THIS IS ANOTHER POST IN THE FUTURE OF THE PRACTICE SERIES.
We live in an age when lawyers are underemployed and yet many consumers lack access to legal services. Law firms are losing business as companies “in-source” their legal work, while the incomes of some solo practitioners are plummeting. Many lawyers would like to make better use of technology to work more efficiently and have simpler legal processes—but they feel challenged by advances in technology and continue to face difficulties remaining profitable.
The Illinois Supreme Court’s Commission on Professionalism sought to square this set of circles with a presentation titled “Legal Innovations: Why Still an Oxymoron?” by Jayne Reardon, the commission’s executive director, who is also chair of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Professionalism. Reardon noted that at least 80 percent of consumers lack basic access to legal resources, and yet practicing attorneys cannot find enough work and new law school graduates cannot find work, period. An Altman Weil survey found that 68 percent of law firm attorneys said corporate law departments are “in-sourcing” work and another 24 percent saw this possibility as a potential threat. Only 5 percent said it was not a threat.
The presentation cited statistics from 2013, which one imagines may have improved somewhat with the growing economy since then but probably not that dramatically, that showed solo practitioner income had fallen 30 percent in the previous 25 years, from slightly over $70,000 annually to under $50,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars.
While cause and effect can be sketchy, Reardon cited numbers from the ABA and the Betty Ford Foundation establishing that 1 in 5 attorneys described themselves as problem drinkers, compared with just 11 percent of the “highly educated workforce” overall. Of the 20 percent of attorneys who acknowledged drinking to excess, 27 percent said their problem began in law school and 44 percent said it was in the first 15 years of their practices.
Asked what they would change about how they deliver legal services, one survey of attorneys conducted by the Illinois Commision on Professionalism showed that the top answer was “greater use of technology and electronic resources,” followed by “work more efficiently and have simplified legal processes,” two dots that it’s hard not to connect in your mind.
That same survey asked what attorneys expected would be their greatest challenges for their practices over the next decade. The top answer was “cost of software programs/keeping abreast of technology,” followed by “overcoming decreasing levels of demand and maintaining profitability and financial security.” Again, easily connectable dots.
In finding their needed innovations, attorneys and law firms need to be mindful that they are regulated by state supreme courts, Reardon noted. For those in Illinois, some specific edicts to keep in mind are Rule 5.4 governing “Professional Independence of a Lawyer,” which prohibits sharing of legal fees with non-lawyers and partnerships with non-lawyers that in any way consist of the practice of law; as well as Rule 5.5 governing “Unauthorized Practice,” which says that lawyers can neither practice law nor assist others in doing so in jurisdictions where they are not authorized to do so.
With these cautions in mind, attorneys and law firms will need to be nimbler than they have in the past to keep abreast of technology, meet the needs of a broad cross-section of clients, and stay fully employed—and thus profitable.