Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : September 2009

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 SOLO/SMALL FIRM PRACTITIONER

  

Maybe it is the constant bombardment of Tweets or the fact that I am getting older, but lately I have been thinking about what it takes to successfully navigate life and work. What qualities do those individuals who seem to embrace the future with enthusiasm have? What characteristics are necessary to ensure practitioners can be “successful” for most of their professional lives despite the vagaries of the economy and other outside influences?

I have just finished reading The End of Lawyers: Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services, by Richard Susskind, a British barrister. Our ability to successfully complete this marathon of life and law practice is our willingness to learn about new, sometimes frightening and even often unbelievable changes and figure out which new ones to adopt. In addition, we also need to be able to incorporate these new and frequently overwhelming changes into those traditions which have helped shape our personal and professional success. It is about adaptability and balance.

In his book (which he calls “a collection of predictions and observations about a generally honourable profession that is, I argue, on the brink of fundamental transformation”), Susskind goes on in great detail about where he sees the future of the profession heading and who will survive and thrive – and who will not.

THESE ARE
exciting and scary times...and isn't that what makes life and law so great?.

His premise is that “commoditization and IT will shape and characterize 21st century legal services.” He writes in great detail about the five types of services that future clients will look to lawyers to provide. In some instances, Susskind sees those lawyers who are not willing to adapt to some of these outside forces as going the way of craftsmen whose services, while outstanding, will simply no longer be required. He sees lawyers as being “cut out of the supply chain” thanks to the ease of obtaining legal information.

While much of the book focuses on corporate counsel and larger firms, Susskind does address solo and small firm practitioners, though he does not hold out much promise for their future. Susskind writes:

“I fear for the future of very small firms whose work is not highly specialized – those with a handful of partners or even sole practitioners who are general practitioners. Unless their clients want to retain them for a highly personalized service, I cannot see how they will be able to compete with alternative methods of sourcing, whether by much larger firms or by alternative providers...

The current model at the Bar – the self-employed, sole practitioner who shares various services with fellow barristers – assumes no gearing, little capacity to multi-source and few mechanisms for hedging against the risks of being a one-person band.”

(An excellent review of the five “types” of lawyers as described by Richard Susskind can be found at the website for The Lawyers’ Professional Indemnity Company (LawPro) from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, www.practicepro.ca/LAWPROMag/Susskind_New_Reality.pdf.)

In the end, Susskind says that this is not the end of lawyers but rather the beginning of the end of lawyering as we know it.

I highly recommend this book because I think it will (or should) help you to start to think seriously about how you are going to be practicing law in the future. While I do not agree with many of Susskind’s comments, I do concur that the way we are currently practicing will be vastly different in both the near and distant future. Much of what he talks about in the “commoditization” of legal services is happening today. Clients are not coming to attorneys for the same type of services or assistance as they did just a few years ago. Clearly the reason for this is the easy access to information, regardless of the quality of that information. While we may think that clients will come to us because we can separate the “good” information from the “bad”, it is naïve to think that will continue to be the case.

I disagree with Susskind about the demise of solo practitioners. I think it is the growth of IT and future technologies that will actually help solo and small firm practitioners survive. However, it is up to solo and small firm practitioners to learn as much as possible about these new technologies, determine which will help them improve their practices and learn how to use those to help their clients in new and innovative ways.

You can think whatever you like about the new way of practicing and whether or not the new technologies are helping or hurting the practice of law. I will go to my grave thinking that texting will result in the demise of beautifully-written prose, but it is the way people will communicate, and I need to understand the lingo and abbreviations and learn how to use it or be left at the gate. It is not about what we like or dislike that makes us successful. It is about knowing what is happening and how to use it.

While change is good and necessary, it is still important that we not eliminate many of the old rules which have served the practice of law so well. This is still a service-oriented profession and will continue to be so in spite of the technological changes that will continue to come. Even Susskind admits that it will be critical for “lawyers honestly to identify those situations in which personalized, human service is genuinely needed and adds relevant value that Internet and IT-based service cannot stimulate or improve upon.”

Too often we forget that it is still about good client service and not just how to use the newest technologies or how to use Facebook and Twitter. How do we use the new technologies to provide needed and better service to our clients?

There are no easy answers to the question of what law practice will look like in the next five, 10 or 15 years. How many of us really believed that lawyers would be advertising on the Internet or tweeting to get clients or working from a coffee shop? The time to think about the future is now. We are like Little Red Riding Hood from Into the Woods, who was “excited but scared” when she was accosted by the wolf. These are exciting and scary times…and isn’t that what makes life and law so great?

If you are looking to be excited and scared and educated and soothed, then I encourage you to attend the 11th Annual Solo and Small Firm Conference on Friday and/or Saturday, November 6 and 7, 2009. It is at a new location, at the BWI Hilton (which is directly behind the BWI Marriott, its original location). Visit www.msbasoloconference.org for details and to register.


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Publications : Bar Bulletin: September 2009

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