The legal market has changed, and it is going to keep on changing for some time. Clients of all sizes, from Fortune 500 companies to families, have less money to spend on lawyers. But they want more for less, if anything, which is an impossible task for Luddite lawyers. Meanwhile, legal startups are commoditizing more and more of what used to be work only lawyers could do. The “new normal” legal market is in a state of constant flux, and the next six years will see more changes than anything that has come before.
If your firm stands still for the next six years, it may not last even that long. But where there is change, there is opportunity. Nimble lawyers and law firms can not only survive the next six years, they can prosper during that time. Here are six things you can do to position your firm to take advantage of change.
1. Redesign Your Website
Stop thinking of your website as just a marketing tool. It is, of course, but it is also more than that. The first time you meet your clients is almost always the first time they visit your website. Even though you are not there, you will be making an impression on them. Pull up your website on your phone right now. What impression are you making on visitors?
I mentioned your phone on purpose. Google just announced that the majority of searches now come from mobile devices. While the majority of visitors to your firm’s website may not be mobile yet, it is just a matter of time. Your site’s mobile design is quickly becoming more important than the way it looks on a desktop or laptop computer. Many of your clients will spend more time on your website than they will in your office, so give it an appropriate amount of your time, attention, and budget.
The design of your website is critical when it comes to making that positive impression on your users. At Lawyerist, we have been digging up the best law-firm websites for years, and we have developed a set of best practices gleaned from the winners of our annual contest. Get the design guide for free at lawyerist.com/shop. If it is helpful to you, we can also help you figure out what you need when it comes to search-engine optimization (SEO) and online marketing strategy.
2. Upgrade Your Computer Security
A lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, information relating to the representation of a client. (Rule 1.6(c) of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct)
For some time, lawyers have used the word reasonable in Rule 1.6(c) to avoid doing anything meaningful when it comes to computer security. Is it unreasonable to expect lawyers to encrypt their files? Many seem to think so. And yet encrypting your files takes about 3 clicks on any modern PC or Mac. That barely qualifies as an effort, much less an unreasonable one. What about taking precautions when using public Wi-Fi networks? It takes just a few minutes to learn how to spy on computers connected to a public Wi-Fi network like the one in your favorite coffee shop or at the courthouse. It would take you a few minutes to set up a VPN to protect yourself. Is that unreasonable?
The meaning of reasonable has changed, and it will continue to change as security precautions continue to get cheaper and easier to use. Encrypting your client files, taking precautions when using public Wi-Fi, using two-factor authentication, and using good passwords—these are now basic security that every lawyer should be using to safeguard client information. It is unreasonable not to follow these basic best practices.
Not knowing about these security precautions—or how to implement them—is no excuse, either. The recently added comment 8 to Rule 1.1 makes this clear:
[A] lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology …
It is lawyers’ job to know the options, intelligently assess which are reasonable, and implement them. Acquiring this basic level of technological competence takes time, but technological competence is part of professional competence. Our “4-Step Computer Security Upgrade” is a quick-fix guide to implementing four important computer security precautions that will make it as easy to lock the virtual door to your computer as it is to lock the physical door to your office.
3. Go Paperless
In 2005, when I went paperless, there was nothing cutting-edge about it. My malpractice insurance provider recommended it, in fact, and I have never thought of insurance companies as cutting-edge. In fact, the federal courts have been paperless for years. Many state courts are transitioning to paperless files. Even doctors, the one profession lawyers could always point to as more technologically-backwards, have gone paperless.
And yet many lawyers are still arguing about whether or not it is even possible to go paperless in a law practice. It is, of course, and the advantages are clear. Going paperless (or, to be perfectly clear, mostly-paperless; getting rid of all paper isn’t practical) saves money and time, makes it easy to work from anywhere, and can substantially increase the security of your client files.
If your law firm is not paperless in 2015, it is way behind the curve. A paperless office is essential if you want to position yourself to take full (or in some cases, any) advantage of current and future technology for law practice.
4. Automate Your Documents
Legal services are being commoditized, meaning that consumers of legal services can buy a will without much more trouble than they can order a keyboard from Amazon. While it is true that lawyers may provide better services in many cases, consumers may not care. Why would someone pay $1,500 for a lawyer to form an LLC when they can get an adequate set of documents for $150?
The solution is to commoditize your practice before someone else does. If you can provide better-quality legal services than a website can, you should be able to create better-quality automated documents, as well. That doesn’t mean you have to try to compete on price. If you automate your own legal services, it means you can serve more clients with the time you free up.
Document assembly is neither new nor complicated; you just have to start doing it.
You can do simple document automation (cover letters, customizing standard documents) using software you already own, like Outlook, Word, and many practice management systems.
You probably also craft more complex documents that can’t be automated with the push of a button. These documents require a more complicated set of questions that trigger different components within the document. This is where you can leave the DIY websites far behind. You know the right questions to ask and the right modifications to make based on the answers you get better than any of the people building documents for LegalZoom.
How you use these documents is up to you. You could sell them from your website. Or you could simply use them to speed up your own document-drafting process. What seems clear, however, is that in the very near future it will become impossible to charge clients for the time it takes to craft a document from scratch. Or at least, it will become impossible to find anyone willing to pay for that service. If anything, after all, scratch-built documents are more prone to errors than pre-fabricated documents crafted with experience and improved over time.
5. Unbundle Your Services
Many lawyers meet their clients’ demands for lower fees by cutting their rates. That means doing the same work for less money. If your rates really are too high, maybe you should lower them, but if your rates are already reasonable, you cannot make up for that lost revenue without working longer hours—which you probably can’t do.
Instead of doing the same work for less money, consider doing less work for the same money. Not everying wants or needs a lawyer to handle every aspect of a legal matter, from drafting documents to licking stamps. In order to cut costs, many clients are willing to do some of their legal work themselves. Corporate legal departments are growing, and consumers are realizing they don’t always need to buy full-service representation. Offering legal work in smaller pieces—unbundled legal services—is becoming more common.
The result for the client is the same: a lower bill. But since you aren’t getting paid any less for your time, you can work on finding more clients to make up for the lost revenue. And since you can charge less, it should be easier to get those clients.
6. Stay on Top of the Changing Legal Industry
The previous five tips will help you position your firm to take advantage of the changing legal market, but the future doesn’t stand still. Marketing strategies, technology, ethics, and best practices are a constantly-moving target. To stay current and continue to adapt, there is no better place for solos and small-firm lawyers than Lawyerist.com, an online magazine, law practice resource, and home to the largest community of solo and small-firm lawyers on the web.
Sam Glover is a lawyer and the founder of the online magazine, Lawyerist.com, home to the largest community of solo and small-firm lawyers on the web. On Lawyerist, Sam writes and podcasts about legal technology, law practice management, marketing, and more. His most recent publication is Lawyerist’s “4-Step Computer Security Upgrade.”