How Should Seasoned Lawyers Prepare for the Future of Law?

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).