by Steven Haley, Groom & Cave, LLP
2013 SCCBA President
It is not uncommon to open a State Bar journal or an ABA publication and find an article discussing the increasing difficulties confronting solo and small firm practitioners, and/or the imminent demise of local bar associations. These articles reflect the reality of a paradigm shift for the practice law in this transformative era.
Advances in technology are changing the landscape for the practice of law. Basic forms and agreements for contracts, entity formation, family law and patent law are becoming more readily available from on-line sources. This is part of the process of the commoditization of legal products. Non-lawyer on-line providers such as Legal Zoom, Legal Force and Rocket Lawyer are thriving. Such non-lawyer providers represent a change in the manner in which legal services and products are provided. Not willing to rest on their successes, they are devoting research and development resources to increasing the complexity and sophistication of their products, through the use of Software as a Service (SaaS) technology. Large law firms also are making basic legal forms available on-line.
Attorneys who practice in the solo or small firm environment are faced with many challenges. The nature of their practices involves dealing with factors such as limited resources and limited support. Effective marketing of their services is a perennial problem. In addition, solo and small firm attorneys frequently experience a sense of isolation, i.e., a sense of not being connected to the greater legal community. The challenges presented by advances in technology have the potential to exacerbate the difficulties of solo and/or small firm practices. Some futurists anticipate that technology advances and market-forces will squeeze out solo and small firm practitioners in the near term, with mid-size firms sure to follow thereafter.
In order to address the paradigm shift presented by on-line technology advances, solo and small firm attorneys need to develop the skills necessary to compete in that environment. This applies to all generations, i.e., Boomer, Gen X and Gen Y. The fact is that while on-line technology advances present challenges for attorneys, they also present opportunities for attorneys to meet this paradigm shift and to use it for their advantage. For example, cloud-based technology can improve the manner in which legal services are provided. The use of cloud-based technology can improve communication between attorneys and clients. Storage of practice-related materials and files in the cloud can provide significant cost-savings for the solo and small-form practitioners. Indeed, some attorneys are shifting to a virtual on-line practice; others are developing a hybrid style of practice, using opportunities presented by the cloud-based technology while still maintaining a physical office.
Technology benefits new attorneys and experienced attorneys as it relates to developing on-line marketing skills. The lack of on-line marketing skills can render an attorney invisible to potential clients. New attorneys and experienced attorneys alike realize that they need to develop and improve their on-line marketing skills, such as search engine optimization (SEO), in order to adapt and to differentiate their services from the background noise of the on-line environment. Developing and mastering such on-line marketing skills can level the marketing playing field for solo & small firm practitioners vis-à-vis large firms and non-lawyer on-line providers.
Voluntary bar associations as well are faced with a shifting landscape, principally related to the demographics of their membership. The Boomer generation is well known to be a generation that readily joined membership driven professional groups and associations. However, the Boomers are rapidly reaching the retirement age, and membership driven associations of all types are expected to experience dramatic decreases in membership. The issue for such groups is to attract new members from the Millennial generations, otherwise known as Gen X and Gen Y. Millennials are perceived as not being willing to join an organization simply because it has always been there; they are interested in how the organization can provide value to their professional life. Voluntary bar associations are not immune from these issues and these demographic pressures. Supposedly, the hey-day of bar associations has passed.
Despite these challenges, voluntary bar associations can provide value to their members’ professional lives. Value involves providing relevant continuing legal education programs for members to assist them in developing on-line skills for the use of cloud-based technology, and for establishing an on-line marketing presence; as well as providing guidance as to the potential ethical pitfalls related to the on-line practice of law. The SCCBA’s Law 3.0 series of programs is an example of this type of value-driven continuing education.
Local bar associations provide many intangible benefits to their members, as well. Providing opportunities that allow members to develop a leadership role in the local legal community is an important added value to bar association membership and helps individual lawyers fill their unique role as lawyers in our democracy. A member’s participation in bar association committees and sections in their chosen fields of practice provides them with this leadership role. Similarly, participation in bench-bar related activities increase a member’s opportunity to be more actively involved in the broader local legal community beyond the day-to-day representation of clients.
Bar associations can also provide value to their members by providing networking opportunities, whether in the form of substantive law committees, in which attorneys have shared interests with the other members, or in the form of social events. The prevailing wisdom has been that networking will not be a significant value for bar association members in the future, particularly to Gen X and Gen Y attorneys. Contrary to this accepted wisdom, the SCCBA has experienced an increase in the expectation of, and participation in, professional networking opportunities by both experienced and newer attorneys alike.
There is no dispute that developments and advances in technology, and the on-line commoditization of legal products and services, present challenges for attorneys, old and new. However, the paradigm shift for providing legal services also presents opportunities for attorneys to adjust and adapt to the changing environment for the legal profession. Local bar associations as well need to adapt in order to provide value to their members by providing education programs designed to address such issues. They can also be a source of intangible value to the professional lives of their members by providing leadership opportunities and opportunities to become more actively involved in their local legal communities.
The SCCBA leadership, past, present and future, is working diligently to make this transition. We see it as an exciting opportunity for attorneys to meet their professional obligations as part of the third, independent branch of government.
The relationship between attorneys and local bar associations has historically been one of mutual dependence, mutual benefit and mutual value. The challenges presented by the ever-increasing pace of change in the legal services environment will compel both attorneys and local bar associations to adapt in this transformative era.