Like many of us on the journey to find our purpose, no two lawyers have the same career path. For some individuals, the call to be a lawyer is innate while others take a different journey to find their true calling. As you’ll find with our customer, Ron Matten, his path to becoming an immigration attorney began in the field of engineering. He would later find this was just a stepping stone towards following his passion and opening his own immigration law practice, Matten Law.
Product Marketing Manager, Dan Bowman, sits down with Ron to learn more about his engineering background and the influence it has on his practice, how technology opened his eyes to the business side of managing a small firm, and his process of choosing PracticePanther.
The following transcript has been edited for context and clarity.
Dan Bowman: Thank you for being with us today, Ron. We’re really happy to have you talk with us about your experiences starting your own law firm and your thoughts on how technology can impact it. Can you first introduce yourself?
Ron Matten: Sure, thanks for having me. My name is Ron Matten, and just a brief background. I actually studied engineering before I decided to go to law school, I worked for a few years for a manufacturing company, and have practiced most of my career as an immigration lawyer.
For the vast majority of my career, I was with bigger law firms that were connected to big accounting firms — and we were doing a lot of corporate business immigration. I left there a few years ago to start my own firm and shifted the practice more toward a focus on startup companies, we do corporate immigration as well, and then we’ve also expanded into helping performers and entertainers — but primarily immigration.
Dan Bowman: Interesting, so you’re an engineer at heart. What made you decide to transition from being an engineer to running an immigration law practice?
Ron Matten: Yeah, I think it’s the old cliche of I wanted to do something where I could make a difference, have an impact, all of that, and I just wasn’t feeling that when I was working in the engineering environment. It felt like I was kind of a cog in a wheel and I ultimately wanted to go to law school to help people.
I was always interested in immigration, a lot of that comes from my upbringing. We traveled a lot internationally because my dad was a professor, we had people visiting us all the time from around the world, so there was always kind of this notion of how important immigration is to the way the country works. So helping people and that connection with immigration was a lot of what drove me to go to law school.
Dan Bowman: That’s amazing that you could blend your two passions together. You say that you’re a part law firm, part startup. Can you explain a little bit about what that means to you?
Ron Matten: Yeah, I think it’s funny because I have the engineering background and a lot of the technology comes naturally to me, but in reality, it has a lot more to do with the focus on how we interact with the clients and the users of our legal services.
Coming out of this bigger setting where it just felt a lot like things were very structured, very process-oriented, and technology was used for the sake of technology. When I decided to start this firm, I really wanted to make sure we were using technology that made the experience of our clients better. The use of technology fit really nicely into the work that I started to do with a lot of startup companies, and just this mentality and approach of being very dynamic and flexible as opposed to rigid.
I think the stereotype of a lot of law firms and lawyers is that it’s very rigid… no flexibility. So it’s really more that mentality of startup culture where you do what it takes, you are creative, always looking for new ways to do things.
Dan Bowman: I love your focus on using technology to better serve your clients rather than purely to run your immigration law firm better. There is a ton of legal tech these days, and a lot of people that look to use legal tech want to only improve upon their internal process, but the true end goal is to better serve your client, so that’s great that you set out on a mission to serve those clients from the start.
Your website prominently features your AI chatbot, can you tell me a little bit about how you’re using AI and explain what AI means for your law firm in general?
Ron Matten: We have a long way to go, but the idea, as it happens in immigration, is that things take a long time. Not just in terms of the work that we do to prepare an application for filing with the government, but then once it’s filed, processing times can be many months or even years. That just leads to a lot of the same questions over and over again. So what we’re trying to do right now is allow somebody to go and ask it questions and it will give them the ability to communicate with us, but the idea long term is to have a chatbot where you could say, “what’s the status of my case, how much longer is it going to take?”
Even some of the more sophisticated questions like, “I’m planning to get married, how do I add my spouse to my application?” So there are these questions that don’t require a lot of deep legal analysis, but it does relate to the legal service that we’re providing.
Dan Bowman: That’s amazing, I can definitely see the AI saving a lot of time for those more process-oriented questions that would take some “human minutes” just to look up the status of some paperwork.
Ron Matten: I think for law firms, there’s a lot of opportunities to use this technology to help you reduce the number of traditional jobs that people would have. For the receptionist type of job or someone who is just answering the phones, you could use a chatbot to handle some of that intake. I know there are a lot of other solutions that are out there, but that’s the idea for us as we have been building the firm in a way that we keep our focus on the legal service itself and pretty much anything else we try to solve through technology.
Dan Bowman: So Ron, you’re obviously pretty tech-savvy, I’m curious what sort of systems you had up and running before you used PracticePanther, and then what ultimately helped you make the decision to start using our solution.
Ron Matten: Yeah, just a preliminary comment that I really hope that people will take away from our conversation is that a lot of the technology that’s out there is easy, and to start small when pursuing it.
PracticePanther was actually one of the very first technology solutions that I found when I left the big firm and I was used to these systems that had been developed over many years that were very institutionalized. As we discussed, this technology was built to improve the efficiency for the law firm, but they were ugly, they were clunky, nobody liked to use any of these systems, and when I decided to go off on my own, I had no idea how to start a business. Zero ideas.
Luckily I just started talking to other people in the same type of situation, and one of the people that I met early on, who became almost like a virtual partner of mine, she said — “Well, the first thing you need to do is choose a practice management software,” and this was something I had no concept of.
I obviously knew about engagement letters, I knew about issuing bills, but I didn’t actually know how the accounting department worked in these firms where I had been, and it was so eye-opening and incredible to realize — Oh, with a practice management software, this ability to generate the engagement letter using a template, the ability to generate an invoice, but probably most importantly, the ability to collect the payment and have the payment applied to the invoice is huge.
It sounds very simple when you say that, but if you’re the lawyer and you’re also doing the bookkeeping in the early stages when you have zero clients, the less of those extra people that you have to hire to do those things, the better.
When I was looking around, that was something I had never really even thought about, but it’s become such a great cost-saving for our firm to be able to have a client pay and you know which invoices have been paid, you can run the report to see which ones are still outstanding, have the automatic follow-ups, etcetera.
Look and feel, I would say was a big differentiator for PracticePanther. It’s a very simple look and feel compared to a lot of the other competitors that are out there.
Dan Bowman: One thing you mentioned earlier was when thinking about technology, it’s important to start small. When you were first initially onboarding with PracticePanther, did you take that start small mentality, what was your experience like learning to use the platform? What did you try and tackle first?
Ron Matten: One of the things that I really appreciate was the ability to set up unlimited training, but there were these videos that you guys have recorded as well. One of the things I like is that you have these short videos that show you how to do something, but also you’ve got the text there. I don’t always want to watch the video, so it’s nice when you can just scan what the steps are. In terms of what we tackled first, most likely it was something to do with creating an intake form. We were using a very niche type of software for immigration law practice firms, business immigration law practice firms in particular, where you would have these out-of-the-box questionnaires for each visa type. They would collect information and it would be able to populate the forms. And I just remember that this was the program, in particular, nobody liked!
We all had to use it, but nobody liked it, it was so ugly. There were so many fields, but I knew as an immigration lawyer that I needed to be able to keep track of expiration dates of people’s visas. This is in all fields of law, one of our prime responsibilities is to keep track of those expiration dates for our clients, otherwise, we’re gonna lose our law license.
One of the very first things that I set up in PracticePanther was a series of the most critical expiration dates as custom fields, and then to go together with that intake form, so that if somebody wanted to do a consultation for me to assess what visas were available to them — I could collect some basic information from them before they even set up the call with me. The part that I especially like about those intakes is that it’s platform-agnostic, where if you create the intake questionnaire and then you take the hyperlink and send it to somebody in an email, they obviously don’t need to have a PracticePanther account to be able to fill out that questionnaire, they can be on their phone or they can be on a laptop.
That was one of the things that I really liked about PracticePanther as well as this seamlessness of being able to switch back and forth between the desktop and the phone.
Dan Bowman: There’s tons of technology out there, how do you choose what works best for you?
Ron Matten I think a lot of people want to have everything all in one place, and one of the great things about PracticePanther is that you do have a lot of integrations.
For example, our biggest integration, I would say, is with Box for document storage. We’ve even then tied it in with Zapier to go further than the PracticePanther folder structure, and we create sub-holders using Zapier, but it’s all connected between PracticePanther and Box so that we’ve got a folder that aligns with the name of the contact in the name of the matter, and PracticePanther.
I think the one thing that I would ask people to think about is what are your real important, critical issues that you’re trying to address and be clear about that, because this is why for us PracticePanther really is almost like the hub of a wheel, and then we have these other services that are around the wheel, and it’s great.
It goes back to this idea of identifying what problem you’re trying to solve, but don’t try to solve the whole universe, start with one thing and get it right, and then build from there. You can experiment.
Dan Bowman: You had some really great advice there for adopting technology, but what advice would you give to either other law firms or maybe even clients of yours that are afraid to use technology or switch.
Ron Matten: Don’t be afraid to experiment, you don’t have to have the perfect intake form. I’ve talked about this a lot, so I keep using that example. But the great thing about these tools is that it’s very easy to experiment with. You can create a custom field, you can create an intake form and send it to your friends, see what they think and how do they like the experience? What are the things that they would do differently?
I think more broadly, what advice would I give to people is, I’ll come back to this idea of an example outside of the law. I always think about Amazon, Netflix, and Uber. They disrupted established industries, all of them. If we can all kind of remember this, Amazon started out selling books, but nowadays that’s a very small part of their business. For Netflix, they started as trying to kill Blockbuster by providing an easier way to get DVDs by mail, and now who even has a DVD player anymore?
So this original disruption, they kept building on the platform that they had, and my point is just to say, if you’re a Star Trek fan, Resistance is Futile. The way the world is going, you have to adapt, you have to adopt technology, it has to be part of how you’re delivering the service. Think about your own experiences with Amazon. FedEx is another one that I’d like to use, this ability to always know where your package is when somebody’s shipping something to you, and they’re not the only ones that do that, but that’s what most users are expecting when they come to a law firm, or maybe they’re not expecting, but that’s what they would like to receive, that transparency, the ability to know what’s happening with their case or with their request, even if it’s something that doesn’t necessarily require a lot of innovation.
I’ll simplify it and say, if you’re thinking about technology, think about how you use technology for everything else in your life, and that’s what you should be doing with your law firm or your business.
Dan Bowman: We as humans are expecting answers as quickly as possible, and so you came and started your law firm from a place of using technology to better the client experience. So I want to ask you, what was one of the most frustrating processes that you had to go through when working in Biglaw?
Ron Matten: The frustration a lot of times had to do with that old adage of “It’s just always been this way. So that’s how we do it.” There are too many lawyers out there that don’t want to talk to their clients, or that make it hard to talk to their clients, whether it’s by being inaccessible or by charging in six-minute increments for the phone calls or the email responses, it’s just not the way the rest of the world acts. I found that that culture was pretty baked in of this notion of, “Oh, well, that’s out of scope” — there were always these barriers to just providing the services that the customer or the client wanted.
Obviously, it’s a business and we have to ensure that we are delivering a service that’s at the right value for our clients. We’re competing with a lot of people, but even today, often we get really busy and somebody sends me an email and wants to have a call and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I don’t have time for this call.” I have to stop myself because I know that part of the reason why they’re coming to me is that we are accessible — we are always working to differentiate ourselves from other providers in that way.
We know that we’re not just providing a transaction to the client, but it’s a relationship that we’re building, and so that’s I think the big difference is a lot of the bigger firms can talk about relationships, but they don’t really teach what that means in terms of how does that feel to the actual person that’s paying for your service. We’re always trying to stay grounded in that — are we giving good service?
Dan Bowman: Okay, so we talked a lot about how you’ve been able to use intake forms to your advantage besides those, what’s your other most-used feature in PracticePanther.
Ron Matten: Reporting, and it goes back to the custom fields I mentioned. There are a lot of expiration dates that we have to keep track of in the immigration law practice. I’m sure there are parallel dates that other types of law have to keep track of, and whatever data you put into PracticePanther, it’s incredibly accessible. This was something that is not always true, it seems really intuitive that you should be able to access your own data, but in a lot of other platforms, that’s just not the case, and in PracticePanther, we’ve just found it super easy to be able to essentially create a report of all of these expiration dates and sort and filter.
And again, I don’t want it to be lost that one of the things that really for me, differentiated PracticePanther from your competitors was the look and feel that other software that’s out there feels like it’s developed by software engineers. It seems like at some point, early in the process, there was an eye toward what… do people want to actually look at this?
I say this to people a lot, if you don’t like looking at the dashboard, you’re not going to want to use the software. For me, that’s one of the biggest things about PracticePanther, that it’s not a feature per se, but it’s just baked into the design.
Dan Bowman: Okay, so my final question. We talked about the past and what your frustrations were about previous jobs in the legal field, obviously you’re an engineer at heart and you really love technology, so what do you think technology is going to enable your law firm to accomplish in the next 10 years?
Ron Matten: You hear this a lot in the startup ecosystem, this idea of democratization, in other words, a law firm that is a solo practitioner is going to be able to deliver the same level of service as a law firm with 1000 lawyers.
I think that’s great for everybody, even the big law firms. And the reason I say that is that if you go to any sort of forward-thinking speaker about technology and law, they always talk about this idea of the Access To Justice gap that’s out there, that there’s probably 60% to 70% of legal services that right now are not being provided by law firms or lawyers at all. The idea is that we’re all going to rise up together now, I think that 60% to 70% is probably going to be pushing our fees down, and so if you’re not adopting technology to be able to lower your cost, you’re not gonna be able to compete, but technology almost automatically gets you cost savings.
Technology is going to make it so that everybody can actually receive proper legal service or at least better than what they receive today.