A Firm of One

It’s just Mark Chinn—and software

Published in 2016 Mid-South Super Lawyers — December 2016

Twenty years ago, while the rest of the world was sleeping, Mark Chinn struggled with fits of anxiety.

“I’d wake up at 3 a.m., as if a little man had crawled on my shoulder to tell me I forgot something,” says Chinn, 63, a divorce lawyer and the only employee of Chinn & Associates in Jackson, Mississippi. 

Inevitably, his wife, Cathy, would wake up to see him pulling on his jeans in the wee hours and ask what he was up to. “I didn’t really have an answer for her. I only knew that I had to get to the office because something was wrong, some deadline had passed, something had slipped through the cracks,” says Chinn. “And when I got there, I realized that nothing had happened.”

Chinn was having a crisis of faith—in his paper calendar, and in his own memory. He looked for answers, “used coaches, sought out advice, read every book I could get my hands on about how to run a better law practice,” says Chinn.

Eventually, he found what he was looking for—in technology. He started using case-management software, and ever since, his firm has gotten consistently leaner—and his computer monitors have multiplied and gotten larger. “And now I sleep at night,” he says.

Last summer, he added voice-recognition software to his technological repertoire, and it’s changed everything all over again. “It is the most transformative technology I’ve ever come across,” says Chinn. “It makes everything else sing.”

And it’s helped Chinn complete his transition to a law firm of one. There were 14 people in the firm until 2008, when he started disassembling the team. His last two support staffers left for greener pastures last summer. 

“I’m at a place where I not only don’t need assistance, I don’t want it,” says Chinn, who was sold on the voice-recognition software when he discovered he could talk at least three times as fast as he could type. “I want to do everything myself because it’s just plain faster.”

Now he sits before his three monitors, dictating and sending emails with one voice command and opening up case files with another, while his fingers hack out commands that create a 10-page letter in seconds. This speed and efficiency is a big reason why, in 2005, he went from charging by the hour to a flat fee.

“If I charge by the hour, then the more efficient I get the less money I’m going to make,” says Chinn. “I’m in this to support my four daughters and my wife. I’m not busting my tail and investing in nice computers and software to make less money.”

Given his bent for tech improvement, it’s no surprise that Chinn has spent years on personal development, too. He’s a licensed pilot, has earned a black belt in karate and kickboxing, and is the author of three books, including The Constructive Divorce Guidebook. He’s also completed the outline for a fourth book that he plans to call A Divorce Lawyer’s Guide to a Happy Marriage. For the record, he’s been married 38 years. 

“I find that working in the divorce world keeps me conscious of the issues that confront people,” he says. “It causes me to examine my own conduct, and perhaps change the way I do things so life will be happier at my own home.”

He’s positively evangelical on both marriage and tech—steering clients toward couples counseling and ending speaking engagements with a plea to use case-management software.

“There’s a lawyer in my building who uses a fountain pen and a legal pad, and he does fine, just fine,” Chinn says. He pauses. “But I don’t think he realizes how much more productive he’d be if he had some technology.” 

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