Helpers Gonna Help: Ethics Lawyer, Entrepreneur, and Innovator Extraordinaire Megan Zavieh | Ep. 6
Megan Zavieh is a lawyer who helps other lawyers. She's a California state bar defense lawyer, an entrepreneur, an innovator and #legaltech nerd, and an omnipresent voice in attorney mental health and well-being.
In today's episode, we talk about lawyers with ADHD, shame, helping self-represented lawyers in attorney discipline proceedings, and how anxiety, depression, and ADHD show up as frequent patterns in Megan's clients.
We also talk about building law firms with margin and space and systems and incremental improvement. Megan's story inspires all of us lawyers with ADHD: we don't need “perfect” systems. We need the curiosity to start building them and the habit of improving them over time.
Learn More about Megan Zavieh
- Megan's podcast, Lawyers Gone Ethical, and the Lawyers Gone Ethical episode we recorded together.
- The State Bar Playbook
Two Quotes from Megan Zavieh
“These people need help. These are the lawyers that I always said back when I was 18 that I want to be their psychiatrist. I don’t want to be their psychiatrist anymore, but I can be their counselor, and I can be their guide through this process.”
“Maybe you don't need medication, maybe you don't need to go to a psychiatrist, but we need to talk about this. And I think that lawyer-to-lawyer is going to be the best network for us to be having those conversations so that in the future you start to find out early on that if you get that feeling, it means you need to do something, not that there's something wrong with you.”
- Acuity Scheduling (*When I recorded this episode with Megan, I wasn't an affiliate. But now I am an Acuity affiliate. If you use my link, I'll get a small commission that helps JDHD stay focused. I use and endorse Acuity without reservation and without influence from my affiliate status.)
- Lawyerist LabCon (f/k/a TBD Law)
- ABA TECHSHOW
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Megan Zavieh: These people need help. These are the lawyers that I always said back when I was 18 that I want to be their psychiatrist. Well, I don't want to be their psychiatrist anymore, but I can be their counselor and I can be their guide through this process.
Marshall Lichty: Hey, all this is Marshall Lichty, and welcome to JDHD, a podcast for lawyers with ADHD. I'm Marshall, I'm a lawyer, and I've got ADHD. I am stoked about this interview today. That's for a lot of reasons. One of them is because it's with a friend of mine. I'm lucky to call her a dear friend but she's also an amazing entrepreneur and human and lawyer… Truly a lawyers lawyer. My guest today is one of the kindest and cleverest, really one of the boldest lawyers I know and she carries the distinction of being the very first podcast episode that I ever recorded. Obviously I am publishing it a little bit later, but she's the OG. And if you're just a bit patient, I'm actually going to tell you her name. But first I want to give you a quick JDHD update.
Marshall Lichty: This week, I recorded my first “elimination of bias” CLE for Minnesota CLE. It was a two-hour affair in conjunction with Minnesota Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. A podcast with Sam Glover on the Lawyerist podcast drops this week, too, and I surpassed 100 subscribers to the email list. I hired a page speed superhero from China on Upwork to help me speed up my desktop and mobile website performance. And I've had amazing conversations with lawyers from all over the world, including a bunch of email exchanges on Friday, that moved my soul. I'm also beta testing the idea of a new mastermind group for lawyers with ADHD. I'm thinking about a very minimal financial commitment with two remote group meetings every month and a confidential meeting space on Slack or Discord or Facebook. If that gives you any interest or curiosity and you'd be willing to take a short survey, email me at marshall@TheJDHD.com with the subject “Mastermind?” and I'll show you the survey.
Marshall Lichty: There's no commitment at all. I'm testing the waters to see if there's an appetite for more connection with the legions of JDHDs out there around the world. Finally, I want to give you all my most sincere thank you. I have been overwhelmed with the response to JDHD. I'm an impostor and imposters don't stick around for long if they don't start to feel like they're home. You make me feel at home and I'm thankful for each every one of you. So now with all that squishy stuff out of the way, it's time to kick off an amazing interview with an amazing person that I'm proud to call my friend, Megan Zavieh.
Marshall Lichty: Today I am really excited to have a guest that you are all going to like a lot. This person I originally met mostly on a run. We were running uncomfortably in the city of St. Louis and I have gone on to appreciate the fact that she has a lot of things beyond that. She is a podcaster with her own podcast called Lawyers Gone Ethical. She is a blogger… Everywhere. She has blogged at Lawyerist and Attorney at Work and My Shingle and GenY Lawyer and Lawyers with Depression and Maximum Lawyer and Clear Law Institute and Above the Law 2020 and everywhere else. She's spoken at TECHSHOW, which is a pipe dream of mine that I hope to one day emulate. She's an entrepreneur. She's got her own business. She actually has a product, maybe another business too, called The State Bar Playbook. And she is a innovator and avid Twitter nerd, a runner, and a whole bunch of other things. And that's why I'm really excited to introduce you today to Megan Zavieh who is, not just a friend of mine, but a really magnificent person, too.
Marshall Lichty: So what we're going to talk about today, Megan, before you introduce yourself is the fact that you in addition to being really good at location agnosticism having been born in California and now representing clients in California from your home with that isn't in California. You've also lived elsewhere in New York, New Jersey, California, a couple of other places. And we're gonna talk today about your practice, which is representing lawyers in ethics complaints… state bar ethics complaints in the state of California. So what I want to ask you is, how did you know, how did you first know that you were meant to be a state ethics defense lawyer, Megan Zavieh?
Megan Zavieh: Marshall, that has to be the nicest introduction. Thank you. So that's a really good question. How did I know? So that's kind of a long story. I'll try and keep it short. When I first set out to go to law school, it wasn't like… I know some people have this big plan and that's always been what they were going to do. I was 18 years old, graduating from college sooner than I thought. Like already that's early. Right? But I thought I was going to have another semester.
Marshall Lichty: From Berkeley, if I'm not mistaken?
Megan Zavieh: Law school was Berkeley. So college, college is complicated. Let's just say I was at the University of Oregon at the time. It's not where my degree is from, but long story. So I was getting ready to graduate and it was like, Oh, whoops. I didn't realize that it was happening yet. Like, I was so busy having fun, taking a ridiculous number of classes, that I didn't realize they added up to: I was done. And so I was like, well, I could go to law school. Like that would be cool. Right? So I applied really late to all these law schools and got in and started down the path at law school. But really what I wanted to do was help lawyers as a psychiatrist. And so it was like, well, I don't have my premeds done. I wasn't really on a med school track. I'll go to law school and then do my pre-meds and then I'll go to medical school.
New Speaker: Did you have lawyers in your life that you knew? Most people who graduate from college don't even know lawyers. Never mind that they need psychologists desperately.
Megan Zavieh: My father is a lawyer with PTSD as a Vietnam veteran and severe depression most of my life.
New Speaker: It hit home with you from the get-go.
Megan Zavieh: So I knew that he was not alone and I knew that lawyers suffered really high rates of depression and I was really interested in treating them. I really wasn't that interested in being a lawyer. I, cause I hadn't really thought about practicing really. I was like, how do I help lawyers? And so I went to law school and I loved law school. I mean people have these horror stories of law school. I loved law school.
Megan Zavieh: My dad gave me a Black's law dictionary as I started and I still have that. It now presses flowers really well in my house, but it's inscribed in the front. My dad wrote me this really nice note in 1996 that my kids recently read and they know their Papa really well. He lives about five minutes from me, so it's just kind of funny for them. It's like a mind trip. But he even told me in that note, like, you're going to love law school. You're going to love the intellectual challenge of it. And I did, but I still had this plan for medical school, so I was doing all my med school prerequisites while in law school. So my biology and my organic chemistry, the only class I have ever had to repeat is organic chemistry. My brain does not work that way.
Megan Zavieh: I have weaknesses apparently. I don't have that spatial need in organic chemistry. That I do not have that. And so I got my first D ever at Hunter College in New York, in my organic chemistry 2 class. I'll never forget it. And I took physics and all that and I took the MCAT and I scored quite well for a lawyer… Respectable. I would've gotten into some medical school, not Harvard, but you know, I would've been okay. And then it was like, wow, do I really want to go back to being a zero, right? Like, do I want to go back to first year of something? So I had a federal clerkship, and I was at Berkeley and you don't say no to Federal clerkships. I do the federal clerkship and you don't, and we're dead broke because we're living in New York on a $40,000 clerkship salary.
Megan Zavieh: Well, my now husband is going to college. He'd already been to college and he goes to college again and got a bunch of degrees. So he's like struggling as a student and we have no money and we're literally putting groceries on credit cards and it's like, I could go work at a big firm and we can pay off our debt. I'll get ahead. So I did. And then as my MCAT score was about to expire, I though, “I'm not taking that again.” You know, people say that about the bar exam. And so I basically went through the analysis and decided that I was going to stick with law, let go of my med school dream because going down that path would have meant things like putting off a family a lot longer than I really wanted to at that point. I still was, you know, early twenties, but in my head, this was, this is really important to me.
Megan Zavieh: And so I let that go and I did big law for about eight years as a securities litigator and general commercial litigator. And it had its moments. I will never say that it was all bad. But it was frustrating at times and I saw people needing help in the state bar discipline process. I had people close to me who needed help and I couldn't help because in big law, you know, we were always told basically you can't do work outside of the firm. And I get that from an ethics perspective, but it sucked. And I still think that they could have done things like let us bring family cases or friend cases in that are going to take 10 hours of work and let us do that. Right. But they didn't.
New Speaker: So who was the first lawyer? Not by name of course, but tell us about the first lawyer that you were able to help.
Megan Zavieh: So I ended up leaving big law in 2009 and I was referred to someone who was a depression sufferer with a bar complaint history going back to the 80s. So by then it's, you know, yeah, 2009, like I said so back in the 80s had a discipline. It wasn't huge. Talking to them, I've learned that that was at a point where they had crashed psychiatrically. And then they come back and for like 20 some odd years had been fine. And they weren't so well anymore. And there were a series of complaints and they were directly tied to depression and I was able to help them through that matter. And basically I sat there in state bar court and I watched some of the other respondents, which it's not like civil court. Like, I mean you don't sit there with a calendar and watch 15 people come through.
Megan Zavieh: You often see no one. When you go to state bar court, you go to your matter and you leave and you think, is there even another soul in this building?
New Speaker: That's gotta be terribly isolating?
Megan Zavieh: It's really weird. I have to say. It's really strange and odd and cold. But I was there one day where there were several people on the calendar, which, like I said, is unusual. But I did watch several and self-represented respondents go through and it kind of clicked for me. I was like, these people need help. Like these, these are the lawyers that I always said back when I was 18 that I want to be their psychiatrist. I don't want to be their psychiatrist anymore, but I can be their counselor and I can be their guide through this process.
Megan Zavieh: So I launched a practice then that was to support the self-represented respondents, which is still a component of what I do. It's what my digital product is all about. But then it grew over time to the point where you know most of my work is representing people on a full scope basis.
Marshall Lichty: So you mentioned your product, that's the State Bar Playbook. Say a couple of words about that. Where can people find it and what is it?
Megan Zavieh: It's at statebarplaybook.com and it is for California lawyers who are going through the discipline system really without representation. That's who it's intended for. I still think that if you have representation and you have the resources to also have the playbook, it's a great guide for understanding the process of it. More than that, a lot of lawyers are not really able to just sit down and explain it to you. It has the entire process from complaints to an appeal. All the rules, forms, and details of how the whole process works.
Marshall Lichty: I love that. What an amazing resource and I tend to think about these things on sort of a spectrum. You know, you can, if you have a problem you can do it yourself. You can do it with help or you can have someone do it for you. And I tend to like the ones that are kind of right in the middle of the do it with help. There's a component of it that you need to do. But having an advocate, somebody who really knows what's going on can be super helpful. So that feels, that feels like a really neat part of your practice. Okay. So I want to shift quickly to, well maybe not quickly, the shift will be quick, but I want to talk about this. You represent clients in the state of California who have state bar complaints. Where are you right now?
Megan Zavieh: In Georgia.
New Speaker: That doesn't make any sense. Are you visiting Georgia?
Megan Zavieh: No, I live in Georgia. I have lived many places and when I actually started doing this work, I was physically in California. After being gone a number of times… I was born and raised in California. That's, you know, by far my home state, no matter how long or how far I've been gone from it. But born and raised there and then I went to Oregon and I came back to California, went to Connecticut for part of law school, back to California,
Marshall Lichty: To Australia, if I'm not mistaken?
Megan Zavieh: Eventually there, yes. I moved to New York and New Jersey, moved back to California. Started doing this work, moved to Australia. Yes. From California to Australia. I started the practice full bore. That's where set up a website and really called myself, you know, a practicing lawyer in this field. In 2009 is when I started doing the work for sure. But it was more like to some referral basis and word of mouth. I was like, I love doing this and there's no reason I have to be there. I was very careful. I couldn't take a case that required me to be there. I was pregnant and then had a newborn and I was a big ass flight away from California. But I really launched it there. Then we left there and moved to Georgia and you know, California is just a hot bed of this type of work.
Megan Zavieh: I know the people I, I've never had reason to practice elsewhere despite my physical location, and now I can do a day trip to San Francisco or LA if I need to. I live next to the world's busiest airport. It's really easy to go if I have to. And most of the time I don't have to. You know, we kind of forget that. We think that lawyers are supposed to practice in their communities. The truth is that you don't need to meet people in person. And if I was across town from most of my clients, I still wouldn't make them come to my office. We can do everything by phone and that's gotten easier and easier over the years.
Marshall Lichty: I love that. So there you are in Georgia, you've got a husband and a couple of rugrats—four, if I'm not mistaken—you've got some some animals and some clients and a bunch of other things and you, you go about the business of representing lawyers who have some challenges in the ethics system in California. So what I would really love to hear is how you come to find your clients and I don't mean how you find and earn clients. What I mean is when you run into your typical client, what does that look and feel like? Where are they, what's happening? How do they feel?
Megan Zavieh: They are panicked and stressed and often angry. Typically very defensive. Every so often one is very remorseful and regretful, but those are honestly pretty infrequent in terms of like the first interaction.
Marshall Lichty: So I want to stop you right there because I'm fascinated by that response. The first time I got an ethics complaint that I knew was, you know, like it was the first time I was all of those things. But even though I know knew that I hadn't violated any rules, I was shameful. And we've talked about how ADD impacts lawyers and one of the things that my audience is going to hear in that is I will be defensive outwardly maybe or I will be remorseful outwardly. But one thing that's happening inwardly is that I might be feeling a massive amount of shame. Is that a part of your practice? Recognizing that and maybe understanding how that might impact the process?
Megan Zavieh: Absolutely. So there are definitely some clients that you hear it in them even in their choice of words. When they, when they're defensive and they're saying, well, I didn't do anything wrong. Whenever you can hear it, that there's shame and usually it'll come out like, “Well, I can't tell my wife…” Or “Only call my cell phone, don't call my office. I don't want anyone to know.”
Marshall Lichty: You are the only person on the planet that probably knows this.
Megan Zavieh: I have some clients that I communicate with them through their personal cell phone and some random email address that it's like they've set it up just for this because they are so afraid of someone knowing that it's going on.
Marshall Lichty: So is that your advice?
Megan Zavieh: No, my advice is totally the opposite. My advice—and I write about it and I've podcasted about it and have videos about it—is to share this burden with especially your family or office staff. It can often be really good too, especially if you have a good team. I think people need to share the burden very frequently. Bar complaints—I don't want to say are baseless because that really undercuts the complaining witness and where they are—but they are not going to be sustained in terms of actual discipline. They signify a serious breakdown in a relationship and they signify that the other side is very, very upset about something you have done or didn't do.
Megan Zavieh: But it doesn't necessarily mean that you have actually committed an ethics violation and should be disciplined for it. And so since it often doesn't mean like, “Hey, you're getting disbarred!,” or you're going to be suspended in your practice and be shut down… To bear that burden entirely by yourself is so stressful and it's going to impact everything around you. And you have a support system in place. You have a family, you have a team at work, these are people who can help. And not only the emotional burden, but even the substantive piece of responding to a bar complaint. I want to hear from staff. If you have a team working on cases or even just working in your office on the admin side and they don't touch cases because they will have details that you won't know or won't realize are important. And so if you isolate yourself when you're dealing with a bar complaint, you basically screw yourself over emotionally and you don't help yourself in terms of the substance as a complaint. And honestly, you're turning into a miserable jerk for the whole time it is pending and the people around you have no idea.
Marshall Lichty: Right? And, and you know, you can't read the label of the bottle from the inside. And so I think a lot of times there's this outward perspective that can be super useful in piecing together the “what happened.”
Marshall Lichty: So tell me about what you know about how depression and anxiety and, and of course from my curiosity and a lot of those people listening how things like ADHD might impact the process. I know from the lore and from speaking with you that the most common type of violation that gets people in this system in the first place tends to be breakdowns in communication. I know that there are others, but tell me about how anxiety and depression and ADHD can trigger or catalyze or exacerbate that kind of breakdown and maybe a tip or two that you have for people about how to start reducing the risk by making communication just a little bit easier.
Megan Zavieh: All of those types of conditions kind of have in common that the sufferer will shut down in some way. So you know with depression it can literally be, you don't get out of bed in the morning. And anxiety, it can be that you just can't bring yourself to pick up the phone, open the email, you're so paralyzed. Then we've talked at some length about ADHD. You know, it could be that you just can't get something out the door because you just don't think it's perfect enough. So these are all similar things and certainly from the outside, from the client's perspective, it doesn't really matter which of those types of conditions or something similar. It is that what they have is silence from you. They have something happening in their case or they have a question for you and they're getting crickets from you. And that's where the suffering is. Like dealing with the compounding effect of not having communicated.
Megan Zavieh: And then, you know, okay, now the client's angry. “I really can't respond to this email,” or “Oh my gosh, I heard that voicemail. There's no way I'm calling them back now.” Right. And then tomorrow I'm going to feel even worse because now it's been another day and another call. And so it spirals to the point where there's a bar complaint or there's firing of the lawyer, there's demands for refunds, which, I mean, most of my experience comes through depression. That those demands for refunds can often be just, well not, I already spent that money on my mortgage or Oh crap, if I give that back to you, I can't pay this other really important thing. I mean, I would love to see statistics on the housing crisis and foreclosures of lawyers, especially solo lawyers because I bet they were high. It's amazing. The solo lawyers often are living, you know, the equivalent of paycheck to paycheck.
Marshall Lichty: Yeah. Margin-less lives. That's one thing that we talk about a lot here is “margin” and finding ways to build margin. And financial margin is definitely one of them. So I can absolutely squint and see what it looks like for a lawyer who is already margin-less, who may or may not, you know, have, have done anything that warrants discipline, but for whom the idea of that process and the potential outcome of losing a license or having a reputation injured or having to give back money could be like kind of a domino to fall that might have a cascading implication.
Megan Zavieh: Yeah. Cause if you have no margin, you have no savings. You're literally, Oh good. Thank God I got a client today because the mortgage is due tomorrow and you take that fee and you spend it and that's, you know, whether you're ethically allowed to or not, in some states things are a little different, but you know, probably not. Well let's just say even if you were allowed to spend it you send that in and then you don't get the work done because your depression kept you in bed for the next three days and now the client's upset and they want that money back. Well you can't give it to them. So you could just do the work, which would solve the whole problem, but your depression keeps you from accomplishing that or your anxiety or your ADHD, whatever you're suffering through and it just spirals and it just gets uglier and uglier. And eventually a lot of the people in this situation don't just end up with a single bar complaint.
Marshall Lichty: I was curious about.
Megan Zavieh: They up with like five and you're dealing with a bunch of letters from the bar, oftentimes unable to even open them if you know what's in there or you have a good idea what's in there and they don't even open them and then you don't respond. And that ultimately goes to disbarment.
Marshall Lichty: I've treated emails that way. I've pretended like it wasn't sitting there. I leave it unread. It's the only one that's unread sitting in there. I know it's in there. I owe somebody something. Right? That is, that is a thing I can, I can feel that in my guts right now. That feeling of not opening a letter or pretending like it doesn't exist.
Marshall Lichty: So one of the things that I think is absolutely critical for lawyers, particularly with ADD, is starting to take a look. We've talked before about shame and how you know, you can make a mistake, take something that wasn't perfect and have an interaction with it that feels terrible and awful and you know, you're kind of black and white. You're either perfect or you're the worst or you know that product was perfect or you're the worst. And what I really like is this idea.
Marshall Lichty: My ADHD coach and I talked about this very recently: the idea that when something bad happens, stepping back and putting on sort of a scientist hat and looking at, you know, using that not as a tool with which to bludgeon yourself, but using it as a tool to say, “Okay, this was a thing that happened. It's, it's done.” I mean, of course we have the ethics complaint that we might have to deal with or, or hopefully it's not that, but it's something, you know, slightly less down the spectrum than that. And putting on that hat and saying, why did it happen? What, what came about to let it happen? Is there anything that I can, is there anything that I can do differently? And so putting that scientist hat on and trying to learn from mistakes is, first of all, cripplingly difficult for people with ADHD.
Marshall Lichty: But to the extent we can do that, I love talking about that. And so we talk a lot about the positive or sort of the super powers of ADHD. I would love to hear you tell me a story about someone who had an ethics complaint and who rather than having a cascading effect of horribleness went through the process in a way that is sort of an avatar for you. Sort of like, this is the best way you can go through this. Do you, is that a thing or is it all just a big, terrible mess with the first brick falling out and then all of the wall falling down after that?
Megan Zavieh: It is not always a big terribleness. So much of it depends on the… It's almost like an internal strength. I don't want to make it sound like, you know, if you don't have this superpower, forget it. But I see the most success with the lawyers who stepped back from their experience with the bar complaint and go, okay, I never want to go through that again. Whether they think they did something wrong or not. It's easiest when they do acknowledge that they had some failing, but even the ones who didn't, if they just have to have the resolve, they never ever want to go through this again. And I have like, there's one client that I worked with who I just, I know I've said I wish it, they were all like him. And he knows this because he went through the complaint process, the investigation is over, you know, his life goes on.
Megan Zavieh: He's able to continue practicing. But then says, “how do I make sure this doesn't happen again?” And actually does a postmortem, you know, actually sits down and goes, here's where it broke down. Here's what was going on in my personal life at the time. Like completely justified, right? Like, if you look at that from the outside, you're sitting at a bar and hearing this guy's story listening, call the client back. You are dealing with that crap. Yes you were. But that crap's going to happen again. Right? Life happens. So he put into place, he's like, when I have something like this, I'm gonna call this friend of mine who's going to swoop in and he's always going to be my backup person. Like he put in a backup person. So that if he ever starts to struggle personally, he knows to get this backup person involved early before he needs them to say, Hey, here's a here.
Megan Zavieh: This is the cases that I've got going on right now. If I suddenly, you know, can't handle them, I'm going to call you. I need to ask you to take over. So that's in place. He got a subscription to ethics counseling so that he has an ethics lawyer on call all the time.
Marshall Lichty: Is that a service you offer?
Megan Zavieh: Yes, that's a service I offer. And so, you know, got those systems in place and really looked at like where was the breakdown, what happened that went wrong, correct that. And while we're at it, what did not go wrong but could have, let's go ahead and put a bandaid on that too and make sure that we don't have a problem in the future. And so that awareness is super, super important. And you know, somebody like that, I bet they're never going to see a bar complaint again. They've probably been through the one they will ever have.
Marshall Lichty: One question I have about your practice is I can see very easily the tactical technical litigation, very lawyer-y part of this that you know, probably hearkens back to your days in the AMLAW 200 and securities litigation and strategizing and winning. What I don't necessarily hear right now is how you bring out the part of you that is the person who was never going to go to law school and was going to go to med school instead and support and counsel and advise and teach and help growth happen in these, you know, this population that might be at risk. Where do you do that? What does that look like for you in your practice?
Megan Zavieh: So a whole lot of my phone calls with clients are much more counseling-oriented. Most of our work on response to investigations and documents, all that's emailed, you know, it doesn't require much of a personal touch. And we go through that and we get the narrative written and we get the documents together and we submit them. And that's all well and good. But when you get on the phone, it's the, “I'm really scared. I don't know how to tell my wife, Oh shit, what if they look further? Okay, I have to tell you something. You can never tell anybody. This is what I'm, I'm hiding. Make sure they don't look under this rock.” So those are the, the interactions where we really get personal and we talk through how to handle situations. I've actually had a client tell me he was suicidal.
Megan Zavieh: Which was probably the most trying case that I've had. It was actually a tiny little matter that was resolved with a letter. I mean it was the smallest matter on record. I mean it really was, it was a nothing of a case.
Marshall Lichty: And it was his absolute world.
Megan Zavieh: And it was like, you know, if they looked closer at his trust account, what they were going to find, he was going through a divorce and what that was going to look like. And it was like spiraling. I spent hours on the phone talking him off the ledge trying to gauge like, do I call someone? Do I, what do I do with this information? Is he serious? I don't, I've never met a person and he's playing, can I hang up the phone? Yes. I mean, it was really, really tough. So there's a lot of that for me, but it's the, it's that's the in, you know, as in person, as I get with most people, which is on the phone. Those one on one interactions is when so much of that counseling takes place.
Marshall Lichty: I mean, it sounds to me like, I mean, I can hear it in your voice. That's the passion for you. You literally, the sound in your voice was not dismissive of the tactical and technical stuff, but to me it sounded like that part is so easy. And that part is so you know, almost formulaic. There's just a checklist. You just follow the checklist. You just do the thing and you kind of work through it and that the real work is in something else.
Megan Zavieh: That's the litigation game.
Marshall Lichty: Yeah. Well, and I, and, and I think that actually leads into the next question. One of the things that most excites me about being in your orbit is you are one of the people who has taken seriously the idea of incremental improvement in your firm and in sort of the way that you do business. Incremental improvement is the only kind of improvement. I'm afraid of the word “innovation” because it scares everybody and they think they need to like code a robot to bring their clients to court or something and I know that your perspective on that is very different. Can you tell me how the work that you have done to innovate your law firm has allowed you to put the stuff that kind of you talk about in a flat voice to the side and really talk about that other part, the emotional part, the counseling, the preemptive, the stuff that is really a superpower for you.
Megan Zavieh: The incremental improvement is coming over the past several years as I've systematized. What the, I guess really the substantive work of defending people really comes down to, there was a time when I started from scratch on every case, you know, blank sheet of paper. I'm starting from scratch. And then that's really through the connections that I've made through Lawyerist and TBD law where you and I met on that wonderful run and getting more involved, sort of in the legal community of a lot of innovative, forward-thinking people. I've been able to bring a lot of those pieces home with me and start to just build a practice on systems. So for example, now when I meet a new client, there's a consultation process, which involves automation, you know, emailing an intake form that they fill out and it uploads directly into my email and my Dropbox.
Megan Zavieh: And I go to create an investigation response and I've already got a template created and I have places to plug things in. It doesn't take very long anymore to do the substantive work. It's still fun. But I'm no longer, you know, putting out fires. Like we've talked a little bit about, particularly with these JDHDs, I'm not like, Oh no, this is due tomorrow and I have a mountain of work to do. I'm like, Oh, after that first meeting, I basically had a draft done because of systems and now I need to put my gloss on it and, and you know, make it pretty, but we're pretty much done. I now am freed up energetically and time-wise to get on the phone with them through this and hold their hand and make sure they understand things and I'm listening and so I'm able to not be just rushed and dismissive of them where they are emotionally.
Marshall Lichty: So I love that. And I have two questions that stem from it. The first one I want to dispense as quickly as we can because this definitely isn't a technology podcast, but the idea of systematizing and automating and whatever sounds: a.) awesome (I want to know that. I want to know all of it); and b.) impossible. (It sounds like you have this system that I can't ever emulate. It's impossible in that you woke up one day and all of a sudden you went from, you know, blinking screen on a blank page without even your letterhead to being like essentially Watson. And I don't even, particularly as an ADHD person, I don't, I don't have any idea where to start that process or how to get to the end goal. Did you wake up yesterday and having a fully automated law firm that just happened? And quickly to the extent you can talk about what it looks like to build incrementally a law firm that now does that a bit better.
Megan Zavieh: Well, “incrementally” is like the perfect word. You do it bit by bit. You go, okay, I hate answering my phone. Right. Cold answering. Hate it. I like to talk to people when they know I'm about to call them and they answer knowing it's me because it's at our scheduled time and we're all prepared. Like this is how I like the phone. I've always hated the phone. Okay. I was never that teenager like on the phone all day. And so I wasn't answering my phone. Basically an online scheduler that was one piece, one pain point here, you don't have to call me anymore, go to my website, you can book a time with me. So then down the road I go, well you know, it'd be really helpful to get more information from the person before I call them back. So then you build an intake form on your online scheduler.
Megan Zavieh: It would be great if they could upload documents. So you add that and then you, I want to charge for these consultations. So you add a payment piece, like it's literally one bit at a time and it's never done. So if you have this vision that like I need to snap my fingers or hire somebody just one day, build me an automated from like that's not a thing because you're never done doing it. We're constantly tweaking it and automating more things or sometimes finding, “Ooh, that automation is not cutting it. Personal touch on this.” We're removing the automation and going back to manual for a specific reason. So it's always evolving. Incrementally is a great word for it. And you just pick up point to start and you can't really go wrong. You automate something,
Marshall Lichty: Sounds like it's a bit of a flywheel in the sense that you know, when you start you have no margin and you do a thing and maybe it helps create a little bit of margin, which is either then repurposed to provide better service or do the things that you love your business or to work on your business a bit where you never could before. And then you do it a little bit more and a little bit more and eventually you have enough margin and enough flywheel and enough momentum built in where incremental improvement becomes more intentional and the gains are bigger as you go because you have more space and time and energy to reinvest. And that feels like what you're talking about and that sounds… Magical.
Megan Zavieh: And it is, it really is. And it's fun too. It's really fun. But you have to get started. You have to start somewhere and it doesn't have to be the perfect place. You just pick somewhere and you can always change it later.
Marshall Lichty: I love the online scheduling concept. It unlocked some things for me and it couldn't have been easier. You know, it's not like I'm an affiliate for them, but I like Acuity Scheduling or Contactually. They're game changers. They're really easy. They're not very expensive. They're very powerful. And it can really start getting you some margin and that I think that is just brilliant advice and inspiration.
Marshall Lichty: So, the next thing that I wanted to do was pivot to this idea of you sitting on the phone being a counselor to people who need a bunch of stuff. You're in your happy place, you're helping, you're changing the world, you're making lives easier and better. Do you charge for that? That sounds like a counselor. How do you get… how is that profitable (recognizing that the end goal is not always profitability). Is that just your loss leader? Is that just your client service, customer, customer satisfaction type stuff, and you make your money on the technical stuff? Or did you figure out a way where counseling becomes a very big and important part of your business from a revenue perspective.
Megan Zavieh: Well, there's a good good questions. First of all, profitability is a completely fine goal. And if we weren't profitable, we couldn't continue to keep our doors open to offer the service to someone else. So I try have the pursuit of profit as absolutely a piece of my business. And something I think about, you know, with lots of data now thank you to various TBD Law folks.
Marshall Lichty: Good. As it should be. I fully believe in that.
Megan Zavieh: Yeah. And so that's been important to kind of get around to it. I hate hourly billing. So there was a time when I was all hourly and those calls were charged hourly, like everything else because you're still calling me as part of your representation. It's, you know, part of what I do. Your choice to use that time on the phone. And so yes, it was still billed.
Marshall Lichty: And I'm literally twice as expensive as your therapist.
Megan Zavieh: Right. But for, but I get you in a different way than they do for this particular piece of what you're dealing with. Right. but as time has gone on, I've moved almost entirely to flat fees for a lot of reasons which could fill an hour. But flat fees have also opened up the door to a little freedom with those sorts of calls. You're not paying hourly, you're not looking at the clock. I have literally had clients who also bill hourly say “before I get to the point where you start billing…” I'm like, no, no, please don't have a conversation with me where you're staring at the clock like that. But so they don't have to do that. But I have enough margin built in with my flat fees that, on balance, I'm making plenty of money despite spending an hour listening to how freaked out you are and how much you don't want to tell your wife and how I'm going to convince you that you need to go tell her anyway. And yeah, there are cases, of course, as I was warned before, I moved to flat fees where I take a bath and I am talking to that person way more than usual, but it gets balanced out in the next case where I have a client who's got their head completely on his shoulders and it's fine and doesn't need a single hand holding call. So it works out and I'm not suffering profit-wise as a result of it.
Marshall Lichty: Yeah. And I can see the value in the, the, maybe joy isn't the right word, but it's the fulfillment that I can see must come through in those moments because, you know, like I said, that's that you can feel that that's where your value comes in. And I love that you've figured out a way to have that be a part of a profitable business model.
Megan Zavieh: Yeah, absolutely. And I know like you asked me, like, is it part of sort of the, to me competitive advantage is when very business way of looking at it, which I do think that it is. I don't, I don't talk to my colleagues and say, “Hey, do you sit on the phone and listen to them?” But I do get phone calls from people who have consulted colleagues who go, well, the other guy yelled at me, or I used to have this lawyer who made me feel like garbage every time I talk to them. And I'm like, okay, that's not our job. Like, that's not appropriate.
Marshall Lichty: 43:21 There was a softness and a warmth that was missing from my representation that made it feel crappy.
Megan Zavieh: I've actually had someone who fired another lawyer. And, at the next stage of the case was looking for new help, which of course is like super, super red flag, right? Every time someone's going from one lawyer to the next. But I've had them say to me, well, every time I talk to him, he yelled at me. Why, why, why are we yelling at each other? We're supposed to be helping. So I do think that, you know, listening and counseling although I don't do it for competitive advantage, I think that it does ultimately have that impact, you know, through online reviews and word of mouth.
Marshall Lichty: Yeah, I love that. I love that. So quickly and if you don't know the numbers behind it, that's fine. Talk just a little bit about the frequency with which you see people who have—I don't want to call it mental illness, but people who have struggled with things like anxiety, depression, substance abuse, divorce ADHD, bipolar, autism spectrum a whole, you know cornucopia of labels out there—tell me how frequently you see some of those things (diagnosed or not) that sneak into the ethics process. Or, maybe the question is just “how prevalent is lawyers and mental illness appearing in your practice?”
Megan Zavieh: Very prevalent. I wouldn't really want to hazard a percentage guess, but it's a whole lot of people that I see facing bar complaints who have some undercurrent. If you dig down, you know, is not necessarily diagnosed, but you can see that they're struggling emotionally with something more than just the stress of a busy law practice.
Marshall Lichty: And would you say that cohort of folks who have this undercurrent is bigger or smaller than those that come to you and say, I am depressed, I've been diagnosed, I'm struggling. This is a bad moment. That's what happened. Where do we go from here?
Megan Zavieh: The ones who are really upfront, like, Hey, I've been diagnosed or I'm being treated for depression is a smaller number for sure. They definitely do sometimes, like I don't, I don't feel that I need to put clients on the spot and be like, well, are you being, you know, seeing someone for depression, even though I'm like, Oh, every radar going sounds like depression to me. So sometimes they tell me this and sometimes they don't. I usually will approach it very gently. In the context of, look, we get some mitigation credit in dealing with the bar if there's something like this going on. And sometimes I feel like they have it happening and know it's happening and maybe are diagnosed and treated, but simply don't want to tell me. And then other times they'll be like, Oh really? That can help. Oh cause yes, I'm seeing a psychiatrist and I'm on medication and you know, my world crashed at the same time it's happened. Like they only realize it can help them.
Megan Zavieh: Oftentimes they don't just come forward with it.
Marshall Lichty: This may be a nice place to start transitioning into the end, as unhappy about doing that as I am… What does the future look like? Where we are better at uncovering those undercurrents before they break everything?
Megan Zavieh: I wish that we could get more of the stigma removed. You know, I think that there's a lot of work done in this area. I think that it has changed a lot even in the time that I've been practicing in this field. So we're at 10 years. That Hazelden study that came out in 2016 showing the alcohol and substance abuse and mental illness problems within the profession, and ADHD (which I honestly had not realized until speaking to you). Yeah, I'm sure I'm not, and we need to start talking about that more. That study I feel helps lawyers see that this whole like, Oh, you're not alone. It isn't just kumbaya, you know, let's put our hands together and sing around the campfire. This is like, no, really, you're not alone. And when you go to court and you sit there in court watching all the lawyers and clients go through, if you're depressed, chances are really good that five other lawyers who walks through there today are depressed too.
Megan Zavieh: That's really, I think going to be something that, that we see the effect for years as those stigmas start to break down. So my sort of vision of the future if this can happen is that lawyers start to acknowledge and address problems much, much earlier that we start to talk about the idea that if you dread returning client calls and you dread opening your email and you know, we talk about that feeling in your stomach as you walk back into the office and you see the little envelope in your bar at the bottom of your screen, you know there's emails and you just don't want to open them. Like we start to talk with them like, Hey, do you know that feeling? Let's talk about that. Where does that feeling come from? What's it impact? Like, let's talk about systems to overcome it.
Megan Zavieh: Maybe you don't need medication, maybe you don't need to go to a psychiatrist, but we need to talk about this. And I think that lawyer-to-lawyer is going to be the best network for us to be having those conversations so that in the future you start to find out, you know, early on that if you get that feeling that means you need to do something instead of there's something wrong with me, you know, Oh I just hate the phone. I just hate my email. Whatever excuse you're making. Like we start to see very, very early on that if you have certain things happening for you that's an indication you need to talk to somebody about how to fix that and not fix you but fix the thing.
Marshall Lichty: Yeah, I swear I didn't pay her to say that. That is JDHD. That is what we are building here. We are building a community of people who can help each other, who can talk about some things that are an undercurrent in our lives. We can build tools around them, whether it means a diagnosis or not, whether it means medication or not. We can build tools and language around the idea that ADHD can be easier and that law is hard enough without it. It's hard to practice law. It's hard to run a successful law business, to build enough margin in to automate it and systematize it and do the things that you're best at doing that originally drew you to the law in the first place. And what I can say is I'm a JDHD. I know you're not, Megan. But your message of strength and sharing and vulnerability is one that really resonates.
Marshall Lichty: And I can't thank you enough for sharing that message with everybody. So I want to say thank you from my guts and also tell everybody that Megan Zavieh, in addition to being just a magnificent person, can be found absolutely on the Twitters @zaviehlaw or on her podcast, Lawyers Gone Ethical, Apple, iTunes, Stitcher, and every other place where you listen to podcasts and at her website, zaviehlaw.com. Megan, thank you so very much. I could not be more thankful.
Megan Zavieh: Thank you for having me, Marshall.
Marshall Lichty: And that, my friends, is Megan Zavieh, and I love her. It's possible, I suppose for someone to be better than her, but I dare you to find that person. I'm so thankful for her compassion and empathy and brilliance and curiosity and all-around excellence and I'm thankful that she came on the show. Please show her your support and enrich your life while you're at it by finding her on Twitter. She's at @zaviehlaw. She's got a new YouTube channel at Zavieh Law, which I'll link to in the show notes. She's got a podcast called Lawyers Gone Ethical, and her website is zaviehlaw.com, here she represents California lawyers in ethics matters and has a whole bunch of other interesting and useful and powerful content. Thank you, Megan, and thank you to everyone who has listened, subscribed, rated, reviewed, and reached out. If you're curious about a new small group mastermind experiment that I'm running, shoot me an email. I'll be glad to send you a quick survey. Meanwhile, I'm thankful for each and every one of you and your own unique superpowers. I'll see you next week.