State bar defense and ethics is one of those practice areas that I generally associate with difficult-to-research case opinions and opaque disciplinary procedures unfamiliar to most attorneys. Yet even though this practice area retains many of the characteristics of 19th century law practice, state bar defense and ethics lawyer Megan Zavieh is anything but traditional or old school. Megan’s firm, Zavieh Law has a state of the art website with offerings like a subscription product for attorneys or companies who have an ongoing need for ethics guidance, a chat bot and The Playbook: The California Bar Discipline System Practice Guide for lawyers representing themselves in California disciplinary proceedings. This is a two-part interview. Today, Megan will tell us about her firm’s history and her website’s various features. And tomorrow, we’ll have in-depth coverage of the Playbook and how it was developed. Even though Megan is an ethics lawyer, the practices that she has adopted can be implemented in other practices, so readers — watch and learn! For more information, you can also contact Megan on Twitter at @zaviehlaw or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/zaviehlaw/.
In a nutshell, can you tell us a little bit about your law firm and a few of the different kinds of products and services that you offer?
I save lawyers’ careers. My practice focuses on defending California lawyers before the attorney discipline system of the State Bar of California. Most of my work involves responding to investigations and taking disciplinary cases all the way through to trial and even sometimes appeal. I also handle admissions cases, which are trials to establish the good moral character of applicants to the State Bar.
In my work within the discipline system, I offer self-help support, which is how I assist lawyers who are representing themselves through the discipline process. For lawyers who need an affordable do-it-yourself option, I also created a digital product called The Playbook which is a practice guide for self-represented lawyers in California. It consists of an online text, videos, a library of sample court filings, and an online community of self-represented lawyers.
Through my firm I also provide probation compliance services where I help lawyers on disciplinary probation navigate the system so they don’t fall out of compliance and subscription ethics advice.
What was your background before you started your own firm focused on legal ethics? And what drew you to legal ethics as a practice area?
I spent many years as a litigation associate in BigLaw, mostly in New York but also in New Jersey. I was primarily a securities litigator, but I also had experience in general civil litigation. I stepped away from the associate track about a year shy of being up for partner.
Ethics was an area of interest even in law school, but I didn’t consider it as a potential practice area until I started helping a family member get through the discipline process. Stuck in BigLaw, I was prohibited from helping officially, so I’d help on the side – it was the original self-help support. When I left BigLaw and could provide direct assistance, I did so but thought it would just be for one case. When I went to State Bar Court for my client, I had to wait through another hearing. I witnessed a self-represented attorney fumbling through the hearing and being taken advantage of by the prosecutor; that is when I realized there was a need for more help.
Back in law school I had planned to go to medical school and become a psychiatrist for lawyers. By the time I got into ethics I had long since abandoned that plan, but the underlying motivation to help lawyers was still there. Launching my state bar defense firm, I finally found the way that I could support my colleagues.
When you started your firm, was it as a more traditional law practice – i.e., billable hour or brick & mortar office – or was your practice innovative from the get-go?
My practice was hourly at the outset, which is pretty traditional, but that is where the traditional ended. I was living in Sydney, Australia when I first launched with a firm name, website, email address, and business identity. My practice was solely focused on California clients. I’d say that was not too traditional.
The work was also outside the mainstream in that my original focus was only on self-represented lawyers. I wanted that fumbling respondent trying to represent himself to be the last one who went into State Bar Court unprepared. So I was targeting the self-represented lawyers and seeking to provide limited scope service. I don’t think anyone else was doing that.
Over time we expanded to full scope representation, which is most of what I do now, but I do still try to get to the self-represented lawyers any way that I can help.
After visiting your website, I wanted to ask you about a couple of the different services. Let’s talk first about your ethics on call subscription product. How does that work – and have you ever found that clients who have access to unlimited service take advantage of it?
The ethics on call subscription product allows my clients access to me to ask ethics questions throughout the month. It’s particularly good for two very different types of clients. One is the client who wants to experiment with new business models and ideas. For example, a client who wants to build a new online legal services platform will have lots of ethics questions as they develop. Is it ok to give access to their website traffic data to an SEO consultant? Can they limit the scope of their work in a certain way? Is their disclaimer enforceable? Can they pay their web developer in stock?
The other is the high volume practice in high-risk (ethically speaking) practice areas like family law and immigration. They can have frequent questions throughout the month on new engagements, unhappy clients, and trying to get through their caseload without making mistakes.
I haven’t had a client really take advantage of the unlimited service. I find that when a month is really crazy for a client, I’m there to help them through, and another month will be really quiet and it evens out. If every month I was finding that I spent an inordinate amount of time on one client, we could have a conversation about their usage, but that has never happened. The unlimited service is intended to be just that – but there is no reason for a client to overuse the service. They only need me if there’s a legitimate question, and I’m there to work through it with the client. If a client has so many ethics issues that they are overusing my time, I think we have a bigger issue than their subscription with me.
I also noticed that you have a law bot at your site? What does the bot do, why did you decide to develop it and what was involved in the process?
I do have a bot! It’s a fun addition to the site. I love it because it helps visitors sift through the site when it might otherwise feel overwhelming.
I have had to learn a lot about how to work a business, and one thing I’ve learned is that we all think and process information differently. Acknowledging this, I strive to present information in various ways to reach the most people. This is why I am creating video and podcast content in addition to articles, for example, and one reason for the bot.
I would visit a site laid out like mine and click through it in a certain way, while someone else coming to the site maybe does not want to read through it but simply wants to get an answer to a specific question. The bot helps that user who approaches the site differently than I do get to the information they need.
Plus, bots are cool. I totally admit to having shiny object syndrome with the bot, and I love it.
Tom Martin of LawDroid designed the bot, and he is one of my favorite people in legal tech. We went through my site and he developed an initial draft of what the bot might be able to do. I went through and added some additional topics I wanted it to be able to address, and we continued to fine tune it until we thought it looked useful. We launched it on the site, got user data from the early users, and made additional revisions. We continue to modify it in response to user input.
One thing that it can do that I think is really cool is handle appointment setting. My consultations are all set up through an online system, and the bot can actually help the user schedule.
Finally, most recently, you launched The Playbook: The California Disciplinary System Practice Guide. Tell us what the Playbook is, what it includes and how you came up with the idea for it?
The Playbook is a labor of love. From the very beginning of this practice, I wanted to reach the self-represented State Bar Court respondents. They have been a target of mine for years. I feel like I have tried a number of different ways to reach them, but I still struggle because they aren’t looking for me. I think most self-represented respondents have decided they can’t afford help, so they don’t look for help at all.
A client first told me I should write a book on ethics defense and deliver it online. She mentioned this years before I actually did anything with that idea. Over those years, an online book morphed into a digital product, which is now a relatively mainstream phenomenon. Then I attended the TBD Law conference and met other lawyers creating digital products, and I realized that I could use a digital product to meet the needs of self-represented lawyers. While they were not out looking for a lawyer to help them, they were probably out looking for information on representing themselves.
I set out to write the “book” portion of the project, but as I did multiple other pieces began to take shape. For instance, I realized that a lot of people like to learn through video, so videos really needed to be a part of the product. As I would write chapters of the book, I saw that users would need a sample of the documents I was telling them to write, so we put together a library of sample court filings. And finally, one of the biggest needs I always see for self-represented respondents is the need to connect with others, so we created a forum where users can talk to each other.
Put simply, each piece of the Playbook was created to address a specific user need. It is very user- focused.
Stay tuned for Part II of our interview tomorrow when Megan will describe the steps she took to take the Playbook from concept to creation, and how other lawyers can do something similar in their respective practice areas.