My Shingle

How Should Seasoned Lawyers Prepare for the Future of Law?

by Carolyn Elefant on June 6, 2014 · 11 comments

in Future Fridays, Law Practice Management

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Over at Lawyerist, Sam Glover sparked some discussion with the question, How would you advise a new lawyer to prepare for the future of law?  Sam’s question generated several thoughtful responses that I commend you to read, but I think there’s an equally significant question that’s been overlooked. Specifically, how should old (or to be more politic, seasoned) lawyers prepare for the future of law?

When I graduated law school 26 years ago, the eight-year partnership track at big law was still a viable path for lawyers willing to do nothing more than slave away for the early part of their career.  But in exchange, they’d be rewarded with the brass ring of partnership and all the benefits that it conferred: Enormous corner office. Expense account lunches with clients and colleagues. Early departures on Friday for the golf course or the beach, leaving associates to deal with the fall-out.

While many of my contemporaries eventually attained partnership – albeit on a ten or twelve year track rather than eight – for many, it wasn’t the nirvana anticipated. Today’s law firm partners work just as hard, and in a desperate effort to retain their share of profits often horde work once readily delegated to associates. Moreover, with the practice of law increasingly competitive due to globalization and the rise of technology, many lawyers of my generation are now learning the hard way that hard work isn’t enough to to hang on to a partnership unless you have a book of business, to the tune of $1 million or more, to back it up. So at the end of the day, many find themselves unceremoniously dumped and out on the street – or tragically, worse.

Meanwhile, the picture for seasoned solos and smalls who’ve fallen behind the times isn’t much rosier. Many who got by or thrived by doing serviceable, but not stellar, work now find themselves competing with cheaper, flashier new law startups. Others latch on desperately to costly SEO schemes of dubious value or sign on to marketing programs that are ultimately deemed unethical (though note: I did not agree with those findings). Still others gleefully rub their mitts together, anticipating the enormous legal fees that they’ll make from Legal Zoom deals gone wrong – without making any effort to develop products or services that might help clients avoid this fate to begin with.

Yet while there’s plenty of sympathy for new debt-ridden grads, no one feels sorry for older lawyers. And to be fair, why should they? After all if they couldn’t figure out a way to make it when times were good, why bail them out now that times are bad and there are younger lawyers who haven’t yet had a chance?  But on the flip side, by ignoring or marginalizing seasoned lawyers down on their luck, our profession loses an enormous resource.

So just as Sam asked how new lawyers should prepare for the future, I’ll ask (and start, by answering) what experienced lawyers – late 40’s and on – should be doing to prepare for the future. First, those experienced lawyers who still turn up their nose at social media or scoff at the utility of an iPad, need to get with the program. Retaining hard copies of files without any digital or electronic storage, or resisting use of email, or insisting on drafting every document from scratch when a template might suffice as a start isn’t quaint or quirky or even professional. Rather, it’s selfish because these archaic practices ignore the needs and convenience of today’s clients and increase the cost of legal services. And they’re short-sighted, because without modern-day practices in place, older lawyers will have difficulty passing their firm on to a new generation.

Second, just as blogs have made the advice of experienced lawyers widely available to newbies, older lawyers can benefit from scrappy younger lawyers who start out with nothing but a law degree and a pile of debt and through creativity and resourcefulness and build it into a going concern. Moreover, instead of passively reading blogs, older lawyers can get together to trade ideas with younger lawyers, providing mentorship and substantive knowledge in exchange for assistance with blogging, video, setting up systems or other new ideas that a more experienced lawyer might want to try.

Finally, older lawyers who are ready to leave shouldn’t just close up shop, but rather, figure out how to extract the maximum value from the investment in your firm. My buddy, Ed Poll recently launched The Law Practice Registry, where lawyers can list a practice for sale, or work with Ed to whip their practice into shape to make it more valuable.

What advice do you have for older lawyers preparing for the future? Comments are open. (By the way, I appreciate the great discussion that’s been taking place at MyShingle on other topics. Unfortunately, I’ve been too busy to chime in regularly, but I am enjoying the conversation and hope to contribute more when my schedule lightens up).

  • Susan Cartier Liebel

    Carolyn, This is a great start. There is just one assumption you made in this post, which you yourself know is an erroneous assumption, that younger lawyers are anymore tech savvy or social media savvy then their elders when it comes to blogging or how to use social media effectively or event he value of law practice management software. You’ve often said you can’t find new grads who can do this and have made the assumption yourself that they can only to be disappointed. I just attended a marketing conference where new lawyers were just as flummoxed about all of this as their ‘elders’. The only true difference, the young ones knew they had to get with the program. The elders, not so much.

  • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

    I put more thought into my response here, but in a nutshell, I don’t think it’s right to focus on tech tools. Going paperless is a good idea, but it doesn’t save enough time or money to be transformative. I don’t think any lawyers — new or seasoned — should ignore tools that make them more efficient, but I think it is far more important to be ready for whatever comes by building nimbleness and a willingness to experiment into the business model.

    There’s more to be gained by trying alternative fee and representation structures, for example, than by buying an iPad.

  • myshingle

    Good point. I always think that the situation is changing but it is not.

  • myshingle

    I agree with you Sam. I have written about some of these new variants of price setting and business models and they are what makes the difference. Usually, the horse should pull the cart, meaning that a lawyer should develop a new business practice and then choose tech to implement it. But I find that occasionally in my experience, playing with the new tech toy (which I really don’t do that much) like an ipad can open one’s mind to possibility (for example, it is ipad that got me thinking about lawyer on the go business model that I wrote about somewhere…)

  • Paul Spitz

    You have two different kinds of older lawyers. One is the older lawyer that has been with a firm for years, and is suddenly pushed out onto the street for some reason — maybe he wasn’t producing, or the firm was going through troubles, etc. The other kind is the lawyer that has been out there on his or her own for years, and perhaps hasn’t been paying attention to the changes in the landscape.

    The kicked-out partner faces an entrepreneurial challenge. He is probably used to the infrastructure of his old firm, and has zero clue how to go out on his own. Maybe he had assistants that answered phones, made copies, sent out mail and did filings, but that’s the least of it. He has no idea how to select and set up a phone system, or a wifi network, or filing system. He just used what was already in place. How is that billing done again? None of this is particularly difficult, but it is an entirely new skill set for someone who may have been focusing on the practice of law, and not on the business of law.

    The older solo knows how all these systems are set up, because she did it and she runs it every day. But she may be so stretched thin that between running the practice and serving the clients, she hasn’t kept up with changes in the profession, technology, etc. I agree with Sam that it’s more a question of nimbleness in general than understanding out to use an iPad (and my 78 year old mother has an iPad and an iPhone, so age is no excuse). But you need time to reflect on all these things, and when you are caught up in just keeping up, that’s hard to do.

    I will also mention a pet peeve of mine, regarding solo lawyers. How friggin’ hard is it to just get a one-page website set up with your name, address, phone number, and areas of practice? Yet there are still lawyers out there without even this basic thing, you search for them on the internet and nothing comes up except incomplete garbage listings on directories.

  • Emily Wood Smith

    Another type of older lawyer is the one who retires from a government job but still wants to work. My father and I recently opened a small firm together. He is a retired district judge and retired JAG officer (Air National Guard- part-time). As Paul mentioned in his comments, my dad had an administrative assistant to help with a lot of the work when he was employed by the government and is accustomed to that type of infrastructure. Now, it is just the two of us. My father was in private practice before he became a judge, but that was 30+ years ago. Things have dramatically changed since then. Both of us are learning a lot about being in private practice.

    I’m glad my dad wants to work; he is a valuable resource because of the knowledge he has gained through the years and the contacts he has. Still, there are challenges in starting a small practice like ours.

  • shg

    Exactly. I was arguing a motion this morning, and when I was done, the judge turned to the prosecutor and told him that it didn’t look good for him. He whipped open his skinny suit jacket and pulled out his iPad.
    The judge was really impressed and was about to deny my motion. But then I reminded him of law by using a casename I had written down on my yellow pad. Whew, it was a close call.
    My client was standing there the whole time, and afterward, asked me if he could save money on my fee if I, too, used an iPad. I told him I have a tablet, but it wasn’t part of his bundle.

  • Bill

    Paul: but, of course there are more than two kinds of older lawyers. There are also older large firm partners with active practices that actively decided to go solo (or small firm). There are many ways to get up and running, from a complete turn key operation at an executive office center, through using consultants, to doing it yourself. (The first option worked well for me.) I found it very easy to get up an running, and most importantly, my clients did too. This idea that every large firm partner over 45 is just sitting in a corner office watching the clouds go by is plain silly. There are quite a few former large firm partners in the (to use the example I am familiar with) D.C./Northern Virginia area who made a considered decision to go solo, not because they were pushed out of their firms, or didn’t like it, but because the standard large firm 60-70% overhead doesn’t make sense in any but the most highly leveraged large firm practice areas. For regulatory and regulatory/litigation practice areas (to again use my own example) it is both more fun and more remunerative to go with a different model. And, unlike 10 years ago, large clients have no problem using solo and small firms for specialty practice areas.
    All this is a long way of saying that what I think seasoned lawyers should know is: the logistics/mechanics of starting your own solo practice are pretty simple. The technology is there, and, as they used to say in the military, is designed by geniuses to be used by idiots. As I can testify… :)
    Bill

  • myshingle

    I argued an appeal last month and though tempted to use my ipad to look cool, I figured, why tempt fate and used my same old system of paper outline and enough prep to never have to look down at the paper. Still, playing with the ipad – which many judges use to read briefs – has made me think about ways to format a brief so it renders well for judges to read.

  • myshingle

    You’re right – there are many partners and senior associates who have taken that route. But unfortunately, there are many others who haven’t and I am seeing some of the fall out.

  • http://mtllawfirm.com Dan @ MTL Law

    “Others latch on desperately to costly SEO schemes of dubious value or sign on to marketing programs that are ultimately deemed unethical” – I’m glad you added that you don’t agree with the findings. Of course not ALL marketing & SEO is “unethical” and “of dubious value”. There are plenty of very hard-working, ethical marketers out there doing an excellent job and just a personal opinion but.. Internet Marketing does seem to be the future.

    Thinking of a divorce? I’m willing to bet, the majority of people will FIRST hop onto Google and type “divorce lawyer (city name)” or something like that.

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