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How Should We Lawyers Treat the “Ones Who Don’t Know What to Ask?”

With next week’s arrival of Passover, I’m reminded of my favorite readings from the Seder, The Parable of the Four Sons, each of whom asks a question that represents the many levels on which the story of Passover may be understood.  First there’s the wise son (as the oldest of four sisters, that passage always fell to me!) who asks a scholarly question about the testimonials and statutes that govern the holiday.  Up next, comes the wicked son who wants to know why the Jews’ experience as slaves has any bearing on him.  He’s considered wicked because he excludes himself from the experience, challenging the ritual instead of embracing it.  The simple son simply asks what – what is all of this?  And finally there’s the last son (fittingly, my baby sister) who "does not even know how to ask." 

There are lots of interpretations of the Parable of the Four Sons, but easily, each son could represent a faction of the legal profession and more specifically, solo practice.  We have our wise sons – those lawyers who study and research on their own, then ask sophisticated questions about every aspect of practice, from how a particular legal procedure might work to applicable ethics rules to building relationships with other lawyers to understanding how to market and brand a law practice so that it’s productive and sustainable.  There’s the wicked sons (and here I mean this most endearingly)  – those who challenge and question conventional wisdom, contending that some aspect – be it marketing or other top down expectations don’t apply to them.  I believe that the wicked son wants to learn, he just learns by challenging rather than absorbing.  We have plenty of simple sons, of course – the many readers who post on Solosez or email me asking "help – what do I do to start a law firm?"

Nothing wrong with those first three categories – because all learn what they need to know in different ways by starting the process with a question.  But what concerns me about the legal profession is that we have way too many lawyers who don’t know how to ask at all.  Because they’re not tech-savvy, they simply have no idea of how quickly the world is passing them by.

The statistics on lawyers use of technology are appalling.  As the last ABA Technology Survey reported, only 8 percent of firms and 2 percent of lawyers have blogs, while only 27 percent of lawyers read blogs.  Just 40 percent participate in listserves while 15 percent belong to social networks.  Since these resources provide a lawyers with massive amounts of information on everything from recent cases to advice on how to draft a complaint, lawyers ignore them at their peril.  And though this report excerpt didn’t have statistics on practice management systems, I’ve heard that only 30 percent of lawyers use them (though I’m guessing that others use less formal systems other than paper files for organization and conflicts check).

As I’ve written before, we lawyers out here at the outer limits of the blogosphere/social media ecosystem are preaching to the choir.  The advice we give, the questions we answer all respond to those from the inner circle of lawyers who are actually on line and pay attention.  What about those who aren’t – those who are so far behind, they don’t even know what they’re missing.  Those who don’t even know how or what to ask.

You’re probably wondering why we should even care about these dinosaurs.  After all, as Jordan Furlong wrote recently at Law 21, the market – and clients for that matter, don’t care if lawyers prosper.  Law firms aren’t  entitled to turn a profit in changing times just because that’s how it’s been in the past. 

I agree with Jordan to the extent that he references large firms.  Large firms have access to every possible benefit and if they don’t keep up, it’s their own fault.  Moreover, biglaw clients are sophisticated buyers and even in a downturn, they’ve got deep enough pockets to identify and retain superior alternatives to big law. 

But what about the solos and small firms that time has left behind?  As I wrote last week, Richard Susskind worries for the future of these firms.  As for me, I don’t much care if these firms go out of business or not, but I do fear for their present clients.  What about the clients currently represented by firms that lack access to the most up to date arguments that could spring a client from jail or preserve an jury claim?  What about the lawyers too busy to return clients’ calls – and who convince clients "that’s just how it is," — when the firms could be more responsive if they adopted technology to help streamline work flow?

I’m not content to let the old firms simply rot and die off if they take clients down in the process.  So what do we do, and what obligation (if any) do we owe to those who don’t know how to ask?  At the Seder, in response to the son who does not know how to ask, the Leader doesn’t ignore him, but instead starts the explanation for him.  In that same spirit, from time to time, we too should leave our insulated little perch in the blogosphere and try to reach out a hand to those lawyers who don’t know how to ask.