With an eye toward the future, small firm and sole practitioners will encounter both exciting possibilities and face new challenges. Simply put, times are a-changing; some even predict that this is the end of lawyering as we know it. These changes include a shift in the marketplace and profile of your clients, rapid advancements in technology, and new roles for attorneys. The change in the legal landscape and profession offers opportunities to tap into your entrepreneurial spirit, develop a strategic plan of action, and cultivate your innovative side. Attorneys who anticipate this change in tide and anchor themselves will be able to seize these challenges as new possibilities. Anticipation and preparation are the keys to maintaining a successful legal practice in the future.
The Marketplace and the Consumer-Client
The first change to anticipate is the difference in the characteristics of clients. In the future, clients will focus on a market-based approach to legal services. The consumer-client (whether individual or corporate) will recognize that it is a buyer’s market. Therefore, the client will be shopping around in the marketplace for value-added services and efficient delivery of these services. This marketplace extends beyond geographical boundaries to the global community and the virtual marketplace. Such clients may desire an aspect of legal services to be outsourced, or they may price shop for legal services offered online.
Holistic client services. The consumer-client is seeking holistic, comprehensive, expedited services at the lowest price possible. Such clients may include the “do-it-yourselfer” or one who measures the cost of legal services by a service-delivery time frame rather than billable hours. For instance, the “do-it-yourselfer” has conducted initial research on her legal matter and has possibly purchased software to aid in the process. She is willing to draft her own will or file a joint petition for dissolution. This client may not be looking for full representation but guidance and support throughout the legal process. In the future, such arrangements may provide an opportunity for solo/small firms to unbundle legal services and customize legal services to meet the changing needs of clients.
Alternative billing. The future client will seek alternative billing options that focus on value added to the client, as opposed to the traditional billable hour. These clients are not solely interested in how long the process takes (quantitative assessment) but instead measure the success of the client-attorney relationship by added value of the work (qualitative measure). The consumer-client would like to know: How has the lawyer improved the current situation and prevented future legal issues? Added value is demonstrated by the lawyer’s articulating the present and residual benefits derived by the client based on receipt of legal services.
Information technology. The prototype of the consumer-client will expect you to maximize the benefits of technological advancements by improving your efficiency, increasing your speed of delivery, and offering more legal services for less. Hence, technology will continue to be an indispensable part of the solo/small firm. Just when you thought you were up-to-date with technology, a new gadget, application, or device becomes available. New technological advancements can provide you with indispensable service delivery tools. In the future, technology will continue to be a valuable tool for attorneys to utilize within their professional role. It will aid attorneys in maximizing their mobility and running their practice on-the-go through the use of mobile devices. Additionally, it can improve service delivery through the implementation of cutting-edge data systems.
Bracing for the Tide
Your future success will be determined by your ability to adapt to change and improve your business development strategies.
Preparing yourself. When preparing for the future, it is important that you begin to explore the future role of lawyers. In Richard Susskind’s book, The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services (2008), he characterizes five types of lawyers in the future.
- Expert trusted advisor (provides highly specialized knowledge)
- Enhanced practitioner (delivers standardized legal services)
- Legal knowledge engineer (understands how legal knowledge can be used in the future design and development of legal systems)
- Legal risk manager (helps clients to anticipate and mitigate risks; offers proactive approaches for addressing legal problems)
- Legal hybrid (utilizes a multidisciplinary approach that is similar to the role of project managers, business consultants, and market analysts)
Susskind predicts that the present role of lawyers in the first two categories will be reduced. In the future, lawyers who are able to operate effectively as legal knowledge engineer, legal risk manager, and legal hybrid will be well prepared to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. These attorneys will have the innovative foresight, leadership skills, and technological aptitude needed to serve the diverse needs of their clients.
Repositioning your firm. In February 2011 the New York State Bar Association issued its Report of the Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession, which offers guidance on repositioning your firm in order to be successful in the future. The report offers the following key tips:
- Assess the services your firm provides. You need to be strategic by critically examining your services and service-delivery processes. How does your firm add value to the marketplace? Begin to identify and market your niche market/expertise.
- Define the value proposition that you offer your clients. It is important that you communicate to your client how your services can be assessed according to outcome-driven measures such as personal or business results, and not just legal results.
- Communicate your service quality and value proposition to prospective and existing clients. This communication requires you to maximize your entrepreneurial spirit by marketing, selling, and producing a quality work product that reaches your clients’ desired results. The culmination of these techniques is building a business development strategy that lays a firm foundation for sustaining and growing your practice.
The future of the legal practice offers opportunities for your business to thrive. Seizing these opportunities begins with you. You will need to prepare for the future now by strengthening your business plan, demonstrating and marketing the value added through your services, and embracing advances in technology. President John F. Kennedy once said: “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Don’t miss the future. Start preparing now to secure your future business success.