The Future of Small Law Firms
Article by Larry Port, Rocket Matter founder and CEO, in ILTA’s Peer to Peer Magazine, Summer 2014: Law2020 Future Horizons
Let’s get one thing straight: I’m an online-eyeglass-ordering, hybrid-driving, Internet-CEO hipster. I will be the first in line for a driverless car. And, as someone who has worked with thousands of small law firms, I predict there is no major disruption coming. Small law firm attorneys will not be traveling to the courthouse via jetpack anytime soon.
I see evolution, not revolution, coming with technology- and workflow-driven changes, mostly with the end result of more profitable firms that can handle more cases per attorney. But if you’re expecting fantastic changes like Uber’s disruption of taxis or Amazon’s upending of bookstores, I simply don’t see it in the cards.
In the future, small law firms will look much like the firms they are now. Humans will continue to find themselves mired in intractable, suffocating problems that need solving by brilliant attorneys. In the future — as in the present and past — small firms must serve their clients, and they will differentiate themselves by their success or failure in doing so. In that sense, nothing’s changing: good attorneys will prosper, and bad attorneys will languish or move on
From a process and business perspective, though, small law firms must change or likely go extinct. If you want a glimpse of how the future for small law firms will be different, just look at what early technology adopters are up to today. It turns out it’s quite easy to predict the future of small law firms, because the profession as a whole has been slow to adopt technology. Change is afoot in dynamic but gradual ways, for the benefit of most, though certainly not all. This change has four aspects:
1) ON THE ONE HAND, AUTOMATION MIGHT KILL YOU
If a cheapskate business owner or consumer can already theoretically replace a lawyer with an off-the-rack form, expect the future to be a lot worse. If I, as a business owner, can obtain a commodity legal service and have confidence (justified or not) that I will not get in trouble later on, small firms might want to come up with a contingency plan. Small law firms that help people in simple, transactional ways ( e.g. , with simple wills or creating LLCs) will have big problems.
The LegalZooms of the world will continue to pop up and improve with increasing rapidity. Resourceful law firms of all sizes will use contract attorneys to help with lower-priced, cookie-cutter work. Software automation will make document production easier than ever. These forces of commoditization will continue to increase until rival brick-and-mortar legal service providers are no longer able to compete. They will either leave the law and choose another career (Uber is looking for drivers, by the way) or have to migrate their activities to another specialization altogether, such as cleaning up the mess made by these off-the- shelf legal services…