GP MENTOR: The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be

Vol. 31 No. 3


Jim Calloway is the director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program and blogs at Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips (

The future ain’t what it used to be.

—Yogi Berra

I do not see much of a future (beyond 2020) for most small firms.

—Richard Susskind, Tomorrow’s Lawyers

I’m sure that most new lawyers are tired of hearing about the greater opportunities they would have had if they had started their practices a decade ago. But one cannot ignore facts. The opening of many new U.S. law schools has produced more law graduates taking and passing the bar exams. Technological advances, increased utilization of non-lawyer staff, and changing attitudes of corporate clients have reduced employment opportunities for new lawyers.

There is also an impact from online consumer legal do-it-yourself services. One can speculate that there are now large numbers of unfair property divisions in divorce cases, estate plans with unintended consequences, unfunded living trusts, and ineffectual business agreements because of do-it-yourself services. Besides the problems created for individuals, this represents lost legal work. Despite the insistence of some lawyers that they will make more money “cleaning it up,” very few of these problems will ever come to the attention of a lawyer. Many are not “fixable.” People who thought they could not afford a lawyer for document preparation will likely reach the same conclusion when confronted with a terrible result—or they will simply never know how badly they have been injured.

I believe there will always be work for good, intelligent, and ethical lawyers and disagree with Professor Susskind to the extent that he seems to suggest otherwise in the quotation above. But some of this work may not be delivered as traditional legal work.

It is common to discuss the great unmet need for legal services. So many basic legal services seem unaffordable on a middle-class consumer’s budget. But they shouldn’t be.

Supply and demand principles are real. If there is truly an oversupply of lawyers, then prices may fall and lawyers’ incomes may suffer. But there is another way out that is good for lawyers and for society. Lawyers can improve their methods of service delivery to reduce the time it takes to deliver high-quality legal services to the unserved and underserved.

Willie Sutton said he robbed banks because that was where the money was. New lawyers seeking to build a practice should look to satisfy unmet needs. Maybe that will be some new “hot” emerging area of law. But if you became a small firm lawyer because you want to help people, then try to help people—particularly those who need help and cannot obtain it today.

Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Keep your fixed office overhead low. Invest much time in determining the best way to systematize and streamline certain tasks. Document these workflows so you quickly do tasks the same way every time and can easily delegate when appropriate.
  • Make smart use of technology. Using document assembly programs is a must. Marketing information and fixed fee amounts should be posted online.
  • Disclose fixed fees in advance to potential clients. The documents that clients sign should describe exactly what they are receiving and not receiving for their fixed fee. Optional services for additional fees should likewise be clearly explained. Understand the ethics of fee sharing in your jurisdiction so you can profitably refer out matters you do not handle.
  • Read Susskind’s book Tomorrow’s Lawyers (2013). The context for his rather incendiary quote above can be found in a book chapter online (

After building a system to profitably handle small, routine, low-cost matters that yesterday’s lawyer would have distained, then you will have time to develop more challenging high-value work for you to handle as well.


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