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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Dearn Law Group: An Interview with Alicia I. Dearn

When I was practicing law years ago, I heard my fair share of negative things about lawyers. Yet, I’ve also had the privilege to meet many attorneys who are committed to serving their clients with integrity, respect, and trust. Alicia I. Dearn is one such attorney.

As the CEO and Managing Attorney of Dearn Law Group, P.C., Alicia represents businesses in general civil matters from advice to litigation, and both employees and employers in all aspects of employment law, with a focus on employers. Alicia acts as an outsourced “general counsel” for her clients and is part of their business team, helping them succeed within the framework of the law. Her litigation practice is sophisticated and full service, including trial, appeal, complex matters and class actions.

I really enjoyed talking to Alicia recently about her legal practice, her advice for women who want to start their own business, her thoughts on making a difference, and why she says that if she ran the world she "would make it a prerequisite to filing or appearing in a lawsuit that the litigant explain their position in detail to their grandmother."

Shelly Rachanow: As a former attorney, I can speak from first-hand experience about the negative opinion many people have of lawyers. How do you think we can change that as a profession, and how are you working to change that individually?

Alicia I. Dearn: There are many parts to why the legal profession has a negative reputation (which is a polite way of saying that most people think that lawyers are greedy, dishonest agitators). There is not just one answer on how to change this. But I personally feel that the most immediately effective way to improve perceptions is to ditch billing by the hour. The billable hour creates a natural conflict of interest between attorney and client (the attorney being incentivized to work inefficiently on the client's matter and charge more). No matter how diligent the lawyer, this is perceived by the client and creates distrust.

The client is frequently surprised by the bill, no matter how much you communicate with them. As a result, clients spend hours combing over the massive bill and wondering to themselves why their lawyer deserves to be paid $47.50 for an email. With this distraction, the lawyer cannot effectively communicate her value to the client and cannot help the client purchase appropriate preventative legal services. The result is that clients only hire lawyers because catastrophe has struck; and now they are stuck paying the extraordinary bill that results. The whole thing is negative and destructive.

I have eschewed traditional law firm business models to offer legal services on set monthly fees with defined deliverables. This allows me to be more interactive with the client, focus on problem solving and communicate my value in an authentic and natural way. The relationship with the client becomes centered around positive actions and collaboration. Money is only in the equation to the extent that the client has to budget for my services (and she can, since the price is stated up front).

Shelly Rachanow: Tell us more about Dearn Law Group, and why you decided to start your own practice.

Alicia I. Dearn: I started DLG out of necessity. I was partner-bound at a big firm but felt deeply unsettled at the prospect of staying long term. Even now, I cannot really put my finger on it; I think, perhaps, I'm more entrepreneurial than I am big-corporate and I felt stifled by that environment. After several years, this unsettled feeling dominated my psyche, but I did not know how to modify my career to resolve it. When my husband needed me to go with him to London to help him care for an ailing parent, quitting the big firm to support him felt like a no-brainer -- my love for my family is massively more important than a career I wasn't even satisfied in. As I'm an intellectually active person, I used that time to learn about business, marketing and technology. Several months later, I returned to San Diego and quickly obtained several offers at law firms. But the economy simultaneously crashed and my job offers were yanked. I'm plucky, so I thought to myself: "I still have a license. I don't need a firm to practice law." And so DLG was born using Craigslist and my laptop in my living room.

Shelly Rachanow: How is your legal practice different from most?

Alicia I. Dearn: Dearn Law Group, PC is different from other firms because we are focused 100% on leaving the client in a better position as a result of hiring us than they were in before they met us. The money is secondary; we're obsessed with helping people (particularly small businesses and entrepreneurs). As a result, we become a business partner and true counsellor to our clients. Drafting legal documents is almost an incidental service because of the amount of strategic advice and planning that goes into our work with our clients before pen ever touches paper. We never just spit out forms; if that is what our clients need, we'd rather send them to LegalZoom or Nolo and spend less. For that reason, we only work with clients that we really like, because they become an important part of us and our obsessive personalities. I worry about my clients in my sleep -- I don't take on that kind of stress for just anyone!

Shelly Rachanow: These days, more and more women are starting their own businesses. As a business owner, and an attorney specializing in business and employment law, what advice do you have for other women who want to start their own business?

Alicia I. Dearn: Be brave. Being an entrepreneur has huge highs and deep lows. It's also an exercise in almost irrational optimism. You must march forward bravely, holding onto that optimism in the face of all contrary evidence and ignoring your worries. You cannot let fear stay your hand because your talents are needed in the world -- now more than ever -- and it is taking fearless action that gets your talents out there. Success will follow this inspired action.

Shelly Rachanow: And last, the 'If Women Ran the World Blog' question for everyone - What would you do if you ran the world?

Alicia I. Dearn: I would make it a prerequisite to filing or appearing in a lawsuit that the litigant explain their position in detail to their grandmother. Too many people engage in ridiculous arguments for the sake of pride, greed, arrogance or short-sightedness. If you can explain your position to grandma without either blushing or being slapped upside the head, then there may be a bona fide dispute. Otherwise, stop fighting over petty stuff and work on a compromise, or let it go. Litigation should be the course taken only when there is literally no other choice. Typically, the only winners in litigation are the lawyers.

For more information, visit http://www.dearnlaw.com/.

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