How Lawyers Work: Jess Birken, Lawyer for Nonprofits & Dance Music Enthusiast

Jess Birken Headshot

In this week’s edition of How Lawyers Work, we hear from Jess Birken. Jess is the owner of Birken Law Office, a firm focused and dedicated to helping non-profits solve problems so they can do what they do best—the work. Before becoming a private attorney, Jess worked at a national non-profit organization, Pheasants Forever.

You can follow Jess on Twitter and LinkedIn. 

What’s your elevator pitch?

I help nonprofits solve problems so they can quit worrying and get back to their mission.

What apps or tools are essential to your daily workflow?

I use a lot of the standard lawyer-of-today tools including the Microsoft Office suite, LawPay for payments and Clio for practice management. My practice is completely paperless, so the things I really can’t live without are DropBox (for files and secure sharing); NitroPDF Pro, because it’s fully featured, less than half the price, and not as bloated as Adobe products; and RightSignature (for collecting e-signatures and instantly refiling signed documents back into DropBox or Clio).

Some of the less common, but very essential tools I use daily are: Pandora—because music is life; RingCentral—for take-anywhere phones and virtual meetings; Slack—nothing has proved better for communicating with my extended team (virtual assistant, marketing, law clerks, etc.); F-Secure—a personal VPN app, which makes my browsing secure, even on public WiFi at an airport or coffee shop.

What does your workspace look like?

My BFF’s Seattle dining room table; the airport; an Airbnb in Toronto, Canada; pool-side at my parent’s place in Florida; my SO’s kitchen counter…basically, wherever I set my laptop is my office. Having that flexibility is one of the things I love most about my law practice. My “travel office” consists of a backpack that is kitted out with all the cords, cables, keyboard mouse and phone headset that I need to get my work done.

When I’m not working out of a backpack, I’m either at my home office or my co-working space in Northeast Minneapolis. My home office consists of a motorized standing desk from Ikea and a 35″ widescreen Dell monitor (it’s the BEST!). I hook my laptop up to that. I also have a ScanSnap s1300i Travel Scanner that will do up to 30 pages double-sided and is smaller than a loaf of bread. For the random print job at home, I use a Canon ip100 which is also travel sized in case I want to work in Mexico for a month next winter—I’m ready.

My co-working space is where I meet clients in person. The space is fun and full of energy. It’s a huge renovated warehouse in the Arts District of Minneapolis (think old wood floors and exposed brick, whiteboards on wheels and comfy couches). I have a dedicated desk there, which means it’s my desk. There’s no sharing, but there is also no door. The space has over 150 members from a wide range of industries, including a few other attorneys. To my left is my friend Leo, the brilliant marketing strategist, and to my right sits Mike the high-end WordPress web developer.

When I need to worry about client confidentiality on the phone I jump into one of the closed phone booths. Virtual meetings are snap with Google Fiber Internet (~100Mbps up AND down—even over WiFi!). When clients arrive to meet in person, they are greeted by the front desk staff, checked in, and I get a text letting me know they’ve arrived.  Meanwhile, they’re offered a choice of tea or coffee (fair trade, locally roasted, hot or cold press—yaaass, cold press!).

How do you keep track of your calendars and deadlines?

I use Microsoft Office Outlook for managing my work calendar (and Google for personal). Outlook has its detractors, but I’ve never found another email program that can do as much as Outlook can. Take one lesson from Baron Henley and you’ll see most people aren’t even using it to its full capacity (including me). I use Acuity for scheduling all consultations, client meetings, networking get-togethers and informal meetings. Not only does Acuity save tons of time it also reads my business and personal calendars which allows me to avoid conflicts. It also protects my time by allowing me to set limitations on how many appointments of a given type I can have in a week (ie: client meetings are unlimited, but lunch meetings are capped at two per week).

For managing deadlines, I use Outlook to block out the time to actually produce the work and potentially to calendar a deadline. However, for the most part, I use my Kanban boards via KanbanTool to manage workflows and timelines. I’m a big fan of adopting all the agile systems I can and Kanban (and Scrum) have really improved my law practice—both in terms of efficiency but also my mental health since I don’t have to keep all those timeline plates spinning in my mind.

What is one thing that you listen to, read, or watch that everyone should?

The James Altucher Show podcast.  James is a little bit out there. I’ve been following his work for quite a few years now. He has some great written pieces online and several books that are worth reading. The podcast is easy to pick up and the guests are significant people from a wide variety of industries. I’ve found so many other great people to follow, read, and listen to from listening to the show. The topics he and his guests cover are wide-ranging and worthwhile for both professional and personal improvement—they’re also just plain fun and entertainment. Listen to this podcast and you will always have something interesting to talk about at a dinner party.

What is your favorite local place to network or work solo?

My favorite place to work solo is my BFF Addie’s dining room table in Seattle, Washington. First off, I get to visit Addie, and obviously—that is huge. But what’s great about being there work-wise is that there are ZERO distractions. I have no at-home obligations. I have no co-working space friends stopping by my desk. I have no in-person meetings. I can just sit down and focus on my work all day while Addie is away at her office. It is some of THE most productive time when I do it and it’s why I’m a big fan of “grand gestures” for productivity, which is a concept from Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work.

How do you or your team approach problems?

I’m a true solo, but I’ve surrounded myself with helpers on contract (web developers, marketers, law clerks, my assistant, etc.). Even when I have an extended team in place my philosophy tends to be that the buck stops here (with me). So, when there’s a problem my approach is to figure out what happened, then own my responsibility for that issue and finally come up with a way forward. This applies to both back-office problems or client-facing problems. I’ll assess what happened and where I let my team or my client down and plan a route forward. Maybe I didn’t provide the right information or training. Maybe I failed to lay out appropriate expectations for the client. Usually falling on the sword and owning my own role in the problem creates a smooth path for resolution. It could also be extended team members readily owning their own part of the problem and helping to frame a better process for next time, or reassuring a client that their project is being handled professionally, even when mistakes occur.

What are three things you do without fail every day?

  1. I make my bed. It takes about thirty seconds and even if the rest of the day is a complete disaster—when I get back home I will know I got this one thing done right.

  2. I journal for five minutes to cultivate a positive mindset. I write down three things I’m grateful for—some are granular and some are big concepts, but they have to be different every day. One example would be, “I’m grateful for the sunshine lighting up the leaves of my houseplant and creating a little life in the dead of winter.” Or, “I’m grateful I have two working legs and don’t have to deal with being in a wheelchair, how lucky is that!” And then I write down three things that will make today great and something amazing that happened yesterday.

  3. I check Twitter. Yeah, I know you thought I was going to be all zen with the third item, but ahhh nope—I’m going with check Twitter. Legal Twitter is something I look at every morning with my coffee and it’s a pretty fun 15 minutes—I highly recommend. : )

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

Kim Bennett.

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