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Timing is Everything: How a Solo Attorney Leveraged Subscription Virtual Associates to Meet a Fast Approaching Deadline for Wildfire Damage Claims

By Kristin Tyler
April 21, 2021

Talk about perfect timing. 

Last fall as the LAWCLERK team was gearing up to test out a new subscription-based offer we got a call from attorney Eric Ratinoff.  Eric was looking for a substantial amount of help from talented freelance lawyers.  LAWCLERK was looking to test out a new subscription-based program. 

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Eric to learn more about him, his practice and his innovative approach to the business of law.

First, let me briefly introduce you to Eric.  He is based in Sacramento, California and has fought on behalf of injured people for more than 25 years.  He is a master storyteller and an accomplished attorney.  He is a proud alum of the Trial Lawyers College (founded by Gerry Spence), where he served on the teaching faculty for many years, and he is active within the American Association for Justice (AAJ).  In addition to all this, he is also a really cool guy, savvy businessman and I thoroughly enjoyed my time speaking him. 

In recent years Eric’s practice has become entrenched with the wildfires that have devastated so many homes in California.  In fact, he says it was because of a “total fluke” at an AAJ event that he started working on the so-called “fire cases.”  At an AAJ meeting in Chicago a few years back he met another California attorney who was representing families impacted on wildfires, and who would later approach him to work on the cases together. 

The Butte Fire

Shortly after, the Butte Fire happened in 2015 and Eric partnered with that other firm experienced with handling fire cases to represent a number of the families who lost homes to that fire. Eric credits the power of combining forces between his firm and other firms to have a team of lawyers to obtain much needed relief to the families devastated by the Butte Fire.

In fact, one of the trends you’ll see throughout my interview with Eric is how often he turns to co-counseling and outsourcing in his law firm.  He credits these collaborative working relationships to not only his own success but more importantly to the results he’s been able to achieve for his clients.  

Wine Country Fires

Then comes the fall of 2017 and wildfires blazed through Napa and Sonoma.  Eric, and many others, became concerned that there was a risk Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) would go under.  Again, he co-counseled with a team of attorneys to represent homeowners impacted by the Napa/Sonoma fires and battled PG&E.

The Big One

Then the Camp Fire happened in November of 2018.  This fire wiped out the towns of Paradise and Magalia.  At that time, the Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California state history.  Tragically 85 lives were lost in the fire.  At least 153,366 acres were burned, and 18,804 structures destroyed making the Camp Fire the most expensive natural disaster in the world in terms of insured losses (at least as of 2018).

Generally, these communities impacted by the fires are low income.  For example, Eric explained that, “The median income in Paradise when the fire happened was around $22,000 a year.  The community had a lot of retired people with no resources other than fixed incomes.  Many people didn’t have insurance because it was too expensive, or they didn’t have enough insurance.”

Homeowners insurance will pay on claims for fire damage but almost universally people are underinsured, and insurance doesn’t cover all damages.  Eric explained to me that insurance covers very specific things covered in the insurance contract.  Inevitably most homeowners impacted by the fires face a large gap between what insurance will cover and what it will actually cost to rebuild their homes and their lives.

In order to help some of the thousands of families impacted by this tragedy, Eric and his team partnered with another firm out of Redding. 

Fire Victims Trust

Approximately 71,000 claims were filed by property owners after the Camp Fire.  PG&E ultimately filed for bankruptcy which meant that all these claims had to be funneled through a claims process within the bankruptcy proceedings.  A trustee was appointed, PG&E got discharged from bankruptcy and funded a “Fire Victims Trust”.

PG&E was ordered to deposit approximately $6.5 billion in cash and another $7 billion worth of stock into the “Fire Victims Trust” which was created in July 2020 to resolve claims from the fires that occurred before PG&E filed bankruptcy.  A retired judge was appointed as trustee to administer the Fire Victims Trust. 

Of course, there have been more fires after PG&E got discharged for bankruptcy and Eric’s team is working on those cases as well.  Eric told me, “It’s been nonstop, five straight years of literally not having a single day where I haven’t worked on or fielded emails on some aspect of the fire cases.”   

Lean, Mean Law Firm Machine

Luckily for Eric, he has built an incredible team to help navigate the massive amount of work that goes into litigating these wildfire cases. 

Following the traditional law firm business model, Eric’s firm used to have four associate attorneys.  He carried huge overhead for many years.  Eric recalls a point in time when, “We did a deep dive in to the finances and while the firm itself was generating plenty of money – I had no trouble paying people – I realized we were like a giant hamster wheel.  The cases they were working weren’t big enough.”  He had bright people but the firm was inefficient and he realized he was losing money.  This is when Eric started to shift his team from traditional full-time staff to more of an outsourced business model. 

Like many successful solos, Eric now regularly partners with other attorneys and firms to collaborate on cases and gain expertise in certain areas.  For example, when PG&E filed bankruptcy, he hired a large bankruptcy firm in Sacramento to help shepherd his clients through the process of filing claims in the bankruptcy case.

These days Eric’s firm is structured much differently.  He currently has no full-time associates but instead has a carefully curated team of four full time employees, two student law clerks, co-counsel and talented freelance lawyers.  Eric told me, “Part of my transition from having associates is that I co-counsel with more people.  Before I would never co-counsel but now I do.  It’s more fun and it works out better for everyone – most importantly the clients.”

Enter LAWCLERK

Eric first heard about LAWCLERK at the AAJ convention in Denver in the summer of 2018.  During our interview, he told me that he could distinctly remember our conversation when he signed up that day. 

Eric tried out the LAWCLERK marketplace for a few Projects and will admit he wasn’t a believer after the first Project.  We shared a good laugh about that.  Thankfully, he tried it again and again by posting more Projects and found several talented freelancers.

After the Fire Victims Trust was established in the summer of 2020, the Trust established an online database questionnaire which Eric describes as an “absolute nightmare.”  It was clunky, confusing, slow, and difficult to use. 

In August 2020 he found out that the initial deadline to file claims with the Trust was December 31, 2020.  This gave Eric and his team only four and a half months to get all the claims filed for their hundreds of clients impacted by the fires.

Fortunately, well before the deadline was set Eric and his team had already started intensive work on each of the claims for their clients including hiring experts to investigate losses.  But in the midst of all of this COVID-19 hit and threw a massive hurdle at the process of gathering and evaluating massive amounts of data from each of the clients, as well as the various damages experts.

Time for Backup

With a fast-approaching deadline, hundreds of clients and the challenges of a pandemic Eric needed reinforcements.  Eric reached out to his Dedicated LAWCLERK Advisor to ask if he could do larger, ongoing work with freelancers rather than doing all of this on a project-by-project basis. 

As luck would have it, our team at LAWCLERK had been discussing a subscription-based option for attorneys to work with our talented freelance lawyers on a deeper, recurring basis.  Eric readily agreed to be a part of our beta testing for what would eventually become the Virtual Associate Subscription Program.

Eric asked for a commitment from five freelance lawyers who could each work at least 20 hours each week (80 hours per month).  Our team went to work to recruit and vet the best Lawclerks to assist Eric with the time sensitive and detail-oriented challenge of processing thousands of claims to the Fire Victims Trust ahead of the deadline.

Just before Thanksgiving 2020, the Fire Victims Trust extended the deadline from December to the end of February 2021.  The Trust also clarified that claims had to be submitted by that date, but claimants could continue to submit supporting data after the deadline passed.  Despite getting a little bit of breathing room, Eric pushed himself and the team to get everything they could possibly gather submitted by the deadline.

Fortunately, his office manager had fully trained the team of five Virtual Associates by this time and they were off to the races.  Each of the Virtual Associates was given a certain volume of claim forms to review and complete as best they could based on the information in each client’s file. Eric then personally reviewed and edited every one of them.  It was a fairly seamless process thanks to the technology Eric has implemented at his firm and the fact that they operate in a largely paperless manner.

Eric reflected that, “Overall the Lawclerks did a great job.  This was new to everyone.”  He explained that along the way the Lawclerks routinely found missing information and countless pieces of data that needed additional follow up to submit a comprehensive claim.  He found that there was tremendous value in having trained attorneys review and issue spot for problems with the claims.

For example, some of the Lawclerks discovered issues with claims wherein people were confused about the title on the property, the types of business structures they had, and a host of other issues. These important changes were caught and made because of the work of his Lawclerks.

Eric reports that, “We had a group of people who were overall very thoughtful, very engaged, and interested in the project,  who did good work and asked good questions.  They were hungry for feedback.  They – you know what, they really busted their butts to get it done and they were all really pleasant people.”

Credit should also be given to Eric for fostering a team spirit.  He routinely hosted group Zoom meetings and had weekly competitions to see who could generate the most completed claim forms to incentivize and reward hard work.

Culture of Perfection

One of the things I’ve heard repeatedly from lawyers the past few years is skepticism about the quality of work that is produced by freelance lawyers.  Rather than offering my perspective on this issue, I’ll let Eric address it.

Eric told me that unequivocally that: “I demand a very high level of quality on work that comes out of our office.  I don’t ever want to see substandard work head out my door.”  

Eric will be the first to admit that he has created a culture of perfection and who can blame him?  It not only brings him a high level of success, but it also helps his clients get the justice they deserve.

Eric highlighted the benefits of outsourcing as follows, “I like the idea that we have people who are quality people who work hard and they are competent who for whatever reason do freelance work.  And they basically get to run their own law firm out of their home – it’s awesome!” 

The magic of outsourcing is that an attorney or a firm can find the exact type of talent they need, when they need it, for as much help as they need.  The subscription-based program just takes this to a whole new level.

Eric offers the following, “My advice to any solo is to try LAWCLERK out.  It’s a no-lose situation.  It’s really cool that we have the flexibility now to work like this.” 

Epilogue

The February deadline has passed to submit claims and thanks to Eric’s committed “in-office” team along with an amazing group of freelance lawyers they got all the claims submitted in time. 

Eric has scaled back from his team of five Virtual Associates via LAWCLERK’s subscription program to only one Virtual Associate who he indicated he intends to keep working with indefinitely.  Interestingly, she happens to be located on the east coast while Eric is on the west coast.

When I asked Eric to describe the value prop of LAWCLERK, from his perspective, he shared, “I think it’s the future – I think it gives us an incredible flexibility to help maintain profitability and flow of work and work/life balance.  I mean it’s the exact right thing at the exact right time.  I’ve told tons of people about LAWCLERK. The workforce is headed to the gig world.”

I teased Eric that when he is done managing thousands of cases and a busy firm, he just may end up doing freelance work for LAWCLERK.  Stay tuned for the follow up interview in about 20 years when Eric retires and becomes a freelancer.

Until then, remember that timing is everything and there’s no time like the present to start outsourcing.

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