Webinar Recap:
How the Largest Criminal Defense Firm in Fort Worth Hits Their Performance Goals

Swift decision-making in your law firm can mean the difference between growth and stagnancy. In this transcript taken from a recent webinar conducted by MyCase, you’ll learn how a thorough understanding of financial and operational performance enables Benson Varghese Esq., managing partner of Varghese Summersett PLLC, to make firm-wide decisions faster to satisfy his firm’s clients and stay competitive.

 

 

Nicole Black:

Welcome, everyone. I am Nicole Black, Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase, and I’m here with Benson Varghese. Today we’re going to talk about how his law firm has achieved success, including how it meets and tracks his performance goals, and how this has contributed to his growth. 

Benson is the founder of Varghese Summersett PLLC, one of the largest and fastest-growing criminal defense firms in Forth Worth, Texas. Collectively, the attorneys at Varghese Summersett bring together more than a century of criminal law experience and have helped thousands of clients facing the biggest problems in their lives. 

Client satisfaction is paramount to Benson and the firm, which has more five star Google reviews than any other criminal defense practice in Texas. Welcome, Benson. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Benson Varghese:

Well, absolutely. What a kind introduction. I’m happy to be here.

NB: 

I’m looking forward to learning about your practice. Today we’re going to take a deep dive into your day to day responsibilities as the managing partner of a busy criminal defense firm, including how you track the progress of your firm’s cases, manage your firm’s financial health, and stay on top of employee performance. 

So first of all, let’s talk a little bit about your firm. Let’s go back to the early days. When was it founded?

BV: So I started the firm in March of 2014. I’d been a prosecutor at that point for just under five years and decided to go out and hang my own shingle here in Fort Worth where I had been a prosecutor. And I’ve grown that firm from that to what it is today.

NB:

And what made you decide to start a law firm, as opposed to joining one?

BV:

As a prosecutor, you always hope that the state is going to wear the white hat, and you realize over time that it really takes good defense attorneys to hold the state to its burden. You’re not going to have a system that works unless you’ve got good people on both sides. So why I decided to go out and do this on my own as opposed to join a firm is I thought there were a lot of ways that law firms could improve: They could adopt technologies, and sometimes bigger firms are slower to do so. As a solo, and now a small firm, we have the ability to really stay abreast of how we can maximize technology for our clients. 

NB:

How many employees were at your firm when it was founded? And how many lawyers and staff are there now?

BV:

It was me and one other person. We now have seven attorneys, and we’re in the process of bringing another on. And at any given time, we have an equal number of staff members supporting our attorneys.

The Mission

NB:

Tell me a little bit about your firm’s mission and how that relates to your overall success.

BV:

Absolutely. What we try to do is really provide clients with what I would consider ‘white glove service.’ We do this because the folks that come to us are truly coming to us with the biggest problem in their life. Whether they have a son or a daughter who was arrested for a DWI, or they’re charged with a serious felony on defense, that is without a doubt the biggest problem in their life.

While there are many attorneys who might know the day to day skills that are necessary to walk into a courtroom, to talk to judges, to talk to prosecutors, it’s an entirely different skill set to understand and acknowledge that this person has trusted you with everything, and really carry them through this. 

We don’t operate in volume. We operate in an environment, where I get to know my clients. I get to know my clients’ families. I know their names. I know their stories. By doing so, I’m able to tell that story, whether it’s to a prosecutor or a judge or a jury, much more compellingly. 

It’s something we think about from the moment they pick up the phone and call us all the way through their resolution, and even post-resolution. That’s part of the reason why we ended up with the reviews that we have in a relatively short period of time.

NB:

One of the biggest tasks that criminal defense attorneys have is that their clients require a lot of attention, and that can often be a difficult thing to provide. Can you talk a little bit about how your attention to your clients has helped you achieve so many five-star reviews? 

BV:

Being able to use the MyCase Client Portal has enabled us to do quite a bit, and really build efficiency. Going back to that concept of providing white-glove service, we want to always be available to our clients. 

Even though we’re a criminal defense firm — and really the criminal justice system never sleeps — you don’t want fifty 2:00 AM phone calls. Instead, you want your client correspondences to be as efficient as possible, meaning we allow our clients to contact us, even at 2:00 AM, through the MyCase Client Portal, while limiting phone calls to emergencies.

Clients are always commenting on the level of communication they have with our attorneys. For instance, when you’re in trial, it’s all-consuming. The ability for us to get messages from clients, see them, and loop another attorney or staff member into the conversation is invaluable if I’m in trial. The client is never left feeling like, “Hey, I don’t know what’s going on with my case. I sent a message, or I left a voicemail a week ago.” We’re really good at responding. And it goes back to that recognition of this being their biggest problem. They need answers.

Managing Case Progress + Performance

NB:

Can you tell me how you, as a managing partner, ensure that you meet deadlines for every case?

BV:

The MyCase Calendar feature is critical for us in a number of ways: From the client perspective, we are making sure the clients know about their upcoming court settings. We become their primary point of contact — whether they have a bondsman keeping them informed or not. 

We take it upon ourselves to make sure our clients not only know about their next court setting, but every client’s going to get a message saying, “Here’s what you should expect as this case progresses from an initial appearance through the variety of settings that we have locally.” 

They’ll know what to expect at each, where to park, what to wear, if they’ll be talking on the record, or if they’ll be talking to anyone at all. Setting those expectations from the client’s side really helps them with understanding the case progress.

From the attorney’s point of view, there are a couple of features that really help us. First of all, there’s the Notes section, which means that any critical contact that we have with the client or prosecutor, as well as any major steps or progress are notated in the case. It’s just like picking up that old paper file. You can look down immediately and refer to the most recent action. 

The Calendar feature allows us to know what the other attorneys are doing at all times. When I’m in trial, I have to have other attorneys at my office cover my settings this week. And instead of me taking time out of my trial prep, I have attorneys who are able to click over to my calendar, see what’s coming up, get me excused from the settings that they can get me excused from, but cover the ones that someone needs to show up for.

NB:

As the managing partner, how do you ensure that you understand what’s happening with all the other attorneys’ cases that they’re managing?

BV:

It’s really easy for me to click one button and see, for instance, what any partner’s calendar looks like. At any given time I can see the most recent update on any case. The ease of being able to see all of that in one central location really helps me stay abreast of what’s going on at the partner level. 

To manage associates or interns who might need more day to day guidance, we utilize the Tasks function and the ability to set deadlines on those tasks — especially when we’re talking about a first-year or second-year associate. They need deadlines. They need someone watching over what they’re doing. And at that level, we can monitor that their tasks are getting completed, and if not, making sure that additional support is brought in so that we can get all of those things done.

NB:

In terms of staff tasks, do you use the to-dos and task assignments as well for staff?

BV:

Absolutely! We’re a big proponent of trying to use one tool in as many ways as possible, as opposed to having four or five different programs or platforms that people have to keep up with. Most of our non-urgent communication happens through the Tasks and the Messages on MyCase. This helps not only with communication but also documentation. So if someone calls with a concern or question regarding their case progress, everything is in black and white.

NB:

In terms of case progress, are there any measures that you take to ensure that case status meetings internally at your firm are run efficiently?

BV:

With most of our criminal cases, we are automatically going to get settings about once a month which really helps us keep track of case progress. The attorneys will meet to talk about upcoming trials and major cases that are coming up on our dockets that we might need assistance for. For those cases that don’t have monthly settings, we will essentially create reminders for ourselves so that no case goes untouched for a long period of time. 

Even if there have been few updates on a case, you can set up a reminder that says, “Hey, it’s been three weeks since there’s been any contact. Let the client know that nothing’s happening on the case.” This helps us avoid situations in which the client waits has to wait on case updates for extended periods.

NB:

And how do you identify if you have some problematic cases or cases that need extra attention within your firm?

BV:

Much of that happens through meetings that we have at the partner level. As issues come up, we’re certainly going to discuss them. One great MyCase feature allows us to make a notation that a particular client on a particular case might need extra attention, this is a VIP client, this is a VIP referral, so that every time someone touches that case, they know automatically this one is a case that we’re going to need to spend some extra time on, and that really helps quite a bit.

NB:

Do you have any performance goals for specific cases, or for all of our cases? And if so, how do you ensure that they’re met?

BV:

Performance from the case outcome standpoint is certainly determined case by case. We’re always looking at a number of things that are obvious in any criminal setting: avoid convictions, avoid prison time, and the third one is always whether or not there’s a way to protect this person’s record in the future — whether through an expunction or through a similar process. 

Then you have the goals of the firm. With all of our employees on payroll, we’ve got to meet certain numbers to make sure we’re paying for our salaries. We’re paying for the bills. We’re making sure we pay the rent. 

MyCase makes it really easy to see our monthly numbers: How we’ve been performing each month, month over month, and year over year. 

NB:

Can you talk a little bit about how you introduce clients to the client portal and whether their use of that portal saves time on your end, especially on the administrative level?

BV:

We introduce clients to the client portal before they actually become our clients. During our initial consultation, whether over the phone or in-person, we talk about what distinguishes us from other law firms, and one of those things is the ability to use this client portal. And we talk about the value of the client portal from their perspective. In the end, they see it as an up-to-date calendar, 24/7 communication, and a one-stop-shop for all the answers that they need. For those clients who are using MyCase, they love it and it’s absolutely creating efficiencies for us as the attorneys.  

Of course, it’s unavoidable to have some clients who, based on their generation or their familiarity with technology, may reject something like the client portal, and that’s okay. Those clients fall into a small minority of our overall volume of cases. 

Understanding Firm Profitability

NB:

When you have a firm that’s growing as quickly as yours, tracking financial health is incredibly important, and quite frankly it’s important for any law firm. How do you ensure that you understand your firm’s profitability?

BV:

Progressively, just common sense. Your expenses grow over time. How are you adapting to that? We don’t want to operate in a volume practice necessarily but we’re looking at the metrics of how much are we spending versus how much are we bringing in. From time to time we ask: Do we need to justify additional attorneys so that we can maintain our level of service to the client as we continue to grow? 

It’s always a balance. We’re always looking at how we’re performing. We’re also gauging how our website’s performing and how that ties into the number of calls we get, how that turns into clients that end up retaining us.

NB:

When it comes to the flow of potential clients into your firm, are there reports or tools that you use to understand resources and who retains you from where?

BV:

One of the newer features that MyCase has introduced is the ability to track your intakes or the folks that are calling you as potential clients. 

Everyone understands that if you have a client that is sent to you as a referral, either from another attorney or a past client, they’re probably going to hire at a one to one ratio. But if they’re calling you because they saw your website, they liked your video, or they liked what you wrote, that’s not going to be one to one. That might be a much lower ratio of people hiring you. But we want to know where we’re effective. We want to know what pages people liked, what videos they liked, what’s effective, and that helps us improve our communication with people before they ever pick up the phone and call us. 

NB:

Let’s talk about your firm’s profitability. Are there are reports that you rely on to track this?

BV:

Yes. Within MyCase we are able to export a lot of different reports and data points. We can easily gather information on how we’re doing on a year to date basis, a month to date basis. We’ll also get reports on what invoices are past due, and how far they’re past due. Anything from a sum total of how much you have in receivables to long outstanding payments. We then export that data into Excel and run our own analysis on the numbers to see how we’re doing compared to other years and how we’re tracking towards internal goals for the firm.

NB:

One thing that I think might be helpful for the listeners is with criminal defense firms: how do you decide what to charge for cases in order to ensure profitability?

BV:

I’m really proud of the team that we’ve put together; we really try to bring the best attorneys to the firm.  Some of the folks that I work with were my boss’ boss at the DA’s office. These are people who have been practicing for two decades plus, and bring a wealth of experience to the table. 

So part of what we’re factoring into the cost of representation is the level of experience that we’re bringing to the table. Part of it’s going to be the nature of the offense, and part of it’s going to be what’s the jurisdiction. Are we in federal court, are we in state court, are we going into a courthouse that we walk into every day, or are we traveling 30, 45 minutes to get to the courthouse?

We’re considering all those factors in determining what a fair rate is for our clients. And generally on the state level, we have the ability to tell clients on the front end, how much they’ll be charged. On federal cases, or cases that might last multiple years, you might have an hourly basis where it’s harder to predict what that total amount is going to be.

Understanding Attorney Profitability

NB:

Another thing that’s really important for your firm’s financial health is understanding the attorney profitability as well as staff profitability? How do you track that within your firm?

BV:

We ask everyone at the firm who’s putting work into a case, whether it’s billed by the hour or not, to keep track of their time. We look at it from an efficiency standpoint. If we’re working on a low level theft offense that’s a shoplifting, we want to know how much time are we putting into that. The same goes if we’re working on a capital murder case. We want to know where our resources are being allocated. From a monetary standpoint, we get an idea of how much time has been spent in comparison to what we were paid.

NB:

How do you track accounts receivable and invoicing so that you’re able to understand money coming in the door and out the door at your firm?

BV:

Most of our state cases, as I mentioned, are going to be a flat rate basis. So with flat rate cases, the client knows coming in. Let’s say the total value of the case is $5000. They’ll know on the front end what the amount is, and they’ll also get set up on a payment plan, if need be. So whether we’re breaking up that payment over one, two or three payments, MyCase will allow us to set up a payment plan where they’re going to be prompted to make a payment when those dates come up. It’ll also tell us if they’re behind. 

That way we have a really good idea of how we are paid, when we’re paid, and what we’re owed. On cases that are operating on an hourly basis, we’ll generally have some type of a retainer that we’re billing against. This allows us to go in each month and see how much work we’ve done, what’s remaining on the retainer, and be able to notify the client if they need to re-up the retainer.

NB:

Now let’s turn to employee performance because that’s always an important thing to understand in your firm as well. How do you track staff productivity?

BV:

The MyCase Tasks panel really helps us understand what tasks are being divvied out to whom as well as their priority in the greater context of our caseload. We have a lot of partners who are in trial regularly, and trials automatically get priorities when it comes to tasks. But we want to make sure that the associates or interns are not overwhelmed and that they’re not given so many tasks that they can’t keep up with our top priorities. 

You can also set deadlines once something is due. But you can also set a high, medium or low priority task which allows our support, our associates, to understand this case is a high priority because it’s coming up for trial, or because we have a deadline. The court settings themselves also lend itself to just making sure our priorities are met because our court settings tell us in large part how important the next setting is going to be. Is it going to be a routine pass, or is this something where we’re going to have a substantive hearing?

NB:

Do you use MyCase to ensure that your employees are working as efficiently as possible, or is that mostly just done by the task assignment features?

BV:

So we use the Task Assignment features quite a bit to keep track of that, and the meetings that we have at the partner level, they include those discussions about how are our associates doing, how are our interns doing, who needs help, when, where and how can we provide that support.

NB:

Have you made changes to increase staff efficiency based upon those meetings? And how do you know that those changes have worked?

BV:

Yes. Over time, we’ve seen a change in how we use these tools, and the better we use them, the more efficient we become.  The ability to set priorities for tasks, for instance, was something that we had to learn to adopt, and it really did make a difference to designate them as high, medium, low, or set a due date. And if something doesn’t have a priority or doesn’t have a due date, it falls to the bottom of the list, and we understand that. That’s the expectation. 

NB:

Are you able to use the data that you’ve gleaned from MyCase to ensure that staff workloads are fair and equally distributed?

BV:

Even at the middle level, we have some of the associates looking at intern tasks to make sure they are not overwhelmed. And you have partners looking at the associate task. So there are multiple levels of review where we can ensure that no one person is getting overwhelmed.

NB:

Do you use MyCase to track staff and attorney productivity differently, or do you use MyCase in a similar way for both staff and attorneys?

BV:

Staff tracking is more like how we track our interns or those task-driven associates. It’s very much focused on what are the tasks at hand, what do we need to complete for our upcoming settings, whether that’s two weeks out or a month out. At the partner level, it’s much different. You’re really looking at what trial dates are coming up, what substantive hearings are coming up, as opposed to just specific tasks.

NB:

How do you ensure that attorneys are hitting performance goals that you’ve set for them within the firm?

BV:

Each year we make a concerted effort to have all the partners sit down and send in evaluations of the associates and our staff members. That allows us to gather feedback on how everyone thinks we’re doing. From there we basically put together an evaluation that has input both from the employee, as well as the partners that cover our core values, how they embody them, or how they improve. 

In addition to having an annual raise, we have performance based raises. Any employee’s performance is going to be tied into their salary for the upcoming year, during which they’ll be focused on improving and excelling. But we try to make sure it’s not just top-down evaluation. We want to hear from our employees and how they think their performance is so that we can work together to meet individual and collective goals.

NB:

So communication within your firm is just as important as outbound communication with your clients in terms of your firm’s success. And when it comes to the attorneys within your firm, do you find that they’re able to use MyCase to track their own productivity?

BV:

Absolutely. So one of the interesting things about our firm is we have young associates that have only been practicing a couple of years and others who have been practicing for decades. With that in mind, I wanted to set up the firm the way I did, really pushing the technology to create efficiencies. Everyone at our firm, whether they’re young or experienced, have really adopted this. 

I have attorneys who really take pride in making sure every minute and every hour of their day is documented. I have attorneys who are raving about the Tasks function, so that they can keep track of what needs to be done, and what’s coming up. There’s not a moment in our office where MyCase is not pulled up in one tab or another. We’re it at all times whether it’s on our mobile devices, or in the office. 

NB:

Is there anything in terms of assessing staff productivity or technology that you’d like to add?

BV:

Technology is a tool to help you become a better lawyer and to provide better client service. But at the end of the day, it’s just a tool. It’s not the center of everything. 

Never forget the human element of what you’re doing. Talk to your staff. Talk to your attorneys. Make those efforts so that, as wonderful as technology is, you’re not always stuck behind a screen just working on the next task at hand. Human interaction is key, whether that’s with our coworkers, or whether that’s with a client. There’s a value to those face to face meetings, and learning to balance technology and human interaction is something that we found to be valuable.

I really am proud of the team that we have. We make huge efforts to treat each other well. We treat the clerk of the court, the receptionist, the bailiffs at the courthouse, or anyone at the office the same way we would treat a judge. We treat our difficult clients with the same respect that we treat your most pleasant client, and that’s something that is integral to what we do.

The biggest compliment I get when I walk into the courthouse is when I either hear from members of any court team, or the court clerk’s commenting on how nice and professional anyone was, from our intern all the way up to an attorney.  

And there’s a reason that the bailiffs or the court clerks are cheering for us when we have victories in court. It’s not necessarily because they loved our clients. It’s not necessarily because they thought we were going to win. It’s because they know us and see us every day, and we treat them well. 

NB:

You often hear about corporations talk about culture, but I don’t often hear lawyers talk about law firm culture. Did you, when you established your law firm, have this concept of the culture you wanted to create for the firm, or was that something that evolved over time, or was it a combination of both?

BV:

My law partner is my wife, and together we very early on discussed culture and what we wanted this firm to be. It’s intentional… I think it has to be intentional. We brought in attorneys and staff that we consider family. And we went on this mission to say: Treat those clients like it’s the biggest moment in your life. Treat them well. Respect them. Respect each other. Your culture is reflected on how you treat your clients. 

I don’t think anyone will tell you that maintaining a firm culture is easy, but the rewards are more than you can measure. Walking into an office that you enjoy being at with a team of people that you enjoy working with is everything. Whether you’re a solo practice and you’re thinking about bringing in your first intern or adding an associate, those are things that you need to think about — even before you hang your shingle. 

NB:

That’s great advice. And then last but not least, can you just tell me a little bit about how the software tools your firm uses help eliminate blind spots in your business?

BV:

That really goes back to having the human element, as well as the technology element side-by-side: Helping us keep track of everything that we’re doing, how we’re being productive from a conversion’s standpoint (meaning the phone calls that we got and how many of those landed to how we’re doing with our numbers year to year), how many clients are writing reviews, and how many reviews have been requested. All of those are all metrics that help us understand how clients feel about us, how potential clients feel about us, and how we are able to support each other within the firm.





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