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Tech Report

ABA TechReport 2023

2023 Solo & Small Firm

Alan Klevan

Summary

  • The ABA TechReport 2023 pairs data from the 2023 Legal Technology Survey Report, which surveyed practicing attorneys, with analysis, observations, and predictions from experts in the legal technology field.
  • With the emergence of new technologies and the allure of working either closer to home or actually from home using these new technologies, solo practitioners and small law firms have now become the norm.
  • Solo practitioners and those working in small firms can improve their work-life balance, either by using technology more effectively in their practice or by effectively managing their practices and themselves.
2023 Solo & Small Firm
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I have practiced in either a small law firm or as a solo practitioner since 2000. In the “early” days, being a solo practitioner or working in a small firm seemed to be the exception and not the norm of legal practice. From 2000 to approximately 2010, there was a clear dichotomy among solo practitioners and small law firms, mid-sized law firms, and large law firms. There were considerably fewer solo practitioners and small law firms, and large law firms had the bulk of transactional cases, large civil cases, and complex litigation. Then, the paradigm began to shift slowly. With the emergence of new technologies and the allure of working either closer to home or from home using these new technologies, solo practitioners and small law firms have now become the norm and not the exception. The onset of the COVID pandemic brought remote and virtual practice to the forefront and, with many lawyers understanding the freedom and flexibility that comes with solo and small firm practice, a large number of lawyers have moved from large firms to open their own practices.

In preparing this report, I researched The American Bar Association 2023 Legal Technology Survey Reports of Online Research (Volume I), Law Office Technology (Volume III), and Life and Practice (Volume V). To report comprehensively on these three survey reports would require a treatise in and of its own; this report condenses these three surveys to a brief overview of trends in the industry, broken down into the following demographics: solo practitioners, firms of 2-9 attorneys, firms of 10-49 attorneys, firms of 50-99 attorneys, firms of 100-499 attorneys, and firms of 500 or more attorneys. The report will concentrate on the trends in the industry for solo practitioners and lawyers in small firms (2 to 9 attorneys).

Law Office Technology Report 

Hardware

Primary Computer Usage

The trend has remained steady that solo practitioners use a desktop computer as their primary computer for work, and mid-size and large-form attorneys use a laptop as their primary computer. In 2023, 52% of solo practitioners responded they used desktops as their primary computer, up from 35% in 2022, which may have been an aberration as 61% responded similarly in 2021 and 52% responded the same in 2020.

The use of laptop computers as a primary device in small firms seems to be declining slightly while desktop usage has increased. Usage of desktop computers has declined from 64% in 2020 to 51% in 2023, while laptop usage has increased from 32% in 2020 to 41% in 2023.

Looking at the survey results, cost can be a factor in why the solo practitioners’ use of a desktop as a primary computer continues to increase. Desktops provide more power and speed for the price, and desktops generally have a longer life than laptops. Further, many solo practitioners practice at home. There is a likelihood that, given certain circumstances, the solo practitioner uses his or her desktop computer as both a home and personal computer.

Operating System

Windows 10 is the primary operating system used by the largest percentage of respondents.

(71%, compared with 78% in 2022, 77% in 2021, and 78% in 2020), followed by Mac OS (11%), Windows 11 (6%), Windows 8 (3%), Windows 7 (1%), and Chrome OS (.2%).

Respondents from solo practitioners are the most likely to report that their primary operating system is Mac OS (16%, compared with 8% in 2022, 21% in 2021, and 16% in 2020), followed by firms of 2-9 attorneys (12%), firms of 100 or more attorneys (8%), and 10-49 attorneys (5%).

Multiple Monitors 

The usage of multiple monitors in legal practice is my favorite “hack” and should be considered by every legal practitioner. It is an inexpensive addition and allows users to have multiple windows open at one time, thereby allowing a lawyer to work more efficiently. However, the survey responses do not indicate that this system is widely accepted among the solo and small firm community.

Fifty-one percent of respondents report having two monitors attached to their computer, down from 55% in 2022. Interestingly 48% of respondents from small firms reported using two monitors (up from 46%), while only 30% of solo attorneys surveyed reported using two monitors, down from 50% the prior year! While the numbers, especially for solo practitioners, look skewed, 7% of all attorneys surveyed responded that they did not have a separate monitor, and another 7% reported using three or more monitors!

Software

Remote Access Software 

Based on the survey results, solo practitioners’ use of remote access software is steadily rising. In 2023, 61% of solo respondents reported having access to remote access software, up from 46% in 2020. The percentage of small firm practitioners having access to remote practice e software has remained fairly constant, from 80% in 2020 to 82% in 2023. 

PDF Creation Software and Efax 

The use of PDF creation software has steadily risen for both solo practitioners and attorneys in small firms. 92% of those solo attorneys surveyed reported using PDF creation software, up from 85% in 2019, and 94% of attorneys working in small firms reported using PDF creation software, up from 85% in 2019. The programs listed most often were Adobe, Corel Word Perfect, and Nuance PDF Creator.

Solo practitioners and small firm attorneys’ use of electronic fax software is not as encouraging. 42% of solo respondents reported using electronic fax software for law-related tasks (up from 33% in 2022) and 40% of respondents working in small firms reported using efax software. Studies have shown that the use of electronic fax versus a regular fax machine is faster, more cost-effective, and more efficient, as a lawyer has less downtime by not having to stop work to get up to go to a stand-up fax machine or search for an alternative solution if the physical fax machine stops working. 

Practice Management Software

Of those surveyed, fifty-nine percent of the respondents reported the availability of case/practice management software at their firms, down from sixty-three percent the year before. This is the first time in four years that respondents reported that the availability of practice management software has declined. In terms of the use of case/practice management software, thirty-eight percent of solo practitioners reported using case management software, down from forty-five percent in 2022. As for attorneys practicing in small firms, the use has remained steady, 47% in 2023 compared to 46% in 2022.

Attorneys’ use of practice management software in small law firms has remained essentially steady since 2020 (45% in 2020, 46% in 2022, and 47% in 2023 with a spike of 61% in 2021). The spike in 2020 could very well have been a response to the COVID pandemic, although why attorneys did not continue using said software per the 2022 and 2023 survey results is worth examining.

The use of practice management software by solo practitioners remains low, although it has increased considerably since 2020, when only 29% of solo attorneys reported using practice management software. This could be due to the increasing costs of available software, lack of knowledge of how to use the software, or just the plain belief that a solo practitioner doesn’t need practice management software to effectively run their practice.

Web-Based Software & Cloud Computing 

Sixty-nine percent of all attorneys who responded to the survey report using some form of cloud-based software, compared to seventy percent in 2022 and up from fifty-nine percent in 2020. Of those, sixty-six percent of lawyers in small firms’ report using cloud-based software, down from seventy-three percent in 2022. Sixty-two percent of solo attorneys report using this service, down from eighty-four percent in 2022, but up from fifty-two percent in 2021 and 2020.

Online Research Report 

The availability of online research tools has increased significantly over the past decade. Lawyers have the option of choosing fee-based research tools as well as free platforms. Of course, there are lawyers who still choose to research using available print materials.

The Online Research Survey indicated that solo lawyers’ use of fee-based online research has remained stable over the past several years. Thirty-seven percent reported using fee-based services in 2023, thirty-seven percent reported using the same in 2020, and thirty-six percent in 2021. As for attorneys in small firms, fifty-eight percent reported using fee-based research software, consistent with sixty-one percent in 2020 and sixty-three percent in 2021. Again, there was a spike to seventy-seven percent in 2022.

As for free online legal research, seventy-three percent of solo practitioners reported using the service in 2023, relatively consistent with 2020 and 2021 (67%). However, only fifty-eight percent reported using free online research services in 2022. As for lawyers in small firms, fifty-seven percent reported using free online services in 2023, consistent with 2020 (54&) and 2021 (57%) Yet again, in 2022, only forty-five percent reported using free research tools in 2022.

Why was there an increase in lawyers’ fee-based online research in 2022 than a significant decrease in 2023, and a jump in free online internet research in 2023? Of course, the obvious answer is price, but one cannot rule out the possibility of the emergence of artificial intelligence as another reason. However, lawyers must be extremely careful with using this emerging tool for online research.

Conclusion - Technology Survey & Online Research

The survey results indicate that lawyers have not shied away from using existing and emerging technologies to run their practice. Of the technology resources indicated it appears as if only the use of electronic fax technologies has lagged. Are efax programs not marketing their services as efficiently as other legal technology tools such as case management software, client retention management software, etc…? Efax technology is cheaper, more efficient, and eliminates downtime if a fax machine breaks. 

Also, lawyers need to be both vigilant and respectful of the use of artificial intelligence in their practices, especially with online research.

In 2012, the American Bar Association amended Comment 8 to the Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1. Comment 8 reads:

To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology, engage in continuing study and education, and comply with all continuing legal education requirements to which the lawyer is subject.

To date, over forty states have formally adopted the revised comment to Rule 1.1, and many have now implemented a mandatory CLE for technological competency. However, attorneys in states have not exactly embraced this rule. Attorney Steven Schwartz in New York learned the hard way when he sued Aviance Airlines on behalf of his client. He filed a brief using Chat GPT; the only issue was that the brief was filled with citations of cases that didn’t exist. Neither Attorney Schwartz nor his staff cite-checked the briefs. He was subsequently sanctioned by the judge hearing the case.

Life and Practice Survey Report

This survey focused on the use of technology in the legal profession. The survey report concentrated on issues relating to technology use, not product use. 512 attorneys responded to this survey. Of those, approximately 290 of the respondents were either solo practitioners or worked in a small firm of 2-9 attorneys.

Current Work Location 

Respondents were asked which of the following best describes their primary workplace, both prior to and post-COVID-19.

Prior to COVID-19, the respondents’ answers were as follows:

Work Locations prior and post-COVID-19.

Work Locations prior and post-COVID-19.

Alan Klevan

68% of those surveyed reported that their primary workplace prior to COVID-19 was a traditional office setting. 36% of those were solo practitioners and 71% were attorneys working in small firms.

Respondents were also asked to describe their primary workplace “post-COVID.” Prior to COVID, 36% of solo practitioners reported their primary workplace as the office. Post-COVID, only 25% reported the same. Before COVID, 71% of lawyers practicing in a small firm setting reported their primary workplace as a traditional office. Post-COVID, only 57% reported having a traditional office. Conversely, the number of solo practitioners reporting their home office as their primary office rose, from 26% prior to COVID to 46% post-COVID. Ass for lawyers working in small firms, the number of those using a home office rose from 5% prior to VCOVID to 16% post-COVID.68% of those surveyed reported that their primary workplace prior to COVID-19 was a traditional office setting. 36% of those were solo practitioners and 71% were attorneys working in small firms.

Work-Life Balance 

Respondents were asked to rate their level of agreement with the following statement: “I make time for myself.” Solo attorneys were most likely to strongly agree (21%, compared with 23% in 2021 and 28% in 2019), followed by 19% of practitioners in small firms. Of those, respondents over the age of 50 are most likely to strongly agree with the statement, compared with 13% of respondents aged 40 to 49, with 7% under age 40.

Respondents were also asked to rate their level of agreement with the following statement: “I take adequate breaks during the workday. Solo attorneys were most likely to strongly agree with this statement (13%). Followed by lawyers working in small firms (11%). Interestingly respondents under 40 years old most likely strongly disagreed with this statement.

Respondents were further asked to rate the extent of agreement with the statement: “I feel satisfied in my work and career.” Twenty-three percent of the respondents strongly agreed, 48% agreed, 16% neither agreed nor disagreed, 11% disagreed, and 2% strongly disagreed. Of those surveyed, 28% of those strongly agreeing were respondents working in small firms and 21% were solo attorneys.

Respondents were also asked about the effect technology has had on balancing work and family obligations. Overall, 82% of the respondents either strongly agreed or agreed with that statement. Interestingly, the number of solo practitioners agreeing with this statement declined from 2021 (86%) to 2023 (74%), while the number of lawyers in small firms agreeing with this statement rose slightly from 2021 (77%) to 2023 (83%).

As for the survey question “My job allows me to spend adequate time with my family,” 69% of those who responded either strongly agreed or agreed with that statement. Seventy-four percent of respondents who are solo practitioners either strongly agreed or agreed with this statement (up from 69% in 2021 as well as 2019), and 67% of lawyers in small firms strongly agreed or agreed (compared with 67% in 2021 and 75% in 2019).

Conclusion - Life and Balance Survey Report

The findings reported in this article are only a small sampling of the trove of information found in this report, and I urge you to review the report in its entirety. Solo and small firm practitioners have much to learn about finding their work-life balance sweet spot. For solo practitioners, the results indicate that the COVID pandemic brought about new challenges, but their dedication to work-life balance has appeared to wane post-COVID. For those working in small firms, their work-life balance has seemed to return to pre-COVID levels. 

Conclusion

This article does not do justice to the comprehensive work of the American Bar Association in preparing the three reports referenced herein. Each report in and of itself is a treatise on the state of legal practice today. This article provides a snapshot look into how these three areas- technology, online research, and work/life balance – are viewed by both solo practitioners and those working in small law firms.

To most, it is obvious that the pandemic has forced lawyers to take a hard look at how existing and emerging technologies could benefit their practice. Even more important, it made lawyers think of how they would practice, be it as a solo practitioner, form or join a small firm, or remain put. Looking at the survey results from the three reports I reviewed, it seems clear that lawyers from both environments – solo practitioners and those working in small firms – can do better in improving their work-life balance, either by using technology more effectively in their practice or by doing a better job in managing not just their practices but by themselves more effectively.

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