The Future Law Practice

AJ Yolofsky

The future is here much sooner than anyone in the legal profession might have expected. For years, we have seen how due diligence and document review could be sped up through technology. Skype, and now Zoom, had been tentatively used in teleconferencing but had not penetrated into the courtroom. Artificial intelligence has just begun to work in the legal environment. With the national response to COVID-19 requiring courthouses, law firms and individual attorneys to go, and stay, inside, a new type of legal practice is emerging.

More than just moving everyone indoors, the social distancing shutdowns have created a new type of work environment. Many businesses are in deep trouble. Restaurants that relied upon turning tables twice every three hours on Thursday, Friday and Saturday are now hoping that their delivery and pickup of meals can keep them afloat. Landlords across the country have no idea when they will collect rent again, or if they will be able to enforce their lease agreements. Some businesses have moved to the virtual world to continue their operations. The conventional practice of law has recently been shown to be nearly as archaic as some of the language in contract template that has been held over since the 1970s. When the lockdowns are finally removed, will anyone go back?

Most of the law firm industry operates on a few basic metrics, the billable hour, origination, and utilization. Assuming an attorney meets the roughly 2000 billable hours per year, collects a reasonable percentage of the hours billed, and is able to originate sufficient business to pay for themselves and a portion of their assigned staff – the attorney will be employed for another year. In the law firm of the future, billable hours will be irrelevant, collections will rule, and business development will depend more on an attorney’s ability to communicate rather than pure knowledge.

The billable hour can be considered the root cause of many problems plaguing the industry. Bar associations across the country have released reports about the poor state of attorney mental health. Wellness programs and meditation CLEs have started popping up. The problem is much deeper and these suggestions are akin to using dental floss when a tourniquet is required. Meditating twice a day will be of little effect when a designated employee is tasked with walking the halls twice a day to see who is working. Requiring emails be answered at 2 a.m. also creates this horrible work environment.

The death of the billable hour has been discussed at length in the legal press. It’s an inefficient method of determining value. It’s counterintuitive to believe that spending 3 hours researching and drafting a short memorandum of law should cost more than .3 hours of an experienced attorney’s time to answer the same question. Similarly, knowledgeable experts should be compensated for their ability to solve problems in shorter amounts of time. However, the unseen challenge with obtaining billable hours is the time necessary to actually (and honestly) bill one. 

To achieve 2000 billable hours per year, an attorney must on average bill 40 hours per week on a 50 week year. Vacation and time off have more often been the pre-COVID concept of remote work. The reality is that to get 1 billable hour, between 1.25 and 1.5 actual hours were required. Once usual office distractions such as fantasy football, office politics, and national or state politics are factored in, the office workday becomes more cluttered. Despite the focus on the number of hours billed, the true performance metric is collections. 

To get billables and collections, there must first be business development. Usual methods of in-person business development methods have been significantly modified. Zoom has become the preferred method of having meetings, though it’s a bit uncouth to be chomping on a sandwich right into the computer’s camera. Also, most potential clients would probably frown on a first conversation happening during a lunchtime video conference. Regardless, the main limiting factor in this type of business development is that it is restricted to 1-1 communication.

Fortunately, it is relatively simple to change from a 1-1 communication to a 1-to-many. Social media provides an evergreen opportunity to speak to potential clients. Unfortunately, most attorney social media posts are bland and impersonal, which are less likely to drive any type of engagement. The intended audience might scroll by without ever learning if that update could be helpful to them. As we enter the post-COVID-19 lockdown environment, the ability to engage potential clients with insightful, entertaining, and helpful content.

Technology is the great equalizer. With artificial intelligence, a solo attorney can replicate a platoon of junior attorneys researching every last case in the history of a point of law in less time and at a lower price. Speech recognition and drafting tools permit the creation of complex documents in a short period of time. Blockchain technologies will eventually smooth out basic transactions. Also, eleven states have now adopted electronic notarization and more states will follow suit. And, we’re only at the beginning stages of what will be offered. The more that artificial intelligence improves, the less that non-rainmaking attorneys will be needed.

From the client’s perspective, obtaining value from legal services will be as important as getting the job done. No client asks, “I wonder how long I can get billed”; instead, the question will be “how can this be done most effectively?” Attorneys who are strategists, problem solvers, and personable will see the most business. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to win a congeniality award. It does mean attorneys will have to connect with people.

Now, the more agile law firms will adopt the current distributed work style to provide greater flexibility to the attorneys who can generate business and collect on that work. Presently, it’s much more difficult for managers to check to see who is sitting in front of their laptop reviewing a draft filing. Indeed, as long as the work is getting done at the required level, no one should really care when it was saved to the server. 

Attorneys have a real opportunity to make changes that will better the profession and restore some balance to our lives. Will we take advantage of the separation that the pandemic has given us?

Tags: COVID-19, The Future Law Practice


AJ Yolofsky

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