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May 01, 2014

Fast-paced program at BLI tackles the future of the profession

After countless image campaigns that have failed to make much of a dent, is it time to scrap the word lawyer in favor of a new term that carries a bit less baggage?

The idea of “rebranding” legal work and perhaps choosing a name that refers to lawyers’ role as problem solvers was just one of many solutions proposed during a fast-paced program on the future of the profession, at the 2014 ABA Bar Leadership Institute.

Moderated by Marta-Ann Schnabel, past president of the Louisiana State Bar Association and New Orleans Bar Association, the program borrowed the TED talk format, in which speakers address the audience for a brisk few minutes each.

Sharing their thoughts on the future of the legal profession and of bar associations were: Dolores Dorsainvil, senior staff attorney for the District of Columbia Office of Bar Counsel; William Hornsby, staff counsel for the ABA Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services; Natalie R. Kelly, director of the Law Practice Management Program at the State Bar of Georgia; Daniel B. Rodriguez, dean of the Northwestern University School of Law; Sarah L. Sladek, CEO of XYZ University; and R. Amani Smathers, innovation counsel at ReInvent Law Laboratory at Michigan State University College of Law.

Time for a new brand?

“Does it matter what we call ourselves?” Smathers asked, pointing toward research that suggests that while many people don’t want to go see a lawyer, they do want legal advice. Shifting toward terms that consumers prefer might encourage more of them to turn to lawyers—not online document vendors—for that assistance, she believes. Consumer products “rebrand all the time,” she noted, and “a lot of consumers are more willing to engage with a brand than they are with going to a lawyer.”

Companies in the legal arena that are doing a good job with this type of consumer branding share a couple of traits, Smathers said: They put customer service first, and they are technologically adept. It’s not enough, she added, to set up an online matching service that then routes clients to lawyers who don’t have this customer focus and technical proficiency. Smathers identified the following as doing a good job with this type of model:

  • LegalForce, which has “chattorneys” who do the initial client intake online, and cheerful offices that look more like a retail setting than a traditional law office.
  • Legal 365 in the U.K., which Smathers says does a good job of educating consumers while matching them with lawyers.
  • Shake Law, which focuses on small contracts that may never have been formalized before, other than by handshake.
  • Tandem Legal Group, a multidisciplinary practice in Washington, D.C., that offers both legal and business advice.

Can most people afford a lawyer?

Smathers showed an image of a martini glass. Currently, she said, the people who represent the top of the glass can afford to hire a lawyer, and the people at the bottom turn to legal aid. But those in the middle—the stem—are not receiving the legal help they need. Indeed, Smathers said, between 70 and 80 percent of consumers, and 7 million small businesses, are not working with lawyers.

But why not? Is it because they can’t afford it? Hornsby called that idea a myth. “Most people can afford legal services,” he said, noting that the pickup trucks and SUVs often seen in Walmart parking lots can cost a lot of money, as can a Disney vacation, which many middle- and lower middle-class families enjoy.

Hornsby believes the real reason most people don’t hire lawyers even when they have legal needs is that they simply don’t see the value in it—because it is obscured by an arcane pricing structure. “Billable hours are the enemy of value,” Hornsby said. Rather than modest means panels and reduced fees, he’d like to see a move toward contingency fees, fee shifting, and unbundling—and the type of rebranding that Smathers recommended.

The technology imperative

Dorsainvil mentioned the recently added Comment 8 pertaining to ABA Model Rule 1.1 that says keeping abreast of technological changes is part of a lawyer’s overall competence. No longer can lawyers count on support staff to handle everything that involves technology, she said; for one thing, “they need to be able to advise clients regarding their own technology use.”

Most lawyers now have remote access to their office files, work from their smartphones, and take advantage of cloud computing, Dorsainvil said. It’s important that ethics rules keep pace with these and other developments, she believes, so lawyers can maintain their ethical compliance but still be able to communicate via email, text, social media, or in whatever form is most comfortable for their clients.

As lawyers adapt to new technology and a changing profession, bar associations must stay ahead of these changes and help guide their members when it comes to law office managment, Kelly said.

What can you do to show that you care and are responsive to member needs? Be proactive, Kelly advised. For example, she became certified as a consultant in Time and Billing software so she could teach lawyers and law firms how to use it.

It’s also important, she said, to keep looking for new ways to help in an ever-changing environment. It’s not enough just to “win” by providing a valuable service and then failing to look ahead. “You have to win again, and win again, and win again,” Kelly believes.

And whatever assistance and resources you offer, she said, make sure to ask yourself, “Are we delivering what we do have in ways that are easy to access?”

Also important, said Sladek (who participated via video), is that the bar association’s own technology be up to date. If it’s not—and if the bar monitors employees’ computer time, blocks social media sites, or otherwise impedes their ability to stay current and to meet members where they already are—this will immediately turn off the young lawyers and staff members you’re trying to recruit and retain.

Reaching Generation Y

Because they grew up in an era of job insecurity, wars, and widely publicized scandals, Sladek said that Generations X and Y are “the least trusting generations in history.” But what do they most yearn for? You guessed it: Trust—and to make a meaningful difference.

As members and as employees, Sladek said, those in Generation Y in particular want to know that you are trustworthy, and that you will trust them. “Tell the truth, even when it’s difficult or embarrassing,” Sladek advised, noting that Generation Y will respect you for sharing yourself with them “warts and all.”

And if you say you’ll follow up ... make sure you follow up. Generation Y considers it very important that you keep your word, Sladek explained—and if you don’t, then it will be that much harder to reach them next time.

Extend that same trust to them when it’s time to assign a task or an opportunity to serve, Sladek said. It’s well known that Generation Y prioritizes things like flexible scheduling and praise. Rather than viewing these as signs of Generation Y being entitled, Sladek reframed these desires as a need to be trusted to get the work done, and a need to know that their contributions are valued.

Law schools face risk … like it or not

“There is no place more risk averse than an American law school,” Rodriguez said. However, given that the profession, law students, and law schools themselves now face significant risk, Rodriguez believes law school deans must “respond in a constructive way” rather than reflexively protecting their old models at all costs.

Echoing Kelly, Rodriguez said that lawyers—and by extension, law students and law schools—must understand and embrace technology. He also believes that today’s lawyers need to understand the business world more than they did in the past. This is an entrepreneurial age, he explained, and he’s heard many entrepreneurs say that their lawyers would serve them much better if they understood their clients’ line of work.

To further this understanding and also to help weather the downturn in law school applications, “Law schools need to break down silos” and develop more programs to help educate nonlawyers in the basics of the area of law that pertains to them, Rodriguez believes. For example, he said, engineers, medical professionals, and scientists could benefit from a one-year program that covers intellectual property and other areas of law that are relevant to innovation in their field.

Currently, Rodriguez said, law school deans are “generally between denial and acceptance” when it comes to the inevitability of change in the profession and the need for law schools to change, too.

Rodriguez said the changes that are now happening or still approaching are like a huge wave about to hit the shore. The wave is coming no matter what, he said, and no longer can law school deans stand still and hope it won’t knock them over. What’s the other choice?

“On my optimistic days,” Rodriguez said, “I feel like we’re going to surf.”

(Here are the presenters' handouts. Also available is a video that includes much of this program.)