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My Dispatch from the 2012 Futures Conference: Who’s Looking Out for Solos and Our Clients?

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Last week, I attended the COLPM’s Futures Conference 2012 here in Washington D.C.  to learn where the practice of law and the legal profession are heading.  For once, I got more than I bargained for as panel after panel of technology experts and thought-leaders and in-house counsel openly shared the problems with today’s law firms, what today’s large clients expect and what law firms need to do different, or in the case of alternative providers and the Inno-vaction Award Winners already are doing differently.  

The panels weren’t limited to GCs and big law issues either; a panel on consumer law solutions featured virtual law practice pioneer Stephanie Kimbro who gave this presentation about online marketing tools (As an aside, the presentation is perhaps  mis-titled, because the point of the talk, at least for me, wasn’t about how lawyers can  hawk their wares but rather about how online technologies can expand consumers’ access to justice). And the panel also discussed some of the sophisticated automated tools now available to courts and legal aid organizations that enable them to churn out documents quickly so that the limited number of legal aid attorneys on staff can spend more time with clients.

But rather than leaving the conference invigorated, brimming with dozens of ideas on how to improve or expand my practice or better serve my clients, I departed with a sense of dread that I still can’t seem to shake. Because in between the talk of big law and corporate clients on the one hand and legal aid or non-legal providers on the other, where do solo and small law firms fit in?  The answer is — I’m not sure they do, at least in the long haul.  Here’s why – and more importantly, what we must do to avoid that fate.

Perhaps the most startling observation that I took away from the conference is that solos and smalls suffer from a technology gap.   Yes, I know that you’re probably thinking that I’ve gone mad – me, the same person who’s preached about how tech can level the playing field for solos and celebrated the advancements that make us more efficient.  Yet the problem with technology is that once the train leaves the station, it never again stands still. The same tech tools — Internet and cloud – that once gave solos an edge will crush us if we can’t keep pace (social media keeps its own category because it’s relationship based and therefore, has a bespoke quality that’s less fungible). 

True, many large law firms may be dinosaurs. But many still have cash to spend, particularly those that have shed associates and non-business generating partners.  They can afford to invest in unbelievably sophisticated, functional systems – like the Littler Mendelson CaseSmart™ system  that according to the description, “provides transparent, privileged, and real‐time online access to the status of the client’s legal matters, as well as a dashboard of key performance indicators, visual graphics, and reports.”  True, solos have law practice management portals and even simple document automation tools, but few have access to something this sophisticated. And while many solos would argue that this level of complexity isn’t necessary, those solos and small firms who target larger clients won’t be able to compete against larger firms that can offer clients the type of metrics that will allow them to pick up on patterns and improve operations in house. Moreover, when big data becomes a big deal for lawyers, firms can monetize that data by selling it, potentially generating another stream of revenue.

On the other end of the spectrum, Legal Aid organizations are now receiving public funding that has enabled them to build sophisticated tools that allow fewer lawyers to provide the same level of service even in the face of cuts. From what I can tell, Legal Aid and self-help bureaus now have automation tools that far outrank what Legal Zoom or Rocketlawyer — can offer in terms of sophistication.  Yet, many working poor and middle income folks don’t qualify for Legal Aid, so they’re stuck with low quality garbage that Consumer Reports recently concluded aren’t specific enough to address more than the most simple, basic needs.  It’s these sub-standard solutions that most consumer clients will be forced to use (which is troubling in and of itself), and it’s also these sub-standard solutions that will displace many solo and small firm lawyers who don’t have the resources of big law or the grants and IOLTA dollars available to Legal Aid to create high quality solutions that will allow them to stay competitive.  Ultimately, I think, we’ll see the rise of mass providers that will develop improved tools and then aggregate solos into legal plans, force them to cap their fees and to deliver cut rate service as cheaply as possible – sort of like HMOs for clients.

And maybe that would be OK, except that it does not have to be that way.  We solos and small firm lawyers stand at a juncture where we can harness technology rather than be harnessed by it; where we can use it to provide better quality service while still remaining independent advocates for our clients.  But we need to advocate for ourselves and our clients, and we need to open our eyes to see where the future is taking us – maybe not this generation or the next, but 20-30 years down the line.  Like many trendspotters, I worship  Richard Susskind and Jordan Furlong and wish I had one tenth of their vision.  But at the end of the day, we part ways because it seems to me that they are alright with use of technology and forms and perhaps national McLegal kiosks to serve consumer clients while large corporations and the wealthy have the benefit of bespoke legal services and trusted lawyer advisors.  I am not.

We need solo. Our system of justice needs solo. What we do is so much more than just help client with the law; we empower clients and provide advice and perspective really matters, we stand up for them and look out for their interests when no one else will. We are the last bastion for unpopular clients and causes, and a voice of independence against the system.

So what can we do?  For starters, just as Jordan Furlong told Biglaw to Just say no to procurement, we solos and smalls must just say no to greedy online marketers who want us to degrade ourselves and dumb down our message to line their pockets or start ups, that under the guise of expanding access to law want solo and small firm lawyers to offer cut-rate services in online auctions or legal services networks and to the veritable cesspool aka portal potty of cheap, insecure and unsophisticated online platforms that are so shoddy that they imperil client confidentiality and security.  Instead, we must band together and tell law technology companies what we want in terms of quality and what we want to pay for it.  We must demand that larger providers eliminate the solo tax and allow solos and small firms to aggregate so that jointly we can afford the same quality services that our big law brethren procure.  We must, sometimes take matters into our own hands and develop our own platforms and solutions instead of using others and paying the terrible price of loss of control or integrity or worst of all, our clients’ confidential information. Finally and most importantly, solo and small firm lawyers and other media publication need to realize that solo practice is about much, MUCH more than just marketing and the nuts and bolts and minutia of starting a firm and stop focusing on those stupid topics 24/7 at every blog on the planet and from time to time, engage in the bigger question of our place in this profession and where solo and small firm practice is headed.  Because no one else is going to do it for us.

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