Recently in one of my online lawyers groups, an attorney lamented that her state bar association had made self-help forms available for family law litigants at no cost and in addition, had started conducting free trainings to help users complete the forms. The attorney reported that many of her family law attorney colleagues are up in arms about this recent development because the forms and training are available just to indigent clients who can’t afford lawyers but also (horrors!) to clients who have the money to retain attorneys – meaning that the bar’s program will detract business from family law attorneys. Other lawyers seemed more hopeful, snarkily anticipating that additional work would result from cleaning up the mess that the DIY forms would inevitably cause.
These kinds of attitudes are troubling on many levels. First, even if clients can afford a lawyer, they may simply prefer to devote the money on other expenses -like college tuition for their kids, a home remodel or retirement. Here’s an analogy – when I vacation, I can afford to stay at fancy, all-inclusive hotels with meals and other extras included. But invariably, I choose cheaper to stay at accommodations with a kitchen where I can prepare some of my own meals – and then use the money saved for a second trip. Indeed, I’m not alone; my proclivities explain the popularity of platforms like Air BNB. But just as pricey hotels have no right to expect consumers to continue paying those rates when they have more affordable options, lawyers likewise are not entitled to continue to receive high fees because that was customary in the past.
Moreover, why should clients pay pay $350/hour for work that technology now enables them to do on their own? Before technology, DIY forms weren’t realistic or convenient for many clients who either had to purchase forms from an office supply store or trek down to the courthouse during the work day to procure them, and then spend hours and bottles of whiteout to complete them. Today, online forms are much more accessible and user-friendly; clients can download them from the Internet and complete them after hours from the comfort of their home or on the go via their phones.
What lawyers simply fail to realize is that times have changed. We can’t stop this train nor should we try to stand in the way of initiatives that expand access to law. But there’s another problem too. As lawyers fritter away precious time trying to turn back the clock, they lose the opportunity to gain a first mover advantage in the new world that’s emerging.
There are plenty of ways that lawyers can leverage these new tools to capture clients. These include:
1. Holding workshops for clients explaining the forms and potential drawbacks and then charging for attorney review of the forms;
2. Creating an assessment test (which can easily be done through a tool like Typeform) that can identify, based on the lawyers’ experience, those scenarios where forms are likely to work well and those where they do not and explaining the differences to clients so that they can make an informed decision;
3. Developing a service like FormsPlus – where clients complete forms on their own and then receive personalized advice from attorneys if they have any questions; or
4. Creating a subscription service where clients receive ongoing review and support for a set monthly fee
By entering the market now, lawyers can get a leg up on competitors who may not realize that their business will decline until the phone stops ringing and it’s too late.
But this post isn’t only about the steps lawyers can take to future-proof a practice. More importantly, it’s about the mindset that lawyers must adopt to confront what the future has in store for our profession. And here’s the thing: no matter how grim the future may appear, we need to keep in mind that no one has ever achieved fortune or success by looking backwards. When the Pilgrims sailed to the new world, they faced hardship beyond what they ever imagined – yet when the Mayflower sailed back to England, none of the Pilgrims returned. Countless entrepreneurs launch businesses – many of which fail spectacularly – yet few rego back to the 9 to 5 jobs where they started out. By contrast, in popular lore, those who cling to the past even for a brief glance are punished: think John Henry who defeated the steam engine with his bare hands only to die of a heart attack or Lot’s wife who turned into a pillar of salt when she turned to look back while fleeing Sodom.
Nothing good has ever come of looking backwards and longing for a past that was never all that great to begin. Today, we stand on the cusp of making law widely accessible in a manner that was never possible and opportunities abound. But we must keep our eyes fixed on the open horizon and never ever look back.