General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionTechnology & Practice Guide

American Bar Association
General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division

The Compleat Lawyer, Fall 1996, Vol. 13, No. 4

GP 2000 Some reasoned opinions and wild speculations


Cameron C. Gamble is a sole practitioner in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is a former chair of the ABA General Practice Section and has served a chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Solo and Small Firm Practitioners.

What will the solo and small firm general practitioner be doing in the next century, and how will he or she be doing it? Has the way lawyers practice law in the United States dramatically changed over the past 200 years, or are the most dramatic changes still to come?

Predicting the Future
To examine these issues, we assembled a select panel of practicing solo and small firm general practitioners and a law practice consultant. (See "About the Panelists.")

Describe the most dramatic change in the practice of law that will affect the general practitioner in the next 50 to 100 years.

DeWoskin: We can only really see about 20 years into the future. Changes in law practice will not be as seismic as many people are predicting. A small number of large law firms will merge into larger and larger firms, but most will downsize into smaller and smaller firms.

Hackett: Very little change in the basics. The small firm general practitioner will continue to practice in the same areas of the law: family law, criminal defense, probate, real estate, and small business matters. Although the law may evolve to accommodate new factual situations, these practice areas will still be there because the underlying problems of individuals won't go away.

Reed: Two things will not--and should not--change. The primary requisite is the combination of judgment, experience, skill, and integrity of the practitioner. The second unchangeable is the continuing recognition that the purpose of lawyering is to solve the problems that clients want and need to have solved.

Stevens: The most dramatic changes will be in the how and not the what. Technology and the accompanying information explosion will revolutionize how we practice. The ability to access, store, and disseminate information will level the playing field for the general practitioner.

Will lawyers still practice as solo and small firm general practitioners in the future?

DeWoskin: Yes. The age of specialization is greatly overrated. Those lawyers represent individual clients, which cannot support a practice in just one specialized area.

Reed: The expanding universe of information and increased complexity of the law will force specialization. There can be no general practice, just a range of selected areas of expertise.

Rikli: The law, and lawyers, will become more and more specialized. The future general practitioner will have a specialty in one area and handle certain limited matters in other areas. The percentage of solos and small firms may drop slightly, but not much, from what it is today.

Stevens: Economics of law practice will drive the size of firms downward and practitioners into very small firms or solo practice. Megafirms will still exist, but their ability to charge fees has not and will not keep pace with the cost of doing business on such a large scale. Cost effectiveness and the bottom line dictate downsizing.

Describe the role of the general practitioner in the future.

DeWoskin: Same as now, serving people's legal needs. People have a variety of legal problems and the general practitioner will solve those problems. An increasing level of impoverishment of the growing population will spur an increase in legal aid and will benefit providers of legal assistance services in the general practice areas.

Reed: A significant major role of lawyers will be to protect the rights of individuals and businesses from regulatory or governmental excesses in both criminal and civil matters and to aid in the resolution of individual differences and conflicts.

Rikli: General practitioners will continue to be problem solvers for individuals who need a generalist to address their day-to-day problems. They will do what they do now--identify client problems; provide advice and service on matters for which they are qualified; and refer all other client matters to other lawyers with the most appropriate qualifications. How this is done is where the changes will occur.

What changes do you see in the general practice areas of the law?
DeWoskin: Lawyers will continue to practice in the same general practice areas of the law. Some new practice areas will gradually evolve but they will not dominate the practice. A drastic change would only be triggered by a dramatic change in the statutory law, such as elimination of the tax code.

Hackett: Any new types of cases facing the general practitioner will have common roots or issues. Divorcing a spouse in space; buying and selling real estate on Mars; or suing for lost luggage on an interplanetary flight--these cases may present some new questions, but the underlying legal issues will remain the same because the underlying human problems remain the same.

Reed: Competition from nonlawyer sources will be intense, making it essential for lawyers to differentiate their services from the competitors. Preventive law will be of increased importance. Unrestricted hourly billing will disappear. The charges for legal service must reflect value--the measure of benefits conferred upon clients from these services.

Rikli: Population growth will increase demand for legal services, and the government will attempt to decrease demand by standardizing certain areas. Nonlawyer practice and do-it-yourself law using standardized and statutory forms will continue to make inroads into the profession; then there will be a backlash brought about by an increased incidence of malpractice.

Stevens: Overall, practice areas will not change that much, but pockets of specialty areas will be fostered. Lawyers will practice with much more specificity. Burgeoning specialties are and will continue to be in the areas of civil rights, consumer rights, technology, and elder law.

What changes do you see in trial practice?

DeWoskin: More gadgets and electronics in the courtroom but the procedure will stay essentially the same. The jury system will prevail. Pro se experiments, such as Arizona divorce pleadings, may increase.

Hackett: Nonlitigious proceedings may be simplified or eliminated from the court system altogether. An example is undisputed, pro forma probate matters. There will not be any dramatic changes in the jury system because it is imbedded in the Constitution.

Rikli: There will be a move to cut down on paperwork by simplifying and streamlining procedures. Check-off pleadings and statutory forms are an example. Time, manpower, and cost constraints will ultimately require doing away with the traditional jury trial, with juries in capital cases only.

Stevens: There will be more technology in the courtroom to facilitate presentation of evidence, but not too much change in procedure--once one gets to trial, that is. The real change is that there will be less trial practice. Alternative dispute resolution methods, either voluntary or involuntary, as in mandatory arbitration for some kinds and sizes of cases, will reduce the number of trials. Tort "reform" movements will have at least a modicum of success in restricting access to the courts.

How will the solo and small firm general practitioner practice?

DeWoskin: The age of technology is already here. Use of technology to gather and disseminate information will increase, but individual lawyers will still do the problem solving. Lawyers are 90 percent thinkers and 10 percent doers, which is why computers will never replace lawyers--we need humans to do the legal thinking.

Reed: Because of the need for a multidisciplinary approach, legal problems may be solved by teams of lawyers and other experts that come together as the need arises. These teams will use the skills of lawyers within and outside the firm. The "firm"may consist of practitioners (lawyers and other experts) not under one roof and not necessarily within the legal boundaries of an organized law firm. "Law practice" may become a series of joint ventures.

Rikli: Using technology, lawyers will practice less and less in the traditional office environment. Paper will not disappear completely because we'll always need some permanent evidence of consent--the signature. We may see a rise in "networks of lawyers" in specialized practice areas, with the network providing support in the form of substantive systems, forms, CLE, and referrals.

Stevens: Lawyers will practice out of a car, from home, from anywhere that the general practitioner can plug in the laptop, run the CD-ROM, or access the Internet.

What is the future of legal ethics?

DeWoskin: Nonlawyers will continue to press for more access to legal practice areas. There will be a corresponding move for more regulation of unauthorized practice.

Hackett: There will be an evolution in ethics and professionalism. The question is, will the role of the organized bar in this evolution be that of leader or follower?

Rikli: The rules on referrals and fee-splitting will eventually be changed to accommodate the way generalists practice. If advertising is to continue, the rules about solicitation will change.

Stevens: Today's ethical issues are confidentiality of e-mail, internet advertising, and creation of attorney-client relationships in cyberspace; tomorrow's ethics will expand duties owed to nonclients.

Looking in That Crystal Ball
Our experts tell us that what and how the general practitioner practices law will change gradually, as it has over the past 200 years, to accommodate the cycles of social, economic, and political changes. General practitioners deal with individual, human problems. Even with the enormous changes in communication and information dissemination over the past 100 years, people still struggle with the same basic problems.

Our wise panel may have had a little difficulty seeing to the end of the next century. So, we called a psychic hotline and got this vision of the general practitioner (GP) in the year 2075.

GP has no office in the traditional sense, but practices from any location with a personal hard disc, about the size of a present-day credit card, which is inserted into a home or public Server. The Servers have replaced the public (and home) telephone, television, radio, fax, and ATMs.

The Server is activated by the personal hard disc (called a PARD) and the user's fingerprint initializes the system with the user's Personal Identification Number (PIN), which is assigned at birth and has replaced the Social Security Number. Servers are operated by voice commands or a manual control similar to a mouse. Once activated, a security program secures each transmission. Tampering with the security system is a capital offense.

GP's legal PARD (as opposed to his or her personal PARD) contains all client files and practice information. Using the Server, GP can access any information anywhere in the universe on the W4 (the successor to the old World Wide Web). The GP's PARD contains an expert legal program that is run by any Server; it can analyze any legal fact situation or problem read into it, access the appropriate information or authorities, and automatically ask for all additional information needed to prepare a necessary document or pleading.

GP has no clerical staff. Pleadings and documents are almost never printed but rather are electronically transmitted to the appropriate recipients. Pleadings are filed and served electronically. Documents are executed electronically, authenticated and provable by the signer's PIN and fingerprint.

Occasionally, the Servers break down or a defective PARD stops working. A defective PARD, while inconvenient to the GP, can be replaced relatively easily with no information lost. But when the Servers break down, business grinds to a screeching halt. The most lucrative jobs are in the Server repair industry.

There are very few law firms in the traditional sense. What were formerly large law firms have either been merged into the few multinational law conglomerates or have become quasi-public firms handling the privatized legal work of a particular governmental entity. Everyone else practices as a solo.

New job descriptions for solos. Solo lawyers can be roughly divided into two segments: the trial bar and the specialists (often referred to as the Litigators and the Solicitors). These lawyers operate within organized networks. Included in the Solicitors' networks are various nonlawyers and nonlegal entities.

The Solicitors are the traditional general practitioners. They act as the entry point for individuals into the legal system, solving problems and directing clients to other specialists, both lawyer and nonlawyer, and trial lawyers as needed.

They are called "Solicitors" not after the old English system of solicitors and barristers, but because that is a major portion of what they do--solicit business. With the fall of the ethical rules against soliciting clients and the splitting of fees between lawyers and between lawyers and nonlawyers, the Solicitors spend a large part of their time obtaining clients that they can either represent within their speciality or refer out to others in their network. Some Solicitors who are particularly adept at marketing themselves do nothing but refer clients to other members of networks.

Through the use of the Servers, Solicitors now practice in almost all areas of the law. Some of the traditional general practice areas are no longer brought to the legal system. Agreements affecting the use of real estate are still handled by lawyers, but real estate transfers are handled entirely by nonlawyers. So are most wills, divorces, and non-capital criminal matters.

Societal woes. As the population exploded, government control of matters affecting marriage and childbearing expanded. Only couples who are approved and licensed to have children are allowed to get married. Divorce is a perfunctory matter controlled and supervised by the government. Family law is now mainly concerned with defining the relationship of those individuals who live together without having children, and with filing appeals of those who have been denied permission to get married and have children or claims of parents who have violated the marriage regulations and have had their children taken away from them.

Gender issues and discrimination complaints by men have increased as women, freed from domestic roles by population control, have taken over the leadership positions of almost all governments, companies, and businesses.

Specialty areas. Immigration law has become a major practice area for lawyers representing all of those individuals applying to leave the United States. As the workforce became smaller, consisting mainly of technically and scientifically educated, white-collar employees in a technological, information-based economy, the American worker began seeking jobs in industrialized and product-producing nations such as China, Russia, and Brazil. The opening of national borders is an ongoing process; as the economy became truly global, international employment law became a major general practice area.

Civil rights law remains an important area of practice. A widening gulf between the "haves" and the "have-nots" and the corresponding growth in the power of government and separate religious organizations has raised the need for protection of individual rights of privacy and religion.

What was once a specialty for general practitioners, gaming law, has now become a part of the criminal law speciality. The Servers made it possible for any citizen to gamble from any location at any time of the day or night. At one time, any individual or company could start a gambling operation on the network. Ancient card games were played from home. Huge worldwide lotteries could be entered from any public Server terminal. Winnings and losings were transferred through electronic banking credits. As the inevitable cheating and defaults got out of hand, the government took over all gambling. Privately run gambling operations are now prohibited.

Criminal law, although changing, is still a general practice specialty. Criminal specialists deal mainly with fraud and other financial crimes, and electronic invasion of privacy crimes. Violent crimes have been nearly eliminated since the worldwide legalization of recreational drugs and the ban on private ownership of weapons. Consensual acts have been decriminalized, with rape and sexual crimes involving minors controlled through genetic and medical procedures. Environmental crimes, including violations of the detailed laws governing hunting, as well as violation of the population control laws, are growing practice areas.

The new trial system. Trials, in the traditional sense, are conducted only in capital criminal cases and civil cases involving the government or a new or important complex factual and legal issue, as determined by a judges' case review panel. Most other matters are resolved through mandatory pretrial alternative dispute resolution procedures. The few remaining unresolved matters are tried by mini-trials conducted through electronic hookup of the parties' and the judge's Servers. Disputed cases are resolved quickly because there is no longer a protracted discovery or cross-examination period with the Full Disclosure Rule.

Jury trials are limited to one hour (the average person's attention span), 30 minutes to present a claim and 30 minutes for defense. After the failure of the Universal Jury experiment (each trial was transmitted over the Servers, and every adult who watched acted as a juror), the court returned to the traditional six-person jury. Instead of voir dire, the Server randomly selects the jurors from a pool of all persons meeting the specific case and party characteristics and demographics.

Just as our psychic began describing the role of lawyers in space exploration and the colonization of other planets, our supply of quarters for the 900 number phone call ran out. Where are the Servers when you need them?

About the Panelists
Alan E. DeWoskin is a solo general practitioner in St. Louis, Missouri. He is a former chair of the ABA General Practice Section and was the organizer and vice-chair of the ABA Task Force on the Solo and Small Firm Lawyer.

Wesley P. Hackett, Jr., is a solo lawyer practicing in East Lansing, Michigan. He is a former chair of the ABA General Practice Section and is an organizer of the Michigan Bar Law Practice Management Section's annual "Law Office 2000" Conference.

Donald C. Rikli has a solo practice in Highland, Illinois. He is a former chair of the ABA General Practice Section and a nationally recognized lecturer and author on solo and small firm practice issues.

Richard C. Reed was a practicing lawyer and is now a law practice management consultant. He is a former chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section and past president of the College of Law Practice Management.

Sharon C. Stevens is a general practitioner in a two-attorney firm in Keizer, Oregon. She will be the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division Secretary in 1996-97.

Copyright (c) 1996 American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.

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