Brave New Legal World: Keeping Lawyers Relevant in the Future

Larry Opalewski

Movies about the future are all the rage these days. The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, and the reboot of the Planet of the Apes series are just a few movies that capture people’s imaginations of what our world could look like a few years down the road. But when watching movies like this, one question is on the minds of everyone watching: Where are all the lawyers!? Ok, maybe not, but when we think of the future, how do we see lawyers remaining relevant? While I don’t have any answers for how we can stay relevant through a zombie apocalypse or a nuclear holocaust, there are some ways lawyers can stay relevant in a less dystopian world.

But first—a quick disclaimer—in this article I refer to “young clients” or “young people.” While I recognize that many, even most, of your clients might not be “young,” keep in mind that in the future, the people who are young right now will be the ones owning businesses, setting trends, and making laws. We can learn a great deal about how we can stay relevant in the future by keeping in mind the profiles of our future clients. As much as some in our culture like to bash millennials, they do so at their own peril. So how do we stay relevant for this future market and clientele?

Communicating the Need for Lawyers

We need to do a better job of communicating the need for lawyers to the general public. As a millennial, I can’t tell you how many friends and acquaintances I have who simply don’t see the need for a lawyer unless they get sued. As a lawyer, you’re obviously yelling in your head, “The point of a good lawyer is usually to keep you from getting sued!” I get it. You get it. But most people don’t get it. More and more, people think they can simply Google a contract, business deal, or estate plan, and have everything work out fine. And in some cases, things do work out fine. But in far too many situations, a lawyer is called in to clean up the inevitable mess, and the client ends up paying exponentially more in time and money. Prospective clients need to know more about what we do and how we can make their lives better and easier. Otherwise, we will keep losing clients to LegalZoom or terrible Internet advice.

Evolving Technology

Technology is evolving faster and faster, and we need to make sure we keep up with it. I’m not saying we need to be on the cutting edge—many forms of new technology need some time to get the kinks worked out before they’re reliable. However, to its own detriment, the legal field has been notoriously slow to make use of basic technology. Many courts only recently adopted electronic filing systems. And we don’t simply need to use technology; we need to understand it intimately so that we are the experts in disputes involving tech. If there is a void in lawyers who can adequately handle these disputes, rest assured that the market will create a replacement on its own. We need to be comfortable using tech in the ways that our future clients will.

Becoming More than Service Providers

Third, we need to work on becoming well-informed counselors instead of just service providers. There are some attorneys who already excel at this, but far too many of us are more of a blunt instrument rather than someone who can help a client by making connections or offering nonlegal advice. You might be thinking, “We’re lawyers, not consiglieres. Shouldn’t that be enough?” Not if we want to stay relevant and grow our relevance in the future. Many nonlawyers tend to see us as money-loving sharks that only care about the clock and the bills. Being more than that to clients would increase our value and, hopefully, our reputation.

Crafting Flexible Billing Practices

We also need to be more progressive with our billing practices. There are many who suggest that the days of the billable hour are coming to an end. The theory goes that young, savvy clients simply will not accept some of the profession’s more antiquated procedures. For example, there are many young potential clients that see a ten-minute phone call billed as 0.2 hours for $75 and simply scoff. Young clients are interested in a specific amount of services, on their timetable, and at a predictable price. So how do we deliver that? Some firms have been experimenting with a monthly subscription service. For example, a client will pay $500 per month for a variety of services, such as two contracts, one hour of phone time, and one hour of document review. An arrangement like this makes legal representation available to small companies or individuals where the expectations are clear to both parties. This is a particularly popular option for start-ups. Others have begun to “unbundle” services and offer particular items for a set price—a business formation package for $500, for example. Clearly, none of these solutions are perfect, but we need to be willing to be flexible with these types of arrangements if we want to maintain our maximum relevance and impact.

Staying True to Our Calling

For all of the things we need to change, we need to hang on to the good things. There’s a reason we’ve been an essential part of Western society for hundreds of years. As it turns out, there are some very good reasons for our longevity. First, people will always be people, and that means there will always be conflict. As lawyers, part of our jobs is to come in and fix the problems that others have created through their conflicts. If we stay true to our calling as problem solvers, we will always be relevant.

Second, we as lawyers must maintain our commitment to helping those who cannot help themselves. As wealth becomes more stratified in the United States, people without extra resources often have nobody to represent them and their interests. Let’s sustain and increase our commitment to pro bono and “low bono” work and defend the rights of those who cannot buy influence and power. There will always be underrepresented people who need our protection. These facts will not change in the future.

Third, let’s maintain our commitment to scholarly excellence. For the most part, we are a well-educated group. We give great value to our society by promoting learning and intelligent discourse. Let’s make sure we don’t cheapen that or allow it to fade.

Finally, we need to maintain our civility toward one another. While we need to fight vigorously for the interests of our clients, we should always maintain respect and professionalism. This obligation is especially important when politicians and the public at large are becoming less and less civil in common discourse. We need to follow the examples of Justices Ginsburg and Scalia and build friendships with those who may oppose us professionally. Let’s lead rather than follow on this issue.

While there are plenty of things we need to improve if we want to stay relevant in the future, there are also plenty of things we need to keep the same. We need our clients in order to pay our bills and put food on the table, and society needs us more than they could ever know, and that’s something that we should find comforting. As long as there are people, there will be something resembling lawyers—even if we’re all hiding out during a zombie apocalypse.

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

Larry Opalewski

Larry Opalewski is an associate at Dalton & Tomich, PLC in Detroit, Michigan.