Episode Notes

In this episode, Stephanie talks with Lawyerist Lab Financial Coach Bernadette Harris about protecting your firm from fraud. She explains how to implement proper procedures and financial safeguards, the benefits of outsourcing accounting, and the importance of paying attention to your books. 

Links from the episode:

Lawyerist’s Complete Guide to Law Firm Finances

Bernadette’s Ted Talk

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  • 9:34. Recovering from fraud
  • 11:39. Financial controls
  • 18:24. Steps you can take before outsourcing
  • 21:51. Pay attention!




Welcome to The Lawyerist Podcast, a series of discussions with entrepreneurs and innovators about building a successful law practice in today’s challenging and constantly changing legal market. Lawyerist supports attorneys, building client-centered, and future-oriented small law firms through community, content, and coaching both online and through the Lawyerist Lab. And now from the team that brought you The Small Firm Roadmap and your podcast hosts


Ashley Steckler (00:35):

Hi, I’m Ashley Steckler


Zack Glaser (00:36):

And I’m Zack Glaser. And this is episode 404 of the Lawyerist Podcast, part of the Legal Talk Network. Today, Stephanie talks with Bernadette Harris about the F-word: fraud. They discuss how to avoid becoming a fraud victim.


Ashley Steckler (00:51):

Today’s podcast is brought to you by Albatross Legal Workspaces, Postali and Posh Virtual Receptionists.

 We wouldn’t be able to do this show without their support stay tuned. We’ll tell you more about them later on.


Zack Glaser (01:03):

So Stephanie is talking to Bernadette today about finance, well specifically fraud, obviously, but she is our SME, our subject matter expert for the Lawyerist lab. And she talks about finances getting all your finances together. And we actually have as well as Bernadette, as the coach, we have a guide all about finances on the website that people can download.


Ashley Steckler (01:29):

Yeah, we have subject guides on our website. We have one all about law firm finances. It takes people through long term considerations where you want your firm to be in the future. What kind of strategy you have to implement, billing, collections. If we’re doing this work, are we collecting with the same efficiency and how are we handling those finances? Are we outsourcing bookkeeping? What are the options there? What kinds of insurance considerations tax obligations? And we really in our guide walk you through those different things to consider. We do have subject matter experts in our coaching program available to all of our lab members. But we also have on the website guides for the more DIY, I know I need to consider this, where do I need to start taking people through marketing or website design or finances? And it’s actually free to subscribers.


Zack Glaser (02:31):

And as you’re going through that, my first thought actually was, oh my God, I’m glad that’s written down.


Zack Glaser (02:38):

So all of that stuff, I mean, and that was just the, the finances. I think that you went through Ashley, all of that information. It’s not easy to just keep in your head. And so it’s nice to have something where it’s written down right there for you. But the key is, you know, at Lawyerist, we create a lot of content in helping lawyers run their business. That’s a lot of what we do. And we have a lot of content that is free on the website. Some of it is just the website, but two subscribers when you get on the website and it says, Hey, subscribe to our, you know, all that stuff, the guides and some more in-depth information is also free right out there. And I mean, I think that’s a, it’s a lot of stuff. There’s the legal tech guide. There’s healthy clients guide. There’s a lot of this stuff on there.


Ashley Steckler (03:30):

Yeah. I know I need to do this next cause I know I need to get a grasp on this next. Where do I start? Uwe have downloads those guides available to subscribers.


Zack Glaser (03:39):

Now we will put the link directly to those guides in the show notes, but the direct link to these guides is actually at lawyerist.com/resources. And again, we’ll put that link in the show notes.


Ashley Steckler (03:53):

Now here’s Stephanie’s conversation with Bernadette.


Bernadette Harris (03:56):

Hi, I’m Bernadette L. Harris. I’m the finance coach here at Lawyerist and excited to be on the podcast again today.


Stephanie Everett (04:04):

And we are excited as well, Bernadette, because we are gonna talk about the F word.


Bernadette Harris (04:09):

Oh yeah. You know, we like the F word, right?


Stephanie Everett (04:12):

Yeah. My team is like waiting on bated breath right now. No, we’re not gonna be dirty. We’re gonna talk about fraud.


Bernadette Harris (04:19):

Yeah. Yeah. This is a breathtaking conversation, right?


Stephanie Everett (04:25):

I mean, I think like we had this with a Labster recently that was talking to you and was really worried and nervous to let go of his bookkeeping and let go of the financial parts of his business, because he was worried that somebody would steal from him or, or do him wrong. Right. And that is a real fear that, well, I guess it goes on to spectrum. You have some business owners that are really scared about it and others that sort of don’t think about it at all. And just say here, do all my stuff.


Bernadette Harris (04:54):

Yeah. Yeah. And that’s exactly right. You, you know, you have those business owners who really feel like it will never happen to me. A lot of times people think it’s big business problems and they don’t realize that these things happen in small businesses too. Right. The problem is that with a small business, you don’t always have the ability to recover like a big business can. So we really have to be diligent as small business and small firm owners to make sure this doesn’t happen to us.


Stephanie Everett (05:28):

Yeah. And so we gotta find that happy middle, where you can have someone else helping you with your finances, but have the systems and processes in place that you’re checking on ’em. And that, I mean, it could be that they’re stealing from you or it could be, they’re just not doing their job and, or not doing their job correctly. So you don’t have to always frame it in terms of theft. Right. Because I think a lot of people are like, oh, but I trust this person. So they must be okay.


Bernadette Harris (05:55):

Yeah. And sadly, it’s always the people you trust, you know, it’s trust, but verify. Right. So just because grandmas steal, teenager, steal millennials, gen X, gen Y whatever. There’s no demographic data to say Oh, this group of people are the people that you need to watch out for.


Stephanie Everett (06:17):

Right. And it can happen to anyone. I remember as I was a young person, I was a child. And I remember my father telling this story about someone he knew who was a standup citizen. Right. Like everybody liked this guy was at a card game with friends one night and someone passed around like cocaine. And he had never tried drugs. Like this was not the kind of like, you know, you wouldn’t think of him as like a user, but he’s at this game with the guys and he tries it and he finds himself with a problem. And he eventually starts stealing from the business because he was in this downward spiral. And this is not someone that you would’ve even thought of. Right. Just something, at least that was the way I heard the story. Maybe there was more to it, but that story has always stuck with me because it’s an example of just like everyday people and things happen in their lives. And suddenly they make bad decisions.


Bernadette Harris (07:15):

Yeah. And there’s always, you know, in fraud, I don’t know if your listeners know that I’m also a forensic accountant, but one of the things that we study in forensics is what are some of the things that causes people to do these things? And we talk about the pressures. Pressures of life, have a tendency to make people do things that they wouldn’t normally do. Like the story you just told, who knows what he was going through and thought maybe, Hey, I’ll try it this one time. And it may have given him a relief that he thought he needed. Right. Yeah. And yeah. And like you said, it’s kind of a downward spiral. So there are lots of pressures. There could be pressures related to health issues, medical bills, divorce, all kinds of things, you know, are causes that make people do things that are outta character.


Stephanie Everett (08:09):

Yeah. I’ll just share one other like story just to scare everybody the other way. That’s part of our job today. Right? We gotta scare. ’em Just enough to pay attention to, to what you’re gonna say. Next. We had another person in our lab community when they first started working with us, they found out that their office manager had basically just stopped doing her job. I don’t really know how else to explain it, except I don’t know. She didn’t steal from the company. She, when she left, they found a whole bunch of checks in the, in the desk drawer that had just never been deposited. And then they start doing some more investigation and find out, I think really the reason they found this out is because their health insurance, they got a notice that it was gonna get canceled for a nonpayment. So this person just, not only did she not deposit checks, she just stopped paying bills and they had the money. Like there was nothing stolen or missing at the end of the day, she just literally stopped doing her job, stopped depositing checks, stopped paying the bills and suddenly they were in crisis because it was a huge mess. And it does, like you said, it takes time to recover and just get everything back on track because it was terrible. Yeah. And so no one stole, but yet that was bad. And a problem they could have been prevented if people would just put some things in place, like you said, trust, but verify.


Bernadette Harris (09:34):

Right. And when you think about recovery, recovery is two levels. There’s the financial recovery, right. Of having to go back and pay all these bills and get caught up and explain and late fees and all of that. Right. But then there’s also the emotional recovery, because as a business owner, you’re thinking, oh my gosh, I’m so irresponsible. Or you, you start blaming yourself. Or I can’t believe I trusted her, all of these things. And that, that is also very hard to recover from.


Stephanie Everett (10:06):



Bernadette Harris (10:07):

Because now you have to get to a position where you trust someone again. Yeah. And it’s not always easy.


Stephanie Everett (10:13):

Yeah. Well, so now that we have everyone depressed and scared


Bernadette Harris (10:17):

I know. Right, right. So it’s like, I want my podcast to be one of the ones that people actually wanna hear. Like they don’t wanna hear. No, they do. This is,


Stephanie Everett (10:25):

Yeah. They do wanna hear this one because this is like the, the thing in the closet that nobody wants to talk about, but they need to know because it doesn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be big, bad or scary. I think you’re here to tell us that actually there are some simple things we could put in place. And so maybe we should start laying some of those out.


Bernadette Harris (10:44):

Yeah. Let’s kind of talk about it. So as you said, as at LabCon, I spoke with one of the lobsters who was concerned about this very thing. And my immediate thought was he wants to get rid of the bookkeeping. He’s doing a bookkeeping in my immediate thought was well, absolutely because doing the bookkeeping is not a good use of your time as lawyers. And those of us who are running our firms, we have to focus on income producing activities. We have to focus on the high dollar earning activities and outsource the things that are not. So he knew that, you know, doing his bookkeeping was not a good use of his time, but he was afraid. Rightfully so. But what I always say to people is it is okay to outsource those things. You just have to outsource them with the system. You have to have a system, you have to have a process and we use the word financial controls.


Bernadette Harris (11:39):

You put those financial controls in place so that you can allow someone else to do it. But one of the things that I always say to people, and actually I talked about this in my Ted talk, your employees are going to watch what you watch. So if they know that you’re not paying attention to stuff, then they know that they can kinda get away with it. You know, like if you’re a parent, you know, you know this with your kids, right. I know with my daughter, if I, when she was a little girl, if I didn’t say anything about her room, not being clean for days and days and days, it would stay not clean for days and days and days because they pay attention to the stuff that you’re paying attention to. So if you are paying attention and in the case of the business owner, who office manager, wasn’t doing anything, why wasn’t she seeing that there were no checks coming through the bank account, right? Because she wasn’t paying attention. You know? And so that’s one of the, the biggest things as business owners, as law firm owners is we just gotta pay attention, pay attention to very small things, checking your bank account on a regular basis so that you can see one that payments are being made, but who these payments are being made to is a really small thing that a control that you can put in place.


Stephanie Everett (13:03):

Yeah. And I know a lot of people will have one person, like a two-person system is what I always used in my business. So I had somebody prepare all the checks, but somebody else would sign them. In my case, I liked to sign all the checks. Yeah. And even now at Lawyerist, we use an online service. I mean, we use bill.com and so our bookkeeper will prepare bills, but I have to sign off on them before that, you know, electronically, I can do it on my app. I literally sometimes do it like walking down the hall. So it doesn’t take much time, but there’s like that two-person system where I’m approving Bill’s checks going out and certainly expenses over a certain amount I have to approve.


Bernadette Harris (13:46):

Absolutely. And that’s, that’s called separation of duties. And so in the accounting world, we say separation of duties. But essentially that just means that you don’t let the kid check his homework. Right. Because everybody get an a, if they check their own test, right. I know I would wouldn’t you change the grade. Right. You know, so at least your 10 year old self, you would change the grade. Right? The change, the answers to the right answers. So separation of duties mean that one person does one thing and someone else kind of comes behind them to check. And in the case of the office manager, if there was the office manager’s job to, to maybe write up the deposits and someone else took ’em to the bank, you know, that may be an example of a separation of duties. And if that someone else has not gone to the bank in a while, it’s like, Hey, what’s going on? Have we not gotten any checks this week? You know?


Stephanie Everett (14:37):

Yeah. I think that’s a good example. Well, let’s take a break. We’ll hear from our sponsors and we come back, let’s dive a little bit more into this idea of separation of duties.


Zack Glaser (14:46):

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Stephanie Everett (18:03):

Okay. We’re back. And we’re trying to help people with some basic things that they should be thinking about paying attention to as they start to outsource their bookkeeping and their financial duties, are there other sort of low hanging fruit? We talked about one person preparing the checks, the other person signing them, but what are some other basic advice that you would give to any business owner?


Bernadette Harris (18:24):

Honestly, I would start with background checks, even though we didn’t start the conversation there, but background checks is something that’s really, really simple. Sometimes it may reveal some things that you didn’t know about this person, just like the guy that you mentioned earlier, they may have something in their background or their history that they didn’t share. So a background check, it doesn’t cost that much and it can probably unlock something. So that’s one thing that you could do. Another thing that you want to do is ask questions when you’re working with accountants and we’ve, we’ve talked to our Labsters about this, about how to have better relationships with their accountant. A lot of times business owners, law firm owners are a little intimidated by that conversation. Right. Right. You know, we’re all really smart people. So accountants are really smart. Attorneys are really smart and we’re just really smart at the stuff that we know.


Bernadette Harris (19:21):

Right? And so there’s, sometimes there’s an intimidation factor between having a conversation with your accountant, but ask questions. If you’re looking at your financials, what is this, why is this, you know, paying attention to those things? Because if you’re asking questions of your accountant, your bookkeeper, whatever, whoever the person is on your team that lets them know that you’re reading this, like you’re paying attention to those things. And I think a lot of times, a lot of people don’t, they don’t do that. Like you get your financials and you just file ’em in a folder on your computer.


Stephanie Everett (19:58):

Yeah. And I’m surprised too, like we have a system set up where our bookkeepers and controller, they have to send us our books for the prior month, by a date certain. We then have a couple of days to review them. We ask our questions, they go back and make any adjustments. And then they report back that they’re, you know, closed for the month. If I didn’t get that report by the 10th, they’re gonna hear from me. Right. Like, I’m gonna be looking for it saying, where is this? And I am shocked by how many lawyers I talk to. They’re like, well, I never get my reports. And I’m like, well, go ask for them. This person works for you. To your point. Like, why are you just saying, well, they they’ll send them to me when they send them to me. It’s like, no, you need to be on it and say where where’s June’s statements. Where’s July’s statements. Because again, that sends the, the message to that person. Oh, I gotta stay on top of this. And they care. And they’re looking for them. They know when I’m not doing my job.


Bernadette Harris (20:54):

Exactly. And that’s so important that, that a lot of times, when you think about, if you read about a fraud case, it’s always something where if someone was just paying attention, if they were just looking at their bank statements, if they were just logging into their bank accounts on a regular basis, if they had just reviewed their financial statements, a lot of times it would’ve been discovered a lot sooner, but you know, people aren’t paying attention and it’s also like things like credit cards. So let’s say for instance, with credit cards, you may have team members who have credit cards because it’s just more convenient for them to be able to purchase things. And you can put limits on ’em. You can even some credit cards even allow you to put spending categories where they can only purchase certain things with the cards, but also paying attention to those kinds of things.


Bernadette Harris (21:51):

A great way for someone to steal is purchasing stuff from Amazon. You can buy anything from Amazon. Anything, you know, I won’t be surprised if Amazon starts selling cars in the future, you know, like just so paying attention to where they’re actually making purchases. Another thing that I’ve seen is they may purchase gift cards from like Office Depot. So paying attention to your bank statement, especially like, if you, if you purchase a gift card is gonna be a round amount, right. So if you see $100 at Office Depot, that might be more of a red flag to say, Hey, why did I spend a hundred dollars at office Depot? And it may be that they bought a gift card to a restaurant and it wasn’t an actual office supply, but you know, your bookkeeper, when they see office Depot, they might think, oh, this must be office supplies. Right. So just paying attention to not only the purchases that you see, but pay attention to the numbers. Why did I spend $500 at Office Depot? Yeah. What was purchased there? You know, so paying attention stuff. I think the, the theme of this episode is paying attention.


Stephanie Everett (23:09):

It makes sense. And just, don’t be afraid to ask questions. And that’s the beauty of online accounting now. Like I go in and look at our books every month or even more so, probably more regularly, but I’ll click into things and I’ll ask questions. Like, why are we reimbursing this? Or what was this for? You know, just, I just act like a dummy, like what, what is this? I’m curious, but I’ve never had any reason to doubt anybody. Like, as I just wanna know number one, and sometimes, you know, I find things are miscategorized, but I guess to your point, my team now knows I’m gonna ask questions.


Bernadette Harris (23:46):

Exactly, like, that’s the key. If they know that you are watching this, that you are paying attention to this, then they will act accordingly. They will pay attention to that. And that is, that is one of the keys to creating an ethical culture in your business, in your firm. Because when you are having conversations about these kinds of things, then they know that, you know, that kind of stuff doesn’t fly with you. You know, I think about like when I was in school, like I had fun in college, but I was never a rule breaker. I was that person, like, I’m following the rules, I’m gonna do what is right. And so if I knew people who like maybe smoke weed or did stuff like that, they knew not to ask me to smoke weed. Because I’m not gonna do it. I would, you know, like, and so when you create this kind of environment, this kind of culture in your firm, your employees, your people who work for you, whether they’re contractors or they’re inside your firm, they’re gonna know the things that they can and can’t get away with. Yeah. If it’s really clear.


Stephanie Everett (24:56):

And I mean, I mean, I trust my team immensely, but they hold me to the same standard. I’ll confess to everyone. We had a charge a couple months ago from Home Depot and we could trace it. It was like the home Depot near my house. And I can’t for the life of me. Like maybe I just messed up and used my business card and pulled that out instead of my personal card. But I was like, racking my brain. It wasn’t very much money, but I was like, oh my gosh, did I buy those plants? And used the business card? You know? But my team, my team was asking me like, they’re like, Hey Stephanie, why did we, why, what did you buy at Home Depot? Because that is not a, you know, typical lawyer is purchase. Right. And I was appalled and we took care of it, you know, but like, I wanna be held to that same standard too.


Stephanie Everett (25:39):

And I, you know, look guys, business owners, I know you have wiggle room as a business owner, you get to decide, you know, which expenses you’re putting on the business card, which things you’re calling business meals. I’m not here to, to, you know, quibble with that. But it was just, I appreciate it. That my team.


Bernadette Harris (25:55):

I am.


Stephanie Everett (25:55):

Okay. You, you can, but I guess I was just saying, I appreciate it. That my team was also holding me accountable for wait, why, why is this charge on the business card? And I had no problem with them asking me, I still to this day, can’t figure out what I did, but we took care of it.


Bernadette Harris (26:11):

But you created what you did is you created a culture where the conversations and the questions were two ways, right? They asked you questions, you asked them questions and it was okay. And that’s what you want. As in a business, you want to be able to create that open dialogue so that people are okay with asking the questions and everybody knows that everybody’s paying attention. So that’s super.


Stephanie Everett (26:37):

Great. I feel proud then I got, I got a super from Bernadette. Well, I think our overall theme, my big takeaway here is it’s okay to pay attention. It’s I mean, not just okay. You should, and you should ask questions and trust, but verify. And the good news is I know for the people in our Lab community, we have a whole series of templates of financial controls that walk everyone exactly through how you can set up specific policies in your business. If you’re not a member of Lab yet. I mean, talk to me, why not? But also you can find these resources online. Like these aren’t hidden policies in the world. If you just start Googling financial controls, you’ll get a good sense of the types of things you can put in place for your business. Cuz it it’s time well spent. I think,


Bernadette Harris (27:23):

Yeah. I remember when I was in graduate school when I was getting my second master’s I have a master’s in fraud and forensics. And one of the first courses that I took, we had this assignment and I struggled with the assignment because the assignment was, we had to be a fraudster. So I had to be a foster. I had to steal from one of my clients and I had to write a paper saying how I stole and how I got caught. Oh God. Like, you know, so I’m


Stephanie Everett (28:00):

Sweating thinking about it.


Bernadette Harris (28:02):

Yes. Yes. So I don’t know how many of you know this, but I am a overachiever like to the max, like I freaked out because I got two, a minuses and I didn’t graduate with a 4.0. So that’s just to give you just yes. That’s that’s me, right? Yeah. I graduated with a 3.9. I don’t understand why I got a B-, but anyway, I know, I know. I know. So when I was doing this assignment, I spent two days just like freaking out over the assignment, like, oh my gosh, I could never steal from my clients. You know, what, what am I gonna do? How am I gonna do this assignment? And then I realized the point of the assignment, the point of the, of the assignment was for me to see how someone can steal from me so that I could prevent them from stealing from me. And so for the listeners, I want you to think about that. You know, like, think about what are some of the ways that people could steal from you yeah. In your business. And I know that is a, that is hard to think about. You don’t wanna think about that. That’s that’s painful. But if you think about what are some of the ways that people can steal from you and then plug the holes we’re done.


Stephanie Everett (29:17):

Yeah. I love it. And I know I said we were wrapping up, but you reminded me, honestly, like I do know of a lawyer from way back when I was at the big firm, he stole over a hundred, like hundreds of thousands of dollars from a large law firm. He did it by making up. He like was really sophisticated. He made up a fake like court reporting company. And so, so he said he was doing all these depositions and he would submit reimbursements for this court reporter that he was writing, you know, writing checks to for this court reporter. But he had it all kind of funneling back to him and they caught him. But like, I mean, some people will go to a big efforts to steal from you. I mean, we were talking about like the easy stuff that was pretty complicated. But your paper reminded me of that, that, you know, my husband used to own a restaurant and he was a bartender and he was like, look, I know people are trying to steal from me. I’ve been a bartender. I know all the ways for it to happen. So now I know what to look for. And so that’s kind of the, we have to put that hat on, like, okay. Yeah. That’s great advice. And it’s hard to do.


Bernadette Harris (30:25):

It is very hard to do, but I’m telling you, if you spend the time doing it, it is so rewarding because you have to think like a fraudster, you have to think like a thief. How can someone take advantage of you? And then what are some of the things you can do to make sure that they can’t based on that? So that’s your homework guys. I want you to think like a fraudster. How can someone steal from you and your law firm? And then I want you to go fix it.


Stephanie Everett (30:51):

Yeah. When we post this episode, I’m gonna put that in the comments on social. So people can come in and share it and share what they came up with or what they’ve seen. Because honestly, hearing these stories is good because maybe somebody has seen something or thought of something that my little innocent mind, I’m, I’m a fellow non rule breaker with Bernadette.


Stephanie Everett (31:13):

We might not think of it, but collectively as a community, we can educate each other. So make sure you do your homework and then come and comment on that. And Bernadette was so great to be with you talking about the F word


Bernadette Harris (31:26):

And we did not break any rules talking about the F word.


Stephanie Everett (31:34):

I love it. I love it. Always, always love our conversations. We never know where we’re gonna go so


Bernadette Harris (31:40):

Well, it was just a, it was an absolute pleasure to be here. I hope that the time that you spent with us today was well spent that you’ve gotten something from this episode and definitely are in moving in the right direction towards making sure that you’re protecting your business and growing. Because when you’re at the point where you’re starting to give these responsibilities to someone else, that means that your firm is growing and we want you to grow in a good way.


Stephanie Everett (32:08):

Yep. I love it.


Announcer  (32:11):

The Lawyerist Podcast is edited by Britany Felix. Are you ready to implement the ideas we discuss here into your practice? Wondering what to do next? Here are your first two steps. First. If you haven’t read The Small Firm Roadmap yet, grab the first chapter for free at Lawyerist.com/book. Looking for help beyond the book? Let’s chat about whether our coaching communities, are right for you. Head to Lawyerist.com/community/lab to schedule a 10-minute call with our team to learn more. The views expressed by the participants are their own and are not endorsed by Legal Talk Network. Nothing said in this podcast is legal advice for you. 

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Stephanie Everett

Stephanie Everett is the President of Lawyerist, where she leads the Lawyerist Lab program. She is the co-author of the bestselling book The Small Firm Roadmap and is a regular guest and co-host of the weekly Lawyerist Podcast.

Featured Guests

Bernadette Harris Headshot

Bernadette Harris

Bernadette Harris started her first business in 1998 and never looked back. With a background in accounting, business strategy, speaking and fraud forensics, Bernadette has helped countless businesses grow and become even more successful. Her ultimate goal is to see fewer businesses fail. She has written three bestselling books where she focuses on business strategy, preventing fraud, employees/vendors, and more. Her specialties include tax and forensic accounting, entrepreneurship, speaking, and fraud prevention.

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Last updated August 31st, 2022