The Old Man’s Words of Wisdom

By William G. Schwab


As the year 2003 draws to an end, I want to take the time to forecast the future of the general practitioner, as we know the animal today. I predict the animal will continue to die a slow and, for some, a painful death.

I do not mean there will no longer be general practitioners—just that I don’t see solo practitioners and small firms practicing law the same way they practice today. Just as the carbon paper copies and hand research of my early career went by the wayside, today’s lawyers will see tremendous changes. I foresee that state jurisdictions that limit the places we practice will fall. Why should a client who wants a specialist in bankruptcy or employee relations or real estate be limited in his or her selection of counsel due to artificial boundaries?

Solos and small firms will be able to band together nationwide through technology to litigate against the megafirms. We will see virtual law firms being created for large cases. Already today federal courts are leading the way with electronic case filing that will in practice bring us closer to the paperless law office that many have predicted. Today I can file a complaint at the federal courthouse 50 miles away, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, without leaving my desk. And state courts are not that far behind.

The federal and state courts also increasingly have used technology for video hearings, so that today a judge can hear a case though hundreds of miles away. At this time we are limited by the video connection location, which not only brings efficiency to the judiciary, but also will in the future bring justice closer to the clients and their lawyers. In the future, though, I can see a day when I won’t even have to leave my office to participate in a hearing. This should decrease costs to our clients as well, because no longer will they have to pay me to sit around until their case is called. I can work on other items while waiting my turn on those notorious long call lists.

It will have another unforeseen benefit to the practice of law. You will not be tied geographically to any one area. If you like whitewater rafting, you can move to West Virginia and still practice law in Chicago proper. If you want to become a snowbird from the Northeast who winters in Florida, you will be able to without destroying your practice.

In short, as you begin the great adventure of practicing law, the future is not stagnant. Advances we can’t even fathom today will affect you. No one can predict the future with 100 percent accuracy, but as you start your career, look around. Look at trends. Talk to us old-timers to see where we have come from. Fifty years ago passenger airplane traffic was in its infancy. Television was just beginning. A home computer? Forget it. Look at all these today. Most new lawyers will practice for fifty years. To put your head in the sand as you start out is a recipe for failure. The future can be scary, but also exciting, if you embrace the change it will bring.

—William G. Schwab, GPSolo New Lawyer Editor
(an old man who is celebrating over 25 years as a general practice lawyer)

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