Last week, at Minnesota’s Strategic Solutions for Solo and Small Firms Conference, I shared a panel with Lawyerist’s Sam Glover and an innovational speaker, Matt Homann. The panel focused on the future of solo and small-firm practice over the next ten years. Although we all agreed that the solos and smalls — and, indeed, lawyers in general — will face challenges over the next decade, I still believe that opportunities remain for solos who understand these challenges and figure out ways to overcome them.
So, no great surprise there. But all of us on the panel agreed that technology is changing the face of law practice in a way that may expand access to justice but that may also take work from solos and smalls….
Sam Glover observed that today, even the most sophisticated estate planning can be done by computers, and it’s just a matter of time before that happens. He added that technology doesn’t just pose a threat to transactional, forms-based lawyers; litigators are at risk too. For example, Ebay resolves more disputes through online dispute resolution than many large law firms handle in a year. Although currently customers employ dispute resolution for relatively small matters, there’s no reason that it may not be used, at least as a first cut, for many of the litigation matters that solos and smalls previously handled.
Matt Homann focused on the customer experience that sites like LegalZoom and other computer-driven, non-lawyer providers offer. Although most lawyers, myself included, like to harp on the fact that the quality of computer-generated, non-lawyer products leaves much to be desired, truth is that most consumers can’t distinguish on quality. So they look to more superficial metrics like website appeal or customer service — where, as Matt pointed out, these sites win over most solos and smalls hands-down. These sites aren’t necessarily high-end, but just like McDonald’s, McLegal is a good, dependable fix for many mid-sized legal problems that frankly most lawyers don’t want to handle anyway.
Matt also made the point that solos and smalls put too much emphasis on personal relationships as a defense to generic online services. Matt recounted that when he started a law firm fifteen years ago, he knew his banker and all of the other business owners in town. But these days, consumers rarely set foot in the bank anymore. So unless lawyers can figure out other ways to build personal relationships, that defense may not be as effective as we’d like.
As for me, I agree that technology has the potential to eviscerate solos and smalls in one feel swoop — but even though those capabilities exist, it doesn’t mean that our demise will come to pass. Though personal relationships won’t make the difference in all situations, I think that they can still play a role.
Don’t believe me? Then why not head out to one of the farmers’ markets that have been proliferating in suburban and urban communities. In my neighborhood, I’ll often stop by a local farmers’ market on Sunday, even though I live within a mile of two major grocery store chains, a Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. The product outshines the produce at any of the grocery stores, the prices are comparable, and it’s fun to chat with the merchants or sample the food. The point is that even in a world where consumers value convenience, we still enjoy — and are willing to pay for — the personal experience.
Don’t get me wrong. The farmer’s market analogy isn’t a lesson that solos and smalls can sit tight and keep doing business as if it’s 1899. For farmers, the markets represent only a portion of their business; many small farms have other streams of revenue through subscription produce sales or bulk sales to restaurants or tourism. Solos and smalls need to become creative and identify ways that we can deliver value to clients in the future. But in order to do so, we need to acknowledge that the future is here and the practice of law is changing. From what I observed on our panel, many lawyers haven’t yet reached that point — and may not before it’s too late.
Carolyn Elefant has been blogging about solo and small firm practice at MyShingle.com since 2002 and operated her firm, the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant PLLC, even longer than that. She’s also authored a bunch of books on topics like starting a law practice, social media, and 21st century lawyer representation agreements (affiliate links). If you’re really that interested in learning more about Carolyn, just Google her. The Internet never lies, right? You can contact Carolyn by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @carolynelefant.