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Where the Money Is In Law

by Carolyn Elefant on January 21, 2011 · 4 comments

in Client Relations, Outsourcing & Hiring, Solo Practice Trends

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Even though biglaw is on the decline, there’s still big money to be made in the law. Only not necessarily by lawyers.

Last month, news of the Reuters/Westlaw acquisition of Pangea dominated the headlines, with bloggers like Jordan Furlong imagining the possibilities that this new behemoth could bring to the table. And today, two other stories caught my eye – the first, from Dallas Morning News, about Virtech Paralegal, a Dallas-based, national service that offers virtual paralegals and which has attracted half a million in funding. Similarly, today, Total Attorneys, which provides infrastructure and marketing services to solos and small firms issued a Press Release announcing receipt of a capital investment from BIA Digital Partners.

What’s my take on these developments? Naturally, I’m excited because all of these services mean more options for solo and small firm practitioners. To the extent that solo lawyers have felt constrained in their ability to grow or take on more work, these companies provide important services to facilitate growth. And more’s the merrier, since competition will keep these services affordable, which means that we solo and small firm lawyers can keep our rates low as well.

But, just as part of me celebrates these new developments, another part is wary (chalk it up to my Gemini-split personality). As it becomes easier to procure low-cost services powered by technology and cheap labor, what’s to prevent law firms from setting up “shell” type practices – offices all over the country – staffed entirely by virtual paralegals with a couple of lawyers cursorily reviewing the final product? This kind of set up could ultimately put less savvy solo and small firm lawyers out of business. And in the end, I’m not so sure whether this kind of assembly-line practice expands meaningful access to law, or subverts it, as we’ve seen with other volume arrangements that rely on low cost labor like this or this.

In these crazy and turbulent times, I know one thing holds true: most of our clients don’t come to us for the forms (those who only want forms will eventually simply use Legal Zoom or online forms and cut lawyers out of the equation entirely). Instead, clients come for help solving their problems and they come because they need someone to fight for them and they come for comfort and reassurance even when there’s nothing that we can do (and that, my friend Mirriam, is why I do think we matter even if I can’t express it as eloquently as you say we don’t!). Somehow we’ve got to find a way to stay a step ahead of all these changes – not to stop them, of course – to remember what they are: a tool for expanding meaningful access to law and “bespoke services on a budget” – and not a ticket to a four hour work week or a way to earn a fast and easy buck while ruining people’s lives in the process.

Update:

One state is bucking the trend of facilitating outsourcing of support services like document review, at least when those services are provided in India. As Lisa Solomon writes at Legal Research and Writing Pro, a Connecticut representative has proposed a law that would hold that “drafting, researching and reviewing documents” for clients in the state constitutes the “practice of law,” and as such, may only be performed by Connecticut-licensed lawyers. Lisa points out that this protectionist statute won’t bring back lost jobs. Moreover, the Connecticut law put Connecticut lawyers at a competitive disadvantage by preventing them from accessing lower cost support services, such as experienced contract lawyers located in other states, law students who are not licensed but could benefit from experience and paralegals. While like Lisa, I’m concerned about the quality of some providers (though to be fair, I’m also concerned about the quality of some of the work I’ve seen that’s produced by licensed lawyers) as well as the potential for abuse (discussed in my post), I think that the harms of banning access to outsourced services does far more harm than good in the longer run.

  • http://passthebaton.biz Susan Gainen

    Carolyn,

    I agree with you that caring lawyers always matter. When clients look for legal services on the cheap they often end up in deep trouble. The “simple, quick question” that appears to be answered by a form, can have a word with a legal meaning other than its general dictionary meaning. In life, there is no asterisk next to these words, leaving people deeply sorry not to have talked to a real, live lawyer.

  • http://passthebaton.biz Susan Gainen

    Carolyn,

    I agree with you that caring lawyers always matter. When clients look for legal services on the cheap they often end up in deep trouble. The “simple, quick question” that appears to be answered by a form, can have a word with a legal meaning other than its general dictionary meaning. In life, there is no asterisk next to these words, leaving people deeply sorry not to have talked to a real, live lawyer.

  • Jean Binkovitz

    Clients do want that reassurance, even – and especially- when we can not achieve any better legal outcome for them. Conflict makes it harder for clients to access some of their skills, and reassurance can help them make their way back. That merely listening to a story can help ease the loneliness and confusion common in conflict was a real surprise to me when I started practicing law. It has also been a great joy.

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