Five Thoughts on the Future for Solo and Small Firm Lawyers
In 2014, I spent a lot of time focused on the future of lawyers. One highlight of that was spending time with legal futurist Richard Susskind, who was our guest at the Oklahoma Bar Association’s annual meeting in November. I also met and listened to Indiana University law professor William Henderson (recently named “most influential” person in legal education). Henderson brings as much data and analysis to the future of law discussion as anyone. I myself addressed several state and local bar meetings about my thoughts on the future of law, in particular for solo and small firm lawyers.
So how do I advise solo and small firm lawyers to brace for the future? Here are a few thoughts.
1. Your future success is directly tied to your effective use of technology. Lawyers manage information — lots of information — for the benefit of their clients. To believe recent and future advances in information technology can be ignored is increasingly foolish and shortsighted. While there are still a few exceptions to this rule (primarily for lawyers who are able to hire tech-savvy staff), generally lawyers need to be hands-on with their technology and pay attention to new developments.
The lawyer of several decades ago required an expensive infrastructure of highly paid staff. Today, a lawyer with tech smarts, a laptop and an Internet connection is ready to practice. If you don’t feel that you have those smarts yet, get them. The Internet is full of blogs and online publications with tech education for lawyers.
2. No one is in charge, but we have lots of drivers. One major driver of change has been increased competition. There are not only more lawyers today, but there are also more non-lawyers and do-it-yourself consumer websites providing what were once thought of as exclusively lawyer-provided services. And they are heavily targeted directly at the middle-class clients that most small law firms serve.
But another powerful driver for change that’s emerging is the press for access to justice. A lot of smart people are addressing this issue, and their solutions may involve less work done by lawyers in private practice. (See Washington state’s new Limited License Legal Technicians.) When a person can only afford to pay a few hundred dollars for legal services and not several thousand, the lawyer will have few options — primarily, to either cease doing that kind of work or figure out a way of doing it profitably at a reduced rate.
3. Invest in improving your firm’s operations. Lawyers generally have improved their work product by focusing on better substantive legal work. This includes creative document drafting, constructing winning legal arguments, studying up at CLE programs, crafting novel legal strategies and the like. Until recently, though, little thought had been given to business process improvement. The reason is simple. Law firms have operated the same way for many, many years. Even computers first made their way into law offices to do the same things lawyers had always done, but just a little better. Email replaced couriers, and word processing eliminated repetitive retyping.
Now, however, myriad types of tools are available and the small firm lawyer ignores them at his peril. Headlining these are practice management software, automated document assembly and billing by completed project rather than hours expended. Even a seemingly small thing like videoconferencing with clients can save time and improve the client experience.
4. Delegate and conquer. The billable hour promotes the myth that each of your hours is of equal value, but we know that is not the case. Some law office tasks can even be done well without a lawyer.
Different types of law practices sustain different levels of staff support, but the trend in all law practices is less support staff per lawyer. We have seen the rise of the “true solos” ─ computer-literate lawyers with no staff. While this has been a formula for success for many lawyers, the model works best for specialized practices. Consumer-based practices — especially in smaller communities, where a storefront location is seen as being a part of the local business community — need to think differently. For example, outsourcing services now provide an array of options that allow you to get clerical and paralegal help when needed, and to adjust service levels in slower times. Successful small firm lawyers have also created support networks that include lawyers with deep expertise who are available for consultation, vendors for outside IT support, and friendly accountants available for quick questions and referrals. These lawyers pay attention to nurturing those relationships and developing new ones.
5. Take charge of yourself and your firm’s assets. Lawyers in very large firms fit into defined areas, usually related to practice groups or particular client service teams. Small firm lawyers have a much greater opportunity to define themselves and focus the direction of their practice. So, lawyer, advise thyself. What do you enjoy doing? What are you very proficient at accomplishing? What are the unmet needs in your community?
Small firm lawyers are said to have more freedom, but economic realities and urgent client needs temper this freedom. Still, no matter how busy you are or how many fires you have to put out today, you need to spend at least an hour or two each month focusing on long-range planning and taking charge of your own future.
Jim Calloway is Director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Management Assistance Program, author of the popular Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips blog and co-host of the Digital Edge podcast. He writes frequently on practice management and legal technology topics and is a fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. Follow him on Twitter @jimcalloway.