The Agile Attorney with John E. Grant | The “Really Check:” Fostering Accountability with Jess Birken & Meghan Heitkamp

Ep #20: The “Really Check:” Fostering Accountability with Jess Birken & Meghan Heitkamp

June 6, 2024 in Podcast

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In past episodes, I’ve talked in detail about individual practices and how the Kanban method has upleveled them, and today’s show provides living proof. That’s because I’m talking with two clients of mine, Jess Birkin and Megan Heitkamp, of the Birkin Law Office, about the start of their practice and how they’ve transformed their business with systematic improvements.

With Jess as the owner and Megan as the firm manager, these two have developed a successful firm that serves small to midsize nonprofits. Listen in as we discuss their early adoption of the Kanban method, including such concepts as minimum viable product, “Really Checks,” and productizing. 

Together we’ll discuss how these concepts and frameworks are wholly trainable and teachable, allowing you to bring full teams on board and then streamline processes even more effectively (think automated lead nurturing campaigns). Even better, this episode can serve as a case study that these systemizations can improve your practice too.

Start your Agile transformation today! Grab these free resources to help you and your team develop a more Agile legal practice. 

What You'll Learn in This Episode:

  • The concept of a minimum viable product (MVP) and its impact on startup practices.
  • How to productize and, more importantly, how to stay with it after first time failures.
  • Ways to build effective to-do lists that will empower you (and not dishearten you).
  • The framework of a Really Check and its power to ground and focus your ambitions.
  • What processes or tasks should be automated in your practice.

Listen to the Full Episode:

Featured on the Show:

Full Episode Transcript

I’m excited to share today’s episode with you because it’s a conversation with two of my favorite people, Jess Birken and Meghan Heitkamp. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of watching and helping Jess and Meghan build something truly remarkable. A law practice that is strongly focused on the needs of their particular client base, is efficient and is a model of what can happen when you take a team approach to running a law business. What’s really struck me is the way that these two work together.

Even though Jess is the lawyer and Meghan is not a lawyer and came on board really straight out of college, they operate as true partners, although small P partners in the design and implementation of the firm’s work. A big part of their success has come from them embracing agile and Kanban principles, ideas that Jess and I first started talking about almost a decade ago and as you’ll hear, it wasn’t always a straight path.

There have been plenty of times when they’ve had to wrestle with how to apply the concepts in the context of their specific work, but they’ve stuck with it and they’re learning and adapting as they go. And the payoff’s been huge. They’ve got a practice that is nimble, responsive and really works both at a business scale and at a human one.

So, in this conversation, Jess and Meghan, get into some details about how they’ve made this transformation happen bit by bit, step by step. And I think any lawyer who’s looking to create a more modern, client-focused practice is going to get a ton out of their insights. Ready to become a more agile attorney? Let’s go.

Welcome to The Agile Attorney podcast powered by Agile Attorney Consulting. I’m John Grant and I’ve spent the last decade helping lawyers and legal teams harness the tools of modern entrepreneurship to build practices that are profitable, scalable, and sustainable for themselves and their communities. Each episode I offer principles, practices, and other ideas to help legal professionals of all kinds be more agile in your legal practice.

Jess Birken and Meghan Heitkamp, thank you for coming onto the podcast. And as I do, I’m going to let you introduce yourselves a little bit and Jess, why don’t you go first?

Jess: Okay, yeah, well, thanks for having us. I’m Jess, and I’m a lawyer in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. We run a firm that serves small to mid-size non-profits. So, if you think, business law with an extra layer of tax compliance on top. It’s a totally transactional practice. I don’t remember the rules of evidence on purpose, and that’s how I like it.

John: Nice. Alright, Meghan, how about you?

Meghan: Hi, I am Meghan. I have worked with Jess for coming up on seven years now. Isn’t that crazy? And I am not a lawyer. I started off with just doing everything but the lawyering. And now we’ve added a lot of members to our team and a lot of processes and systems. So, I have been on the ground helping Jess sort of figure out how we’re going to do this thing.

John: I love it. And yeah, again, I can’t believe it’s been seven years. And so full disclosure, I have been off and on working with Jess and Meghan as a coach and more off than on lately, but that’s fine, in helping set up systems and practices and thinking through problems and product and all the crazy stuff that we’ve talked about. But I was kind of hoping, Jess, that you could maybe tell the story of how you and I first started working together even though it goes back into the pre Meghan era.

Jess: It sure does, yeah. So, well, you and I were at this really cool event that Lawyerist threw way back in the day that was called TBD. And they just kind of got a bunch of weirdos together. They’re like, “Here’s a bunch of weirdos that are doing weird things that are not traditional. Let’s put them all in a room and see what happens. The future of law is to be determined.” And so, I think we became friends there. And I remember talking with you about my idea to sort of productize my practice.

And we stood at a little two top, high top table and you had a manila folder. I don’t even know how the hell you had a manila folder at this event but you did. Of course, you had post-it notes because you’re you and probably carry post-it notes with you everywhere you go. And you basically made a Kanban board for me and taught me the concept of Kanban inside this manila folder with some post-it notes.

And you also taught me the concept of a Minimum Viable Product and just kind of taught me the framework for how to think about breaking down things in a Kanban way. And that’s really my recollection of it, was you just started giving me some 101 agile off the cuff.

John: Yeah, that’s great. That’s funny. I remembered it being, because I feel like we were at a wall for a while too, but I’d forgotten about the manila folder. Yeah, well, and it’s great, I mean, part of why I love it is that it kind of shows and there’s a sort of, I don’t know, funny joke in the agile world that the Kanban method is like the game Othello. That it takes a moment to learn, but a lifetime to master type of thing.

It’s really simple to get started and then as you’ve shown, it can go to a lot of different places once you sort of start to wrestle with the ideas and the concepts and get things going. And so, we were brainstorming the idea around productizing your practice. How did that go?

Jess: I mean, it went amazing. I think I went back to my work and essentially just started applying what you taught me. And then Meghan came on board and it was, hey, I want to build this online course. And we attempted to do an MVP, but it was really more than an MVP. That was one of the painful lessons of, it wasn’t really minimum.

John: Well, that’s hard.

Jess: It is hard, yeah.

John: It’s one of the hardest parts of this thing is, how do we keep it simple and yet still make it effective and get good information out of it? And you and I talk a lot and then you and your newsletter and some of your other venues. And as a quick aside, Jess has a great newsletter called Hack your Practice that everyone should subscribe to.

But there’s all these things that we are trained in legal as lawyers that we’re supposed to do it this way or we’re supposed to have these sort of high standards of practice, of writing, of whatever. And in some ways to get to that MVP, you kind of have to throw some of it out the window.

Jess: Yeah, because you know what the client really needs, the whole picture. And so, to break something down into the smallest possible part is really, really difficult, because we’re working in complexity as attorneys. So, it was just hard to even wrap our brains around how to make it small. So, it was a little bit bigger than it needed to be, but really we did that one thing and then once you’ve done the one thing, then it’s, okay, well, what else could I do like this? Or what else could I offer? I could do a limited scope work session instead of a free consultation.

So, we started charging for consults. And then it was, I could make my entire practice based around subscription. And run everything efficiently with Kanban boards and flat-fee projects. And I mean basically we just exploded from there.

John: Right. Well, and I want to sort of back up a little bit and talk about Meghan’s entry into this world. So, Meghan joined you, and I’m going to use a term that’s not really the right term, but as sort of this assistant/legal assistant. I don’t think, Meghan, you had had any experience in legal before, is that right?

Meghan: No. And I was actually even less than an assistant. I was straight up an intern. I had just graduated college and didn’t know what I was going to do. And Jess was like, “Hey, I’ve got 10 hours a week of work for you if you want to do some project management type work.”

John: Crazy. And that has evolved over time. And I think it’s such a complex story, it’s hard to tell in a single podcast. But you were in a lot of ways, the person that wound up being really close to the voice of the client. You became the first line of communication for the clients of the Birken Law firm. How did that impact, I guess, number one, how you approach this work with Jess, but number two, how the products sort of developed and evolved as you became closer and closer to what the clients were actually looking for or talking about?

Meghan: Right. Yeah. So, it’s one of those things where what works for one person, doesn’t work for two and what works for two doesn’t work for three. So, as I came in, I was the first sort of more permanent second team member and it was just Jess and I. And so, I began being sort of the main point of contact for a lot of our clients and I was taking some phone calls. I was managing Jess’s inbox. I was talking to new clients out front and kind of naturally I started just developing a system for myself so that I didn’t have to do the same things over and over again.

So, it was sort of, clearly everybody has this question so why don’t I find a way to just answer that question right off the bat when I talk to them. And then those are the sort of observations that led to, this is the kind of stuff that we can put in a course, where we can communicate this out front before people even ask us the question.

So, both with the products that we have created through Birken Law, but also just the way that we serve our clients is really driven based off of what do people need to know? What questions do they have? How can we best serve them? And what they actually need in this moment.

John: Right. Yeah. And I love that because it gets to, a lot of lawyers talk about, well I want to productize my practice or I want to systematize my practice or move to a subscription, which is another thing that you’ve done. But you didn’t start with big picture, what’s the product that we’d sell at Birken Law? You really came at it from more of a micro view of what are the parts of our practice that we can systematize and then productize? Or how can we turn this little thing that we do from this one-to-one interaction to a one to many offering.

Jess: Yeah, 100%. And it really sometimes I do CLE and lawyers, I feel like they’re looking at me and they’re feeling overwhelmed. I don’t even understand how it would get to there. And I’m like, “I didn’t understand how I got to there.” We started out just building one little thing and that just daisy chained into something else. So, we started with online scheduling.

Okay, let’s systematize our scheduling because we’re wasting a lot of time with communications back and forth, trying to plan. So, let’s just use online scheduling. And then it was, look, you can take payment. So, what if we scheduled an appointment that had a cost to it? And then I think some of the things Meghan is talking about is we started with email automation. We were billing time at that point. We can’t bill time for teaching the client how we work, about our firm, the sales process.

So, some of those first things we did were to automate a string of emails that after Meghan talked to someone we could automatically put them into a lead nurturing campaign where they would get four or six emails that are just like, “Hey, this is me and this is how we work. And wouldn’t you like to hire us?” And all of those things are small, but they led to creating systems and workflows that then made it easier to build something more substantive, if that makes sense.

John: Yeah. Well, it makes perfect sense. And I would add, at least from my perspective, those individual things are small. But what wasn’t small was your collective openness and commitment to doing that work. I think a lot of lawyers, and I’m sure you run into this the same as I do, a lot of lawyers have that Ron Popeil moment where they throw their hands up and say, “There has to be a better way.” And then they start researching tools and technologies and they’re thinking about these big picture problems that they have.

And that better way just looks like more work than just slogging through the status quo, so they keep on slogging through the status quo. And I think you basically just by sometimes sheer force of will got yourself through some of those sticky periods. In a lot of ways, you learned how to learn. You learned how to productize. That whole thing is a discipline and a professional quality that is teachable and trainable but it doesn’t work the first time you try it. You’ve got to stick with it. And you’re clearly over that hump at this point.

Jess: Yes, although not that things are easy. I mean I was just listening to your episode about closing the closable. And it was so timely for me because we’re trying to make some really big changes in our systems. And I just instinctively and credit to you over the years, I was like, “I have to get rid of as much open work as we can.” Because we need space to be able to implement and do these things. And we can’t do it if we’re drinking out of the end of the fire hose with all of these matters being open.

And so, I just had been instinctively, close everything that’s half dead and needs a refund. Close everything that’s open. Drag everybody across the finish line as quickly as we can because I need to create a space. And I think that’s kind of what you’re talking about there is you have to be open to the process. And you have to find the time to do the learning. There’s no piece of software that’s just going to solve your problem for you. You have to put in the time to figure it out.

Meghan: And you put in the time and make the mistakes because it was painful the first few times we tried to do anything different. It was always, we feel like we’re in this messy middle and we don’t know when the end is going to come and whether it’s going to work. And it’s scary, it doesn’t feel promising every time.

Jess: And as a lawyer, we’re trained to avoid risk. And we don’t like to feel incompetent, most of us are type A. So it is, you have to kind of just muster up the 1L courage to be like, “I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’m going to go in there and figure it out.”

John: Well, I was going to say. You said there’s no magic technology. There’s no magic consultant either. And I think even through the work that I’ve done with you and certainly all of my other clients. I try to be very intentional about not being an embedded consultant where you’re like, “Yeah, you’re going to hire me to come in and program your systems for you.” I do help with that but as Meghan said, that doesn’t ultimately work because if I’m the one learning the lessons about your systems and products and services, that doesn’t ultimately translate to success for you.

Jess: 100%. I mean, Meghan can testify, we haven’t been meeting with you regularly because we’re still digesting the lessons from a year ago. And we’re changing things now and we’re like, “John told us to do this. John told us about this.” But you have to come to it in your own time. You can’t count on a consultant to just do it for you, because you’ve got to drink the Kool-Aid.

John: Yeah. I think, well, and you’ve got to be ready to, everything there’s a season. And you’ve got to hit the right sort of set of stressors and problems where it’s, oh, no, that capacity thing is real. Well, that’s kind of a good segue because I want to get back to and particularly within the context of capacity of sort of the capacity of the practice that is Birken Law. But I would love for, and maybe Meghan can start this. Tell us about the really check, because that was something that you all came up with based on something I said but I love it and I use it with a lot of my clients now.

Meghan: I had no memory that we came up with that. I’ve totally been contributing it to you, so it’s co-created, whatever it is.

John: Co-created, sure.

Meghan: The really check, yes, this was instrumental and it still is. There was a time where we were drinking out of the fire hose, trying to implement a bunch of new systems, trying to service all of our clients and make all of these changes at once. And we were just taking on way too much. We would both create these to-do lists for the day and they would be 27 items long. And we would check off two of them and feel really sad about ourselves at the end of the day, because our overachieving selves wanted to finish all the things.

And I don’t remember the exact conversation with you, John, but we were talking about this and how, just disheartening it is to always feel like you’re never getting to the bottom of your to-do list. And you were like, “I think the problem is with the list then. It’s not you, it’s the list.” And that’s where we started using this framework of the really check of you say what you think you’re going to do.

But you have to take a moment and say, “Really, is that the right things? Can I do all of those things? Do I have the capacity for that today? Is this really what I’m committing to?” And just taking that extra beat to really review what you’re claiming you can do, makes all the difference.

John: Yeah. Well, and I think there’s another component too, which is you committed individually to doing this personal really check. But you also empowered the other to give you a really check. And I think again, Meghan’s not a lawyer. Meghan started with this practice right out of college, no legal training, no anything. And yet just empowered Meghan to be the check on maybe her, what eyes too big for your plate, as my grandma would say all the time.

Jess: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we definitely hold each other accountable. And then as we’ve kind of added to our extended team, it’s not uncommon for us collectively at standup or at the end of the week retrospective, setting our hot list for the next week, somebody says something. And you’re like, “Is that actually doable? That seems like too much.” So, we’ve kind of embedded that even into just our work culture that it’s okay to call people out and be like, “Are you sure that’s realistic?”

John: Yeah. Well, because how much better is it to have that conversation before you’ve invested a bunch of time and energy that you don’t have, realizing that, oh my gosh, I’m not going to finish this when I said I would. Yeah, I don’t know. It’s an indication of really strong sort of organizational maturity and, I think, personal maturity. And yet it’s not something that I encounter a lot out of the gate with a lot of law practices.

Jess: Well, I think we have a culture that is sort of, you need to be driven. You need to bill as many hours as possible. You’re not going to make partner unless you do this. And so, the obsession with busyness and taking on more and more and more.

John: Yeah. And you mean we the legal industry not we Birken Law?

Jess: Correct. As attorneys that is how we have a culture in America anyway. And I think the really check is sort of antithetical to that. But in a sense you get more done if you can commit to something and see it to the end rather than being pressured.

Meghan: Yeah. I was just going to say on the flip side of that, what it does is just really opens your eyes to what you can actually get done. So instead of constantly saying, “I’m going to get that done tomorrow, I’m going to get that done tomorrow. I’m going to get that done tomorrow.” And it never gets done. You can say, “I know I’m going to need a five hour time block to really focus in on this. And it’s never going to happen until I have that time.”

So, I am not going to pretend I’m going to do it until I have that time, or I have the tools I need or the information from the client or whatever it is. And so, you end up being way more efficient rather than wasting your time pretending to get something done, that’s not going to get done on time.

John: Right. And I think and again, correct me if I’m wrong, there’s another aspect of sort of the really check to that which is you all are periodically sitting down and determining for the next chunk of time, quarter or half a year or whatever. These are the high priority things that we want to accomplish as a firm. And so, if it comes down to Meghan, asking the question, “Do I have a five hour block of time? And then when it comes, what am I going to apply it to?”

If you say, “Yeah, I’m going to apply it to this shiny object that I just learned about and I want to learn more about it.” Jess is going to use the really check to say, “Okay, that’s interesting and it’s cool and all, but shouldn’t we really be focusing on one of these firm priorities that you came up with and agreed to ahead of time?”

Jess: Yes. And that has been the lesson we have learned over and over again, that the shiny new thing is fun and exciting, but it doesn’t automatically mean it’s more important than the other things we’ve identified. Sometimes it does, and sometimes that is part of the really check of, actually we need to change our priorities. But that is a decision we make and not something that we just allow our attention to flit to. And we’ve finally, I feel, started to get a grip on. We often have had too many open projects, not client projects, but sort of business initiatives.

And even right now we’re in the middle of a work retreat. And for the first time ever, I think we have two topics we’re focusing on and that’s it. And we were high-fiving each other, look at us having only two things open. Amazing. We’re doing it.

Meghan: The number of times we have said, “John would be so proud of us right now.”

John: Well, so I was going to say, it is honestly because you do this about this time every year. And it is one of the highlights of my year when you all send me the photos of your sticky note walls coming out of these retreats. So, I love seeing it and I love that you continue to do it. And again, two topics is amazing. I’m not there. I’ve got too many balls in the air right now. And I think that’s a thing that is worth saying out loud is, even though you’ve been working on it for seven years. I’ve been doing this for over a decade. It’s still hard. It’s still work. You still have to commit to it then recommit to it all the time.

Jess: Yeah, 100%. And it’s not to say there aren’t 10 things that we want to be working on. It’s just knowing that we need to check ourselves and be like, “What can we really get done during this time?” That’s the thing. It’s not that we only have two projects that we want to work on. It’s just having the self-control to be like, “No, these are big enough. We won’t get more than this done.”

Meghan: And we’ve learned the lesson that it’s not that we’re saying no to the other things. Because we will get through these two projects much faster if we are not trying to do four other things at the same time and constantly task switching. So, part of it is being able to say, “This other thing is important, so I want to be able to devote our attention to it when we’re done with our current two projects.”

John: Yeah, I mean, it’s the whole Kanban thing of start less to finish more. Yeah, I love it. I could go so deep with you two and I think I’m going to resist the temptation and kind of leave it at that. I know one of the things that people are going to ask about is your tech stack. And the thing I know for sure is that that tech stack changes a lot. So, it’s not that the specific technology isn’t that critical. The one thing that I will say is that I think you’ve basically rolled your own when it comes to a practice management tool, using Airtable is your sort of primary database.

And I think that’s worth calling out, that there’s lots of great practice management tools in the world. They have their positive attributes, they have their limitations. None of them is magical, they’re all just databases. And Jess and Meghan have basically used a database tool in the form of Airtable to create a custom practice management software that works for your needs, including Kanban interfaces, which Airtable supports.

Jess: Yeah, that’s right. And sometimes you just, you’re in for a penny, in for a pound. So, we’re all in on Airtable right now and the cost to switch to something else is prohibitive. So, it’s sort of, if what you’ve got is pretty much working, I’m not a fan of just switching for no reason.

John: Yeah. No, for sure. Well, good. Well, I really will leave it at that. Thank you both so much for joining me and for sharing your experience and enjoy your retreat. It’s going to be amazing.

Jess: Yeah, thanks for having us.

John: Alright, thank you both.

Thanks for listening to The Agile Attorney podcast. I’m your host, John Grant. If you found today’s episode interesting or useful, please share it with someone who you think would benefit from a more agile approach to their legal practice. If you have any questions, feedback or maybe a topic you’d like to hear me cover, you can reach me at [email protected].

To help other attorneys and legal professionals discover this podcast, it helps a lot if you could rate or review me on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. And of course, be sure to subscribe in your favorite podcast app. This podcast gets production support from the fantastic team at Digital Freedom Productions and our theme song is the instrumental version of Hello by Lunareh. That’s it for today’s episode. Thank you for listening and see you next time.

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