The ALPS In Brief Podcast
ALPS In Brief – Episode 60: The New Normal? Don’t Get Too Comfy…

ALPS In Brief – Episode 60: The New Normal? Don’t Get Too Comfy…

October 19, 2021

As we transition to more permanent work-from-home schedules, the lack of supervision and a diminished sense of community could have bigger consequences. In our latest episode, Mark explores a few risky scenarios that have played out recently while lawyers work from home. He also explores some easy-to-implement solutions to keep you and your coworkers happy and connected, even from afar.

Transcript: 

Hello. I'm Mark Bassingthwaighte, the risk manager here at ALPS. Welcome to the latest episode of ALPS In Brief, the podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence Building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. Today, I want to talk just a little bit about the new normal and ethics and the pandemic. Early in the pandemic, I penned an article, which is available on our blog, if you care to take a look, on the new normal and really suggesting there is no such thing as the new normal and just trying to encourage people to think about the consequences of change. The new normal is really just a period of time where change was very, very quick and widespread for so many people.

But why do I keep harping on this? Honestly, I'd say I really have some concerns about this term, "the new normal." It seems sometimes you'll read this in the news and people will just talk about, it seems like there's an effort to have everyone except that all this change is permanent and we should just get used to it and life is going to be like this from here on out. Now, there's certainly a lot of truth to that in some ways, but my concern is it feels to me at times a lot of us are just trying to get comfortable with all the change and just keep moving and not really think through, "Well, what are the ramifications of this change?" and so I want to explore that in the context of our ethical rules, because please understand, in no jurisdiction is there, if you will, the pandemic exception to any of these rules.

Just to set this up, for example, well, many of us, I should say, when we had to run home, I've been working remote for many, many years, but moving home very suddenly and having staff and everybody go offsite and we are trying to get the equipment home, get it set up, and stay as effective as possible, just to keep everything moving forward, now, that's all well and good. If we had to set up a laptop and a monitor or something on a coffee table in the living room, yeah, no problem. If however, that's still the case, now what is it, 18, 20 months, whatever we're into this pandemic, if the laptop and the screen is still there and the kids can come home from school or working after school, if they're homeschooling or something and gaming on the TV right next to you and a spouse is in the kitchen and can hear all that's going on, that's no longer acceptable. A couple of days to make a transition is one thing, but confidentiality is in play, is it not? I don't want us to get comfortable just for the sake of finding comfort. We really need to take some time and think through the rules.

Let me share some thoughts. One of the concerns that I have, and I think we should all be thinking about, is supervision, particularly in the context of wellness. I'm going to come at this in two ways, but prior to the pandemic, everybody, the study that came out in 2016, we all learned as a profession, our profession still has some very serious problems in terms of wellness. Well, then the pandemic hits, and things just haven't gotten any better, put it that way. It's not unique to our profession, but mental health issues have become far more of a concern. Alcoholism has gone up, chemical dependency has gone up. These are very real concerns.

If people are working from home and not as connected as they used to be when everyone was in the office, that's a potential problem. Are you addressing supervision issues? Is this a legitimate concern from a claim standpoint? Oh, absolutely, it is. We see claims for lack of supervision and they are not uncommon. One that immediately comes to mind is a more senior lawyer was several states away working remote, obviously, and he was just doing his thing. He had his files and everybody had their own silos and were taking care of their own matters. Well, no one was paying attention to this gentleman and he was just slipping into dementia and it was getting worse and worse, and eventually, eight critical deadlines were blown on eight different matters. Now, there are eight very viable, good claims. These aren't minor missteps. Remember, we are our partners' keepers, right? When it comes to malpractice, in particular, we sink or swim together as a firm.

One of the things that really made a difference to me, and I've talked about this before in other podcasts or articles, but ALPS deployed Teams right after we had to all go home for the pandemic, the early stages of that. I can't tell you how significant that one product became and will remain, even now. Perhaps we're a little bit more of a hybrid model now, which is not going to be uncommon for many, many businesses, too, but it's a tool that we can use to replace the water cooler conversation, sitting down and having some coffee in the break room. We can just have a video call real quick. Sometimes it's just a chat, sometimes it's to ask a question, troubleshoot an issue, but it facilitates connectivity between all of us. It helps us maintain our culture. There are also meetings where we can get together and check up on each other: "Mark, what's your schedule look like this week? Alison, what's your schedule look like this week? Where are we all at? What support do you need?"

It's just one example. There are all kinds of tools here. I'm not saying go out and use Teams. I'm trying to share that wellness and follow-through, we can even talk about competency, which I will in a little bit here in a different context, but it's just we need to not get comfortable just with everybody being apart, we need to say, "Okay, how can we continue to maintain the culture of the firm? How can we check up on each other? How can we support each other so that we all stay on track?" Matters can go off the rails very quickly if someone is depressed or drinking more alcohol than they should and start drinking during the day, as an example. How do you think mistakes have happened? Okay, so I really do believe this is a very important issue.

Let's also talk a little bit about confidentiality. I shared this concern with still having tech in a space that is not dedicated to a home office in any work from home remote environment. We cannot allow kids to be on the same network we're working. You can set up your own network and then have a family network. We wall this off. We cannot be in an area where spouses, kids, friends' kids coming over can hear calls. It's not okay to go sit down in a crowded Starbucks, even just to get out of the house and take a lot of calls. Confidentiality is in play. There is no work-from-home exception.

At this point, I mean, I'll just speak personally here, but if I were in practice and had any say in terms of it's my firm, or I'm managing a firm or something along those lines, at this point, any employee, attorney, or staff that cannot have space that is truly dedicated to privacy in a work-from-home space, a separate room, doors that you can close, that kind of thing, the privilege to remain working at home isn't going to be granted. This, I sort of look at it, it's the work-from-home model, the hybrid model can still be in play. I think it's a great thing. I really do. I'm a fan of it, but we need to have a professional office at home, a true office. I believe that for all kinds of reasons. Anyway, enough of that.

I will share, and some of you that read and follow me at times, my wife and I have are in the process of transitioning to Florida from Montana. We've been down here now about, oh, two months or so. It's just been some supply chain delays and whatnot on the home we're building here, but I will tell you, I absolutely would not even consider this, and I would have expected ALPS to not even say, "Hey, relocate," if I couldn't promise them and have to follow through on, obviously, building a dedicated home office. I really do. It's a soundproof space. It's high-speed internet. It is dedicated. It's going to be my ALPSs home office. I share that to say, I guess, I'm walking the talk. I really take this very, very seriously.

Let's talk a little bit about competency as well. Initially, we can talk about wellness. There is that piece. We need to stay competent and make sure everybody is maintaining health in exercise, eating right, doing whatever they need to do to kind of take care of themselves. Doubly important, again, in a global pandemic, but it really is something we shouldn't minimize. But please understand competency, again, there's no exception to rule here, right? While you or maybe several others in your firm may be very competent working from home, is everyone competent in working from home? What I mean by that is often there are different tools now in play. We may have switched to cloud computing, email, all kinds of things are changing a bit. We may be using personal equipment, whether it's cell phones, laptops doesn't matter. But if our processes start to change, is everybody competent? Excuse me.

Remember that, I believe it was a Texas lawyer sometime ago with, and even the meme went around for a while, "I am not a cat." He just clearly wasn't fully competent at the time on video conferencing. He since learned, as my understanding is, figured it out. We need to think, is everybody competent or is everybody able to competently perform their tasks, their assignments, whatever they need to do from a home-work setting, whether it's video conferencing, e-filing, cloud computing, cloud collaboration, email, encryption, which really should be in play? Do they know how to redact documents? Can they use the case management accounting? Whatever systems we're using, can they competently use it from the remote location? Something to think about.

But I want to take that even further, this whole notion of competency, and bring this into the cybersecurity space as well. Again, we are as lawyers to understand the benefits and risks of the relevant technology we're using, right? Well, things change when we go home and it changes in a lot of ways. I will tell you this whole transition here in the States, I'm just going to talk about the States for a moment, has been the gift that keeps on giving to the cybercriminal space because of the work from home for all kinds of reasons.

One, just as an example, people generally tend to follow the rules and be fairly responsible when they're using technology in the workplace. They know their rules, they know they should question email and not click on links and these kinds of things. They're pretty good at that. Take everybody home and it changes entirely. We just let our guard down, so naturally, and it's just, "Hey, this is my home. I don't have to worry about strong passwords on my stuff. I don't need to change and have different passwords for everything. Password manager? Yeah, I don't think so. This is my home, this is my life, and this is my tech." Now, even though they're using it for work, doesn't change anything. But no exceptions here, right? That's just one example.

Home routers, I've had other articles and talked about this before, are a very real concern. They need to be properly set up. Again, what kinds of things am I thinking about? The rules shouldn't change just because anybody's working from home. Strong passwords should be in play. Two-factor authentication, password managers should be in play. VPNs need to be in use a hundred percent of the time regardless of where we are, if we are remote or even just out for the day in terms of mobile work because we're at the courthouse or whatever it might be, we're on a vacation, but periodically catching up with some email and some work. VPNs need to be there. Again, does everybody know how to securely teleconference? Are they keeping their systems patched? I mean, all of the things that I've been talking and writing about, and many others as well, in terms of cybersecurity have to be in play and implemented at home. Period. If that's not possible, I go back to saying again, "If it were me in control, the privilege to work from home cannot be extended."

It's one thing that go home under these orders and make some things happen and get through the few weeks or few months, it varied for some of us, and you do the best you can. But now, this is becoming more permanent, so let's not get comfortable with, "It's okay." We need, again, tech competency, professional competency. There's no tolerance, no exception. There's no tolerance for legal-like, no exception for competency because of a global pandemic.

Now, please understand, I am not saying that every single person, whether their lawyer or staff have to be experts in terms of tech competency, but we have to know. Our responsibility as lawyers is to assure that everybody abides by the rules, complaint of 5.1, 5.3, but we need to know there are issues out here, and then we need to go find the people that can help us. We hire the competent talent we need, whether that's temporary in terms of a consultant to come in and set some things up, or a full-time IT staff, but we need to find the competent people that can help us to make sure we are competent from all these different settings now.

The final piece that I'd like to talk about is really thinking about policies and procedures. A concern that I have is that particularly in the solo small firm space, often we create procedures and have policies of how calendaring might be done and how conflicts need to be checked and all of that based on the work environment that we're all in, and they can be very, very effective. Have you thought about, "Are they still as effective in a work-from-home setting, a hybrid setting?"

'Kay, as an example, let's say there four or five of us lawyers practicing together and we have a few staff and we designed a system of calendaring that allows for entries to be double-checked, a second set of eyes, et cetera, because we want a process that makes sure... Well, it seeks to find the occasional misstep that will happen: The date doesn't get entered correctly, somebody didn't glean a date off a document, that kind of thing. We want to try to create a calendar that is very, very accurate. I call this an independent yet redundant calendaring process. It worked very well in the office because we hand documents over, whatever it might be, but in the home, everybody's separated.

Now, how do we know that people are still doing double-checking all the work? How does it get around the documents? You see where I'm going? How about mail? Is mail being distributed and we're getting it? The systems change by their very nature that people are now spread out. I encourage you to think about, "Are our file documentation procedures still capturing everything that we need? Is everybody consistent?" A temptation might be to say, "Oh, yes." Well, how do you know? Have you checked up? What is your quality control process to make sure? You might create the opportunity for me.

Say I'm a paralegal or something now. I can put everything digitally in files, et cetera, but are you checking to make sure I am? How do you know I'm not sitting at home having a glass of scotch with lunch and maybe two or three more in the afternoon, and I'm still working, I'm still productive, may get a little sloppy at times, but the systems and processes? Heck, I'm keeping everything on my hard drive here. Oh, by the way, I don't have it password protected, the kids are gaming on the same network. I'm going to be low-hanging fruit for a cyber vent of some sort is what I'm trying to drive that to. Are everyone in compliance with the expectations of file documentation? Are we still creating independent yet? Redundant calendars is our conflicts check as thorough? Are we following through on all these things?

The answer to that may be yes. If so, that's awesome. I'm just trying to underscore, please, the importance of not running with assumptions and thinking through this. It's too easy to just get comfortable. In some ways, when staff and lawyers and even problems are out of sight, they're out of mind, and they're out of sight because we're all spread out. Again, there's so many things we could talk about here and explore. I don't think getting into all this kind of detail is absolutely necessary and perhaps even beneficial at this point. I'm hopeful that you are able to hear me and you've gotten the point.

I'm going to wrap it with that and just say, hey, I want all of us to be comfortable going forward, regardless of how this pandemic ends, if it ends. Who knows? I think COVID in my mind is here to stay. We're going to have to learn to live with it just like we did with the flu, and that's okay, but let's take the time to make sure and confirm everyone in our firm is responsibly comfortable so that we know we have done all we can do to assure everyone is in compliance with the ethical rules. As I see it, this is just another way to ensure success in our legal endeavors. That's it for me, folks. I hope you found something of value in all of this and I look forward to visiting with you next time on ALPS In Brief. Have a good one. Bye-bye.

ALPS In Brief – Episode 59: When Things Go Off the Rails

ALPS In Brief – Episode 59: When Things Go Off the Rails

September 9, 2021

Mark shares some stories of cancelled flights, employment emergencies, and more, to illustrate a timely point: When things go off the rails, being rude will get you nowhere. Instead of yelling and screaming in situations you can’t control, treat people with compassion, humanity, and respect, and see solutions present themselves.  

Transcript:

Hello, I'm Mark Bassingthwaighte, the risk manager with ALPS. And welcome to the latest episode of ALPS In Brief, the podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. Today, I'm going to do another solo. And for those of you that listen to me, or have attended the CLE's, and follow my writing over the years, you know that I, at times, I am a storyteller and I also am someone that just spends a lot of time in my head thinking. And I've been thinking a lot. What brought on the topic for today was among other things. My wife and I have recently become grandparents for the first time, and it's very exciting. We've just recently returned from a visit to meet him and just had a wonderful, wonderful time.

 

And you get the thinking, at least I do, about what do I want him to know? Well, what, what life lessons will I be able to teach? Or what insights can I share? And I just got to thinking about some things and that has led to today's topic. And really what I want to focus on is how to respond when things go off the rails. It's kind of a general topic, I guess, of all of this. And a lot of the learnings and things that I'd like to share, insights, have just come from life experiences. And again, as I opened, I like to tell some stories. So I have a number of stories that I want to share.

 

The first involves a professional experience because law is not my first career, if you will. Many, many, many years ago, in fact back in the eighties. And I was working in a welfare office in Seattle, and it's one of the largest ones at the time. Anyway, we gave out and I think more medical assistance in just about any place in the country. It was just a crazy busy place. At one point, I was involved training someone and literally the first day I started training with this other young fellow. I had a client come in and you go out to this sort of, this reception area is full of people, just chock full of large reception, private security, all over the place. And it was kind of a rough neighborhood and you would have this long row of interview rooms. So I go out to the microphone and call up the person that I was due to meet with. And we walk down a long row of interview rooms and sit down and started the discussion and the process of seeing how I might be able to help another young man get some assistance.

 

And as we progressed, this individual really got to be very confrontational and it got pretty crazy. And I'm just sitting here watching all of this. I don't engage in situations like this. And I don't know if that made him angry or not, but what happened immediately after I'm just kind of watching, he literally stands up, picks up this circular table that we were all sitting around, and the guy I was training also rose because he wasn't sure what to do, perhaps a little frightened. And this client pinned the gentlemen I was training in the corner of a room, and he's just threatening and screaming. And I'm just looking at him.

 

And my response was, "Look, this is a busy day for me. It's clear you're not wanting to work with me to get anything done. Tell you what, I got so much stuff to do. I'm going to go down the hall, go back to my desk and get to work on some other things. If, and when, you feel like you want to move forward here, you let him know out front and I'll get back to it." And I literally just got up and walked out.

 

Now, I could see the guy I was training was in a panic. Oh my God, what's going on? And trust me, I was not on my way back to my office to work. I was on my way down the hall to get security and some assistance. Turns out I didn't even need to go that far. You could hear a voice coming from the room, "Mr. B, Mr. B wait. Wait." He put the chair or the table down. I came back and he just said, "I need some help." And then we got to work and were able to take care of his needs.

 

That situation really stuck with me over the years for all kinds of reasons. But one of the things, it was an early lesson that has stuck with me ever since. And just underscores for me the value of not letting anyone else try to take control of my emotions and how I respond. I choose not to give someone that power. And that has really made a tremendous difference for me over the years. It was such a powerful experience. And I don't know why I did it in terms of just...I just wasn't going to, I don't know. It's hard to get my feathers ruffled perhaps at times, but I ended up... Don't get me wrong, I certainly can get angry, but I would choose, for the most part, when I get angry, because it's right for the circumstance. And I have every right to be angry but this wasn't it. So it just an interesting experience.

 

I had another situation come up a number of years later. Where my family and I, kids, wife, even mom, were all traveling to Walt Disney world in Florida during a hurricane season. It was one of those years where there were back-to-back hurricanes. I think they, over the entire season, they had five actually hit landfall in Florida. And we managed to fit a vacation and a cruise in between two of these storms. But on the way down there's a little bit of a delay because of, again, storms and the whole country in terms of the traffic grid, air traffic was just a mess. So we get in a day late and the luggage is nowhere near to be found. It may be a day or so, and it's just a mess.

 

But it's about midnight. Literally, we're standing in line to report the missing luggage along with everybody else and try to figure out what's up. And there was a gentleman in front of us. And he was married, had a teenage daughter. And they were to be... So it's midnight and the next day they were to be at Cape Canaveral to board a cruise ship and head out. And none of their luggage is here. And this guy is screaming, bloody murder, and being very, very rude to everybody that worked at the airline and very demanding. His wife is upset. His daughter's crying. And he said, "We have this, is a dream thing, we have all of our clothes. We need... This is a wedding on the ship." And they were guests, she wasn't the bride in terms of the daughter or anything, but this was a big deal and he's very, very upset. And he's not listening.

 

The woman's explaining, "Sir, we have hurricanes. We've done everything we can. There's nothing we can do. I assure you, we know where your luggage is. I cannot get it here before the cruise leaves, but it is in Tampa." Orlando to Tampa is, I don't know, depending on traffic, hour and a half tops. And I'm sitting here thinking to myself, why don't you just close your mouth, stop yelling. See if you can get your wife and your daughter into some local hotel. Try to rent a car. I don't know if this is possible, but it's the only option. And then drive over to Tampa, pick up your luggage and get back. It's just an option that wasn't even remotely going to be on his radar. He, he just decided to be angry and rude.

 

And that situation really stuck with me over the years, too. And the learning, for me, and it just was so... I talk about it in some of my other podcasts, listening to your life. It was so loud in terms of the message and the message to me was rudeness and demands get you nowhere. And sometimes, you're the only person that can solve the problem. Give it a shot.

 

Now I've been traveling for ALPS for 23 years now. And we love to vacation. Have traveled abroad a few times and all over the country for all kinds of vacations. So trust me when I say that time in Orlando with our lost luggage was not the first time I've had to deal with a canceled flight. Or changes... I mean, when COVID hit in the shutdowns, you know, boy, all kinds of plans got crazy.

 

I've had my fair share of having to deal with customer support people in both in-person and online. And I, again, I have seen time and time again, and particularly in person at airports, just as an example, of people in front of me, again, yelling and just screaming and trying to have things done. And it doesn't get you anywhere. My response is, okay. So a flight's been canceled and there are, depending on the size of the plate, anywhere from 50 to 250 people, they got to rebook and deal with. And I'm sitting here thinking, do you folks not get it? The people that you're yelling at and demanding something from have nothing to do with the problem.

 

They didn't... I had a situation where that the windshield of an airplane was broken on the way down. And we had to wait overnight for a new windshield to come in. They can't fly the plane without a windshield, I mean that just isn't going to happen. And I said, it's not this person's fault. I always approach these folks as this is my new best friend. Because I've learned over and over again, if you just treat them with some level of courtesy and polite. Sometimes, the first thing I'll say, "Man, it looks like you are having a rough day. And I know this isn't your fault. I am so sorry that all of us are having to go through this experience, but you know what these things happen."

 

And I'll tell you every single time I have treated people with just a little dignity, little respect, a little politeness, my problem was solved in almost every situation pretty quickly. I'll be booked on an immediate flight. I've literally heard peoples say five or six times ahead of me as all these people are yelling, "The best we can do is Tuesday to get you out of here." And on and on and on. And then I'll walk up and just put a little smile and say, "I'm sorry, you're having a rough day." And I'm on a flight six hours later.

 

People will...if you treat people with respect, sometimes just solutions can appear. So I guess to me, that's the learning of this one. I've learned that being courteous and polite leads to solutions for me, even where others have found none. I don't know that it should be this way necessarily, but it is what it is. People are going to respond to anger and rudeness and disrespect differently than they're going to respond to when someone has some compassion and takes the time to be polite and takes the time to wait. I'm sorry, this may take another 10 minutes. I'm doing... Ma'am please don't worry. I got all the time in the world. You are helping me. It's good. Relax. We're fine. So something to think about.

 

I also can share that my wife and I now we've been married 20 years. Coming up on 21 here pretty soon, in fact. But we're a Brady family. The number of years ago we went through this challenge of trying to put a step family together. And I'm proud to say we did that very successfully. To this day, our kids, in terms of even the step-kids, everybody views each other as family, in other words. And they're all long since gone and independent and have families of their own, some of them, and everybody still is very, very close and we are a family.

 

I will tell you, that's not easy and there are challenges. But one of the things that I learned out of this whole experience was the value of playing what I have come to call long ball in terms of building relationships, maintaining relationships. And to me, it's sometimes this is, well, I guess I should say what I discovered, sometimes it's worth losing in the short term. Whether there's a debate, or an argument, or just a disagreement. It's worth losing in the short term sometimes, or even just learning to give a little, to negotiate and find a solution here in order to eventually gain a lot more. It's a concept, this idea, this notion of long ball, as I call it, has been truly in so many ways, a game changer for me in terms of how I try to live my life.

 

I've talked about this long ball, so learning from the experience, but I want to really describe what I mean by long ball and how that learning has come about. And really what it's about is, is saying I've come to appreciate that you really, and I'm speaking personally, I really want to try every chance I get to not allow someone else to pull me in to dealing with some irrelevant or ultimately irrelevant kind of issue. There are big problems and little problems. I'm going to try to dismiss the little problems and lose now and again, or whatever, because I've got my eyes on a different game. I'm looking longterm. So it's about not taking the bait and staying engaged in every single minor issue that someone wants to keep me engaged with.

 

Sometimes this could be an ex. Sometimes this is children. Sometimes of stepchildren. But it's about saying I don't want to be pulled off game. And the way I see it, and the more I've kind of tried to do this in my life, and I started this, to be honest with you, before the step family. It's just that experience putting the step family together really kind of cemented a lot of this. But in my experience over the years, so many times people who are being confrontational really are playing a very short game. They want the win and they want it now. And they may keep doing it over and over hoping to keep engaged with this dysfunction or it may give them a sense of powers. I don't know, everybody's different. But I just choose not to play that game. I choose to focus long-term.

 

So what is the point? And, I want to sort of summarize some of the learnings here and take it up a notch in terms to a bigger picture. Why are these stories that I've just shared, the insights that I've just shared important to me? And it gets back to sort of problems, whether it's confrontation. Whether it's just things going off the rail in so many ways. I sit and I've come to say, whenever there is an issue, a problem, whatever that means to you, I stop and say, I kind of asked myself that question. I try to categorize it and say, is this something I can change? Is this something I can influence? Or is this something I have no control over at all? Can't do anything about.

 

Once I make that determination, I will sit and say, okay, now my goal is to try to spend the most energy of what I have on things that I can change. I will try to spend some energy on things I can influence. And I try to spend no energy on something I can't do a darn thing about. And it's very difficult at times to do that, but I really believe there's value in sort of running through that analysis. So these are some personal things that I've been sharing and some insights that I think are very valuable. I'd love our grandson to hear at some point, course when he's old enough to appreciate what I'm even talking about. But these are things I've talked to my children about, and I have tried to teach and give them some tools because I have found to be very, very valuable.

 

But I can also hear you saying, okay, so what's the point here, Mark? In terms of the context of a podcasts on risk management resource site here for a malpractice insurer. What's a fair question? And it's a fair question. And here's what I would encourage you to think about. The context of these learnings that's change from my personal experience, to the context of being civil in the practice of law. Confrontation is out there. There are some lawyers that really practice incivility in a very significant way and are very intentional about it. But when I look at saying, okay, when faced with rudeness with uncivil behaviors, in my mind, in my experience, the perfect foil to that is formal politeness. Which by the way, is the definition of civility. But I tend to state it in a slightly different way. Instead of using the word formal politeness, I try to be intentional with my politeness.

 

Now I'll be the first to admit that I remain a work in progress with all of this. But the better I get at it, the more I practice it, the greater the benefits I see in experience. And it even starts to change little things around to me. Others become more polite. It just kind of spreads. It's like when you yawn, take our little grandson, and you can yawn a little bit, then he'll yawn. It's contagious.

 

So I just encourage you to think about that. Because a lot of times when things go off the rail, others are trying to have some power over us to control the situation. Whether it's in a courtroom, in a deposition, in a negotiation, clients could be playing this game, all kinds of things, all kinds of places this can come up. So I encourage you to give some thought about being intentional with civility.

 

And for one last reason why, as I like to say, again for you regular folks that know sort of my, the way I tend to talk and way I summarize things, is I see it to do it any other way is just wasting energy. Life is too short as it is. So there are just a couple of thoughts. In some ways, I've shared some things that I look forward to years from now, sitting down and having a conversation with our grandson and sharing some of this and hoping that that may be of use to him. But until that time, I hope this will be useful to you as well. So thanks for listening. Hey, it's been a pleasure. Have a good one folks.

ALPS In Brief - Episode 58: The Vera Project

ALPS In Brief - Episode 58: The Vera Project

July 30, 2021

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

Hello, I'm Mark Bassingthwaighte, the risk manager here at ALPS. And welcome to another episode of ALPS In Brief, the podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. Today, I wanted to spend a little time and share some backgrounds, introduce you to et cetera, to what I have called over the recent year project Vera.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

If you have visited our website of late, you may have seen a pop-up with a Llama, and an invitation to click on a link and participate in an assessment. You may have seen some email with the similar invitation as we advertise for our silly services and whatnot. But I really want to just share what Vera is all about. We're very proud of Vera, and that it is the next evolution of the delivery of risk management services here at ALPS. And with that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to share a little history, how we got here, and then I'll share a little bit about what Vera is all about.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

But years ago, now I have been with ALPS for about 23 and a half years. The [inaudible 00:01:23] way it's just crazy how time flies, and risk services were in play prior to my arrival for a few years. And in those early years, we would write up some learnings and interesting claims, and share some learnings from them. We would write up some general articles, similar to what you might find on our blog today, but it was, of course, all paper back in those days, and you'd send these little newsletters out. But the bulk of the service, in terms of risk management services, really started with consulting.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

And over the years, there are various names for this process, but really centered around just doing what we would call at RISC visit, and that sort of stood for Reduce Insured's Susceptibility to Claims, but it really was a consulting type thing. It was a fee service. And at one point there were three of us that were traveling basically two weeks a month around the country. And you fly into Iowa and you'd have all these visits set up and, and drive all over the state, and visiting with solo and small firms. And the point was really to just share with as many insurers as we can firsthand a lot of the intellectual capital that we obtained over the years in terms of what are we seeing in claims? What sort of best practices would help prevent some of this stuff?

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

And so it was really about education, and also, over time, I really learned some value out of this was just creating relationships. We really had a lot of firms were so appreciative, and they'd invite us back every couple of years, because you don't do this every year, and they would call in with questions. And I really think it made a big difference in retention of our insurance base, but it also people feel free to call in more comfortable to call in and say, "Hey, we have this problem, or is this a concern? Should we re be reporting this?" And I really think that that made a difference over the years and in terms of trying to reduce claims, perhaps a little frequency, a little severity, but I'll be honest to say at the end, I think the biggest value of all this was the relationship building that, that occurred, And I was so privileged to be a part of that.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

That process, really what it entailed was I'd walk in and depending on the structure, there's a different process for a solo versus a firm of five attorneys, a couple associates in that kind of thing. But I would sit and spend some time going through a series of questions, and based upon the answers that, staff we would meet often separately or the attorneys, depending on the answers that they shared with us, we'd share some comments and some insights. And the goal was, again, to have a firm learn.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

After the conversations, I'd go back to the hotel, and I'd get into hot docs and we had all these templates, and we would write a report, and then follow up sending this report out. Then we'd have sample forms or articles that we felt might be of interest in terms of areas that we identified as a little bit of a concern in the sense. Perhaps they're not using closure letters at all. And here's some sample closer letters, and here are the benefits, the reasons why you really might want to spend some time looking at incorporating closure letters to the practice.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

And so we've just covered all kinds of topics. A lot of fun, a lot of travel, crazy, crazy times for many years. It was just, wow. Trust me. I racked up a lot of miles.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

Over time, however, there was a problem, and it's a good problem to have, don't get me wrong, but ALPS just continued to grow and grow and grow. And this is a very time-intensive, obviously, and expensive service to deliver. When you're a smaller company, you can, in terms of percentage of insurers that you're having the opportunity to work with, it's a fairly significant percentage. But nowadays, boy. I mean, we have staff of probably 10 or 15 lawyers out here trying to do this, and we still couldn't keep up. And so the model had to change, and we've played around with a number of different things for a few years after we stopped. Just again, it was just way too expensive to make this. This has never been a revenue generator in the sense of we're looking at this as a profit center. We really trying to break even. And if we can throw a little money into covering some other expenses with improvements to software, some things like that, that's all good.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

But we did get to a point where we had to say, "Okay, it's time to put the live process to bed and be done." And there was a lot of discussion internally about how do we transition? How do we continue to try to reach as many people as we can in terms of insurers, but not insurance as well? I mean isn't that a goal? I mean, you're sharing some internal discussions, it's just to help lawyers as much as we can to help the bar at large.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

There were some fits and starts with some different ideas. We looked at doing some online types of things, and again, fits and starts and just struggled working this out and even finding the right type of platform to do this. But over time, we finally got there, and the Vera project was conceived to be the next, if you will, generation of consulting. But it's all done now online, on demand, and for free. I mean, how great is that? So that's Vera.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

But as we sat down and looked at this, I really wanted to have some fun. I wanted to make a process that I think could be engaging, that could be valuable, but also be fun. I mean, I get frustrated times lecturing about how you're going to get sued, and telling all these stories, and then worse yet is all of the cybersecurity stuff, and at times it can be so overwhelming. I'm not always Mister Happy in terms of ethic, when people walk out of one of my seminars that we've just spent the last 90 minutes talking about all the ways you're going to get hacked, and it can be overwhelming.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

I wanted to have a little fun, and the idea was to create a character. Vera really stands for Virtual Ethics Risk Assessment, because the consulting, when we were doing it live, we did start to evolve into the ethics space as well. Look at trust accounting as an example, and talk about some other ethical issues.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

And this evolution has continued as we get to Vera. The idea was let's turn this into a character, into some type of personality. And as we've talked, I kind of thought about wouldn't have spirit guide of some sort interesting. I'm kind of channeling some of the Star Trek kinds of things. Star Trek Voyager, in particular, there was a character there that was Native American, and would talk about spirit guides and have spirit guides. That just, I don't know, that just struck a chord with me. I always thought that was kind of cool. We came up with a llama, and as you begin to write and develop, you create a personality. And so Vera does have a personality, and that'll be important here in a minute in terms of just understanding what we're doing.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

The next step was to say, "How do we take the live consulting process and turn it into something that can be online on demand?" And I really just did an extensive rewrite, and also really tried to narrow down and center on some key things as an initial starting point. And so as I looked at the templates and all the things that we use when we were doing this in person, I really decided let's look at seven key areas. And the key areas that I decided to focus on are client intake, file documentation, calendaring, trust account procedures, sort of some general risk management types of things, cybersecurity, and then firm policies, plans, looking at some administrative type issues in a firm. And so with that framework, we sat down and developed some questions, had some fun creating some answers, and believe it or not, some of these answers that you can select are maybe a little, at times, what, really, that's kind of extreme. But I'm in being sincere and sharing. These answers really come out of the answer pool, if you will, from things that I heard over the years, and you just play with it a little bit to kind of make it fun.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

But so what, what would happen now is somebody can go in, and you work through a series of questions, and each of these categories currently have five questions. And so you've get a question about calendaring, and you can select from typically four to five answers, and based on the answer, you get a certain score and in each category, so calendaring, trust accounts, that kind of thing, gets a section score, and it all totals up then at the end to an overall score. And depending on the scoring that you get, even if you get it perfectly right, Vera will have a little feedback. It might be sharing some kudos, or it might be saying, "There might be some trouble ahead on the path that you're on." And then, so if the score is such that, again, it's not perfect, she just interacts in a pleasant advisory kind of guide perspective, share some thoughts, a little bit of advice, and often has some links to resources that have been developed here over the years, maybe articles that I think would be interesting and appropriate to whatever topic we're discussing, or Vera's responding to, and just sample forms again. That kind of thing.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

That's Vera in a nutshell in terms of what the process and sort of the personality is. In my mind Vera is, she's not artificial intelligence, I mean, we haven't gone that far, maybe someday you never know. But in my mind, she really is this virtual digital character that we have the pleasure to share with you and hope people will enjoy.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

If you were to now at this point, just perusing the website, up pops a link, or you get an email with a link, or you just decide you want to take a look at it at some point, what happens? Well, you can go to the website, and it happens to be www.ALPSinsurance.com/vera. V-E-R-A. And you can just go to the corporate website, and go to resources, and risk management. She'll pop up.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

It takes about 20 minutes. You go through some questions. You do need to answer every question. A blank is going to be scored as a zero, and you do need to give us an email address. But outside of that, we're not using the Vera as a tool to look at all these answers, and say, "Boy, if somebody ever applies or reapplies here, we see what they're really..." No. We have an email address solely for the purpose of allowing or enabling Vera to, as soon as you're finished, clicked on complete and all, she writes up this report, and we'll email it to you and you can do what you want with it. So, we need to have a valid email address to get that out. But beyond that, all your answers are anonymous, not tied to anything we do look at over time, how many people are answering B to question four or something like that, just to see where problems might be with the intent of developing additional resources, perhaps if there's a need. Just trying to identify where lawyers are struggling.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

But this is all anonymous. And the goal really is to share the intellectual capital in terms of risk management, claim prevention, staying out of trouble ethically, me even staying out of trouble with cyber breaches, and that kind of thing. Just to share that intellectual capital with as many lawyers as we can, regardless of their status with us in terms of being an insured or not. This is not about trying to just keep it all within the ALPS family. We are here to, truthfully, support the bar at large.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

My hope as an aside... As an aside isn't the right word. I'm just going to struggle here for a moment. But my hope is that in time this tool will be valued enough or utilized enough, that we can continue to broaden and expand the capabilities of what Vera does. We'll just have to see you over time what the pickup rate is perhaps, and also just would love to get some feedback. What do folks think about the tool? Is it useful? How might it be improved? What other topics do you think? I really see this as a way that the ALPS family can nurture and take this tool even to the next level, and be a part of the growth of Vera.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

How has Vera been received thus far? It's an interesting question. The pickups, the hits have been, I'll be honest and say a bit slow, but the folks that have gone through it, I have to share one story as a lawyer, actually here in Montana, a small firm, and really great guy. We talk at times, and years ago I've been out. But he emailed in, and he said, "We got this email about Vera, and decided I'm going to take the assessment." So he went through the assessment on his own, got this report back. He says, "I was so impressed, Mark. I sat down and the entire firm's staff, we all sat down and went through the assessment together." Now, they didn't get a hundred percent, so they develop an action plan afterwards. And the firm got together and developed an action plan. And I don't know what their answers were or where the problems are, but again, let's say they're not using engagement letters as much as they should. I don't know. Then they said, "Well, here's the plan. Let's start doing this." And the plan is they're going to work their action plan for three to six months, and then sit down together as a group again, and go through the assessment a second time with the goal of getting a hundred percent in terms of the score.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

And we're all bright people. We gone through law school and passed the bar and are practicing. We're some bright people here. You really can gain Vera if you want. You can figure out what the right answer is, and get a hundred percent, but that's not how he's chosen to handle it. He said, "We answered honestly. We really want to use this as a learning tool." And I said, "Was there any criticism or feedback?" He says, "My only criticism, Mark, is that this tool wasn't available five years ago. It is just absolutely fantastic." Because he really sees it as an opportunity to improve internally. And I was so touched by that. That really meant a lot. And I just was so appreciative that he took the time to reach out and share that.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

I just wanted to pass that along. Vera is a labor of love. And as we talk here a little bit, I spend a lot of time trying to write and put this together, but I want to put a shout out to colleague at ALPS, Andrew Sweet. And, Andrew really is the guy behind the scenes that really brings Vera to life in terms of doing the art work, creating the Vera logo. There's a video that you get to see and hear, hear Vera speak. Andrew did all of this, and then really is the guy that made everything work in terms of the... I can sit and write a question, and I can sit and develop the layout of all this, but trust me, programming and putting all this, making Vera go, is not my bailiwick. I mean, I maybe could figure it out after a while, but, but Andrew's the guy that really did the heavy lifting.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

And I also want to share kudos to the rest of my team is we all sat down. Because this is not a one person doing by any way, shape, or form. It was a group effort, and I'm just proud of the final product. And perhaps as a father or well, I have to say here's a side, just a few days ago, we became grandparents for the first time and are very proud and excited about that. And why I bring that up, it's sort of a similar feeling. We've created at ALPS a new project, a new product, called Vera that is real in so many ways to us.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

And I invite you if you've not taken the time to explore and look at her a little bit, to do so. It really is intended to be a tool, free, available anytime on demand, online, to share all the insights and learnings intellectual capital we have here at ALPS.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

I have rambled on enough. I will share the link one more time. www.ALPSinsurance.com/vera.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

That's it folks. I hope you had a little fun listening to me ramble on about the Vera project, and hey, I look forward to having the opportunity to see the numbers change, and hope Vera proves to be a valuable to tool to you as well.

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

Thanks all. Bye. Bye.

 

To take your free Virtual Ethics Risk Assessment today, visit https://www.alpsinsurance.com/resources/vera

ALPS In Brief – Episode 57: How to Remain Cybersecure On the Road

ALPS In Brief – Episode 57: How to Remain Cybersecure On the Road

May 25, 2021

As the world re-opens and you begin to stretch your legs, ALPS Risk Manager Mark B tells some true tales and offers some tips for safeguarding your client data and maintaining your firm’s cybersecurity from your phone, Airbnb, or the wide-open road.

Transcript: 

Mark Bassingthwaighte:

Hello, I'm Mark Bassingthwaighte, the risk manager with ALPS, and welcome to another episode of ALPS in Brief, the podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to visit again via podcast. Before I get into the topic of this podcast, I'd like to share story and some information about what's going on and in my life as a way to set up where we're going to go.

                Let's start with a call that I took earlier this week, and it came from an attorney who really wanted to understand if what he was doing in terms of security with his system was sufficient, if there was other things that he could do. What prompted the call is he went through an experience somewhat similar to what happened to my wife and I a number of years ago, he was the victim of identity theft. Had a tax return filed, fraudulently filed, obviously, in his name, and some other things had occurred. One of the mistakes he made, however, was using a complex password. Now, that was not the mistake, that's a great thing, but he used it on multiple accounts. And as a result of getting his personal information, they were also able to get into his work computer. Some email was being sent out from his computer under his name, trying to scam clients and some businesses he works with out of funds. And so, that was a bit of a mess.

                The other situation that's going on in terms of my own life is, and this is all good, but my wife and I are currently in transition. We are going through something I think a lot of people are going through in these crazy times, and it has to do with moving. Long story short again, the timing of moving out of one home, which has been sold, and into a new home, which is currently still under construction, did not line up as close as we might have liked, so we are currently in transition, living in a temporary apartment until things settle down and get finished. You know, it's quite a change. Most of our belongings are sitting in storage. We kid around that at some point when we finally get settled, and the truck unloaded and start unpacking, it'll be like Christmas. We'll say, "Hey, I had no idea we had this stuff." So it's got to be fun.

                But I began to realize, although I've been telecommuting for many, many years, and will continue to do so, this transition into a corporate apartment, and by that, I simply just mean it's a small furnished apartment, sort of struck me as I'm going through an experience similar to what I think a lot of people did when they had to rapidly transition from the office to working from home in the early days of the pandemic. There were some things here, that as I started to set up and figure out what was going on, I realized, "Oof, wait, there are some security issues that really need to be addressed." I thought it's worth talking about some of this. The lawyer that called, it was about best practices. You know, "What am I doing wrong? What am I doing right? Is there anything else I could be doing?"

                And we had a good discussion, and it turns out there were a few things she could do to further secure what he was doing. And again, I sit and think, "Okay, boy, I didn't realize, just wasn't thinking about how much I take for granted given my old situation and then transitioning." So let's talk about what we can do as individuals to make our systems as secure as we can to help protect the competences, the property, the identities of our clients, and of course our own personal information. This discussion is not about everything that we can do to secure an office network. It's more focusing on the day-to-day basics, the day-to-day things we should all be thinking about that can help. IT, at our firm, keep us secure as a firm, and keep our information and the information of our clients private and confidential.

                That's look at this, and I want to start with just the basics, and then we'll kind of explore some other things. But the basics, it is extremely important that we keep the operating system and the applications that we're running on all these devices current in terms of security patches. Now, when I talk about devices, I'm talking about the laptops or PCs that we have at home, but even the mobile devices we travel with for vacation or for work trips. You know, smart phones, tablets, all of these things we need to keep current. Sometimes we may even need to go out and look for patches. I have to do that occasionally on applications on our cell phones. But these patches are being issued for a reason, and they are often bringing additional security features or updates to close vulnerabilities that have been discovered in prior versions, so absolutely essential.

                Now, one of the things that a lot of people do, and we all spend all kinds of money nowadays on these smartphones, and there's some crazy awesome phones out there, but we treat them as phones. We're not always thinking about the fact that this is a pretty robust computer. So we need to make sure that every mobile device and every device in our home that we are using for work has a internet security suite running, and it too should be kept current with all patches. One side note here, do not rely on free security programs or free VPNs. There's lots of free stuff out there, even in the security space, and you get what you pay for, which is very little when it comes to security. Now I'm not suggesting that the security software, these free VPNs, don't do what they say they're going to do. A free VPN will certainly encrypt your data stream so that anybody that tries to intercept this data stream won't see it.

                But the company that gives you this free product, there's an exchange, and the exchange is they get to monetize and monitor all your doing, and so you are what they are making money off of. That's not acceptable. And for a lawyer who is practicing law in terms of using these devices in the further and the practice of the law, because that information, just no. So you need to spend the few bucks that it's going to cost and be a bit more secure about it all.

                Turn on full disk encryption. You know, in this day and age, when it's one setting on a phone or a laptop, turn this stuff on. I consider it unethical, I truly consider it incompetent, not to take the time to turn this stuff on. Full disk encryption is typically once you turn your device off and somebody tries to turn it back on, if it's lost or stolen, if they don't have the password to decrypt, your data is protected and your client confidences are protected. So turn that on.

                Set up the ability to do remote wipes if a device is ever lost or stolen. I mean, doesn't that seem like a no-brainer? Take the time to do that. Again, it's so simple and easy to do. Use strong passwords, long pins, and never use the same password or pin on different devices or accounts. The story I just shared with the lawyer who called me, that was the mistake. He was using a very complex password, which was great, but he was using that same password on multiple accounts. You know, if they get one, they have now access to everything. That that makes no sense.

                Now, what is a complex password? Well, best practices would say 16 characters. We're rapidly approaching 20, a number of people that I work with and know in the security space really are saying 20. I routinely am using 20 to 24 on a number of accounts if the device or the application will accept that. And when we say complex, so in my case, we have 20 characters on some of this stuff. It's upper, lower case letters. It's symbols. It's numbers. And it's going to be very, very hard to guess. You know, there's no dictionary words here that that would be easy for a hacker to try to figure out. A lot of pushback that I get on this is, "How can I remember all of this stuff? Good Lord." You know? "I have trouble remembering what I had for breakfast yesterday, Mark."

                Well, I am not kidding you when I say that my wife and I probably manage between 200, 250 complex passwords and different usernames. I never repeat. I never use them on multiple counts, this kind of thing. What have I done differently? I use a password manager. Personally, I use RoboForm. There are a number out there that are quite good. Dashlane would be another example. But these programs store and manage all these complex passwords for us. And if I need to change a password, it will even do that for me and randomly generate a new complex password, and memorize it for me. So all of my wife and I need to do is remember a very complex, and this is a long one, but a very complex passphrase, and that's the keys to the kingdom. It's not written down anywhere. We remember it. There's no stickies, it's all easy. But we have the ability now to use complex passwords in every aspect of our life, on any account and device that it'll work with.

                Turn on or utilize two factor authentication on all accounts. Don't make it easy. Two factor authentication, we're talking about authenticator apps or sending a pin as you try to log in your bank account. You get the code, a six digit code, typically, on a text message. You don't want to make it easy. If somebody happens to figure out what the password is on, heaven forbid your IOLTA account, and they're trying to steal some money out of them, well, when they're logging in, if they don't have your phone, the text message isn't coming to them. It's just one extra level of protection. And I'm telling you. Now, TFA, you can hack it. Using that doesn't mean you're 100% secure, but you are exponentially more secure than not using TFA, so absolutely use that on every work personal account that you can in terms of if it's available: email accounts, financial accounts, in terms of investment, bank accounts, those kinds of things, are obvious key places where you would want to do that.

                Install a VPN. A VPN, and that stands for virtual private network, and it is a software program that will encrypt your data stream so that if you are, well, I'm going to talk about this a bit more in terms of wifi momentarily, but it just makes sure that the sessions, when we are on the internet, that the data stream is encrypted. Again, we're trying to make it ever more complex.

                Those are some basic things to think about. But now I want to shift gears a little bit and explore. You know, as lawyers, we do take vacations and we travel for business, and there's some exposures that come up here as well. It could be staying in an Airbnb, in a hotel. The list goes on. So a couple of quick behavioral comments, things that we can do. Never use a public computer. I'm thinking about the business center at the resort in Cabo, or at the hotel in DC, whatever it might be, or even local libraries. There's all sorts of places where public computers are available. Absolutely not acceptable in terms of practicing law, communicating with clients. These things are very, very difficult to keep secure. Anybody can come in and do all kinds of stuff, so I would just not use them at all.

                Literally, if I had my own firm and was in charge of things here, I would have one warning, and do it twice you're fired if somebody, anybody, were using a public computer for work. It's that high risk. No public wifi. No open. You know, I'm talking about the airport, I'm talking about the signal at the hotel, I'm talking about Starbucks, those kinds of things. We absolutely cannot use this if any alternative exists. And there are alternatives. I won't get into what all the risks are, but it's very, very insecure and very high risk.

                So what's an alternative? Well, when I travel, a lot of times what I will do is connect my laptop to my smartphone. I'm using my smartphone then as a hotspot, and so the data stream will be sent using the carrier signal, AT&T, Verizon, whatever carrier you have. Far more secure than the local wifi hotspot.

                If however, and I can appreciate at times there are some circumstances where it may not be an option and you really must use wifi, there are some interesting ethics opinions out there that talk about this, but it is an acceptable risk with certain conditions. The two big wins are this, make sure that you know what the legitimate signal is. If you're at an airport and you're turning it on, you're trying, and it says, "Oh, here's Free Jet Blue wifi." "Oh, I love Jet Blue." Jet Blue has never made wifi available. Okay? But that signal has been out there. People will just create names that they think people will log into. If you're at a Hilton Hotel and you see Free Hilton, it's not Hilton. That's not what they call their network. Make sure you know. Ask the barista, ask the person at the front desk at the hotel. "What is the name of the network that you have set up that's the legitimate one for me to use?" So now which one to connect to.

                Then the other thing is, and this is not optional, as soon as you log into the network, initiate, use the VPN. Encrypt your signal. Is this risk-free? Absolutely nothing is risk-free. But this is going to be a little bit more risky than using the carrier signal, but you're taking reasonable precautions to do what you can in light of the circumstances to be as secure as you can. Those are two key things to think about.

                Some other things, don't leave devices on and accessible if you step away, and you have a conversation with somebody, if you're outside working around a pool on vacation, trying to just get a little sun. Don't leave your laptop on at some table unwatched. Have it automatically timeout and log off, or in 10 minutes, or whatever it might be. If you want to run down to dinner in your hotel room, again, log out, or better yet just turn the thing off until you get back up there. But take some steps. Again, it's all about making sure. We don't want to make it easy for others to get into our systems. So there's a couple of things to think about in terms of vacations and travel.

                Next, I'm thinking about the move here, and stepping in. My big concern, and I'm using this as a parallel or a corollary to the work from home struggles and that transition. My immediate concern was the router. You know? I have the instructions here. The username is admin. Okay, that's the default. A lot of them are named admin. The password that they had set up was easy to guess and just, you know. You look and say, "Okay, I don't know what they've done with the settings." That's completely unacceptable. I cannot and would not put myself at risk using that signal, let alone ALPS.

                Now, I may be a little crazy at times, I don't know, but I kept my new router, my personal router, I had that with me. Now, I don't travel with a router all the time, although if I'm going to start traveling and I may stay put for a couple of weeks somewhere, I actually might start doing that. I'm very sincere in saying that. But I'm able to trust the signal and be far more secure. I'm not suggesting now, again, that you take routers with you on your travel, but I am suggesting, hey, in your home, if you've not thought about this and taken steps to secure your router, now is the time. There are all kinds of exposures that can come into play here. The purpose of this talk is not to really explore all that, but it's just to say you need to do something. Let me go through, I have a short list here of things from an article I wrote about this, but I want to talk about some of the basics.

                You need to understand that the usernames and passwords, the default ones, are available on the internet, they're often standards, and that they need to be changed. So again, think about the complex password. That's have a very complex password for the router, and that's change the username from admin to something that is a bit more unique to you. Change the network SSID. Again, the name of the network. Every router comes with a default name. That has to be changed or something that's unique to you, but don't make it something that's obvious as to who you are. You know, Mark at 2022 Front Street. The neighbors all know, "Hey, that signal's Mark. And you know, no. You want to make it, "I don't know who this is," kind of. Okay?

                Set up a guest network in your home, with its own network name and your unique password, so that guests have access to a network. I trust our kids. They're all good kids. They're all adults. We're empty nesters. But when they come home, none of them are allowed on the home network, because it's used for work, and there's a lot of, you know. It's personal information. I don't want to expose my stuff to there, and vice versa. But you know, if they're doing something they shouldn't be doing on the network, it's separate. I just strongly encourage you to do that. Because when kids come into the home, and friends of your kids come into the home, and they're gaming, and doing all kinds of things, if they're on your network that your work computer, and your personal devices, and everything's on, you're risking. They bring this new level of exposure that we're not necessarily thinking about. So block that. Set up a separate network.

                If the firmware version of your router isn't current update to the most current version available, it's all about security patches. Routers need to be updated as well. If it's an auto update option, check that to make sure. If you can't tell or it looks like there's been no update even released in the last 12 to 18 months, throw out that router and get a new one. And I'm not kidding around. These routers need to be able to be updated automatically, and the updates, a lot of routers, they stop ... I had an older router and it was two years out of date before I finally realized, I'm going, "Well, that's not good." So get rid of it and get something current.

                Confirm that the network authentication method, and what we're talking about is in the encryption that the routers using, is set to WPA2 personal, or even better, WPA3 personal, excuse me, if that option is available, WPA3 is simply just more secure. If neither option, WPA2 or WPA3 is available on the router, it's old, toss it, get a new one. Not kidding. And finally, turn off universal plug and play. That's sort of the functionality that makes it very easy to connect new internet of thing devices and whatnot around the house. I know that it makes connecting new devices when you introduce them to the home a little less convenient, but leaving it on provides hackers easy access. That's just not acceptable.

                I mean, if you want to do that in your own life and nothing in your home is connected to the office network or you're doing nothing for work, okay. Have at it, I guess. But when we are using devices, the network, for work, that's got to be turned off. That access avenue, for lack of a better description, has been used even to insert programs like banking Trojans that try to capture your login credentials to your bank account or to your 401k. Not good. We need to address that.

                Set up a defined work space. Part of this is a wellness thing for me, part of it is just establishing boundaries in a home, perhaps with children, but having a defined workspace that you can enter and exit from and others can learn to respect can be a huge difference. No device sharing. Absolutely no device sharing. Confidentiality is in play and there's no pandemic exception. You know, if you are using devices: work computers, personal computers for work, smart everything. The kid's, family, if they are not members of your firm, cannot and should not be on these devices.

                And the final thing that I want to talk about is just behavior in general. There's really been a couple of interesting studies of late looking at this, in terms of some security studies, looking at behavior. I find it absolutely fascinating. Part of it has occurred because of this massive work from home thing, but it's true, this has been true pre-pandemic and it's going to stay true post-pandemic and vacations. When we use our own devices, as opposed to a work-controlled device, a work-issued device, and when we are outside of a formal office setting, whether it's vacation, at home, et cetera, we actually, in terms of just seems to be inherent to the human race, I guess, but we seem to be inherently less vigilant, less diligent. We just get far more casual. So we are more easily tricked, or you know, falling prey for a phishing attack or clicking on something we shouldn't be clicking on, not just paying attention, not turning things off, sharing devices. We just get very, very casual.

                We can't. Stay sharp. Think before you click. Don't get too comfortable with the casualness. Don't get too comfortable with this new normal. I understand that for many of us, as an example, we had to transition very quickly to a work from home setting, and it was about making sure the tech works so that we keep moving forward as best we could. And little thought was given to the security of side of this. And then we get comfortable with it and we don't even think about it. That's what I'm trying to address, in part with this in terms of work from home with this, but I want you to think about it in all assets. It's not just the pandemic, it's not just working from home. It's when we're traveling, when we're on vacation. We need to stay vigilant and we need to periodically just take a few minutes and sit down and think. "Wait, is this a responsible thing to do?" "Wait, have I taken all the steps that I should have taken earlier on or I should be taking now?"

                I certainly haven't covered everything that you can do, but these are key things, and important things, and basic things that I think we should all be thinking about, and that should be on your radar. So that's it. I hope you found something of value out of this short discussion. I encourage you, if you have any concerns or questions, something that I might be able to help with, please don't hesitate to reach out. My email address is mbass, M-B-A-S-S, @ALPSinsurance, one word, ALPSinsurance.com. So ALPSinsurance.com, mbass@ALPSinsurance.com. You do not need to be an option shored to visit with me if there's something I can do. Hey, if someone reaches out and I'm able to do something that might prevent just one hack, one breach, that's a great day.

                That's it folks. Hey, have a good one. God bless.

 

ALPS In Brief – Episode 56: An 2L’s Tale of “Zoom Law School” and the Virtues of Virtual

ALPS In Brief – Episode 56: An 2L’s Tale of “Zoom Law School” and the Virtues of Virtual

April 22, 2021

In March of 2020, just as Katie Peterson’s first year of law school was nearing its close, everything changed. As Katie rounds out a full year of remote law school, she and ALPS Claims Attorney Martha Amrine reflect on how 2020 upended long-held law school traditions and created new ones. They talk about what aspects of that transition were hard, what current law students might be missing out on, and the unanticipated ways that the graduates of ‘virtual law school’ may ultimately change the practice of law for the better. Katie Peterson is a Class of 2022 JD Candidate at the American University Washington College of Law, a Teaching Fellow with the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project, VP of Membership with If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice, and an Intern with Women Lawyers on Guard.

Transcript: 

MARTHA AMRINE:

All right. Hello. My name is Martha Amrine and I'm a claims attorney with ALPS Insurance, and we welcome you to the ALPS podcast. Today, I'm talking with Katie Peterson. She is a law student working, going to school and living in Washington, DC, obviously during the pandemic, which gives her a perspective that most of us didn't experience. We're talking with her today about how that experience has been and how that might shape her experience and getting her ready for her future career. Katie, thank you for joining us.

KATIE PETERSON:

Hi. Yes- [inaudible 00:01:02] ... for having me. I'm excited to be here and talk a little bit about my experience.

MARTHA:

Yeah. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

KATIE:

Of course. So I moved to Washington DC, as you mentioned, for law school from Georgia. I went to the University of Georgia for undergraduate and I studied women's studies and sociology. So I think that really set me up nicely for law school, especially in terms of what I'm interested in, that being advocacy and legislation that's centered around advocacy. So I feel that has led me to sort of where I am now. I basically grew up in the south. DC is the furthest north that I've ever lived. So I always tell people that I'm in the north, even though I get pushed back on that saying I'm still the south. I refuse to believe it. [crosstalk 00:02:04] I say, "No, I'm a North easterner now." I feel like I basically live in New York. Yeah, that's just a little bit about me. [crosstalk 00:02:14]

MARTHA:

Awesome. What about school activities, internship? I know you've got a lot of other things going on. What else are you involved in?

KATIE:

Absolutely. So I am currently on the board of If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice, which is a national organization, but I'm on the board of the Washington College of Law chapter. I was on the board this past year and will continue in my role as vice president next year. I also am currently interning for Women Lawyers On Guard, which is a small nonprofit that focuses on sexual harassment in the legal profession.

MARTHA:

Awesome. Let's say March of last year was the beginning of all of the changes. Tell us about that first part of your first year and what was important, how things went with school and studying and social life and all of that.

KATIE:

The first part post-pandemic after everything-

MARTHA:

Pre, yeah.

KATIE:

Pre pandemic. So pre pandemic, I felt like I had a very normal law school career. I was really close with my sort of section mates, which seems to be pretty common amongst law schools. Your section mates or the people you spend most of your time with. So I spent a lot of time with my friends that I made in my section in class and then going and having our lunches together in the cafeteria, going for coffee, spending a lot of time in the library, studying together and really forming connections that we all expected to carry on through our law school careers. Whether or not that's happened, obviously everything was interrupted by this global pandemic. So it's been an adjustment definitely, and we'll get into that.

                But pre pandemic, it really felt like a normal law school experience. It was stressful and it was exciting, it's new. It was fun. Then obviously, it had its less fun moments. But ultimately, I think something that was present my pre pandemic law career that is a little less present now is just sort of that sense of comradery and being able to... When that big assignment's coming up or that really difficult test or project is coming up, you kind of have that support system around, whether it's just commiserating and talking about how difficult everything is or getting good advice from people, that was a really beneficial part of being in person.

MARTHA:

Yeah. Yeah. Tell us a little bit about how things change March 2020 and what differences there were to your entire life basically.

KATIE:

Yeah. Like so many people, my entire education moved online in March 2020 pretty close to our spring break. Everything changed really. The school buildings closed down. We were unable to access the campus that I had been going to every day for almost a year. It was much more difficult to get together with friends and talk about assignments. It was fairly close to the end of the semester, relatively. So it was around the time that we started outlining. So studying started to look a lot different. I remember when we first went online, definitely talking to my friends saying, "Oh, we have to we have to Zoom or FaceTime during class or after class," or basically trying to kind of hype ourselves up almost to stay connected, which is a lot easier said than done.

MARTHA:

Yeah. So how has that been? Have you been able to maintain connections with online and limited ways of seeing people?

KATIE:

Yeah. It's a lot different. I feel that I've been able to maintain closer friendships more easily, and it's been much more difficult for me to maintain those sorts of acquaintances and keep in touch with acquaintances. A lot of that sort of connecting is done via just social media now. I do have acquaintances from my section or my law school in general who are not super active on social media, which obviously is fine, but it's just harder to kind of stay in touch with them. I have no clue what some of the acquaintances that I had made my first year pre pandemic, I don't know what they're up to now, which it's just different. I won't put a value judgment on it, but it's just a very different experience now.

MARTHA:

Then what about connections with faculty or decision-making by the university as things change and things develop? How has that been?

KATIE:

I'd say that everything now is generally done a bit more slowly, especially in terms of trying to communicate with faculty or administration. It's more difficult now than it was pre pandemic when we were in person. It was so easy to see a professor in the hallway and stop them for a quick comment or question or go into their office hours, which almost all professors offered. It was just really... I felt like our professors and the administration as well were very accessible. Whereas now, I know everyone's trying their best, but it's just more difficult to have those sort of quick informal conversations that you might have with a professor or administrator that you really like.

MARTHA:

Yeah. So when we were chatting and planning for the podcast, you and I talked a little bit about the importance of the first year finals. Back in the day when I went to law school, it sounds like not much has changed, but you basically studied and you prepared all year for this one set of tests that not only determined your grades for the first year, but really put you in a place where you either did or didn't have... You either had opportunities or maybe your opportunities were limited, or you kind of had your place in class rank all based on this one set of tests. We could probably debate for three days about how that is fair, not fair, good, bad, but that's the reality, is that these tests that at the end of the first year, are very, very important. Based on the timeline, these came about right after lockdown came into effect. So tell us a little bit about that and how that worked, how that has found its place for you in terms of the importance of your experience in law school and any other details.

KATIE:

Yeah, you're absolutely right and it stays the case that your first year of law school grades and GPA are a paramount importance in a lot of students' lives, particularly those interested in working at a law firm or maybe corporate law or, "big law." I put quotation marks around that because people might interpret that to mean different things, but they're extremely important to this day. So my school did have, after the pandemic really became very serious in America and we decided to close the school down and moved to virtual classes, there was a pretty intense debate over whether we should maintain the A through F grading system or transition to a pass/fail grading system, which some law schools adopted very early on because of the pandemic, the change in circumstances that everybody was undergoing and trying to cope with.

                There was a lot of discussion amongst the community. A lot of proponents for pass/fail were of course, making arguments that our circumstances had changed drastically. Some people working from home have to care for other relatives, or maybe don't have the best environment in which to study. There's just a host of variables that could affect someone's performance on an exam, which I agree with all of those points. Then others who were in favor of keeping the A through F grading system made a lot of the same points that you just made in terms of how important GPA is to law students entering the workforce, especially because it's was not, to my understanding, it was not 100% uniform throughout law schools in the country, whether or not it was going to be pass/fail or graded A through F, so there was discussion there as well in terms of our students who maintain the A through F grading system and apply to a job, will they have some advantage over a student whose school adopted pass/fail?

                So those were kind of the arguments on both sides. [crosstalk 00:13:37] I personally did not feel super strongly about either one. I understood both sides of the argument. That's sort of the, I think, maybe a future politician in me trying to be moderate. But ultimately, my school adopted pass/fail. In retrospect, I appreciated it personally based on my performance on my property exam. I really, really appreciated the pass/fail aspect of it, but I really think that people still continued to study and work hard. I don't think anyone's work ethic really changed because of it because at the end of the day, we all have to take the bar anyways and we're all paying a lot of money to attend law school. So it really doesn't make sense to not try. So I think some of the concerns that people had, while I understand them, were just mitigated by each individual's work effort and an ethic and personal desire to do well, regardless of being greater than not. You're completely right that we could debate for a long time about the- [crosstalk 00:14:52].

MARTHA:

It really just hurts you if you don't figure it out at the first opportunity. Yeah.

KATIE:

Exactly. That's completely right.

MARTHA:

Yeah. So after the finals, tell us about your first summer.

KATIE:

Yeah. So my first summer, I decided to go down to Georgia to stay with my parents, live there mainly because of all of the uncertainty surrounding COVID and DC is a very populous region and I have a dog, so I would have to go out frequently to take her out. There was just a lot of uncertainties surrounding how contagious it was, what outdoor space. So all of that saying that I ultimately decided to go spend the summer with my parents so that I could sort of socially distance even more at their house and limit my exposure to other individuals.

MARTHA:

Right, because there is a big difference between, I'm imagining, where your parents are, in Virginia in the middle of DC in terms of space and contact with other people.

KATIE:

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. My parents are in Georgia. So I went down and stayed with them. They have their house and they have a backyard and their neighborhood is very... It's just not very busy. I live in a neighborhood in DC. There's always, always, always 100% people walking around outside near my apartment, or I will always, while walking my dog or even taking her out to go to the bathroom, I will always run into another person. So having a yard was a huge game changer.

MARTHA:

Yeah. Were able to work or do internships or be involved in law related activities from your home in Georgia?

KATIE:

I was. So fortunately, a lot of places adapted to work from home pretty quickly. One of the silver linings, I'll say, of the pandemic, at least in terms of being a law student, was that I had access to a lot more opportunities that I maybe wouldn't normally have access to just in terms of being online, you have the opportunity to work for someone who might be in a different state that you might otherwise being in person, not have access to that opportunity. But I was able to start my job with Women Lawyers On Guard, which I've been at for almost a year now, and I started working virtually for. I also did a corporate externship where I worked virtually for Boral Material Technologies, which is a company based in Australia. I did a seminar to accompany that, so I got some credit for it.

MARTHA:

Awesome.

KATIE:

[crosstalk 00:18:11] ... do both of those virtual.

MARTHA:

Yeah. Great. All right. So you made the decision and made the move back to DC after this summer, but what about your fellow students, your colleagues in school? Did everybody make it back? How did the second year ago?

KATIE:

Yeah, it's super interesting. I definitely have the thought of, is it worth it to go back if we're going to be online? Just because it's so expensive to live in DC. So I definitely had that thought, but I decided ultimately to come back because I really like DC and I like where I live. But I do know some people who have either not come back at all or have come back and then have been traveling a lot... I know one person, one of my peers who went abroad to Europe, I think, for a while and has now come back. I know a couple people whose families are in Florida. So especially during the winter months, they were enjoying the Florida heat while we were all freezing.

MARTHA:

Yeah, while doing online school?

KATIE:

Yeah. Yes, all of this while doing online school, which is a bit ironic just considering that our school decided to cancel our spring break out of concern that people would be traveling, which again, is just sort of funny because people were traveling already regardless. But people have really been able to sort of take their schedule and kind of take their life almost back into their own hands just in terms of being able to live where they want and do what they want in their free time while also going to school. So I think that there's been a lot of flexibility for people online.

MARTHA:

Yeah. So you are in your early twenties, you live by yourself, your job, really, looking back, what I would say is to socialize and have those personal connections, especially when your family is all in Georgia. Has that been hard for you?

KATIE:

It has been. Yeah, it has been hard. I've been trying to really maintain as much social distancing as I can. I've really, really been trying in the past year to stay in as much and really avoid contact with people who are not in my bubble, I guess you could say, which is very small as it should be. But even with people within my bubble, it's been difficult to try to find the time to hang out or get together. My friends are obviously just as busy as I am. They all have their own lives. So that's been a bit disappointing just because when you're in person, it is so easy to get lunch with someone between class or meet them at the library, or like I mentioned, to get a coffee or something.

                But now, it really is you have to go out of your way to see people, which I think for a lot of people has just meant seeing people less. It's just easier to stay in and maybe FaceTime or Zoom or something as opposed to actually taking the risk to go out. Especially, oh my gosh, in DC, you're trying to find parking or if you're doing public transportation, it really- [crosstalk 00:22:31]

MARTHA:

There's a lot of people around.

KATIE:

Yeah. It's just a hassle to get together with people now, honestly. So I would say that my social life has definitely been a bit... It's taken a couple steps back, I think, since I moved to DC.

MARTHA:

Yeah.

KATIE:

Yeah.

MARTHA:

So when you look at... Hopefully, new developments are coming and then we're having more opportunities in the very near future. Going forward, what are your thoughts about how... We've all been through this pandemic. Not very many of us have been through it while essentially training for our career as you are in right smack in the middle of your law school experience. How do you think that hinders you in one way? And we can talk about benefits, but what do you see as the pros versus cons with you experiencing this at this point in your life?

KATIE:

Well, I think one of the biggest cons that jumps mind is just, I think it's impossible to quantify the opportunity costs of missing out on over a year of in-person education. Law professors and administrators are such great resources for all types of reasons, but especially when it comes to finding work, finding a job. It is so much easier to be able to go up to a professor between classes or lunch and talk to them about what you're interested in. It's just a lot easier, I think, to find opportunities when you're in person than it is now. Now being online, there's almost a sort of formality to everything that was not there when we were in person. Now, I spend way too long writing simple emails questioning whether something should be a question mark, or if I should include an exclamation point, or does that make me seem too eager?

                So it's just kind of all of these extra considerations that you don't really need to take into account when you're in person because it's much more natural to communicate with someone in person, I think. So that is, I think, one of the biggest detriments is just not knowing what kind of opportunities could have been available to me that I wasn't able to take advantage of. But I also think at the same time, I've become more flexible. I think a lot of people have become more flexible because of this experience. It just really goes to show that you never know what could happen. I don't think anyone foresaw a global pandemic happening. So I think at the same time while yes, I might've lost out on some experiences, at least now, I feel like I personally am a more flexible person and I don't worry myself so much when something might go wrong.

MARTHA:

Yeah. What, if you know, does your last summer in law school and then your third year look like?

KATIE:

So this summer, I just signed up for a summer course and I will continue my work with Women Lawyers On Guard. I'm really focused on trying to fundraise for them and find some money for the projects that we're trying to accomplish. In terms of my third year, my final year of law school should be pretty exciting. I will be teaching through the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project. So I'll be teaching in DC public high schools about the democratic process and the US Constitution and some of the law that has been established by the constitution and through cases over the years. I also will be partaking in the Gender Justice Clinic at WCL. So I'll have the opportunity to be a student lawyer, which I'm really excited about.

MARTHA:

Great. I know it's looking ahead and maybe there's not a clear plan, but what do you plan after law school?

KATIE:

That's an excellent question. I ask myself that every morning when I wake up. I hope to work on legislation in some capacity, whether it be working with the government. I'm hoping to find a job on the Hill sometime soon in some capacity. So whether I'm working for the government on legislation or working for some sort of nonprofit or NGO, I know that I want to be involved in making the law through legislation.

MARTHA:

Has your interest in policy and legislation been formed by or been altered by your experience over the last year?

KATIE:

Absolutely. I think over the last year, I have really learned a lot more about particularly federalism and the role that each local, state and then the federal government plays in these important functions, such as administering vaccines or tests, or just sort of emergency preparedness in general. Also, I think in this past year, the pandemic has really exacerbated a lot of social inequalities that I've been passionate about for a long time and now, I think is a really good time for young activists and future legislators like me to really examine what our role should be in trying to end some of the inequality that's present in recent American culture and society.

MARTHA:

Awesome. Well, gosh. It's really great to hear from you and about your experience. I think that what you're doing is... You can your passion about your future career, which is amazing. We're really excited, not only to hear your story and have you here, but hopefully here what you end up doing in the future and your path forward. So I really appreciate your time. I'm sure a lot of people will think that your thoughts and your experiences have been... This has been really interesting. I'm sure lots of people will find it interesting, and we sure appreciate having you.

KATIE:

Great. Thank you so much for having me.

MARTHA:

Yeah. Thanks, Katie.

 

 

ALPS In Brief – Episode 55: Estate Planning Gone Wrong

ALPS In Brief – Episode 55: Estate Planning Gone Wrong

March 25, 2021

Hello and welcome. I'm Mark Bassingthwaighte, the risk manager here at ALPS, and you're about to listen to the latest episode of ALPS In Brief, the podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana.

I've been thinking of late about estate planning issues, for as long as I can remember. In terms of looking at the national data, estate planning has always been in the top five practice areas of concern. It's never hit one or two, but it has certainly been in that four and five range for quite a long time. So it's a practice area that if you are practicing, you should be concerned about and I've had some lawyers visit with me and say, "You know, what are we seeing? What should we be concerned about?" Claims attorneys are certainly saying, "Hey, you know, we've got some problems," and so I thought it'd be worthwhile to spending a little time trying to issue spot perhaps for you, to give you some things to keep in the back of your mind about what should I be focused on in terms of just trying to avoid some of the common missteps that occur in the estate planning arena?

Let me start with a bit of perhaps a hypo or a short question. If a law firm represents two adults, they are a brother and sister, and they have handled various legal issues for one or the other over the years and then these two bring in their elderly parents for the purposes of having an estate plan drawn up. Kids are going to pay for it. Mom and dad have never been previously represented. Who is the client? One is tempted to say immediately it's the parents and I think that's probably the way it should play, but the issue becomes, what do the individuals involved believe? We are seeing a number of claims in the estate area where the insured believes the client is one person or a couple or something here, you know the estate planning setting, but the beneficiaries see it differently, and our insurers are really are not documenting and clarifying this issue with everybody to make sure that the role of the attorney is clear.

So I encourage you whenever you are involved in the estate planning process to upfront determine who your client is and document accordingly. But every bit as important is as you go forth in the representation, if there are interactions with others, potential benefi- ... or I should say actual beneficiaries here, the kids in this example, they are still likely to be involved and may have some discussions and whatnot, just checking in. They're paying the bills. We need to make sure that there's not some confusion evolving and if you ever see or have an experience, here is something that says that there might be some confusion about just what your role is, I strongly encourage you to stop and take a moment to clarify, and document, "Had a brief discussion with the two kids," or whatever it might be. Role clarity and really document who your client is, can be so, so beneficial.

The next area that I'd like to talk about is just perhaps dabbling, perhaps getting a little bit in over your head. We have seen in recent times a fair number of claims where the insured attorney, obviously, has erred in setting up a Medicaid trust. They just have trouble structuring these and then there's not the communication piece, for instance, with client that you must give up control and understand all the issues that are in play when you go in this direction. That's not thoroughly documented.

So I guess it brings up two things: Don't dabble if there is a portion of estate planning work, Medicaid trusts as being the example here, that you really aren't an expert on. Go out and get some help with that, politely decline, but don't wing it. Shooting from the hip is, in any practice area, is never going to turn out well. But I also liked this piece of saying, "You know, you really need to make sure the client understands the legal ramifications, understands exactly what's happening here," and that's very, very important.

How about just the misstep that occurs now and again? It's a drafting error. It's a typo. At times we see situations where the interest in the will did not add up to 100%. That there are consistencies in various sections of a document. There is a failure to include a residuary clause. There's ambiguities about which person or asset is being referenced. It gets back to just saying, "Look, folks, slow down, take some time, proofread." I know it's easy to cut and paste and work with other documents from a prior estate plan or something and just change. That's fine. I can appreciate the time-saving steps that go into play here, but if you make mistakes, taking these ... and I don't mean shortcuts in the sense of we're circumventing. It's fine to try to be as efficient as possible, but it's not an excuse to say, "Well, I don't have to read thoroughly and make sure the numbers are correct. That this makes sense." Maybe even having another person in the office read through to make sure, "Hey, are you catching anything?" because sometimes two sets of eyes are certainly better than one. So just a thought.

The next topic I'd like to share is we are seeing challenges by beneficiaries to wills or trusts. Challenge can the intent of the testator, and sometimes even when there is an error made and it has nothing to do with intent, the error that's been in there is sort of this opportunity to challenge some things in terms of intent. What I want to say here is, let's say it's somebody being disinherited and they want to challenge that. If we have not documented the file in terms of ... I say this in all kinds of contexts ... the advice being given. the decision-making process, we can have some problems if something is challenged down the road. So it would be very important to really document the why's behind the client is wanting to do what they're doing, whatever it might be. So another key piece of documentation.

But this disinherited kind of situation raises another warning sign, or perhaps another practice tip. I see that as a potential red flag, and there are times where ... obviously, we all know this ... testamentary capacity can be an issue, and one red flag is somebody being disinherited. You need to start to think, "Is there undue influence here?" or just what's going on.

So let's talk a little bit about testamentary capacity as well. The issue is important because sometimes the allegations are that an attorney breaches standard of care or fiduciary duty by failing to adequately assess a client's capacity. So what does this mean in terms of the capacity? You might think about asking open-ended questions and understand that the individual ... We're not physicians and there's no requirement that this person have an IQ of 168. There has to be a baseline, but we have to make sure that the person is at this baseline.

So what is that baseline? I start to think about things, fully understand, you're asking yourself this: Does the client fully understand the nature of making a will and the effects that his or her decisions will have in terms of the will-making process or the trust-making process? This individual needs to understand the nature and the extent of the property of which he or she is distributing to heirs or to trust, or charitable entities. The individual should have no mental disorder that would affect or damage the decision-making process. Obviously, they shouldn't be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, those kinds of things, and they really shouldn't be subject to any undue influence. We need to make sure. Sometimes, so taking a person into a private room for a conversation can help with that a little bit. But it's asking open-ended questions, even who's the vice-president. Just some general kinds of things just to make sure and then ask some questions about what they're doing financially here, what their wishes are. But again, open-ended questions help you determine whether they have the mental acuity to really proceed here.

But then on top of that, there can be some red flags. If this is a deathbed change and the disinherited situation, somebody being disinherited, could be another potential red flag. If there's a lot of fighting going on in the family; if someone is bringing the person in, a family member or somebody or even a non-family member, which I've seen more than a few times, they're trying to influence a push, "I've cared for my neighbor all these years and she wants me to have her home and what ..." These are red flags, and we may want to go even a little further than just asking some questions and, of course, documenting all of this. But if the red flags are there, I am really going to take some extra notes. I start to think about video recording the signing. You might even have a physician document that they've gone through with this individual and examined the person, does seem to have the mental capacity to proceed here.

Then depending on how significant these red flags are, I also say, "You know, do you really want to be the one that's putting a target on your chest?" I started to think maybe this is where I want to step out or bow out and terminate the representation because, again, just because you can move forward doesn't mean it's a good idea, especially if there's a real high risk that you're going to be pulled into some subsequent litigation and somebody might start to take a shot or try to take a shot at your malpractice policy as part of this process.

The final thing that I would toss out there is sort of the limited scope piece, which can come up sometimes, as lawyers were choosing to limit our scope, but at other times it can be client-driven limitations. But let me give you an example of where I'm going with this. It is, suppose I'll make myself the client and I've got some money, but I mean I'm not a Bill Gates, but I've got more than a couple of million put away and I keep this money pretty tight. It's sort of how much is enough and it's not quite, I'm almost there. But when I spend, I like to spend on the best and so I like to drink a fine wine now and again, and I have a very nice car out at the front of the house, and I want the best attorney in the estate planning arena to take care of me as I set up trust.

So I go out and hire you. You're the big name in the whole region and I'm excited about that. But, again, I want to hold some money close to my chest. So I will hire you to draft all these documents, but I am certainly more than capable of funding all this and I don't have to spend the money in terms of it's going to take you time and effort to do all this, I'll take care of it. Well, what happens down the road if you agree to do that? So you draft all this stuff off and away I go, I have my documents, but I never get the trust funded or it's incompletely funded, or some of the documents that I'm signing here aren't correct in terms of so it's not properly funded, and then I sue you.

The whole allegation is I have not been fully advised of the ramifications here. You see where I'm going? So I want you to think about the importance of documenting scope thoroughly and putting the parameters around, "I am going to do this. I am not going to do that." But one of the things that is confusing at times, I think, for some lawyers is there's this assumption: Well, because I am able to limit my scope, surely I must be able to limit my advice. I don't see anything in any ethics opinions or in the rules that say that's how this plays. In the malpractice world, I assure you, you can't limit your advice in this setting.

So if you are going to limit your scope, please, first off, thoroughly document that and then make sure that the client is fully advised about their piece. This is what they need to do. This advice actually is even limited to just limited scope representation. It can play out in the full-service model as well, but when clients still have things to do that are related to the work that you were doing, the matter that you have just finished your piece on or just concluded, they need to be advised and you should be clear or thorough in documenting that you've had this conversation, or you've sent a letter out, or you can do this via email. I mean, it doesn't really matter to me how you get there, but we need some documentation they have been advised so they can't turn around and say, "Well, this is your fault that I was wrong. I didn't realize that this thing had to be funded." I mean it could be that crazy. Please understand it doesn't matter whether the claim turns out to be this very viable claim with a large loss or not. The allegations are there, defense is in play, at a minimum, and there may be some losses. We're just going to have to look and see what does the documentation look like in a file.

So what are some of the takeaways with all this? I just want to review briefly, again, please make sure that you are clear in your head and with any individuals you are dealing with who the client is and, at times, we need to document to who the client is not and then stay the course. It is very important to document scope of representation and make sure that clients are fully advised if you are limiting your scope to some fashion, and if there are any additional things that they need to do beyond your representation or advice about the legal ramifications of what they need to do and if they fail to do something. There is real value In proofreading, checking your documents for these typos and the drafting errors. There really shouldn't be any internal inconsistencies. It really needs to be clear. I struggle with this in my own writing. I will go through and it makes perfect sense to me, but, unfortunately, down the road, I'm not the one going to be interpreting this. So try to read it from that perspective: is this clear to somebody else who would be reading this? Then if you have any of these red flags, any concerns about testamentary capacity, I encourage you to address that in responsible ways, and we've discussed some of those.

So that's a little quick rundown on estate planning concerns and what's happening in the malpractice space. I hope something here will prove useful to you, and I appreciate your taking a little time to listen in. As always, if any of you have any additional thoughts or ideas about who you'd like to hear or a topic you'd like discussed on the podcast, direction you'd like to see it go, please don't hesitate to reach out. Even if you just have a question you want to talk, I'd love to visit with you. So my email address is mbass, M-B-A-S-S, @alpsinsurance, A-L-P-S Insurance, one word, .com. That's it folks. Hey, stay safe out there. Have a great one. Again, thanks for listening. Bye-bye.

 

ALPS In Brief – Episode 54: The ALPS Vision Was, In Hindsight, 2020

ALPS In Brief – Episode 54: The ALPS Vision Was, In Hindsight, 2020

February 24, 2021

Accountability, integrity, commitment. These values provide the lens through which ALPS realizes its vision. To live these values requires a culture of authenticity, a place where people can be true to themselves. In this episode of ALPS In Brief, ALPS President and CEO David Bell meets with ALPS Risk Manager Mark Bassingthwaighte to reflect on how the company navigated the pandemic, the success of which David credits to the company’s healthy culture and its ability to remain transparent. Join them as they discuss the implications of 2020 and their effect on ALPS in 2021.

Transcript:

MARK BASSINGTHWAIGHTE:

Hello and welcome. I'm Mark Bassingthwaighte, and you're about to listen to the next episode of ALPS In Brief, the podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence Building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. Over the years, David Bell, the CEO of our company and I have got together and chat periodically about what's happening internally, looking at vision and just trying to share some things.

And the point of it has been... I think it allows you as the listener and our insureds to learn a little bit more about us each time. And I also hope to have the discussion of vision and what ALPS does, in this regard educate lawyers as to the value of, and a little bit about the process of creating a corporate or a firm vision. So before we jump into it, I'd like to spend a little bit of time here and introduce David a little more formally than I have in the past.

David Bell is the president and CEO of ALPS Corporation and ALPS Property & Casualty Insurance Company. David joined us here at ALPS in 2012. Prior to that, he was previously with Allied World Assurance Company, and that's a publicly traded global reinsurance company. David was a founding executive and served as the chief operating officer. After graduating from the University of Montana in 1996 with a degree in finance, he began his career with the Chubb Corporation.

David also co-founded and serves on the board of Grateful Nation Montana, a first of its kind in the nation organization that provides tutoring, mentoring, and college education for the children of Montana soldiers killed while on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has also appeared on NBC Nightly News, Fox & Friends, and numerous other television and radio outlets talking about the need to make funding education for the children to fallen soldiers, a national priority. And that's just an outstanding and excellent organization David has been involved with you.

I'd also like to share that that David has recently been appointed chair of the board of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center. This is a center that promotes better understanding of Asia and of U.S. relations with Asia. And we'll talk about that a little bit here shortly. So David, always a pleasure. Welcome to the podcast.

DAVID BELL:

Thank you, Mark. I appreciate you taking the time. I always enjoy our conversations about life and business.

MARK:

It has been fun and I've been surprised, pleasantly surprised and I'm sure it's... these visioned podcasts have had a lot of attention over the years, so it's always a pleasure to get back into it. I thought I would start out. In a prior podcast we set up 2020 and going into 2020, we had a vision and a strategic plan and things were rocking and rolling. And then, the rest of the world, we got hit upside the head with an unexpected global pandemic. I would... Let's start out. How did ALPS survive? How did we do in terms of how did this impact the vision? Let's just explore the impact of all of this.

DAVID:

Sure. Well, certainly 2020 was not what any of us envisioned. As we began the year, this time, last year, the year threw us a lot of curve balls and the nation and families and everyone, curve balls. And it's been an interesting, at times tragic example of what can happen unexpectedly. But in terms of the company, 2020 was and is closing to be a very good year both in our strategic objectives, largely having been accomplished, not withstanding COVID and our financial objectives as well.

And so I think it gave us an opportunity to put some of our core values into practice. They look great on paper and they were fun to talk about when they're not being tested. But a lot of what COVID included necessitated really leaning on those core values as our employees had unexpected needs, as our insureds had unexpected needs and how we had to kind of plan for those and around those and line up in partnership with our different stakeholders. So it was definitely an interesting year. Now, I certainly feel grateful and for us as an organization, that we are not in the type of business that would have been directly in the cross hairs of some of COVID more problematic after effects. And that's frankly... it has as much to do with luck as it hasn't to do with anything else. So, 2020 almost saying with the tone of guilt was a really good year for the company.

MARK:

Did it impact where we go in 2021? Did it make some changes in terms of how you approach the corporate vision, the strategic plan?

DAVID:

In terms of the strategic and financial milestones and our vision of where we're taking the company, I really don't think that it played a meaningful role in any detours.

MARK:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

DAVID:

I think it did forever change the landscape of a lot of aspects. Internally, I think the way that we had to rearrange our business, where we did it from-

MARK:

Right.

DAVID:

... to how we handled the various different circumstances that our employees had and have had to co-exist with. Some of those changes will be permanent and so I think that it certainly wasn't a business as usual year by any stretch of the imagination. But I do think we will emerge better in a lot of ways as a company. And I can't really think of any ways that we would come out of 20 and into 21 weaker.

MARK:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

DAVID:

And that was... Again, I attribute a lot of that to the fact that we just aren't in the many types of businesses that have had such a profoundly problematic impact.

MARK:

Yeah.

DAVID:

And I think our employee base... I'd like to believe that our employee base is stronger in 21 than in 20, because we experienced some pretty profound things together. And I think for evidencing that core values comment, when people have an opportunity to see some of those values put in action, I'd like to believe that they emerged from the other side of that with a stronger bond with one another and more confidence in the organization that they work for.

MARK:

Well, let me comment about that because speaking as one of these employees that has gone through all of this, I absolutely agree with you. My own personal experience was such that, this transition to the remote work setting for all of us for quite a while, we had to accelerate new tools, using Microsoft Teams as an example, and the communication ability and in terms of just being able to see each other talk. I felt closer now to everybody in the company than I have in... I'm coming up on 23 years here. So it really is... I do want to underscore that it's been a good thing. Initially my response was, everybody's coming. Wow, this is... We've got to get used to it. I used to walk into our world as some of us there have been remote all along, but now it's, I truly do, I feel much closer as part.

Okay. Maybe a quick moment, since we're on the topic, do you want to share a summary of your own observations about what we saw in terms of the population we ensure that we are in service to? Any thoughts about that?

DAVID:

Sure. I mean, we've seen the results of COVID impact our insured firms at both ends of the extremes. For some firms they have seen overall, the COVID dynamic result in more business and more growth.

MARK:

Right.

DAVID:

On the other end of the extreme, particularly when the courts are closed and the economy is frozen up, there is not the commerce occurring that creates billable hours. And it has created significant challenges in... and has created a great deal of fear financial and otherwise by particularly some of the smallest firms. And so we've had to... We've reacted based on what our insured partners are coming to us with. We came out for example, for those that that found a reduction or virtual for time, virtual elimination of billable hours revenue, right? We came out and had opportunities to postpone premium payments. And well before the state regulatory bodies entered the scene and started to require insurance companies to do that, we did it. I'd like to think because it was the right thing to do.

MARK:

Right.

DAVID:

Right away when we saw that it was going to be necessary, it was clear in the very early stages of COVID, that this was going to create a problem for blocks for lawyers and a problem paying premiums, both because of financial constraints and because of just the tactics of being in a whole office and not being worried, your mail comes and all of that type of stuff, so that part of it was interesting. And I think the survey results that we've gotten back as we survey our insureds based on their experience that they've had with us each year, would suggest that our folks here who bring a great deal of compassion and empathy, many people, and I hope so lawyers themselves, had been in the shoes of our insurance. And so, I'm pleased that by all accounts, it seems we've done that well.

On the landscape of what our insureds are seeing from a claims perspective, we definitely saw what I call a significant reduction in the volume of claims.

MARK:

Yes.

DAVID:

And we've actually seen a reduction in the severity of the claims that we did get. And so, that will clearly be a temporary phenomenon, right?

MARK:

Yeah.

DAVID:

When commerce has stopped and the courts are closed, then it's... You don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that you're going to have at least a temporary lull in claims activity. Now the big question is, as this thing ramps up, will it hockey stick up? And as businesses fail coming out the other end of COVID, and tragically as marriages and other institutions fail, we effectively "make up" for lost ground on the claims picture. I think that there are pretty reasonable predictions on both sides of that ledger but it's an interesting dynamic to be looking at-

MARK:

It is.

DAVID:

... and talking about.

MARK:

Yeah. Well, time will tell on that one. When I think about how ALPS has survived or navigated through the pandemic thus far, and seeing wins and losses in terms of some of our insureds from struggling in some ways, and profiting very much in other situations, I really start to believe that the... One of the ways that we navigated this so well, was because we had a solid strategic plan. We had established core values that people understand and live by. Our culture is important. And so to the degree that sharing some of the insights about what we've done, I guess I'd say... How do I say, I'd like to talk about some of this stuff as a tool, as a way to give firms that may be struggling a little bit, one path to try to move forward and come out of this.

So if we could take a little bit of time, just briefly, let's start with this whole concept of core values. Can I just... What does that mean to you and where do they come from? And perhaps let me share,folks, the core values that drive us, that David has talked about already here today, as are driving some of this conversation. We ask, is this the truth? Is it fair? Does it benefit our people and the company? And does it help us make a profit? So, those are our core values. So again, David, how do we get to them? Why are they important to you?

DAVID:

Sure. Well, I think the core values are kind of the went through, which we all hope everything else that we're doing is filtered. And we didn't hire consultants to-

MARK:

Right.

DAVID:

... I'm sure these could be worded differently. I'm sure there are core values that could be added and there are ways that we could word the ones that we have better. I've been in the learning sessions that many people listening to this, have been with great companies that have come up with very different ways to approach this and I'm convinced that there's no right or wrong way to do it. I felt like there was a lot of the golden rule kind of baked into this.

MARK:

Yes.

DAVID:

And our stakeholders include the people inside this company who labor every day on our common mission. It includes the people who we insure, right? We make a promise to transfer the risk of something bad having happened, the financial risk of something bad having having happened from their balance sheet to our balance sheet, right?

MARK:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

DAVID:

And so we need to make that promise clear in the contract. We need to represent it accurately. We need to fulfill it justly when our claims attorneys are working on the claims. And we need to have the financial stability to be able to fulfill the promises as well. And then of course we do have shareholders too, and so we have kind of different stakeholders. But I think these four points which we've repeated so many times, I think most people probably know by memory. But is it the truth? It's kind of self-explanatory-

MARK:

Yeah.

DAVID:

... a bit self-evident. I do believe that relationships are the headquarters to everything, including financial and business transactions. Without a healthy relationship, it's very difficult to get anything else constructive done. And without truth, it's almost impossible to have a healthy relationship. If you have reason to believe, but the person on the other end of your negotiation or discussion is being dishonest.

MARK:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

DAVID:

I mean, I can't imagine how you can have anything constructive come out of that. And so we have to ask ourselves, is it the truth? Is what I'm telling my employees the truth? Is what our people are telling our insurers the truth? Right?

MARK:

Right.

DAVID:

And so that is in some ways, so obvious that it could be glossed over, but boy, is it essential in just everything that we do. The second one is, is it fair? Is it fair? Is it equitable? That's trickier because it's obviously a subjective question, right? Fairness to one is not seeing the same as fairness to other, and so when I look at that is, it's kind of thinking about it from my own perspective, as a leader, as a flawed human being who brings the bias of my experiences that I've had in my own life, into my decision-making. Many of those biases being unconscious, right?

And so, the question that I ask for me and the decisions that I'm making, and then I would ask others is, are you in pursuit of fairness and of equality? And it doesn't mean that you'll be perfect all the time. It doesn't mean that everybody... When you feel that you've done something fair, it doesn't mean that everybody else will feel that way.

In fact, I think a truism of leadership and arguably one of the ways that you can know whether you'll be successful in leaders, if you're comfortable with the fact that something that you believe is the right thing to do, will not be shared by other people who are important to you.

MARK:

Yeah.

DAVID:

We're just going to have people who believe differently about this. But I think if we say, Hey, look, I'm trying my best, I'm going to be truthful and transparent. I'm happy to explain the reasoning for what I'm doing. And I'm using my best efforts to seek fairness and equality. I think if there's a genuine, recognized effort to do that, there's room for shades of gray, as people have their own interpretations.

MARK:

Yeah.

DAVID:

That's number two. Number three, as you pointed out, is, does it benefit our people and the company. By the company, obviously it means our insureds-

MARK:

Right.

DAVID:

... and the various people, right? But we don't want to do something to serve people outside this company that hurts our own people. And we don't want to do something that helps or enriches our own people at the expense of folks externally, who we serve as well. And that's also a prioritization question, right? I mean, there's a lot of things to distract us. There's a lot of places that we can spend time and money. And I think sometimes we just need to ask ourselves, is what we're about to do going to benefit our people and the company? Because if the answer isn't an unqualified yes, maybe that's not the best allocation of time or financial resources.

And then fourth, which I include unapologetically but also intentionally include last, is, does it help us make a profit?

MARK:

Right.

DAVID:

We're a for-profit business. Our ability to fulfill the promises that we make now and in the future, is entirely dependent upon us being a profitable company that is financially strong. But that being said, it's not profit above all else. There are clearly numerous ways that this organization could have, and could today make a lot more money than it is making. And if this were number one, there might be an organizational temptation to do that. Profit is important. It is not the most important.

MARK:

Right. Yeah.

DAVID:

And I think if you do everything else well, profit will come. It might not come as much or as fast as some people would like but it is a function of where it sits in your order of priorities.

MARK:

What I like about this, and it's something I've learned as a result of my experience as an ALPS member. I think a lot of companies, when you sit down and they talk about core values, and they list, these are the things we value and it becomes this thing you put on the wall and you want to advertise, and sort of pound your chest a little bit. These are not things that are symbols. What I like about these values, I've transitioned from a list of things that we value, to a list of things that enable us. They become the lens if you will, of how we view the vision, how we view who we are, how we view what we're trying to do. And I think that distinction, at least for me was very, very important.

And I just share that with all of you listening, to approach core values from this perspective of, how do we want to set the view of where we are going? Of who we are? That's what core value is. It's defining us, not defining what we value in the sense of making a profit or... and that's important but we value diversity. And again, I'm not trying to dismiss any of that as relevant, but in my mind, there's a distinction there, I've set up the food for thought. Culture, let us just take one or two minutes. How is culture important in this process from a CEO perspective?

DAVID:

I've actually evolved as I've gotten older in years and had more experiences, made more good decisions and made more poor decisions, and lived with the consequences of both. I've always been a very metric driven person and would probably define my default management style as in a kind of a KPI terms, right? Key Performance Indicators. I've recognized over the years that if you had to pick, culture is frankly not only more important than the financial metrics, but the financial metrics are more dependent upon a healthy culture to produce them over the long-term, then the people realized that, then I probably appreciated it in the early chapters of my profession. And I'm really... We've hired quite a few people in the last year or two as the company continues to grow and expand in different parts of the country and write more business and in States all around the country.

Culture, I think is sometimes the most misunderstood word that's commonly used. And people say, well tell me about your culture. And I say, I can give you kind of my culture speech, but if you want to know what the culture... If people have the opportunity to come to the company, we're not all but most of the employees are based and you walk around, the question that I've asked people to observe for themselves without any ability by me to influence it, is walk around, look at the way that people engage with one another, do their mannerisms show that they are genuinely interested in the discussions that they're having? Are they smiling? Are they able to have a little fun? Are they self-deprecating? Is their energy... Is it a library or look at where it feels like a professional salt mine? Or is it a place where there's vibrancy and laughter but it's also professional and it's very intentional.

And so I think that if you have an organization where people feel safe, which has a lot to do with these core values, right-

MARK:

Right, right.

DAVID:

... They feel safe because it's not politicized, there is an expectation that what you hear is honest. Then I think it gives people the ability to be their unguarded cells and be comfortable. And to me, that's culture, that's the culture you want. Because that's where you start to get true performance out of folks-

MARK:

Right.

DAVID:

... because they feel that they can spread their wings, take some risks. And sometimes the risk for somebody who's just putting themselves out there to suggest something, where that might be not in their default picture.

MARK:

The way I describe this as again, a member of the ALPS family, culture in my mind... A healthy culture encourages, enables, allows, et cetera, mutual investment so that all of us regardless of position, are able to increase to invest in what we're doing as a group. But the organization also invests in us. It's a two-way street. And perhaps it's another way of saying, I think, culture when it's really working, is the... So I've talked about the lens. Core values is the lens that we look at vision, all this. The culture is living the vision. It is walking the talk of what our values say at our... and it is moving towards something, a common goal. Now, I'd love to hear your comment on vision planning in general. ALPS is a corporation. We don't all sit down, all of us and get together. And what's the vision. How do we get to our vision? Can you just give a brief overview of the process? What does that look like?

DAVID:

Sure. I mean, I think in order to have a vision that you can communicate in order to get the people who you depend upon to make the vision a reality on board, you first have to have a very clear and honest reckoning with where you are right now, right? You can't portray yourself as something other than what you are, or other than the state in which you are in. And so when you say this is who we are, this is where we are. And then this is where we're going. And this is why, right? Because I think, in private enterprise too often, the objective is more.

MARK:

Yes.

DAVID:

More is a lot of things, but sustainably inspiring to an employee population. It is not, right? People need to understand what's in it for me? Why, should I be as excited about the vision casting and where we're going? You've told me where we are, you've shown me where we're going. You've outlined some way station milestones in between here and there. Tell me why I should be fully bought in to this pursuit, because it is easier to just do what we're doing right now. Well, and not really venture out with all of the risks and work that are involved with going out onto the vision timeline. And so, I think one of the key approaches is to bring clarity to what those points look like and bring transparent explanation for the reasons, because you are asking people to do more and, or do different than what they are doing right now.

MARK:

Right.

DAVID:

And people need to know why they should do that.

MARK:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). And I can also share, it includes, sort of measurable metrics. It's one thing to say, well, my vision is to be the most profitable family law firm in greater Montana or something. But if you don't have a pass, we need to sit down and I can assure you folks, we do. That's part of this strategic planning process. David, I want to give you a little bit time, if we still have some time to talk about the Mansfield Center. But before we get to that, can you just... Share what you feel comfortable sharing. What does the future look like for ALPS?

DAVID:

Sure. We are-

MARK:

In terms of your long-term vision?

DAVID:

Yeah, well, so ALPS, it's got such a great three decades of history.

MARK:

Yeah.

DAVID:

It started in the wake of the S&L crisis, when there was a genuine crisis of a complete lack of availability for legal malpractice insurance, particularly for the smallest firms.

MARK:

Right.

DAVID:

Right? ALPS was one of a handful of kind of white Knights that were created by State Bars in order to solve this problem. Obviously the market has evolved in different cycles over the last three decades. The crisis went away. We've had times when it's been very, very competitive and at times where has been very problematic from a loss perspective. And so, what ALPS has always been is, a direct carrier, a direct insurer of legal malpractice, the GEICO or Progressive, of lawyers malpractice. And it's far more common to have these commercial lines of insurance traded through brokers or agents.

And I do believe that brokers and agents provide an important value proposition-

MARK:

Oh, yes.

DAVID:

... for midsize and larger commercial risks in general. But they add a very significant cost as a percentage of the full transaction. And so I think one of the reasons why we've been as successful as we have been particularly in the last five to 10 years, is because we've been able to take the economics that traditionally go to brokers and agents, and share those economics between insureds and the company, really more to the benefit of the insurance. We didn't make this up. It's how Progressive and GEICO-

MARK:

Right.

DAVID:

... permanently disrupted the Personal Lines Industry several decades ago. So, we are not pioneers, I think we've done things differently-

MARK:

Yeah.

DAVID:

... and in many ways done things better as it relates to Commercial lines. But that's been our journey. So, in brief, Mark, to answer your question, the States that we are not in, we need to be in, now there are only a very small number of States that we have no appetite to be in, right? But for the 47 States where we do have an appetite, the States that we're not in, we need to be in. The States that we are in, we need to have critical mass in.

MARK:

Yes.

DAVID:

There are States where we're in, but we're not a substantial player. I mean, there are States where we are the undisputed largest-

MARK:

Right.

DAVID:

... LPL carrier by policy count in the state. And there are multiple States where we are that. But there are also a lot of States where we have a very small market share. We need to have critical mass. And then eventually, as we gain more critical mass in places where we don't yet have it, we can start to look laterally and offer products other than legal malpractice.

Right now we do legal malpractice, Cyber and EPL, Employment Practices Liability. But our attorneys who buy from us, arguably, the most important risk transfer product that they buy, they trust us directly with. And so we can bring to them offerings of other insurance products whether or not our balance sheet specifically is protecting or not, that's a step. And then eventually, we have ambitions to get into other lines of commercial business beyond legal malpractice. It could be accountants, it could be miscellaneous errors and emissions. I mean, we are now... What I'm describing now, I would put in the intermediate to long-term time horizon-

MARK:

Yes, right.

DAVID:

... not in the short to early intermediate. But those are... When we have vision, I have a timeline illustration that I'm sure both of you and I are picturing in our minds right now, because we've both seen it, that shows for the purpose of employees. These are the steps along our path, going to this place, here is why we're doing this. This is why we think it's important. And I think just as important as that, and I guess, I think the next observation that maybe the final one that I'll offer will kind of wind in almost all of your questions.

For me, I think it's important to acknowledge what we are and what we aren't. I think some companies love... And I'm not criticizing this, it works for them. They create almost a cult like atmosphere right there, where you just bleed the color of the company. And I think that that's great and cool, and for some companies. I don't believe that for what we do, right? We are a lawyer's malpractice insurance company, right? So we are not ending homelessness, we are not feeding-

MARK:

Right.

DAVID:

... hungry kids, right? To be sure, the money that we're making enables us to be generous to others-

MARK:

Absolutely.

DAVID:

... and that is a significant priority for us. I think we've had the ability to do a lot of really wonderful things-

MARK:

Yeah, yeah.

DAVID:

... with that, but our core business isn't digging wells in impoverished nations. And so, I think it's not only okay to me, it's important to say, this is a job, a career, it's a place to labor alongside of people who you trust and hopefully who you enjoy. And I think the reason why people at ALPS, why we have so little turnover and why by all of our measuring techniques, people seem to have a very positive perspective of being here, because they can get up and look in the mirror and whether or not legal malpractice was necessarily the job they dreamt up when they were a wee lad, they can nonetheless look in the mirror and say, "We're doing great work." Right?

MARK:

Yeah. Yeah.

DAVID:

We create our product honestly and ethically, we sell it transparently. And the instructions that we get from the top on down is, if we owe it we pay it, if we don't know we fight it. We don't really have to get much more complicated than that, right?

MARK:

Right, right.

DAVID:

If we've made this promise, keep it. If we haven't made this promise, then we have a responsibility to the other stakeholders to dig in. And so we do dig in and do battle, on occasion. So, that I think is an important aspect of who we are, because it lets people feel... It lets people contextualize the purpose of their role here. I tell people often that I view, I love my job, I love the people who I work with. I look forward to it every day. It is not my life. I take vacation.

I largely view the time that I spend here as giving me the means and the ability to do other things, and with other people who I care deeply about.

MARK:

Yeah.

DAVID:

So, if you are here 24-7, and on the weekends, you should not be-

MARK:

Yeah, I agree.

DAVID:

...right guys? This should not be your life.

MARK:

Right. Yeah.

DAVID:

It should be an important part of your life because of the hours we spend together. But it should not define who you are and it definitely should not be your identity. So, those are kind of, some of the aspects of life under the ALPS umbrella.

MARK:

Yeah. We're kindred spirits in this regard. If we have a little bit of time and if you need to go, David, you need to go, but I would love if you have a few minutes, you were sharing prior to starting lists, the Mansfield Center. And I suspect a lot of people really have no clue what the Mansfield Center is, and what incredible stuff is happening here in Montana. So, I would love if you could just give a few minutes and share what you'd like to share and fill us in a little bit about what's going on with the Mansfield Center.

DAVID:

Sure, sure. I mean, I've been on the Mansfield Center Board for probably 15 years. Mansfield Center was created... Mansfield Center and the Mansfield Foundation was created by an Act of Congress, actually.

MARK:

Oh, wow.

DAVID:

Senator Mike Mansfield was, I think still to this day, the longest serving Senate president in U.S. history. He and I actually probably don't share ideologically many of the same priorities, but that's the beauty of this whole thing. I mean, Mike Mansfield was... He had kind of epitomized the good old days of bipartisan friendships, deep lasting friendships with people who felt very strongly in opposition politically to aspects of Mike. I recently became the chair of the Mansfield Center Board. Mainly I had a ton of time for the Executive Director. She's wonderful. And I believe that we're in a very... We all know that we're in a precarious time in our country. We all know the dangers that are around us.

MARK:

Yeah.

DAVID:

But I also think that there is a national yearning for bipartisanship, for civility, for cooperation. And the Mansfield Center is an ideal national and regional too in the Rocky Mountain West, but national vehicle to channel those types of things. So for example, we have, Dr. Fauci coming up in event that we've planned. We've got the chair of the Problem Solver Caucus, chairs. And if you're not familiar with the PSC which goes under "new labels" sometimes, it's worth a Google. PSC, Problem Solver Caucus, 50 Republicans, 50 Democrats in the house. They are a force now, four key legislation really needs to involve the Problem Solvers Caucus.

And you have... It's just such an under-reported wonderful example of what is actually going on, which is, the two chairs, a Republican and a Democrat, who probably don't agree on anything politically, but when you listen to these two people talk, it's very clear that they definitely trust one another, that they, I think soundboard and value the opinions of one another as much, or in some cases more than the members of their own party.

And so, they are opportunities, I think to harness this yearning. I just did a call with the U.S. Chamber. I'm also on the board there, and the Mansfield Center. And so, my hope over the next 24 months, is to try to play some small role in tethering together organizations like the Mansfield Center and the Chamber and the Bipartisan Policy Center. And these organizations who have this, we have to work together mission, because I think there is an opportunity right now even where people, even who aren't interested in politics, recognize that we have to start to treat one another better. We have to start respecting the opinions of people who we don't agree with more. We have to talk about things. And so, that's why I'm currently kind of somewhat jumped in the deep end of Mansfield Center activities. I think that there's a good opportunity, and I'm privileged to be a part of it.

MARK:

Well, I'm really pleased that you shared all of this. I absolutely agree with you in terms of the political situation we're in and the amount of discord is going on just crazy. But just hearing this, it brightens my day. I mean, it so does, it's just... I can just speak as a citizen at this point and say, it's hard, it really is hard, to find the bright spots of hope. And this is one, so I really appreciate.

DAVID:

Yeah, hopefully we'll see more example. I believe that media, social and mainstream, is the greatest threat to our nation's mental health that exists today. And so I just, I hope that there will be more and more opportunities to witness the current examples of healthy bipartisan dialogue that's going on and more, perhaps just as important, lots of opportunities to create, make, and be a part of new ways for people who have been camped for a long time to extend a hand, to be friends. It doesn't mean you have to agree.

MARK:

Right. Yeah.

DAVID:

Right? It just means that you have to just listen for a bit and maybe a little give and take, negotiations. Everybody listening to this podcast, they're likely in a profession where negotiation is a central part of what they do. And give and take is an absolute essential ingredient. We need more of that-

MARK:

Right, right.

DAVID:

... political discourse as well.

MARK:

Yeah.

DAVID:

It should not be whoever's in control when the pendulum swings that way, as an absolute. So thank you, Mark for that.

MARK:

Well, you're welcome. And thank you. This is where we're going to need to leave it folks. I know David has got quite a busy day. David, it truly, it's always a pleasure to get together and spend a little time chatting. I thank you for fitting us in today. Folks, I hope you found something of interest and value in this podcast. And as always, if any of you have any additional thoughts about podcast topics or something you'd like to hear about, someone you'd like us to try to visit with, please don't hesitate to reach out. You may reach me at MBaaS, M-B-A-A-S @alpsinsurance.com. So that's it folks. Bye-Bye. Thanks again, David.

DAVID:

Thank you.

 

ALPS In Brief – Episode 53: How to Handle Extraordinary Experiences

ALPS In Brief – Episode 53: How to Handle Extraordinary Experiences

December 10, 2020

It was January of 2020 in Birmingham, Alabama. Jeremy woke to a noise in the middle of the night and went outside to investigate. He could see three men coming out of the woods behind his house. One of the men had something in his arms. Jeremy told them to stop, an altercation ensued, the man dropped what he was carrying and all three ran off. Jeremy walked to the edge of the woods to see what the man had left behind. It was a horse, a small foal. When Jeremy got closer, he realized the foal had wings. Today on the podcast, Mark sits down with Jeremy Richter, insurance defense lawyer, author, and host of the Lawyerpreneur podcast, to discuss his writing, the importance of attorney wellness, following your dreams, and some of his own stranger-than-fiction stories.   

 

Transcript:

MARK BASSINGTHWAIGHTE:       

Okay. Hello. I'm Mark Bassingthwaighte and welcome to ALPS In Brief, the podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. I'm very pleased to have join us today on the podcast, Jeremy Richter, and he is an attorney, a shareholder in fact, with Webster Henry at their Birmingham, Alabama location. So Jeremy, first off, welcome. It's a pleasure to have you join us.

JEREMY RICHTER:

Well, thanks. I'm really happy to be here.

MARK:       

My interest, folks, in having Jeremy join us today is not so much in terms of what he's doing with his practice in Alabama. It's what he's doing in addition to his practice. And, boy, is there a lot of stuff that this guy has got going on. I mean, it's just... So, Jeremy, before we jump into some of this, I'd love to have you just take a few moments and share a little bit about yourself. What do people want to know? What would you like us to know, perhaps?

JEREMY:           

Well, let me tell you how we got to where I am as far as all the things outside of my daily billing that I do. So I'm an insurance defense lawyer here in Birmingham, and I started practicing in 2012. I've been at the same firm the whole time. In 2016 I had about four years under my belt, and my mentor, who I was hired to work with, and it's almost exclusively who I worked with, he had always involved me in his marketing efforts, but he was a very extroverted, gregarious person who loved going to conferences and in talking to tons of people, and that's not me. And so I realized fairly early on that that did not play to my strengths and I needed to figure out how to be able to market myself in a way that was achievable over the long-term, and something that I could just continue to pour time and effort into that wouldn't deplete my reserves of energy.

And so, I have always been a writer and I started a law blog where at the outset I blogged about appellate decisions in Alabama that affected my little insurance defense world. After about six months of that, I started wanting to write about other topics, and I had one particular idea that I guess was the catalyst for everything that came afterwards, about three things that associates can do to be better associates. And so I wrote about that. And after that, I started writing a lot about practice management ideas and case management and relationships with clients, and it was all coming from a perspective of, "Look, I'm only four years in." Five years in at that point. "These are the things I'm learning along the way."

I'm not positioning myself as some guru because there's lots of folks who have been doing this a lot longer than me, but I wanted to help the people who are coming behind me to maybe graduate that learning curve a little bit more than what I had. And so that's what I started doing, and then I formed a relationship with some folks at the ABA Journal and wrote for them. And then the ABA published my first book and since then I've published two more books, one in each year in 2018, '19 and '20. And I started a podcast this year. And then actually this will be totally new to anybody, I guess, that's not immediate family, I am one chapter away from finishing the first draft of my first novel that I wrote.

MARK:       

Awesome. And what is the topic of the novel? Is it law-based or is it completely different? I love it.

JEREMY:              

Actually I don't read legal thrillers. I mean, I have, in the past, and there are some real titans who have built their names in that.

MARK:     

Right.

JEREMY:             

But, no, it's totally off... It's a contemporary fantasy book that takes place in Birmingham, and it's about this little family who lives south of Birmingham and the dad, as far as he knows, is living in a normal world as the rest of us know it.

MARK:       

Uh-huh (affirmative).

JEREMY:               

And then some really weird things happen and he figures out there's a whole bunch of things that exist in the world around him that he had never known existed. And it all got started on this really bizarre dream that I had one night and wrote it down and it kind of went from there.

MARK:     

I have to come back to this. I find this inspiring in some ways. It's very interesting. You and I have a lot more in common than I would have guessed initially. It's great. But you started out talking about moving in this direction, in terms of blogging and then evolving a bit here, initially, just to market yourself.

JEREMY:               

Yeah.

MARK:      

Was that successful? Did you have the results that you looked for or hoped for?

JEREMY:                

It was successful, but not in the way that I expected. When I started writing about appellate decisions in Alabama, I thought, "Well, this will be a way for clients to find me and my firm and for us to establish our expertise."

MARK:       

Yes.

JEREMY:              

And while that was true, and it did that, my insurance clients weren't my readers as it turned out. It was other lawyers who were coming across these things and dealing with them. And even folks in my own firm would say, "Hey, I was looking up this topic and I came across your blog. Let's talk about this random thing." And so, in that way, it wasn't what I thought it was going to be from the outset. But what it did do is allow me to get more involved in industry organizations like CLM and DRI and present at conferences.

It gave me the confidence in my practice areas to make those presentations and also to reach out to people who were attending those conferences and say, "Hey, we don't know each other really, but we're going to be at this place, and if you are looking for additional counsel in Alabama, I'd love to get together and meet." And so between that and other relationships that I've formed in communities that I've become a part of, I can say with certainty that I have business relationships now and have obtained clients that wouldn't have been the case without it. So it formed differently than I expected, but it absolutely had the result that I wanted.

MARK:       

Okay. And then what took you into becoming an author in terms of writing the books? And share the... I think you have three out, right, in terms of law-

JEREMY:                

Yeah. I do.

MARK:       

Feel free to share the names and just a little bit about the books and...

JEREMY:               

Okay. So the first book that I wrote that the ABA published is called Building a Better Law Practice, and both it and the second book I have thought of, from their inception, as almost like a devotional for lawyers. The topics are fairly short. Most of them are somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 words. They can be read in five to 10 minutes a day, and it's really practical, grounded ideas, suggestions, advice for lawyers. And I think it's particularly useful for younger lawyers about managing your clients and your caseload and your practice itself, and growing those things so that you establish your expertise, you can handle your work better, more productively, more efficiently, and get more out of your day. And so, the first book is Building a Better Law Practice. The second book is called Stop Putting Out Fires.

And then this year I wrote a book called Level Up Your Law Practice, and about 40% of the book focuses a lot on mindset. It's not something that I was particularly comfortable with because it put me in a place to have to be more vulnerable in writing and on paper than I really cared to be. But I thought that it was an important topic because we deal with... And look, when I wrote most of it in 2019 and early 2020, I had no idea what 2020 was going to be.

MARK:        

Yeah, right.

JEREMY:              

But we deal with so much adversity on a daily basis that if we don't focus some attention on making sure that we have mental and emotional health, then we aren't going to be able to do the work that we do over the course of 30 years without having to come apart.

MARK:     

Yeah. Yeah. You are preaching to the choir on this one. I absolutely agree with you. This whole attorney wellness movement is so, so critical. And again, the pandemic has really underscored just how important this is. Did the act of becoming an author... Again, did you accomplish what you had hoped to accomplish with this? How did it impact your practice? I mean, I find for instance that as I... I've been writing for, oh, gosh, 25 years now, and it's just, the more you do it, I find it enhances me. I learn a lot and it makes me just better at what I do, but I'd be curious about, again, the experience of writing. Again, did it accomplish what you had hoped it would? How did it impact your career?

JEREMY:             

I think that the answer is, yes, it has helped me. There's a lot of times that I don't really know what I think about something until I have taken the time and energy to write about it. And so it has helped me become more focused on efficiency and productivity, which is something that is important to my clients that I do well since they're paying me by the hour. And also, with my firm, they certainly want me to be productive. And then all of the... I've done so much writing about client relationships that it's really... I've had to live it.

MARK:        

Yes. Right.

JEREMY:              

And so, I've had to focus and learn about what do my clients want so that we can have a better relationship, not just for this one particular case, because things might go well or poorly on one individual case. But how can we have a relationship that can withstand any adversity and that we're communicating effectively enough, both about the good things and the bad things, that there's a trusting relationship that hopefully is going to last a career. And so the writing has helped me be a better lawyer because it's helped me focus on the things that I need to do to be successful.

MARK:       

Very good. Before I get to your non-legal writing for a moment, I did note, too, that you're involved in a book for children, moving in this other direction. Can you fill us in a little bit about this whole project?

JEREMY:            

All right. So, in March I posted on LinkedIn, because I'd seen... It was probably late March when I posted this because I'd seen that people have been locked down for a few weeks and there were a lot of really interesting, innovative things that I was seeing lawyers do on LinkedIn to help, whether it's communicate with clients. At that point Zoom was still pretty novel. I think in a lot of ways, we're all really well acquainted with it now, but at that point, most of us hadn't engaged with that medium before. And so I just saw a lot of things, and so I posted, "Hey, if you're doing anything interesting, let's share it and encourage each other." And a lawyer that I knew, Becky Lee, she's an intellectual property lawyer in Atlanta, we're a part of an online lawyer community called Lawyer Slack, LawyerSmack.

MARK: 

Yes.

JEREMY:               

And so, she posted that she had just written a children's book idea. And so I reached out to her directly and said, "Hey, I want to hear more about this. Have you got a publisher?" Like just curiosity at this point. And she said, "No. All I've done is written the text for it." And I said, "I want to publish this through my publishing imprint that I use for my own books," because after that first book with the ABA, and we had a good relationship and I really enjoyed it, but I realized that I wanted to have a lot more control over the final product than-

MARK: 

Yeah.

JEREMY:              

... what is able to be done through a traditional publisher. And so I formed my own publishing company. And so she and I talked about it and she was interested in doing that. And so the book that she wrote is called, Do You Draw Pictures? And it's a picture book for kids who are basically four to eight-years-old, introducing them to what intellectual property is, what are patents and trademarks and copyrights, because there's so much misinformation [crosstalk] in pop culture-

MARK: 

Oh, absolutely.

JEREMY:              

... that she realized there's a need for just a basic introduction into what these things are. And so it uses really fun illustrations to just introduce these ideas, and now we've got more ideas for a whole series of books that she plans to write. And then the illustrator is somebody that she's known for years and years, and they were in a band together back in their 20s and he's a cartoonist. And so we have a whole series of books that we want to do for kids that talk about whether it's contracts or first amendment stuff, or just introducing them to ideas that they are going to engage with as they get older.

MARK: 

What I love about this, and I want to comment on it more here in a little bit, you're an example of something that I have been sharing in terms of a personal story in our podcasts. It's a two-part series right now and I will probably add to it over time. I just refer to it as Listening To Your Life. And there's a lot that I hear happening here that you do very, very well in terms of listening. And so I want to come back to that in a moment. The non-law related book, is this a continuation of the evolution of your writing? I mean, what took you in this direction?

JEREMY:              

The answer to the first part is, I'm not really sure yet, but I have written creatively ever since really I was in high school. I was one of those dark, brooding, angsty teenagers, and so I wrote a lot of poetry back then, and then that kind of fell off in my 20s. And then I didn't write any fictional stuff for a long time. And then a few years ago, I learned about this really messy part of my family history several generations ago that nobody ever talked about, and I thought about it and did some research about it and started writing a novelized form of it that occurs in the 1940s, or I guess in 1940, where my grandfather who grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas, which is a mid-sized town out in about two hours northwest of Dallas.

It was the midst of the depression. There was no jobs, and so he goes to work for one of the Civilian Conservation Corps camps up in Colorado, where a lot of young men who couldn't find work, the government, the Works Progress Administration under Roosevelt was hiring them to build state parks and national parks. And so he goes to do that. While he's gone, his father kills his stepmother and then himself. And it was just... Nobody ever talked about it. I didn't learn it until well into adulthood, but I thought that there could be a historical fiction novel. Like, this is that sort of thing. So I started writing that and it got real heavy and I've kind of laid it by the wayside for almost a year-and-a-half now and haven't touched it. Then I had another idea for a novel that I wrote a quarter of, and that kind of fell off.

But then I just had this dream back in January of 2020 that was really weird. I'll go ahead... The story is, it was me in the dream, certainly, heard a noise in the middle of the night and went outside to check it out. And there were these three guys coming out of the woods from behind my house, and one of them was carrying something in its arms and I couldn't quite tell what it was. And so I told them to stop and they did, and there ended up being an altercation and what they were carrying was this Pegasus, a winged horse.

MARK: 

Right. Right. Yeah.

JEREMY:              

And so, then, they run off and there's this horse laying in my driveway that has wings. And so I take it into the woods to find its mother. And so I had that dream and I wrote all of that down and I had some other ideas that popped up over the next several months and I would write those down. And then in mid August, I figured out, "I can tie all these things together and this can be a novel." So, in August I just started writing and I've been writing almost every single day ever since, writing this story out. And I've just had as much fun doing it as anything else I've ever written, which isn't to say it's been easy. It certainly hasn't, but it's been just really rewarding and fun, and I've just thoroughly enjoyed the process.

And I want to do more fiction writing like it, so we'll see. But I also have more non-fiction stuff that I want to write. My podcast that we've mentioned is called Lawyerpreneur, and it's about lawyers who are doing interesting and innovative things, some within the practice of law, others who are doing it in maybe a legal tech or things that are related to law. And then some people who have gotten out of law altogether and just have their own businesses and are doing interesting things.

That Was a book idea before it was the podcast idea and I knew that I was going to have to do all of these interviews to be able to get what I wanted. I was having a hard time making myself do the interviews because I just don't like reaching out to folks like that. So I thought, "Well, if I start a podcast, I have to do it." And so, here we are. I started it at the end of March, been doing it for about eight months now. I've done over 30 interviews with lawyers, and it's been really interesting and rewarding. And if for no one else, it's certainly been rewarding for me to talk to all of these folks who are just pursuing dreams and ideas that are really... It's really cool.

MARK: 

Let me respond to some of this. I hear all kinds of things that I just underscore why I wanted to spend a little time together. You talk about the writing being hard but very fulfilling, and trying to do the podcast and the difficulty of reaching out. I get that. But to me, I like to say, and I've said this to my kids over the years, life begins once you push beyond your comfort zone. A lot of people don't want to do things because it's too uncomfortable and they never really challenge and grow. And in my mind, life begins the exciting, rewarding stuff when we take those risks. And you're a great example of how you have continued to grow with this. I also like the fact, referring to listeners back to this, listening to your life podcast topic that I've been doing, I also hear that you do, in my mind, as I see it, listen to your life.

You have these things, these opportunities. You're on LinkedIn and you see... Here's an opportunity. I think so many people have these opportunities, whether they're small, large, and they don't even take the time to recognize or think about, "What can I do with this?" And it certainly seems like your practice is, we're successful. That you're a better attorney. I mean, that's what I'm hearing, that you have improved your skillset, lecturing, writing, intake, all these kinds of things. But the big takeaway for me, just spending a little time together, it's circling back to this wellness thing. It seems to me you're a very well-rounded individual and happier and healthier as a result of pursuing these other interests. It's a full life.

I have worked with so many lawyers over the years, literally. I've worked literally with thousands of lawyers, but the number of them that do nothing other than just focus on law and never have what I would call a full life. The excuse I hear at times, they'll say, "Law is a jealous mistress," and that becomes a limiting thing. So, to those of you listening out there, I love Jeremy's story and it seems like, Jeremy, there's so many exciting things ahead of you. I'm excited to see where all this goes. Before I sign us off on this, do you have any final thoughts? Anything else you'd like to share? And I'll just give you a minute. I mean...

JEREMY:     

Yes, sure. Something I thought of while you were talking there, is that all of this is a choice. If you want to pursue other things and have a more fulfilling life than just work, you have to make the choice, but then you have to continue making the choice.

MARK: 

Exactly.

JEREMY:               

All my writing, I have done basically between the hours of 5:00 AM and 6:30 every day. And that's when I could make the time to fit it, because it's not going to just happen. You're not going to have the time. If you don't choose it every day, then it's not going to be there. And so whether it's hobbies that you've put to the side, or whether it's something else that you want to pursue and see what you can create, you've got to make a conscious decision and continue to make it to cause those things to happen.

MARK: 

Yeah. Yeah. Very, very good. Well, it's been a pleasure. To all of you listening, again, I hope you found something of value today listening to Jeremy's story. I want to leave you with the thought again, because I so firmly believe it. Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone. You'll take risks, folks. It's worth it. I really believe that deeply.

So, again, thanks for joining us. If you have additional topics or some feedback, questions, concerns on risk management, ethics, you don't have to be an ALPS insured to visit with me. Please don't hesitate to reach out. My email address is mbass, M-B-A-S-S, @alpsinsurance.com. Thanks for listening folks. And again, Jeremy, it indeed has been a pleasure and I look forward to seeing what other things come out. I want to take a look at that non-lawyer book when it's published. That sounds quite interesting, so, thanks again.

JEREMY:             

Well, thanks so much for having me on.

 

ALPS In Brief – Episode 52: Listening to Your Life Part 2

ALPS In Brief – Episode 52: Listening to Your Life Part 2

November 12, 2020

As Mark alluded to in Part 1 of Listening to Your Life, the journey isn’t over. Mark recaps the lessons learned over a season of cycling, exceeding his distance goals, challenges he faced head-on (including 25 mph headwinds), and how listening to your life is a continuous trek that can help you be a more balanced lawyer.

Transcript: 

Mark:                   

Hello, welcome to ALPS In Brief, the podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. I'm Mark Bassingthwaighte, the risk manager with ALPS, and today I'm going to do a little follow-up. For those of you that are regular listeners, I believe it was back in May I recorded a podcast that I called Listening To Your Life. We explored some bike riding and learning to listen to your life, as opposed to learning to listen as a communication skill. I set some goals at that time and shared some stories, and I thought it would be fun to kind of share how it all played out, what the end is if you will.

So if you missed the first part, the beginning of the story let me bring you up to speed. The short version is that I had been interested in bikes and have ridden on and off over the years, particularly during the college years. And then, oh, maybe the past four or five years getting back into it. And this year in light of the lockdown with the pandemic, my wife challenged me to start riding a bit more. It was sort of an informal bet. You know, "I'll bet you can't do a thousand miles" kind of a thing in terms of just riding outside through the summer.

So I took that on and I really got started doing some good riding and she realized, "Hey, he's taking it more seriously than I thought." It wasn't a competition kind of thing, "Oh, I have to prove her wrong," or anything like that. It was just I enjoyed riding and why not? Instead of being locked up here at home the time, let's go and get out and enjoy some sun and some fresh air. So she upped it to 1200 by the end of the riding season. And I really had in my mind that I was going to try to go about 1500 miles.

So where did I end up? Well, I kind of officially called the end of the season the end of September. And I ended up at the 2100 miles. So not bad, again, for a 60-year-old who wasn't in the best, I wasn't out of shape, but let's just say my riding legs weren't there. And boy, it took some time to build up. But I did. And winter has started to hit here in Missoula, in Montana. And there's been a lot of time since that I've not been able to get out, but I'm still riding when the roads are safe and the weather's nice.

So it's been good. And let me share some of the things that happened. And then we'll get back to talking about some learning with all of this. But I had my high month, in terms of just number of miles in a given month, turned out to be 503 miles in one month. My longest ride, in fact, that same month, my three longest rides ever in terms of my life, not just this summer. I did a 54 mile, a 64 mile, and a 70-mile ride. Those were good days. Good days.

So I had one experience where, coming down a trail that I ride rather frequently, and you could see some cop cars and people gathering and all this. And it happened to be at a place where you cross a fairly major city street that cuts through a big park and I'm going, "Uh-oh, what's going on here?" Pull up and it was a bike/car accident and the windshield totally, totally smashed. And you just look and you say, "You know, this really, really isn't good." It would have had to be an adult, just given the size, or perhaps a young adult, but given the size of the bike and just to be high enough to go through a windshield like this. I mean, to go all the way through. It was not pretty.

We had, I don't know if it was due to fires, global warming just sometimes weather is weather. We had a lot more wind this year here in Montana, at least in our part of Montana. And so there was a lot of time where I spent riding in some wind. I've had a couple of days where you'd go out on these longer rides. I'll start out and I'm looking on the weather app and do I really want to go do this? And yeah, I do, but I can see some winds are coming. But you get out and sometimes you start so you have the wind at your back. You don't always notice and, "Boy, you're riding great."

But once you get out, and I've been out at times pretty far, and man, do the winds pick up. I remember one ride where I struggled keeping my bike upright in crosswinds. I mean, it almost really just wants to knock you over. So these are winds that are fairly steady in that maybe 20-mile-an-hour range, gusting 25, maybe a little bit higher. And you have wind like that for the next two hours as you kind of work your way back home. I'd be sitting there riding along going, "Oh, man, this is nuts. This is crazy." And then I'd go out and do it again the next week. It's just like, "Okay."

But it is what it is. I did at one point, I had a bit of a scare. I was riding somewhat quickly on a trail. But I'm comfortable riding at certain speeds and it's not too bad. Bu you're kind of coming down a hill and into a little tunnel that goes under a road. And coming into that probably a little faster than I should to be honest with you. There's another guy on a bike coming out and he's going at a decent clip and, man, you just hit the brakes. You go into a slide and I can just feel it, like I'm about to go down and just slam this bike into the corner of a wall, and it would not be good.

But you manage. I don't know how. You just stay with it. And I managed to keep the bike up and kind of did this slide into the tunnel and just kept going and think, "Woo. That was a close one." I've had dogs chase me probably three or four times all told for the summer. And that gets kind of interesting.

My wife was so supportive and encouraging and pleased as we got into this. She again saw that I was riding, decided let's go shopping. Just due to the commitment, she's like, "I want you to have, just better equipment." So I added a second bike. I still have my original bike because it's just set up for different types of weather and sometimes you have a flat or something. And I can keep two on the road. But the new bike is really a much more comfortable ride, a much more serious ride. It's just been great. So,that was kind of an unexpected little surprise. And I'll share more about that here in a little bit.

I got into using a riding app to really try to more seriously, more accurately perhaps is a better word, keep track of my mileage. And after I started using the app for a bit, I realized that I was seriously underestimating my mileage. So I guess that was a good thing. But there were times when you'd go out, you'd spend a lot of time riding, you stop and take a look at the app, how you're doing. And yeah, I had it at the time saying, I know I've ridden maybe 20, 25 miles so far. And it'll say, I've rid to 62. And my top speed was 125 miles an hour. I mean, I could ride fast at times and there's some nice hills where you can get some real nice speed, but I assure you, it's not 125 miles an hour. I mean, you get frustrated with this and "Ah, you know, this is cheap doesn't work."

And then I finally realized out here in the West, a lot of smoke from California, Oregon, even Washington, and some Montana from all these fires, we just had a lot of heavy, heavy smoke. And I finally realized, you know what, these apps that track your location, if they're going to give you an accurate thing, they need to triangulate with several satellites at any given time to keep an accurate position of where you're going and do all these calculations and with the smoke that heavy, you just can't triangulate accurately with enough satellites. And that's the issue. I was like, "Ah, I figured that out. Okay." And then you just feel better about it, I guess. So what else do I want to share?

I think that's mostly sort of the summary. I can say I talked earlier about one of the reasons I was enjoying this and excited about it was some health benefits. And boy, now that I'm on this side of it, the season has more or less come to an end. We've been following my blood pressure and I'll be honest and say again, this is not that uncommon in folks my age, my blood pressure has been ever so slowly creeping up a bit. Boy, it went down 20 points and I am just nailing it consistently. So that's been kind of a good outcome to all of this. So that's sort of the summary, just giving you a little idea of the results of how this all played.

And with that, I want to sort of revisit some things, some little learnings, some are about just good to know kinds of things for riding. Others, maybe there are whispers as I ended my last podcast when Listening To Your Life With. Some of these things are whispers, some are a bit more significant. So, again, let's talk a little bit about what does this experience, what can I learn? What is worth really taking to heart? And I think there are number of things big and small. Before I share the first one, my wife and I are members of a local gym club kind of thing, health club too. And I have really always been more interested in weightlifting and I was in pretty decent shape. I was pretty strong and I think I looked good. At least that's what my wife shared, God bless her, isn't that the goal.

But once the gym shut down and things you kind of shift. And so I was doing a lot more bike riding and a lot less lifting. And so the point of that is I got weaker and gyms are reopened now. And I have finally been able to get some weights here at the house to and it's if we continue our slim lockdowns coming up again, I'm ready for it. And boy trying to get weights and find weights on the market for a few months. If any of you ever looked at that is almost impossible, because all the gyms closed, everybody had bought everything up, but what have I learned? It's really difficult to get into shape in terms of the cardiovascular shape to get the biking legs.

It hurts. There are a lot of times where it hurts and just to keep pushing, but once you get there, wow. And then not lifting for a while and getting back into it you realize, "Ooh, I'm going to have to go through some pain again." Now that's okay, but one of the takeaways here is, it's really hard work to get into shape. It's much easier to maintain once you are in shape. And so you can look that and say that's a great insight and worth remembering for health and whatnot, but I think it goes further. I really do. You think about how hard it is to start a law practice, how hard it is to develop a good reputation as a lawyer, as an individual in the community.

And it's so easy to lose and just let it go if we get complacent, if we just get comfortable and don't keep working at it, it's far easier to just stay in shape. So I guess I want to say, if you find something working in life, stay focused, stay with it. You don't want to have to build a business, our reputation two or three times, that's just wasted energy if you ask me. So, that's something to think about. I talked a little bit about this ride app and my frustration with it, and we try to buy these things that are going to make life easier in some way, and we get frustrated if it doesn't work like we expect, and it's so easy to just dismiss it and want something else to get upset.

And again, there's wasted energy. I don't need to get frustrated and upset by anything that doesn't serve anyone. But I really think I just need to take a little time and understand what are the realistic limitations of this app. And once you start to think through it, you go, "Oh, of course." And so, take time when we bring new technologies in, when we look at new processes or procedures in our practices or in our life, in any aspect of our life, there's value I should say, in taking the time to understand realistically, what can this do and what are its limitations. So that you have an understanding and then can address any shortfalls in other ways, or perhaps look for better solutions, if the initial evaluation is such that, "Ah, this really doesn't meet all my needs."

I had that great month and I initially would have said, I don't think one, just time, but two that I have the physical wherewithal to ride this 54, 64 and 70 mile ride or those rides. And also in that same month, hit over 500 miles, I'm still working full time, doing all the other things in life that I need to do or choose to do, but I did. And what I learned is, typically after the 70 mile ride, I admit, hey, I was tired. I was beat. And you get to a point where you're just moving. I wouldn't call it enjoyable in the sense of, "Oh, this is a beautiful bike ride and a wonderful afternoon."

It's hard work. It is hard work, but you realize I am capable of more than I thought and had I had time that day. And I ran out of time just for other obligations. I know, I am absolutely certain, I do a hundred miles, probably even a bit more. And I guess the point of this is looking at all aspects of my life, and I encourage you to think about your life as well. I think these learnings are good and valuable. We are capable of more than we think, but we have to take the risk to push it, to get uncomfortable a little bit to just explore what are you truly capable of? And the answer might surprise you. I really have been surprised by this. It's given me hope in all kinds of crazy ways.

I mean, maybe it's this pandemic thing going on here or something too. I feel like my life is something that I am in control of, and I'm going to continue to work hard at staying in shape and maintaining wellness and health. I feel better. And I think I can continue to do this well into my eighties. In fact, it was two months ago or so I heard a wonderful news story because you don't get often, you don't hear often these feel good stories in the news anymore, but a man in his nineties, I don't know. He may have just turned 90. I can't remember exactly what age, I know it was 90, but he was celebrating with a bunch of friends, the fact that he has now ridden 100,000 miles on a bike and I'm just sitting here going, "That's totally awesome!"

And at the same time going, "Ah, I just rode 2100 hours." And that's a lot. But instead of sitting here and going, "Oh man, I'll never be able to do that", I celebrate, here's a guy that did. And whether I ever get there or not, and I don't know how long it took him to ride these 100,000 miles, they don't share that in the story, but it doesn't matter. He was capable of doing it and he's still riding nine miles a day, maybe stationary bike at the senior center, I have no idea but God bless him. And I take such hope in that. Use bright lights, wear bright clothes. It sort of goes back to the helmet story that I was talking about or reasons we wear a helmet.

But yeah, very, very important. I want to make sure that I stand out in whatever space I am in. If I'm in dark clothing and no lights on my bike and I'm in some shade, coming into a tunnel or whatever it might be, and not be very visible, bad things happen. So I have really come to value, trying to stand out, a lot of good things can happen just by virtue of trying to stand out and differentiate yourself from your surroundings. So I'm going to let you ride with that one. There's a pun perhaps, or run with that one. Always carry water. I often sometimes carry a protein drink with me, and on a longer ride, hey, always stick a Snickers in the little pack that I have under my seat, because you need, every once in a while after a big climb or you're 50 miles in, you need a little glucose to keep moving and boy, you need to stay hydrated. So you need to nourish yourself.

Whatever that means. It gets back to sort of this wellness thing. We need to stay nourished, to be at our best. And at times just to continue in the journey. So, food for the soul, nourish, again, whatever that means, you need to focus on that, you're not going to get there otherwise, that really can be the make or break. I shared two again, of that almost had a crash situation, but there's another takeaway from that one. I talked about staying alert in part one of this. And I will tell you, after all these miles now, I certainly absolutely value staying alert, but you get so comfortable. It's harder to do over time. You get so comfortable in the ride. You get so comfortable in the speed.

Sometimes you just take shortcuts and I'm talking about safety shortcuts, danger. We need to stay sharp as lawyers, we need to stay alert and that's hard. So learning there in terms of tying this back to law and things, there is value in taking relevant CLE. There is value in doing all that you can, if we can get back to wellness, there's so many ways to come at this, but we need to do what we can. All that we can to keep sharp and stay alert throughout the entire journey. Journey after journey, after journey, because trouble can come up so fast in such unexpected ways when we least expect it. And when we're so comfortable, then Holy smokes, I'm about to hit a wall. It's just but the grace of God that I pulled through that one, a close call, but it was a reminder to me.

It was a slap in the head, "Hey, don't get cocky, stay alert." It's important. So, two other things I want to point out near the end of this. I had an interesting ride and one of these windy, Fall days, Winter is coming quickly it's in the air. And I get a lot of wind, not a lot of people out. And I'm climbing up this hill to the airport and for a long, this was about a 50 mile ride. And I see somebody carrying a bike as I'm peddling up and I get close and I realized, it's a kid maybe 12, 13 years old. And he's got a nice bike. And he's obviously somebody that enjoys the riding seriously. And I stopped. I say, "You have a flat."

And he goes, "Yeah, yeah, I do." And I had some things with me, I said, "I'm happy to try to help you. I should be able to fix this or at least give it a shot", and everything. He goes "Well, thank you so much", but he had about half a mile to walk with his bike here yet, but he said, "My mom is on the way to pick me up and I just need to be there." I mean, I can't fix this tire in five minutes or something and decide, he said, "Appreciate it." And he went on and then he stopped and he turned and he goes, "Oh, by the way, don't ride off the trail. There's thorns." And I kind of smiled. And I said, "Thanks for the tip, I appreciate that."

And I do ride at times off the trails. Sometimes you even just passing families and whatnot, you just go off the grass, just so you don't disturb people and just say, "It's fine." But here was some kid sharing a very innocent and learning and insight that he had with some adult that just happened to stumble by, but we're kindred spirits in the sense we both enjoy riding. And that really was significant for me because at times you get really great advice, that you haven't thought about, from the most unexpected places. Learn to listen. So that to me was very, very important. The final thing I'd like to share is, Oh, it's been maybe two or three weeks now, something like that. But one particular day, my wife was very concerned that a package was coming in and would I be here?

Cause she couldn't be just due to work to pick it up or to be here because she was concerned about it being left outside or something. And I said, "Oh, sure." I was here. I telecommute. So I'm often around the house, okay. And then I'm getting these texts, because I was actually doing a webinar and, "It's here, it's here go check." And I said, "Honey, I'll get it when I'm done. So I go down and there's this huge heavy package. It turns out she had purchased in celebration and encouragement, a nice indoor bike that comes with these apps that you have coaches and you can really get fantastic workouts. I'm telling you, man, I I've done a couple of rides on this and wow. You can really, really keep it going.

And she just said, "It's a gift, a free gift, no strings attached" kind of a thing. And a very thoughtful of her, very appreciative, we are both going to be using it, but that cemented, I think the biggest learning of this entire experience and it kind of plays out in two ways. I shared again at the beginning of the first episode that I have been so blessed to marry my absolute best friend and we're married now 20 years and she is more of a friend than ever. And she is a support system, obviously a significant support system.

And why I think that's important is, I have learned to listen to her and this experience underscores that in Spades. Mark, I challenge you to do this. I mean, that's what was said, and we had some fun, but her support is, it's your health. I want you to be here for a long time. I want another 20, 30, 40 years and 40 years will take us to a hundred. And I'm okay with that. I hope we're still sane and we probably won't be riding like this, who knows? But learn to listen to your support systems. Sometimes the things they say are really, really worth taking to heart. Working crazy hours and never taking a vacation as a solo practitioner or something and your wife or your spouse says to you, or significant other says to you, "You know, I'm concerned about your health."

You need to slow down or we need to take a vacation. Listen. They know what they're talking about. They see and care about us. So, your spouse, your significant other cares about you. Listen, listen. Every bit as important, is nurturing the relationship. I want this support system that has proved over and over again to be so valuable in my life. And it brought such meaning to my life. I want to nurture that so that it is always there. And I do everything I can to reciprocate, to be her support system. I want to always be there for her. And it gets back to about wellness, which is such an issue in our profession. This whole experience this summer just underscored how vitally important listening to your support systems and nourishing your support systems are.

And that is the one biggest takeaway for me. I sit back and I go, "Wow. Now here is a message that I simply cannot ignore." It's just phenomenal. So fundamentally important. So, rambling on here about all kinds of things. Honestly, I could keep going. We could talk about wind and dogs and all sorts of stuff, but I don't think it's necessary. I just wanted to share how it all played out and share a few more insights. So I'm going to wrap it up and leave it at that. I hope you found something of value out of my journey that I've shared with you.

And I just will close by encouraging you not only to listen and nurture your support systems, nourish yourself, all these other things we've been talking about. But I think one of the important things for me, why did I want to do this in terms of this two part series? I really do believe if we learn to listen to what life has to say, both the strong messages and the whispers that come, we are all better for the experience. There's so much teaching that life brings every day. We just need to remember to take the time to listen and then to chew on it a little bit. So that's it. Thanks for listening. I hope you found something of value again. God bless, take care. We'll talk to you next time. Bye. Bye.

 

ALPS In Brief — Episode 51: You can’t spell DIVORCE without COVID

ALPS In Brief — Episode 51: You can’t spell DIVORCE without COVID

September 30, 2020

It’s no secret that society has seen an uptick in divorces since the start of the pandemic, but there have also been some silver linings in this unlikely space. Katie Mazurek is a Bozeman, Montana-based attorney with Element Law Group. Focusing on family law, Katie brings a different approach to the way she guides clients through the divorce process. In fact, she recently co-authored a book called, Divorce Better Together, with a former client who helped shape a more collaborative, team approach that is now leveraging technology like Zoom to facilitate her work. Mark was able to sit down with Katie to talk about her approach, her book and how her practice has evolved to help clients discover a healthier way through this often messy process.

 

Transcript: 

MARK BASSINGTHWAIGHTE:

Hello, I'm Mark Bassingthwaighte, the Risk Manager with Alps. Welcome to Alps In Brief, the podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence Building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. And I'm excited about today's podcast. I have someone that some other folks at Alps had the pleasure of meeting in person and was so impressed. They said, "Mark, we've got to reach out and have some discussions here for the podcast." And I absolutely agreed. Today I have with me, Katie Mazurek, and I believe Katie you're practicing in Bozeman. Is that correct?

KATIE MAZUREK: 

Yes. I practice in Bozeman and we have offices in Helena as well.

MARK:

Okay. Very good. When I first sort of reached out and looked a little bit about what you do and who you are, I was struck by the name of your law firm. Well, actually, before we get to that, let's take just a few moments, and can you share a little bit about yourself to our listeners? What do you feel is important that they know about you?

KATIE:

Well, thank you so much for having me today. I'm really excited to be able to talk with you. I think one of the things that's really important for people to understand about me is that I am a person who really understands pain. I've been through some significant things, including my parents divorced when I was 15, a cancer diagnosis when I was 33, when I had two kids, and right, actually when I started Element.

KATIE:

And so my whole kind of purpose in life is to help people through their suffering. And so that's probably what I'd want people to understand the most, because I know that interfacing with a lawyer can be really scary and really overwhelming and really foreign. And I would hope that if people can see me as just another human who understands what they're going through, that that makes them feel a lot more comfortable and normalizes their pain a little bit.

MARK:

And may me ask you, I know that at least the bulk of what you do, if I'm understanding correctly is divorce work, but are there other practice areas? Or are you exclusively in the divorce space?

KATIE:

We're primarily in the family law space. So divorce, custody parenting. We obviously help, if our clients come to us and they're comfortable with us and they want us to help with the business or something like that, some minor estate planning, we do those things as well.

MARK:

Okay. Very good. And again, I was struck about the name of your group, Element Law Group. I suspect there's a story here. I'd love to hear it.

KATIE:

So Element came about, when I created the firm, I wanted our clients to have a very different experience than the typical. And what felt at the time was pretty antiquated law centric, law firm experience. I wanted this to be really based on the family and the individual. And so that the term element came from the idea that we're all made of the same basic things. On an elemental level, who are we? Well we're people who need love and care and support and guidance. And so the name Element came out and I think it identifies or signifies, who we are pretty well.

MARK:

I love that. That really speaks to me too. That is just very cool. I think that's awesome.

KATIE:

Thank you.

MARK:

Can we take a moment, in my... We are living in really unusual times, there's discussions in terms of COVID and all of this happening, geopolitically all over the world here. And in other words, it's not just COVID, but these 2020 is a crazy time. And there are some descriptions of looking at this as sort of, we're entering a new normal, and I'm not one that buys into that. I think what we're going through is a period of rapid change, dramatic change, but change is always present. But we are in a crazy time where change is just, wow. When I think about the divorce space, the family law space, are you finding that these times... Is that changing? Are the needs of your clients... How would you describe what's happening from your perspective?

KATIE:

Sadly, there's been a big uptake in our business, and we've all talked a lot about what the causes and the factors would be that have caused this real surge. And to the best of our guessing, we think it's this stress and the uncertainty and the fear. And it's just kind of in a weak relationship, it's created the pressure point that's broken the system. But interestingly, it's also, I think, a bigger conversation about what's happened to the practice of law with this COVID and having to adapt. And I think it's, in some ways can be looked at as a really exciting time because it's forcing the law and practitioners to come into the modern era as far as how we're practicing and how we're interfacing with each other. And that's something that Element has been pushing for a long time is to say, "Look, there's all these technological pieces that can make our lives easier and should make our lives easier." And I'm kind of excited to see that happening on the larger scale.

MARK:

I know you have written a book, I believe it's called, Divorce Better Together, and you coauthored this, is this with your partner?

KATIE:

This is with a former client of mine.

MARK:

Oh, really?

KATIE:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Rob Irizarry.

MARK:

Wow. How did this come about?

KATIE:

Well, Rob started as a client in the collaborative process and for people who are the uninitiated, the collaborative process is a team approach to a divorce. We use two lawyers, a neutral mental health person and a neutral financial person. And that creates a professional team that helps a married couple divorce in a more amicable, fully supported way.

KATIE:

So Rob was my client in a collaborative setting. And unfortunately he was actually... He says he was my first failure. He and his wife fell out of the collaborative process pretty early on. And so he was pushed into the litigation path and his experience there and mirrors my experience with the compare, contrast the litigation world with the collaborative world. And he felt very passionately about the importance of collaborative and the value of collaborative. And he and I struck up a friendship and have been very close friends ever since, and he wants to change the world like I do. And so we coauthored this book.

MARK:

Is the book somewhat of a description of how you practice in your space? Is it a guide book of where you'd like to see the law go? Can you fill me in a little bit more about?

KATIE:

Sure. It's a very short, easy read and the intent is just to get collaborative in the minds of people who are starting to contemplate which divorce process is right for them. So it really is the personal stories. Rob's personal story of being in the collaborative process and then litigation and my personal story of watching my parents really suffer through a nasty litigated divorce and what that did to my family. And then now as a practitioner practicing collaborative. So it does explain the process. It's definitely informational, but it's also meant to connect with the reader on that kind of emotional journey and experience of divorce.

MARK:

I liked what you were talking about in terms of looking at COVID and seeing this in so many ways as an opportunity, are you finding, first courts are closed, is this an opportunity to really accelerate the collaborative process? Are you able to do more of this? Can we sort of flesh out what's happening?

KATIE:

Oh, sure. I think the collaborative process is always going to... It's so flexible and it can adapt to whatever situation that we need. And what we have found is really interesting is that the collaborative sessions that are held through Zoom or whatever video conferencing platform, they're really great. Because there's the side channels and things that the practitioners can type to each other privately, I can type to my client privately. And so I wouldn't say that necessarily in terms of volume or anything, we still have the access that we need on the litigation front to the courts, but the whole drive of collaborative is to put the divorce process in the family's hands. And certainly these times are a call to action for families to really embrace that opportunity where it exists.

MARK:

Yeah. Yeah. Do you find... I can appreciate, and I really need to go pick up your book and by the way, I believe it's available... Just to, if others are interested on Amazon? Or it's not?

KATIE:

Amazon. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

MARK:

Yes. And I just want to be clear for everybody Divorce Better Together. And it's by Katie Mazurek. And I'm sorry, the name of your coauthor again?

KATIE:

Rob Irizarry.

MARK:

Rob Irizarry. So folks, just to let you know it's out there. Do you find... I'll go back and say, my wife and I we're both second marriages. So we've been through the process. My wife's divorce was a litigated divorce that went all the way to the State Supreme Court. And it was just one of these crazy [crosstalk 00:00:11:17], horrible kinds of things. Mine was more of a... We didn't use the collaborative process, but we did sit down between the two of us and really work through most of the issues.

MARK:

And honestly just had one lawyer between the two of us, be mostly a scrivener, we stayed in the ethical bounds, to put it that way, say the lawyer that assisted us. And I think we divorced well. I would say post-divorce, there were some issues that I think a collaborative process might've helped us avoid, but I share all that because what I'm curious about is, is part of what you're trying to accomplish with the book... Are you writing to lawyers or you're writing to people? You see where I'm going? Is the challenge here to create awareness and appreciation of the collaborative process to the clients? Are we trying to sell this process, you see?

KATIE:

We're trying to educate people, families really. So parents and married couples that this process is available and that this process is available at any point in your journey. And so, like in your case, if there were... Did you have children?

MARK:

Yes. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

KATIE:

Okay. [crosstalk 00:12:58]. And maybe I don't mean to pry.

MARK:

No, it's fine.

KATIE:

So it could be, we see people who have gone through the litigated process and then they have these children whose needs inevitably change. And the dynamic inevitably changes. And we have new parties coming on as significant others and things like that. And so they can adopt the collaborative process after a divorce and just get the support they need around some of these bigger decisions or even smaller decisions. But really what it comes down to, and I think most relationships come down to this, is communication. And so you have a team that can help facilitate and model healthy communication. And then also give you good information to make better decisions.

MARK:

Do you find most people when they have an opportunity to learn a bit about this process and what you were doing, are they pretty receptive? Are you pretty successful moving people in this direction? Are you finding some resistance to it? Does it work better for some and not others?

KATIE:

So the collaborative process was started in Minnesota about 28, 29 years ago. In 2013, two practitioners, myself included, went to Arizona to get trained in this. And since then, we've cultivated the collaborative community here in Montana. And now there's collaborative practitioners all over the state. And what I've noticed since bringing it here way back in 2013 is that collaborative is the answer that clients were already for, but didn't know existed.

KATIE:

And to further answer your question, absolutely, there are people that are better suited for collaborative cases than others. But I don't want to kind of perpetuate a misconception, which is that couples who are high conflict or when there's difficult issues in a case that they're not appropriate for collaborative somehow, that's been proven false repeatedly. Really what it comes down to in my experience is the strength and experience level of the team that is helping the family get through this.

MARK:

So it seems what I'm hearing is, part of what's going on here and part of your interest initially, it's the collaborative process is going to be less painful, more positive, better outcomes. So you started, you want to try to help people through pain. And a divorce process is certainly a painful process. I've never seen a situation that was just roses all the way through. Do you find as a practitioner using this process, comparing yourself to the traditional divorce lawyer that does a lot of litigation, is there a wellness component to this is? Would you encourage other lawyers... Because to me, I like how you've described some of this and looking even now in the midst of just this global pandemic, looking at an opportunity, and I think that's such an incredible way to move forward through any change. Always looking... We can't change what has happened. All we can do is define ourselves by how we respond to it. But with courts being closed, is there a message here? Would you have a message to other practitioners and say, "Look, this can create less pain for you as a practitioner too. And your wellness can help others." I'm I understanding this correctly?

KATIE:

Well, I think so. I struggled a lot when I started with litigating family law cases, because what's a win in a family law case. Is it a dollar award? Is it more time with the child? It's really kind of a, almost a [inaudible 00:17:46] concept to think about it, when you're talking about human life. And so I really struggled with like, "What am I doing here? What value am I bringing? What is the long-term outcome for these families? When I've just put on this testimony, that's just biting and terrible towards another party. This is what we have to do or I feel what you have to do."

KATIE:

And so the collaborative practice is the hardest work I've ever done, but it is far and away, the best I've ever felt about something that I'm putting forward in the world. When you go to these conferences, you see mostly practitioners in their 50s and 60s. And the reason for that is they just got to a point where they couldn't do the litigation, the burden of litigation, the toxicity of litigation. And so they had to do something different. And I want to be clear. It's very hard work. It's very hard work. Because at least with litigation, you can say, "Hey, that's not what the court's going to consider. We're not going to talk about that. I'm sorry that happened to you." And kind of have the appropriate amount of empathy, but move the case forward because you're working within that strict legal lens.

MARK:

Exactly.

KATIE:

And then the collaborative process it's, the law is just a framework and what the family builds within that is completely up to them. And so I kind of, the analogy I use is, look, the law, the framework is going to say, "You need to build a car. And that car has to have four wheels, an engine and steering wheel." And whether you build a porch or a dump truck, that's up to you. And so that kind of freedom for us practitioners who are used to being in these really tight roles that can be really uncomfortable for us. And that's why we have a team.

MARK:

And so what drives the... You say this is the hardest you've ever worked. It's clear just, the audience is just listening, but we're viewing each other here and you're very passionate about this. It seems to be very fulfilling to you, very important, but what is the challenge here? Why is this so hard? Is it trying to keep people invested in the process? Is it the emotions of all that's going on? Is it crazy tangential issues that the traditional path isn't necessarily going to deal with? Why is this such a challenge? And challenge have to be a bad thing, this is what I'm trying to get across to our listeners here. But why is this so hard?

KATIE:

Well, you're taking two people who are in conflict and you're asking them to listen to each other, to meaningfully listen to each other and to communicate better. And that is exceptionally hard. People come into the divorce process with a feeling of scarcity, of, "Oh my goodness, I'm losing, I'm changing." We took one whole, and we're making it into two, which is never as much as half. If that makes sense.

MARK:

Yes. It does. It does.

KATIE:

Right? So because you lose the economy of efficiency and going into two households and things like that. So a real scarcity mindset, and it's very hard to get positive work out of people who are rotating around the access of fear and not enough and uncertainty and, "What's going to happen to me?" And so in the collaborative space, we really meet them in that scarcity feeling, whereas in a litigation setting, I can just say, "Ah, I know that that thing happened to you, and I'm so sorry, but that's not on the view or the horizon for the court."

MARK:

Right. Right.

KATIE:

And so we make space for all of that in the collaborative model, and that's what's kind of messy and hard. And when you're trying to help people move forward through that, it's a lot.

MARK:

So how do you stay sane?

KATIE:

Right. That's such a good question. Well, we lean on the mental health professional quite a bit, and who helps us understand like, okay, this is in your box and this isn't. Part of the really hard thing about collaborative is that I feel like I'm invested in the family and in a much different way than I am in litigation, just by virtue of the differences of the process. And so I guess I'm still working on that, with every single case it's different and I'm still figuring it out. But it's always been worth the effort, the outcomes are really incredible.

MARK:

Yeah. Yeah. I want to be very respectful of your time here and appreciate the chat we've had. I don't mean to put you on the spot and I think you're up for this. We have, obviously, the listening base here are all legal professionals. I'd ask for two comments maybe, in terms of closing comments. One would be, what would you have to say to encourage lawyers that are more focused on the traditional litigated model? What would you say to them, say, be open to this? Why should they move in this direction, at least at times? And then the other piece, or the second half of this would be, there are lots of lawyers, because not all clients are to want to do this. So still need to stay in the litigated space. Are there learnings or takeaways from your experience in the collaborative space that might be beneficial to help if you jump back into the litigated space. And any other closing comments you'd have, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on those two sides.

KATIE:

The most important lesson that I've learned about working alongside the traditional litigated attorneys is to have a relationship and try to have an understanding between the two very different practices. So my first part of that would be an invitation that, if you're a litigator and you're listening to this and you're thinking, "Oh, that is never something I would do." That's fine. The world absolutely needs really strong litigators who are responsible-

MARK:

Absolutely.

KATIE:

... in handling families. But also let's go to coffee and let's talk about what I do so that we can compliment one another. But for the practitioners who are thinking about, who see litigation, the issues with litigation, and maybe have some heartache of their own about how they're practicing, the collaborative doors is always open and you can get trained relatively inexpensively and join a practice group and try it out. And maybe it's for you, maybe it's not, but it's still a great way. You're going to get some [inaudible 00:26:06]. You're going to get some really great information.

KATIE:

It's going to challenge your worldview, which kind of goes to your second point, which is we address these family law cases in a very lawyer centric, law centric way. And what I've really learned is one, active listening. I've learned to ask more questions and dive deeper into the answers. And I am shocked at how much more I've learned and repeatedly have used that skill in my litigation practice, because the last thing any of us wants is to get up in front of a judge and be in the middle of a hearing or a trial and get caught flat footed. And when we make that investment and time and energy into our clients, I think it yields a better outcome and a better experience for them overall.

KATIE:

So I would say that that's kind of the compliment between the two worlds and I don't see them as completely divergent and separate and apart, I see them as working together and kind of the left hand and the right hand.

MARK:

Yeah. Yeah. I love that. And your comment of active listening really strikes a chord with me. I think at times it's too easy, regardless of what sandbox we're in, as lawyers in terms of practice. Just to, this is how it's always been done. We think we know what's right. We think we understand what people want. There's a lot of assumptions. When I was practicing, there was involved in situation where I really thought it was all about the money. We had to get the most amount of money. And when I finally learned it had nothing to do with the money at all, because I wasn't listening, the matter resolved very, very quickly, and it was a great outcome for everybody involved. So I simply want to underscore that and thank you for saying it that, let's put aside at times some of our assumptions and really take the time to understand and listen, what is the need of the client? And we are here, we are in someone else's employ.

KATIE:

Right. At service.

MARK:

Exactly, and thank you for that. That's sums it up perfectly. And we are in service of others. And we can't forget that. We need to be an advocate at times. And sometimes in the litigation space, very, very strong advocates. There are situations where people need that because they can't advocate for themselves. But that doesn't mean that we get a pass on just really trying to understand who is this person, how do I best serve them? So I've just tried to summarize some things that I'm taking away from this conversation.

KATIE:

Sure. [crosstalk 00:00:29:01].

MARK:

And I think it's, I'm thrilled to see that you have taken such a role. And a lead position here in Montana to try to really expand and bring this new, or a slightly different, less adversarial model into Montana. Thank you for very much. I just think that you're doing some wonderful, wonderful work. Do you have any final closing thought that you'd like to share?

KATIE:

Oh my goodness. Well obviously thank you so much for having me. If there are attorneys or other professionals, even clients, potential clients listening to this. If you have questions or you want to have a conversation about this, my contact information is easy to define, that's elementlaw group.com.

MARK:

Yeah. Yeah. elementlawgroup, one word, elementlawgroup.com. So there you go. And I invite folks to go out and take a look at the website and go take a look at the book. Well, again, Katie, thank you very much.

KATIE:

Thank you.

MARK:

For those of you listening, I hope you found something of value today, and it's always a pleasure to take a little time and visit. So if there's anything else you'd like in terms of topics, questions, concerns, you do not need to be an Alps insurer to reach out to me, feel free at any time. My email is mbass@alpsinsurance.com. mbass@alpsinsurance.com. Happy to help in anything at any time. If there's ever anything I can do for you. So thanks for listening again, folks. You all have a great day. Stay safe. Stay well. Stay connected. Bye-bye.

 

 

Podbean App

Play this podcast on Podbean App