Legal clients:
Shouldn't their needs prevail in the face of change?

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I graduated from law school in 1995. Since that time, technology has changed tremendously and has affected every aspect of our day-to-day lives, from how we communicate and interact with others, to how we shop, cook, travel and conduct business. And yet, many lawyers continue to practice law just as they did in 1995, refusing to change their attitudes about client service to comport with 21st century expectations.

Now, this isn’t necessarily surprising, given that the legal field is so traditional. After all, lawyers are trained to study past legal holdings and apply them to today’s legal problems. Ours is a precedent-based profession and predicting the future based on what happened in the past has historically proven to be a very successful way of doing business.

Unfortunately, that methodology is proving to be acutely ineffective in the 21st century given the tremendous and unprecedented rates of technological change. Never before has the world experienced such an incredible rate of change at such a fast pace.

I was reminded of this fact last week while watching “Into the Darkness,” the latest Star Trek movie. Now keep in mind that I’ve been watching the Star Trek movies since I became a bona fide Trekkie geek in law school (when I left a final exam early so that I could catch the premiere of “First Contact”).

When I was in law school in the early 1990s, most Star Trek technologies seemed unattainable in my lifetime. After all, back then we used DOS-based computers. Cell phones were a rarity and were incredibly expensive. The Internet was a pipe dream for the average citizen. Our cameras used film. Video cameras were huge beasts that cost a small fortune. We paid an arm and a leg for long distance phone calls. In fact, that was the case even after the turn of the century. It wasn’t until 2005 or so that our world began to change at a rate never before seen.

As I discussed in an earlier post, since 2005, our world has changed rapidly–and immensely. Social networks were launched, cloud computing exploded, and mobile devices suddenly came of age. In just a few short years, millions of people were interacting online, instantly sharing audio, images, videos, and ideas using just their smart phones. With just the touch of a finger, people now access information once found only in libraries or encyclopedias.

Even more astounding–like Star Trek, computers now have touch screen interfaces and respond to voice commands. You can video-conference with people worldwide using just your smartphone or tablet. 3-D printing has made Star Trek’s food replicators a reality. And, medical tricorders are no longer a Star Trek pipe dream.

And all of this became a reality in less than a decade. The rate of change is mind boggling. And no industry is immune, not even the precedent-based legal field.

And yet, perplexingly, according to a recent study conducted by Altman Weil, Inc., many lawyers in larger firms are refusing to change the way that they do business despite finally acknowledging that the the legal profession is undergoing an industry-wide paradigm shift in proportions never before seen.

As discussed in the press release, those surveyed (Managing Partners and Chairs at 791 US law firms with 50 or more lawyers) were well aware of the effects of the paradigm shift on the rapidly changing legal industry:

  • They are concerned that the demand for legal work is flat or shrinking in many practices.
  • They feel real pricing pressure from clients.
  • They recognize the competitive forces of commoditization and the emergence of lower-priced, non-traditional service providers.
  • They are coming to grips with the idea that aggressive growth in lawyer headcount may no longer make sense.
  • They believe that the pace of change is increasing.

And yet surprisingly, as explained by the ABA Journal, although survey respondents conceded that a fundamental, permanent change was underway most remained focused on short term goals such as increasing revenue instead of focusing on ways to effectively deliver legal services in the new legal landscape:

Law firm leaders say the paradigm shift is here to stay, according to a new Altman Weil survey.

Yet surprisingly they don’t put concerns such as delivering value to clients and improving efficiency at the top of the list when asked an open-ended question about the biggest challenges they will face over the next two years, reports the Am Law Daily (sub. req.). Instead, they cite increasing revenue, generating new business, growing their law firms and increasing profitability.

These survey results serve to highlight the extreme level of disconnect in the legal profession. Law firm leaders fully understand that rapid technological changes are affecting client expectations and needs and yet remain shortsightedly focused on tweaking the delivery of services to increase short term revenues rather then focusing on meeting client demands in the long term.

This approach is akin to covering a shotgun wound with a bandaid and is simply unsustainable in the long run. But the good news is that although larger law firms are unable (or unwilling) to pivot in the face of industry-wide change, smaller firms and solo practitioners are not. For example, solo and small firm lawyers are already improving the delivery of legal services to their clients by taking advantage of legal software which incorporates mobile apps and tools, including client portals with communication and collaboration features. So, BigLaw’s reluctance to institute fundamental changes in the delivery of legal services will only serve to benefit the more responsive solos and small firms in the long run.

In other words, BigLaw’s loss will ultimately result in gains for solo and small firm lawyers–and most importantly, for their clients. And isn’t that what really matters?

–Nicole Black

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