Solo Trends for 2009

Tomorrow and throughout the week, I’ll be posting the essays that I received in response to MyShingle’s Sixth Birthday contest.  But for my first post of the New Year, like many of my blogging colleagues (e.g., Ross Kodner, Neil Squillante,Niki Black and Stephanie Kimbro) I wanted to share some of my predictions for 2009.  I won’t comment on micro-trends, such as this year’s hot practice areas, because I just completed a terrific piece on that topic for a bar magazine and I don’t want to spill the beans.  Instead, below are some broader thoughts on where I see the legal profession, in particular solo and small firm practice, headed in the year to come.

I view 2009 as a transition year, not a breakthrough year, with the operative theme being trust.  Crises like the mortgage meltdown, where borrowers allowed lenders to convince them that they could afford a mortgage triple the size of their income or the Madoff Ponzi scheme, where investors simply took Madoff’s word that his returns were as he said, have substantially eroded the public’s trust in professionals.  Clients are going to scrutinize lawyers more closely than ever and look to third party information such as online testimonials or even the much maligned (not by me) Avvo ratings and those sites will gain traction.  (Incidentally, I’m not alone with this prediction — Richard Susskind, author of The End of Lawyers, p.112  discusses how eventually clients will have access to repositories of feedback from clients just as users have available on eBay or Amazon).

Trust will also impact the way that lawyers communicate with clients.  Though email binds lawyers to clients, it also has a fly-by-night feel since it can be sent from anywhere.   Systems such as extranets or some other type of SAAS based-secure client portals which enable where clients to check on case status, comment on a bill or upload/download documents will gain traction because they convey more of an impression of permanence when doing business in an online world.

Again, due to trust concerns as well as (somewhat counter-intuitively) the current economic climate, exclusively online virtual practices won’t experience a true break out year until 2010 or 2011, though they will continue to grow.   Instead, for 2009, I regard hybrid online-offline practices as the sweet spot for legal services for several reasons. For starters, with office rents now down, some lawyers will take advantage of low-cost leases to share space with other lawyers and pool resources or exchange referrals.  Second, a hybrid online/offline practice allows solos to diversify the types of service that they offer, which offers a hedge against economic down times.   Third, with trust of professionals at an all time low, clients may simply not trust a lawyer online, and where cost is an issue, may opt for  a DIY option (e.g., Legal Zoom or We the People) instead.

I should clarify, however, that where clients already have an existing trusted relationship with lawyers or can establish one through, for example, a personal referral, they’ll be far more likely to engage them online because of reduced costs.  Case in point:  Virtual Law Partners, an online firm comprised of bigfirm expatriates.  Though hardly the first virtual law firm, VLP is succeeding with big clients because it offers bigfirm experience which clients can trust (I’m not saying they should trust it, but they do).  VLP’s bargain rates and on-line convenience play a role in clients’ decisions as well — but my guess is that those clients that VLP serves wouldn’t even look at the firm were it not for the pedigree of its attorneys and the trust or confidence that this kind of pedigree conveys to some clients.

Still, there are a myriad of other ways that lawyers can build trust online — and the tools for doing so will be the ones that gain traction.  For example, I believe that Facebook will surpass Linked-In as the top networking tool for professionals, precisely because it offers clients and other lawyers a peek behind the professional curtain and gives a sense of what a lawyer is like on a personal level.  No, Linked-In isn’t going away anytime soon and you should keep your profile updated to have a convenient online resume, but my guess is that we’ll see many more lawyers interacting on and participating in Facebook.  Not as sure about Twitter – on the one hand, 140 characters is more than enough to establish a personal rapport, but on the other hand, it’s also terse enough to create a false persona.  My request to lawyers who use Twitter is to please do so genuinely.  Let’s not spoil it.

Online visual media – both video and Skype – will blossom.  In a world where online communication and information overload are increasing at an alarming pace, and where a cloud of uncertain economic times looms, we crave the simple comfort of the personal — of human contact.  The ability to see how a lawyer speaks and looks either on a video, or through Skype satisfies our need for a personal touch and more importantly helps build the trust that’s integral to our relationship with our clients.

Finally – and sadly — lack of trust and poor economic times will lead to some unfortunate consequences.  For starters, attorneys hit hard by the economy may do the unthinkable and begin skimming from client trust accounts.  I predict that bar grievance committees — at least to the extent that their own budgets permit — will step up oversight of trust accounts, making life more difficult for the large majority of attorneys who would rather starve or work a second job than ever, EVER steal from a client.  Second, my guess is that economy will also stymie collaboration, because of lawyers’ knee jerk fear that cooperating with other lawyers will diminish their competitive advantage.  For me, that’s a major disappointment since I’m a huge fan of sites like JD Supra (where lawyers share work product) and the sheer possibility that collaboration with other lawyers has to offer.  Moreover, I believe that solo lawyers who collaborate and band together to offer a one-stop shopping or rotisserie-type team of lawyers, handpicked for a particular matter, will find tremendous opportunities. So while forward looking lawyers will realize that the advantages of collaboration and sharing trump any downside, most other lawyers will hold out on collaborative ventures for another few years.

Anyway, that’s the horizon that I see for the coming year.  Chime in with your predictions below.