At a recent panel discussion for a CLE presentation, a lawyer in the audience raised her hand and asked what lawyers, the State Bar of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co. (WILMIC), and anyone else committed to and invested in the success of lawyers and the legal profession are doing about the loss of clients to self-help websites, nonlawyers, and the rise in self-represented parties.
It was a loaded question, to be sure. But not an unfair one. Many lawyers have struggled for years with the challenges that have emerged in the past 10-20 years. I have heard several observers of the legal profession opine that there has been more change in the profession in the past 15 years than there was in the 50 years preceding. I have no reason to doubt that is true.
The proliferation of nonlawyers, or “legal technicians” as they are called in some states, has certainly changed the legal landscape. But before we even get to that evolution, we must consider the technological advances and how technology has changed not only the way lawyers practice but also the way clients seek legal help.
Does the date June 29, 2007, have any significance for you? Probably not. But it does in the technology world. That is the day the first iPhone was released. It might not carry the significance that other memorable dates in history do, but the release of the iPhone has arguably had more effect on how we have integrated the use of technology in our daily and professional lives than any other technology.
My granddaughter, Olivia, not yet 2 years old, has a Kindle Fire. She knows how to scroll and find her educational (yet fun!) videos. If and when she gets a new brother or sister, that sibling will probably learn on devices we haven’t even heard of yet. As we know, technology seems to be moving at the speed of light.
But lawyers try to minimize risk, not only for themselves, but for their clients, too. So they tend to stick with what they know and what has worked already. This, of course, creates tension between the risk aversion in the legal profession and the ever-changing expectations and demands of clients and is partly why many potential clients have migrated to LegalZoom, self-help websites, and nonlawyers.
“Technology has created all kinds of possibilities for lawyers,” says WILMIC claims attorney Matt Beier. “The ability to do things better and more efficiently has been great and has certainly led to better client service. It has also helped level the playing field, to some degree, for solo practitioners. At the same time, technology has also created some challenges, including file storage, client communication, and cybersecurity. And of course, it has increased client expectations exponentially. That’s where the risk comes in for lawyers and where we see issues pop up when dealing with claims. Lawyers cannot afford not to get up to speed. Continuing to do what they have always done won’t work anymore.”
The key is to start small with different tasks, get used to those, then expand your skills. I get a little better at it every year.
Madison lawyer Zeshan Usman, a solo practitioner, has embraced technology. “My computer software allows me to calendar my deadlines; do my billing, including send client invoices; keep a daily to-do list; and many other things. I keep my files electronically, so I’ve been able to go without the old file cabinets for years. It has proven to be very efficient for me.”
Usman understands how difficult it can be for lawyers who have not embraced every technological development. “It’s obviously easier when you are doing it from the beginning. I think the key is to start small with different tasks, get used to those, then expand your skills. I get a little better at it every year.”
Before the days of the internet, email, smart phones, e-filing, e-banking, and so on, most lawyers practiced the same way. Print ads, word of mouth, and old-fashioned “networking,” as we called it, helped bring in business. And of course, clients did not have the internet to “google” their legal problems. So, clients turned to lawyers for all the answers. Now, if they do come to you for help, they come armed with a lot of information – some of it faulty, but information nonetheless.
Several years ago, staff of the Dane County Family Court found that both spouses had lawyers in only 17 percent of divorce cases within one year after filing, compared to 44 percent in 1997. Clearly, more parties were “going it alone” in 2013, and I suspect that is still true today. Is it because people generally have become smarter since 1997 and no longer need legal advice? Or is it because people have access to more information than they did before? Or do they consider lawyers too expensive for the kind of value they think they will get? Maybe a combination of all three.
So what can lawyers do about this? How do you maintain your value amid all this change?
First, keep in mind that millennials, as both clients and colleagues, are a big part of the equation. Defined as individuals born between roughly 1980 and 2000, millennials are now the largest generation – 92 million in the United States – surpassing baby boomers. Millennials will google you. Make sure you have a digital “footprint” and a web presence.
Be flexible. The billable hour continues to be the most prominent revenue model for law firms. But that leaves little incentive for lawyers or firms to implement technology tools that create efficiency. But the problem is, more clients have grown to dislike the rigidity of the billable hour. They’re looking for value, not always willing to simply pay for whatever time you put into a case.
Usman says, “I don’t use the billable hour. I’ve utilized the flat-fee approach. I tell my clients, ‘This is what I’m going to do for you. It should cost this much.’ And then I explain the variables that could change the cost, either up or down. I think my clients are very comfortable with what I charge them. We forget what it’s like to be on the other side of the table. They want to understand what they are being charged for and what they are getting.”
Make sure you have a digital “footprint” and a web presence.
More clients are putting less value on in-person meetings, instead embracing the use of technology to communicate with you and do business with you where and when it is convenient for them. How many of us visit our bank anymore? We do our banking online, we buy airline tickets online, we book hotels online, we use Uber and Lyft instead of hailing taxis on the street. Amazon, e-bay, and other technology giants seem to have overtaken the retail world. So too has technology, to some degree, taken over the practice of law. You can’t fight it. You have to use it to your advantage.
In some ways, technology has helped level the playing field. Because of the efficiency technology can provide, small firms and solo practitioners can more easily compete with bigger firms, which in the past have had more resources.
More clients these days value access and feedback. They like being able to “engage” with you at almost any time, to check on the status of their matter (whenever they want) and get regular feedback from you.
“Client expectations are high these days, sometimes unreasonably high,” says Usman. “Some clients expect you to be available all the time. I had one client call me five times one day between 8 and 9 in the morning.”
Of course, there is a limit to how accessible you can be for your clients. Twenty-four hours per day? Certainly not. But somehow, whether it is through email, texting, client portals, or some combination of those, you must be able to provide a great client experience – responding promptly and keeping clients informed. Clients are no longer willing to simply wait to hear from their lawyer to find out what’s happening in their case.
Competing With Nonlawyers
When the lawyer in the audience at the panel discussion asked what leaders in the legal profession are doing about nonlawyer competition and the changing demands of clients, the resulting discussion among the panel and the audience revolved around doing good work, doing it on time, responding promptly to client calls and emails, and giving clients great value for what they are paying you. All good ideas. But there’s more to what is happening out there.
You are now up against the likes of LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer, and other nonlawyers and nonlawyer companies offering services that used to be solely in the domain of lawyers.
“This is not going away,” says Usman. “I think nonlawyers, or legal technicians as they are sometimes called, who are helping potential clients are better than people acting pro se. But I’d like to see some middle ground. Wherever this goes, we as lawyers have to provide value at the most reasonable cost, otherwise we’ll price ourselves out of the market and the nonlawyer or legal technician market will continue to grow.”
More clients are putting less value on in-person meetings, instead embracing the use of technology to communicate with you and do business with you where and when it is convenient for them.
It’s been three years since the state of Washington began allowing limited license legal technicians (LLLTs) to provide legal advice and assistance to clients in family law matters. That will certainly expand. States such as Oregon and Utah are studying the program, and a nonlawyer assistance program in landlord-tenant and consumer debt cases has been operating in New York City for about four years.
Let’s look at the nonlawyer legal services and self-help internet sites. One of the things they do is help consumers find and create their own legal documents and forms, with the express goal of accomplishing a legal purpose. But they cannot with certainty guarantee that purpose will be achieved with the forms provided. So they are offering some value, but not the complete value that clients want and need.
Lawyers can provide the same documents, and ideally, lawyers can also provide good, reasoned, expert legal representation with sound strategy, and some assurance that if something goes wrong, they can help the client resolve the problem. Although the internet services can offer the first type of service, lawyers can offer both parts, but they must be able to communicate their value to clients.
It’s a pretty safe bet that computer power and technology innovations will continue to grow at almost inconceivable rates. The number of online tools available to consumers will only expand. But so, too, will the number of tools available to lawyers. Technology trends continue to allow solo practitioners and small firms to compete on more equal footing with larger firms – quicker access to information allows for providing services to clients more efficiently.
Similarly, nonlawyers, legal technicians, and online legal services will continue to be part of the legal landscape. There’s no getting around that. It’s up to every lawyer to figure out how to embrace the change and continue to provide value to clients. As Usman says, “Lawyers have to figure out how to provide really good legal services and low cost. That means utilizing technology. Lawyers cannot survive without that.”