Futurist calls for bar leaders to define the future of law practice

Issue Februray 2004

Photo by Roger Farrington
Noted futurist and attorney Charles F. Robinson provides a glimpse into the future of law practice.
How will you practice law in 10 years? Will there be cap on contingency fees? What other services typically handled by attorneys will be being performed by other professionals? Will lawyers adapt to changing technology?

Lawyer and noted futurist Charles F. Robinson offered insight on the these questions, addressed other challenges facing the future of law practice and shared his ideas on what attorneys can do to preserve the profession during Annual Conference 2004.

During a plenary session, Robinson spoke about four critical issues the bar needs to watch closely and plan for: tort reform; the declining public image of the bar and lawyers in general; multi-jurisdictional practice; and how technology is changing the profession.

For one of the critical issues - the public's perception of lawyers - Robinson pointed to a 2000 study conducted by the New Hampshire Bar. Graduates of Franklin Pierce Law Center sent surveys to their clients that were returned with disparaging remarks about the profession ranging from attorneys complicate already complicated problems to lawyers don't know when to step aside.

"Maybe all of those clients are wrong," Robinson said. "But don't we have to listen when we get that kind of feedback?"

Robinson also said attorneys should look at the California bar and hope that what happened there several years ago does not become a trend. Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the budget for the mandatory California bar - a decision that was met with apathy by attorneys there.

"When the bar ceased to exist … what was the response of the California lawyer? Apathy. No one in California, or at least only a small percentage, really cared … Leaders of the bar were astonished there was no support from the bar," Robinson said.

Robinson also said attorneys should be alert as to other professions that are now picking up services that attorneys typically performed. Competition for services is only going to become tougher in the future.

"We're going to be in free and open competition for our services," Robinson said. "We are not going to be spending our time tracking down UPL (unauthorized practice of law) cases."

One way to save the profession, Robinson said, is to stick to core values that have always defined the profession: honesty, integrity, nobility, decency, respect and character.

"This is the group of attributes that can't change or we won't be anything," Robinson said.

Robinson recommended the bar undertake a three-year commitment examining the future of law practice.

In year one, attorneys would evaluate the current state of practice and examine the challenges. A second year study would look outside of the profession for major trends. In year three, bar leaders would look back 10 years to see what has changed to determine action steps that will foster the preferred future. The commitment would be followed by a fourth-year approach to monitoring for new trends.

"Bar associations including this one need to think of terms of an era instead of one year serving as an executive officer," Robinson said.

Following the plenary session, Robinson participated in a panel discussion on the future of law practice with William Hogan, chair of the ABA's General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Section; Amy Cashore Mariani; Robert T. Cannon; and Patrick Francomano.

Mariani said the profession should study why so many attorneys are leaving the profession to pursue other careers.

"We not only have to look to educating the public, but was also have to educate law schools and law students about what people can expect when they enter the practice of law … and what we can do to keep the best and the brightest because we are losing them everyday," Mariani said.

Cannon suggested attorneys look outward to other industries such as steel, which failed because it didn't adapt to changing times. For example, Cannon asked how many attorneys who would refuse a client who walked in to his or her office asking the lawyer to draft a simple will for $100. Several people raised their hands.

But deciding not to perform that service may become detrimental as more and more people are turning to the Internet for services, including one program that will draft a simple Massachusetts will for $39.99, Cannon said.

"It's exactly what I would have prepared if I were to do it for $100," Cannon said. "That's a type of disruptive technology that will overthrow us if we don't understand and plan for it in the future."

Cannon said lawyers are pricing themselves out of middle-class America, and it needs to adapt to changing times.

Hogan said the process of talking about the future of law practice is more important than figuring out exactly how law will be practiced in 10 years or more.

"It shouldn't be focused solely on what the future will look like, but should be focued on engaging all aspects of our profession … in the process of looking at the future," Hogan said.

For example, why are so many law students now trying to buck the traditional trend of working for large firms or government agencies in favor of starting their own firms or working for smaller firms. Finding out answers to that question and what is motivating people to attend law school will help the profession better understand its future.

"The most important thing is not to sit back and say, 'In 2010 what is the practice going to look like.' It's important for all of us to sit back and engage in a discussion of what we think the profession should look like," Hogan said.

Several attorneys in the audience also suggested studying the trend away from medium-sized law firms to mega-firms, the consolidation of the industry, the depersonalization of law and even the billable hour.

"When I started the practice of law, there wasn't a billable hour," said Bob Bigelow, an attorney who was admitted to the bar 50 years ago. "I'm wondering whether we might look at that and charging by the job and get away from - which I'm partly a father of - the billable hour."

Still, others were quick to point out that doing away with the billable hour could become detrimental, particularly in cases that involve an intense amount of time or are being vehemently fought by opposing counsel.