Podcast: Fighting Chaos
Ryan McKeen is a warrior. The enemy he fights is Chaos.
Ryan McKeen has been practicing personal injury law in Connecticut for over a decade. In that time, he’s achieved some of the highest settlements in state history, been placed in the Connecticut Law Tribune Hall of Fame, has been honored as a new leader in law, and as an innovator in the practice of law. Learn how he leverages technology to reduce chaos and increase efficiency at his Personal Injury law firm.
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Join us as we sit down with the country’s best attorneys to talk about their processes and practices, as well as their outlook on the always-changing legal landscape. You can browse episodes on our blog, or find us on your favorite podcast directory. New episodes every month!
Katie: Ryan McKeen is a warrior. The enemy he fights is chaos. This is The Filevine Fireside and I’m Katie Wolf. Ryan McKeen has been practicing personal injury law in Connecticut for over a decade and in that time, he’s achieved some of the highest settlements in state history, been placed in the Connecticut Law Tribune Hall of Fame, has been honored as a new leader in law and as an innovator in the practice of law. Also, he has astonishingly good reviews online, huge amounts of them. Check it out. It’s, quite frankly, unbelievable. Ryan, thank you so much for talking with The Filevine Fireside.
Ryan: Thank you for having me.
Katie: Could you tell us where you focus your time and attention and how you came to be doing this work?
Ryan: Sure! Right now, I mean I’m 100 percent focused on personal injury law. We’re a single event practice in Connecticut and we represent people. People that hurt. Personal injury…I think it’s probably the reason I became a lawyer. Before I was going to go to college, I was in a car accident and it was pretty significant. I mean fortunately, I was okay. But the experience left me, you know, I’ve been traumatized twice. Once was the accident itself and then the follow up was dealing with the insurance companies and how they treated me. I went to law school, I came out and practiced in a general practice firm. I mean, I’d be in a real estate closing in the morning, arguing a motion in the afternoon, going to family court, housing court and ultimately, I went out on my own. When I went out on my own I had a little bit more freedom to choose what areas I wanted to do, and again, the personal injury cases just caught my attention. They were the ones that I really wanted to work on and really help the people who had been wronged in some way and were struggling. So, over time, I shed practice areas. I started out and did some real estate. That was gone. I did some family. That’s gone. And then about a year and a half or two years ago, everything just became personal injury. So, that’s sort of how I got to where I am.
Katie: In your personal experience being doubly traumatized in an injury, it sounds like it taught you a lot about how to do your law practice. Is that one reason why you get all of these glowing reviews? What’s your secret?
Ryan: Well, I don’t know if there’s a secret so much as it is that I believe it’s my goal to educate my clients about the process they’re facing. So, I do a lot of education before a client even reaches me through my blog. I try to keep my blog, you know, I’m not trying to sell from the blog. It’s information and that seems to connect with a fair amount of people. And basically, other than that, I work hard. I treat people how I would like to be treated. You know, text messages get returned. Phone calls get returned. You know, it’s really just fundamentals and I move my cases. I try to get good results for the client.
Katie: Okay, so there’s no shortcut. You just have to really really serve your client super well.
Ryan: I think that that to the extent that there is a secret or there is a magic power, that magic power is empathy. It’s the ability to understand the frustrations of your client. Understand what they are facing. You know, I know for me when I went through it, it was really confusing. Do I talk to the insurance company or do I not? What kind of rental car can I get? Am I going to have to go to court?
Katie: At the same time that you’re dedicating a lot of attention to your clients, you also think creatively about the practice of law. You mentioned your blog and I want to talk to you about it for a second. I’m a writer and I’ve written law blog pieces, which means I’ve read a lot of law blog pieces, and your pieces really stand out. Am I correct in understanding that you don’t hire a ghost writer? You’re actually writing those yourself?
Ryan: I have almost a thousand posts on my blog over ten years now. And all but two of them are a hundred percent written by me.
Katie: Wow. Is that something you would recommend to other attorneys or do you just love to write so you do it?
Ryan: I think you have to love to write to do it. And I mean look, there’s a lot of blogs and there’s a lot of people that say, “I’m going to start a blog.” They write two posts and they’re like, “I’m done with this” and they’re on to the next thing. In my opinion, it’s really a great use of my time because I’m reflecting on legal issues. I’m reflecting on issues that are facing my clients and the goal of my blog is ultimately…and I’m working on this right now…it’s going to be turned into a book and the book is going to be given to leads and to clients on intake so it’s sort of a system of I’m kind of answering questions that I’m constantly asked. And to me, I mean look, there’s a lot of ghost written legal content and it’s okay. I guess that’s sort of better than nothing if you’re not interested. But I find that the clients I connect with come in wanting to hire me or they come in knowing me in a way that if I were just paying somebody they would not, you know?
Katie: You should check it out everyone. It’s aconnecticutlawblog.com. In addition to giving all of this information to both potential clients and to just regular people who are trying to get their questions answered, you also have information for other attorneys and people starting out on their law practice. What made you decide to do that mentorship?
Ryan: I think that’s one of the things that I enjoy most about law is at least here in Connecticut, I mean people are collegial and they share. I know some of the greatest advances in my practice have come from lawyers who were good enough to share ideas with me or share how they did things.
Katie: With how you’re talking, I’m hearing that you are dedicated to empathy and personal connection and really working with the client the way a very good social worker would be. But you’re also doing all of this higher order thinking. Do you find that you just naturally can do these different things and that’s why you found law or have you had to work on some of those skills?
Ryan: I think a little bit of both. Like, I didn’t have a lot of talent athletically. I couldn’t hit a curveball and that was the end of my high school baseball career. I’m 5’6” so basketball is not in the cards and my gosh, you never want to be on a golf course with me. It’s just an embarrassment. When I look at the practice of law, I look at the design of my firm. And the design of my firm is everything. You can’t just focus on a glossy logo. You need to be involved in the various facets and constantly improving those facets. Yeah, can I be coached up on my intake? 100 percent. Can I be coached up on my systems by listening to this podcast and others? Yes. And getting ideas from other lawyers.
Katie: What do you bring to your firm from your perspective as a firm designer?
Ryan: Really, chaos we’ve identified as public enemy number one, especially in a personal injury practice. You can have chaos abound everywhere. Chaos from how you handle your leads to how you do your intake to what happens there after intake to writing for medicals, all the way down through trial, through means. You know, it’s hardly ever the judge or the defense attorney who was your enemy. It’s almost always, as I see it, your systems and the application of those systems to the problems at hand. And so, you know, you look at your practice and you look at the various components of it and you say, “Okay, where does the chaos come from?” And you try to reduce that chaos by applying structure to it and applying systems so you can produce predictable outcomes or at least smooth outcomes as frequently as possible. And the chaos sort of becomes the outlier not the norm.
Katie: Can you give us some examples of what chaos looks like in a law firm?
Ryan: Yes. Every law firm I’ve worked in has been to some degree chaotic. Sometimes chaos…I view paper as chaos but we got off paper five years ago and that helps add one layer of organization. It can be employees not knowing how to use software. Employees not knowing how to access things. Chaos is, I think, big and small but chaos to me is what keeps you up at night. It’s the, “I don’t know when the deadline is.” Or “What is the status of this file?” Or “What is the last thing that has been done?” That’s sort of on the legal side but even on the operational side there’s chaos. “Oh, we’re out of paper.” Or, “Oh we’re out of coffee.” Or, “How do I make the coffee?” And so, it’s solving those problems. We have Dash buttons throughout our office. We have videos on “Here’s how you make coffee.” “Here’s what to do when the alarm goes off.” All of those various components that can lead to more chaos.
Katie: Wow. In addition to affecting your practice, it also really affects you emotionally. Where chaos, like you said, is what keeps you up at night. It gives you this stress in your workplace that you could otherwise avoid.
Ryan: Absolutely. It gives our team members stress as well because it’s like, “Wait a minute. I don’t know how to follow up with a lead.” Or “I don’t know how to keep track of our leads.” Or “Sometimes I have a word document, sometimes it’s in Google sheets, sometimes it’s in a Post-it Note in front of me.” And it’s like when you have a thing where you’re like, “Okay, here’s how we’re going to do this. It’s going to be here and then process 1, 2, 3,” and so your employees aren’t constantly searching for what to do. You outline what needs to be done. It’s really, I think, in changing.
Katie: Have you found that some of your colleagues and peers and fellow attorneys just kind of tolerate a certain level of chaos believing that it’s simply part of their job?
Ryan: Yes. Yes. I think that, you know, we view ourselves as very much like a Dunkin Donuts franchise or something. Like, here is how things get done. This and this and this. And most law firms operate in a way that is like, you know, the way I grew up in a law firm which is, “Here’s six files on your desk” and you just do whatever you think needs to be done with them in your own way and so that leads to lots of lawyers practicing in lots of different ways to varying degrees of results and ultimately chaos or let’s put it this way–your results are person dependent as opposed to system dependent. So, if you’ve got a lawyer who is incredibly organized and incredibly on top of things and knows how to move the files that work well but if you’ve got somebody that’s just learning or somebody that may not be as organized, like again, chaos.
Katie: Do you ever find push back to that attempt to systematize the process where someone maybe thinks that they want it to be person dependent? They want to do it their own way. They don’t want there to be some kind of system that tells them the right way to do it.
Ryan: Some people experience that. I don’t think that that is our problem. When we formed this firm, we sat and talked about what our values are and this is like value numero uno. There is a better way to do things and our job is to figure out what is the best way to do it and that can change, right? There could be something new that comes along or there could be something that we learn like, “Hey, we should probably add this to our intake packet.” So, it’s constantly a work in progress, but again, it’s every employee from our part-time paralegal to me trying to figure out what those best things are as opposed to working at sort of different chaotic odds of each other and hoping the right thing will happen.
Katie: Yeah, I imagine most people have had enough experience working in chaotic workplaces that they’re pretty happy for a clear system to exist.
Ryan: Well, I mean frankly, it allows us to move things faster. It makes for happier clients and these are the things that make for bonuses, right? I mean, yeah, we’re actually able to do things as opposed to wasting thousands of hours a year trying to reinvent things every single time.
Katie: Yeah, when I’ve listened to different productivity experts, they’ve mentioned that if you can create systems and routines then you free up so much mental space for the actual creative work that has to happen. You don’t have to be creative about how the coffee is made because there is just a system for that but you can be creative about how you write your brief or how you engage with the client that actually requires some of that higher order thought.
Ryan: Yeah, by addressing the smallest things in your practice…when we started from an operational side of things and I talk about making coffee but literally it’s like I wanted to walk through my team’s day and what was one of the first things that happened? Coffee. And so, we have a process of, “Here’s a video on how we use our coffee maker.” “Here’s where we order coffee from.” And then we went through, “Here’s our mail handling process.” And by really addressing those things, it does free us up to engage and empathize with our clients, to craft case strategies, to do a number of different things and you know, look when we have a client who has a doctor’s appointment that we know about, we diary our practice management system. “Okay, client has a doctor’s appointment on Wednesday. Follow up. See how it went.” That diary comes up to the paralegal, the paralegal then texts the client, “Hey, how was the visit with Dr. Jones?” The client can then text right back and say, “Everything went well. He wants to see me back in four weeks for a follow up.” And again, we just mark our file again for four weeks and text the client. It’s taking very small portions of our time to really stay on top of things and clients like that because it is communication with the client and on the back side of things it helps us move the file a lot faster because we know what’s going on. We know where they’re treating. We know if there are problems in real time.
Katie: And I understand that another way that you create systems or you share institutional knowledge is through a firm wiki. Want to tell us what that is and how you use it?
Ryan: We realized early on that one of the problems is that things existed in our heads. One of us knew the log in to the bank. And one of us knew who the person that we dealt with for health insurance was and so what we realized was is that it was creating a lot of chaos in the back end. All of these different things can take up a lot of time and space. So, we said “Okay, nothing can exist in our heads.” And we came up with the idea of using a private Wikipedia page. And so, in that page, which is completely searchable in our system, we put as much information as we possibly can out of our heads and into that system. And tomorrow we’re actually doing a firm retreat and so I asked the person who is planning the retreat to create a Wikipedia page for it so next year when we go to plan the retreat, it’s like, here’s who we contact for the rooms. Here’s who we have for the food. Here’s a link to our pre-retreat survey that should go out two weeks before.
Katie: I imagine that also helps with interruptions because you have this other artificial person that you can interrupt, which is a Wikipedia system rather than an actual person who is trying to do other things at their desk.
Ryan: We use Slack for our internal communication. We have an app that integrates Slack called Tetra. Tetra is our Wikipedia page and so anybody in a Slack feed in their own private feed and any feed can type /tetrafind….so /tetrafindweslaw…whatever the case is, and so we have a rule in our practice, which is before you ask somebody you have to first ask Tetra. If it’s not in Tetra, when you get the answer you add it to Tetra. So, we’re constantly trying to grow those systems every day, every week, just expanding our knowledge base. The good thing is it can be edited and added to very very easily so it’s a living thing. It’s not just some handbook that’s sitting on some shelf somewhere that’s not of use. We try to say like Tetra is a member of our team.
Katie: What other forms of technology are helpful to you when it comes to fighting the chaos?
Ryan: It’s killing me…I know you guys asked me not to talk about it as much but I am one who believes in breaking some rules and I can’t get through this podcast without talking about Filevine. My partner and I, we do personal injury practice things and when a friend of ours suggested Filevine to us, and that was the first thing that my partner Andrew who is very picky about these things said, “Yes. Let’s sign up right now.” You know, Bono who still hasn’t found what he’s looking for? And it’s like, then I found Filevine and it’s like, “Whoa! No, this is exactly what we’re looking for.” Because our other rule besides asking Tetra, is if it doesn’t exist in Filevine, it does not exist. Every medical record. Every case. Every expense. Every note. Everything goes in there.
Katie: And similar to your Wiki, once it’s in one space then different members of the team can engage with it and work with it without needing to interrupt somebody.
Ryan: Exactly. And as a management tool it’s phenomenal. I’ve got some reports and the reports are like leads and so every morning my intake person looks at the leads report and says, “Okay, well, have we heard back from so and so? I’m going to follow up with a call or a text. Or do we need to send a declination letter out?” So, it’s like a way for me to manage without ever doing anything, right? We also have on our list, and I think this is one of the problems at least that I perceive to be in injury firms, is that it can sometimes be easy for cases to sit on the back burner. Where you’re on trial, there are pressing things, there are deadlines in litigation and so that case that you have that maybe someone is treating, it just sort of sits there so what we created was our naughty list and our naughty list is an auto report of any case that has not been touched within 30 days and so our goal is to have our naughty list at zero within a month.
Katie: You’re calling that the naughty list?
Ryan: The naughty list.
Katie: Like naughty and nice.
Ryan: Yes. Like bad. Like bad. Like the people supervising these projects are not being diligent enough but I, me, don’t have to create that. I create the report once, I create the system and then I task people with saying, “That list better be zero.” And then oh, once a week I login to it and say, “Why do we have 12 cases on this list?” And then go through and start tasking people and again it sort of takes five minutes but, I mean, the focus is on moving our files. The focus is keeping our files active so they can be closed for our clients, which is what our clients ultimately want.
Katie: Let’s talk about firm management. What is your style and how does it pertain to fighting chaos?
Ryan: You know, our core principles are written down and they’re transparent. Like we are honest with each other. There’s no back talking. If you have a problem with something or someone, it can be addressed in an honest and open manner. That’s what’s expected. So, I think culturally that’s a big big value for us. But establishing those things, living by them, living with transparency, honesty, hiring people who you want to share your life with. I mean that’s a basic principle. Giving people the tools that they need to do their job. That’s also a principle. It’s not like I hire somebody and I say, “Here, go do an intake.” No. It’s like, “Here’s our processes. Here’s our systems.” We’re going to roleplay and we’re going to do these things and that’s just sort of how those things play out. I think culture and I think focus on a clear vision, a clear purpose, all of those things are super important and it needs to be communicated with people.
Katie: What mistakes do you see other attorneys making in their management style?
Ryan: I think that probably the biggest sin in the management space of law practice is simply neglect. Lawyers don’t do it. They don’t know how to do it so I think it’s one of those things where it’s like, look, if you’re actually running a law firm as opposed to just working for yourself you need to be spending 25 percent of your time managing and that includes one on one meetings with staff. That includes constant communication with them. That includes providing the systems. That includes retreats, goal setting, all of those things.
Katie: Do you schedule in that time for yourself to make sure that you’re not neglecting your staff?
Ryan: Yes. Every morning we have in Slack a daily standup. I schedule one on one weekly meetings with everybody I work with. My partner Andrew and I have a weekly partners meeting. We have an annual retreat for the firm and Andrew and I have an annual partners retreat. And so, all of these things are scheduled. Every month we have a firm wide meeting. And those things are scheduled and they are given priority because those things could become very easy to push aside when there’s depositions and clients calling going, “What’s going on with my case?” So, this is where the systems come in, right? Because it’s like, no, we’re on top of things. We know where our client went. We know what meds have been requested. We know what the expenses are on this file. And also, we share our files with our clients so in Filevine, you can share sections and we find that our clients need to know some things. Not everything. But if I share the medical section and they can see their medical records as they come in, see the means section, see the expenses section, all of these different things that keeps them aware without them having to contact us. Again, allowing us having had that hour meeting or take that day for the retreat.
Katie: So when you put all of that together in one place, you’ve got your technology and your office culture and your management practices together, what do you find?
Ryan: I think what I find is a happy and rewarding work place that we’re able to make a living to meet the needs of our clients and hopefully grow as humans and experience life a little bit. I know I’ve doubled down a lot on work in the past few years but my goal is to take some time absolutely away from work, completely away, even away from cell phones and everything. But I mean the only way I can responsibly do that, right, is to have…I don’t need somebody…how do I log in to Filevine ruining their day? Or wait a minute, there’s a 2-factor code and it’s being sent to a cell phone that’s off. You know, I need to have plans for those things and so I’m in the process of really saying…last year I took one week off and this year my goal is to take four.
Katie: So the future belongs to the attorneys who know how to make systems, who know how to share the wealth of their information as broadly as possible.
Ryan: No question. And everything I share with somebody and even on this podcast, I mean, look I’m giving away my secret sauce on this podcast. Every time I give something away, I mean it comes back tenfold and somebody will hear this invariably and hopefully contact me and say, “Ryan, do you do this?” Or, “I do it this way.” I’m like, “Wow! That’s a really great way to look at this.” I mean, none of my ideas are my own. Maybe the way I put it together is, but…
Katie: Well, Ryan, I cannot tell you how grateful I am for the generosity that you’ve brought to this, to share your ideas with us. Thank you so much for talking with us today Ryan.
Ryan: Thank you so much for having me. Great talk. Thank you.
Katie: This has been The Filevine Fireside. I’m Katie wolf. We’ll see you next week.