Food for Thought for Spotting Law Practice Trends for 2014

shutterstock_161958017Tis the season for trend spotting! As the year winds down, predictions of hot practice areas and the future of law will cram the legal trade press and blogs.  In fact, Bob Denney has already released his always excellent annual “What’s Hot and What’s Not” over at
Attorney at Work; if you only have time for one trend piece, I commend Denney’s.

Though I’ll also release a trend paper later this month, here’s what I suggest if you want to trend spot. Instead of sitting down with a bunch of blog posts and data, call a few colleagues and book a week’s worth of lunch dates at area restaurants where you’ve never been — from casual to upscale.  The meetings offer an opportunity to network, but that’s just an ancillary benefit of my proposed exercise. Rather, the real value of visiting these establishments is to gain insight into next year’s trends.

More than any other analogous industry, I’ve found that the restaurant biz acts as an uncannily reliable barometer of where the proverbial puck will be next year. It’s true for several reasons, I think. For starters, virtually everyone — from consumers to business folk – eat out, and so restaurants offer insights that apply to a variety of law practices. In addition, the restaurant business, at its core, is a service industry, as is the legal profession.

I’ve written about restaurant trends as they pertain to law practice several times.  In 2011, I noted the hyper-local  restaurant trend and its relationship to a sustainable legal practice (since local lawyers with strong community ties are less likely to be replaced by Legal Zoom and online providers). Likewise, the trend at my local WholeFoods of identifying the source of each type of produce  suggests a growing consumer interest in transparency as well as a desire for a more personal relationship with providers. Even restaurant design and branding can yield clues; back in 2012, I wrote about the discernible rise in use of graphic design on restaurant menus  and described the relationship of graphics to law, as evidence by Nathan Burney’s Illustrated Guide to Law. This year, lo and behold, there are at least  two law schools focusing on design thinking and the legal profession.

So what’s hot this year in the restaurant industry? According to the National Restaurant’s 2014 Report, locally sourced food remains hot, but sustainability, particularly sustainably grown seafood is also a customer demand. There’s also interest in farm and estate branded products, locally and on-site brewed alcohol and smaller portions for a smaller price.  On the tech side, restaurants are integrating tablet computers for ordering, allowing mobile payment options and focusing on marketing and loyalty programs through social media.

There’s a lot to unpack here for legal practice. First, even as consumers have access through the Internet to products all over the world, they still want local. There’s a pride that consumers place in the home team and a desire to support mom-and-pop business. So lawyers who focus on local business and immerse themselves in community matters (the young Fishtown Lawyers  are one great example) can find a market – and more importantly, a market that’s largely immune from more generic big box or online competition.

The interest in sustainability suggests two trends worth pursuing. First, to the extent that there’s consumer interest in sustainability, firms might consider becoming more green by way of example. The ABA and EPA have a Green Power partnership and law firm climate challenge  that offers guidance on law firms that want to go green. But sustainability also opens up substantive practice areas – producers may need guidance on regulatory requirements related to sustainability as well as guidance on marketing under FTC Green Guidelines.

Likewise, the interest in branded products and local foods also drives substantive practice areas like farm law in matters such as compliance with regulations governing organic food, labeling, copyright, trademark and environmental issues that can impact sustainability.  [Side note: BTW, the definitive guide for farm law in New York is this misnamed Field Manual  (it’s really a tome) by small firm lawyers Cari Rincker  and Pat Dillon  I bought the book because many of my landowners impacted by pipelines are farmers and it is simply first-rate].

Technology and pricing trends in the restaurant industry can inform legal practice too. Lawyers who represent restaurants and the food industry could sponsor webinars or offer onsite seminars to restaurant owners on legal considerations governing social media use and development of social media policies, or use of mobile devices on the job (for restaurants that deliver or food trucks and vendors). But lawyers can also observe consumer reaction to use of iPads to order food – is it a seamless experience or frustrating? Do customers still enjoy interacting with waiters and if so, what personalities draw raves? Lots of lessons for customer service in your practice. As for the trend of smaller portions for lower price – that sounds a lot like unbundling! How flexible are restaurants in offering smaller portions – does it apply to all menu items or just some, and how are smaller portions priced? Lawyers can consider offering smaller portions – i.e., smaller scope of work – for lower fees as well.

But as I said at the outset, don’t take my word for it. Contact a group of colleagues for lunch or if that won’t work, then reserve a table for one at different restaurants for a week and observe the trends yourself. Even if you don’t come away with any insights, at least you’ll have a year end business deduction!

2014 photo courtesy of Shutterstock