What does the future hold for solos and small firms?
Your guess is as good as mine. But one thing is certain: there will be more of them in coming years, especially here in North Carolina.
That’s because law schools are cranking out new attorneys. The Board of Law Examiners is licensing them to practice.
And with the implosion of the biglaw firm model – which for decades provided a measure of certainty and stability to the job market – many new lawyers will have no choice but to hang out shingles and jump right into practice.
Where to Go, What to Do?
What factors will determine whether they sink or swim?
Jim Calloway, Director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Management Assistance Program and author of the popular Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips blog has been asking that very question.
Here are some predictions he makes about the future prospects of solos and small firm attorneys:
- Techies will come out on top. No surprise here. When all it takes is a laptop and high-speed Internet connection to open a law office, it stands to reason that those who know how to use the new tools will have an advantage.
- Competition will increase. Not only are the ranks of solos and small firm lawyers growing, but so are the number of non-lawyer services (Legal Zoom) and DIY consumer websites offering what was previously considered legal services.
"[A]nother powerful driver for change that’s emerging is the press for access to justice,” Calloway writes. “A lot of smart people are addressing this issue, and their solutions may involve less work done by lawyers in private practice. (See Washington state’s new Limited License Legal Technicians.) When a person can only afford to pay a few hundred dollars for legal services and not several thousand, the lawyer will have few options — primarily, to either cease doing that kind of work or figure out a way of doing it profitably at a reduced rate."
- The definition of “practicing law” will continue to change. For decades, lawyers have done things more or less the same way. The tools have changed (ie, email replaced couriers) but the mindset didn’t. Those days are gone. Practice management software, voice recognition devices, document assembly tools, videoconferencing and cloud computing have altered the nature of the game. They can save time and give the client a different – and improved – experience.
- Those who delegate will conquer. “Different types of law practices sustain different levels of staff support, but the trend in all law practices is less support staff per lawyer. We have seen the rise of the ‘true solos’ ─ computer-literate lawyers with no staff. While this has been a formula for success for many lawyers, the model works best for specialized practices. Consumer-based practices — especially in smaller communities, where a storefront location is seen as being a part of the local business community — need to think differently. For example, outsourcing services now provide an array of options that allow you to get clerical and paralegal help when needed, and to adjust service levels in slower times. Successful small firm lawyers have also created support networks that include lawyers with deep expertise who are available for consultation, vendors for outside IT support, and friendly accountants available for quick questions and referrals. These lawyers pay attention to nurturing those relationships and developing new ones.”
- Taking charge of your firm’s assets is key. Every practice needs a business plan that includes measurable goals and financial markers. Small firm lawyers should spend time not just balancing their books but planning their financial futures.
Are you a solo or small firm lawyer? What do you think the future will hold? We’d love to hear from you.
- Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips
- Law Professors Blog Network http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/legalwhiteboard/
- Attorney at Work http://www.attorneyatwork.com/five-thoughts-future-solo-and-small-firm-lawyers/
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney who has practiced North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.