Speaking with Keith Lee, founder of LawyerSmack, a private online community for lawyers, at Clio Cloud Conference 2018.

Kevin O’Keefe: Who am I talking with?

Keith Lee: I am Keith Lee

Kevin O’Keefe: As far as we know.

Keith Lee: Yes, I have the badge. So it’s official.

Kevin O’Keefe: Keith, what do you do now? I mean, you’ve been a lawyer, maybe you’re still a lawyer, lawyer?

Keith Lee: Lawyer-ish. I have lawyer-like qualities still at this point.

Kevin O’Keefe: And you started something called LawyerSmack?

Keith Lee: Yeah, so years ago, I started Associates Mind blogging years ago. I wrote for Above The Law for a number of years. We know a bunch of the old same old jerk lawyers from back in the day, but about two years ago I started LawyerSmack, which is a private lawyer community.

Kevin O’Keefe: What made you do that? I mean, it’s not like you’re sitting there going, okay, I got to go create something. What motivated you to do it?

Keith Lee: From having a blog, a popular blog, for years, it was fun having an audience, and I appreciated the conversation. The back and forth you get, particularly back in the day when blogs were initially there and everyone was really interactive, it was really cool. Social media sucked the air out of that in a big way, and I wanted to continue to reach people, but I kind of realized my limitations in that I only have so much spectrum of output. I can’t be talking all the time and I thought, you know what, there’s probably an opportunity to create a cool space to foster good communications between lawyers to talk shop, or just have a social media space, because I guess the thing is lawyers can’t talk shop on social media. You’re not going to like actually be vulnerable in public. Right? You’re like, oh, I don’t know how to do that. As a lawyer, a lot of marketing yourself is confidence.

Kevin O’Keefe: Well, most lawyers will not. Some of the better lawyers will do it.

Keith Lee: We did a million messages last year we’re at like 730,000 messages this year, people are really eager to talk about their practices and what they’re doing, but they want a private space. Bar associations have existed for years.

Kevin O’Keefe: And, and the simplicity of what you did – you did it on what platform?

Keith Lee: Slack.

Kevin O’Keefe: Yeah. So you’ve got slack and it exists already, and you go out and do it. How did people hear about this thing?

Keith Lee: I’ve done nothing. We’ve talked about it in January of this year, where we were at Legal Week and that was when I was kind of initially doing it. And I think it’s just been. I guess I have the benefit of having a reputation. I’ve been in and around the industry for 10 years now, so that helped put it forward. I’m very big on Twitter. Like I do a lot on Twitter. That’s my thing. I don’t like Facebook. Not that it’s bad, but it’s just not where my people are. And I just used that and it’s just organically grown.

Kevin O’Keefe: What’s the business model for it now? Because now you’re, you’re developing a business around it, or you’re testing what it could be.

Keith Lee: Yeah, so there’s a membership fee to join. So lawyers pay to join. It’s a very nominal fee. It’s on sale right now during the conference for $80 but it’s $139 a year. So it’s just this flat fee to get in. Everyone can communicate, but then yes, there are also vendors who we partner with, so they can then provide deals and discounts and services to members.

Kevin O’Keefe: And so they’re sponsored members?

Keith Lee: Yeah, they’re sponsoring members, so they pay an increased fee.

Kevin O’Keefe: So what do you envision, fo where this thing could go?

Keith Lee: I don’t know yet. You know, there is a desperate need for lawyers to communicate and connect. Particularly in two areas: there’s lots of solo and small firm people because they are by themselves somewhere and they don’t have a water cooler, right? They want to talk to people and their bar associations are not serving their needs. I’m sorry, I mean as someone who’s been in leadership positions with the ABA and with my state bar and everything, they’re just not nimble enough and they’re not meeting the needs, particularly of the younger lawyers, of how they want to collaborate and communicate. So I mean, I think it’s just going to continue to grow into this group of lawyers. I have members from all around the world – we have members from Japan, Australia.

Kevin O’Keefe: Do you envision at some point in time that you knew would have sub-groups of people if they want to or different things like that?

Keith Lee: Oh sure. Yeah, I mean there’s like 100 channels. There are people who don’t leave – I know there are a bunch of IP lawyers who only hang out in IP channel and that’s it. They don’t go anywhere else, or there are people who hang out in just the solo group and then, like, sports.

Kevin O’Keefe: This is almost like the old listserv days where somebody goes in and puts in a comment, it goes out to everybody and people can carry on a conversation.

Keith Lee: Yeah, except it’s much more organized, way more structured. The thing is, listservs were actually a really poor way to facilitate conversation. It worked, but there’s a way better way to do it. And that’s what we’ve done.

Kevin O’Keefe: How many people do you have participating now?

Keith Lee: Just over 300.

Kevin O’Keefe: And when you started it, how long ago?

Keith Lee: I started it right at the beginning of 2017 for free, totally open. And we ended 2017 with about 800 members, and we had done about a million messages and then I kicked everyone out and I said, “no, we’re doing this over again.” A real name, real face, no secret identities, have to have skin in the game, ie pay, just to try and elevate the whole conversation. And then since January we’re 50 percent back know almost halfway through the year and at the same volume of messages, so less people, but same amount of engagement and much higher quality conversations.

Kevin O’Keefe: What you’re forming is an online community of people that begin to trust each other.

Keith Lee: Yes.

Kevin O’Keefe: And with that communication, that town hall across the world. I can see where sponsors are going to look at that and realize it’s a good audience, and they trust Keith enough to appreciate what he set out. We can go to him and we’ll see what happens by sponsoring different things. And then you’re giving them shout-outs, I assume.

Keith Lee: Yeah. There’s this whole package, but like here at the conference, people I don’t know, companies I don’t know they’re like, “hey, you’re Keith, right?” And I’m like, “yeah,” they’re like, “we want to talk about being a partner with you,” because obviously I have this group of lawyers who are heavily engaged, they’re technologically savvy, they’re first mover type lawyers.

Kevin O’Keefe: They’re more likely to be the receptive to new ideas, new products. Are you still practicing law?

Keith Lee: Less and less. This is eating up a lot of my time at this point. At the beginning of this year I was there doing it more.

Kevin O’Keefe: When do you think it’s going to tip to the point where you go, “okay, this can support me.”

Keith Lee: It might not be much longer, realistically. I mean it’s getting pretty close to there. I mean, I love it. I love lawyers. I mean, that’s why I started writing blogs. It’s like I just love being around other lawyers. I love hearing about how well you practice, what they do and I have a real soft spot for having conversations and helping and interacting with lawyers and this is kind of, I feel like everything I’ve done up to this point, not in my pure legal career, but the blogging, the writing books, leadership stuff, this is the culmination. Like, oh, this is what I was supposed to do actually, is to make this place for lawyers. And it’s not about me, I just need to create the space, and then let everyone get together and help each other.

Kevin O’Keefe: You’re opening up the hall. And allowing that to happen, empowering the conversation. What do you tell lawyers that are practicing, they’re here, they’re somewhat innovative and at Clio and they’re hearing an awful lot about people that quit their job and went out and started something.

Keith Lee: And there’s a lot of that going around here.

Kevin O’Keefe: I mean, it’s in the water, like amongst people here, and they’re trying to figure out should I do that, or chase that down? And then you’ve seen a lot of those lawyers over the years. What do you tell lawyers who got this idea? What do you tell them?

Keith Lee: Don’t quit your day job. I mean, I think particularly there is this idea now, not just here, but kind of in the general ether, of the world of having side hustles and diversifying your portfolio of your life. Are you all eggs in one basket or should you try different things? To take it way back, a decade ago, that’s why I started my blog initially. I was like okay, I need to have some ways to try and build and develop a reputation and connect with other people outside of just where I live and practice as a lawyer. I wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m going to go start a blog and make lots of money.” But people should try things. I mean, look, you’ve got a limited amount of time in your life. You know, why not take risks? I mean, this is not a rehearsal, right? If you have an interest in something, go after it. Be smart, make smart decisions, take smart risks, you know, don’t burn everything, don’t burn your bridges and quit your job and do everything and just try and dive in, but, you know, test the waters. I mean, that’s okay.