“Future-proofing” the practice of law

As the legal profession evolves, lawyers are adjusting their practices to keep pace with the rapid rate of change and a more-informed client base through technology and professional teamwork.

By Chad E. Burton

In May, Chad Burton, Dayton attorney and founding member of a virtural law firm, spoke at the Ohio State Bar Association Annual Convention’s opening plenary session on the future of the legal profession. The session was so well-received by attendees that the Ohio Lawyer Board of Editors asked Burton to prepare a feature article to share with the entire membership.

Here is a non-breaking news story: The legal profession is changing—now. If you are aware of these changes and are trying to figure out how you fit into the future of the profession, keep reading.

Change in how we provide legal services is positive. Issues such as consumer expectations, new technology and emerging business models may raise an eyebrow because they are new and different. However, our profession can be characterized as being adverse to change it is a slow moving ship.

As all lawyers know, the legal profession functions on the past. Legal precedent from courts and legislatures dictates future outcomes. The law evolves, but it takes time.

Why would we expect the profession as a whole to have a different feel when it comes to evolving business models? The changes are not so new that they forget about the past. Instead, the rich history of the legal profession is shaping the future. What we will see simply builds off of that history and takes us to the next level.

Technology, emerging business models, and the roles of bar associations and law schools are areas that will shape the future of the profession.

What is driving change?
Before examining these three main areas, it is important to analyze what is driving change in the profession. The legal profession is generally self-governed. This means that self-preservation can creep into decision making. We have a comprehensive structure of ethics rules that are designed to protect and serve the public. When significant changes to that structure are proposed and let nonlawyers into the mix, that can make some folks feel uneasy.

As a result, outside driving forces are key. Consumers of legal services have significant input regarding how they are represented. The age of lawyers being able to put their arms around the law as the sole gatekeepers is over. The fad called the “Internet” is here to stay. This is empowering for clients. A simple Google search often can help people resolve their legal issues or needs. In other words, when clients visit lawyers, they are no longer starting with a zero knowledge base.

Consumers of legal services expect evolution in two areas: access to information and cost structures.
We live in a society that expects information at our fingertips, 24/7. No one wants to wait. For example, social media provides updates on current events faster than traditional news organizations. Email and texting allow for instant communications back and forth. Why would these principles not apply to delivering legal services?

On cost structures, the Great Recession has opened the flood gates for the expectation of “more for less.” This applies to products and services across the board. Clients also expect their lawyers to create efficiencies that can lower costs of legal services. The lawyers who do not figure this out will be left behind.

When discussing cost efficiencies, this necessarily raises the issue of how legal services are billed to clients. Not too many people (both lawyers and clients) enjoy the billable hour. This has given rise to alternative fee structures. Many law firm business models are based on an hourly billing structure—a certain number of hours must be billed and collected each year to satisfy overhead and profits for partners. This creates a significant challenge when clients no longer will pay existing billing rates and law firms will have to cut more expenses.

As more and more clients expect alternative billing structures, a bigger picture issue creeps in: How do you sustain a business model that is built on hourly billing when you can no longer bill by the hour? Overhead can be sliced off, talent can be let go, but as the “more for less” mantra continues, eventually the existing structure will fall apart.

That last paragraph sounds pretty dramatic. But, it is accurate. How do lawyers and law firms adjust?

A slightly over-used Wayne Gretzky quote is highly informative: “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” This applies to the legal profession. Where are you going to be? Where the puck currently is or where it is going?

The tools exist for lawyers to go where the puck is headed to restructure practices to remain viable and relevant.

The technology
Technology supports change. In 2012, the American Bar Association amended the comment to Model Rule 1.1 to state that a lawyer’s competency includes understanding the “risks and benefits of technology.” This is important. The Model Rules put the use of technology next to understanding substantive areas of the law when it comes to competently representing clients.

To be clear, understanding technology is not a substitute for knowledge of substantive law and practical experience. Instead, it recognizes that in the modern legal profession, technology matters and plays a critical role. It is no longer a badge of honor for lawyers to disclaim knowledge about technology. Putting one’s head in the sand regarding the latest innovations is no longer acceptable.

The “cloud” has been a significant factor behind technological advancements in most industries, including the legal profession. This once mystical concept of storing data on remote, third-party servers has become the norm. The discussion has moved from whether lawyers can use the cloud, to talking about how to use it effectively and safely to represent clients.

Cloud-based law practice management platforms have been around for several years and include the bells and whistles needed to serve clients and run a law firm. Gone are the days of needing an expensive server and clunky technology that is often associated with operating a law practice.

You may be sitting there thinking “the cloud scares me.” While it is fair to have those thoughts, the comment to Model Rule 1.1 now indicates that there is a need to learn about this advancement. Although discussed more below, this is where bar associations can help. The Ohio State Bar Association is an excellent example. They have partnered with Clio to provide a discount to OSBA members for this comprehensive cloud-based law practice management platform. The OSBA has vetted the concept and given its seal of approval for use.

Many other cloud-based platforms exist beyond Clio, including document storage systems, such as Box.com. These systems have increased mobility for lawyers so that documents can be accessed and edited on the move wherever there is an Internet connection (which is pretty much anywhere you would be doing work).

Getting help understanding technology stretches beyond the bar associations. Go see the developers of the practice management platforms. One of the important aspects of the platforms developing tools for lawyers is that they understand the profession. They understand that storing client data is different from storing your recent photos from vacation. Those that are in it for the long haul are available to help and educate.

This means that lawyers should not treat technology developers as simple “vendors.” Many lawyers want their clients to treat them as partners in their business or life happenings, so lawyers should do the same with technology providers. Treat them like partners in your business (not a literal partner, but much like an accountant). Understanding how to fully use new technology can help increase effectiveness of client service significantly. Working with the vendors directly and asking hard questions is to be expected. Those who are in it for the long haul of the legal profession will be at lawyer conferences in person and are there to help educate members on this new frontier.

Emerging business models
It is one thing to talk about consumer needs and technology; it is another to implement the reality in the day-to-day life of a law firm. Revisiting the consumer expectation issue, if clients expect quicker access to information and different cost structures, it falls on each lawyer to achieve that outcome. This can be different depending on the type of client, geographic location and size of the law firm.

To start, a firm must internally pull back the curtain on the operations of a law practice and look at existing challenges and blemishes resulting in disconnects on client service. To “future-proof ” a law practice is to think about client service in a more creative fashion. No longer does the answer have to include expansive office space, on-site staff or old technology.

A Seth Godin quote is instructive in a firm’s house-cleaning effort: “Cover bands do not change the world.”

The term “virtual law practice” has emerged. The definition of a virtual law practice is a moving target. It ranges from solo lawyers delivering legal services online to multilawyer firms providing fullservice representation outside a traditional brick-and-mortar setting. While the label may seem mystical or magical, the principles behind these practices are not. Virtual law models serve clients in a sophisticated manner by using technology to leverage enhanced collaboration between the lawyers and their clients.

For example, online client portals exist to enhance the free-flow of information between the client and lawyer. Clients can access documents and other case information whenever they choose to log into the platform (remember, access to information is important). This also creates efficiencies on the law firm side when clients can fill out online questionnaires that automatically generate documents to be reviewed by the lawyers.

Use of creative methods and the new technology allow more flexibility on how law firms operate on the back end. Overhead can be significantly lower if administrative services are outsourced to virtual assistants whose services scale by need as opposed to paying full-time employees. The traditional brick-and-mortar office is wholly or partially replaced by renting Class-A office space and conference rooms by the hour or day. Cloud-based platforms typically are broken down into monthly charges per each user. Instead of a large–cost of a server and technology practice management software that takes thousands of dollars to purchase and implement, the costs are scaled over time, if desired. This lowers the barrier of entry for lawyers to alter business models.

Once lawyers and firms remove the literal and proverbial walls on a practice, creativity allows for ways to restructure a practice that can be more agile and responsive and can truly engage in alternative fee structures. There becomes more room for implementing fixed fee or contingent fee concepts. If the model is not built on a need for a certain amount of hours billed, then naturally it is easier to move away from the billable hour.

Not every law firm is going to convert to a virtual law model. However, implementing ideas adopted by these emerging business models will help lawyers restructure their practice to meet client needs and expectations. When lawyers take what they have learned in the past, but get rid of doing things “the way we have always done it,” then more opportunities are on the table to maintain relevance.

How do you get there? This is where bar associations and law schools come into play.

What can bar associations do?
Two groups of lawyers who need help as we move the profession forward: those entering the practice, and those who have been in practice. That sounds simple and obvious, but the tie-in is important.

Bar associations have long been the backbone of legal communities. It is no mystery that today’s younger lawyers are not as actively engaged as their “mature” counterparts. This can be somewhat baffling to those involved in leadership of bar associations because associations are where young lawyers can benefit greatly in an economy that lacks jobs. Our law schools are cranking out more lawyers than there are traditional legal jobs. This means that it becomes incumbent on the new lawyers to integrate themselves into the profession and to meet those lawyers who can serve as mentors if they are starting their own practice or to network with those who may be future employers or client referral sources.

Bar associations and law schools must work together to help usher new lawyers into the profession effectively. Law schools cannot graduate students and simply hand them off to the bar associations. There must be a deep integration with both institutions working together to make bar association involvement an important priority for law students from the beginning of their first year. If bar association work is part of the law school experience, then it will be natural for students to be active in committees and sections as soon as they enter the “real world.”

Bar associations have to change behavior with how they reach out to law students. Free membership and some free pizza every so often does not cut it. The associations must go to the law students. Working with the law schools, bar associations should provide programming and opportunities that are designed to instill long-term involvement. Having the academic world and practicing bar sitting at the same table developing a sustainable concept for our future lawyers will go a long way.

Bar associations also must look out for are those already practicing law. For those who have read this article and think that some of this is hogwash or change is not going to happen on a massive scale, bar associations need to be there to help educate and facilitate the advancements. The OSBA serves as a good example on how to move in that direction. Through its continuing legal education offerings and partnerships, such as the Clio discount discussed above, the OSBA provides some of those tools for its membership.

The leaders of committees and sections who are on the ground working day-to-day with membership also can adjust programing and facilitate offerings to its members on advancing their practice. This means providing not only substantive law updates but also how emerging trends are affecting that particular area of focus.

These concepts are a good start. Going back to the creativity theme, there is fertile ground for bar associations and law schools to mix things up to go where the puck is heading.

In other words, to truly move our profession forward, it must be all hands on deck. Those who wait it out and resist change risk becoming irrelevant, especially to their clients. Client expectations have evolved, so must the legal profession. No one is in this alone. These changes are very exciting and are a positive feather in the cap of a profession that takes a lot of heat.

We exist as a profession to serve the public. Why not show them that we are listening and that we get it?

Author bio
Chad E. Burton is the founding attorney of Burton Law, a virtual law firm based in Ohio and North Carolina. The firm provides traditional and online legal services. Chad's practice focuses on two primary areas: business law and dispute resolution.  

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