Vol. 39, No. 4

Pathways to the future of Main Street lawyers

by Will Hornsby

The future of the legal profession is bright. Not the legal profession we know today, but the one we can create.

This future gives us the opportunity to provide more services to more people more affordably and with greater personal attention and better quality than ever before. It is the future that Main Street lawyers can obtain with the leadership of their bar associations.

But this won’t just happen. We have to create our future. I suggest here four paths to begin that journey: 1. Advancing affordability, 2. Expanding engagement, 3. Defining the role of technology, and 4. Pivoting to position lawyers as problem-solvers.

The future of the legal profession is not a one-size-fits-all analysis. We have different demographics, ranging from Big Law to subsidized support for those in poverty. This article addresses that middle demographic—those of modest, moderate, and middle incomes—who are served in the private sector by Main Street lawyers.

Legal services are affordable

If we believe the popular press, we would conclude that virtually no one could afford any services provided by lawyers. For example, a recent article in The Atlantic magazine begins with the statement, “One of the most perplexing facts about our perplexing legal market is its failure to provide affordable services for just about anyone but rich people and corporations.”[1] In my view, the article simply fails to look at the big picture of how people pay for legal services.

That big picture includes contingency fee work, available to anyone with a meritorious case; fixed fees, a common billing method for traffic, DUI, and misdemeanor offenses and real estate conveyances; reduced fees, offered by lawyer referral service modest means panels, prepaid legal services and lawyers who offer unbundled services; shifted fees that result from the many statutes designed to enhance access; and legal resources available to all regardless of incomes, such as court self-help centers and government services from state attorneys general offices.

The most common legal services needed by most people are affordable. They may sting sometimes, but they are within the means of that middle demographic. Bar associations need to message affordability, explain options and encourage people to be good consumers of legal services.

Engaging consumers more effectively

Research tells us that a small percentage of those with justiciable problems seek out solutions through the courts and an even smaller percentage turns to lawyers for help. Those who do not turn to lawyers have been characterized as the latent legal market. We have ways to reach those who know or believe they have a problem with a legal solution, such as advertisements and referral services. But what about those who don’t understand that their problems have legal solutions? We need to reach them through better engagement, including increased outreach and strategic partnerships.

Call for Justice is a small nonprofit group in Minneapolis that enhances outreach. It trains United Way 211 operators to determine whether callers’ problems have legal solutions and which entities can best address those solutions. It helped place 30,000 people with legal services providers last year.

We have seen the emergence of very successful medical-legal partnerships, where, for example, hospitals bring lawyers on board to address toxic mold in an apartment when a patient has a respiratory problem. Where else can we seek out these partnerships? Perhaps we can collaborate with religious groups, schools, municipalities, employers and community centers to provide periodic legal checkups.

Another option takes a page out of the Army’s recruiting playbook and engages people (potential recruits or potential clients) through online gaming. Tens of millions of people play computer games, many of them multiplayer interactive games. In the 1990s, the Army successfully used online gaming as a recruiting tool, embedding recruitment information into the program. It is not a stretch to think that bar associations can do something similar to help people understand when their problems have legal solutions. Through whatever routes, we must be dedicated to creative engagement.

What role can technology play?

Over the past 20 years, technology has led to major changes in the delivery of legal services. E-filing, e-discovery and automated document preparation have created unparalleled cost-saving efficiencies. So far, technology has played out as a tool that enables lawyers to do what we have done faster, cheaper and sometimes better, but not really differently.

In other words, technology has become a facilitative tool, not the disruptive force that some predict. Lawyers working at the bookends, in corporate law and legal aid, have access to elaborate technology resources, but the Main Street lawyers must look to bar associations to help them navigate the best resources.

The lawyer as problem-solver

We can bring these other three paths together to rebrand the Main Street lawyer as the problem-solver. When better engagement enables people to understand they have a problem with a legal solution, and people understand that solving those problems is often affordable through one avenue or another, and lawyers maximize their efficiencies through technology, then they can position themselves as problem-solvers. It is a challenge for lawyers to create this future without the support of their bar associations. But it is a future that bars can and need to create.

End Notes

1. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/05/is-there-such-a-thing-as-an-affordable-lawyer/371746/ Note that there are no “facts” within the story that support this conclusion.

Will Hornsby

Staff Counsel

Will Hornsby has served as staff counsel to the ABA Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services since 1990, has provided support to a variety of ABA entities for the past 27 years, and will be a plenary speaker at the 2015 ABA Bar Leadership Institute. For an expanded analysis of these issues, see the comments presented to the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services by the Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, and a webinar (at lower left on the resulting webinar page, with a reference to will parties) that Mr. Hornsby presented to that Commission.