Ready or not, change is here. For lawyers, these changes affect every aspect of who they are and what they do. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be running a blog series entitled: “The Changing Face of the Profession.” We’ll be chatting with legal professionals about the changes in the practice of law and what it means for the future of the profession. This week we’re talking to Kevin Pratt, founder of CoLaw.
LM: CoLaw is a coworking space for lawyers. It seems as if coworking spaces have gone from a trend to more of a professional lifestyle choice. Do you find that this concept resonates more with millennial lawyers?
KP: CoLaw is a business making coworking spaces more accessible, more economical, and more conducive for lawyers. From a workspace perspective, one CoLaw subscription allows a lawyer to access multiple private offices in multiple coworking spaces with first-come, first served conference room bookings. We believe space, and access to it, is a time suck for lawyers. So we take care of it for them. That’s it. That easy.
Choosing to locate a law practice in a coworking space is a response to at least the following market forces: (1) millennial and Gen Z lawyers place greater value on workspace as an experience; (2) economic realities are changing such companies of all sizes are looking at how to reduce their real estate footprint; and (3) clients, on average, view a lawyer’s overhead with increased scrutiny. In that context, the value of a “traditional” real estate solution—i.e., long term commercial lease—is less than it used to be. Ultimately, the wrong kind of workspace solution can be a constraining leash that inhibits growth. Lawyers are ready to be done with that. With those preferences, and faced with a new normal, more lawyers are choosing to locate their practices in coworking spaces.
LM: Do you see firms and practitioners moving away from the traditional firm model?
KP: Yes, without question. The Big Four and limited legal services engagement platforms, such as Legal Zoom, have long been encroaching on the traditional model. That encroachment continues to have a trickle-down impact on small and mid-size firms. The encroachment is owed, at least in part, to prospective clients wanting greater control over their engagements. Because prospective clients have greater access to knowledge, gone are the days when a lawyer could leverage their perceived monopoly on knowledge. Nevertheless, lawyers still have a blue ocean of opportunity contingent upon a few minor changes to the traditional model. Here are some examples: (1) leveraging discrete technologies more efficiently, like videoconferencing, to eliminate wasted time in the pre-engagement process; (2) revisiting the engagement process to give prospective clients greater control and more informed choice as to the nature and scope of engagements (think: how do prospective clients engage with Legal Zoom); (3) developing a platform and compensation structure promoting the growth of lawyers who work from anywhere; (4) revisiting compensation plans to reward lawyers for business development, marketing, and management functions independent of any production-based compensation plan.
LM: What advice do you have for law school students entering practice and trying to find their place in the profession?
KP: Don’t be the lawyer you think you should be. Instead, be the person you’ve always wanted to be. Once you make that conscious choice, be courageous. Have compassionate conviction to do what you think is best. And if you’re wrong, be accountable to your decision, learn, and move on.
LM: What role do you see technology playing in the future of law?
KP: Technology, when leveraged appropriately, will free lawyers to perform higher value tasks; empower lawyers to engage more nimbly with their clients; and create an improved customer experience. Our challenge is in discernment: that is, avoiding the tendency in using technology simply because we think we’re supposed to. In that case, it’s just wasted money.
LM: How can attorneys make their practices more marketable in a time where firms must compete with Legal Zoom and other online services?
KP: Legal Zoom and its contemporaries will always be able to do the “transactional” piece of a lawyer’s job, but it will never fully replace a lawyer’s work as a counselor of law. Our value as advisors and counselors is immeasurable. Lawyers have the capacity to tell their clients: “let me do the worrying for you, that’s my job.” Legal Zoom does not have that capacity.
That’s a meaningful distinction because lawyers can compete with online legal service providers by automating the “transactional” portions of their practice. Doing so will facilitate friction-less engagements. With less friction and greater consumer choice, a lawyer’s practice becomes more like the discrete transactional deliverables offered by online legal service providers with the assurance of having a dedicated advisor and counselor on your bench to do the worrying for you.
LM: What is one thing you know now that you wish you had been taught in law school?
KP: I wish there was a class that helped aspiring lawyers develop technical skills valued in the marketplace. There are incredible opportunities for people who can “think like a lawyer” and develop like a programmer.
LM: How can attorneys use technology to bridge the generational gap in the profession?
KP: Tough question. It’s a mindset. I think young lawyers and experienced lawyers have ingrained perceptions about each other such that technology, the use of it or conversations about it, has baggage. It’s a little bit of confirmation bias. Here’s a sample conversation:
[Experienced Lawyer]: Jane, our millennial lawyers simply don’t work hard. Their entitled and always on their phones.
[Millennial Lawyer]: My boomer boss doesn’t appreciate how much I work away from the office, and my phone is a tether. I’m expected to have work email on it, so of course, I’m always on my phone. If I’m not on work email, I’m looking something up that, more likely than not, pertains to my daily job. And to the extent I’m looking at social media, why are law firms the last to adopt social media as a business development tool. Too often we sit on the sidelines pontificating about the plusses and minuses of a particular technology and we miss opportunities. Can we (lawyers) just move faster!
When you have that kind of baggage, a new technology conversation or a proposed use of technology can further ingrain stereotypes. If millennial lawyers and experienced lawyers change the way we think about each other, change the way we talk about each other, and understand that we’re not playing a zero-sum game, then we’ll be better positioned to have productive conversations about technology to bridge generational gaps.
LM: Mental health and wellness seem to be a high priority in the profession right now. What changes can be made in the profession to ensure the well-being of legal professionals?
KP: We must find a way to value a lawyer’s skills beyond the billable hour. In a traditional firm, our current compensation model rewards lawyers almost exclusively for production. The model flushes many lawyers out of the system. Perhaps worse, we have disenfranchised lawyers who stay in traditional models because that’s all they think they’re equipped to do. It’s unfortunate. No one is winning in that model.
Beyond that, we must continue to push the wellness conversation. In comparison to colleagues in other industries, lawyers are, on average, incredibly private and terse in their interactions. There’s authenticity in transparency and vulnerability. Lawyers need to be more comfortable in vulnerable spaces, and they need to engage more meaningfully with their colleagues authentically and transparently.
LM: Niche law practices seem to be on the rise. Do you see this as a passing trend or something that will become more of the norm for the legal profession?
KP: The most-fulfilled lawyers do one thing well. They identify something that interests them outside of their day-to-day practice, and then they find a way to incorporate that in their practice. Here’s an example: one of my former bosses had family in health care. She enjoyed the mental gymnastics of clinical decision making. She enjoys researching articles that explain clinical decision making. Then, she enjoys (like really enjoys) being in the courtroom. The result: a medical malpractice defense litigator. And a good one at that. That’s one example. There’s a bike lawyer in Charlotte, whose practice is conveniently located on the Rail Trail. The point is: lawyers are a helping profession. We want to help everyone. But, in trying to help everyone, we often help no one well. And worst of all, we don’t help ourselves.
As part of our Annual Report, we sat down with Kevin and a few other legal professionals to discuss the future of the profession. Check out the podcast along with our full annual report here .