A lawyer's Web site brought new customers to his business. More important, it also brought balance to his life.
The Fourth Annual Inc Web Awards: Transformations
Company: Latour & Lleras, in Gainesville, Fla. URL:www.usvisanews.com What we liked: A lawyer uses the Web to grow a national business and reclaim his life at the same time
By 1996, several years after starting a busy Miami immigration-law firm, Jose Latour had had enough.
"I was a disaster," he recalls. "You know those big bottles of Tums? I was going through one of those every three days. I'd gained about 20 pounds. I had to go to a chiropractor. I was absolutely miserable." But not because his practice was in trouble. "The business was doing fine," says Latour. "The cases were being won, the clients were happy. But I wasn't enjoying it."
Latour was routinely putting in 70 to 75 hours a week, sometimes more. His wife, Leah, worked alongside him as his firm's office manager, and the pressure wasn't doing their marriage any good. The lawyer, then age 35, vowed to cut back on his workload; to that end, he hired two staff lawyers and an associate attorney, Lorenzo Lleras.
Around the same time, Latour discovered the Web and launched Usvisanews.com to share his knowledge of immigration issues. The site was never meant to be more than a hobby: "Jose's crazy little thing," his peers called it. Soon, though, the site stopped being little. Latour stocked it with hundreds of pages aimed at employers and non-U.S. citizens.
Today Usvisanews.com is an encyclopedic resource on immigration and visas. There's a lengthy question-and-answer section about Immigration and Naturalization Service procedures, with links to key forms. A glossary defines visa designations for those who don't know an F-1 and an H-1B from the A&P. News stories are updated daily, live chat sessions take place biweekly, and Latour publishes regular columns on legal issues.
Usvisanews.com won't win any design awards; except for staff photos and a logo, it's all text on a plain background. But the site has allowed Latour to accomplish two goals.
First, his $1.7-million company has gone national. Latour now has clients in 49 states, and 85% of his business originates outside Florida. "We grew 26% in 2001, and we landed our biggest client ever, a $24-billion company," says Latour, who attributes both accomplishments to the Web.
New clients use the site to schedule telephone consultations or to ask questions by E-mail, and existing clients check their case status in password-protected areas. Meanwhile, paralegals have developed a series of boilerplate E-mail messages that are sent to clients at key points in the visa process. Those messages have cut the time employees spend on the phone by hours a day.
But the most important time saved has been Latour's. Thanks to the self-service function of the site, the addition of employees, and the efficiencies wrought by the Web, the founder has reduced his workweek to 30 hours, with no loss of income. In addition, the company's virtual model allows Latour and his wife to telecommute from their new home on the island paradise of Key Largo, 400 miles south of the office. (Lleras and one staff lawyer remain in Gainesville; the other lawyer works in Miami.) "I would not have continued to practice law but for the Internet," says Latour, shortly before departing on a monthlong vacation.