THE CHAIR’S CORNER: The Future Is Closer Than You Think

Vol. 31 No. 3

By

Hon. Jennifer A. Rymell is Chair of the GPSolo Division. She is a Civil County Court at Law Judge in Texas.

How many times have you thought, “If I knew then what I know now. . .” or, “I did not see that coming”? It is human nature to think about what we would have done differently if we had known what the future held for us. In hindsight we believe that had we known what was coming and could have been more prepared, we would have been able to avoid some of the bad things in life or have taken better advantage of some of the good. Since our first day of law school we have been taught one of the most important parts of being a lawyer is always to be prepared. I think that is why it is so enticing for lawyers as we embark on each new decade to try to predict the future of our profession and hopefully become better prepared for what lies ahead. However, how accurate are we when we look into our crystal ball?

2014 Hindsight

To answer that question I looked at several articles written by legal futurists in 1999 that projected the challenges, issues, and trends in practicing law in the new millennium. People who study the future of the legal profession profess that their job is not to predict the future but to look at the long-term implications of trends that are present in the profession today. Here are ten predictions that were made by legal futurists in 1999 that have turned out to be fairly accurate:

  1. The explosion of the Internet. The World Wide Web will continue to be a powerful economic force, allowing businesses to grow overnight and market their products around the globe.
  2. A client-savvy marketplace. With the Internet, clients will research and become educated about the law and legal procedure, demanding more involvement and transparency in their case.
  3. The virtual law firm. Lawyers will rely less on a physical office and be able to do their business remotely.
  4. Competition by boutique firms and solos. Large law firms will begin to see more competition from boutique firms and sole practitioners concentrating on one or two areas of the law. This specialization coupled with technology will allow boutique firms and solos to be a competitive and cost-effective alternative to large firms.
  5. The rise of women and minorities. There will be greater numbers of women and minorities graduating from law school, bringing a fresh perspective to the practice of law.
  6. Changes to legal billing. Lawyers will continue to find ways to cut costs for their clients to remain competitive. Unbundling of legal services will become increasingly popular.
  7. Lawyer mobility. Lawyers will no longer join a firm with the expectation of making partner and stay at that firm for the duration of their legal career. Lawyers will change firms more often or start a solo practice to pursue better economic rewards and a better quality of life.
  8. Self-represented litigants. There will be an increase in the number of self-represented litigants owing to the ease of obtaining information on the Internet and the fact that legal services will continue to be cost prohibitive for many consumers.
  9. Paperless law practices and courts. Lawyers will conduct most of their communications through e-mail and transmit documents through the Internet. In the foreseeable future courts may become completely electronic and no longer have paper files.
  10. Multidisciplinary practice. Competition from accounting firms and non-lawyers having an interest in law firms will continue to be an issue that U.S. law firms must address in order to be competitive in a global economy.

Predictions for 2020

It is hard to believe that in only six years a new decade will be upon us again. So, what predictions are on the horizon for practicing law in 2020? In researching this topic I found that many of the changes and challenges that may affect the legal profession are extensions of the ones that were predicted in 1999. It is not a shock that our profession will continue to be driven by what the global economy looks like and that technology will be the most important component in building and maintaining a successful law practice in the future. An interesting article I read in the National Law Review was entitled “Law2020: What Will It Take for Law Firms to Thrive?” (tinyurl.com/ohjdstq). The article focuses on comparing the market dynamics of the legal profession to that of the newspaper industry from 2000 to 2010. It talks about what lawyers need to consider now to continue to be relevant and thrive. The author, Meredith L. Williams, looks at law practice in the future from three perspectives:

  1. What technologies will successful law firms need in 2020?
  2. What will be the characteristics of successful law firms in 2020?
  3. What will be the skill set of successful lawyers and staff in 2020?

Technology 2020. It is not surprising that the key technology trends identified were legal project management and mobility tools. Specifically, “tasking, budgeting and knowledge management technology will continue to grow exponentially over the next ten years as a result of client desire for more understanding and control.” The article discusses how transparency of information by clients is expected and that many law firms provide extranets where their clients can get a full view of their case and deal materials at any time of the day. Being able to access case information through mobile devices and using legal applications will continue to increase in popularity, as will the use of mobile videoconferencing capabilities and cloud storage. Along with these great strides toward mobility and transparency there will continue to be issues dealing with privacy and data security. It will be interesting to see what safeguards are yet to be created that will ensure client confidentiality.

Law firm characteristics 2020. Williams identifies two characteristics of a successful law firm in 2020 that impact solo and small firm attorneys. One characteristic will continue to be the move toward virtual law offices. More lawyers than ever before are enjoying the convenience of technology that allows them to work from home or remote locations. Another emerging characteristic is the growing popularity of outsourcing such tasks as document review and e-discovery. Outsourcing is gaining popularity as lawyers look at ways to be more efficient and cut costs for their clients by not using billable hours to complete tasks that do not necessarily require legal expertise.

Skill sets 2020. Finally, Williams discusses several skills that will be important for lawyers and law firm employees in 2020. Many of the skills she discusses are relevant mainly to large firms and involve streamlining support staff responsibilities. However, she identifies one skill set that is important for solo and small firm attorneys: dealing with social media. Being able to market and build relationships through social media is the wave of the future. Already Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram are a part of many of our daily lives. As lawyers enter the new decade, using social media to advertise, build profiles, and network will become even more popular. Who knows what new features will be added to enhance the capabilities of social media sites? It will be interesting to predict, prepare, and actually see what happens.

Join Us in Boston!

It is not too late to make plans to join our Division for the ABA Annual Meeting in Boston. The meeting will be held August 7 to 12 and provide world-class ABA Showcase CLE. The Division headquarters will be the Sheraton Boston Hotel. We will kick off the festivities with a welcome reception on the evening of August 7, and there are many events planned throughout the weekend that will make your trip memorable. In your spare time you can take in a game at iconic Fenway Park, enjoy a cruise on the Boston Harbor, or explore the famous Freedom Trail. This is a meeting not to be missed, so register now at ambar.org/annual.

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