I have been truly honored to attend all three iterations of TBD Law. It has transformed the way I approach my ethics defense practice. A critical component of my transformation is how TBD Law inspired me to think differently about how to reach one of my target markets: the self-represented lawyer. Here is how I went about creating a completely new product called The Playbook: The California Bar System Practice Guide, based on my TBD Law inspiration and learning.
What I Do
My practice is defending California lawyers facing ethics investigations and prosecutions by the State Bar of California. I have focused on this area since 2009, though I have been a practicing lawyer since ten years before that. I got into ethics work in part because I saw a great need for attorneys representing themselves in the discipline system to have assistance.
Many people will say that representing yourself in an ethics investigation is incredibly foolish, but I have a different view. For some lawyers, it is an entirely rational approach if they can do it with some level of objectivity. Many lawyers do possess the skill and emotional ability to put on an effective defense. For many others, though it is not an ideal choice, it is the only choice.
Many lawyers facing Bar complaints are solos who do not have the funds to hire counsel. It is totally within reason to estimate that a Bar investigation will cost in the neighborhood of $5,000 to defend even if you get the investigation closed without charges being filed. If you take the case all the way to trial, legal fees alone could easily be $50,000, and if discipline is imposed, you may also have to pay costs to the Bar (in California, those costs can approach $20,000). Ironic as it may be, counsel is simply out of reach for many lawyers.
So, my target market of self-represented lawyers is not such a crazy market after all.
Reaching the Market through The Playbook
Before the first TBD Law, I had offered self-help assistance on an hourly basis. I did reach some lawyers this way, and I provided limited scope representation as a consulting attorney for their discipline cases. I even helped clients through trial on a limited scope basis. After the second TBD Law, I began offering flat fee consulting services, trying to steer away from the hourly basis and attract my cost-conscious base with the fixed cost model.
Still, I felt that I wasn’t reaching the segment that really needed help. So, I developed The Playbook: The California Bar Discipline System Practice Guide. It is an online membership website where self-represented lawyers can access (1) a comprehensive text detailing each stage of the discipline process and how it works, what to expect, pitfalls to avoid, and tips on how to navigate the system, (2) a document library containing dozens of sample documents for State Bar Court filings and State Bar investigations, since these materials are generally difficult to come by despite being technically public, and (3) a forum where members can share information, ideas, concerns, and experiences.
How The Playbook Came to Be
The Playbook was born out of the influence of many TBD Law colleagues. I cannot pinpoint precisely when I first got the idea, but it certainly was influenced by listening to Billie Tarascio of Modern Law and Erin Levine of Hello Divorce talk about their online systems for helping self-represented family law litigants. It was also influenced from outside TBD Law by Rachel Rodgers, who had repeatedly told me I should create a digital product for attorneys needing ethics advice. To get metaphorical, the seed planted by Rachel got watered by the ideas at TBD Law, and I began to see how the text of The Playbook could take shape.
I would love to say that I had this whole project mapped out before I started creating, but that just did not happen. I first thought I would write a book. I outlined all the chapters I thought the book would need and began writing a chapter a day. I got a rough draft completed in a couple of weeks. I handed the book off to a trusted friend to proof, thinking I was done. At that point, I envisioned just the text as the entire project, and I thought I would deliver it as a PDF download on a simple website.
Instead of simple typographical edits, he came back with enormous substantive edits and ideas for more material and a comment that it was a “good start.” Though I was temporarily feeling defeated, I quickly realized the gift my editor had given me. Like the room full of brilliance at TBD Law, a different perspective on my material gave me countless ways to improve it and make it more effective and useful.
It was at TBD Law that I first learned the term “minimally viable product.” Once I embraced my editor’s ideas to dig back in and improve the substance of my text, I struggled to strike a balance between my perfectionist desire to make the book complete and my desire to get it out the door and call it an MVP. Ultimately the concept of MVP helped me choose to deliver my book in the form of a membership website. (More on this later.) While revising and expanding the text, I had an internal fight to keep MVP from being my excuse not to elaborate on relatively minor points, any one of which could be a huge issue for one user of the material, or to skip a chapter that I realized would be of value only to some users and yet would be extremely difficult to write. In the end, I went through many major revisions with my editor and the text I launched is organized differently and is far more comprehensive than my original draft.
Once the text was complete, it felt like I was done, but in truth, it was just one step in the huge process.
The Membership Site
When the text was as complete as I felt was reasonable to make it before launching it, my editor still wanted to tinker with it. He made some really good suggestions, but I kept remembering the concept of MVP. I had no idea yet what users would think of this project, and I could spend a year working on it and adding to it and still not believe it was done. The idea of shipping unchangeable material to users terrified me. Not only did I want to implement my editor’s suggestions, but what if there was an error in the book? Plus, the evolution of the text into such a detailed tome had spawned more ideas on how I could add to the overall offering.
This was when I realized that by allowing access to the material on a membership website, I would always have access to update, edit, revise, fix errors, and add material to the text. This solved so many problems.
The membership site concept also opened the door to delivering so much more for my users. Beyond a static book, I could create other materials I could update and a way to communicate with users and for them to communicate with each other.
Even though I felt that the text was complete and insanely valuable to the self-represented lawyer, I wanted to give my target market more tools to mount effective defenses. A practice guide is great, and much needed in this area, but I wanted self-represented lawyers to have much more than a book. After all, if a lawyer was wandering into unfamiliar territory in the ethics prosecution world, and was already stressed and did not have extra time or money to spare defending themselves, the book would only help so much. They would still have to craft all the filings from scratch, with no concrete guidance.
From listening to the creative solutions people at TBD Law had come up with for various problems they faced in practice, I began to understand that any hurdle I could see must have a solution. So, I decided to create a document library for The Playbook members so they would have a super practical and incredibly valuable resource to use in conjunction with the book. Plus, since we had decided to make this a membership site, somehow the library must be able to live on the site where users could get to it. Without having a concrete idea of how the library would be delivered to users other than thinking “somehow on the website,” I put together the library’s contents.
First I made a list of all the filings and communications I could think of from each chapter of the text. For example, one chapter is responding to the notice of disciplinary charges. So I went through all the ways you can respond—an answer or one of several variations on a motion to dismiss.
Once I had a list of all the filings and communications a respondent might need to create, I started pulling samples from my files. For filings I did not have on hand, I went to the State Bar Courts in San Francisco and Los Angeles and dug through case files for good examples of publicly filed documents.
Then I began a laborious process of sanitizing all of my samples. By “sanitizing” I mean pulling out all case-specific information from actual filings and making them unidentifiable. Even though most of the filings were public filings, I did not want to have any respondent-specific information reflected in the document library. My goal is to help protect respondent lawyers, and I was not about to have any documents in my library which could be viewed as harming a respondent.
The Playbook has a theme running through it related to Alice in Wonderland, as I describe the State Bar discipline process as Wonderland: it is indeed a place where things are not as they seem, where rules are not as you expect. So, I made all of my sample filings on behalf of fictional lawyer Charles Dodgson, which is Lewis Carroll’s given name.
Keeping the MVP concept in mind, I created a library of 55 sample documents. I had more I would have liked to include, and I will continue to add to the library over time, but I stopped to work on other aspects of the project when I felt I had created a library that would be extremely useful to users. The membership site concept gave me the freedom to stop work on the library, as I knew I could come back and add to it at any time.
The last major piece of The Playbook is the forum through which users can connect with each other. I decided to include the forum after getting familiar with Seth Godin (as a result of a quote in the lobby of Filament). Seth Godin talks a lot about tribes, and I certainly feel that I found mine three times over at TBD Law. He talks about the human need for connection, a truth evidenced by the explosion of social media.
I realized that the piece missing from The Playbook was a community. Self-represented lawyers in ethics cases are totally isolated. If they have any interaction at all with other lawyers in the system, it is through very small groups in the Lawyers Assistance Program. Members of those groups are already knee-deep in the discipline system, and they are there because they are members of a subset of the respondents who are suffering from mental health or substance abuse issues. The vast majority of lawyers in the discipline system are not attending the Lawyers Assistance Program meetings, and the few dozen who are attending are scattered geographically. There is no real communal watering hole for respondents.
I did not want to get into the business of providing legal advice through the forum because I do not represent members of The Playbook website. I am not running conflicts or obtaining information about their cases such that I can competently provide legal advice. I wanted people to have others to talk to. By creating the forum, I am giving self-represented lawyers a place to come and commiserate, share ideas, share experiences, and find that they are not alone.
When I had the idea to create the forum, I realized that the earlier decision to make this a membership site was leading to the creation of the community.
After thinking I had most of the content done, I listened to a common theme in the self-help materials created by Erin Levine and others: video. I am not a fan of video, as I often lack the patience to watch a video, but my preferences should not guide a project like The Playbook. I needed to think about what my users might prefer.
Making videos is beyond my expertise, but I got advice from the TBD Law community. I had consulted a professional videographer at one point in time, but the cost of using a professional production exceeded the investment I was willing to make in this startup project. So, I toyed around with lighting, microphones, and scripts, and ultimately filmed a handful of video clips. I did these myself and used a video editor I found on Fiverr to clean up the lighting and edit them for final use. In the vein of an MVP, I will redo them at some point in the future, but what I created was sufficient for shipping the product.
The text was my initial focus, and I knew I needed someone who could do really great work on an interactive PDF. The original text was approaching 200 pages, there were appendices of 800 pages, and with the videos embedded it would be a very large file. I wanted it to be colorful, easy to read, with lots of clickable links to take the user through the book, the appendices, and the sample library. The idea for the user experience was to use the resource on a computer, not to print it out.
It seemed to me like a very tall order for a designer, and I had no idea who the right person might be. I realized that if I entrusted the wrong person with my text, a poor design would prevent the substance of my work from being seen.
I first tried putting the project out to bid on Fiverr and Upwork. I got dozens of responses, but I did not feel like anyone really understood exactly what I was after. My expectations of the project also evolved as I read the responses because designers responded with details that I had never thought about before. I also began to learn a bit of the designer’s lingo by reading their proposals.
Unsatisfied with what I had found on the outsourcing websites, I asked the TBD Law community for recommendations for designers. Matt Homann, the owner of Filament, put me in touch with Jeff Wilson, a designer who has done a lot of work for Filament. After some conversations and back-and-forth on general design ideas, I felt like he understood what I was after and had a lot more ideas to contribute. Hiring Jeff turned out to be the best decision in the whole project.
Jeff highlights an aspect of working with others that bears mentioning. As a solo lawyer, I often hold all of the control over every aspect of what I do. Here, Jeff took ownership of this project and really sank his teeth into it. I admitted there were many things beyond my realm of expertise, and he was able to bring his strengths to the work and make the finished product something I could never have envisioned. Partly because I did not really know what it would ultimately look like and partly because he ran with some great ideas, Jeff ended up creating a finished piece that was far beyond my expectations. (He also spent a significant amount of time over and above what either of us initially anticipated.)
As with the design for the text, I also knew I needed help building the website. Through TBD Law, I was introduced to website designer Chris Ryan. After the second TBD Law, Chris took my framework for my law firm website and made it come to life, and I immediately knew that he should be the one to build The Playbook’s site.
By the time Chris got involved, the design for the delivery system had grown into something much more than I had initially envisioned. Initially, I thought it would be a simple site using Easy Digital Downloads to download a single PDF of the book. Instead, I pitched Chris the idea of a membership site with access to the text, document library, and forum, plus an email capture with sample chapter download. It seemed like the complexity of the site grew every time I spoke to him. (This is where a patient designer is critical.)
When I was ready to hand the project to Chris to work his website magic, there were pieces of it that I could not visualize. For example, the design of the text was nearly complete by this point, but I had a large set of documents for the library and the idea for the forum, but no idea how they would come to exist or what they should look like. Like Jeff, Chris was able to use his expertise to craft solutions to problems I could barely articulate, let alone solve. He created the template for the document library, and I was blown away by how it looked. He also created the forum.
The collaboration of Chris and Jeff was critical to getting the final website put together. Jeff would design the logo and cover, and Chris would integrate them into the site. There were days near the end of the process where there was nothing for me to do because the experts in their fields were busy making it all come together.
My base-level knowledge of website design helped me in testing the final product. I have taught myself enough about building a site to be able to set up a shopping cart with payment settings and test those settings in sandbox mode, and I was able to recruit a few friends and family to “purchase” memberships and log into the site to see if everything worked right.
Testing was a process that I hoped would be quick and easy and confirm that everything was great and working as expected. Instead, it highlighted a series of technical glitches on my end and required Chris and me to spend a lot of time fixing little details. It was critical to have one patient person go back and test and re-test the site. She found things like that once she paid for membership, when she tried to log in, it asked her to pay again. She also found minor inconsistencies that undermined the professionalism of the site. Her contribution to the process was priceless.
The testing process took a few days of great frustration and angst, but ultimately the final product was ready to go.
The Playbook went live just recently, and marketing efforts are only just beginning, so the launch itself is not terribly climatic. However, an important piece of it is the timing. As I mentioned above concerning the text, I found that I could work on this project for another year before launching it because there were always more points to make, pieces to add, and edits to make. When the rough draft of the text was complete, I set a launch date and stuck pretty close to it until the site was live.
The total time from starting to draft the text to launching the site was under four months.
Sticking to this timetable required two things. First, I publicly stated that it would be live in August 2017, and I put it out there in places I could not take it back. I stated this on a Lawyerist podcast, and I also said it to many colleagues. To miss my date would have been publicly embarrassing, and I did that on purpose to put the pressure on myself. I have found public accountability to be a tremendous motivator as a solo lawyer.
Second, it required me to ask everyone working on the project to move mountains to meet our deadlines. I was told by more than one person that I was rushing them, and I was asked point blank why it had to be done quickly. My response was that we could take forever, but there were other things to do too so this one had to get done now. This was a difficult pressure to place on everyone helping, but I felt it was necessary to prevent the project from taking over my work and life and interfering with client service.
The final word on The Playbook, for anyone considering undertaking a project like this, is that creating it turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I have done in my career as a solo lawyer. I learned a tremendous amount by merely writing the text and by working on the design. I know my practice area inside and out after digging through it in such great detail. Plus, creating something unique, knowing that nothing like it is out there for self-represented lawyers, gives me a sense of pride and of accomplishment that reinforces my belief in what I am doing in my work.
If you have a project you can envision, even if you don’t know all the details just yet or how exactly it would work, dog it like Walt Disney tells us to do: “Get a good idea and stay with it. Dog it, and work at it until it’s done right.” I can’t imagine being unhappy that you did.