In the Labs of Law Practice Innovation. Through healthy doses of hitting the road to visit with lawyers and paying close attention, I have observed various trends in solo and small firm law offices. One overarching theme in the solo and small firm world is that, as opposed to the BigLaw universe, solo and small firm practitioners can more easily and more readily pursue industry trends. In many cases, they are the ones to establish the trends. There are, of course, a number of reasons why solo and small firms are lighter on their feet, not the least of which is that they typically do not have aged, entrenched, monolithic systems in place, and that the number of people within an office usually sits in inverse proportion to the ease with which new endeavors can be undertaken. So, while the states may be known as the “laboratories of democracy,” the state of solo and small firms is that they are often, and always potentially, the laboratories of law practice innovation.
TREND ONE: The Vogue of Teamwork
Invariably solo and small firm lawyers run into clients who ask some close variations of these questions: “But you’re all alone. What if something happens to you?” Or, “There are only a few of you. How do you cover all the myriad issues related to my case?” Well, the easiest answer is multiplication, and teamwork is the product. An increasing number of solo and small firm lawyers are working with external colleagues on cases or on discrete tasks, for access to specialty areas, through referrals and on fee-splitting arrangements. Mostly it seems that former big firm attorneys are applying this method. The thesis is that access to special teams, like those employed in large firm environments, gives small firms cachet and their clients confidence. Teams can include former colleagues, referral sources and contract lawyers. Lawyers and staff are presented to clients as teams who work up matters together, in a collaborative fashion, always tending to the good of the client.
TREND TWO: Out of the Office 24-7
More and more solo and small firm lawyers are using remote access to work how they want, where they want, while saving on the costs of traditional office rental arrangements. Some settle into a home office, while others prefer a nomadic existence, traveling from friends’ spare offices to clients’ conference rooms, and camping out at various Starbucks. With remote access so easy and cheap, an increasing number are finding their way out of physical spaces and into virtual-only space.
TREND THREE: Another Bite from the Apple
Despite the deep-seated risk aversion that is common among lawyers, there is a strong willingness among solo and small firm lawyers to use new technology, or technology that has not traditionally been used in law practices. From Apple products like Macs and iPads, to Web apps and SaaS programs like Clio and PBworks, to social media services like Facebook and Twitter, solo and small firm lawyers are moving to some rather upstart products and tools. Reasons for the switches include cost savings, ease of use and intuitiveness, the influence of the kids and improved efficiency.
TREND FOUR: Paperless Practices
I still get calls from lawyers who are maintaining garages or attics full of ancient paper files. The difference these days is that most of them are now willing to at least address the option of going paperless, in the hope of halting the document creep going forward. But beyond those peeking out from behind ever-mounting piles of files, many new firms are instituting paperless practices at start-up. Assisting in these paperless office processes are technological tandems for working on the road—with, for example, lightweight take-along scanners being used in combination with laptops, netbooks and iPads.
TREND FIVE: Serving to Protect
The solo and small firm community exhibits a prevailing interest in protecting client and office data from breach or loss. Most of the lawyers I speak to have applied some level of data backup, often including online backup, which makes sense since so much data is kept online these days. In addition, more lawyers are taking steps to prevent data breaches on their computer systems by utilizing firewalls, virus and malware sweepers, and the longer, stronger passwords that are fast becoming business best practices. In a number of states, like Massachusetts, state laws respecting data breach and data protection are the drivers of such behaviors.