The Future of Law Practice Will Look a Lot Like its Present

future-of-law-practice

Lawyers are, quite clearly, jealous of all the disruptive innovation happening around us. We want in on the action. Heck, I want in on the action. My practice would be so much cooler if it were more like a Web 2.0 startup.

But law practice is — generally for very good reasons — anchored by the rules of professional conduct. Anchored, as in “a thing that can be relied on for support, stability, or security,” not something that weighs us down. The rules are in place to protect clients, not to protect lawyers’ monopoly on legal work.

Not everyone sees things that way.

As Stephanie West Allen, who writes Idealawg, says, “I think there are two professions now, both calling themselves lawyers.” Or, as Brian Tannebaum succinctly puts it in a comment on Simple Justice, “lawyers who are here for clients, and lawyers who are here for themselves.”

I think Allen, Greenfield, and Tannebaum are fundamentally right, but I don’t think there is a simple dichotomy. Instead, there is a spectrum. Bloggers like Greenfield idealize the profession, making it sound like lawyers who take their own wants and needs into consideration are bad lawyers. In reality, that is neither true nor desirable — and I think Allen, Greenfield, and Tannebaum would agree. If you have a law practice that makes you happy, you will probably be a more-effective lawyer. In other words, business decisions that result in the best client service will sometimes (perhaps often) be those that also increase your own satisfaction with your law practice. And, sometimes, business decisions (like buying that iPad Scott loves to throw out as a red herring) will be basically irrelevant to the service you provide to your clients.

But this is not always true. Sometimes (perhaps often), you will have to make business decisions that basically suck, because they will be better for your clients. And you do have to, because that is what law practice means. If not, you will find yourself at the other end of the spectrum in short order. If you start making decisions based on what will make you happy instead of seeking to maximize the service you provide to your clients, you start to become the other kind of lawyer, which is the kind of lawyer everyone can do without.

The tricky part comes when you start convincing yourself that you can have it all, and there are plenty of coaches and consultants out there who are eager to sell you that dream. You cannot have it all. Not unless you are fooling yourself and screwing your clients, anyway. (“But your clients are happy with the misspelled, inadequate forms you hired Florinese lawyers to prepare!” say the coaches — just not in so many words. The problem with this reasoning should be obvious.)

The spectrum, in other words, can look like a slippery slope. It is easy to see the benefits of outsourcing some things, like reception, and how they can actually improve the service you are able to provide to clients. Outsourcing your marketing, though, can be more problematic, but still okay if you take responsibility and do a good job. If you just hand off your marketing, though, you’ve just slipped down the slide. What about taking outsourcing to its “logical” conclusion, and outsourcing your legal work, too? All of a sudden, you are on the wrong side of the spectrum.

That is why the future of law will look a lot like its present. Disruptive innovation usually means changing something fundamental about a product or service. The fundamental aspect of the law that everyone seems to think needs changing is lawyers providing personal, individualized legal help to clients. It doesn’t really matter if you do that with an iPad or with a quill and scroll — if you change the attorney-client nature of law practice, you aren’t practicing law anymore. You have innovated yourself right out of the practice of law.

There can and should be innovation in the law. But unlike tablets and taxis, law practice innovation has to stop when it conflicts with our professional obligations to our clients.

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/helico/2261991789/)

Legal Ethics, Practice Management

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  • http://questionoflaw.net Lisa Solomon

    Sam, I think what you’re decrying in this post isn’t so much as “outsourcing” legal work as automating legal work. Nevertheless, because you used the term “outsourcing,” and because the other Lawyerist posts you link to actually involve outsourcing–i.e., hiring someone outside the firm to accomplish a task that might otherwise be performed by a firm employee–I’m writing to respond to your apparent premise that outsourcing substantive legal work is unethical.

    Outsourcing legal work, whether to another lawyer admitted in your state or to a lawyer admitted in another state, is perfectly ethical, provided that you comply with your ethical responsibilities to your clients. Many bar associations–including the ABA, 25 state bar associations and 4 local (city or county) bar associations–have issued opinions discussing how to handle such issues as competence, conflicts, confidentiality and cash (i.e., billing) in the context of an outsourcing relationship; some have issued multiple opinions on the subject. Not a single bar association has found outsourcing legal work to be unethical. The critical factor is that, just as when you outsource tasks such as marketing, when you outsource substantive legal work, the buck still stops with you.

    For a detailed discussion of the ethics of outsourcing substantive legal work, check out my blog at http://legalresearchandwritingpro.com/blog/. For a more condensed take on the subject, you can download a guide to working with freelance (a/k/a contract) lawyers at my website, http://questionoflaw.net. of course, if you (or any commenters) have any specific questions about the ethics of outsourcing, I’ll be happy to answer them here.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I am not “decrying” outsourcing at all. If I am decrying anything, it is the abdication if professional responsibility under the guise of innovation. Replace my outsourcing example with the cloud, iPads, forms, unbundling, virtual law practices, or jury selection apps, if you like.

      I am not necessarily opposed to any of them. In fact, I use/do many if them. It all depends on which side of the spectrum you are on.

  • http://www.litigationandtrial.com Max Kennerly

    Bleating about the virtue of client service is savvy marketing.

    • http://associatesmind.com Keith Lee

      Does that make it any less important?

      • http://www.litigationandtrial.com Max Kennerly

        Client service is important. Bleating about client service for marketing purposes is not important. Pounding your chest and proclaiming, “The other members of my profession who I shall refer to only in generalities are not as honorable as me!” is a time-honored tradition. It has also never accomplished anything.

        If the detractors see something unethical, they should point it out. But yelling, “your priorities are misplaced!” without examples is meaningless frippery.

        • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

          I’m amused that you think my writing on Lawyerist has a marketing benefit. I couldn’t point to a single client in (almost) a decade of law practice that I got as a result of my writing here.

          • http://www.litigationandtrial.com Max Kennerly

            I wasn’t referring to you, I’m sorry if that was your impression.

  • http://thegirlsguidetolawschool.com Alison Monahan

    While I appreciate the sentiment, I find it funny that the current legal profession could be seen as some sort of nirvana for clients. Have you tried to hire an attorney recently? Good god. It’s a nightmare. They’re expensive, inconvenient, and lots of them still expect you to fax them things.

    The reality is that most of the legal needs in this country aren’t being met. While certain parts of the legal profession will continue to look more or less as they currently do (see, The 1% and the People Who Serve Them) I think we’d be a lot better off as a society if some enterprising lawyers figure out how to use technology to provide individualized, or semi-individualized, advice at a much lower price than is currently feasible.

    That, to me, is the interesting part about what’s happening in the legal tech space. And — if it comes to fruition — it really will be disruptive, for the better. Even if a lot of lawyers don’t like it.

    • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Jordan Rushie

      Good God, have you tried litigating in a court recently? It’s a nightmare.

      Courts expect you to hand file stuff, sign it in original blue ink, and often mail the judge three courtesy copies – even though it’s like 1000 pages long with all the exhibits. It’s so unfair that I have to pay a $600 filing fee just to initiate a lawsuit a $56 fee to file a discovery motion, and pay a court reporter $700 for a deposition transcript. Oh, and man, I had to pay $1000 just to get a treatise on some obscure legal issue that affects a number of my clients. It wasn’t even available on Amazon, either!

      Do you know why legal services are expensive? It’s not because lawyers are greedy, stupid, or they use outdated technology. It’s because litigation is expensive. Having the tools necessary to competently service your clients is expensive. Consider your malpractice insurance, bar dues, filing fees, a big copy machine to mail mean old judges who demand hard copies of stuff, access to legal research, CLEs, PDF software (that’s like, a thing in federal court), office space, to name a few.

      And after all that, you still need to make enough money to put beer on the table (or at least pay student loans).

      I wish it were as easy as “Gee, going paperless will save me so much money! I’ll pass those savings along to my client! We’ll shut down the office and run everything from Starbucks! Then we’ll serve the poor!” I run a less paper office and we have an entire room devoted to file storage. (hint: office space is not free).

      I’ve heard this stupid argument propagated before by law professors who want to justify their existence. “The market isn’t bad – lawyers are just too greedy! They should serve the poor who don’t have access to the courts!”

      It’s almost always propagated by someone who has never seen the inside of a courtroom, let alone had to manage a law practice.

      I’m sorry that competent representation is expensive. It just is.

      • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Jordan Rushie

        One final thing to add…

        It takes a lot of time to do law right. To do the research, dive into the facts of your case, to prepare for hearings, to prepare your clients, send follow ups and to make sure that no detail goes unnoticed.

        Lower fees mean one very bad thing – more volume. It’s hard to give each client the attention they need when you have too many other clients that all need something. But lower fees means having to take on more clients in order to pay for the stuff I’ve mentioned above, in addition to putting beer on the table.

        The only people spouting this nonsense haven’t practiced law for a day in their life.

        • http://thegirlsguidetolawschool.com Alison Monahan

          I’m not talking about litigation. (I was a litigator, and having had that experience I’d never want to end up in court as a client.) I’m talking about basically run-of-the-mill stuff that you just want someone who knows what they’re doing to sign off on. Incorporation, trademarks, etc.

          I’ll pay a lawyer something for that, but about an order of magnitude less than many expect. But that’s changing. I happily paid for a trademark lawyer, who booked appointments online and charged a modest fee. No one would do my LLC filing for less than $1000, so I did it myself online. Why should I pay someone that much to fill out the same form I can get at Bizfilings? More here on that experience: http://thegirlsguidetolawschool.com/02/what-i-learned-about-the-future-of-law-from-buying-a-logo/.

          • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Jordan Rushie

            After reading your blog post, I am firmly convinced that you have no idea what lawyers do, and absolutely astonished that you are counseling prospective students on becoming lawyers.

            I am a little dumber than I was five minutes ago, just like anyone else who read that post.

          • http://www.linkedin.com/in/abziegler Adam Ziegler

            I’ve been a practicing litigator in state and federal court for the last 10 years. I agree with the “nonsense” in Alison’s comment and blogpost. You don’t have to be a practicing lawyer to recognize the problems and work on productive solutions. But if you are a practicing lawyer and you don’t see the problems, then you’re not paying attention.

  • http://www.kre8tivelaw.com Andrea Riccio

    Many of my clients’ jobs have been automated or outsourced out of existence. Similarly, many of my “brick and mortar” business clients have been forced to close down by online competitors. Those who think that the traditional law firm business model will survive, when all around us industries are being transformed by these forces, are deluding themselves out of existence.

    Despite the bar’s role as protector of the public interest, the public generally sees the profession as a cartel and the Rules of Professional Conduct as the mechanism by which that cartel is kept in place. The Rules would look very different if the public had more input into their content. The Rules would focus on access and affordability, not unauthorized practice. They would give preference to choice and convenience over security. They would enable law firms to engage clients online with the option to switch to “face to face” when required.

    There is much we can do to improve client service and lower fees for clients without negatively impacting law firm profitability, individual lawyer satisfaction or the profession’s role in society but it requires courage to acknowledge that the forces that are changing our world are permanent.

    I don’t believe that in the twenty-first century we should charge $300.00/hour to provide clients with basic legal information they can now easily get online for free, nor do I accept that everything a lawyer does on a file is worth $300.00/hour. Except for the most complex litigation, I refuse to believe that we lack the skill, knowledge and information to properly cost out a file for a client at the outset. Technology can help address all of these issues but technology’s greatest benefit is in freeing up legal talent to focus on those critical client issues that truly require the $300.00/hour expertise, hard work and creative talents of the lawyer. It creates a win-win for the lawyer and client on several levels.

    It’s the prospect that technology can enable me to ensure that my clients are spending the bulk of their money where they need it most, and where my skills and efforts can create the greatest value possible for their legal spend, that I find truly exciting about the expanded use of technology in the practice of law.

  • http://www.passthebaton.biz Susan Gainen

    The careful, nuanced practice of law is a 17th century skill practiced in an ever-changing 21st century technology box that rests uncomfortably inside an aggressively shrinking 21st century business box.

    The three mysteries of law practice are how work gets done, how new lawyers get trained on substance inside of legal and practice-supporting technology, and how the profession maintains its ethical standards.