find ways that we can use technology to advance those qualities that people are looking for. I think that the most successful, innovative lawyers today are going to have to be using three interconnected forces. We’re going to be facing more sophisticated clients, armed with a lot of information and a lot of market power that will rein in and minimize the cost of legal services. We’re facing a global economy, and that increases the complexity of what we do and also has more competition because we’re going to be getting competition from foreign entities that come in here to offer legal services. And then we have to understand that information technology is automated and it’s going to replace many of the billable functions we’ve been doing as lawyers and we are. And that dovetails into another thing – we’re going to have to find more creative ways about how to charge clients because the hourly rate is dying.

Steve: Well, it’s interesting that you bring that up, because I remember even 10 years ago this same conversation was going on and I don’t know what happened because I thought it was all going to be alternative billing and it was all about, you know, companies really trying to figure out how to how to manage legal and that snd I’m sure that’s happened. But I’m just not seeing it like I thought I was going to see it.

I’m not seeing that alternate billing and that being at the forefront of the large corporations and mid-market companies, you know, the way that they’re that they’re looking for law firms to change. Am I missing something? Is that or is that still yet to come more than it has?

Geo: I think it’s a process and people are trying to find ways to figure out how to get away from the billable hour. But I think clients don’t want the billable hours. You tell somebody, you know, my hourly rate is seven hundred dollars an hour is a big wow. Are you kidding? That’s more than I earn in a week. And most people are not going to be able to afford that. And there’s another factor at work in all that, and that is the middle class market that most lawyers of our ilk have serviced is shrinking. So, there’s so many different factors that are coming into play that we really have to rethink how we provide legal services and charge for them.

Steve: Yeah, and I think a lot of especially smaller firms are going to, you know, virtual administrators, virtual call center, virtual offices.

I’m friendly with Ron Bochstahler, shout out to Ron. But his whole play is, why are you paying, you know, $20,000 a month for rent and having your own space when you can cut that and a third or half or whatever and have a space that’s just as nice or nicer and make it virtual, no long term contract. So, a lot of things are moving in that direction, I think, because we need to start thinking about, well, you know, a pandemic just hit. And now, you know, I’ve got this $20 thousand a month before payroll and no one’s even using the office or people like to work from home.

So are you are you seeing more of that? People moving into different technologies and virtual situations?

Geo: I think that’s always been a trend, but before you ask the question, you made a point. And I think I think what we have to recognize or lawyers need to recognize, is that there are a lot of challenges that we’re facing because of the radical changes that are coming. The challenge that we lawyers are have to meet is we have to find innovative technological ways to meet these new challenges because I don’t think we really appreciate all the changes that we’re going to see it. I don’t think we could see everything. But let me let me give you a laundry list of things that I think we’re going to see change immediately. We’re going to see more and more virtual courts. That means less and less travel. And it also means that we’re going to be doing more and more things from in front of our computers. I saw some something that a Florida judge who is doing virtual court hearings reprimanded the lawyers for not dressing appropriately in front of their computer monitor.

Steve: Yeah, I just I think I just saw that at here in Chicago, too. That you got to have your dress code even on the on the Zoom call.

Geo: That’s just a small problem, a small example of the different things we’re going to see. This sounds incredible, but we’re going to have a Web based global legal business challenge. There are Web based global businesses that are going to be challenging what lawyers do more and more online document production and review. The term commoditized service has been kicked around for years. What that means? It means that we’re going to have to find a way to offer legal services, kind of like what a restaurant does with offering you the dinner menu. There’s going to be a menu of services that they could get and it’s going to be shoehorned into your legal services and the customer wants. And, well, that brings up another thing. But going back to what you’re saying, legal processes are being outsourced. What you were talking about doing things online, that’s really a Web based simulated law firm. To think about that, we’re going to put in a law firm, simulate a business and a law firm on the Web. Imagine you want to talk to your client and you have a fake law firm background showing a library, books or whatever else in a mahogany desk. And you’re sitting behind there and you have that is your virtual office. And all this is going to create new and different jobs. We’re going to have different employers. So we really have to start thinking outside of the box in order how we’re going to survive.

Steve: Yeah, it’s just the most interesting time, you know. I mean, it’s a scary time and it’s a depressing time in some ways, many ways. But it’s just the most interesting time as far as change politically and just the economy and the environment. It’s very scary but it’s just interesting to, you know, if you’re looking at it as an outside observer, all the different changes that are happening.

Hey, George, I’d like to finish up with something. It’s kind of a fun segment I like to do. And it’s called “They Never Taught Me This In Law School”.

So is there one thing that you wish they had taught you in law school that they didn’t or that you suggest they should start teaching that would be really critical for lawyers coming out now?

Geo: Yes. You know, a lot of law schools are still not teaching tech in law school. Couple law schools have adapted in particular here in Chicago. Kent Law School has been an innovator in using technology for about 20 years now, which is move them up into the rankings of law schools. I think they’re now in the top twenty five law schools in the country. And that’s primarily because they’re such a tech based school that teaches technology and they brought in professors that are very sophisticated in how to use technology. So I think they don’t teach tech. I tried to find law students to help me with some projects. I can’t even find enough people who understand anything about e-discovery that is being taught in law school. And so law schools today are not teaching tech. I heard of one law large law firm – think about this as part of the interview process, they asked them to prepare a search algorithm for a complex Excel spreadsheet. That was one of the requirements as part of the interview process. So if you didn’t know how to write a search algorithm, and I’m not talking about just typing it, look for the word search in the document. I’m talking about an algorithm that gives parameters for the search so our lawyers prepare.

So, are law students coming out of school prepared to do that? I don’t think so. So, if you don’t understand what I’m talking about, I’m doing a search algorithm. You’re really not prepared to practice in the twenty first century.

Steve: Yeah, I mean, that’s amazing and interesting and I’m seeing a lot of different skills that that aren’t taught in law school, that, you know, business development, I think is just on the beginning cusp of being considered to be discussed technology, marketing, how to run your own solo practice, which, as we’ve discussed, is going to be critical because as people come out of law school and try to find those big firm jobs that don’t exist or the ones that get lost to technology. Yeah, I mean, opening up your own shop is going to be a big option. And they’re going to need to know all this stuff.

Geo: What is different, if I could say, if we’re going to give a piece of advice at the end of the day to lawyers about how to practice in the future, can I rattle off a few things?

Steve: Sure!

Geo: Number one, we’re not going to have clients anymore as much as we’re going to have customers. And so rethink about, you know, the client relationship no matter what you want to say. Yes, we’re learning your profession, everything else like that – no. We’re dealing with customers primarily because they’re coming to you if they’re shopping. Number two, I think we have to offer flat fees per project or per procedure so that we get away from the billable hour. Number three, we have to recognize that the market forces are driving our rates a lot lower than they were 10 years ago. I’m seeing you for how many years? Gosh, I remember real estate closing 30 years ago people were charging four hundred dollars, which was probably a lot of money. And they’re still charging less than that today. Number four, lawyers are going to have to learn how to budget their legal work. They’re going to have to create budgets. And lastly, we’re going to have to learn to run a practice like a real business. We’re going to have to know what the costs are for running our business. We’re going to have to calculate what a profit margin is and we’re going to have to offer immediate services at the best price possible. That’s a huge demand on lawyers and is contrary to what we have been taught on how to practice over the years.

Steve: Yeah, that’s all really insightful stuff. I mean, certainly you’re a trendsetter and you’re someone who, you know, people need to really listen to because you not only have a lot of experience in the law, but experience in technology. I think you see things that others just haven’t been seeing. And so, I want to thank you for being a guest on my show today. Just amazing. Hopefully everybody gets a chance to listen to this.

Anything that you want to promote or how do people get in touch with you if they want to reach out to you for some questions or to help with the law?

Geo: My website is probably the best way. Bellas-wachowski.com. I also do every third Wednesday of each month they do a lunch and learn with Geo at the Rolling Meadows courthouse teaching tech issues for trials and I’m easily found.

Steve: Awesome. Awesome. Well again thank you so much for being my guest. And hey everyone, thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed today’s show and got some great takeaways and that you’re one step closer to being that lawyer – confident, organized and a skilled rainmaker. Take care, everybody, and be safe.