The Decline and Renewal of the “General Practice, Solo and Small Firm” Lawyer

When I first joined my local bar association back in the mid-1990s, I noticed there was a large interest group devoted to “General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Lawyers.” It made sense to me, at the time, that these two categories—general practitioners and solos and small firm lawyers—should be grouped together. It makes less sense today, and it will make very little sense to anyone joining a bar association in the mid-2020s.

The first sign that this couple might someday wind up apart should have been the fact that these are really two different types of categories. “General practice” refers to the services provided by the lawyer. “Solo and small firm” refers to the size of the practice—specifically to the number of lawyers the firm has. It would be a little like having a group called the “Commercial Law and Midsize Firm Section.” You’re crossing the streams, so to speak.

The GPSSF Section developed for a valid reason: at one time, these two categories meant more or less the same thing. If you were operating a “general practice,” or if you had few or no partners, you were likely based in a smaller community, and you mostly served individuals or family businesses. The needs of this market were usually pretty straightforward: real estate, wills, family, criminal defense, contract drafting, some personal injury, maybe some corporate documents and business formation. You needed to be able to do a little of everything, but most of the work that came in was relatively uncomplicated, and the law wasn’t as complex and labyrinthine as it would become.

Today, the “GP” and the “SSF” are heading in different directions. In particular, the “general practice” lawyer, as we’ve always understood it, is riding off into the sunset.

If you look at the types of matters that typically constituted a general law practice, you’ll see that high-tech, innovative, “non-lawyer” providers are becoming a growing presence there.

LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer help people draft wills and incorporate businesses; WeVorce and CleanSplit help people navigate some distance through their own divorce; Shake helps people and small businesses create their own contracts; companies like Fixed even help people dispute traffic tickets. Likely more such providers will emerge in the coming years, and it’s not far-fetched to imagine Google or even Amazon getting into this line of work.

It’s important to note that these types of entities, for the most part, are not looking to replace lawyers. Indeed, many of them specifically partner with lawyers to provide more advanced services than they can handle alone.

But they are taking over many of the functions and tasks that general practice lawyers traditionally performed and for which these lawyers traditionally billed, and they’re doing so at much lower rates. The price at which these services are sold will begin to drop well below any amount that a lawyer could charge and still turn a profit.

So, it’s going to be the increasingly rare general practitioner who can bill his or her standard rates for drafting a contract or assembling a will; that part of their inventory is disappearing. But they can still cast an experienced eye over a machine-assembled contract or review a settlement agreement that was created online. That’s where a lawyer’s value still manifests itself—in the exercise of trained legal analysis and judgment.

It’s fair to say, however, that most general practitioners haven’t traditionally billed much time for the exercise of trained legal analysis and judgment. They’ve billed for hours spent drafting documents and handling basic steps in a familiar legal process. So anyone who wishes to maintain a “general legal practice” is going to have to rework their business model, adopting and using the software and systems now flooding the market and re-engineering their pricing around advice and counsel rather than documents and processes.

But even those lawyers who make this transition have to face the reality of ever-increasing complexity in legal matters. In the 1980s, you could probably know pretty much everything important about wills in your state, and still have room left over in your mind palace for the fundamentals of divorce and DUI defense. Today, I’m not so sure, and in 10 or 15 years’ time, with even more to learn and remember and apply, I’d be even more doubtful. Maybe with advanced legal knowledge and machines like IBM’s Watson, if such systems ever do develop to their vaunted potential, you might pull it off. But we’re not there yet. And anyway, isn’t that what large law firms are there for? To be “full-service” offerings that do pretty much everything?

The general law practice, of course, developed long before the internet, at a time when a small-town law firm really did need to do a little bit of everything, because there was nowhere else for people to go. Now, clients can get some (although certainly not all) of what they need online, from increasingly reputable and reliable providers. The future general practice will have to adapt to these changes in its market, or it will have a tough time of it.

And what about the other half of our couple? Solo practitioners or those who practice in a small firm (“small” being relative to the market, of course) are all too familiar with the challenges posed by online legal service providers. If they wish to remain generalists, they could take some of the steps outlined above or otherwise adapt their businesses to these challenges. But they could also go the other direction and dive into a narrow niche practice area.

The flip side of the increasing complexity of the law is that even a narrow, tightly focused area of practice now has significant depth, enough to help sustain a viable small law practice. And again, thanks to that same internet, a solo or small-firm lawyer’s market isn’t just his or her town or community but stretches across the state or even the country. There are no borders when it comes to online marketing, and the more you specialize, the more likely you’ll be found by people searching the web for your particular unique niche.

In many ways, the future of law will be very hospitable to solo practitioners—just not to the stereotypical solos of our professional imagination, those genteel small-town general practitioners. When clients can canvass the world for the right experts for a particular need and can combine them into a virtual team for one-off or continuing projects, then there’s a real market advantage available to someone who can combine the power and prestige of an expert with the low overhead and flexibility of a solo.

So if you’re currently a member of a bar association’s “General Practice, Solo and Small Firm” section, you might want to reflect on the possibility that the future general practitioner will be a high-value, technology-supported, trusted counsellor, while the future solo practitioner and small firm lawyer will be a highly specialized world-class expert whose deep expertise is the click of a client’s Google search away. Those seem like pretty good futures to me.

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  • Paul Spitz

    This is one of the best pieces I’ve seen on the subject.

  • Gabriel Munoz-Calene

    This is a great article on a very important topic.

    Though it is popular to promote niche practice areas and to declare the downfall of the general practice attorney, I disagree with this vision for the future of our profession.

    Solo general practice attorneys face incredible obstacles, and often will not succeed. But that doesn’t mean specialization will ensure professional success. Moreover, overspecialization is a risky path that leads to extinction whenever the environment changes.

    I agree that a general practice attorney should embrace technology and re-engineer their services and fees “around advice and counsel rather than documents and processes.” This is the consistent with the ancient role of trusted advisor upon which the legal profession is built.

    I also agree that increasing complexity in the law is an issue. Increased complexity of the law must be challenged, especially if we are serious about tackling Access to Justice.

    In the Marine Corps, every marine is a rifleman first. That means that even if you are trained to be a radio operator or a mechanic, your foundation is infantry operations. Similarly, every attorney is trained to be a general practice advisor. The bar exam covers the foundational aspects of the law; it is not a niche test.

    Above all, I strive to be a well-rounded, general practice attorney. Focusing on niche practice areas is encouraged nowadays; but clients often have overlapping legal issues, and I feel a trusted advisor can offer more to clients than a narrow focus can.

    • theonlyone

      I would say that solos have to specialize our face the risk of malpractice. Trying to handle everything as a solo makes it too easy to make a silly mistake just because there is an area of law that you are not involved with regularly. If a solo is going to be general practice, they really need as significant support staff who have real experience in a variety of areas. Trying to be a general practice attorney is too risky.