It’s that time of year again when gifts are exchanged and returned; resolutions are made and quickly breached; and hopes for the future abound- so long as one stays away from the news and social media.
So, in the spirit of the season- and recognizing what follows is as likely as Dentons foregoing future acquisitions- here is a holiday wish list for the legal vertical.
- The access to justice crisis is the front and center issue for the profession. How is it that millions of individuals and small businesses cannot afford representation at current rates when tens of thousands of lawyers are unemployed or under-employed? Structures, processes, and technology exist to achieve align the two groups.
- The ABA 20/20 Commission revisits its stance on Alternative Business Structures (ABS) and encourages State Bars to adopt re-regulation that sanctions it. This will not create financial conflicts between law firms and clients that don’t already exist. But it will serve clients- both in the corporate and retail segments of the market- by encouraging competition, innovation, and client-centric approaches to the delivery of legal services. It might just help lawyers, too.
- Here are some overused and meaningless terms that will be relegated to archaic status in legal parlance: bespoke, alternative provider, and partner when used as a verb. There are others, but this is a start. After all, lawyers define terms, so why not use greater precision to describe their own arena?
- And on the subject of legal-speak, lawyers abandon it- especially in contract drafting. Why not use plain language with an economy of words? Lincoln used only 272 in the Gettysburg Address. Boilerplate language and unnecessary verbiage protracts sales cycles, frustrates clients, and inflates legal fees. That’s why IBM’s Legal Department elected recently to compress its lengthy, complex cloud contract language to a straightforward two-page agreement.
- Technology is no longer regarded as either a panacea or death-knell for lawyers. It is neither. But it does enable many legal services to be delivered as legal products. And it promotes efficiency and cost-reduction in several areas including legal research, contract drafting, and eDiscovery to cite but a few examples. Technology is a horizontal- not a vertical- that has become one of the three legs supporting legal delivery’s three-legged stool (the others are legal expertise and business process).
- Lawyers get over their fear of “Uberization.” Uber serves clients well, and that is perhaps the main reason why it has overcome regulatory resistance. What’s the harm of an Uber model, especially in the retail legal segment, where it will help eliminate the access to justice crisis?
- Collaboration is recognized as an important element in legal education and practice.
- Legal metrics focus on results and other key performance indicators, not just cost.
- The American Lawyer attaches an asterisk when reporting a firm’s profit-per-partner. The asterisk details: number of new partners (separating out laterals), diversity representation within the equity ranks, and firm attorney turnover rates. PPP has long been the Holy Grail of legal metrics. But to sustain it, firms often “prune the herd” and take a short-term approach that has negative repercussions for clients as well as its own sustainability. The asterisk provides a clearer picture of the firm’s operations and priorities.
- Female attorneys are paid the same as males- and this includes partners. It’s lamentable this is a wish, not a reality- especially among lawyers.
- More law firms recognize that flex time and work/life balance advance client and firm interests. Perhaps greater balance would help the profession’s horrendous alcohol and drug abuse problem as well as reduce its shockingly high suicide, depression, job dissatisfaction, and divorce rates. It would also spare many lawyers the Hobson’s choice of working grueling hours or giving up the practice altogether.
- Law school is reduced from three years to two with a third year channeling medical residency. Not only would this reduce crushing educational debt but it would also ensure that graduates are more “practice ready” upon graduation.
- And on the subject of “practice ready,” law schools balance core doctrinal courses with a suite of “contemporarily relevant” courses (e.g. project management, legal technology, business basics, legal entrepreneurship). The practice of law has not changed much over the past several decades, but the delivery of legal services certainly has. Translation: law schools’ doctrinal curricula provide basics for legal practice (albeit no hands-on training), but legal delivery requires new skills.
- Law schools step up efforts to address the “access to justice crisis” (see above) by collaborating with law firms, service providers, and Bar Associations. Georgetown Law’s innovative partnership with DLA Piper and Arent Fox to create The DC Affordable Law Firm, a “low bono” firm serving DC residents, is a shining example. This Academy-private sector collaboration to serve the public interest can be scaled and replicated around the country.
- Lawyers become happier and less stressed. How? While “one size might not fit all” for satisfying this wish, there are some common threads. One, as noted earlier, is a better work-life balance. Another is executive education for recent as well as seasoned lawyers to make them aware of what is happening to legal delivery and why- and where new opportunities are. As well, the additional training will provide them new skills including those suggested in the supplemental courses for law school. These could be taught on a low-cost basis either by law schools or by private providers.
- Lawyers realize they are not “special”; forces that have altered the delivery of medical, accounting, and other professions services are now transforming the legal industry. One more time with feeling: law is not special, even if it has a critical role in cementing the fabric of a society governed by law.
- Lawyers- especially State Bars and the ABA- take a page out of Justice Breyer’s book, “The Court and the World: American Law and the New Global Realities.” When was the last time a Supreme Court Justice so publicly exhorted the profession- and the Court in its interpretation of the Constitution- to embrace a more global, less ethnocentric approach to legal interpretation?
Let’s throw in a New Year’s Resolution: lawyers strive to restore public confidence, trust, and integrity in the legal profession. A good place to start is for lawyers to focus more on clients, not themselves. Why is it that clients, not lawyers, are driving change in the delivery of legal services? And why with all the competition among lawyers are more of them not providing options to traditional service models (e.g. the traditional law firm partnership model?)
Legal services can be delivered more cost-effectively, efficiently, transparently, and universally. That’s good for clients, lawyers, and society.
A final thought: Happy Holidays and a healthy, peaceful, and fulfilling New Year!
Govern yourself accordingly.
This post was originally featured on Bloomberg BNA.