Primary care law is a vintage (and all but forsaken) form of law practice under a new name that Melissa Hall has coined to convey her intent to the community she serves. Melissa’s “cocktail party” law practice serves a niche community in Seattle. At its essence, she has transported a small town practice to the big city.
In Episode 9 of Lawyerpreneur, we talk with Melissa Hall about what it means to have a primary care practice, gaining the trust of the queer community that she serves by being involved in the community, and how her unique payment structure gives clients the opportunity to leave her tips.
Exploring Primary Care Law with Melissa Hall
Jeremy Richter: Welcome to Lawyerpreneur, where we discuss the alternate paths that allow lawyers to engage their entrepreneurialism and distinguish themselves from others, because being a lawyer doesn’t have to mean doing business as usual. I am your host, Jeremy Richter. My guest today is Melissa Hall, who is a lawyer in Seattle doing what she has termed as “primary care law” for her clients. And that’s what we’ll be talking about today. So we’ll get into exactly what that doesn’t and doesn’t mean. Melissa, welcome to Lawyerpreneur.
Melissa Hall: Thank you.
Jeremy Richter: Alright, so we’ve known each other for a couple of years via the interwebs. But this is actually the first time we’ve ever talked.
Melissa Hall: It’s true.
Jeremy Richter: So I’m glad you’re able to do this. And I’m really excited about the topic because it is unique. And I think that it provides value to people in a way that a traditional practice sometimes doesn’t.
Melissa Hall: I am in an interesting niche because in some ways my practice helps support traditional practices without being in competition.
Jeremy Richter: Oh, I’m interested. Tell me about that. Let’s jump in there.
Melissa Hall: Okay. Um, basically, let me start by explaining what I do. I have a set of people for whom I answer their random legal questions like on their cousin who’s a lawyer if they don’t happen to have a cousin, who’s a lawyer, or do and that cousin objects to practicing cocktail party well. Basically, cocktail party laws by entire practice. That means that if it’s Something that’s going to take more than about three hours, I generally refer it out. And, as you probably know, people are really bad at determining what is a serious legal issue that needs support and what isn’t sure without legal support. So I do end up dealing with about 80% 90%, just with some basic advice, but I ended up referring out a fair amount of issues that are more complicated or can use just that little bit of expertise. So in that way, my practice ends up supporting other legal practices by doing kind of what they would do an intake screening.
Jeremy Richter: So you have a very broad set of skills that sounds like and that when something needs a deeper set that is more specifics and requires expertise in a particular area. That’s when you say okay, let me put you in touch with somebody who is best suited for this particular problem.
Melissa Hall: Absolutely. I am a deliberate generalist and part of being an ethical, deliberate, deliberate generalist is having a really good idea of where your limits are.
Jeremy Richter: Yeah. So you practice basically, in a big city, young small town law.
Melissa Hall: Exactly. That’s kind of exactly the stick. Because people never really lost that desire to have an attorney that is their attorney, and that they turn to we just kind of lost track of the business model for that. Now, granted, I’m in a big city and I mostly work with relatively small niche communities. No big city is a universal like a monolith. So I do practice community based law in somewhat that the way a small town lawyer would. That’s actually an important part of supporting my practice is this is a very relationship based lifespan kind of relationship. And that means it’s high trust. And that means that the personal referrals are super important.
Jeremy Richter: You wrote an article for Law Practice Today. I think it was a couple years ago now. Yeah, that had this lead in. So I’m gonna read to you what you wrote. And then I want you to just tell us, tell us about it. Okay. All right. So your lead into that article was, “What if I told you that there was a legal practice area that was almost entirely unserved, and especially appropriate for solos and small firms? What if I told you that this legal practice area also has low startup cost and does not need deep expertise?” So I think we’ve started talking about that. Yeah. Tell me how it’s underserved and how it is that you stepped into it.
Melissa Hall: Well, um, let me start with the story. That started my practice. My wife is trans and I was in a courthouse in Virginia helping her change her name. And because it’s Virginia, the form was confusing. And it took a little bit for us to get it sorted through and all of the paperwork submitted. And that was when I realized there just isn’t somebody available to do that kind of legal work. I think as lawyers, we all have encounters like that, where it’s not a big legal issue. But you do you need just that little bit of advice. Hmm. And that isn’t an easily available thing.
Jeremy Richter: And it’s a big issue for a very small number of people, but it’s an important issue for those folks.
Melissa Hall: Absolutely. And it’s an example of the kind of small issue that people encounter regularly, where they just really need quick answer about, say, a piece of paperwork or a contract, that sort of thing. We have ways to give that kind of advice to businesses. But really, we do not have a mechanism for helping everyday people with everyday legal questions. And that’s kind of the challenge I took on. I didn’t get started then. But that’s what kind of put this idea in the back of my head. How do we help people with these important questions that aren’t anything that a law firm can really take on in a fiscally responsible way?
Jeremy Richter: Sure, because it may not be a traditional firm that may not net enough revenue that but financially it’s worth their time or investment in learning how to do it.
Melissa Hall: Yeah. And it’s also like, it’s 30 minutes at most for one client, you’re going to spend more in intake than you are going to earn from that client.
Jeremy Richter: Yeah. But I expect in dealing with those issues that also transitions into well, other family related issues that are unique to those particular sets of clients. Is that what you tell me about how in a more — I’m not asking a really good question here…
Melissa Hall: No, no, I have developed this specific subspecialty which is I help people who have family structures that are not the type that is recognized by default by our legal institution. Yeah, there’s a lot of people who didn’t get a great draw of the hand, first time on blood family and have done various things to come up with people who, while they don’t have any relationship that’s legally recognized play the role of family in their lives.
Jeremy Richter: So you mentioned the importance with your clients of relationships and with trust, I think certainly plays into what you’re talking about now with that their nuclear family may not have been a good fit for them as it turns out. So how did this is kind of a chicken and egg question. Yeah. Were you able with your law practice, to is it develop with the relationships that you have and they become clients? Or are your clients when you started this particular primary, primary care practice, was it the law practice relationships developed into community relationships.
Melissa Hall: I actually got started with this practice area by volunteering with a legal clinic that specializes in dealing with the queer community. So it developed out of a community relationship. And it developed in part because of some of the things that I saw in that clinic. We had some people who came who were perfectly capable of using standard law practice. points for things like even very traditional estate planning. But we’re concerned enough about the cultural fit that they came to our clinic first. Hmm and that is part of why I developed The focus I have on serving the queer and trans community as well as the polyamorous community, people who do have ongoing issues, but also really need somebody who understands their culture. Sure, and isn’t going to be taken aback by things that I need to know. And they need to tell me. Sure. Yeah. In that way, also, it’s a little like small town. Like you do not want to practice in a small town if you don’t understand the culture of that town. I might live in Seattle, but my specialty is in understanding the culture of the people that I serve. And that’s not always the same as the culture of Seattle as a whole.
Jeremy Richter: Sure. Now you also have a typical financial structure to your practice. Would you tell us about that?
Melissa Hall: Well, basically, I am a law firm that has a Patreon page. And my clients sign up for I old-fashioned pure time and availability retainer using Patreon. And then when I do something for them, I send them an opportunity to tip me. This wasn’t where I started financially. I started with just no ongoing relationship $50 a pop 15 minutes, you know, answering random questions. Yeah. Over time, what I realized is where I got value and where my clients got value wasn’t having an ongoing relationship. And people were willing to pay me to have the insurance that there was a lawyer they could talk to which you know, is A thing that I did not know at the beginning of this. So the time and availability retainers changed my practice. Part of what I do is also report out my pro bono service because my service to the community is also important to my clients. They view me as a overall community resource that they help support as well as their individual attorney.
Jeremy Richter: Oh, that’s really interesting. But I have a law practice that’s very traditional. So I’m insurance defense and I represent giant companies. And but the availability thing and the comfort in that is the same, because while my hourly billing structure is you know, just the standard fare, yeah, I always tell the adjusters that I’m dealing with or whoever like, called me. Yeah, if you have a question. Question something weird comes up, you may never refer this file to me. I may never build anything on it ever. But we have a relationship. And you can call me and ask a question. And I’m not going to invoice you just because so the structure is a little bit different. But their knowledge that I’m somebody that they can call and the comfort level that exists there if I can just pick up the phone and ask a question. Is the financial structures different, but the relationship is the same?
Melissa Hall: Absolutely. And that’s why I ended up going to tipping is because it was it means that people never hesitate to ask the question or ask me like for what they need. It also, frankly, was more lucrative than me trying to do traditional hourly billing for those things. People saw more value in it, then I was able to account for using pure time.
Jeremy Richter: But that’s really interesting. So even though they end up paying you more, mm hmm, the relationship and just the knowledge that they can call or email you and you’re going to either have a solution or find a solution for them is worth more to them than the money.
Melissa Hall: Yeah, I am. I’m very lucky. Most of my clients fall into a specific area where they make a fair amount of money, not like private, you know, account at a white shoe firm money but they’re comfortable. And being able to give me money for my work, lets them feel justified and taking my time. And they appreciate all of these things. Yeah. And like, we don’t talk often about the fact that like, people appreciate being able to feel like there is an exchange instead of just a favor. But it is actually important and it’s something that I learned doing this kind of law. When I don’t give my clients an opportunity to tip me they’re very uncomfortable.
Jeremy Richter: Do you know any other lawyers that do tipping?
Melissa Hall: No, and it’s, frankly, it was difficult. It’s something that none of the legal practice billing programs are set up to do.
Jeremy Richter: I’ve heard you talk about this before. And I think probably when people hear it for the first time, they’re their jaws probably dropped a little bit and like, “Can you even do that? I don’t, know if you could do that.” So it sounds like though your clients not only tip you, but they feel better about having the opportunity to do that.
Melissa Hall: Yes. And I think even though we are a profession that deals in trust, we don’t think often about how trust works in our business dynamics. And this is one of those things where my clients are trusting me, but in return, I am trusting my clients. So it feels more balanced. Hmm. Which is granted, not this situation. We usually seek to put ourselves in Sure. Yeah. But as anyone who’s been practicing for a while, you probably know, balanced trust situations often end up working out better than when somebody holds all the cards.
Jeremy Richter: No, I agree for sure.
Melissa Hall: Especially when you have the kind of ongoing relationship that I’m going for that I have a thing that I trust my clients with, I think makes a difference in them being able to trust me.
Jeremy Richter: So you have a niche practice that primarily serves a pretty particular subset of a community. How have you gone about marketing to the community, that you’re capable of handling their specialized problems? getting your name out there? You know, because I’ve talked to Steven Chung, who has a nice tax. practice and student loan practice and how he markets. And so I’m just curious, how do you go about making sure your name is out there in the community so that you’re top of mind when people have issues?
Melissa Hall: Well, everybody has a weakness and this happens to be mine. So what I figured out is that I really need to turn other people into people who will market for me. I have been slow. Well, of course, recent situations have gotten in the way but community based marketing is fortunately really possible in these communities because she just shut up and It’s because it is a relatively small community. If the leadership knows you, you get those referrals. It’s interesting because there is a more traditional nonprofit full service law firm in a similar niche. And we actually work together a lot. Because what we want is businesses kind of mutually exclusive. Yeah. Yeah. So it’s been really interesting building those relationships. And part of the reason that I have this firm is that it is a firm that I can manage with a small trial, where I am the second career and where I have inconsistent levels of energy each day Those are all really kind of high barriers to a more traditional law firm kind of job. But they work great with this particular kind of situation because I’m really able to set my own schedule. If something comes up because there is that kind of relationship, my clients are more than happy to like, be understanding. And because of the kind of work I do, I’m almost never in a courtroom. Um, so my firm is really as much about lifestyle choice as it is anything else. because it lets me practice law and still be able to support all the other things in my life right now. What I didn’t expect going in is that all the other things in my life would choose would end up being imported. In supporting my practice,
Jeremy Richter: Yeah, that’s really interesting the way that has all come together.
Melissa Hall: Yeah, I wish I could claim that it was all. Yeah, but honestly, sometimes if you just follow your heart, you end up in a place. That’s much better. Sure, yeah. Careful plotting would get you.
Jeremy Richter: Alright, so everybody knows that when it comes to business location matters. Yeah. And you’re in Seattle, which has not only been there twice for like few days at a time, but Seattle has a very different culture than other parts of the country. Does its unique atmosphere and collection of people make this business model more inclined to work than other parts of the country or do you think that it this is a model All that is geographically transferable?
Melissa Hall: Well, it’s a model I basically ripped off from small town firm practice before, you know, around the 1850s. So, I would say the fact that it’s working in Seattle amongst tech people tends to say that it is more generalizable. This is how small town firms survived was time and availability retainers, we kind of like know that but forgot about it. So I think that my practice is very, very much of a place and a culture. And I think that anyone who has this kind of practice will probably have a practice that is very, very much of a place and a culture. But what place in culture that is will probably vary a lot by lawyers.
Jeremy Richter: Yeah, that’s really good.
Melissa Hall: Because it really is okay. Let me into your life. Let me play that trusted advisor role for you and have that ongoing attorney client relationship, which is, ironically what, you know, pretty much everything we read an ethics class, the stop but I’m having that trusted ongoing attorney client relationship is something that like, people haven’t stopped wanting and it’s a really satisfying kind of way to practice law.
Jeremy Richter: Tell me about that.
Melissa Hall: Well, I think one of the things that kind of can burn attorneys out is we frequently Do one part on an assembly line of legal practice. And it’s not necessarily that the work is hard, it’s that the work is hard to see value in. This is kind of the opposite. I do one off solutions for random events in people’s lives. But that means I’m caught up in people’s lives and I see the impact of my work.
Jeremy Richter: Yeah, so I handle car wrecks or slip and fall cases. Let’s stick with car wrecks. Let’s Yeah, I had, I had no somebody’s car wreck that their insurance company hired me to represent them. We don’t have other than, you know, the times we meet and talk and go over everything. We don’t have a prior relationship. And we for the most part don’t have a subsequent relationship. lest they get in another car wreck. Yeah. And so it is very much as you described an assembly line, and I’m in this part of their life for a very specific period of time, in a very brief period of time. And then they, you know, do their best to never think of me and this event ever again. And so yeah, they’re the fulfillment is a very different kind of thing than if I were handling things for them over a course of years, as various things came up, and were essentially an extended part of their network of people that they interact with.
Melissa Hall: Yeah, I mean, I, one of the things that I’ve started doing as part of intake is estate planning, assuming that they have a simple enough estate that that’s relevant. And you really get to know somebody during estate planning. Yeah. But then I get to use all of the information I find out to help them over the years. I haven’t had the opportunity to help somebody execute any of these plans. Thank goodness. Sure. But ultimately, that’s the direction that my practice, go.
Jeremy Richter: Sure you’re around long enough, you’re going to have to do that part as well, right?
Melissa Hall: So like, the fact that I’m looking at somebody’s full lifespan. And, you know, maybe I’ve advise somebody about what it means to get married in a community property state. And then later on, I’m helping them figure out the legal complexities of having a kid as somebody who it just doesn’t happen easily and biologically. Yeah. And then later, I’m securing parents who trades to that get. It’s a really satisfying way to be a part of building things. For your clients that I feel like not having that connection is some of what results in burnout.
Jeremy Richter: Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah. All right. as best you know. Did you coin the term primary care law?
Melissa Hall: As best I know, yes.
Jeremy Richter: How’d you come up with that?
Melissa Hall: It’s really, we have primary care physicians. And that’s the niche I’m trying to occupy in the legal community. Somebody’s got to take care of the cold. And right now nobody. Yeah, yeah. Like, it’s, I’m, I’m trying to offer that ongoing, low stakes relationship that makes the legal community accessible in much the same way primary care physicians make the medical care Community accessible. Like if the medical community worked like the legal community, there would be no primary care physicians. And you would have to just figure out what specialist you should probably see on your own.
Jeremy Richter: Yeah, it sounds like it would be difficult.
Melissa Hall: Do I have a cardiology problem? Or should I go? Yeah. And that’s where we leave our clients, particularly our individual clients is we present them with all these specialty areas that are like, go find the kind of specialists do you need? Yeah. Yeah. So it’s, and I, it’s hard for people who practice in those specialty areas because then they have this whole intake process where they have to figure out what the person’s problem really is. Because we’ve just never taken legal diagnostic work, even though it’s a lot of what we do in law school. Seriously on the broad perspective, right? Yeah. It’s weird that that’s what we expect people to do for themselves.
Jeremy Richter: Well, and I agree. And it’s very different for a practice like mine, where when I get a case, I know exactly what the starting point is. And we’ll figure out all the facts in a particular law that applies. But that’s very different from what you and other generalists experience where somebody may come in, and they know they have a problem, but they’re not even really sure what their problem is.
Melissa Hall: Yeah. I was talking to somebody the other day about estate planning, and it turned out that like the biggest potential risks she had was not having custodial agreements that let the step-parents in that relationship. Take the kids to doctors, you know, like, yeah, it turns out that like where your legal risk is, isn’t always obvious. Because you don’t know what, where the legal system is going to interact with you negatively until it happens. Unless you talk to a lawyer on a regular basis. Yeah. Yeah. So we end up with a lot of people who are just in a situation where a little bit of prevention could have prevented a serious problem. Mm hmm. But there is no real rhetoric for preventive legal care for everyday people.
Jeremy Richter: Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, well, for better or worse, that makes sense. Yeah, exactly. For worse.
Melissa Hall: Yeah. And like, it’s not like people are not interested in that. It’s just for some reason. Well, we know the reason it’s easy to see the business model and serving corporations. Yes. And that business model has pretty much taken over our entire industry, including places that do serve people. But we haven’t figured out a different business model that lets people serve people.
Jeremy Richter: I assume that in figuring out the model that has eventually worked for you, there were some trial and error along the way. Oh, yeah.
Melissa Hall: And I started off with just one off legal questions, because, well, when I moved to Washington State, I was previously licensed in Florida, which meant I got to take the bar exam again. Hmm, not fun, but a great way to practice big general practice attorney because, yeah, um, and so this was just Way to like, practice and see what was out there as far as question. Over time, it really did change into where I am now, based on the things that I found most interesting. And the discovery that like somebody having someone who is their attorney is something people are willing to pay for. There’s real peace of mind in that. That I don’t think, as attorneys we recognize because we know, we have a network we can call law. Yeah. So inherently, we’re kind of not in the position of most of our clients. Yeah, yeah. So no, I, I tried a couple of things and like my model might change again. But this feels really good right now. I’ve been here for about two years and slowly growing clients, the great thing is I haven’t had anyone drop out. That’s great. Yeah, it seems like once somebody gets used to the idea of I have an attorney, it’s not something they want to give up.
Jeremy Richter: Well, and I think that the way you’ve structured it allows them to budget, their legal issues in a way that most practices don’t like you become a part of their monthly budget. And just like, I just like, I might subscribe to Patreon for some podcasters that I listen to, on a larger scale, like that’s a part of their monthly expenses. And it’s a resource and something that’s a value to them and continues to be over the course of time.
Melissa Hall: Yeah, and it’s interesting like I started off trying to Use legal software to do the monthly billing part. When I moved to Patreon, I converted clients much quicker because it was immediately the model made a lot more sense to people in the demographic I was trying to reach Yes. Because of the platform.
Jeremy Richter: Yeah, that makes sense. Well, and I’ll say something else. I have written a number of articles. This is transitioning. I mentioned before we started recording that I’m really bad at transition. So this is a transition. I’ve written a number of articles about law firm websites are mostly terrible. And your website which is smol-law.com. Is everything that a law firm website should be. It is not about you and your credentials, and where you went to school and “Look at all of these impressive accolades I have.” It exhibits that you understand your client’s needs, and that you’re capable of handling them, which are so important and so rare on law firm websites. And so I just wanted to make sure to include your web address because like people need to go there and see like, this is how you communicate to clients that hey, I understand what your problems are, and I can help you resolve them.
Melissa Hall: Oh, thank you. One of the side effects of my kind of law practice is that I end up shopping for legal services more than most lawyers.
Jeremy Richter: Because you’re looking for a referral for your client.
Melissa Hall: Yes. Okay. And that really gives you a different perspective. If you’ve never tried, just looking for legal services, it’s worth like, just going and looking at Some law firms and trying to decide whether or not that’s, you know, a service you would use?
Jeremy Richter: Yeah, see mine is more. I’ve looked at a lot of lawyer websites, but only because I’m looking at the competition and saying, What can I steal from them that will make ours better? I haven’t done it from the shoes that you’re in. But that’s really interesting how. So having looked at that is how is that how you have developed the way you’ve written yours?
Melissa Hall: I developed mine the way that I’ve written mine because I’m not particularly interested in talking about myself. And so, it is sometimes a handicap but when it comes to law firm once, it’s useful, because it helps. And it also helps that I’m not particularly like, I don’t necessarily, Sara Lee have impressive credentials. I just have a deep concern with the people in my Client face and the desire to help them with these kinds of issues where frequently they’re on their own.
Jeremy Richter: Yeah, that’s really good. And I really think that that comes across. I mean, in the – I don’t know – three years that I’ve known you now, if anybody asked me, if you had to say one thing about Melissa, what would it be? And I think compassion will be at the forefront. And I think that really comes through.
Melissa Hall: Oh, thank you so much. I feel like it took me a long time to figure out what my job was as an attorney. You know, we study a lot about what an attorney does, but not like what the job of an attorney is. And I feel like once I figured out my job was to help make the state mechanisms that they lived under make sense to my clients and my clients makes sense to those mechanisms. I was much more effective. And that lets me play to my strengths.
Jeremy Richter: Yeah, makes sense.
Melissa Hall: Yeah, it’s one of those things where it took me a while to like, figure out what I could use these tools for? Well, once I had a clear objective, everything got much easier.
Jeremy Richter: So for lawyers who are interested in trying a different bottle of maybe even trying a less conventional approach, like yours, or maybe even different from yours, what advice would you have for somebody who’s considering those options?
Melissa Hall: Well, let me start by acknowledging that being able to experiment with different law practice formats is absolutely a creature for me a privilege I don’t have to earn My family’s income. So saying, so I want to be sure that I frame this appropriately because people who are not in that position will not have as much freedom as I do. And I didn’t have as much freedom to experiment at other times in my career. So I think when we’re talking about experimental law practices, it’s worth talking about the necessity of earning your keep earning enough for a family, those things absolutely frame what you’re capable of. And I am not about to like look down on anyone who makes other choices because they have other needs.
That said, I think the nice thing is there are a lot of ideas you can start off in a very small basis and being one of the things So I would say is, really make sure that if you’re going to experiment, you have a clear idea about what the core idea is. There’s a lot of things about my practice, but the core idea is that I provide basic legal services to everyday people. And that helps me anytime I get too far down a path. Because there’s a lot of temptation out there and it’s really easy to like, go after like something and follow that and follow that and next thing you know, you’re like, Wait, where am I happy, that central idea about what you do, what your practices really about, will help keep you focused and help your clients understand what you’re up to for them. And the second thing I would say is It’s really traditional advice, but there’s no need to have a lot of expenses right now in starting up an independent firm, especially if it’s something you’re considering doing while you moonlight or what else, whatever. My costs, including co working space are under $1,000 a month. Yeah, that includes also malpractice insurance. Yeah. So taking a good look at every expense you take on board while you’re in the early period, can help make you resilient and give you that room to experiment. I hate to say it, but one of the things about legal tech is that it tends to run really expensive. Yeah. So to the extent that you can use mainstream business application software, you really should consider whether it really makes a difference in the bottom line, especially early on. Sure.
Jeremy Richter: If people want to follow you or connect with you, where is the best place for him to do that?
Jeremy Richter: Okay, well, I really appreciate you coming on the show and I think you’ve provided a lot of just really down to earth and useful information and food for thought. If you’ve enjoyed the show, you can support it by rating it on Apple podcasts or wherever it is you’re listening, and make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss anything. You can also support the show on Patreon at patreon.com/lawyerpreneur. Thanks for listening.