On an Island with Jeffrey Burgess, Burgess Law

This month we head out to the Island with Jeff Burgess, of Burgess Law. We first met Jeff a few years ago when he moved into the Ideas Inc building where our old office used to be. More recently we were fortunate enough to work with him on a rebrand and new website design for his law office, Burgess Law. We got to know Jeff quite well over the course of the project, and love his approach to running his business, and how he is trying to break the mould of traditional law firms. We also learned about this word called “libel”, so I’m going to stop there and let Jeff put it in his own words.

Island: Tell us about Burgess Law?

Jeff:  Burgess Law is a law office that I started three years ago with the aim of bridging the gap between traditional law firms and small businesses.  In my view, traditional law firms are not designed to serve small businesses. It’s a structural problem, with most traditional law firms set up in a pyramid structure with a few senior lawyers at the top, most of the firm consisting of junior and less experienced lawyers at the bottom.  The senior lawyers typically chase the more lucrative, large clients, and as a result, small business clients often get assigned to junior lawyers who don’t have a lot experience. The junior lawyers either bill aggressively or they focus on supporting work on larger files (giving less attention to the small businesses) because that’s more lucrative and that is how they advance their career.  I’ve long thought that there must be a better way. When I realized that I could serve my clients without the support of a large office, the decision was easy. So I launched Burgess Law to practice law differently and in the process offer small businesses, entrepreneurs, and start-ups an alternative to the traditional law firm experience.

“I aim to be nimble, have a smaller physical presence and take on fewer clients, so I have more time to serve my clients.”

By purposely avoiding the trappings of a traditional law office (think large offices, beautiful artwork, and many leather-bound books smelling of rich mahogany) I aim to be nimble, have a smaller physical presence and take on fewer clients, so I have more time to serve my clients.  This gives my client more access to more experienced lawyer that is available and focused on them when they call, email, or when we meet. And when it comes time for that call, email, or appointment, my approach is purposely more casual. I prefer to meet clients initially for a coffee or a casual conversation so we can get to know one another we can gauge if we would be a good fit.  Contrast this to the traditional law firm experience of going through a couple of calls to get through to the person who can book an appointment, travel to the very nice boardroom with beautiful artwork and sit across a boardroom table from someone that looks like your grandfather and tells you what you should (or have to) do.

Then there is the issue of costs.  Lawyers are notorious for surprising clients with their invoices.  To avoid invoice-related shocks that shred budgets, I discuss fees at the beginning of each file with my clients and I give them pricing and billing options.  I find that businesses enjoy having the ability to choose a flat fee, or a cap on fees, that allows them to budget for their legal work. This process takes a little more time at the beginning of a file, but it builds confidence, increases client satisfaction, and helps maintain a good relationship with each client.

Island: Does a small business really need a lawyer? Can’t I get what I need from sites like lawdepot.ca?

JB: I wouldn’t say that a small business needs a lawyer – but small businesses can really benefit from a good lawyer.  A good lawyer will not only offer legal advice or provide legal services, but that lawyer will bridge the worlds of business and law and provide both legal and business advice.  A good lawyer won’t just talk like a lawyer, but translates lawyer-speak and brings the world of law to the client in a way that doesn’t just state the law but builds the law into the client’s decision-making process.

“I wouldn’t say that a small business needs a lawyer – but small businesses can really benefit from a good lawyer.”

The internet is a boon for free information, advice, and even examples of legal contracts.  And sites like lawdepot.ca offer a low cost, basic contract. I would say that in certain instances these sites could offer you what you need.  Businesses have lots of options, the question is whether these options are right for your business and the situation at hand.

What free online advice and low-cost contracts don’t do is provide you with legal advice and business advice, give you options, ensure that your contract properly addresses the risks you need address and the terms you need to be enforceable, and then advise you on the issues and risks you hadn’t even considered.  A good lawyer is always looking at what everyone else might have missed and helping their clients accomplish their goals while limiting their risks.

Island: Where does your website and digital presence fit within the success of your business?

JB: I have high hopes for a strong digital presence in the months ahead – once I finish my new website and branding.  After launching my own legal practice my digital presence was the biggest challenge and where I consistently came up short.  Simply put, I had a lot of bad experiences in getting the website and social media profiles built and developed. To date, my business has grown almost entirely through face-to-face meetings and referrals.

That said, I am very eager to leverage my digital presence to offer more information and add value not just for clients, but for businesses and entrepreneurs who want to know more about the law and doing business.  A lot of law firms are either too busy or too lazy to leverage their digital presence in the right way, or they outsource their digital presence and the result is a less then genuine or engaging online presence. I am looking forward to getting this right in the months ahead offering information and value through my website and social media accounts in a way that is genuine, helpful, and from time to time entertaining (the law doesn’t always have to be boring).

Island: How do you see technology and law working together moving forward?

JB: Technology should be critical to improved legal service, better choice for consumers, and better value for consumers.  That said, technology continues to put a strain on the traditional practice of law – but in my view that’s a good thing.  Law as an industry is ripe for disruption. And given that law is effectively a knowledge service, as technology improves it is likely that lawyers will be expected to do more for less, individuals will be able to learn more on their own or have AI platforms simplify some legal tasks, which should the general public more informed not just about shopping for lawyers and working with lawyers (which is a bit of an art in itself) but people will be more informed in different areas of the law itself.

I started my practice as a “virtual law office” with an eye to rely on technology to replace the need for bricks-and-mortar offices (which are expensive, and often stunning, but which simply add to lawyer’s costs and therefore clients pay for them).  Ultimately I think law will be an industry where virtual presences can flourish – where you can simply book an appointment online and have a videoconference with a lawyer. You need never meet in the same physical space or be in the same city, province, or country.  For now, a lot of people prefer at least one initial face-to-face meeting to get a sense of the person they may hire. There is comfort for many people in an in-person meeting. That said, I expect technology will continue to force lawyers to accept the realities of a service industry, hone their skills, improve their services, and get better at managing the client experience.

Island: From a legal perspective, is there anything people should consider when designing a website? Privacy Policies, Cookies, etc?

JB: Definitely. Depending on the website, there can be a lot going on and it’s easy to lose sight of some of the basic issues you should address, namely:

  1. Who’s website is it?  Always make sure you list your full business name at a prominent place on the page.  Often the bottom of the page is generally accepted as where people can expect to see the owner’s name and contact information.  Using your full business name is important because if you are doing business as a corporation, partnership, or joint venture you want to identify that business structure as the owner.  This makes is easier for the business to enforce its rights to the website and it helps avoid any claims against the business owner personally, instead of the business structure itself.
  2. Is it copyrighted?  Yes, it is. The question is who owns the copyright to the content on the website.  Under the Copyright Act the author of works (whether that’s the copy you write for the website, the photos you take and upload, the logo you designed, etc.) if you are the author of that work then you own the copyright to that work.  So protect it. Add a © and your full business name and year at the bottom of your website to ensure the public is notified that the website’s content is copyrighted. If you didn’t author your website’s content, you didn’t pay someone else to, and the content isn’t public domain (free for everyone and not subject to copyright) then you may want to wear a very large, feathered hat and get a parrot for your shoulder, because you are acting like a pirate.
  3. What are the terms of doing business with this website?  It’s all about the terms. This could mean the terms of use for the website if you are simply offering information on the site, or the terms governing the business done via the website if you are selling or conducting any form of business through the website.  In both cases, terms of use should set out your rights and the conditions through which people may access your site and do business with you.
  4. Can I sue the business for the information offered on their website?  That’s what some people may think if they rely on the content of your website and some harm or loss comes to them.  So add a disclaimer in your terms of service to address unreasonable people and remind them of the limitations of the content on your website.
  5. Does privacy matter?  Yes, and it is likely to be increasingly important. Canada currently has a hodge-podge of privacy laws and regulations, so depending on the context the nature of the personal information and how it was collected, the obligations on storage and use of that information may vary.  It is worth noting that while damages awarded against organizations and individuals who breaches privacy laws or individuals’ reasonable expectations of privacy were quite low some years ago, recent years have seen larger damages awarded to victims of privacy breaches. In my view, this trend line is likely to continue, as society balances the technology and the ease of collection, dissemination, and use of personal information against personal privacy we are likely to see more flagrant abuses of personal information and higher damages and penalties awarded to punish those abuses.  All that said – privacy matters. So exercise caution and common sense if your business collects and/or uses individuals’ personal information.
  6. Does the website have a mailing list?  If so, your terms of service should address the terms of being added to your website mailing list, taking not specifically of Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation.  And remember that this legislation can continue to be amended by the federal government, so keep an eye out for updates to CASL from time to time.

Island: If you were stranded on an island, what is the one thing you couldn’t live without?

JB: BOOKS.  And lots of them.  I love to read – to the point where I find I need to structure time to get all the reading I have to do in with all of the reading I want to do.  I read a wide range of types of books – fiction, non-fiction, classics, modern, history, politics, biographies, business books, psychology, random books in between – the list goes on.  If I were stranded on an island my books would go in my shelter before I would.