* * *
Barring the occasional economic meltdown, the business of law does not change much from year-to-year, so it is more than a little pointless to try to predict what will happen in any given year. And even economic meltdowns don’t change the business of law very quickly. It’s taken years for lawyers and law firms to even begin to react to the changes wrought by the last one.
But there are larger trends at work in the legal industry, some of which will be coming into focus in 2014 and over the next few years.
The biggest change on the horizon for firms is probably the return — or continuation — of the conversation about non-lawyer investment and ownership. Richard Susskind thinks the drive for non-lawyer ownership will actually come from international law firms. Maybe so, but there are other sectors it could come from. It may get forced back onto the table by the latest raft of legal startups and the existing legal process outsourcers, which seem destined for a showdown over unauthorized practice of law if they don’t head it off by clearing the way for non-lawyer ownership of legal service providers. This may happen in 2014, or it may happen later, but it is definitely coming.
“firms that are giving lip service to efficient practices are going to have to start embracing them”
– Sam Glover
On a similar note, if current trends hold, firms that are giving lip service to efficient practices (flat fees, outsourcing, etc.) are going to have to start embracing them. The crucial part will be integrating new service models without diminishing client service and while maintaining high professional standards. Clients — and more importantly, ethics boards — will not settle for anything less. Firms that rush headlong into innovative business models may even find themselves in the unenviable position of being the first to defend those new law firm business models before an ethics board. Or worse, on the receiving end of a malpractice complaint.
Which brings me to what I think should be the focus of 2014 and beyond: lawyers’ professional obligations. It’s hard to see much of a focus on professional obligations in all the excitement over technology and new legal services models. But professional obligations do not go away just because clients demand lower bills. Lawyers will have to focus on the business of law while making sure they maintain high professional standards. This could be difficult, especially as some firms make big bets on new technologies, business models, or non-lawyer ownership.
Solos have their own set of challenges when it comes to adopting new technology and service models. On the one hand, it is easier for solos and small firms to adapt, for the simple reason that fewer people means fewer obstacles to adopting something new. But the challenge for small firms will be to (finally) become tech-savvy – savvy enough to make smart decisions on technology, at least, so that they can move forward without leaving their professional obligations behind. Small firms – especially solos – do not have IT departments to shoulder this burden. Small-firm lawyers are their own IT departments, and competing with large firms and non-lawyer-owned firms that may begin to serve the same client base could be a daunting challenge that leaves many small firms behind.
All these pressures existed in 2013, and they will exist after 2014. But the next few years are likely to see big changes across the legal industry. Some experts believe as many as 200 BigLaw firms could disappear within the next decade. Susskind thinks small firms are in the same kind of trouble. During the next year, we may start to get a better picture of which firms will survive, and how.
* * *
Photo credit: Flickr.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:
21 Expert Predictions for the Legal Industry in 2014