Is There a Future for Solos and Small Firms?

binoculars

“I do not see much of a future (beyond 2020) for most small firms ….”
— Richard Susskind, Tomorrow’s Lawyers

Will the next 5–10 years really see the end of solos and small law firms? I’ve heard Susskind talk before, but I sat down with him at the William Mitchell College of Law to find out more about his predictions as they pertain to small law firms.

The Future According to Susskind

Susskind’s most-recent book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers, is short and worth a read, but I will try to do it justice in brief. Basically, the future according to Susskind will come about due to three drivers of change:

  1. Clients, who are demanding more work for less money;
  2. Liberalization, or the spread of non-lawyer ownership; and
  3. Technology.

More for Less

In the near future, cost will be the biggest driver of change. On the big-corporations-and-big-firms end of the spectrum, Susskind says in-house counsel are being pressured to reduce their legal “spend” by 30–50%. I recently covered the other end of the spectrum, at which lots of people cannot afford the legal help they need. The bottom line is that people and corporations cannot or will not pay the same prices today or going forward that they have been paying — or at least, were paying up until 2006 or so.

Downward pressure on legal fees, Susskind believes, must drive sweeping changes to the way firms and clients operate. The end result is that few clients will tolerate lawyers who bill time for doing work that does not require a law degree, and the amount of “bespoke” legal work performed by lawyers will shrink as far as possible. Some of the things lawyers do now (document review, legal research, project management, negotiation) do not require a law degree. Lawyers will not be doing those things. Some of the things that require a law degree (everything LegalZoom does) do not require a human being. Lawyers will not be doing those things, either.

What’s left? Litigators will still be around for strategy, tactics, and advocacy. Transactional lawyers will still be around for bespoke drafting and legal advice. The rest of the lawyers will be performing non-traditional roles, which Susskind describes in Chapter 11 of Tomorrow’s Lawyers. Here they are, as he names them:

  • legal knowledge engineer
  • legal technologist
  • legal hybrid
  • legal process analyst
  • legal project manager
  • online dispute resolution (ODR) practitioner
  • legal management consultant
  • legal risk manager

If those sound more like supporting roles than what you went to law school for, then you are on the right track. None of them require a law degree, and all of them require skills not currently taught in law schools. Those are tomorrow’s lawyers, according to Susskind, with the exception of the few (“expert trusted advisors” and “enhanced practitioners”) who manage to find a traditional role to play.

Liberalization

“[i]t is our collective arrogance as lawyers that we feel we can take on a neighboring discipline over a weekend.”

I recently wrote about whether it is time for non-lawyer ownership. Susskind, like Andy Daws, unequivocally says yes. I asked Susskind the question left over from my previous article: can corporate structures really be so much more efficient than law firms?

Yes, he says. Alternative Business Structures (ABS) in Europe are showing cost savings of 30–40% and higher client satisfaction. He tells a joke about litigators, who frequently tell him their job is more project management than anything else. When he asks what training they have, some answer that they took a two-day course. He says “[i]t is our collective arrogance as lawyers that we feel we can take on a neighboring discipline over a weekend.” That rings true. (It probably explains all the lawyers-turned-marketers, too.)

Putting real project managers in charge of litigation makes more sense, says Susskind, but law firms are unwilling or unable to do so. That kind of specialization — and the efficiency that comes with it — will only come with non-lawyer owners.

Non-lawyer ownership is off the table in the U.S., at the moment. But Susskind thinks the U.S. will eventually allow non-lawyer ownership because U.S.-based international firms will push for it. Without non-lawyer investment and ownership, U.S.-based firms may find themselves at a competitive disadvantage, but in any case their clients will demand the same sort of service they are used to at home. This pressure will build until big law firms themselves become the ones lobbying for non-lawyer ownership in the U.S.

Liberalization boils down to lawyers giving up the non-lawyering parts of running a firm, and focusing on lawyering while other tasks are handled by people more competent to handle those tasks.

Technology

After describing Moore’s Law for those who still aren’t aware of it (i.e., most of an audience of lawyers), Susskind writes:

You can call me radical, but it seems to me that if we can see the day when the average desktop machine will have more processing power than all of humanity combined, then it might be time for lawyers to rethink some of their working practices. It is simply inconceivable that information technology will radically alter all corners of our economy and society and yet somehow legal work will be exempt from any change.

When is that day? 2050, give or take a year or two. Susskind is obviously not radical. Assuming there is any way for human lawyers to compete with an artificial brain the size of a planet (much less one on every desktop), legal work will likely be different.

What form this will take, exactly, is hard to predict, though. Susskind talks about the potential for teleconferencing to change the way we meet with clients and attend court, and he thinks online dispute resolution could offer substantial advantages over litigation. Plus, that sort of processing power should be able to make serious inroads on actual legal work (estate planning lawyers, your days are numbered) by online legal services, which may be increasingly free.

But those are all fairly routine changes. When lawyers — along with everyone else — have all the processing power of humankind on an iPad, it seems like science fiction may be a better guide. But however this technological revolution comes to law, smart and experienced lawyers — or perhaps their AI replacements — will still need to do most of the programming.

Is This Really the Future of Law Practice?

Nothing Susskind says seems particularly far-fetched. He’s not the only one who sees such changes coming down the pike, either, as this infographic shows:

legal Is There a Future for Solos and Small Firms?
Source: Online-Paralegal-Degree.org

Susskind is surely right that clients want more for less, and that technology has the potential to drive massive change in the legal industry, over time. Alternative business structures (non-lawyer ownership) seem less inevitable in the U.S., but their eventual existence does not seem like an unreasonable prediction.

The Small Firm of the Future

You will notice that, so far, Susskind’s descriptions and predictions are mostly for big firms. He really does not see much of a future for small firms, at least not as currently run. He added as currently run when I interviewed him in order to clarify his point. Small firms may not disappear, but just as large firms will have to fundamentally alter their business models, so will solo and small-firm lawyers, and Susskind believes it will be harder for them to do so.

Big firms and alternative business structures can scale to the point where they will be able to offer superior legal help at lower prices (even access-to-justice prices). This will leave little room for inefficient solos and small firms that cannot take advantage of the same economies of scale. To compete, small firms will have to figure out a way to take advantage of some of those same economies of scale, or else materially differentiate themselves.

The big firms and ABSes will be able to take on investment, use the skills of non-lawyers for work that is not strictly legal, and collaborate with one another on big-idea solutions, software, resources, etc. “Solosmalls” would be hard-pressed to do the same, which will put them at a serious competitive disadvantage. Think Wal-Mart running all the small businesses out of town. In short, solosmalls may have to surrender their lunches.

If Susskind is right about the future of law practice, solos should be worried enough to start exploring alternative ways to practice law.

Susskind did concede that his predictions may not apply to all solos and small firms. It is hard to imagine criminal defense lawyers being replaced any time soon, for example. Not unless the criminal justice system undergoes sweeping changes. And to the extent there is still a need for litigation with all the online dispute resolution Susskind predicts will be going on, there will be a need for skilled and experienced lawyers to do it. But in the main, Susskind sees different roles for solos of the future. While he does not think solos and small firms will be competitive with big corporate legal service providers, he does think innovative small firms may be able to prosper other ways.

Solos and small firms of the future might work with those ABSes to handle bespoke work, for example. Maybe by officing in the same location or entering into a referral or independent-contractor agreement. Or they may be able to carve out a niche as a trusted advisor in smaller communities. There are also broad categories of law where consumers do not know or appreciate their rights and remedies — or even realize that a lawyer can help them. Perhaps a WebMD-like service for legal problems will be able to help in place of a lawyer, but based on my own experience, many people will still want a lawyer to guide them through the process, even if the process looks much different than it does now. And what about contingent-fee practices, where the client is not actually paying for the legal representation up-front. That would seem to take price considerations out of the picture.

But while Susskind seems pessimistic about the survival of solosmall, I don’t think it has to be that way. Solo and small-firms can be much more nimble. Change is relatively easy when you do not have to overhaul a massive, ponderous business organization. As a solo, adopting a new technology is easy. Want to go paperless? Buy a scanner and start scanning. Want to teleconference? Get a camera and a nice backdrop. Want to distribute online forms? Sign up for a service and paste a few lines of code into your website.

On the other hand, the collective arrogance Susskind describes is in full effect in solo practices and small firms. Solosmall lawyers not only do the legal work, they send the invoices, cut the checks, and manage the accounts. They answer the phones, do the marketing, and (try to) fix the computers. They review the documents and manage the staff. And they probably cannot afford to cut rates much more. In order to compete at lower rates, solosmalls will have to find ways to take advantages of economies of scale — without the scale.

That is a tall order. There may not be a need to panic, but if Susskind is right about the future of law practice, solos should be worried enough to start exploring alternative ways to practice law, from business structures to value propositions.

Then again, maybe he’s not right. Predicting the future is a messy business, and law has been remarkably resistant to change for decades, if not centuries. Maybe the next generation of lawyers really will still be banging out briefs and contracts, in Microsoft Word, on a computer than can simulate the mental capacity of the entire human race.

This was originally published on November 21, 2013. It was revised and republished on August 11, 2014.

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gerlos/3119891607/)

Legal Technology, Our Picks, Starting a Law Firm

, , , ,

  • Susan Cartier Liebel

    Sam, this is an excellent overview and Susskind is way ahead of his time…and most of ours. There is something interesting which gets lost in all the conversation. I talked with someone at LegalZoom (and they are pretty much on top of the market) and without question, their biggest obstacle/hurdle, call it what you will, is people themselves. People want people to talk with, attorneys to guide them. Therefore, while much of what lawyers do will be automated for all the reasons you state, the majority of clients truly don’t want to go it alone and don’t feel qualified to go it alone. Therefore, it is up to each and every practitioner to educate prospective clients on why they need a lawyer and why it doesn’t have to be cost prohibitive. And every lawyer better understand exactly the value they are providing and then follow through on providing that value. If they don’t know their own value or can’t provide it they will disappear.

    • Dany Labaky

      Although legal practice has been swiftly evolving in the past years; however, it remains one of the most conservative practices, international law firms with the attempt to increase their profit are entering into new markets competing with local law firms; however, most of such international firms are ending up bankrupt and winding down (the examples are many).

      With the international economic recession companies/clients are trying to save cut their legal cost either by recruiting in-house legal team or by retaining the services of local law firms avoiding unreasonable enormous billing for unwanted services (some international law firms even dared to bill their clients for the rent of a meeting room with 5 lawyers while the presence of only 1 was more than enough).

      What applies on globalization for regular businesses does not apply in the legal industry; additionally, a local law firm does not mean old fashioned non-progressive law firm, especially that usually a local law firm has better legal knowledge about local rules and regulations.

      The coming few months/years will show how many international law firms will end up closing their practices in numerous countries while others will be declaring bankruptcy.

      Dany Labaky

  • jon_mitchell_jackson

    Respectfully, I couldn’t disagree more with Susskind. The
    more technology advances (and I’m a big fan), the greater the value for transparency
    and human interaction. This is especially true for small firms. Good lawyers
    with GREAT people skills will be able to use technology (even artificial
    intelligence) to provide legal solutions in a more efficient and effective
    fashion.

    The “collective arrogance” mentioned in the article already
    exist today. It’s called being a bad business person. As it was 100 years ago,
    being a bad business person 20 years from now will still come back to bite you
    in the butt. Having said that, using technology correctly to compliment YOU is
    a recipe for success.

    Look, most of you who know me on social appreciate my
    position that it is not the platform or technology that matters, it’s you and
    the context of your communication that helps others and builds rapport, trust
    and long-term relationships. Smart small firms that embrace technology, social,
    and innovation will position themselves to help more people in more ways. Using
    tech correction and improving people skills will separate you from the herd and
    help you shine today and in the future.

    • David in Texas

      I couldn’t agree more! The amount of hours you charge on an engagement may shrink, but I’ve found that it allows you to charge a premium and increase margin. If firm X charges $3,000 and uses 15 hours, with technology you can spend 10 hours and charge $2,500.

      However, you NEED the attorney at the helm of the technology in order to identify legal and business issues in drafting. Roughly 60% of the time on some my engagements is simply working with the client to understand their goals and business. That won’t change because clients need a dynamic conversation to understand what they want and a human interface to determine what the client is missing.

  • David White

    brought to you by “Online Paralegal Degree” – very unbiased.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      You realize that’s just the infographic, right?

  • Jonathan Pasky

    Sam– Great article. I believe Susskind — that the practice of law has, and will continue to, shift away from “bespoke” services and continue to be commoditized. Yet, at a certain inflection point, I believe jon_mitchell_jackson — there will be at least a moderate backlash. Law is still about relationships when there’s a problem at hand. Figure out a way to deliver those relationships at a cost structure that is reasonable and the lower pricing will open up “a vast legal market” (see infographic, “2019 and beyond”).

  • Deja

    Susskind’s predictions only focus on urban attorneys. Here in out-state Minnesota, solo and smalls are more the rule than the exception. Yes, we will change and adapt our billing mechanisms, but we will actually be very well equipped to do so – I don’t have to consult with multiple committees and my IT department – I am all of those things.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      Why would legal services delivered over the Internet be limited to urban centers? If Susskind is right, it seems like your clients will be using those services, too.

      • Kate Graham

        Not everyone has computer/internet access–there is still a significant digital divide, especially when age, education, and income-levels are taken into account. This divide is greater in rural areas.

        • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

          If Susskind is right about the proliferation of low-cost services, and if he is right that those low-cost services are what clients will want, then I wonder if rural clients will really be willing to pay an attorney’s fee rather than drive to the local library to use the computer.

          • Kate Graham

            Maybe this is a failure of imagination on my part, but I can’t quite see how web-based services can meet the needs of most low-income clients. The legal service needs of low-income persons are frequently in the areas of family, bankruptcy, employment, expungement, housing, criminal… mostly areas involving litigation. Until our litigation system becomes more web-based–and there is a movement in that direction, at least with regard to e-filing, and in the employment context with administrative hearings conducted by phone and web, I don’t see how the internet or outsourcing could help these folks. Am I wrong?

            • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

              I think you’re wrong to the extent that you think computers can’t replace lawyers when it comes to those tasks. Bankruptcy, for example, is mainly a question of gathering information and plugging it into software. There’s no reason we can’t let consumers do that. Most employment disputes could probably be handled through online dispute resolution, as Susskind outlines. Keep in mind that he doesn’t say lawyers will be unnecessary, full stop. He believes legal tasks will be broken up into things lawyers must do and things lawyers don’t need to do, and lawyers will only handle things they are absolutely required for. This is what will do most of the job of reducing costs. So if a computer and a consumer can adequately prepare a bankruptcy petition (as far-fetched as that may seem in 2013), they might bring it to a lawyer whose only job is to show up at the 341 meeting.

              But where I don’t necessarily think you are wrong is in thinking that consumers may prefer not to take on the role of DIY lawyer. I outlined my thoughts on this in response to Roy Ginsburg’s comment. In short, though, I think Susskind may be right that people will not need a lawyer for many aspects of legal work. But they may still want one, and be willing to pay for one.

              • Aaron Lindquist

                You are correct that most of the work is simply information gathering and plugging it into software i.e. Bestcase. However, getting that information is like herding cats. Even if you get some of the documents you will be lucky if the client has even halfway filled them out. If people can’t even fill out a simple paper document (with copious instructions), how do we expect them to fill out the same information digitally? While the receptionist or paralegal is responsible for tracking down that information, that’s not going to change because someone will still be required to contact the client even if it is all digital. I also foresee the state-specific exemptions being a problem for most (pretty much all) laypersons. However, I could be wrong. People are able to do their own taxes with tax specific software. Yet we still see so many people paying others to do that work.

                Which brings me to my next point. As you pointed out above, a lot of these projected changes will be client driven, and I don’t see clients (who are currently lazy and apathetic) changing their tune anytime soon. Solosmalls will still have a place for this very reason. With that said, there will be a subset of clients who have the wherewithal and ability to take on some of these tasks. It will likely be a very small number though.

      • LawGirl

        One word: relationships. I think the “buy local” movement is more than a fad, but a signpost for where we’re headed, at least outside urban areas. In my mid-sized-city-county-seat-near-a-large-urban-center, my business clients have an aversion to even going “down the road” to the larger city for lawyers because they would rather work with a local attorney, all things being equal. And, in my case, those things ARE as close to equal as they are going to get (except for cost – my rates are far lower than they were when I was a BigLaw partner). I spent most of my 16-year legal career representing some of the largest companies in the world from one of the biggest firms in my state. With this background and my local connections, I provide my clients with big-firm expertise, but with the rates and responsiveness of a small firm lawyer who is active in her community. For those of us who are technologically literate, experienced, effective, and well-connected in our communities, Susskind’s warning should be comforting – we’re doing it right.

        • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

          I think most solo and small-firm lawyers vastly overestimate the strength of their relationships with clients as well as their ability to beat big companies on client service.

          Here are my thoughts in more detail.

  • Graham Martin

    It’s funny to me how much airtime prognostication still receives. There is huge benefit
    potential (in case a person is correct), and very little detriment (there is no
    punishment for being wrong). Especially in the case of a prediction that is 40
    years out, saying radical things will garner a lot of attention without
    exposing a person to much risk.

    Regardless of one’s thoughts on predicting the future, though, it’s interesting to me that
    people seem disinterested in drawing what seems to me to be an obvious
    parallel: the administration machine for healthcare organizations.

    When my father came out of medical school in the 1970s, he joined up with a solo
    practitioner in a suburban office. Eventually she retired, and he was faced
    with the choice of either buying the practice/continuing on as a solo, or
    looking for employment with a larger clinic. The 1980s saw the
    far-more-significant rise of Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), which in
    essence put businesspeople in charge of the management of the clinics and
    hospitals. Administration grew and the machine’s cost increased wildly. The
    doctors weren’t being paid more, but the MBAs were in on what had traditionally
    been a high-cost market, and they were able to bring in lots of money for
    themselves. There is much discussion over whether having non-physicians in
    charge of how physicians practice has been beneficial. I’ll not take a
    position, because that’s not my point.

    My point, rather, is that currently we are in the throes of overhauling the healthcare
    system in this country because the costs and administration of care have
    ballooned out of control to the point where the federal government is getting
    involved in trying to reform something that clearly is not working as intended.
    Again, I’m not interested in making public my position on health care reform.

    So it seems to me that we have seen in this country precisely what happens when the
    fundamental management of a specialized/licensed profession is given over to those without training in that field. It has been changing for at least the last 30 years, and is continuing to affect a large portion of the populace.

    Granted, there is likely a difference in whether people would classify legal services as
    a fundamental right (as many are likely to do for health care). But there are plenty of reasons to think that access to “justice” is still perceived as fundamental in our country.

    How long is it before we are going to start seeing legal insurance for individuals? How
    about group legal plans to leverage the buying power of large groups? It seems far more likely that we will simply see a progression along the lines of the health care system in this country over the coming decades. Of course, the legal profession is still at a place where it can choose whether to take that path; there’s no simple turning back for medicine.

    Susskind is likely right that large changes are coming for the profession as a whole over the coming decades–it would be short-sighted to think otherwise. But I’m
    pretty sure that we have more of a say in the direction our industry takes, and that so long as we keep client service at the forefront of our minds, we can still choose what we want that industry to look like.

    I like to tell my clients that they can settle a case and retain some of the decision-making power, or they can turn it over to a judge and have no say in the outcome. Isn’t any shift in the practice of law going to be better if intentionally chosen by lawyers, than one in which we relinquish fully our authority and let another group determine our destiny?

  • http://constructionlawva.com/ Chris Hill

    Sam,

    These are interesting thoughts. I do agree that law firms need to adapt (and quickly) to how clients want to receive their legal services. I also agree with Susan that (at least in my practice area) the clients want some human interaction. Longer term relationships seem to me to be the key to solo/small survival. Tech is great and helps all us solos compete and remain flexible but it is the relationships that count.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      Up until now, at least, tech has been a way to level the playing field. In part, I think, that might be due to the fact that big firms aren’t really doing much with tech. The important is, If and when big firms and ABSes start making big investments in tech, will solos be able to keep up?

      • http://constructionlawva.com/ Chris Hill

        I think that the answer can be “yes” to that question. Solos are by definition more nimble and more able to keep up with the changes. By the time a large firm makes that significant development and implements it fully, the next tech change that can help us solos will already be in place. In short, the larger the bureaucracy of a business or firm, the harder to keep up.

        • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

          Agreed, except that for the most part, solos have to rely on technology developed by others. Susskind thinks BigLaw (or the ABSes that replace it) will be building its own technology solutions.

          Of course, even if Susskind is right, that may not turn out to be much of an advantage. From what I have seen of BigLaw’s technology exploits so far, there is not much reason to think big firms will be able to develop decent technology. ABSes may be a different matter, but we don’t even know what they would look like in the US, yet. And if solos as a group really can be taught to make good use of technology, there should be plenty of third-party options.

          • http://constructionlawva.com/ Chris Hill

            I agree on the law firms. Unless law schools do more on the tech side, I can’t see lawyers having the training to develop the proprietary software necessary. I don’t know enough about ABS to know what threat they may pose.

  • Roy

    Call me a skeptic, but I don’t think the sky is falling; at least not in my lifetime. I’ve been a lawyer now for 30 years. When I started, there was no internet (that lawyers used) and most of us were still dictating our work product. One would think that the internet and computers would surely revolutionize our profession in way that would not be recognizable today. Sure, we all practice law differently now, compared to 30 years ago, but NOT THAT different. There are still big law firms representing corporate America and solos in small towns hanging out a shingle making a respectable living. For better or for worse, everything in our profession changes slowly. And it will continue to change slowly. I have no reason to believe that the disruptive technologies and other changes happening in our society will cause fundamental and seismic changes now, when that hasn’t been the case in the past.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      Most of the changes Susskind predicts would have to be driven by clients. Ultimately, then, the question seems more about how clients will want to get their legal services in the future.

      On many occasions, I told potential clients they did not need to hire me because they just needed a form they could get for free from our website, or because I did not think the potential would come out ahead by hiring me. They insisted on hiring me anyway, and Randall says he is still seeing this in his practice. Susskind leaves some room for this, but he also thinks that automated processes will get much better, to the point where they are able to take on some of that guiding role.

      But this sort of experience makes me think that consumers may care about more than price and convenience. I often told my clients that law is a bit like trying to find your way around a foreign country where you do not speak the language, and I was their tour guide. Technology makes it easier to do without a tour guide, if you want to, but not everyone wants to.

      Still, even if the end result is that, for most consumers, hiring a lawyer becomes optional, that will have a huge impact on the legal market. But that seems like a perfect role for solos and small firms to play, even if there are fewer of them, overall.

  • David R Johnston

    If you want to know what the 2nd world war will look like – don’t ask the guys in the Maginot line. Not even the geek with the binoculars. The future is already here and it is also well distributed already.

    Small firms are fine. Generalists relying on protectionism are dead men walking and have been since the 80s. Move on.

  • Ricardo Barrera

    “the collective arrogance Susskind describes is in full effect in solo practices and small firms. Solosmall lawyers not only do the legal work, they send the invoices, cut the checks, and manage the accounts. They answer the phones, do the marketing, and (try to) fix the computers.” I don’t see that as arrogance. That’s what tech is for – DIY. If DIY is foolish, that does not make it arrogant.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      Foolish, then. Agreed.

  • http://www.appealsplus.com/ D. Todd Smith

    Susskind’s thoughts are interesting and provocative, but as long as we have appellate courts, I feel pretty safe. (As a certified civil appellate specialist, my work is almost entirely “bespoke.”) I also don’t think technology will go from being the great equalizer for solosmalls to one of the nails in their coffin, at least not anytime soon.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      I agree. Appellate work is pretty much the definition of bespoke.

      Of course, that doesn’t mean aspects of appellate practice won’t change. There are already movements afoot to eliminate oral argument, which could also just as easily happen over high-def video conferencing. Paperless appeals are already happening, too. Those aren’t disruptive changes, or anything, but they will change the way you practice, and perhaps lower costs for your clients.

      • http://www.appealsplus.com/ D. Todd Smith

        Agreed. We are making big technological moves here in Texas. Almost all of our appellate courts currently accept e-filing without paper copies, and our Supreme Court has mandated implementation of e-filing for all court cases early next year. The number of oral arguments is already relatively small, and the state has spent a lot of money on some really nice courtrooms, so I don’t think we’ll be video conferencing oral arguments as a rule any time soon.

  • J. Flanders

    “Will the next 5–10 years really see the end of solos and small law firms?”

    No. Society needs lawyers. Always has, always will. Solos and small firms offer services that most people need – help with a vast array of complicated, every-day, legal problems which they will never be able to disentangle themselves from without highly-educated, competent help. Legalzoom is a joke and it creates as many problems as it purports to fix. Do I have a problem with that as a solo lawyer? No, more work for me cleaning up the mess. As long as there are humans, there will be lawyers of some kind.

  • J. Flanders

    I wanted to comment again to say that, when I first started practicing law, a wise, curmudgeony partner at my firm said to me: “Joe, there will always be a need for lawyers willing to litigate things. They can’t take that away from us.” I must say, I agree.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      There will always be a need, but Susskind thinks the need will shrink with the rise of alternative forms of ADR.

      He may be right, but that’s a scary thought for a former consumer rights lawyer like me. I don’t want companies forcing me into binding arbitration. I think Susskind is imagining a world where online dispute resolution is so much better that we all elect it instead of litigation, but I’m extremely dubious.

      • static

        Don’t love Susskind too much. He won’t love you back. Aside from predicting that email would one day become a predominent means of communication, his “claim to fame” if you will, he’s failed miserably in every other prediction. Don’t be an acolyte. It doesn’t suit you.

        • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

          My intent was to present his predictions for critique, not to worship at his altar.

      • John Kennedy

        Sam, I have been hearing the threat of ADR for 25 years now. I heard it from the partners when I worked in Philly, and I hear it still today. It still has not gobbled up the practice. Even the insurers got away from it with UIM litigation. Don’t get me wrong, it is an option, and it will always be here, but I think people and businesses both want the option of a jury trial. Many times I request ADR with insurers and they don’t want to do it.

  • tetonattorney

    Have you read Tyler Cowen or Erik Brynjolfsson? Both are approaching the same question as an economist (or in Tyler’s case, as a polymath), and have pretty interesting insights. Tyler points out that the “best” chess players are actual computer-human teams, where the role of the human is to occasionally overrule the AI. Interesting, such a pair can beat the best human or the best computer program.

    I imagine the same thing happening in brief writing in 5-10 years, where a computer-human brief writer is the norm, and more comprehensive than what a human would produce alone. If IBM’s Watson can review hundreds of medical journals and a patient’s entire medical history in tandem to produce a recommendation for treatment that is reviewed by a doctor, why can’t WestLaw Watson ™ review a case file and case record to produce an outline of a brief that will then be edited by a legal technician?

    When I was a prosecutor, I would see briefs patched together by criminal defense attorneys where section 1 referenced the officer’s misconduct, section 2 referenced the trooper’s misconduct and section 3 referenced the deputy’s misconduct. So many solos are already familiar with frankenstien-patching a brief together and submitting it to the judge (although I hope they’re better at it than what I encountered). I can see how an AI program could clean that up.

    Fundamentally, a lot of brief writing is about recognizing patterns (digesting facts and issue spotting), and then applying rules to the patterns (e.g. the law). I see computer programs being able to help/replace many of us.

    See: http://www.aei-ideas.org/2013/11/will-robots-terminate-the-us-middle-class-a-qa-with-tyler-cowen-author-of-average-is-over/

    and: http://www.amazon.com/Race-Against-The-Machine-Accelerating-ebook/dp/B005WTR4ZI

    and: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2013/11/when-machines-replace-humans-at-work.html

    and: http://marginalrevolution.com/?s=average+is+over

  • Christina Halasz

    The solution is obvious.

  • Geo

    I disagree with this completely. Maybe there isn’t much need for small or solo firms from big corporate clients, but there are plenty of individuals and families that will always depend on small firms. This is written purely from the large, corporate litigation perspective, where, frankly, big changes in they way they billed their clients were sorely needed. The title should be re-drafted to reflect the true theme of the article.

  • Jay Brinker

    I am a bit late late to this discussion because I have been conflicted about Sam’s take on Susskind. I heard Susskind speak in April and I walked out of the room thinking that as a solo I have to “provide more for less.” I did not feel that the final 20 years of my career are imperiled.

    As an estate planner and probate attorney, I recognize that some potential clients will try to use Legalzoom or other document preparation systems. However, my clients are my clients because they value my 25 years of experience in this area and are willing to pay me for that and to apply that experience to their plans. I suspect that most will continue to do so because they value the human interaction. I can handle some Matt’s strictly over the phone and e-mail, but I always offer my client the opportunity to come to the office to sign documents so they can meet me. Many of them want this connection so they know their ” will lawyer.”

    No matter what Susskind says, I cannot see a world of only large firms. In evolution, it was the small, quick, mammals who survived while the large dinosaurs died off. The majority of clients will not be willing to pay large firm rates for basic retail legal work and most will continue to want to talk with someone. With some large firms jettisoning their estate planning departments because the work was not profitable enough compared to fees generated by M&A work, large firms will not be able to meet the needs of the masses because the masses can not pay those rates. The solos and small firms will be able to do so.

    Finally, what is Susskind’s definition of a small firm? 5 attorneys, 50 attorneys, 150 attorneys in a medium sized city? It is likely different than what most of us envision. Nonetheless, there should always be a market for bright, good attorneys, who deliver quality legal services. Tech and a glut of attorneys will put some price pressure on fees, but we will survive.

  • Bret Thurman

    Many solos are J.B. Books (aka “the Shootist”) with a law degree: practitioners clinging to the profession by their fingernails. Many, but not all.

    Criminal defense, probate law and family law are a few AOPs where solos can survive almost ad infinitum, because of the availability of court-appointed attorneys and Legal Zoom. A large or even mid-sized law firm can never compete with a solo on price alone, due to the almost non-existent overhead that many solos have.

  • John Kennedy

    Speech recognition technology still does not work 100 percent of the thyme….

    • Amleigh Institute

      Neither does spell check …. ;-)

  • John Kennedy

    The graphic spelled “targeting” wrong. The graphic spelled it as “targetting” but it is correctly spelled “targeting.” So much for supercomputers.

  • Eric Cooperstein

    This is an interesting post and thread of comments. While I generally agree with those who believe that the solo practitioner isn’t disappearing any time soon, the real threat for most lawyers is at the margins, not in an all-or-nothing change in the profession. As a very rough example, if one accepts that the overall market for legal services is flat or declining slightly, then when the best 50% of solo/smalls becomes 10% more productive because of technology or finding better ways to serve clients, then the other 50% loses 10% of their business. Either they all suffer a loss in income and hours or some drop out of the profession. Then take away another 5% for clients who turn to Legal Zoom or automated-ADR. Then take away another few percent for business that shifts from rural areas to cities as clients become more comfortable with teleconferencing. And so forth. Yes, there will be solo/smalls for several more decades, but the number is likely to shrink. That’s the wake-up call.

  • jeropaun

    Very interesting and provocative discussion. While there is no doubt that the practice of law is changing, has been changing for my entire 30+ year career, and will continue to change in the future, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I think that reports of the death of solo lawyers are greatly exaggerated.

  • Susan Kostal

    Seriously?? This implies that even the most informed and equipped legal consumer, individual or corporate client, is dispassionate enough to advocate for herself or himself. In many instances, this is simply not the case. Law is more than an algorithm. It’s judgment, experience, and wisdom. I have covered legal affairs for 30 years. Plenty of lawyers, plenty of courtrooms. I recently went to court to get a restraining order. And when my stalker, a litigator at a global law firm, fought the order, I hired an attorney. That man protected my safety, and more importantly, my sanity. Could I have done it on my own? Yes. Should I have? No.