Vol. 42, No. 4

‘Every business is a tech business’: Bar associations help members embrace the future

by Dan Kittay

As the legal profession goes through significant changes, bar associations need to help their members more than ever to understand and adapt to the changes, according to a past president of the Washington State Bar Association.

“If we don’t get our rank and file moving now, they’re going to miss a huge shift, and it’s going to jeopardize the profession,” said Patrick A. Palace, moderating a panel on the future of the legal profession and bar associations’ role, at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Bar Presidents.

“Despite all our work in the past, we need to redouble our efforts, to get the information that they need to our members, in the way they need it,” Palace said.

He cited studies showing that lawyers spend a decreasing amount of time practicing law, and more time trying to understand technology and manage their practice. According to one Clio study, the numbers for solo lawyers are particularly dramatic: In a typical eight-hour day, they get paid for about 28 percent of their time, Palace said; the amount of paid time rises to 55 percent for lawyers in large firms.

In addition to working fewer billable hours, lawyers are making less per hour than they were 10 years ago, when inflation is factored in, Palace added. “The average billable rate for lawyers nationally is $232,” he noted. “That rate has not significantly increased over the last 10 years. When you compare it to the Consumer Price Index, we as a profession have lost ground.”

How can bar associations help their members face such daunting challenges? Palace and the panelists consistently returned to the idea of technology as one important key.

DC Bar focuses on practice management

“Every business is a tech business,” said Rochelle D. Washington, senior staff attorney/practice management advisor for the District of Columbia Bar. “We are encouraging our members to embrace technology.”

The bar offers a two-day basic training each month for those setting up new practices, Washington said. One day focuses on issues such as ethics and IOLTA accounts. The next day concentrates more on practice management, in such areas as technology, client relations, and marketing. The success of the two-day program has led the bar to offer a more extended version that goes more deeply into the issues, Washington added.

There is also a luncheon series aimed at solo and small firms that dives into practical issues, from the basic “Where do I file this motion?” to “What fees should I charge?” Some luncheons focus on a “day in the life of” a particular kind of lawyer. The luncheons allow newer lawyers to “talk to other people who have done it,” Washington noted.

The “Practice 360” program combines many of the topics discussed at the luncheons into a full-day program. “Not every lawyer, especially in a small firm, can make it to every luncheon,” Washington explained. “So we took many of the hot-button issues and combined them into a one-day event.”

There are four tracks of programming totaling 20 programs, she said, with vendors on site who are chosen because they offer relevant services to members. The programs also focus on technologies that lawyers should be using to streamline their practices. The underlying theme for technology is that lawyers should choose what to “automate, delegate, or eliminate,” depending on what works best for them, Washington said.

“You should look at your practice and find out where you can automate something,” she explained, “and if you can’t automate it, who can you push it off to? And if you can’t do that, can you get rid of it? Do you need it at all?”

If lawyers decide to use technology for a particular function, they may need help in finding the best approach for their needs, Washington believes: “There are too many options, and some lawyers don’t know what they should be looking for.”

Whatever the choice, she added, it should be something the lawyer is comfortable using—and even finds appealing. “If you choose a technology that you can’t stand looking at, you’re not going to use the tool,” she said, “so what’s the point?”

Because technology changes over time, the D.C. Bar’s tech-focused programs—which are free of charge for members—are updated regularly, and the bar encourages members to attend periodically so they can stay current.

Spotlight on ABA Blueprint, Veterans Legal Checkup

The ABA Report on the Future of Legal Services in the United States is “a good roadmap to where we, as a profession, can take the delivery of legal services,” said Chad Burton, CEO of CuroLegal, a consulting and development firm that works with clients in the legal profession. Most projects his company works on have some tie-in to the report’s recommendations, Burton said.

ABA Blueprint, produced in partnership with CuroLegal, is one such project. It offers lawyers a website where they can enter information about their practice and receive customized recommendations about the best kinds of hardware and software solutions to help meet their office needs. Blueprint is designed to help bars that either don’t have a dedicated law practice management program, or that have busy LPM programs that can use some automated help to supplement the staff, Burton said.

Technology solutions for small and solo firms are likely to standardize over the next five or 10 years, Burton believes. He likened this to how Microsoft Office, which was once optional, is now a standard purchase for most work computers. Blueprint was designed with this idea in mind.

“We’re not providing a thousand different [choices] of the same concept,” such as time management programs, he explained.

Blueprint provides some services to anyone who comes to the site, but in order to receive specific solutions and the opportunity to consult with a person, ABA membership is required. Other bars are being offered a customized version of the program, he added.

Burton also spoke about the Legal Checkup for Veterans, a web application that helps veterans determine if an issue they have in their life has a legal remedy, and if so, what steps they can take to obtain that remedy. The project was developed as a collaboration among the ABA, CuroLegal, and legal insurer ARAG.

The checkup is designed not only for people who may not be able to afford legal services, but also those who are “fearful of the process or don’t even know they have an issue to begin with,” Burton said. As with Blueprint, the user answers a series of questions and then receives customized recommendations. CuroLegal is planning to roll out the product to other bars, he added.

‘Do not innovate alone’

Bars looking to keep up with the latest in technologies and how to help their members should turn to others with more experience for help, said Nathan Alder, past president of the Utah State Bar, NCBP secretary, and a member of the governing council of the ABA Center for Innovation. “Do not innovate alone,” he said, speaking of the center. “We are your partner.”

Alder added, “The ABA is using a lot of resources and effort to launch innovation,” which will help other bars that don’t have the resources to develop it all themselves. He cited the center’s Innovation Fellows program as one example of the work being done to make the delivery of legal services more efficient, and that can in turn help bars provide better solutions to their members.

(Note: NCBP has continued to address technology and other future-related topics, including at its 2018 Midyear Meeting and via its 21st Century Lawyer webinar series. Visit its website for more information.)