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Solo & Small Law Firms

Future Fridays: Killing Solo Softly: My Future is Now Talk

This past May, I had the honor of speaking at the highly-regarded  Future is Now Conference  which is sponsored by the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. The conference talks were recently posted – and while I commend you to watch all of them (as well as the ones from previous years which I binge-watched in preparation for my own talk), today, I’ll summarize the key points of my talk, entitled Killing Solo Softly: How Ethics Regulations Threaten Solo & Small Firm Practitioners.  You can find the video of my talk here . I plan to incorporate some of my thoughts into the comments that I hope to file in response to California’s proposed initiatives to allow non-lawyers to offer legal advice and own firms. 

But back to my talk. My premise is that ethics regulations once designed to either protect clients or preserve lawyers’ turf not only have outlived their usefulness, but hamper solo and small firm lawyers’ ability to compete in the digital age. As a result, when we discuss access to justice or new business models to reduce costs, our profession reflexively looks to non-lawyers as the answer rather than considering whether reducing regulation across the board might allow solos and smalls to create and compete. Here’s a quick annotation of my talk:

Discussion of how ethics rules exacerbate cash flow issues for solos & smalls which are also the number one killer of any small business along with discussion of how ethics rules prevent solos/smalls from taking advantage of measures such as affiliate relationships, online platforms, testimonials online marketing that small businesses typically employ to mitigate cash flow problems [beginning – 5:00]

I then go on to show how these onerous regulations do not protect consumers and in fact make it more difficult for them to find the legal services they need (5:01 – 7:00) (in this section, you’ll find my criticism of trust accounts and some of the thoughts I developed in my ABA Journal article.

“Solos are the Rodney Dangerfields of the Legal Profession – we get no respect” (6:58) here I discuss how solos are unfairly criticized and ignored on all fronts (5:55 – 7:45)

In this section, I offer my thoughts on how to reduce ethics regulations in three key areas to enable solos to compete.  I focus on eliminating trust accounts to allow payments to be earned on receipt, eliminating fee splitting so that lawyers can offer hybrid services and transferring control of ad regulation to the FTC (7:45-11:00)

Finally, I answer the question about why this all matters. After all, won’t most solo and small firm lawyers eventually be replaced by machines? Aren’t client needs better served by VC-backed conglomerates that can hire lawyers on the cheap to represent clients? Maybe so – but even if we reach that point, I offer two reasons on the importance to our justice system of making solo practice sustainable: because we always need an independent group of lawyers to ensure diversity throughout the profession and a voice for the disempowered. (11:12-conclusion)

I’d be happy to hear your thoughts on my talk so please feel free to post them in the comments below.