The ALPS In Brief Podcast
ALPS In Brief — Episode 50: Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures

ALPS In Brief — Episode 50: Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures

August 19, 2020

Over the 3 years following this global recession spurred by COVID-19, we’ll see a spike in bankruptcies, business dealings gone south, divorces, and all kinds of other unfortunate situations that may result in lawsuits. Those parties may turn around to blame their lawyers. Plus, lawyers and their staff are more likely to make mistakes right now in these high stress times. So, how do we brace for impact? Communication and kindness may be the best medicine. ALPS Underwriting Manager Leah Gooley and Mark Bassingthwaighte discuss their concerns, thoughts, and practice tips to help you prepare for the post-COVID economy.

Transcript: 

MARK BASSINGTHWAIGHTE:

Hello, I'm Mark Bassingthwaighte, the risk manager here at 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. Once again, I'm so delighted to have as my guest, Leah Gooley, who is the underwriting manager. I don't know if all of you know this, Leah is in Missoula, in the beautiful historic building, and I telecommute. I've been telecommuting for many years over in Billings, so maybe I should ask real quickly, are we still having a beautiful day in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana? We're getting into August here, but I could see a little light coming in.

LEAH GOOLEY:

It's beautiful and sunny, a little cloudy, but I'll take that over the snow that we know is coming.

MARK:

Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. I really wanted to have Leah join me for a conversation. I'll be honest and say, and I don't know about you, Leah, and I suspect many of our listeners might feel similar to what I'm about to say, but I am tired of COVID-19 news.

LEAH:

Amen.

MARK:

It's just, but COVID-19, and what has happened in terms of not just a legal profession, but to everybody, has changed some things. We were talking prior to going into this, in terms of internal to ALPS, some general concerns looking at virtual practice firms and trying to just work through, do they represent unique interests? Is there something different? We've been having some interesting discussions about that, and then COVID-19. Boy, now teams, like everybody we insure, is a virtual firm and I thought it'd be fun to do just sit down and share some of our thoughts, concerns, and even some practice tips.

MARK:

That's what we're going to do, folks. We're going to start out just trying to identify some of the concerns that we see in general. Leah, perhaps I'll jump in here and start this, but feel free to come in at any point. Really, I think it's becoming quite clear, not just here in the United States, but globally, we are in a recession. Who knows how this is going to continue to evolve, but that's important because if you look historically at the numbers, claims are going to spike for about three years post-recession, in terms of legal malpractice claims. And then, they'll start to return slowly to normal, about five years out. We are anticipating not just here at ALPS, but within the industry that there's going to be a spike in claims.

MARK:

I would anticipate, too, that we're going to see a spike in severity. Some things to be concerned about, and we're going to try to visit why, but I think my initial thoughts is to what drives some of this, you think about business dealings and bankruptcies and divorces and all kinds, but when business dealings, in particular, go south and look at all the companies suing their insurers for the business interruption coverage that on most of these policies isn't there, desperate times call for desperate measures. They're going to turn into and try to blame lawyers and some of these claims, if nothing else, all the care's going to be involved in trying to defend these where we are contractually obligated to. I think that's almost a given, lawyers and staff are going to make mistakes in high-stress times.

MARK:

Boy, are we in a high-stress time? This rapid move to cloud computing to telecommuting from home, policies and procedures have changed, maybe not completely thought through. It was a very rapid adjustment, so I think there's going to be just normal missteps that occur. In addition, I think just again, the stress itself we're all under. I'm surprised, I would guess this is true for you, Leah, in terms of your own neighborhood, but we have a number of people in the neighborhood that I truly, I mean, not trying to overstate it, are almost in a daily state of panic, out of fear of what could happen, not wanting to catch the virus and things, and when so much of our energy is being devoted to just trying to go to the grocery store without exposing ourselves, I think that's a concern.

MARK:

At the same time, your clients are under the same stresses, the same thing. Are they going to question their own decisions down the road? Why didn't you prevent me from doing this stupid thing that I did? There's a lot of stuff going on here. I'm also going to talk about the closures of courthouses and all the changes in just the local rules, court rules, procedures, filing deadlines, being extended. There's just so many things up in the air, very difficult to stay on top of. Finally, another thought I have is, I had a call this morning from another lawyer on the East coast, sharing some concerns along these lines. Basically it's, "I'm owed a lot of money, but they don't have, everybody's been furloughed that they can't pay it." Here's another conundrum, how aggressive do you get with collection actions? Do you even try, because we all know particularly fee suits, bringing about often malpractice, counterclaims and whatnot? There's just a couple of thoughts of mine, just right off the top of my head coming into this, so that's your risk manager's response. How about an underwriter's response? What kind of concerns do you have?

LEAH:

Along those same lines, we tend to see, like you had mentioned, claims starting to spike about three years into the process. This pandemic is new. It's a culmination of a lot of different stressors for both working from home, adjusting quickly, which frankly, the law profession has trouble doing because they're meaty and it's a very weighty, important system of ours. And so, having to make this quick transition, both through the courts and individual law firms, and then like you had mentioned, customers and clients trying to adapt to those changes as well, while balancing working from home, their kids, and trying to manage their businesses under stressful time. We do anticipate certain trends within certain areas of practice. You can imagine divorces may be on the rise as well as marriages, like you said, and then, folks looking back. Overall from an underwriting perspective, trying to see where you sit individually, where your area of specialty lies, and sticking to that area of specialty, knowing how some of those changes come about, and how you can adapt to that in this pandemic. That's a really important aspect to all of this.

MARK:

Yeah. One of the things I think is worth noting for our listeners, I brought up this whole point of, we can anticipate due to stress, financial stress, fear, all of the things going on, that missteps will occur as a result. I can share, and I would assume you may have had one or two more conversations than me, but our claims attorneys are already seeing claims that are missteps that occurred post this work-from-home transition. We are already seeing these types of claims start to come in, not unexpected.

MARK:

Let me jump. I think we've set the stage reasonably well, but what's more interesting to me, and I would anticipate our listeners is, these virtual practice/work-from-home risks that we see, what are your thoughts in terms of trying to manage that? Maybe come at it from a concern and a management piece. I could anticipate for instance, because I know we've talked about this in the past, but supervision. What's your concern with supervision and what are your thoughts about if I'm a law firm wanting to be insured? What can I share? What helps ease your mind? You see where I'm going? How can I present as a good risk in light of this change?

LEAH:

Yeah, that is a great question. Supervision amongst law firms has always been a hot topic for underwriters. This isn't a new issue, but it's certainly more prevalent now that COVID has moved more folks to working from home. Supervision in general, it's just knowing what you, your partners, your associates, your employees are doing on a daily basis, and understanding that if there are questions, if you're a collaborative law firm, that you have the ability to reach out and talk through those issues and not feel like you're on an island, like you need to make a decision in isolation, and so, that expressing how you typically manage either those daily conversations, you manage the big picture conversations that happen for your firm. That kind of thing is interesting for the underwriter and important, I think, for us to understand that you are cognizant of your risks in the firm that way.

MARK:

Am I incorrect in what I hear you saying, at least to some degree here, is are we really talking a little bit about wellness, checking in and trying to keep people connected? Is that where you're focusing with this checking in daily or it's a procedural thing? Maybe it's both, I don't know.

LEAH:

Yeah. Yeah. I would see it as both, kind of two prongs your wellness, and that's a great point to bring up., That there's the wellness for individual attorneys really is just keeping everybody connected and engaged and it has to become more of a top of mind activity amongst the firm. The other side of that is the supervision and making sure that the work product itself is available for conversation. Perhaps you set up Zoom office hours, if you and your staff are spread across, so that they know a specific time that they can get ahold of you, or you have with your team a specific daily meeting time that you're going to check in and answer questions, or even just engage in that office chit chat that you normally don't get to when everybody's working from home. We miss that.

MARK:

Yeah. Yeah. I love that you brought that up because I have been, as you know, telecommuting. I'm 300 and what, 50 miles away from the mothership here, and longterm telecommuting can work some people and for others, it really doesn't. I think one of the reasons that it doesn't is this connection piece, the water cooler conversation, or sharing a cup of coffee in a break room or those kinds of things. That was a hard transition for me. What was so interesting, the shift to work-from-home in my world, in terms of just me personally, was a nonevent. I'm already there, but the company's response was night and day game changer for myself and a few others that have been longterm remote employees, because we are now far more engaged.

MARK:

You and I are having this discussion. Everybody hears the audio, but we're watching each other. We're on Microsoft Teams. That we have used, I think, as a company in a very effective way, to maintain engagement amongst the Alps community in terms of the workforce. As a risk manager, I absolutely agree with you. I think supervision is important from this connectivity piece, this wellness piece. And, might I add, the challenge with this supervision wellness angle is that when we aren't together day to day, it's a little more difficult to really, unless we're using video and having some regular conversations to understand, if you and I share office space, you're going to pick up that I'm depressed or that I'm struggling in person much more quickly and more easily. And so, I think it's important if this work-from-home goes longterm and maybe permanent for some, we need to keep these issues in mind.

MARK:

I now switch back. In terms of process, I described this as the accountability problem, and I just invite lawyers, from administrators and those in charge in terms of internal processes, do you need to review and perhaps even redesign what you're doing? We had a situation I learned about where everybody left, worked from home at a law firm, but FedEx was still coming, and so, what they did is put a cardboard box outside a locked front door and a sign, 'FedEx drop and pick up from here' and a little arrow. There are envelopes in here for FedEx to pick up. Now you know there are confidential information in there. You just sit here and go, what are you thinking? I get the panic that that might need to happen for a day or so. That's what the best idea. I'd like to see something else, but that cannot be permanent.

MARK:

I invite folks that are listening again, to think about your calendaring process, the mail process, client communication, file documentation. Are we really keeping all of our files current? Are we maintaining client competences? For instance, fold this over into a professionalism piece, but you have to have a workspace that the kids aren't running back and forth in the background in the PJs and having a water balloon fight while you're trying to meet with your client. That just can't happen. It's a professionalism issue, but it's also, they can't and should never have access to the home computer that you're using for work, those kinds of things. There's some thoughts on trying to manage some of this. Do you have other things that you'd like to add to this one?

LEAH:

Well, let's talk about what you had said, reinvisioning what your processes are. As you look at that, you've moved as a firm, say to a part-time work-from-home, due to COVID. Maybe you want to continue that, maybe that makes sense for your firm. And so, it's a good opportunity for you to look at what new technology is out there, what new opportunities you have to create efficiency for your law firm to meet your client's needs. And then, also just making sure as you make those shifts, that that tech technology training takes place, that people are really comfortable with it. Again, circling back to the wellness. Are you able to use it and actually see each other on Teams and have those connections and feel comfortable in a client meeting to be able to communicate what you need to communicate to them? Keeping top of mind on all the new stuff coming out, just rolling out, based on COVID. There's so many new opportunities every day.

MARK:

Yeah. Yeah. There really are. I've got to do a jump shift here. You know me, I go off on these tangents at times. I love the comment about, again, looking at processes, but also reviewing and trying to understand the technology. More and more I've been talking about, lawyers are to understand the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology. We're always very good about the benefits, risks aren't so as obvious, and you really need to take some time. It's just by way of example, and it's just trying to underscore the importance of reviewing your processes and really looking at everything. Let's say you and our adverse attorneys representing adverse parties, and we're in a meeting and we're all talking, I set this up, I can control whether people are recording this from the platform, but people can also just put up their phone and record. I can't do everything to prevent things from being recorded.

MARK:

It's just one crazy example of, we need to think through the ramifications of what we're doing and the technology, how we're using it. Hear me clearly. There's absolutely nothing wrong and it's not incompetent or anything to use Zoom or Teams, but we have to understand the benefits and the risks and address them. Same might be with a collaborative calendar thing that's out on the web. It's about just trying to maintain client confidences and maintaining the privacy of the data and whatnot.

MARK:

I'd like to take a moment and share a couple of specific risk management tips that are important to me. If you have other tips to add here, please, please, again, jump in.

MARK:

I want to share just, again, some obvious things that come to my mind from a risk perspective. This hopefully goes without saying, but I think we see this all the time. COVID in situations like this, in terms of recessions and whatnot, you're going to see this type of claim go up, and it's really dabbling. Please don't dabble or do a quick jump shift, do a new practice area. I have spoken with attorneys that are very intentionally moving right now and very aggressively, into the bankruptcy space, for obvious reasons. Some are doing this, again, it's a jump shift, and know absolutely nothing about it, or very, very little and others are very, very intentional about it and really taking their time and developing processes and procedures, getting mentors, and really coming up to speed in a very appropriate way. So, caution, jump shifts, dabbling very dangerous.

LEAH:

Mark, I'll comment on that.

MARK:

Please.

LEAH:

That is an area that we see so many claims come out of competent, smart attorneys who just have taken a case or taken on an area of practice that they don't get the full spectrum of it. It's definitely ripe for either missteps and just missing something because it's a nuance to that practice. I absolutely agree with you on that.

MARK:

It's one of those things. We just don't know what we don't know, and that's the problem on the dabble. I also would strongly encourage you, more than ever, to determine upfront if clients can afford your services and also thoroughly document your scope, because more and more, it's not face-to-face in the same room having conversations. We need to be clear. If I'm interviewing you and you're interviewing me in terms of price, a potential client, and I'm potential lawyer here, we really to understand. Leah, can you afford this? It's not a discussion over my hourly rate. Here's what this divorce might cost or what this bankruptcy might cost, and these are some variables, and I'll give you the best effort that I can to give you some accurate parameters, but then this is what I'm going to do and what I'm not going to do.

MARK:

I think now more than ever, these are key, key things to do. Again, I brought this up at the very beginning, I would not get aggressive in collection practices right now. Maybe to really underscore this, a lot of lawyers will say, "I did good work, got a good outcome, I deserve to be paid now more than ever." I don't care. It's completely irrelevant. That's a given, let it go. The only issue is, is there any money out there to get? A harsh reality is, a lot of these people with furloughs and everything else, there is no money. They're not paying the rent. You think you as the lawyer are first in line? That ain't happening. It's roof and food for the kids. They're a top priority right now. I would not get aggressive with collection actions.

MARK:

I'm not saying walk away. I'm just saying let's be reasonable about, because you can put people in a corner, and then the counterclaim is coming. Of course, make sure that everybody's aware of changes in relevant rules, regulations, and laws, so that we don't blow some filing deadlines just because we're out of the loop. I would also add that clients should be made aware of changes that might impact their matter. So don't overlook keeping clients informed, but because it's their matter.

LEAH:

What a great idea.

MARK:

You need to allow them to meaningfully participate, that kind of thing. There are some risk tips that I have. Do you have anything that comes to mind from your end that you would want to add or think about?

LEAH:

Yeah. Just drafting off what you just said, basically, considering those kind of client needs and taking those steps to make sure that they're met, being clear about what response times need to be now that people are maybe working different hours as they're virtual or working from home, a little more flexibility, whether folks want virtual meetings or in person, and how to manage those risks, specifically, just being open and up front about what your clients need. The other big thing, it's not new that attorneys take their work home. That's definitely not a new phenomenon, but with some of these more flexible arrangements, just being clear about securing client information that you bring back and forth, even laptops and hardware, software issues that you might have, being just top of mind on that stuff.

MARK:

Well, and I appreciate that. Let's look at that a little more in depth. What we're really getting into is just cybersecurity, cyber liability, that whole issue. Let me share, well, before I do, do you have, again, from an underwriting perspective, are there, because we also sell cyber liability insurance to lawyers ...

LEAH:

We do.

MARK:

Are there risks? Does this situation, in terms of COVID, work-from-home, virtual law, all this stuff, does that change your risk analysis at all? Do you have any concerns that come up?

LEAH:

Well, certainly one of the big ones is that the home systems just are not as secure as often office situations are, when it comes to hardware routers, all of those setups, personal devices, like your cell phone, just may need to be reexamined. We had talked before about looking at your internal processes, and it's a good time to look again at your cyber processes as well.

MARK:

Yeah, yeah. Understand folks, there is a difference between trying to secure systems and protecting and maintaining data. Those are actually two different things. There's a lot of overlap, but not entirely. I'm going to come back to this here in a minute, but you talked about home systems, and just to underscore that point, can I share to our listening audience, home routers, as an example, often they are older devices. They have not ever been appropriately set up, meaning the default password hasn't been changed. You can get these default passwords off the routers in seconds off Google. You just figure out what kind of router it is. It's typically 'admin' or some silly thing like that, encryption hasn't been turned on, et cetera, and cybercriminals know this, and they are taking real advantage of this.

MARK:

We need to think through, we typically don't have IT support dealing with our home systems, but now that the home systems are the primary system, we need to think through this and make sure that the steps that we've taken to secure the perimeter of the work environment, of the office network, et cetera, now extends to the home environment. That security piece needs to be in play, but that's not enough. Getting back to privacy of data, how many of us routinely at home, work with shared devices? My wife and I each have our own phone, but we use each other's phones at times. If we're out, "Here, can you just do that?" We share home computers and it's kids having to do homework, maybe need to get on Dad's computer or Mom's computer.

MARK:

What have you done to protect client confidences? In a perfect world, no family member, unless they are employed by the firm, should have access to any of this equipment period. It just really shouldn't happen. So, think about personal use and who's using all of this to try to maintain. One of the things that I'd like to talk about, too, that I think a lot of lawyers don't understand, let me ask you this. I hopefully I'm not putting you on the spot here, Leah. My guess is not. If I'm a law firm and I go out and this is not going to be unique to Alps, I'm just going to use Alps as an example. I go out and I buy this cyber liability policy for my firm from Alps, does that insurance cover all these devices that people have in their homes that are using personally for work? Does that coverage extend?

LEAH:

Such a great point. Such a great question. That's dialing down. Do you know what your policy covers? Have you read what the policy language specifies? Typically there's going to be carve-outs for personal devices, because they're better covered somewhere else. There could be certain requirements. One of the big ones is out-of-band communication when it comes to wire transfers. You're required to double check, pick up that phone and call whoever it is that told you to wire the money to a certain area. You have some of that responsibility, and that's an important to know that on the front end. Absolutely. What a great question.

MARK:

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So folks, I don't want to put anybody here in this extreme panic. Policy language is going to differ, but generally, these policies cover equipment that is either owned by or leased for law firm purposes. That is not what a home laptop is, or the home cell phone, or the home iPad, and all these other things. Now, if a personal device was the pathway perhaps into the network and the firm's network is breached and something happens, every carrier, these policies, there's a lot of the tail to them, but I have trouble seeing how an insurer wouldn't be stepping up for that one. The real concern is if the attack is limited to, and this is happening, which is why I'm having this conversation, to the home systems, so if I'm a hacker and I break in, Leah, to you as an attorney at a firm, into your home laptop, and I steal everything. I don't need the network anymore.

MARK:

You've got all this stuff on your laptop, and-

LEAH:

What a great opportunity.

MARK:

-and then, you turn around and say, "Well, I have cyber coverage for this." No, you don't. The firm has cyber coverage for firm equipment. This isn't firm equipment. It's just something to think about, just to be aware of. It gets back to thinking through your practices and procedures and your processes in light of these changes, so I would obviously encourage IT support to address any concerns. And even just said, talk to your IT support person. "Here's what's going on in various homes. What do you think we should do? What are your concerns? Can you help us?" Just take it a step at a time. Other thoughts, other concerns that you have here, I don't want to take up too much of your precious time, but ...

LEAH:

Well, I think these are excellent, excellent tips that you've brought up, and a lot of really thought-provoking information for firms and attorneys to mull over, especially if folks are considering doing more of a longterm flexible work-from-home situation. Yeah.

MARK:

Yeah. Can I end with this? If firms are going to think about really extending at least a part of the workforce perhaps, more of a full time work-from-home remote, which in my mind is a little bit different than a virtual practice, but I think from a risk perspective, really not a whole lot. Initially, is just the fact that we have work-from-home folks now, is that an "Uh oh," for an underwriter in terms of just that fact?

LEAH:

That's a great question. No, if you have a virtual practice or somewhere in that spectrum, from virtual practice down to a flexible working from home environment, again, it's not something necessarily that is new to the industry. It's just more prevalent now with firms. And so, knowing that the attorneys are looking out for some of these pitfalls, cognizant of what they need to do to mitigate, that's really the important stuff that underwriters want to know.

MARK:

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I think that's important for folks to hear. It's a great place to end on, because in my mind, there's nothing wrong with work-from-home. It's not the tool, it's what do we do with this situation we find ourselves in.

LEAH:

Exactly.

MARK:

If we were really concerned about all these changes, we wouldn't want to insure new young lawyers that just hang up a shingle, because they don't know what they're doing. You see where I'm going? You don't have 10 years experience to be this computer geek, have this high tech system at home. The insurance industry, we are comfortable with the change.

LEAH:

You bet.

MARK:

What becomes important is, how do you respond to the change? Are you responsible in managing these transitions, and then following through and adjusting ordering processes? If you're thinking long term of staying in this space in full or in part, I really encourage all of you folks to take some of the things that we've raised here to heart. I've been telecommuting for 10 years. I love it. I won't ever go back. I'm assuming Alps will allow me that, extend that privilege, that I could stay out here, but it's not the work-from-home environment that's a concern. It's how we are all responding and dealing with the work-from-home. So, that's my final word. Leah, do you have any other closing comment or anything else?

LEAH:

Well, I appreciate some of these concrete tips. I can see how they'd be so helpful to take advantage of, and just circling back to the root of all of this is the wellness, and making sure that you have what you need as the attorney and the connections that you need within your firm and your clients. What a great top priority to have.

MARK:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Absolutely agree. Well, Leah, thank you so much for spending a little time with me and the audience today. I hope you've had some fun. Look forward to doing this again. We periodically get together.

LEAH:

Absolutely.

MARK:

It'll be awesome. I look forward to the next one. Before I sign off, I do want to update anyone that has listened to an earlier podcast called Listening to Your Life. It's a little bit of a story, of a challenge my wife gave me, and just share some thoughts about what was happening. Basically, I've been doing a lot of bike riding, and there was a challenge to ride 1,200 miles by the end of summer, which is defined as the end of September. It's all started at the beginning of the COVID stay-at-home situation here in Montana. But, as of today, which is what, the 12th of August, I'm at 1,421.

LEAH:

Whoa!

MARK:

I am rocking it and I've upped my goal. Now I'm going to try to hit 1,750 by the end of August or September. It's been a lot of riding, a lot of fun. As we near the end, or shortly after the end of this, I'm going to come back and do another little podcast on Listening to Your Life and some learning to the whole process. But for those of you that are monitoring all of this 1,421 as of today, it's a lot of miles, but it's been a great experience. So, I will say goodbye to all of you. If you have any thoughts, concerns, issues you'd like to discuss in future, or perhaps you're in a podcast, don't hesitate to reach out to me at mbass@bassatalpsinsurance.com. Happy to try to help in any way that I can. Thanks again, folks. Thanks, Leah. Goodbye.

 

ALPS In Brief — Episode 49: Would You Send All Your Money to a Scammer? Maybe You Just Did.

ALPS In Brief — Episode 49: Would You Send All Your Money to a Scammer? Maybe You Just Did.

August 6, 2020

A lawyer was waiting on a fax with all the information she needed to complete a wire transfer. Fax received, money sent. What she didn’t know? Her email had been hacked. Cybercriminals had intercepted the fax and edited the wire transfer details before sending it. The money was gone. The worst part? This new cybersecurity scam is really easy to execute and happening everywhere. ALPS Risk Manager Mark Bassingthwaighte lays out the details and how to spot the breadcrumbs so you and your firm’s employees won’t be caught off guard.

Transcript: 

Hello, and 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 here without ALPS. Today, I'm going to do a little solo performance, and thought it would be really worthwhile to talk about how to avoid cybercrime, being a victim of cybercrime. And I am particularly going to focus on wire fraud, business email compromise. We have had a number of lawyers impacted by this with literally millions of dollars, in total together, stolen. And certainly, this problem is not limited to lawyers, but there is one very easy way to avoid falling victim to these types of attacks. And I'd really like to explore that a little bit. And what I'm going to get to is simply do... Explain and describe the process of an out-of-band communication, and actually this process can be valuable in other ways as well.

But I thought the best way to try to share what an out-of-band communication is and explain the whole process, is through sharing two stories and then talking about how it could have been handled differently through the use of an out-of-band communication. So here are two stories that also, I guess, for some of you may underscore how sophisticated cybercrime is becoming. The first is not a law firm situation but an excellent example, and it has to do with what we call deepfake audio. And I think some people are becoming more and more aware that they're deepfake audios and deepfake videos exist. But let me explain what that is. A deepfake video is when you take a person and you might be... I've seen some really good ones with Mark Zuckerberg and President Obama over the years, and it just...

You see these individuals talking, but they are saying something in their voice and it sounds perfect that they never said. And so, these are deepfakes, it's just altered. And these things can be done, not only with video but with audio. So, sort of with that understanding, here's what happened. A CEO at a corporation was out of the office on... Just traveling on business. And the CFO at the corporation received a phone call during this time away. And later on, he reported that this call or, I should say, the voice on the call, was absolutely perfect. He was utterly convinced he was speaking with the CEO, the way the CEO used the language, the way he... Just the way he spoke, it was just spot on. So, believing that he was speaking with the CEO, he was instructed and followed through on wiring around $275,000 out of the country.

Because of the success of that, a little bit later another call came in, again to the CFO, purportedly from the CFO, and there are some other discussions in sharing and there are some other reasons he needs some more money moved. And it's only by happenstance that as the CFO was talking on the phone, he could see... He just glanced at his phone and saw that the number, the originating number, was a New Zealand phone number. And he knew that the CEO was not in New Zealand, and terminated the call, and really started to say, "Oh my gosh, this is fake. And we've been scammed." Unfortunately, the initial funds that were transferred were not recovered, but at least no more money was taken. So with that, that's an example of a deepfake audio cybercrime.

Now, here's a second story that did involve a law firm. And, many lawyers are aware of phishing tax, fake emails, spoofed emails, and all kinds of things, but here's an attack that was very sophisticated. In short, the law firm worked with company that provides eFax services. And they set up a dedicated email account for these fax as to come into the firm, eFax in order to come into the firm. And unbeknownst to anyone at the firm, the firm's email accounts, all of them, were breached and someone was monitoring what was going on. And this is not uncommon in terms of having someone monitor your email and those kinds of things. It often will go easily, maybe a couple of weeks to several months. And what they are doing is, as their monitoring offices, they're looking for opportunity, of course, but they are also learning who talks, who the players are, how they communicate in writing and just understand sort of the business model, what's going on.

Because, when they make their move and there are a variety of ways they'll make their move, they're going to look and have it appear to be really accurate and legitimate. But anyway... So, here's what happened with this situation. The bad guy, if you will, was monitoring and very interested in the eFax account because these lawyers happen to do real estate. And there were a lot of instructions coming through via fax. If a fax had... Was of no interest it would kind of be forwarded along really quickly so no one was aware that these emails were being intercepted and looked at. At one point, a fax came through authorizing... Wiring instructions or whatnot, for a significant amount of money on the sale of a home. And all the hacker had to do was just take that fax and change the routing number, the wiring instructions here on this document. Made that change, set it on.

So, please understand what happened here. A lawyer is expecting a fax with all the information he or she needs to complete this transfer or to follow through [inaudible 00:07:27] moving the money, it's an expected email, an expected fax coming in via email. It is from a known and trusted source. No one knows, however, that it has been intercepted and the routing information changed. So, based on a belief that everything is absolutely fine, a substantial amount of funds were wired. And of course, to the wrong bank, the wrong individual, and there was a substantial loss there. So, those are two stories about... Just giving examples of how crazy cybercrime has gotten. But, how could you have prevented this from happening? And it really is quite easy. And it's done through the use of an out-of-band communication. And it simply means we're going to change the communication channel to verify.

So for instance, in the first example where we had a deepfake audio. What could have been happened, right? Perhaps I should say, should have happened, is the company would have a policy that says whenever we're moving any substantial amount of money... And we can define what that is, 5,000, 25,000, whatever works for your own situation, but let's say it's $5,000. So, anytime we're going to move $5,000 or more, you're going to have an out-of-band communication to verify. And so, with that policy in place, the CFO has received a phone call from someone that he believes is the CEO authorizing or providing instructions to move money. He should hang up. And after that call, he knows what the CEO's phone number is, he doesn't have to look it up, he's not looking at... Just returning the call or anything like that. He texts the CEO, Hey, boss, in accordance with our policy, I'm just confirming that you called me and have asked me to wire 275,000 to Germany or whatever it might be.

And if the boss texts back, yes, thank you, please take care of it. Fine, wire the money. The boss is, "I don't know what you're talking about, it seems like there's a scam going on here." Stop, don't wire the money. In the second situation, again, we have this fax coming in from another lawyer, a realtor, I don't know where it originated and doesn't really matter. But, it's coming. And I would guess in this situation more than one... This is a known... The fax is going between probably a realtor and the lawyer on a fair to regular basis. And so, all the lawyer needed to do was, again, pick up his phone because he knows and has the accurate, known, correct number on his cell phone. And if he doesn't he'll look it up or even in... If... At the beginning of representation, you verify with all the parties, what is the trusted contact information? What is your real email? What is your phone number? What is your address?

And then, you go back and you look that up so that you know you're using the correct phone number. You don't want to look at a phone number that's in an email coming to you and use that, because the scammer will give you a fake email... I'm sorry, a fake phone number. But... So, you just... You call in and you say, "Susan, yeah, just received the fax. You know the routine here, just want to confirm. Is the routing number that you've given us the accurate number?" And you read it off, "It's [inaudible 00:11:31] 223..." On and on. And if she says, "Yep, that's right." Go ahead and move the money. If she says, "No, that's wrong." Somebody is breached. So, stop. You obviously can get the accurate information and continue on with the transaction, but you also now know that you're breached, somebody is breached, and we need to figure out who and clean these systems up, restore and get whoever's in the system out.

It may be as simple as just changing passwords on all the emails. You're going to need some help from somebody that really knows what they're doing here, can determine how far... What does the attacker have access to? But, you know you're breached and you need to stop. So, that's an example of how out-of-band communications can really prevent your becoming a victim of a crime. I have talked, obviously, with our claims attorneys over the years many times, I mean we all get along quite well and interact and keep each other up to speed on what's going on. And I have yet to hear about any situation, both externally and just other stories with peers and internally from all of our claims lawyers, that if an out-of-band communication would have occurred, that would have prevented every single theft that we have seen. And please understand the vast majority of malpractice polices, I can't say all of them because I have not seen all of them, but the vast majority of malpractice policies do not cover theft of funds.

So, that should also catch your attention as to the value of implementing a firm wide policy, with a little training here, that says, no one, I don't care if it's the most senior attorney down to the new bookkeeper, is authorized to move any money under any circumstances unless an out-of-band communication has occurred, so that we know we are sending the money to the correct legitimate recipient. So that's an out-of-band communication. I hope that you have found some value. And let me... I [inaudible 00:14:06] you can take this a little further. At times people receive email that looks legitimate, and it has nothing to do with wiring money and that kind of stuff. But, we're being tricked into opening an email or opening an attachment, and doing so can unintentionally allow the installation of a malicious program, a malicious app of some sort. And that might be even the pathway in, so that somebody can now start monitoring your email to look for an opportunity to try to commit wire fraud.

So, think about the value too, of training employees and having everyone at the firm be aware that, Hey, if we have some questions about an email that has come in, what is this bill that... Don't open it yet. Don't click, don't look, don't investigate, because it just feels odd, it feels off. Reach out to the legitimate company or legitimate individual that purportedly sent this to you and say, "We're not... This doesn't make sense. I don't recall authorizing new folks to provide some service [inaudible 00:00:15:30], we don't have any account with you, we don't know what you're talking about. Thank you for letting us know. Somebody apparently might be using our email address or our company name in a fraudulent way and..." But... Again, you just confirm, you figure out in advance, okay, that's not trustworthy and I don't want to open that.

So, out-of-band communications can be used in a variety of ways to really thwart the efforts of what cyber criminals are trying to do. So, that's it. I hope you found something of value in all of this. And as always, if you have any questions, concerns on risk, ethics, cyber security, and whatnot, please don't hesitate to reach out to me anytime, and you do not need to be an absent short. My email address is mbass@alpsinsurance.com. Thanks for listening folks, have a good one. Bye-bye.

 

ALPS In Brief — Episode 48: Is This My Life Now?

ALPS In Brief — Episode 48: Is This My Life Now?

July 23, 2020

Lawyers become lawyers to help people. To right wrongs, to champion for justice. While law school prepares you substantively for the legal issues you’ll face in private practice, it doesn’t address the systemically unhealthy cultural expectations of the profession.  Five years in, one new lawyer found that the tremendous workload, low associate’s salary in the face of huge student loans, and endless extra hours to stay on the partner track simply weren’t worth missing out on his daughter’s childhood. 84% of new lawyers we surveyed agreed. So is the culture of law doomed, or could building in a structure of support — to help people — be the answer? ALPS Risk Manager Mark Bassingthwaighte and ALPS Claims Attorney Shea Sammons discuss.

 

Transcript: 

 

MARK BASSINGTHWAIGHTE:

Hello, and 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 here with ALPS, and it is my pleasure to have Shea Sammons join me this afternoon. As we talk a little bit about a survey that we did with young lawyers here at ALPS. But before we get into that, Shea, can you just tell everybody that's listening a little bit about yourself?

 

SHEA SAMMONS:

So I'm a claims attorney at ALPS. I'm originally from Montana, long line of Montanans. I think I'm fifth generation. Went to undergrad here at University of Montana Western down in Dillon. Had a professor kind of talk me into going into law school. I was a little bit interested anyway, but he definitely swayed me. So I went to law school here at the university. Graduated, went into private practice, was in private practice for about five years and then came on board with ALPS.

MARK:

Very good. Well, very good. Again, I appreciate your joining us. Why I thought it would be fun to talk with Shea. We did a survey of young lawyers and had some, not completely unexpected responses. But as we looked at the responses and chatted about it with some of the younger lawyers here at ALPS, it became apparent that that Shea, as an example, in his own path, his own experience, really mirrored a lot of the responses that we saw. And I just wanted to talk a little bit about that and share part of your story. And see if we can get some insights and learnings from what your generation is struggling with in terms of young lawyers.

You talked initially about a professor sort of encouraging you to head into law. Is there more to that? I mean, why did you end up going to law school? What was the dream, for lack of a better description?

 

SHEA:

Yeah, so originally I went to school to be a teacher. A lot of people in my family are teachers, educators. Decided that I didn't have the patience to deal with young children after I did some field experience. So I had a degree in history and I had a degree in political science. What am I going to do with these things? It was either grad school, law school, something like that, continuing my education.

And then I had something happen with a family member in law that I didn't really understand. And it was pretty out of my control, which I also didn't like. So that was kind of what maybe peaked my interest in law. And then going through my last semester of school, I had a professor, constitutional law was a requirement for me to get my political science degree. Took that class. Became not really interested in it, but it was an interesting class. And I loved the professor and he was like, "Well, have you ever thought about going to law school?" I said, "No." Just took the LSATs kind of on a whim type of thing. And then I just set my mind that I was going to go to law school. Applied here at the university, got in and ended up going. I guess that's how I went into law school.

MARK:

All right. Actually, your expectations in terms of what ... I think we all go into law with an idea in our head anyway, of what it's like to be a lawyer. So I'm kind of looking at what were your expectations versus the reality, both in law school and post law school? Did they line up at all? Was I ...

SHEA:

I think my expectations of law school were pretty spot on with the amount of work that it was, the dedication that it was, the financial burden that it is, and that it became. I knew those things going in.
 The thing that didn't really align with my expectations was private practice. I think one of the reasons is I went into law school wanting to be a prosecutor. I wanted to be this champion for justice and had these noble goals of doing the right thing for people that couldn't do the right thing for themselves and righting wrongs. And then we start getting into these little kid cases and like crim pro. And I'm just like, there's no way I could be a prosecutor if I have to deal with this kind of stuff.

I was interning at a law firm that first year, and I was coming home. And just thinking about these nonsense housing development disputes that we have until like 11 o'clock at night. I couldn't imagine bringing that kind of work home with me. So I switched over and started focusing on civil litigation. Because I always did want to be a litigator, be in the courtroom. I liked that sort of thing. Got through law school. My entire law school career, I clerked for ... Up until the last semester when I got hired on at the firm that I wound up working for here in Missoula, I clerked for a firm in Missoula that primarily does civil defense. We defended insurance companies, basically.

At that point, I kind of realized that I had, I don't know if consigned is the right word for it. But I had just given up that the noble law avenue. And I was just going to pursue this avenue through law that provided a good living. That I knew that work was always going to be there, that our clients were going to pay their bills. That sort of thing.

Graduated, went on with a firm here in Missoula. And I did not expect the amount of hours that I had to put into things to be as heavy as it was in law school. Even clerking and seeing the amount of work that partners were doing, that sort of thing at the firm that I was clerking at. And some of that might've been my own personal way that I work. And not being able to figure out right away the most efficient way to do things or get through a brief or whatever it is. I was kind of in a lucky position. The firm that I stepped into had a couple of really good partners that really wanted to bring me along and were dedicated in developing me as a litigator. Really good at basically just holding my hand through a lot of it. "This is the motion. This is how the motions games work. You want to file this motion when this sort of thing happens. Don't make that argument. You're just giving the court reason to give the opposing party what they want," that sort of thing.

So I was lucky that I had that handholding, but still the amount that I was expected to work and the amount that I had to work were not something that I was prepared for from law school. I think that they do a good job, at least the law school I went to did a great job of preparing me substantively for the legal issues that I was going to encounter like intellectually. They did a great job of preparing me for it. Trial wise, I don't know if I had ... I did trial class and I was on moot court team, but we didn't really have any trial prep outside of that. Or we didn't do any sort of deposit ... How do you go through a deposition with people? Motions in limine, that sort of thing. There was no preparation for that in law school. And maybe you can't prepare for that.

MARK:

I think it'd be hard. I think you can, through perhaps ... I've looked at the medical school model practicums and internships and things. Maybe there's something there, but law schools ... I'm quite a bit older and your description of law school is very, very similar to mine. I've always thought, I think law schools really do a pretty good job of teaching how to be a lawyer. But a horrible job at teaching you the realities of how to run a legal business. How to make this thing work day to day in any kind of same way. That's sort of how I responded to all of that.

But any regrets? Would you do it again?

SHEA:

I think that I would do it again. I would try to get in the door at ALPS a lot quicker than ... Not to kiss boots or anything, but that's a little bit. I mean, I think private practice was just so demanding just by its nature. You have to put those hours in or else you don't get the work done, and you're going to have mad clients. You're going to have poor work product, that sort of thing. You're not going to have a job eventually, but other than just, maybe I wasn't prepared for the amount of work that it was, or the way that the work is also expected to be done. But I wouldn't say that I regret going to law school. I would have thought a lot harder about it.

The other part of that, the other side of that coin, I guess, would be the financial burden that you have after law school. I knew that I was taking out student loans going through law school, but it's not something that really hits you until you get out of law school. And you're like, "Holy cow. That's some loans." And then on the outset, you're just making first year associate money. Which lawyers make a decent amount of money as compared to some other professions or whatever. But I would say that, or I'm going to say that, I think that lawyers are probably underpaid for maybe the first two or three years. Considering the amount of financial burden that a lot of them have to take on to get out of law school.
 I had friends that were making $45,000 a year with $120,000 worth of debt that they took on just to get through law school. And I mean, you can't even pay the principal on the loan with that amount.

MARK:

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And at what you're sharing for those listening here today, a lot of Shea's insights really match what others have said on the survey. That just tremendous cost and not having a true realistic understanding of what the work environment and the financial side of all this is post law school. You see some same things in Madison. Some people think you can make a lot of money and some people do. But a lot of people—

 

Shea Sammons:

—Don't.

 

MARK:

It's day to day. I mean, it's okay. Pardon me. I have a little cough here. Excuse me. But at that load it, you see the same thing in Madison. It's just sometimes even quite a bit higher. And they just can't ever get out of that.

SHEA:

I think-

MARK:

Yeah, please go ahead.

SHEA:

I'm going to just interrupted you a little bit.

MARK:

No, please.

SHEA:

I think also the way that the business is structured in law with the partnership structure, which is usually the common way that firms are structured. You're on partner track, you put in three, five, seven, nine years, whatever the partner track is at your firm. But until you make partner, you're still making that associate money. And then you're hoping to maybe supplement that with some kind of bonus that your boss is willing to throw you, or hopefully you get a raise. Otherwise, it's just, you're making that little amount of money to make partner.

MARK:

Would you say the environment was sort of a sink or swim environment or was it more really geared to mentoring and they really did ... What was your experience?

SHEA:

I think that's the one, and maybe not just the only one, but one of the areas where my experience isn't really the norm from what I've talked to with my classmates, at least. Because I was really brought along, I had two partners that were very good. They'd been attorneys in the area. A lot of them were practicing for 30 years. They'd help write some of the laws in this state. Really great attorneys. And they really cared about bringing me along as an attorney. So I had, it was more of that mentorship for sure. But I think that's the exception to the rule in some places.

MARK:

Wow. That's again, what we see a lot on the survey. Yeah. I think your experience is a bit of an exception there. What really led you to say, "Okay, the private practice life isn't, you know ..."

SHEA:

Not for me.

MARK:

Yeah. You start looking elsewhere.

SHEA:

I think it was a couple of things. So I have a four-year-old daughter. The main thing was that I was having to work enough that I was starting to miss things in her life. Like they're going to go fishing, once I get off work we got a brief due on Monday. I'm going to have to be at the office for another three hours. You guys got to go without me. Or she's in T-ball or whatever it is. And I have to miss a game. That sort of thing. That just in my experience, is something that I wasn't willing to sacrifice, just so that I could put in enough hours to make partner, make as much money as I possibly could. That sort of thing. Work at that point, wasn't worth more than missing out on things with my daughter.

So that was the main driver, I think. The other one was just the workload, it's crazy. But I mean, by nature, it sort of has to be that. And some of my friends that I graduated with, love it. They were born to be letting [inaudible 00:14:33] 70 hours all week, every week. You know, those sorts of people. That's just not how I'm wired, I guess. And that comes to another point that a lot of people were making on the survey that it's really hard to find that life-work balance. You feel worked to death and there's no area, no room for anything else outside of work.

MARK:

Yeah. I love how you talked about your daughter and the importance of that and driving the change. I've spent a lot of years on the road. And in prior years, long before you got here, I was traveling two weeks every single month. And again, we had five kids and I feel why [crosstalk 00:15:29].

 

SHEA:

It takes a toll.

MARK:

It does take a toll. And I think I did what you did just in a different way. You just have to find ways to ... And we've talked about this a little earlier. For me, it's not about finding balance. It's about finding creative ways to make each day aspect of your life, whether it's work. I don't like this notion of compartmentalizing either.

SHEA:

I don't either.

MARK:

And really sitting and saying, okay. So although I'm 2000 miles away, I may sit down at a restaurant, get a glass of wine and call my wife. And we'll just chat for 15 minutes. And the kids know, okay. One of the other things that I did, it was kind of fun. I took each one out on the road with me. And they got to see what my life was like.

SHEA:

Exactly. I bet they loved it.

MARK:

And then they had some great dad and son or dad and daughter time. On a weekend, we'd go. And we have some really good times.

SHEA:

I bet.

MARK:

I'd love your thoughts, if you can take a couple minutes and say, speaking to both lawyers that ... or young lawyers that are thinking or people think going to law school or in law school. And young lawyers that are the first couple of years of whatever their professional life looks like. What are your thoughts, thoughts about what can we do in light of the current reality of a lot of debt for a lot of people to go to law school? And I don't know that that's readily solvable, but the long hours. Let's try to shed a little light or offer a little, a window of hope perhaps, for those that sit here and say, "Oh man." You started to second. So I'll let you run however you want to run with that. It's a bunch of things in there.

 

SHEA:

I think then the first thing, at least that helped me to accept. Just to accept that the way to you achieving some sort of happiness. Because I think that's what you're talking or we're talking about with this, the concept of life work balance. It's being happy while also being able to maintain this lifestyle of being a lawyer. The work aspect of it.

MARK:

Okay. Yes.

SHEA:

So I think part of it is just accepting that the profession, at least the way that lawyers work, that's just the way that it's going to be. If you're not up for working or putting in a certain amount of hours. Like with me, I litigated. If you're not up for putting in those 60 hour weeks at the beginning, especially when you start practicing, then you probably shouldn't be a litigator. There's other areas of law that don't require that hour workload.

I think the other thing is as well, is it ... And this is something that I've kind of gained perspective on just recently in coming on with ALPS, I think is that I worked a ton when I very first came out of law school. But I got more efficient at getting my work done. And I maximized my hours in a more efficient way, I guess, for lack of a better term. I think people need to view that our load and that the insane amount of hours that maybe they will have to work as soon as they got out of law school or whether they do or not in a more of a longterm perspective.

The first five years of practice, you might have to bust your butt and work 60 hour weeks every single week. And you get a week of vacation every year and that's it. That's all you get. But maybe on that sixth year, you make partner and you don't have to do that anymore. You didn't have this ... I don't know. To use the term again. And I agree, I don't really like the term life work balance because it insinuates something that they're separate and you need to put this amount in this one and this amount in this one to balance them out. And how do you do that? That sort of thing.

I think the point is, is that you might not have that balance at the beginning of your career, but by the middle of it, you probably will. At least that's been my experience. And I obviously I switched out to get that balance. I'm not private practice anymore. But as I was coming up on those five years, I had a decision to make. The partners were kind of retiring and I could take over the bulk of business that we had at the firm and our clients. And just continue on with this thing as my own, or I could go do something else.

And I made the decision that I wanted to go do something else. And that was with ALPS. Yeah.

MARK:

Okay. Yeah. Yeah. I have some takeaways on that and I'll share shortly. The one thing that my thought is ... And I think your experience was a little better in terms of having some mentoring and those kinds of things.

SHEA:

It was, for sure.

MARK:

But I'm not convinced. I guess I'm further down the road in a non-traditional legal career. Boy, I've worked with thousands of lawyers and you look at all the data on how unhealthy our profession is. I'm not so convinced that once you hit that partner track that it's-

SHEA:

I agree.

MARK:

It's all roses. Sometimes I think it can get even crazier.

SHEA:

Worse.

MARK:

Which just underscores the value of getting to this balance thing, getting to this finding a health and wellness in all aspects of your life.

I mean, some of the things that I take away from Shea's story. I liked the fact again, that you really sat down and said, "Okay, I went into law with I think a relatively good understanding of what you're getting into in terms of studying long hours, that kind of thing." But the other side of that experience, I hear a little bit about, it's not everything that I thought it would be.

SHEA:

No.

MARK:

And you are sitting down and saying, "Is this what I want the rest of my life to look like?" And it's in no small part driven by this sweet little thing that you brought into this world. And you look and say, "What are my priorities here? Am I living to work or am I wanting to work to have a life?"

And I think you made a very well reasoned and intentional decision in your career. And to me, that's one important takeaway to all of this. When I look again at a lot of the survey responses. I want to say to these folks, at the end of the day, whether you have regrets or might do things differently. You are where you are and you can make choices. This is your life. I'm another great example. I actually kind of was very interested in doing the same kind of thing you did early on. But I also there's a non traditional legal career and there are lots of lawyers that are non traditional legal careers of all ... There's just so many things. I think that's one of the value adds for lack of a better description of a law degree.

 

SHEA:

I agree. [crosstalk 00:24:00]

MARK:

Because you can do all kinds of stuff. If you listening to this are sort of ... can relate to Shea's story or feel some of the things that we're sharing with some of the others young lawyers in this survey, in terms of these responses. You are in control. I mean, not saying it's easy but you really have to sit down and ask some tough questions and decide what are my priorities in life.

But the other thing that I think is important too, that I like. Sort of underscoring the difference that you shared with your own experience in the law firm. This is where I've made a big mistake. I kind of jumped out and hung up my own shingle with a law school classmate. We were both green and had just no clue what we were doing.

SHEA:

It's so tough, right? Yeah.

MARK: You feel alone. You feel scared. You feel isolated. And let's be honest, you feel incompetent because you don't have any real experience under your belt.

SHEA:

Because the way that they teach you a law is not necessarily the way that it's practiced. Then all those little pointers and tips that you get to pick up with a mentor.

MARK: Yeah. Pardon me, I need a little sip here. My throat's dry. But if you feel alone, isolated, not entirely competent.

SHEA:

And any of those.

MARK:

All of those, any and all of this stuff, I think it's very, very normal, first off. So don't feel like, oh, it's just you."

SHEA:

I felt that way. And I had somebody holding my hand.

MARK:

Yeah, I did too. And I really do hope that ... To those that are can relate to this whole discussion, you are not alone. You are not unique in feeling what you feel. I'm not saying it's great. I mean, it, unfortunately, in some ways it comes with the territory. But the good news is, again, you can control some of that. But I also think reach out and look core mentors and try to find people.

SHEA:

I don't know. I might be speaking out of turn.

MARK:

No, please.

SHEA:

I don't know if this program still exists in Montana. It did when I was in law school, but there's a mentorship program here. That if you get ahold of the state bar, they can hook, they they'll set you up with somebody to ... You meet up, you have coffee, you bounce ideas off each other. How should I write this brief? What do I need to do here?

MARK:

Right. And a number of bars all over the country have various programs. They may be structured a little bit differently, but mentoring, there's a tremendous need for it. But what a lot of folks don't realize, particularly in terms of the younger lawyers, there are also a lot of people out there that are more than willing to do it. There is an availability, particularly the more senior among us.

SHEA:

Right. And you get on the backside of the practice.

MARK:

Right. It's a way to give back. They start to slow down. I've talked with enough lawyers that do say, "I have something I would love to give and share." And here's another thought, some of these lawyers still want to practice for a number of years, but you know what they're afraid of and not competent in? And sometimes it's just how to use some of the tack. And what I have found at times, some really interesting mentoring relationships where the senior lawyer's talking a little bit about-

SHEA:

Just back and forth. A little symbiotic relationship.

MARK:

"Here's how you do a [inaudible 00:27:46] and don't do this in front the judge." And the other lawyer's saying-

SHEA:

This is how you [crosstalk 00:27:50].

MARK:

Yes, yes. "Here's how you put the screen up one Zoom." It really can be-

 

SHEA:

Value goes both ways.

 

MARK:

Value goes both ways. But I also think at the end of the day, you can get some really meaningful relationships out of it, in terms of just support systems, professional support systems that really add to life.

 

So this has been awesome, Shea. Do you have other thoughts or points or things that you'd like to share? I want to make sure you get-

SHEA:

Yeah. Well, the only other thing that I was thinking is I think we've touched on this subject that people are having these experiences. My experience might be a little bit different than your experience. There were a lot of different experiences in the poll.

I think the last point that I'd really like to make is we're all obviously individual. And what's going to work for me in trying to find happiness and with my personal life and work might not work with the other person. One of the ways that I started to try to relieve that work stress and try to relieve my mind from working was going running, or getting outdoors. That sort of thing. And that's what worked for me. Maybe for somebody else it's knitting or playing racketball, or sitting there starting a new TV series or whatever it might be.

I think again, to touch on your point of it's about internalizing, figuring out what works for you and making a really intentional decision after that thought process on, is this the way that I want to go? Is this the way that I want to go? Is this something that is going to be able to work for me? And then just following through on it. Yeah.

 

MARK:

I absolutely agree. You're speaking, you're saying things, I think I would have said myself in your shoes. I'm just, again, many years further down the road. But for me it's bike riding and cooking. I love.
 And interestingly enough, even the choice to be a road lawyer. That like you were saying, some people love to the hours of litigation and the thrill of the courtroom and all that. I am a guy that just loves to move. I mean, I really do. And so I had my challenges to find ways to make that work for my family, because I need to support and take care of my support system. And I'm also a support system to them. So I need to be there, but you can do that. It just took me a little while to learn that I'm the one in control of these decisions.

SHEA:

Yeah, exactly.

MARK:

And so I think we'll leave it there. That's, I think the message that we're both trying to make. And I hope that again, walking away with, reach out to support systems, be a support system. But really you're in control of your life. And all that you're feeling is normal. We all feel it it. It's just natural, but there are so many opportunities out there. Just take the time to find ways to reach out and make it work. So I hope you found something of value today. Shea, thank you for taking a little time.

 

SHEA:

Thank you. Yeah. This was fun.

 

MARK:

It really truly has been a pleasure. For those of you listening, please don't hesitate to reach out to me anytime. If there's something I can do in terms of risk question, an ethics issue, a cyber concern of some sort. You do not need to be an ALPS insured to visit with me. My email addresses MBASS, M-B-A-S-S @ALPSinsurance.com. That's it, folks. Thanks. Bye-bye.

 

 

ALPS In Brief — Episode 47: Guard Your Data Like Gold and Other Practical Tips from a Hacker

ALPS In Brief — Episode 47: Guard Your Data Like Gold and Other Practical Tips from a Hacker

June 24, 2020

We are using personal devices for work (and working from home) more than we ever have before. These are both big risk factors as cybersecurity threats have soared during the pandemic. So, how do we make security sustainable and not live life at the hackers’ mercy? ALPS Risk Manager Mark Bassingthwaighte sits down with Sherri Davidoff, CEO and Founder of LMG Security and the latest addition to the ALPS Board of Directors, to give you some practical advice in guarding your data like the gold it is.

TRANSCRIPT:

Mark:

Let's rock and roll. Hello. Welcome to ALPS in Brief, the podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. I am really excited about our guest today. I have heard her speak and have read a book about her. And let me just share, our guest is Sherri Davidoff, the CEO of LMG Security. And I believe, Sherri, that is short for Lake Missoula Group. Is it not?

Sherri Davidoff:

It's true. We're named after the lake that we're sitting at the bottom of.

Mark:

For those of you, it's worth looking up in Wikipedia or Google or something to get a little bit of history of Lake Missoula. That's a whole nother story. But Sherri is a noted speaker, trainer, white hack, excuse me, white hacker, and author of the recently released book, Data Breaches, Crisis and Opportunity. As a recognized expert in cybersecurity and data breach response, Sherri has been called, and I love this, a security badass by the New York Times. I just think that's fantastic.

Mark:

She has conducted cybersecurity training for many distinguished organizations, including the Department of Defense, the ABA, the FFIEC, the FDIC, and many more. She's also a faculty member at the Pacific Coast Banking School and an instructor for Black Hat, where she teaches her data breaches course. She is also the co-author of Network Forensics: Tracking Hackers Through Cyberspace. It's a Prentice Hall publication, out in 2012. And this is a noted security text in the private sector and a college textbook for many cybersecurity courses.

Mark:

Sherri is also a GIAC certified forensic examiner, a penetration tester, and holds her degree in computer science and electrical engineering from MIT. She has also been featured as the protagonist in the book Breaking and Entering: The Extraordinary Story of a Hacker Called Alien. And so welcome, Sherri. And I can say I love the book.

Sherri Davidoff:

Thank you so much, Mark. It's a pleasure to be here with you.

Mark:

It was a lot of fun. It was a good read.

Sherri Davidoff:

Good.

Mark:

What you and I had been visiting about in terms of just having a conversation today, obviously in light of all that has happened in recent months with COVID-19, global pandemic, and this fallout of a very rapid move into working from home did not overlook lawyers. Many, many had to immediately jump and try to figure out how to make this work. And it seems some were pretty successful at that. Others, there were a few struggles, but they got there. But what I really want to focus on is the security side, the security piece of this.

Mark:

I think remote security is exposing not only lawyers, I think businesses of all shapes and sizes, to unexpected or perhaps a broadened way, broadened their risk, their exposure just because we have at times home systems. And I guess initially, would you agree, is the remote work setting a concern for you?

Sherri Davidoff:

Well, absolutely. There's an expanded attack surface now that so many people are working remotely. And I'd say that's for two reasons. Number one, because many people have moved to the cloud, or have started logging into work remotely, and therefore poked holes in their firewalls and things like that in order to facilitate it. And everybody did what we needed to do keep going and to keep business up and running. And that's fine. I'm here to tell everybody it's all fine.

Sherri Davidoff:

Our goal is progress and not perfection. But now's the time to step back and think, "What do we do?" And start cleaning things up, start thinking about, "How do we sustain this potentially long-term?" Because I think remote work has been here for a while and has definitely ramped up, and is here to stay. And the other reason why the attack surface has expanded is because a lot of people are using personal devices for work more than we ever have before.

Sherri Davidoff:

And so all of a sudden, you have sometimes very sensitive data on your personal device that you also share with your kids, or your friends, and you play games and this and that. And there's a different risk level that we have in our personal lives versus what's appropriate when we're handing this very sensitive information, so we have to balance those issues.

Mark:

Yeah. I like sort of two comments here, briefly. Initially, I like that you're saying lawyers haven't done anything wrong, in other words, by transitioning. It's so tempting to try to scare the bejeezus out of everybody and say, "You're not doing anything," but they did what they needed to do. And now is the time because I think you're absolutely right, this work from home evolution in terms of the rapid rise of it, is here to stay in a lot of ways. And so now it's time to say not, you've done anything wrong, or you're bad, but let's try to fix it.

Sherri Davidoff:

How do we make it sustainable and not get hacked all the time?

Mark:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I want to come back to here a little bit down the road, but I do really appreciate the comment of personal devices. And I think that's worth exploring a little bit. Where I'd like to start, if we may, and I don't know if you agree or disagree with this, but even again today, I have come across additional articles talking about an exposure that is I think for so many, flying under the radar. And that is simply the wireless access points, the routers and whatnot that all of us typically have in our homes. And do you feel, is that an overblown risk? Would you have any thoughts about some basic things that staff and lawyers should be thinking about?

Sherri Davidoff:

Well, it depends where you are. I used to live in the middle of Boston, and there were a zillion people around my house all the time. Now I live in the middle of Montana, and wireless security is always important, but less of a concern. So first of all, consider physically where you are and who might have physical access to that wireless network. And absolutely, your network is only as secure as the devices that are on it. And we've seen time and time again that if a computer gets infected, it will try to infect all the devices around it. So if you have a neighbor that starts using your wireless network, and they happen to have a computer that's been infected, that could absolutely cause risk for systems on your network as well.

Mark:

Very good. And thoughts about, are there any just practical steps you think folks might be able to take to minimize that likelihood?

Sherri Davidoff:

Sure. Well, as we were talking about ahead of time, there have been a number of vulnerabilities in common routers and wireless access points. So step number one, make sure that your software is up to date, your firmware is up to date on those devices. And you can do that either, sometimes they have an app that's paired with your smartphone, so you can update it that way. Or you can go into the device itself in the administrative interface and do updates. So every now and then, sit down, have a glass of wine, whatever, update your router. It's fun. It's easy. And change that password. Make sure that the password is not a default, that it's secure, it's not your phone number or your address, because guess what, people know that.

Sherri Davidoff:

And also that the name of your wireless network is something that does not draw attention to you, that it's a little bit under the radar, boring. Make your network look boring.

Mark:

I like that. I like that.

Sherri Davidoff:

Really slow wireless, that's what you should call it. Nobody will want this.

Mark:

I think your idea of maybe having a glass of wine to do this isn't a bad one because there have been times where I've been trying to do some things in terms of ... I take security very, very seriously because I've been telecommuting, and boy, there are times when certain things aren't as easy as they should be. And just instead of throwing the computer, you could have a little sip of, just relax.

Sherri Davidoff:

Yeah. Well, risk is your job at ALPS, so I could imagine it's something you take seriously.

Mark:

That's right. That's right. For a moment, let's just say that I am a lawyer. I'm the owner of a small firm, couple of staff. And we have made this transition out, and everybody's at home for the time being. May or may not be coming back. We'll just see how this all evolves. But as the owner of this small business, what kinds of things really should be on my radar that may not be? What should I think about?

Sherri Davidoff:

Yeah. The number one thing to think about right now is two-factor authentication. And I know that's a big word. I cannot even tell you how important that is because we're living in a world today where all of your passwords have been stolen, just assume that, because if you get a virus on your computer, it's going to steal all your passwords first thing before you even know it. And you're not fooling anybody by keeping it in a Word document with a totally different name. I know that it's there and so do the criminals, and they're just going to grab it.

Sherri Davidoff:

The other thing is if you reuse passwords on different websites, and one of those websites gets hacked, criminals have automated tools that will try your password in a zillion other websites. It's called credential stuffing attacks. And Akamai, which is a big tech company, reported that there were 61 billion credential stuffing attacks just in the past 18 months. So assume somebody's going to steal your password. You're not going to know about it because that company may not even know they have a data breach. Or if they know, maybe they'll report it to you six months to three years later.

Sherri Davidoff:

And in the meantime, you need to protect your accounts. The FBI recently reported that the number of business email compromised cases is going up because of coronavirus. Scammers are using tactics to try to trick people out of their money, so they're breaking into email accounts. They're finding examples of invoices, or payments, or things like that. And they're saying, "Oh, due to coronavirus, that bank account is being audited, and I really need these funds. Please send it to this other place."

Sherri Davidoff:

So you should guard your email account like it is gold because it is. You have valuable information in it. And remember with lawyers, information is your business. Right? If it's valuable to you, or if it's valuable to your client, it is valuable to a criminal. They can leverage it somehow. So protect that email account like it is gold. And your email account can also be used to reset your password on anything else, and the criminals know that, so they're after your email.

Mark:

That's a great point, that really is. Can you take just a moment or two and explain just a bit more about what you mean by two-factor authentication? I'm not sure that everybody in our audience, I think a lot do, but I know that there are more than a few that really don't understand. And I assume we talk about this, you're really saying we want to use this if we can in any and every setting, so email account, bank account.

Sherri Davidoff:

Yes. Cloud, you name it.

Mark:

Cloud, right, right. But can you just share just a little bit more to make sure everybody's with us?

Sherri Davidoff:

Absolutely. This is my favorite question, Mark. Thank you so much. So two-factor authentication is what you need to know. Authentication means how we verify someone's identity. So online you might have your identity verified with a password. Passwords are dead to me now. In the real world, you might verify your identity with your driver's license. Right? Two-factor authentication is when you use more than one method of verifying someone's identity together. And it makes it a lot less likely that your account will be broken into. And you might not know it, but we use two-factor authentication all the time. I don't know if you can think of a place where you use two different methods of verifying yourself.

Mark:

Well, the one that comes immediately to mind to me is just a debit card at the ATM machine.

Sherri Davidoff:

Yes. I'm giving you a prize. I have to rummage through my swag and drop it off at your office. Absolutely, yes. You're the only person I have ever worked with who's gotten it right off the bat. But yes, your debit card. And when ATMs first came out in the '60s, they did not all have a pin number associated with them. You were in England, you'd get your punch card. And if you lost that punch card, some criminal could pick it up and get your money. And it actually took over a decade before all the ATMs in the world had pins. But now, if you had a choice, if your bank said, "Oh, you don't need a pin on that ATM card," how would you feel about it?

Mark:

I would have a problem with that.

Sherri Davidoff:

You'd have a problem with it. And it's going to be that way on the internet pretty soon. People will be like, "Really? You don't have two-factor authentication? That's so dangerous. I can't believe it."

Mark:

Yeah.

Sherri Davidoff:

I can give you some examples of what you can use for two FA if you want.

Mark:

Sure.

Sherri Davidoff:

Okay. So when you're logging into your email for example, some of you are probably familiar with the case where you get a pin on your phone. Right? You log in, it sends a pin to your phone. That's better than nothing, but it's not the best because those are not encrypted. I don't know if you've heard of simjacking attacks, where attackers can take over your phone, or they can get your phone number sent somewhere else, so those are not the best.

Sherri Davidoff:

What's better than that is an app on your phone, like Google Authenticator, which is free, or Microsoft's Authenticator. And it'll show you a code that you type in. Or even better, it'll just pop up a message that says, "Do you want to authenticate, yes or no? Is this acceptable?" And so you type in your password and then you hit yes, or you type in your code, and then you get in. And so the criminal actually needs your phone and your password in order to get in, and that is so much safer than just a password.

Mark:

And I want to follow up. You had talked as we started this discussion a little bit about they're into your email and they're capturing your passwords. One of the things I want to underscore for our listeners is that you don't know they're in your system monitoring and capturing all this stuff. I still run into a lot of people that say, "Well, I've never been hacked because the computer still works." Nobody's going to send you a thank you card for doing something silly and saying, "We've been in. And thank you, we got all this."

Mark:

But you made the comment about passwords. And one of the things that I hear from time to time as I talk about password policies, long passwords, passphrases, complex passwords, those kinds of things, and the pushback you always get. How in the world do I remember all this? And your comment of a Word document is absolutely not the way to do this. But I have talked about password saves. And one of the questions that comes up from time to time is, well, here I am putting all this information into a file. And sometimes these safes, I have one, Iron Key, that's a jump drive. But they're also cloud-based. And what are your thoughts about the security of that? Because I had a lot of pushback of people saying, "How in the world can that be safe if they're hacking in?"

Mark:

I certainly have my thoughts about it. But I'd love to hear from your ... I mean, you do the pen testing. How reliable are these password safes in terms of helping us try to be as secure as we can?

Sherri Davidoff:

Yeah. So you're probably thinking, "Well, why would I want to put all my eggs in one basket?" And then hackers know they're going to attack that basket. Right?

Mark:

Exactly.

Sherri Davidoff:

The reality is that it's more complex than that because first of all, that basket LastPass, Dashly, OnePassword, you name it, they are especially designed to be hardened against attacks. For example, they're resistant to the common attacks. They're constantly researching it. And if they autofill a form for you, they're using different hooks in the operating system that make it harder for the attacker to grab that compared with a regular web browser, for example, so that's the first thing.

Sherri Davidoff:

The second thing is I use password managers not just for their ability to store passwords, but for their ability to generate passwords. And that's perhaps even more important. You need a unique password for every single website, maybe not the really junky ones that you don't have anything important in them. But most people underestimate the importance of an individual account. Ideally, you want a totally different login for each website because you never know which website's going to get hacked. Right?

Sherri Davidoff:

And the human brain is not designed to remember 20 billion passwords. I mean, it's probably all we can do to remember three passwords. And so then you get people picking the password fluffy1984, like their dog and their kid's birthday, which people can totally guess, or spring2018bicycles, and then that changes to summer2018 when you have to change it. The hackers are onto you. They have automated tools that will automatically try different variants on your favorite password that they have already captured. They'll put an exclamation point at the end. They'll put a one, and then a two, and then a three, and then a nine and a 10.

Sherri Davidoff:

And they'll change spring to summer and 2018 to 2019. So those ways that people modify their passwords are not very secure. So use your password manager. Use two-factor authentication on it if it's in the cloud. And if you hear, LastPass, for example, was actually hacked several years ago. And what happens in that case is you want to change at least your master password if [inaudible 00:21:58] passwords.

Sherri Davidoff:

But it is so much better than keeping your passwords in a file on your computer because people get their computers infected so frequently. And that's the first thing that goes out the door. The criminals are automatically stealing your files, and then you won't even know you've been hacked until your money's been missing, or a spam email goes out to all your clients.

Mark:

So what I'm hearing then as the owner, I need to be really concerned about authentication and protecting passwords, strong passwords. Are there other concerns that come to mind as the owner?

Sherri Davidoff:

Ransomware. A lot of attorneys are hit with ransomware. Ransomwares steal your information often before they hold you for ransom. And that's the thing that a lot of attorneys don't think about because I've seen many law firms even put up out of office messages that say, "Hey, we have ransomware. We'll get back to you tomorrow." That's not cool for your clients.

Mark:

No.

Sherri Davidoff:

That means chances are their data was stolen too. And the trend that we are seeing in 2020 is that criminals have started to realize that people have better and better backups. And if you don't pay them the ransom to get your data back, they will threaten to publish it. And in that case, you've got two options. You can either say, "Okay, we'll pay the ransom," in which case, they could come back to you in six months and say, "Pay us again or we'll release it again." You can't trust them.

Sherri Davidoff:

Or you don't pay the ransom, and all your data's published. And what does that mean for your clients and your relationships and your status as an attorney? So you really need to protect yourself with ransomware. And you do that with two-factor authentication, super important.

Mark:

Yes, right.

Sherri Davidoff:

And making sure you have a secure method to connect to your data. So for a lot of people who have just poked holes in their network and they're going through RDP, remote desktop protocol, that's not a secure way to do it. There's other better ways to do it, like using a VPN. Or you can, if you choose to store your data in the cloud, there are some benefits to that, especially if you use two-factor authentication.

Mark:

Let's talk a little bit about this. And for those of you listening, if you're not completely sure, VPN stands for virtual private network. And we're really talking about disguising our location at times, in terms of what servers, when I use my VPN for instance, I am picking servers in Canada and other parts of the United States. I can go all over the world if I wanted to. So you're hiding your location a little bit, but it's also encrypting the data stream, so that's what we're talking about in terms of any remote connection. And I think it's particularly important in the wifi space.

Mark:

But there are a lot of free VPNs available and a lot of other just tiered pricing of all kinds of things. Do you have any thoughts about is it unwise to use the free VPNs as opposed to spending a little bit of money? I hear at times the VPNs that are free, they may be monitoring and monetizing the information they're learning about what you're doing. But I truly don't know. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Sherri Davidoff:

In general, there's no such thing as a free lunch in our society. Right? If you're not paying for a product, you are the product, so they say. So I would be careful about that. In general, I would get an experienced IT person's advice when you're setting up your VPN. I wouldn't do it on your own because if you make a little mistake, again, it's all your data on the line. There's some pretty serious consequences. Also, consider if you really need a VPN. Are you just trying to get into one computer? And if so, is it just a certain type of data that you need?

Sherri Davidoff:

Personally, I am a proponent, I've become a proponent of using the cloud. And I was a slow adopter. Being a security professional, I was fairly conservative about it. But you have some really strong options like Microsoft Office 365 is a great option for attorneys. There's a lot of compliance. There's a lot of regulations that they adhere to, and you can get them to sign off on that. There's other providers as well that are very good. And again, if you're using that two-factor authentication, they have some very advanced security features built in. They are maintaining that software, so I think it takes a lot of the pressure off of small and solo practitioners to just use the cloud. And then you don't have to worry about somebody remoting into your whole computer.

Mark:

One question that comes up every once in a while from lawyers as they start to think through some of the things we're talking about, but in the context of ransomware the cloud, they're learning. And I think for the most part they have as a profession, have a pretty good understanding what ransomware does at a basic level. And it can infect the network and this kind of thing. But I think some believe one of two things, but first, the cloud one is if I put things in the cloud, I'm safe there because there's this break. Would you put that to rest?

Sherri Davidoff:

Yeah. I mean, if you can access it, so can criminals. Right?

Mark:

Oh, yeah.

Sherri Davidoff:

Especially because often we see people click on links in phishing emails. Their computers get infected. And the criminals will even install ransomware in your cloud drives, like One Drive. If you can get to it and a criminal has access to your account, then the criminal has access to it. And there are times, in fact, I have a little video example that we took in our laboratory, where criminals will deliberately remote into your computer and use your computer to break into your bank accounts or your email accounts because you have your password saved there. And you don't have ... You've clicked trust this computer, so it's way easier for them than trying to break in from Thailand, or Russia, or wherever they happen to be.

Mark:

And I want to respect your time here, Sherri. The stuff you're sharing is just awesome, awesome stuff. I want to just take a few moments and shift a little bit now. So we've talked about some really good security things that lawyers, business owners, firm leaders need to be thinking about. And of course, all of this needs to apply to everybody. But let's talk about the home place. So what do I need to think about in terms of making sure my employees do, or understand? Do you have concerns about what the individual is actually doing in their own home?

Sherri Davidoff:

Yes, of course. A big issue that comes up is sharing of computers, so you need to have a clear policy as to whether it's okay to share computers. Is it okay to have certain types of documents on their personal computers? Remember that personal computers are much higher risk. You are likely to get a virus on a personal computer, especially if multiple people are sharing that. So whenever possible, keep work documents on work systems, or systems that are just used for work. And again, the cloud can help you with that.

Sherri Davidoff:

For example, you can allow people to access documents in the cloud and prevent them from downloading those documents. And it's all well and good to tell people that. But ideally, you want to actually implement that control and prevent them from a technical measure. We also see people emailing documents to their personal emails, and now it's totally out of your control. It's up in Google somewhere else. You may have violated some policies, especially if you deal with health information. You might've violated some regulations just by putting it up in Google, or violated your client's privacy. So mainlining control of your data, especially during these times, is absolutely critical.

Sherri Davidoff:

I think I would be remiss if I didn't mention mobile device management software, so if you have people using personal devices, you can deploy what we call an MDM. It's a piece of software that allows you to have some level of control over that personal device. So if that employee leaves, or if the device is stolen, it'll wipe your data from it. It can require that there's a pin or a passcode set on that device, even though you don't own that device. It can require antivirus software, and that's another one. If you do nothing else, require antivirus software. And you can buy it for employees to use on their home computers if they're using those for work.

Mark:

Yeah. The takeaway for me, and there are a lot here, and we can talk about this for hours. Maybe I could.

Sherri Davidoff:

I've been talking about it for 20 years.

Mark:

But I do like, when I think about our confidentiality rules in law, I do think saying we really ... You can't use a home computer for work that the teenage kids have access to in the evening, and the gaming. That's just victim here on the forehead if you ask me. So it underscores the value of saying, "If you have the financial wherewithal, let's supply our employees and staff and associates, whoever may be involved here, with company-owned equipment," because we can enforce the rules. We have control over that. I really like that. I but I also think that there's value in having some policies and then thinking through some of the issues that you just identified. And let's have written policies that staff are well aware of, so that if they are constantly breaking the rules, which is so easy to do because we trust our personal devices. Do we not?

Mark:

We seem to trust our personal devices a little bit more than work devices, whether it's because we know we're not being watched, if you will, in terms of just when you're on corporate device, they have the ability to monitor what's happening to the device, that kind of thing. I don't know what it is. But I think having a policy allows you to, well, not monitor, but hold people accountable.

Sherri Davidoff:

Absolutely.

Mark:

And say, "Look, if you're not doing something."

Sherri Davidoff:

Yeah. A policy's a great first step. And remember, progress not perfection. I do recognize, especially right now, a lot of people just don't have any other option besides using personal devices. And if you do that, again, that next step is to create a separate account at least. So you're not sharing the same account as your kids or as the other people you're working with. And if you can, having a separate device for work is definitely the way to go if you are able to do that.

Mark:

Well, Sherri, it's been a pleasure. I want to share with our listeners that Sherri has made available some remote work cybersecurity checklists for employees and managers. And this isn't live yet, but when it will be, you can click right there and have access to these. They're excellent tools. And Sherri, thank you very much for making that available to our audience. For those of you listening today, I hope you have found something of value. And if you have an idea of a topic that you feel strongly about that you think others would enjoy hearing, or you have a speaker that you'd be interested in seeing if we can have join the podcast, please don't hesitate to reach out to me. My email address is mbass, M-B-A-S-S, @alpsinsurance.com.

Mark:

And before I close, for those listening to the mileage score, you have to go back to earlier podcasts. I'm up to 700 even as of today, so I'm getting there. That's it. Thank you all. Thanks for listening. Bye-bye.

ALPS In Brief — Episode 46: What if Goat Yoga Isn’t Your Thing?

ALPS In Brief — Episode 46: What if Goat Yoga Isn’t Your Thing?

May 6, 2020

On this episode of ALPS In Brief, at the beginning of Lawyer Wellbeing Week and Mental Health Awareness month, Mark sits down with Liesel Brink, head of HR at ALPS to ask her a loaded question: Why would an employer want to invest time or money in prioritizing employee wellness? 

Transcript:

MARK BASSINGTHWAIGHTE:
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 I'm delighted to have as my guest a colleague, Liesel Brink, who has been with ALPS for five years and she is the Manager of HR at ALPS. In her prior life, I guess, leading up her background, she has a vocational certificate in business administration and a bachelor's in applied science among other things that she's done over the years, like still, in fact, serves as a consultant with HR Solutions. Oh, I'm sorry, HR Specialties. Excuse me there, Liesel.

And I've been excited to learn that for the past 23 years or so, she has been involved with the Moose Organization, and, boy, so I look over her bio, there's a long list of responsibilities and it sounds like you have been very, very active with this. And that's awesome. Great for you. Well, let me just say welcome and I guess explain, we're here to talk about wellness. And before I jump into some questions with you, Liesel, I'd like to share for our audience. May is a month where nationally we focus on mental health, it's a Mental Health Awareness Month, but May is also a time where the ABA and Bar Associations really try to prioritize wellness. And that's why I really wanted to have you participate here today. And, can we generally, just start out, how would you define wellness? I mean, what does that term mean to you as someone responsible for part of the wellness program in ALPS?

LIESEL BRINK:
Well, thanks for having me, Mark. It's a pleasure to be able to speak with you in this forum. I always love hearing your ALPS and briefs, so thank you. And talking about wellness, I love it. It's not something that everyone always thinks about and that's one of the reasons why I like it. For me, the definition of wellness is thinking about yourself in the full picture or the whole picture rather than breaking it out into little bits. You want to think about yourself as a whole.

MARK: 
Okay. Then that makes sense to me. One the things that I have done in past years is write about the importance of finding balance between our personal and our professional lives. And of late I've really decided that's not right, at least for me, because if you have to find balance between two things, it sort of suggests or implies that one is unhealthy and the other we need to work on. You see where I'm going? And I like how you... Wellness really encapsulates this in the sense that we're talking about oneness, wholeness, something like that. Okay. Very good. Let's see. I have a list of questions here I want to look at and talk about. Why do you feel that wellness is important, generally, in the workplace setting? Why would an employer want to invest, whether time and money? Thoughts.

LIESEL:
Yeah. Well, it's a loaded question, Mark. If I may say that, one, an employer wants to consider wellness for their employees for a variety of reasons, one being the return on investment. If you're considering helping employees think about financial wellness, that's less stress on them perhaps in the more ability for them to focus on the work that you're asking them to do. If you're thinking about a health aspect of wellness, whether that be in biometric screening or physical activities, that might enlist or allow, excuse me, individuals to actually think about their health a little bit more which could possibly lead for less absenteeism at work. Just a few reasons why an employer might want to consider wellness outside of the fact that it can improve morale at the company, even though it's a small company, and it can also improve the culture.

MARK: 
I like where you're going with that in terms of underscoring health, physical health, looking at financial wealth. I am not a mindfulness guy, and my wife tries to get me to go there at times. She thinks it would be good for me and I won't disagree with her, but for a long time I sort of equated mindfulness, the mindfulness movement, to the wellness movement and sort about... I'm thinking goat yoga and all of this crazy stuff. And that just doesn't... But I'm not saying goat yoga is not a good thing, but it doesn't speak to me. But you're really... Again, just underscores the... Looking at all aspects of a person's life. Before I go with my next question, I'd like to share, too, a little bit of a background or story about ALPS just as somebody that has been with the company now a little over 22 years. And ALPS, I really feel very blessed to have been with the company all these years.

MARK: 
And as any company, it's had its good days and its bad days. Its tremendous successes and some struggles. And I'll be honest and share, there have been times where, as you were talking about morale, was not always what could it be or should be or what I would hope for. And wellness was not something that... There was never a focus on it. And as a person that's gone through, having you join the company, new CEO, I can just share. There has been a sea change that is phenomenal and I would say the work that you have done and that David have done, our CEO, really has... I mean, the two of you are responsible for this. I mean, let's just be honest about that.

MARK: 
And you made me a believer. You really have, and it just... Again, morale. I've never experienced in a workplace setting, out of my whole career done all kinds of things over my life that allows me to feel so much as a team, sort of a home, that kind of thing. So I'm trying to share to our audience the value and significance and just hearing how this can impact somebody directly from the source. Now, so, okay. So, with all that out there, we've talked a bit about how you see this as important to a company, but can you talk about ALPS specifically? Why did... and we do all kinds of things and please feel free to share the kinds of things that we've done. You can go in any direction here, but why was wellness so important to you and to David in terms of... For ALPS?

LIESEL:
Right. So to be completely honest, Mark, it started off with just the health insurance costs, right?

MARK: 
Yeah. Right.

LIESEL:
Everyone knows that those are astronomical and a large part of anyone's budget. And we were trying to find a way to start honing in on what is costing us so much. Like other small companies, we don't have access to a lot of the data that can give us those answers. So what we decided to do was start small. Invite a biometric screening company in and incentivize employees to participate in that so that they could start thinking about their own health. And for us not to be a big brother about it, right? We're not telling them that they have to do this. It was totally voluntary, but it was free. So, why not participate? And, yeah. And so that's where we started. And from there, there was an ask. One employee came and asked, "Hey, can we do fun stuff during the year?"

LIESEL:
And, being a department of one, I said, "Sure. How about we try quarterly," and with a budget of $50 for the year, you start small. You can create a certificate for the team that wins if you want to do a team challenge. And that's how we started it out. We incentivized individuals to participate in group activities. Hiking, we all met at... And when I say, "We all," there were two or three of us who showed up and we did a hike together. We incentivize people to take the stairs at work. We also did a corporate gift, compression socks, which is also an aspect of wellness, right?

MARK: 
I still have mine.

LIESEL:
And so... idea, right? And we did another challenge this past winter. We had individuals wear their socks sometime during one week, and they took a sock selfie. And so, it's little things like that that can start individuals thinking about their own health overall. And not to jump ahead, Mark, but one of the other things that in the last two years I've been trying to push a little bit more about is mental health. And we offer some services already. We have an employee assistance program.

LIESEL:
And then I also found out that through our life insurance company, we have additional employee assistance available to us. So law firms can possibly, or any employer, can be looking at something like that that's already out there that they just didn't know about. And then there is a free National Mental Health Crisis number that employers can push out. If you're having a tough time, call this number. They're here to help. And just breaking down the stigma that seems to be around that.

MARK: 
We're a diverse group of people, and that's going to be true pretty much of the workforce at any business regardless of how, unless you're truly, for instance, just a sole attorney, it's just you. But how do you try to determine what the needs are and then follow up and try to meet the needs of this diverse group that you're working with in terms of trying to keep us all well? Is it sort of spontaneous, do you...

LIESEL:
Well, Mark, every HR person has a crystal ball and that's how we determine everything. No, I... To be honest, we did work with our insurance broker and we put together a survey that we did push out to all of our employees to tell them what... excuse me, to ask them, what aspects of wellness are they interested in in having us focus on? And from that survey I was very surprised we had a large percentage of individuals who participated say that they wanted more help with financial wellness.

MARK: 
Yeah. Okay.

LIESEL:
Yeah, it was exciting to see and also something that allowed me to reach out to a local credit union and bring in someone to help us with budgeting, and they were nice enough to do it as a community service to us. So, again, with that small budget, which, that was in the first year, helped out a lot. So the survey definitely... But even putting out the question to the employees in general, some people are comfortable enough to saying, "Hey, it would be fun if we could do X, Y and Z." Or, "People in my department would like to do this." So, giving some leeway could be beneficial depending on the size of the company.

LIESEL:
The other thing I would say, Mark, is that, starting small is fine because wellness is just about getting people thinking about these different aspects. Because most of the time we're so involved in our lives, in the things that we have to get done in that day and the things that are causing us stress. These are the things that are pulling our focus, and having a wellness program or even wellness monthly emails get people to at least come out of that thinking for a short period of time.

MARK: 
What do you think about space? Physical space? Office setup, those kinds of things? I mean, is there a component to wellness there as well?

LIESEL:
Definitely, Mark, and as far as the morale goes, I would say that that would be something that could be high on the list as far as ergonomics, making it available to employees to have an ergonomical evaluation of their workstation done. Locally, I know that our office supply company is able to do that for us. I know that our insurance broker has someone on staff that was willing to come in and do that with us. It also allows employees to, as far as risk to the company, minimizes Workers' Comp claims.

MARK: 
Sure.

LIESEL:
But also allow someone at the end of the day to possibly not go home with a headache or not have that stress. I do feel that that's important, and one of the first steps a company could possibly take in that mindfulness/morale for the company as whole.

MARK: 
Yeah. I can recall many, many years ago in a prior life, prior job, a big company, actually a government job, sort of big government office, but horrible lighting, these big old computer screens and you're just stuck and, oh, the headaches. You just... And I agree with you that just surroundings can make a huge difference. As you think about the past five years with ALPS, you have any thoughts on what has worked well, what hasn't worked, and would you do anything different? Just...

LIESEL:
Yeah. Five years. That's great. I can't believe it's been five years already. It seems like yesterday.

MARK: 
I know. It goes so fast.

LIESEL:
Yes. So, I would say what has worked well, variety, right? Not.... We are lucky in our company. We have a lot of individuals who love to be physically active. But what I like to think for individuals is not just catering to the individuals that are already thinking about their health. I like to try to get individuals engaged who aren't normally engaged. So, variety, fun, and one of the things that was most successful was the quick walk during our break. We did one during the morning break and one in the afternoon break, just so those that were interested could participate.

LIESEL:
And, again, we're very lucky. Just outside we have a walk path that we could do a quick 10 minute walk and everyone could be back in the office within an allotted time. One of the things that I personally took to heart but I've grown from is that participation wasn't as high as I would have liked it to be. And in talking with and networking with other HR professionals, I found out it was higher than theirs. And so, I was like, "That's fantastic."

MARK: 
Yeah. Yes.

LIESEL:
You try to get individuals into that set of thinking about their health overall, but you can't make them do things. And that's one of the things I would stress to individuals, is try your best, provide the resources, but don't stress if there's individuals who just aren't participating.

MARK: 
Okay. I was just sitting here thinking, we're in the, thankfully, at least here in Montana and nearing the end of this COVID stay at home situation. Our state is in the process of slowly "reopening." Who knows what's going to happen around the country and whether there's... You hear all kinds of, "Oh, my gosh, we may be back into this situation again at some other point." I don't know.

MARK: 
But I think, regardless, there's been a shift in this country that this COVID pandemic has accelerated a little bit. And it's a move toward telecommuting, and I think telecommuting has been happening, but I think it's accelerated a little bit and that's not going to go away. I'd just be curious, we've never talked about this before, but in terms of wellness, in the telecommute context, are there challenges? What are your thoughts about that? I'd love to hear.

LIESEL:
Yeah. So, to be honest, we've kind of been doing this week, been fortunate enough to have individuals who work remotely on our staff regularly, but to the extent that we have now and to the extent that the world is doing this, yeah, it is a bit of a struggle to be fully aware of what individuals are able to do when they're at home. So, taking that into consideration, trying to include things that people can do within their own home, making more touch points with employees, more connections with them, whether it's on the phone, or, we're lucky enough to have video options, too, to be able to engage with them on any questions that they might have or walk them through any of the challenges that we've set up in our wellness program.

LIESEL:
I will also say that we have opened up a platform for our employees through our information and system for employees to share resources on like children's yoga or the things that can be beneficial for everyone in the household now that everyone is home. I also encourage individuals to share humor, work-appropriate humor, but humor, because laughter after all is the best medicine, right? And it's not beneficial for everyone, but it does help individuals kind of remove themselves from their current thinking for a moment and put their mind into a different spot.

MARK: 
Yeah, couldn't agree more. Let me follow up with just two thoughts to underscore your point. We've been very blessed as a company for many, many years to have Nancy as our receptionist, and I can't remember how many years ago she started this, but there's always this morning email to the office with something funny. And she tells her stories, and I'll tell you, my wife gets a kick out of these. We get to laugh in here at home, but it does make a big difference. I do think humor is a great way to deal with some stress at times, but also just to feel good. If you start the day with a smile or a laugh, I think the odds are of the rest of the day being a little happier go up. And let me also share for our listeners, and I am one of the people you've referred to in terms of telecommuting for many years now, I think 10 or 11, something like that.

MARK: 
People have asked me how has COVID impacted me? And I'll sit here and say, "There's some things. Staying at home and not being able to go to a restaurant, those kinds of things. That's not fun." But from a work perspective, we're currently visiting via video on Microsoft Teams, and ALPS has really, significantly or substantially increased the use of teams during this process, and we're going to continue, I'm sure, to have this tool available for years to come. But the ability to video chat as opposed to just sending an email or picking up a phone, I can't tell you what a difference that makes. It's hard at times, as a remote person, to feel included in terms of what's happened at the office. There's lots of little things that go on at the office that we're just not part of because we're not there to have these conversations.

MARK: 
But that changes significantly with video. And I think a lot of folks... the technology and the tools are already there. It's just not being utilized in a way that could be beneficial. So, I'll throw that out there. I'd like to shift and as we start to wrap this up a little bit, bring this back to law. And a significant portion of our book really is the solo small firm space. So when you think about a small law firm and an attorney or an office manager just saying, "Oh, we really should look at this," or, "I'd like to take... But I don't even know where to start." What sort of practical tips or advice would you share that might get them moving in the right direction?

LIESEL:
So, Mark, I actually have previous work experience in law firms.

MARK: 
Oh.

LIESEL:
That's where I started many moons ago.

MARK: 
Oh, wow. I did not know. Very cool.

LIESEL:
Yes. And so I have a little bit of understanding of law firms. To be honest, there are a lot of free resources out there for anyone to take part of. We talked about ergonomic reviews. There are free resources out on the internet for how to set up your workstation properly, where your monitors should be versus how your chair should be and where your knees hit and how they tip the floor. So those are free resources. Hanging up your employee assistance program flyer or posting the free mental health phone number anywhere in the breakroom, those are free and fantastic good steps in as far as other free options, small places to start. Maybe having a lunch out at the picnic table as far as just disconnecting from work for your 20 or 30 minute lunch. Those are good things to start people in wellness.

MARK: 
Right. I'd like to circle back to one of your earlier comments as you wrapped this up, too. You shared, in terms of ALPS, you started out with 50 bucks and try and make something happen and you were talking about just a small staff. I want to underscore that because I think that's really important. You never get anywhere until you take that first step. And if you just take the step and start moving, it will evolve. None of us move forward day-to-day in what we're doing work-wise without making some mistakes now and again, but you do have to take that step. Well, I'm going to wrap it up here, Liesel. Do you have any final comments you'd like to share?

LIESEL:
You know, Mark, just start small. Every little bit is helpful, and don't be afraid to reach out to us here at ALPS if you'd like some more tips and tools.

MARK: 
Well, thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.

LIESEL:
Thank you, Mark.

MARK: 
And folks, for you listening to the podcast today, I hope you found something of value. And as Liesel said, please, we are here. We are your resource. Feel free to reach out to me anytime. My email address is mbass@alpsinsurance.com, and you don't need to be an insured to talk with me. If there's something I can do to help or connect you with Liesel, if that would be helpful, that's what we're here to do. One final comment for you, regular listeners. In a prior podcast I talked about trying to ride a thousand miles this year. If you're curious as to the current count, I'm at 305. Here's hoping. Have a good... Bye-bye.

ALPS In Brief — Episode 45: Listening to Your Life

ALPS In Brief — Episode 45: Listening to Your Life

April 28, 2020

There are all kinds of finishing lines in life. Some of those will be positive, and others won't. So go ahead and feel what you feel, but remember the journey isn't over. Sooner or later, you're going to have to decide what's next, figure out how to get there, and then start moving. Mark illustrates the importance and value of listening to your life.

Transcript:

MARK BASSINGTHWAIGHTE: 

Hello, and 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 here with ALPS. Today, I thought we'd take a little time to talk about listening. I've been blessed to have married my absolute best friend in life, and she and I are very honest with each other and have some crazy and interesting and wonderful conversations. At times she will be, like I said, very direct and honest. She'll say, "Mark, you're just not listening," and she's right. I mean, there are times, as she will describe and I readily agree, I have too many planes up in my head. I really am having trouble focusing and paying particular attention. But listening isn't just a skill that is limited to communication between two individuals.

I, with this podcast, would like to talk about listening to one's life and exploring a little bit about what that means in my experience. I would consider myself someone who does a pretty good job of listening to my life. I have seen a number of people have no idea what I'm talking about, no clue how to do it, and no desire to learn. I've seen some people even get hit, in my mind, upside the head by life with some meaning and something you're here to learn, and they just don't do the learning because they're not looking for it, perhaps. Others are very, very good at this, particularly for the big, loud things that life has to say. But I would really like to explore looking at this on the day-to-day, because I think there are all kinds of learnings that can come up day-to-day if we just stop to take the time to listen and to look for the learning.

So let me give you an example of what I think about and what I mean when it comes to listening to one's life. When I was a younger adult, there was a period of time where I was really into bike riding. It was primarily as a means of transportation, and also a way to get a little exercise during a commute. I learned to strip a bike down, clean it up, put it back together, and I had a lot of fun. Then kids, life, all kinds of things get in the way of that, and bikes pretty much got put away for a number of years.

I would say though, in the last three to four years, I've really started to get back into it, and I've really enjoyed it. I've been doing quite a bit of riding, both in the winter, sometimes because there's just too much snow here you can't get out, and in the club in terms of stationary bikes. But, boy, when spring's here, you go. You tune the bike up a little bit, and you just get out and start riding.

So let me use this example of bike riding and share some things about what bike riding says to me and what I take away from it. It has been a great workout. I've put on a lot of miles, and to me it helps keep me in shape. I have found, at times, the more I ride, sometimes some pickup trucks actually, in the neighborhood, in particular, as I work my way around or through the neighborhood, are just going slow and getting in the way. There's some obstacles there, and I've learned to just ride around them in a very safe and responsible way.

It's a lot of fun to get out and ride, particularly when it's a beautiful day and I can take some really long rides. I've been known to go as much as 40 miles in a day, which, for me, at 60, I think is a pretty good thing. But on the long rides, I need to remember, hey, take a phone, because sometimes you need to call for help if you have a bike breakdown and you don't have on hand what you need to repair it, or serious weather changes. Things happen, so it's helpful to have a phone. You take a little water because it's important to stay hydrated. You always wear a helmet. Again, you never know what can happen.

We have a number of bike trails in the area, and there are some bike tunnels that go under roads and areas where paths dip down and go below railroad tracks and highways and things, and there are some pretty tight turns. I've learned to just approach with caution. Sometimes there's another bike coming at me or somebody standing on a bridge fishing or a little ice in that tunnel because it's still early in the season. I just don't want to end up flat on the ground and just bruised up and bleeding from doing something stupid. I've learned, hey, when you have the wind at your back and, boy, an open road, you shift up, and you just take advantage of the support, and you have fun riding at a top speed. I really love that. Of course, at times, when circumstances change or conditions, perhaps, change, you might have an area with a lot of potholes or something, or you've got a hill to climb. You have to downshift. You have to adjust to make the ride enjoyable, perhaps, to not burn out.

So there's lots and lots ... I could go on for another 20 minutes on the kinds of things that you think about and learn as a result of riding on a regular basis. So I can take this experience and all the little things and sometimes bigger things that you learn and say, okay, that's cool. I get better and more efficient at riding. I get healthier. I learn a few tricks. I get more competent and comfortable. But that's not really listening. That's just observing and perhaps learning a few things along the way, but that's not really listening to what your life ... what the experience can teach.

So let's revisit some things and sort of apply it. I mean, that's the goal. You have to look for the learning, and you do that by listening. But now you also need to apply the learning to make, for lack of a better description perhaps, a life lesson out of it. This is one of the things that ... We have great kids, and they have all done so much. What I'm about to share that I hear from them sometimes isn't unique to the kids. I've had other people say these kinds of things. But I like the context of young adults. We have four out of five in their 30s now. Sometimes we'll be talking, and we'll say ... They'll say to us, why do you think you're right or we know more, we've experienced [inaudible 00:08:27]? I say, we just have perspective. We're just older. There's things we've learned. Yeah, dad, but you've never gone through this before or that before. You really don't know. My response, I don't need to experience every little thing to have some insights into how something might play out. You kind of get where I'm going?

So with that in mind, let me, again, revisit riding and share some thoughts about what I've learned as a response to riding over the last three or four years. I'm talking about now ... I'm riding, 5, 600, 700 miles throughout the season, just outdoors. In fact, my goal this year ... We'll see. I'm going to give it a shot, see if I can get 1,000 miles before winter hits. Wish me luck. That's a lot of riding.

So one of the things that I've learned that I really have taken to heart, I need to stay alert, and I never want to go full bore into a tight curve, because something unexpected really is just around the bend. How do I apply that? What does that mean? Perhaps let's even talk about it in the context of a legal career. Well, when I think about this learning, here's just one example. Just because a new practice area is about to seriously heat up, that isn't a good reason in and of itself to jump into this practice area before you have time to come up to speed and/or to develop any necessary internal processes that will enable you to be competent in the delivery of these new legal services. To state it another way, do this kind of stuff is really an accident waiting to happen. So stay alert. Don't go full bore into the unknown. You need to prepare. You need to be intentional about it. You need to look for problems and anticipate.

Another one, and I got to thinking about this just the other day, and I don't know why it struck me, but it really did. I noted. It's really extremely difficult to balance on a bike hands-free while the bike is stationary. Try doing that at a stop sign, as an example. It's extremely difficult, but particularly to do it for very long, but it really gets quite a bit easier the faster you go. I just started to think about that. What could be a life lesson out of that? Well, for me, it's this. If you want to develop a skill and truly become proficient at it, you need to learn to take a few risks while always moving forward. Stated another way, there is value in learning to say yes to opportunities that push your comfort zone. I mean, as I see it, that's how you grow, professionally and as a person.

How about this? I will share. Over the years, I've had a few what I'd describe as close calls. Once in a while, the close call was intentional in the sense somebody was messing with me. At other times, it's just crazy things happen when you're riding on a road or a highway. I try not to do that a lot, but here in Montana sometimes you need to, to get to the trails or the pass that you really want to ride. So one of the things that I've learned is this. Sometimes someone will try to mess with you in the middle of a ride. Know that it can happen. Do what you can to be prepared, and keep pedaling. Most importantly, don't let it frighten you. You still have more than a few miles to go.

Now what can you take away from that? Well, again, in the context of practicing law, here's one of the thoughts that I have. Some people will try to intimidate you. Perhaps it's an aggressive, over the top negative online review or opposing counsel practicing incivility in the extreme during a deposition. There's all kinds of things you could create here. But the fact that these things happen, that says nothing about you. Don't let this get under your skin, because you still have work to do. Continue to focus on what lies ahead.

Now I talked a little bit earlier about ... I try to stay in shape and, during the winter season, keep riding. It's stationary bikes. So I'll go out to the club and take care of that, in terms of trying to work out. But here's a learning from that sort of experience. I will say, even if it's bad weather at times, during the season, you have to make this choice sometimes. Do I want to go out on the road? Or do I want to just go to the club and watch TV as I ride? Yes, I have to admit, and I've learned this, it is a lot easier to ride indoors, particularly when the weather isn't the best. It's an easy choice. But no matter how fast you pedal, you still end up where you started, and I think that's important to appreciate. What that means to me is, if I want to get anywhere in my career and in my own life, I actually have to go outside and make it happen. No one's going to do it for me.

Here's another one that I like, and sometimes you'll see people. They just don't want to do this, and I get it. I do. I get it. But I'm a firm believer. Always wear a helmet, because it's your head we're talking about, the place where you keep all your intellectual capital, things like how to ride a bike and how to get back home. Why is that important? What's the takeaway for me, or what's the learning that life's trying to tell me with that insight? Well, in my mind, it's if you fail to prioritize taking care of yourself, all you end up doing is increasing the risk of injury or illness, which can have serious consequences, to include the ability to even earn a living.

There are times when I will ride in circles, and what I mean by that ... And it's not a negative. It's just I have a loop so that, if I have a little time over lunch, I can go out, and I'm not pounding out 10 miles out of town and back. You just can't do that over a lunch hour. So I have a loop, and I ride locally. At other times, nice days, weekends, I will do some extended riding. Sometimes it's just exploring, and sometimes it's very intentional. But one of the things I've learned from going off the loop and going out and exploring is some trails eventually end. Once there, it's good to take a little time to feel what you feel, but you need to get back on the bike because the ride isn't over.

I started to think about that too. What does that teach me? Here's what I take away from finding that some trails just come to an end. Endings happen. Now think about a career change, a retirement, a divorce. There are all kinds of ends that happen in life. Some endings are going to be positive, and others aren't. So go ahead and feel what you feel, but remember the journey isn't over. Sooner or later, you're going to have to decide what's next, figure out how to get there, and then start moving.

So the point of this whole short podcast is just to share a skill or an insight that is meaningful to me that has been valuable to me in so many ways. Sometimes the learnings, the insights that come from practicing learning to listen to your life are small and perhaps inconsequential in some ways. One of the things I've learned in that genre is always have a rubber band with you. You'd be surprised how often the one thing I need to fix a minor problem is a rubber band. It comes in handy all the time. I think it should be on the list. The three things that you need in life are a good can of WD-40, some great duct tape, and some rubber bands, and you're good to go.

But more often the learnings are a bit more significant and can really help me keep focused, keep moving forward. So I guess I'll just leave it at that and share what I've been musing about, what I've been thinking about on rides in recent months, and encourage you. There is value in taking time to listen to what your life is saying, even if it's just a whisper. That's it, folks. I hope you found something of value today, and please don't hesitate to reach out any time if there's any other topics you'd like to hear, if you just have a question or concern you would like to discuss. You can reach me at MBass@ALPSInsurance.com. Thanks much. Have a good one. Bye, bye.

ALPS In Brief — Episode 44: It’s a Different World — Literally.

ALPS In Brief — Episode 44: It’s a Different World — Literally.

April 15, 2020

Do you feel like you're living on another planet right now? There's a reason. Humans are social animals and social distancing and isolation is not our normal here on Earth. Mark sits down with his son Tristan, and Carmel Johnston, two crew members from NASA's HI-SEAS IV study to learn what is required to survive and even thrive during an extended mission to Mars and how we can adapt our own behaviors to stay happy here on Earth.

Transcript: 

MARK BASSINGTHWAIGHTE:

Welcome. You're listening 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 here at ALPS, and today we're going to have a little fun, do something a little bit interesting. Believe it or not, I'm going to try to make some connections between Mars and all of these stay-at-home or stay-in-place orders all over the country. Now, how are we going to do that? I guess saying Mars is a little bit misleading. We are going to talk about a Mars simulation and I am so pleased and excited to have two very special guests on today and honestly both of them are very special people in my life and in the life of my wife. The first is Carmel Johnston.

MARK:

Carmel is quite an outdoorsman. Boy, trying to get her to do a podcast can be a bit of a challenge, but just because you never know where she is. I was watching this morning, a YouTube of her as she was doing a TV show in Australia of all places, but she also spends quite a bit of time now in Glacier National Park, another place that is near and dear to many of our hearts as folks in Montana. Carmel has a background from Montana State University, a master of science in land resources and environmental sciences. And now she is the Utility Systems Repairer and Operator at the National Park Service. And actually, Carmel, you're going to have to explain, is that the same position in Glacier?

CARMEL JOHNSTON:

Yeah, so it's called Utility Systems Repair Operator, but essentially it's a water and wastewater operator position so, all the water that people drink we create, and then all the wastewater that happens afterwards, we treat before it is given back to the earth.

MARK:

Okay, very good. And I'll explain a little bit more about Carmel here in just a minute. The other guest that I'd like to introduce is someone that goes back in my life quite a few years. We first met in, I believe it was, Tristan, wasn't it 1984 if I'm remembering correctly? This is Tristan Bassingthwaighte and Tristan among, and again, like Carmel, these two, you can find them all over the world at different times. Of note, Tristan received his Masters in Architecture from Tongji University in Shanghai, and then went on to complete his Doctorate of Architecture from the University of Hawaii, Manoa. Tristan has done all kinds of things, but my interest in having him visit with us today is, some of what he does is, how would you describe it, in terms of the different, I'm losing my words here, Tristan, but what type of architecture ties in here?

TRISTAN BASSINGTHWAIGHTE:

I specialize in the design of habitats, research bases, even you could say, drilling platforms, the areas people would go on earth or in outer space that are isolated, dangerous working environments, confined environments, and then how to understand the social and psychological issues that occur with people there, being removed from family and society and walks in the park and fresh coffee, and trying to address them architecturally, so that we could say, live on Mars for 10 years and not have everybody go crazy or something along those lines.

MARK:

My senior moment was extreme environment design. That's what I was struggling with, just every once in a while recall isn't what it should be. While you listeners might be wondering why I have these two guests visiting with us today and what Mars has to do with stay-at-home orders. Both of these folks were participants in a Mars simulation. It was, what is called HI-SEAS IV, and it was a 366 day mission, and Carmel was the crew commander for this mission and Tristan was the crew space architect, and they really have all kinds of stories and insights and experiences to share. But this was a project between NASA and the University of Hawaii, and they literally lived in a very small space for 366 days, never being able to go outside on the side of, it was Mauna Loa, if I'm remembering correctly, but Carmel, could I have you just share a very brief little background in terms of what this experience was about? And Tristan, of course jump in anytime.

TRISTAN:

Hmm.

CARMEL:

Yeah, so we were the six participants of the Hawai'i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation Mission Number Four and that consisted of the six of us living in a 1200 square foot dome on the side of Mauna Loa for the year, and like you said, we couldn't go outside unless we were wearing a space suit and we lived off freeze dried, dehydrated powdered ingredients for the year unless we were able to grow our own vegetables, and we were the guinea pigs studying the effects of isolation and confinement on all of us and out of all the different tools and techniques that people have thought of up to this point for dealing with those psychological aspects of confinement.

MARK:

Yes. Yep. Very good. And Tristan, maybe you can share just a little bit when we talk about isolation, there were six for those of you listening, a total of six individuals participated in this year long mission and I believe it's to this day, the longest isolation experiment run yet here in the States anyway, but there's isolation, too, in terms of communication and Tristan, could you share a little bit about that?

TRISTAN:

Yeah. When you actually go up there, you find you've got your row of laptops so we can all do our work and research and everything. You've got several electronic devices like iPads and everything to do quizzes and surveys, enter the various information for the experiments we're doing, write about how we feel, et cetera, sort of tracking our emotions and reactions during the course of the year. But also there's a viciously delayed internet that only allows access to a few research sites because that's what we were doing. Phones don't work.

TRISTAN:

There's no real time communication with anybody that's not in the dome. So if I was going to say, write an email to grandma, I could compose the whole thing and send it off and it would be held in an ESSA server for 20 minutes and then delivered to her. So, all of our digital communications that people focus on these days are light speed delayed the way they would be if we were actually on Mars. So, you're very, very, very removed from everybody physically and in terms of communication and every way you can imagine. So it's not just, oh, you're in a tent but you can hang out on Snapchat if you want.

MARK:

Very good, thank you. When you guys signed up for this and got selected in terms of what you were thinking it would be like versus what you ultimately discovered, did you know what you were getting into?

TRISTAN:

Yeah, I would say I had a fair idea because I was actually applying to this near the tail end of my Masters research and the Masters research was also on [inaudible 00:08:24] environmental architecture, sociology, psychology, and I only found HI-SEAS because I was trying to research analogs that were on earth and then honestly, just ask some of the participants questions and that accidentally turned into applying.

MARK:

How about you, Carmel?

CARMEL:

Yeah, I think we knew a lot about what we were getting into, but there's definitely a component to it that we had no idea how isolating it really would be. And several of us had done previous analog simulations before, not to that length of time, but two week simulations here and there, and each simulation you go through whether it's HERA or MDRS or HI-SEAS or SIRIUS, any of those, they all have different components to it. And so, ours was the delayed communications. You had unlimited amount of data to be dropping data packages if NASA needed to send us something, but it would be delayed and it would be in the say, constraints of how they would actually send data to Mars.

CARMEL:

Whereas other ones it's, oh you have unlimited real time communication but you only get a certain amount of data per day or per week or something. And then every simulation space suits are different and the different things that you're testing are different, which is great because we're compiling all these resources of the different aspects of isolation and confinement, and then, the ultimate test is going there. And so, hopefully if we practice all these different components to it here, then it will it make easier for actually getting there.

MARK:

Maybe, I'm just going to take a tangent for a quick second, in light of our listening audience here and I really didn't explain what HI-SEAS stands for. It is the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. So it's H-I dash S-E-A-S, if you ever want to look something up and see what HI-SEAS is all about. Was it hard?

CARMEL:

Oh yeah.

MARK:

How so?

CARMEL:

I would say that it, well, up to this point, it's been the hardest thing I've done in my life, but that is barring that my parents are still here and so when they go, that'll probably be the hardest thing I have to deal with. But having a lack of communication because our connection to society and our friends and family is humongous and each one of us, Tristan will tell stories about his friends that fell off. Each one of us had friends that wouldn't write back or they'd forget about us until the Martian came out, and then all of a sudden we get a lot of emails and people saying, "Oh, we're thinking of you." And you're like, well, where were you two months ago when I really needed you to respond back to an email?

CARMEL:

And it's kind of the out of sight, out of mind concept of as soon as you're gone then people forget because you're not in their regular life all the time. And we were just stuck up there doing our research and it was very easy to feel disconnected from the people that we cared about the most, which made us feel like, well, maybe we don't mean that much to them or you start playing all these games in your head about why people don't respond back. It's probably because they have kids and they're living their lives. But to you it seems like, well, this is really important to me.

MARK:

Tristan?

TRISTAN:

Yeah, I would definitely agree with that. I had all sorts of people that kind of vanished and dropped away. I mean, half of our relationships these days seem to be over email or text anyways. So, you'd think they'd be able to keep up, but it kind of gave you a good opportunity to, healthy or unhealthy, coping mechanisms can help get you through some stuff. So, it was a chance to pick up some hobbies and try and focus on work and do some other things as well, but you definitely feel it.

MARK:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). How did you make peace with that, I guess? How were you able to move forward? Because nobody at the end came out crazy, ready to be hospitalized. Nobody died, in terms of, you didn't kill each other, that kind of thing. So how'd you do it?

TRISTAN:

I think the big thing for me was a string of tiny little fun victories mixed with a few larger goals over the course of the last eight months perhaps. So, Carmel and Cyprian got really into trying to run a marathon and I thought that was the worst idea ever because who wants to run forever? That just hurts. And eventually, Carmel talked me into it and I ended up doing that. So I mean that was a, what did I do, like two and a half months of training to actually get up to that?

CARMEL:

Yeah, I don't remember having to talk you into it. I think you were like, "Hey, I think I could do this." And we were like, "Well, make your training plan. You can totally do it."

TRISTAN:

Yeah. Yeah, something like that. So, you start to run and everything and then I think she and Cyprian were coming by every half hour leaving treats on the treadmill and spraying me with water bottles and stuff. So, you've got your camaraderie on the inside and then when there's not some massive thing that you're working on or accomplish that day, Carmel and I invented the pizza cupcake, a lot of fun, small things that like, "Oh, this is today's victory. I have changed the culinary world."

MARK:

Can you, Carmel, just share for everybody listening again what running a marathon in a dome looks like?

CARMEL:

So, we have a treadmill there and at the beginning of the year, the treadmill was kind of adjacent to the window and then we found that Cyprian kept falling off of it because he was looking out the window, and so we put it in front of the window and then at least you had the same Mars landscape to look at while you're running, but for the most part you have to watch a lot of movies because running a marathon in general is pretty time consuming depending on how fast you're grounding. Either way, it's a lot of movement and listening to movies or watching movies or listening to podcasts or something, it's kind of the only way to take away from the monotony of one foot in front of the other for so darn long.

MARK:

Yeah, and for those listening again, can you appreciate what they're sharing? They're running marathons on a treadmill and trust me, this isn't a state-of-the-art brand new high tech thing, in front of, I wouldn't say a window, my memory is it was the window, and it is about the size of maybe a large pizza pan. It's just a circle and you're looking out at volcanic rock. There's nothing out there. So, just trying to put that in perspective. Crazy kinds of stuff. Did you want to share? Go ahead. I think I cut you off.

CARMEL:

Oh, you're okay. Sometimes there were clouds so that really broke it up and made it a little change of scenery. But yeah, it was pretty monotonous the whole time when you're running, but at the same time, that's the thing that's breaking the other monotonous cycle of your life, which is research and cooking food and being around the same people all day every day, and so that's actually kind of an escape is doing something pretty monotonous. It's funny that way.

MARK:

Let's shift gears just a little bit. These stay-in-place orders really are having an impact on people. I've been talking with some lawyers in recent weeks, several of whom work in the domestic relations space and they're reporting tremendous increase in families, whether it's just some abuse kinds of things going on to just divorce. People are getting a little crazy and stir crazy. A lot of people I heard in Paris for instance, you're not allowed to exercise outside now and I'd love for you guys to talk about what going outside meant for you, both in terms of how it was done and what it meant for you, but Michigan has just issued an order forbidding contact now with friends and family in terms of extended, you are not to go out and visit with anybody. You can only interact with people that are in your physical home.

MARK:

Now, of course, I guess you can say hi or smile at somebody at the grocery store. But that's a different thing. So, in light of the challenges, so many are having to face, that have never dealt with anything like this, and for some it's going to be four to six weeks. Others, it might be eight to 10 weeks, nothing like 366 days. But perhaps through the context of sharing your stories, how you survived and things, you could share some tips and insights into how people going through these stay-at-home, stay-in-place orders can again, come out the other side without too many bruises and nobody's killed each other. So, I'll let you guys chat here for a little bit on that.

TRISTAN:

Yeah well, I mean part of it is this is being forced on everyone, where as we got to volunteer. So we had to begin ours with slightly different mindset, which helps out. But I think, when you go into something like this, the problems that occur sort of, I mean you, you can imagine them being created because you're stuck inside and can't leave and there's no communication, whatever. But really, wherever you go, like when you go on a vacation, your problems are waiting for you when you get back because you were just on vacation. And when you go into isolation. You're just taking your life and your problems with you. So, I would argue that the people who are getting to spend a month with their spouse and then realize they can't stand the way they chew food and they get divorced, probably had other issues, it was likely not the the quarantine them split them all up.

TRISTAN:

So if you're going to be stuck somewhere and you can't go to the bars and hang with all your friends and do the normal life distraction stuff that defined your existence before all of this, you're going to, whether you realize it or not, meet yourself in some ways and realize where your priorities lay, the character traits that you actually enjoy and hate about the people you're living with. Even start to ask existential questions maybe. I know in the last like couple of weeks I've been like, what am I doing with my life and trying to just figure some of that stuff out again because I've got the time now.

MARK:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). That's great. You're so spot on. Carmel.

CARMEL:

Yeah, I think that's really well put, especially because we did choose to be isolated and so, it takes a special kind of special to even want to do that. And I mean honestly, isolation isn't for everyone and we know that because there are only certain people that volunteer for isolation studies or to go to other planets or to live on the ISS or go to Antarctica. Not everyone's volunteering to do that because it just doesn't mesh well with them, and you see people who choose to overwinter in Antarctica year after year. They enjoy it or they are at least able to get through it because that matches with that personality. So, having this forced upon everyone in the world right now really is kind of taking a lifestyle choice for some people and making it a mandatory lifestyle. So, finding coping mechanisms, things that help you make your life as easy as possible for where you are at right now is probably the best step for a lot of people because they might enjoy certain aspects of it, but they definitely aren't going to enjoy everything about it, as we did as well. There are certain things I miss terribly about the dome and then there are some things I'm like, I never need to go back there again for others.

MARK:

What would you say you missed? I find that interesting.

TRISTAN:

Oh, the food.

CARMEL:

The food. I actually kind of do miss the isolation because we were up there and you could just get so much work done and you didn't have a lot of distractions in some ways and I had a treadmill that I could run on most of the time because a couple of weeks ago they took away the gym at work and so now you're forced to exercise outside except for that it's snowing all the time, and they closed the park and they closed the reservation and you literally can't leave a one mile square radius anymore. And so, I'm going a little crazy for other reasons right now.

MARK:

You raised the term coping mechanisms and I think that's a good, can we explore that a little bit and just have both of you talk, what were your coping mechanisms? What really worked for you and if there was something that you tried and didn't, I'd love to hear that as well.

TRISTAN:

Yeah, I mean, I would say, part of the reason that we had said food was such a great thing is because Carmel's mom actually taught her to cook very well and I got to be sous chef two days out of the week inventing new things or learning how to make old favorites, whatever. We actually pulled off a super respectable salmon eggs Benedict, a double layer chocolate cake, the aforementioned pizza cupcakes. We made Swedish meat, no, not Swedish meatballs, oh, what were the meatballs we made? Italian meatballs or something and they were actually better than the meatballs at the restaurant we went to when we all got out. So it was a bit of a playing around and creative aspect there.

MARK:

I was working on my dissertation while I was there so I had some of my personal work as well. Some of my best selling tee shirts, I came up with the ideas and drew them while I was up there because I had the time. You sort of have the option between say, for people going through isolation now, you can do something that is numbing like getting through your favorite series or watching Battlestar, all four seasons, over the course of two weeks and you're sort of pausing yourself as a person in your life while you enjoy something. Or you could say, well I'm going to do something productive or creative and actually find ways to engage the part of yourself that wants to learn the language or an instrument or start doing art or becoming an incredible bonsai Shaffer person. One of those will actually let you survive a year and one of them will let you get through a couple of weeks.

TRISTAN:

So, I think we're actually going to start to see as these stay- at-home orders carry on, more problems, because a lot of people are doing the numbing route, where they're investing heavily in say, television or whatever, something that's sort of a passive hobby, instead of something that actually lends meaning to what they're doing and helps them feel like they are progressing.

MARK:

Following up on that, I get concerned, too, about alcohol abuse. If there's not, the numbing kind of thing, just to kind of get through it and it's so easy to just casually increase and increase and increase and what becomes after dinner or before dinner beverage or two, you have a little bit at lunch, you have some in the afternoon. What the heck? I've got another beer or so in the fridge to get the nine o'clock movie and on and on. Carmel, how about you? Your thoughts.

CARMEL:

Yeah, I think, I have lots of thoughts. I've been thinking about this for five years now. I think right now it's okay to acknowledge that it sucks. Nobody's really having a great time right now and it's okay to say, this is not where we wanted to be and it's changing everything and it's hard, but what can we gain out of it? And it's okay to live in the grumpy mood for a little bit, but then the thing that's going to bring you out of it is planning and having a goal for the day, or I had one person who was retired, they told me the other week, I have at least one thing I have to accomplish every day, even if it's just making my bed or it's stacking firewood or something else. I have to write on the list, I did one thing every day because then once you do one, it'll be find, you'll start doing a bunch of other things, but if you sit in bed first thing in the morning and start watching a show, then it's six shows later, you're like, hmm, I guess I'm kind of hungry now and I might make something or I might just eat leftovers. And so having things to do in your day that need to be done that day is actually helpful because you have a drive and a reason to go.

CARMEL:

And I'm so thankful that I am still working right now because I have something that makes me, I mean, I would be not getting out of bed otherwise, but you know I have a purpose and I am contributing every single day right now and that gives me a lot of fulfillment knowing that I am still able to do this and I'm not forced to be at home because that would be extremely challenging for anyone to be told, you can't go to work, you're still getting paid, but then you're like, well heck, what am I even contributing right now? So, as Tristan said, coming up with workouts or a craft or a hobby or something you want to master that gives you a purpose for every single day. It's very easy for all your days to run together and to not know what day of the week it is, but if you have something that keeps you going forward every single day, that's a longterm game plan versus a short term plan.

MARK:

I obviously vicariously went through this experience just as a parent and trying to stay in touch and so I kind of lived the experiment as an earthling. It seemed apparent to me that two coping mechanisms that were very, very effective, and I think not only for the two of you, but that became effective and helped others in the dome, and that would be the use of humor and the ability to get outside. Now, I want to underscore for people listening, getting outside of the dome is not like you get to walk through the air lock and take your tee shirt off and get a little sun and go for a run up the hill. You're in spacesuits, you don't get the fresh air, the sun isn't on your skin for 366 days. Either both of you, if you would just share some thoughts about the importance of, did that matter? How did it matter, in terms of humor or just a change of scenery?

TRISTAN:

Yeah, I mean the big thing is it's a new stimulus. So, instead of the treadmill to try and escape from whatever's going on or doing our work or our hobbies, you actually can go over the landscape. The physical exertion is, while it has the same unpleasantness as jogging for a long time, it can at the same time feel cathartic and like you're moving your body because you are, so it can help meet some of your exercise goals and help you workout some stress.

TRISTAN:

But we were lucky enough that, I don't know if it's on the entire mountain, but we had several in the local area we were allowed to explore, but we had lava tubes so you could schedule an EVA, and do all this paperwork and get everything set up, and then the next day, you suit up and go outside and your teams and everything. And instead of just walking around on a barren landscape, which can be beautiful for its own aesthetic reasons, you're getting to wiggle through strange holes and cracks and find giant house-sized volumes under the lava that are totally empty or have a little skylight at the top with a shaft of light and trees and it's dark and a little scary but super pretty, and just this really wonderful fun exploring thing. And that was a massive stimulus and change of pace compared to whatever was going on inside the dome because we had dozens of these lava tubes and pits and everything that you could explore.

MARK:

Very cool. Carmel.

CARMEL:

Yeah, I agree that those are probably, I'd say humor, going outside, and exercise are the top three mechanisms for keeping yourself sane while you're there. Tristan was the diffuser of almost all situations we had when anything would get tense, he'd crack a joke about something and we'd be laughing and then everything would be better or at least, it would be better than it was before. And so, one of the most valuable roles you have in a crew is to have humor, to maintain humor around a situation. You can be serious and get your work done, but being lighthearted for certain things is absolutely necessary because if you can't laugh about it then you're going to be in a world of hurt later.

CARMEL:

And I agree, going outside was huge and we did have, most of our EVAs were, our extra vehicular activities, [inaudible 00:30:28] outside. We put on our space suit and most of them were meant for doing geology research or lava tubes or the different tasks that the research team had for us to do out there. But sometimes it was just to go have fun because things would be so tense. You're like, I just need to go outside and maybe walk in a straight line because you can only do like 21 steps in the dome before you have to turn and round a corner, and you can't just keep doing laps. You have to go back and forth and just go outside and use your long distance vision and stretch all your muscles and you can even just run down the road if you wanted to, just totally different than being inside, and so mixing up that, like Tristan said, the stimuli of being indoors versus outdoors was really, really important.

MARK:

Yeah, I'm finding that's what's helping me right now. Now I telecommute so a stay-at-home order isn't quite the same impact for my wife and I than with other family situations perhaps, but I've been getting out. Since the stay-at-home, Tristan, you might be impressed here with your old man. I put 150 miles on my bike since the stay-at-home, just get outside, you can still socially distance. Nobody's within six feet of me, but I'm pedaling like crazy, and it's just been good. It really does make a difference, even just in mood.

CARMEL:

Fresh air is super good for everyone. That's got to be good for, if you are sick, having some fresh air go through your lungs and if you're not sick, helping keep yourself healthy and moving strong.

MARK:

Well, I feel like I've taken a lot of your time here and I so, so appreciate your willingness of both of you to share a little bit with the ALPS audience. Before I let you go, do you have one final tip or comment you'd like to share in terms of just, this is your chance to say it again, people that are just trying to make it work and figure out how not to go stir crazy. A final thought from each of you.

TRISTAN:

Yeah, I mean, I'd say the biggest is you've got the time down to let your vices squeeze you. So try and balance that out with less immediately fun but more longterm productive goals because it sucks now. Nobody wants to go and work out for two hours a day or do that paperwork that's lying around but actually producing something instead of just indulging in something will make four weeks feel a lot more like four and less like 10.

MARK:

Yeah, yeah. Carmel.

CARMEL:

I like that. I like that a lot. I also think, finding more than one thing, because one of my downfalls in the dome was that running was my thing and then anytime the treadmill wasn't available, whether it was power or it was broken or whatever, I was a wreck because I just didn't have the ability to do my one coping mechanism, and so having a whole suite of them, whether it's painting or you have some online videos you could do or a whole variety of things that make you happy and are helping you and can be productive at the same time, that would be good because if all of a sudden the gym closes and then it's bad weather outside. Then now you're like, well, what am I supposed to do? And you have all this stress or anxiety built up that I can't get rid of. You need to have a whole suite of things you can do in order to be able to relieve that.

MARK:

Yeah. To that, I would like to add in terms of the comments both of you shared. Just as a family member that was on earth during this whole experience, I would like to underscore the importance of social connectivity that both Carmel and Tristan talked about earlier in this podcast. We can't necessarily go out and meet friends at the local brew pub or something and have a nice evening, but there are alternatives, and to try to just call a little bit more, talk on the phone, do some Zoom meetings with family. We've done a little bit of this with some of the kids and that's been a lot of fun.

MARK:

So, don't underestimate as well, the value of staying socially connected. I think that can make a big difference. Well, that brings the podcast to an end. To those of you listening, thank you very much for taking the time. I hope you found something of value and please don't hesitate to reach out to me at ALPS. It's m bass, mbass, B-A-S-S @alpsinsurance.com. Happy to try and help in terms of any questions, concerns you might have on ethics, risk management, or even just getting through a stay-at-home order. That's it, folks. Have a good one. Bye bye.

ALPS In Brief — Episode 43: The Problem Lies with the Culture

ALPS In Brief — Episode 43: The Problem Lies with the Culture

February 24, 2020

ALPS Risk Manager Mark Bassingthwaighte shares two real-world stories of attorneys struggling with behaviors that often lead to malpractice claims. As a legal community, it is our duty to lift each other up and to provide hope and support to one another. It is time for us to concede that addiction, depression, and burnout are symptoms of a problematic legal culture, not a “problem lawyer.”

Transcript: 

Mark Bassingthwaigthe:

Welcome. You're listening to ALPS In Brief, the podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. I'm Mark Bassingthwaighte. I'm the Risk Manager here at ALPS and today I'm going to return to the storytelling format. I have two stories that I'd like to share that I think have some real value, hopefully, to at least some of you. A number of years ago I received a phone call from a solo attorney and it was a very interesting conversation. You could tell at the outset that the attorney was, for lack of a better word, troubled. And in short, he was calling to let me know that he was about to commit malpractice and that kind of struck me as odd a little bit. In a way, the malpractice hasn't happened yet. You're telling me you... and you just kind of listen.

And what I learned was that he had reached a point in his career where he simply could not do anything else. He could make no more decisions, just nothing left. And he had a statute of limitations date that it was about to run and was calling to let me know that he was going to walk out of his office and quit and never return and just was giving us a heads up. Now thankfully we were able to... We can't send somebody out and take care of this, but we were able to work with a local bar and have that matter addressed. But this gentleman actually did shortly after hanging up the phone with me, walk out of the office, never returned. He was done. And I can share, I've heard that story or situations like this I should say, more than one or two times in my 22 years here at ALPS. This does happen from time to time.

Now a second story that I would like to share has to do with a small firm. And in this situation we learned through a number of claims and I will fill you in in a moment on that, but what basically happened, one of the lawyers really reached a point similar to the attorney in the first story. He just got to a point where he too could not make any more decisions. Now, he didn't walk out, he didn't walk away, but he was unable to practice anymore. He enjoyed coming into the firm every day, was very interactive and polite, enjoyed visiting with staff, having his cup of coffee in the morning and visiting with the attorneys and just his normal self or so it appeared. Unfortunately, as he was bringing in new clients and surprisingly he still was bringing in a few clients, he was hiding files. Some were in the trunk of his car. Some were under the carpet. Some were behind furniture in the office.

He just couldn't make any more decisions and he didn't know what else to do. Now in that situation, we did have some claims arise out of that and actually the number of claims went into the double digits as a result of this. It's a small... My memory is, I think, a four or five lawyer firm. Why do I want to talk about these stories or share these stories? Wellness is as I'm sure most, if not all of you, are well aware, is a significant topic in the bar today. There's an emphasis on wellbeing and I fully support it, but I want to share how failing to address the health issues that can arise can lead to very, very significant outcomes.

And we really do need to take the topic seriously. Now impairments we can broadly define. Today I'm kind of focusing a bit here on depression, but there are all kinds of impairments from burnout, stress, over-work, alcoholism, chemical dependency, gambling addictions. I mean, the list goes on. But let me just share a couple of comments based on these two stories and place it in the context of wellness and wellbeing.

In the first situation, we have a solo attorney here obviously, but I want to underscore if you see someone who is feeling, or I should say demonstrating some signs of depression, reach out to them. And if you are someone dealing with depression, please, please do not just sit and ignore the problem. And I do understand that we don't want to be labeled as being weak or something like that. I just think that's not the experience of most people that reach out and try to deal with becoming healthy again and try to work through the problem, deal with depression. But please understand, thinking about the fallout in the second story, depression, we have fatigue, feeling worthless, helpless, all those kinds of things, sort of the normal stuff that people feel. But in some it's not uncommon.

Depression can lead to impaired concentration. It absolutely can lead to indecisiveness, a loss of interest in pleasure in activities formerly enjoyed, such as practicing law. Insomnia is often there and in all of this, it adds up to poor judgment. Failing to address, even if you're a solo and isolated from others, can have some significant consequences, not only for you but for your clients. So I encourage you to reach out, find a friend, a loved one, some support system. Heck, if you need to call me and I'm here for you. We need to try to find a way to move forward for your best interest and the interest of your clients.

In terms of the second story, I just want to share another sad reality of what happened here. Fortunately I think it's not extremely common, but I can say this was not by any means the first time I've ever come across a situation like this. I shared that a number of claims came up as a result of the attorney's depression and the firm's response was one of, "ALPS, why are you penalizing us? As soon as we found out about the depression, got rid of the problem lawyer and the rest of us did nothing wrong, why are we being punished in terms of the fallout of these claims?" Obviously deductibles are in play, defense, losses, the normal things that happened in malpractice claims were in play here, and that struck me.

I did share in many situations, trying to deal with depression is something that is not shameful. And many times people will step up and are supportive, but occasionally that doesn't happen and I understand the conundrum there and I don't have the answer. But I do want to say if any of you are ever find yourselves in a situation where you're dealing with a staff person or a fellow colleague who is depressed, the choice to say, "It's not our fault," is absolutely the wrong choice. I mean, put yourself in the shoes of the individual going through the difficult time.

Is this how you would want to be treated? And please understand when you form a firm, thinking about our ethical rules, 5.1 responsibilities of supervisory lawyers, managing partners, that role we are, it's what I call the partners keepers rule. We are our partners keepers. We sink or swim together. And honestly that's the way it should be. So I encourage you, again, impairments are a significant source in terms of the underlying true cause of malpractice claims. They really are. The industry doesn't track it. We'll sit here and say, "Okay, we tracked. The date got blown," whatever it might be. It's the, "What happened?" We don't track the why. I'm telling you I've been in this business for 22 years. This is one of the major why's that a significant number of claims happen. So we need to be sensitive.

Our rules do not require us to be physicians and to be able to diagnose depression or to identify someone and say, "You do have a chemical addiction." That's not our role. But in the context of depression, what can you look for? What can you think about? How can you catch this early so that you don't ever find yourselves having to deal with multiple claims because depression went unrecognized, undiagnosed? You cannot bury your head in the sand. So be aware of just some of the warning signs. Depressed individuals often become isolated. They can become sarcastic or withdrawn. There may be sudden changes in behaviors such as absenteeism, loss of interest in family and friends, an increased need for sleep, the onset of insomnia, and sometimes you even see self destructive behavior.

Changes in appearance actually are also quite common. There could be a significant change in weight or a loss of interest in personal appearance and what quite severe. Obviously depression can lead to suicidal thoughts and I will just take one brief aside and say, if someone, again, one of your peers that in a firm or a staff member, if there's ever an expression of a suicidal thought, please take that very seriously and seek help immediately. Okay. Particularly if there's any kind of plan expressed or they start to give away possessions. Take that very, very seriously. Get help, help them get help. But at the end, I guess my takeaway is depression really is a significant problem in our profession. I have worked with, talked with, more lawyers struggling with depression than I ever thought I would before I got into this.

It's not a mark of shame. It's not something that we should be shamed, shameful in terms of feeling depressed. Just please accept it for what it is. It's a human being going, struggling with life, going through something difficult and let's be there. Let's be the support system to try to help, to have attorney return if that's what he or she ultimately decides to do to the practice and get back up and go on full steam or perhaps they really have come to the point where they say, "This isn't for me," and that's okay too. So they... We help them exit gracefully and move on to bigger and better things, whatever that might mean for them. I think, in my mind, it's one of the hallmarks in terms of doing the kinds of things I'm talking about here of just being professional. Let's rise to the occasion and help our colleagues and help our peers and help ourselves if it's us that are struggling. There's no shame here.

So those are my stories. I'm just trying to do whatever I can in whatever small ways I am able to give a little hope and to just give a message. You can get through this and that we are our partners keepers, even if it's a solo down the street. I mean after all, we have a local community professional. So that's my two cents for today. Folks, I hope you found something of value out of my brief podcast here and if have any questions, concerns, want to talk about this topic a little bit more in depth or just need a little additional information, please don't hesitate to reach out. I would be happy to help in any way that I can. You may reach me at mbass@alpsinsurance.com or call our 800 number, 800-367-2577 and ask for Mark, the risk manager. Hey, it's been a pleasure. So long.

ALPS In Brief — Episode 42: 5 Things That Blur Your Company’s 2020 Vision

ALPS In Brief — Episode 42: 5 Things That Blur Your Company’s 2020 Vision

February 13, 2020

ALPS Risk Manager Mark Bassingthwaighte sits down with ALPS CEO David Bell to discuss David’s past, ALPS future, why every company should have a vision for their core cultural values (and what shouldn’t be in it).

Transcript: 

MARK BASSINGTHWAIGHTE:      

Welcome. This is 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 here at ALPS and joining me today is David Bell, our CEO. David, maybe can we take just one minute or so here for listeners that may not know a bit about who you are, what your background is. I'd love to have you just share a little bit because I think your background and experience is relevant to where we're going to go today in our conversation.

DAVID BELL:       

Sure. Well thanks, Mark first and it's a pleasure to be speaking with you. I guess the short version of my short history is I started my career in insurance out of college with Chubb and with that in a large company with a long history and a long vision for the future. Then after moving up through various roles at Chubb, after 9/11 Chubb, AIG and Goldman Sachs started a joint venture and I went with Chubb's capital to start that. And over the course of the next decade plus, we took that organization independent from its founding shareholders public and it was ultimately sold.

DAVID:                

In 2012, we moved back to Montana where I had gone to college and my wife had been raised and had the good fortune of joining ALPS in 2012 and a very different type of organization, very different size. My career before that had been in a big multinational company. ALPS is a smaller domestic only company and really a fascinating juxtaposition of different types of cultural priorities and different types of opportunities. So, just I feel fortunate and blessed to have had this journey and to have the point in my journey be right here in this moment.

MARK:                 

Very good. You recall we sat down about two years ago and spent some time discussing the ALPS corporate vision at the time. I thought it'd be fun to kind of revisit that topic today. If I may, I'd like to start by asking a few questions about the process that you go through with us in terms of the company, with the hope of having this discussion and example serve as a concrete example to others wanting to learn sort of the how to, so putting their own vision in place. Before we really even start to dig into this, would I be correct in assuming that the success that you in the large multinational setting as well as the ALPS setting, you're contrasting these two, is very different, but does vision have a role? Do you feel that that was significant in terms of your success in both spaces?

DAVID:                

100%. Even when the vision is quite different, as they have been over the course of my journey, not having one is dangerous and I think would lead to a rudderless ship type of approach organizationally, even if you feel like you're generally going in the right direction. If you have a community of people, whether that community is two or three or two or 3,000, if they're not rowing in the same direction with some sense of rhythm, then success would only come by accident and that's not a really good plan.

MARK:                 

I like that. I really do. I want to come back to that here in just a moment. Can we start just by having you share some of the highlights, whatever you feel comfortable sharing in terms of the ALPS vision for 2020?

DAVID:                

Sure. Well the ALPS vision for 2020 is more of our strategic operational objectives. When you have a vision for the short term, this 12 month duration, it's more actionable, quantifiable, executable milestones. So, I would describe the vision as how do the success of those fold up more broadly into an intermediate and longer term vision? And that pertains to the vision as respects where the organization is going. I mean, why are we laboring as hard as we are and making sacrifices personally with time and otherwise to be here to try to strive to be better? There has to be a reason and it has to be beyond monetary in order to affect people, particularly people at all levels because you're going to have folks at the managerial level who are very much privy to the discussion around the why and the vision. Then you're going to have people who are just doing their job every day and they don't have the benefit of the philosophical discussions as to why. So, the vision needs to be as relevant for them as it is for the vision creators.

DAVID:                

So, the 2020 vision is a puzzle piece that is simply the beginning of the equation for the intermediate and longer term vision of why are we doing what we're doing. We're all conditioned as humans to first and foremost think, how does this affect me? What's in it for me? So, I think from a managerial perspective, we would be wise and probably have an obligation to go to that place first. We're really going to think about this as it is seen through the filter of everybody else individually as why is this relevant to everybody who's here, and why should they care and sacrifice in order to realize this vision? And how bought in are they to the vision, and how much is the vision a function of their own engagement and involvement and contribution?

MARK:                 

What I hear, and I love that, it seems to me that part of this is really kind of trying to give some meaning and purpose at the individual level all the way to the corporate level in terms of these whys. I like that. Very, very good. I think this next question kind of relates to what you've been sharing, but I would like to be very specific about it in terms of some clarity. What is the value from a business sense and perhaps personal sense of having a corporate vision? I think we've hit that some, but I'd like sort of a concrete statement.

DAVID:                

Sure. Well, I would break that down into two different categories.

MARK:                 

Okay.

DAVID:                

The value of having a vision about the core values, meaning the cultural values of an organization, I think is essential. In fact that frankly, it's more important than the financial and operational vision because if you get the cultural values vision right, the rest of it will more naturally fall in place. If you don't get it right, it'd be very difficult to successfully execute on operational and financial objectives if at its core the culture has a cancer in it. So, you have to start with the cultural side. I think never more so than now when the labor force is increasingly made up of purpose-driven people, people who have an absolute expectation that there is something broader than a paycheck that's part of this compact.

DAVID:                

So, the cultural vision, the cultural value that we've established at ALPS is intentionally very simple. We ask ourselves four questions and these questions, they are prominently placed around our environment but it's not kind of a sentence written on a wall for the purposes of marketing. It is really supposed to serve as the litmus test through which not just the words that we speak but ideally the thoughts that we have are filtered through that litmus test. They are quite simply, is it the truth, is it fair, does it benefit our people and the company and does it help us make a profit? Right. We didn't hire a fancy consultant to help us come up with those. I'm sure they could be worded more eloquently in some ways.

DAVID:                

But it is, at its basic level, the most honest, intentional approach to say what are some things that we want to exhibit as individuals working in community that if we strive towards these four things, will life be better for all of us? I think we think the answer is yes. If we're committed to telling one another the truth and we are committed as an organization to speaking the truth externally, even when it's uncomfortable, then it doesn't mean that every day will be rainbows and unicorns, but every day will be a day that we can feel proud about what we've done.

MARK:                 

Yes.

DAVID:                

That type of thing is important to people to have worth in their role. The second is, is it fair? Fairness is a subjective measurement. So one person's idea of fair is not the same as the other person's idea of fair. So, what the question of is it fair means is, do you as an employee of this company have confidence that the underlying motivation of the decision maker is to strive for fairness? It doesn't mean that we're always perfect or that we get it right all the time as it pertains to decisions about our own people internally or the endeavors that we have with our constituents and the people around us. We don't claim to be right 100% of the time, but we are always trying to be fair and we aren't afraid to pull back and correct ourselves if we feel we've jumped off course. So, it's the pursuit of fairness.

DAVID:                

Then the third and fourth are somewhat kind of unapologetic affirmations of the reality. The third one is, does it benefit our people and the company? I mean, there is an unapologetic self interest that we have as an organization. Is what we're spending our time and money on going to benefit the people here and this organization because if it's not, then we should be thoughtful about how we allocate those resources. Then fourth, doesn't it help us make a profit? I think the need to make a profit can't be understated. It's very intentionally on the list and it's also intentionally not first.

DAVID:                

It is there and we shouldn't gloss over the reality that without financial solvency and financial strength, we are not able to accomplish all of our other goals. So, we should keep a really sharp eye on that question. But we also don't wake up and work our days simply and solely for the purpose of making a profit because there's candidly no inspiration longterm for anybody. So, those are four of the cultural values. In our recent vision meeting, we asked what we don't want just so we can keep an idea of what we do want by acknowledging characteristics that many of us have seen exhibited at other companies or read about or watched.

DAVID:                

I think it's healthy to spend just a few moments in discussion about what we don't want just so we call it for what it is. We put a label on it, don't want that, right. And some of those, there's just five of them that we talked about in the most recent meeting, which was "corporate" culture where you're just a job. You're a number. You're a commodity. You can be unplugged and somebody else plugged in there. That's not inspiring if you feel like you are commoditized. So, we don't want that. We don't want uncertainty from the fear or concern of financial instability. But it's one of the reasons why making a profit and financial success is on our top four that we do because it gives people a sense of calm and confidence in everything else that they're doing knowing that we do this from a position of strength.

DAVID:                

Third, we don't want me people. We want we people. We acknowledged in our discussion that, I'll just speak for myself, as human beings, I am an inherently selfish person, right. My default position is one of self interest and selfishness. I believe that that's just the way that we were created. So, in order to not be a me and be a we, we have to consciously fight against that and be thinking first and foremost about the people around us. Then another is, we don't want to have a kind of that's not my job mentality. I mean, if the coffee needs to be changed, I should change the coffee. It doesn't matter who you are, if you come across it and it needs to be done, then you should do it. You should do it comfortable that other people do the same thing.

DAVID:                

Then finally, and this is really important, gossip. I mean, gossip is a cancer that can debilitate companies. So, we are almost transparent to a fault, and in large part, in an effort to preempt any type of gossip. So those are things that you don't want, and then that quickly leads you to the type of cultural vision that you do want. You want folks that just take initiative. When people see a problem, they address it. When people have an idea about something that can be done better than the way we're doing it today, the first instinct should be action. The first thought should be empowerment that I have an idea that I think would benefit others, and I know that I work for a company that that idea can be put in motion in a relatively short period of time.

DAVID:                

You want to be a solution provider both for our folks internally and for our customers. We have a business where we have a finance department and other and a HR department. We have legal departments where their constituents, their consumers are internal. They're our own people or our customer. Then we have departments, the business development and account managers and others and claims who are external facing. Their clients are our policy holders, our customers. So, we want to be solution providers for everybody.

DAVID:

Finally, we're just wrapping up here on the cultural what you do want, you want this to be a fun place to work. I'm not suggesting for a second that this is Disney World and that every day is like a vacation. I know the adage, if you find a job that you love, you'll never not work another day in your life. I personally don't subscribe to that. I think we can be honest about the fact that we come to our jobs because it's a living and we get paid for it. And hopefully it provides the means through which we can pursue some of our other passions in life. Hopefully, it is not the singular interest in your life. I think that would be unhealthy, but we are involved in a serious business. We take risks. We make promises.

DAVID:                

There's lots of law and finance in what we do, but we should still be able to have fun. We should not take ourselves too seriously. We should be self-deprecating and people should not feel guarded. I think as we talked about this in the all company meeting, I think the sense amongst our staff is that we do a pretty good job at that. You want people around you to want you to win. I think whether it's who we're working next to or our marriage or our friendships, you want to be in community with people who are "for you", who genuinely want to see you succeed and to enter your success with you.

DAVID:                

Then again, just from a vision perspective, size through diversification, right. I mean in our business there is strength in size and there is strength and protection in diversification. So that is something that we're quite intentional about. We want everybody finally to just know that they're supported, whether they're in our home office in Missoula or in any one of our number of remote locations around the country. I mean, whether I get to see you physically, regularly on a day to day basis or whether you're in Atlanta, Georgia or Richmond, Virginia or any of the other places, you should feel like you are as a valued and that the resources you're giving to succeed are as high a priority as anyone else.

DAVID:                

So, those are cultural vision checkpoints. I would suggest that if we are wildly successful on making all of those real in the lives of everybody that work here, we will be and continue to be the best legal malpractice carrier in the country. Candidly, we would be the best in anything we were doing. If we, for whatever reason, stopped doing this and started doing something else as an organization full of people working together, we would do that well too.

MARK:                 

Yeah, I agree. I agree. Let me sort of share, just speaking personally for a moment. I have participated as all of us at ALPS have at the all company meetings and talking about these things. I like you're sharing the point of the discussion where folks, what don't we want? I think taking risks like that to invite these kinds of discussions really enables people to make it real. I describe our culture, what we do, and I think at an individual level as well as at the company wide level, we are really striving to be, and I think we accomplish this, authentic and intentional in our actions. Even in terms of just how we interrelate with each other, how we interrelate with our customers.

MARK:                 

I'll share David, for many years I would sign my email as you're emailing with different customers, internal and external, Mark and things like that. But in more recent years, I have a signature. I'll say, "Please don't hesitate to reach out if there's anything else I can do," but I'm more and more adding if I can be of service to you. I really take great pride in, and I think I am not alone or unique in this, I take pride in that's my experience of who and what ALPS is. That we do take joy and pride in being in service to others in what we do.

MARK:                 

So, I'm just trying to give our listeners a sense of what you're talking about is being internalized and taken up by those that you're trying to share the vision with. But can I ask, what is your process? When you sit down and think about vision, any thoughts to share or insights? Is this something that's very organic? How do you go about it?

DAVID:                

Sure. Well, the cultural vision is an exercise of really drawing on both my personal experiences with positive cultures and destructive cultures. Then being in discussion with others internally in this company and just externally people who you just benefit from talking about their experiences and taking the good and the bad, and then coming up with a vision of what you want to pursue. So, I think it is generally in a constant state of evolution in that it's kind of being refined but at its heart, the truth and fairness, those are kind of time-tested, immovable virtues for a company.

DAVID:                

So, when you hear people... When you do some of these things well, and we are by no means perfect. In fact, we make mistakes regularly and we strive to be better. The fact that we feel like we get better means that we've always got room to improve. But when you do these things well and as you hire people and they're exposed to this culture for the first time as an employee and they come from reputable companies, competitors or otherwise. And you listen to them as they describe their experiences here, it's really inspiring. It makes you want to make it better, refine it more because you kind of feel like you're really onto something. It does tap into a part of the psychology for all of us that just numbers alone I don't think can tap into.

MARK:                 

I think you and I have seen this over the years in terms of our professional experiences and looking at competitors and whatnot, but I think businesses, corporations, small law firms, you can come up and create a good vision. I think have something that's pretty solid and yet it doesn't go anywhere. The vision fails for lack of a better reason. Just it never gets implemented perhaps. Why do you think that is? What gets in the way of, in terms of your experiences, success with a vision? Any thoughts about that?

DAVID:                

Well, that's a great one. I suppose there are risks that a vision is established, but it's not a core conviction, and so it's not front of mind. When we first started this discussion, Mark, I talked about the four cultural vision points, the truth and fairness. I described those as the litmus test, the lens through which all things should be filtered. You really have to, whatever your vision is for your small firm or your family or your nonprofit, if it's not important enough that it will resonate with you and with everyone else such that it's front of mind in all thoughts and actions, then there's a real danger that you drift away from it. I think that's one risk because you can have a strategy session with the people who you work with and two weeks later no one could even quote a single sentence of what was discussed in that.

MARK:                 

I have been through that more than once. Yes.

DAVID:                

I'm sure there is value in those types of days, but it really needs to be something that people are genuinely bought into. So, I think drifting away from it as is one risk. A second risk that I suggest and I've experienced this in my various failures to pursue certain vision elements, I think a vision, like most other things, can be distilled down to a project needing project management. If you have a certain vision characteristic, you need to disaggregate it into its pieces, put it in align sequentially of what needs to be done and then manage it towards that goal.

DAVID:                

A vision is a point that if you slice it into 10 sub points and then line them up from where you are right now to what would realize that vision, then you kind of methodically and actionably check off on those things. I think sometimes we think of visions in the softer context. So, we're not as disciplined at project managing our way, methodically checking off certain actions or behaviors that are marching towards realizing that vision. Then we wake up one day disappointed that we haven't realized the vision.

MARK:                 

Yeah. Yeah. I think when I look back on my own career over the years where it has failed, there tends to be we come up with this vision and then you sort of say it at the front line to the bulk of the company, "Implement this and do it." There's no tools. It's not a bottom-up kind of process in my mind. When you try the bottom-up, it fails. It has to be a top-down in the sense that, in the ALPS example here, you and upper management really do genuinely live and exemplify the vision just in the day to day interactions with everybody you interact with, again, internally and externally. I think that is also key to some of this. You have to walk the talk. That's been my experience anyway.

DAVID:

Yeah. Well thank you. I appreciate that observation. There are aspects of a vision that need to be top-down because in some ways that's the charge of leadership is to be spending time thinking and deciding about vision. But the vision is carried out by everyone else. So, if you just, in an autocratic kind of way, instruct people on what they're going to do when, that generally is not a recipe for success. But if you go to the folks who are going to be executing and say, "This is the vision. Can you do this? Do you have the resources necessary for you to accomplish this? And how long do you think reasonably it will take under an aggressive timeline for you to get it done?"

DAVID:                

If the people are engaged and just being asked if they're prepared to sign up for this vision, being asked if they have been armed with the resources to fulfill what they've just committed to and just being asked how long they realistically they think it's going to take. Those are not particularly complex questions, but it's amazing the difference of whether or not you go through those other steps and ask those questions. Versus just barking out an instruction to people who then look at you as though you're hopelessly unrealistic about what it actually takes to get these things done.

MARK:                 

I absolutely agree with you. The way I describe that is there is a difference between allowing the workforce, however you want to define that, allowing them the opportunity to own the vision, giving them tools, explaining, those kinds of things. Versus having sort of the dictator approach, this is the vision, make it happen and I'm out. It has to be owned from top to bottom. Again, I think that's another key reason why ALPS has been successful at this. I'd like to switch just a little bit. Wellness and wellbeing has been a significant issue, as you're well aware, particularly in legal profession in recent years.

MARK:                 

ALPS has been involved in the national movement to put together some emphasis on wellbeing and some resources. It's been an exciting time. I think ALPS has done internally a good job focusing on wellbeing. Do you see, is there a connection, is there a relationship between the vision that you have, the vision that ALPS has embraced here and wellness, a wellness, a wellbeing component? Is there a connection there at all or in your mind is that sort of separate topics?

DAVID:                

No, I think there's very much a connection between the division and the cultural priorities and wellness in general because whether it's at ALPS specifically where we happen to employ a lot of people who are attorneys and have been in their prior lives practicing attorneys and the legal community that we insure. That's obviously the wellness category is, at the legal profession, pretty well documented. I mean mental health, substance abuse, physical wellbeing, stress in the job. I mean, the role of the attorney is one where people can quite literally and often do work themselves to death because there really is not a governor on when it becomes an unhealthy. I think the small firms and solo practitioners or perhaps even most susceptible to it. They don't really have the check and balance of a lot of other people in an organizational structure.

DAVID:                

So, I think there's similarities between the community of people of 20,000 people that we insure all around the country and the people that are within this organization itself. I think wellness it is really important. It's a tricky one because the cause and effect of what you spend time on and what you spend money on and how that correlates directly to measurable wellness outcomes is very difficult. So I'm a big metric fan and I tend to rely much of my decision making on data of some sort. The data there is a little bit harder to pin down, but you just know that there is a correlation and that that correlation is necessary even if it's not as mathematical as some of the other decision points that drive our business.

MARK:                 

One final little question I'd like to throw your way, before I ask it, I need to explain something to the listening audience here. In recent years, David has taken the time to meet individually with every single employee in the company. It is what we call a coffee talk. It's just sit down for however long that the conversation goes. There's no rules on the conversation. You talk about anything you want. So, I'm going to ask the question. Why do you do or what is the value of coffee talk to you?

DAVID:                

That's a great question. Something as simple as a 45 minute conversation shouldn't have as many and as complicated benefit and reason as it does, but I get the benefit of a lot of information from those discussions. It's also a great opportunity for me to help demonstrate in our flat managerial structure that we aren't a hierarchy. That everybody has access to everybody else and that no manager should have any apprehension about me having a discussion. I should have an appropriate level of deference in the role that the manager's tasked with not to do anything to undermine them by having this direct one on one conversation with their staff member. But I learn a ton about what makes people tick, what's important to them. I get a ton of information about where there are obstacles in the day to day aspects of people's jobs, obstacles that are not that difficult to remove, but for whatever reason, it kind of helps to talk about it and enlist some assistance.

DAVID:                

I pick up a lot of personal context of the journey that people go through, and this is perhaps the most valuable aspect of this. In my old life in the role that I had before, I was the COO of a large publicly traded multinational insurance company. So, I just didn't have the benefit of knowing people personally. I didn't want people to be a number, but there just wasn't really another option. I didn't have context of the life of that person in London or in New York in the decisions that I was making.

DAVID:                

So, there's a real blessing to being in an organization of this size where you really get to put your thumb on the pulse of these people and the journey that they're going through and how their profession intersects with that, where it intersects positively, where it creates challenges. So, it really makes the whole game more of a human one but it is a pain to schedule. If we just be honest about the challenge, I had two coffee talks today and they're so different and they were both great. But when I'm traveling, and so these are generally done, unless I'm in one of our other locations with another employee, I'm generally doing these when I'm here. So, it is not an insignificant commitment of time, but it is a commitment that yields a result and return that makes it well worth it in my mind.

MARK:                 

Yeah, I would agree. Let me share again for our listening audience here why I think coffee talk is valuable. At the end of the day, it really just boils down to when you couple it with emphasis on wellbeing, the corporate meetings we have, we get together and have these discussions. But there's a two way street in play here and it's when a corporation through management and even you, David as the CEO, take the time to personally invest in the employees. It creates the opportunity again for the employees to reciprocate and invest personally in the vision and the mission of what the corporation is doing, what ALPS is doing. In my mind, I think that's just a huge invitation. I see that as fundamental to the success of implementing the vision and really keeping things moving forward so that we're not drifting to use your word. You're keeping the pulse on us, but we're also keeping the pulse on you as representative of the corporation. It's really good stuff.

MARK:

Well folks, we are out of time. David, I really appreciate the opportunity to sit down and visit a little bit. It's always a pleasure when we get together. I hope for those of you listening that you can appreciate. I thought this would be valuable because it's a real world example of how when a thought leader creates a vision and has the ability and a desire, intent, energy to implement this, you really can have some tremendous success. I don't think that these kinds of processes aren't limited to a corporation. This can happen in a three man law firm. So, I hope you found something of value. Thanks for listening folks. It's a good one. So long.

ALPS In Brief — Episode 41: The Perils of Bad Follow Through

ALPS In Brief — Episode 41: The Perils of Bad Follow Through

January 22, 2020

In this episode of ALPS In Brief, ALPS Risk Manager Mark Bassingthwaighte shares an insightful story of a dream cruise, a freak accident, and an attorney whose casual favor for a friend became a malpractice nightmare.

Transcript:

Welcome. You're listening to ALPS In Brief. The podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. I'm Mark Bassingthwaighte, and I'm the Risk Manager here at ALPS. And today, I thought it'd be fun to go in a slightly different direction. Rather than sitting down with a guest, I thought it'd be fun to share a story of a situation that I learned about during a risk management call that came in. And I think going forward, I'm going to periodically share some stories from calls when they are particularly interesting in terms of the learning they provide.

This particular story is a good one, from my perspective, because it's a reminder about the perils that can arise from a failure to follow through. So let me share a short version. I'll interpret the story that was shared with me, and then I will follow-up with a few takeaways, things that I felt were important, in terms of the learning, that we all can take away from the story.

So here's the story. A longterm client reached out to his attorney to ask for a favor regarding the client's daughter. While away on a cruise, the daughter had been struck in the face by a falling object and apparently that resulted in some substantial damage to her teeth. Although the daughter was working with an insurance adjuster, the client would feel much better having his attorney look into the matter and the attorney agreed. Shortly thereafter, the attorney was able to obtain an offer of $3000. Of course, before any offer could be accepted, he needed to check in with his client's daughter. By way of an email, he let her know about the offer and reminded her that the total costs of all injury-related dental work would need to be known before any offer could be accepted.

He went on to tell her that once she had a final number she could check back with him if she wanted to and he would let her know if the current offer was sufficient. With that accomplished, the attorney returned to his normal work routine. Now a year goes by without any contact from the daughter, and this is when the attorney's phone rang. The long-term client was calling on behalf of his daughter who had just reached out to the insurance adjuster, only to learn that the statute of limitations date had run on her claim, so no recovery would be forthcoming. In light of this development, the daughter had immediately asked her dad to contact his attorney in order to have the problem fixed and this is when the attorney finally realized he had a problem because it was becoming rather clear that the daughter believed he was her attorney too.

This is when the call to me occurred, and its purpose was to discuss the ins and outs of this attorney trying to settle a likely forthcoming malpractice claim on his own. After the call ended, I was left wondering why this attorney never took the time to simply replace a reminder in his calendar to contact his client's daughter, maybe 60 to 90 days before the statute ran. He was certainly aware that a deadline was in play, and following through with this one simple step could have prevented all of this from happening.

Another important takeaway here is that an attorney never gets an accountability pass just because the representation is framed as a favor. One can't casually look into a legal matter, pass along a little legal advice and expect there to be no fallout if something goes wrong later on. As an attorney, you are either in or out. There really isn't much of a middle ground here.

Finally, never try to settle a potential malpractice claim on your own before reporting the matter to your malpractice carrier. While specific policy language will differ between insurers, as an insured, you do have a contractual obligation to report all actual and potential claims. So just know that failing to do so can have serious repercussions down the road. So that's my story for today. I hope you found that a bit interesting. And I hope you really will take the takeaways to heart. The failure to follow through is a common problem, and we really do see attorneys finding themselves at times in what I would call the accidental client situation. And this favor setting is not uncommon as well.

And finally, lawyers do at times want to try to settle what they would consider perhaps smaller matters, frivolous matters maybe, I don't know, on their own. And carriers, at times, are actually okay with that. But you really need to report this and have the carrier sign off if you will, or agree that they're comfortable having you handle something on your own. The failure to do this really can turn out to have a consequence that is not going to be something you want. It could be the claim could be denied, and worse things can happen. It's unusual and uncommon, but it can. Even to include rescinding coverage for failure to report if the carrier learns that this is something more common. And have I seen that situation in my 20 plus years at ALPS? Absolutely, I have.

So, I hope you found something of value today. And please, if you have any thoughts of topics that you would like to hear discussed on the podcast, a guest that you'd like to hear from, please don't hesitate to reach out and share your thought. You may reach me at mbass@aplsinsurance. So, that's it, folks. Have a good one. Bye-bye.

 

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