Building the 21st-Cenury Law Firm

Use tech, yes, but your law firm must be client-centric

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Susan Cartier Liebel

Susan Cartier Liebel. Photo Courtesy of Susan Cartier Liebel.

Richard Susskind, in his book Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future, claims that legal institutions and lawyers are poised to change more radically over the next two decades than they have over the last two centuries.

The future of legal service, he says, will be a world of virtual courts, internet-based global legal businesses, online document production, commoditized service, legal process outsourcing and web-based simulated practice. Legal markets will be liberalized with new jobs—and new employers—for lawyers.

Pretty daunting, right? If not downright frightening.

I’d like to share another daunting prediction. By 2020, 40 percent of all working Americans will be self-employed (according to an Intuit study reported by Bloomberg News a few years ago). Now the legal profession has a disproportionately higher number of graduates who eventually end up self-employed, so by my calculations and some rudimentary math, this means that by 2020, approximately 68 percent of all private practice attorneys will be solos. What are the odds you will be a solo, too, if you’re not already?


I’d like to share the story of how I looked for my lawyer a couple of years ago when my husband and I had to do our personal wills.

I had a strong referral. I didn’t have a phone number, just the lawyer’s name. I did a Google search and came up empty. I checked legal directories. Nothing. I then used search terms for trusts and estates and my geographic area. Nothing. But someone else’s name did pop up several times.

She started talking to me—literally. She had educational video snippets of herself talking about issues facing those who want to create a will. She talked about my problem of selecting a guardian for our child, should something happen to us, not about herself. She invited me to call her, or I could chat with her right there if I wanted. If she wasn’t available I could leave her a text message online, and she would call me back; or I could schedule my own appointment on her online calendar.

I was hooked. I clicked over to her blog. I read some great on-point articles. She invited me to download a free checklist of what to consider when thinking about a will. I could follow her on Twitter and like her professional Facebook page if I wanted to.

She was talking to directly to me.

Then I realized she practices nearly two hours away. I didn’t have the time or inclination to travel that far. But wait: She had an element of her practice that allowed us to consult online, pay online, exchange documents online, even electronically sign online. If I wasn’t comfortable with the signatures, I could use a local notary. Everything was from the comfort of my home, or I could meet with her if I chose to.

I liked her, felt comfortable with her—all because of how she presented herself online. There were some testimonials. But I also did my own additional research. I checked her out on some online ratings sites to see if there were any reviews of her work by other clients. I saw she’d written some articles for local papers. I immediately called. I got a great professional voice service (not live) that allowed me to leave a message, and it was personalized.

She called me within two hours, which the voice service said she would. After our online consult, I hired her and handled everything but the final signatures on our wills online.

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Clients don’t want to have to struggle to find the right lawyer or fight to work with the right lawyer.

Whether you practiced law in the 19th or 20th centuries or do so in the 21st, we have to agree that some fundamentals will never change. You want to get clients. You want to do the legal work. You want to make a decent living doing the work you love.

In serving your clients, you have three primary obligations:

  • To the rules of professional conduct—ethics—as well as your own moral compass.
  • To due diligence as an advocate.
  • And to work done in a timely, effective manner and always in your clients’ best interest.

One caveat: What defines due diligence and a timely and effective manner is increasingly influenced by technology. Your use of technology will ultimately dictate your longevity in the profession.

What also will never change is how one gets clients. We have to agree that nothing replaces word of mouth.

You’ve hit the zenith in your professional career if 100 percent of your business is referrals from satisfied clients and your colleagues who respect you, and you have so much work from this source that you can pick and choose your clients and refer a bulk of these referrals to other attorneys. But you have to start somewhere.

Referrals are the brass ring. In order to achieve this level, produce consistent, excellent work and consistent, excellent marketing of your message throughout your professional career.

What has changed and will continue to change is:

  • The manner in which we deliver our marketing message.
  • The manner in which we work with our clients.
  • The manner in which we actually deliver our legal services (the entire representation and workflow process).

Building the 21st-Century Law Firm: See the rest of our coverage.CLIENT-CENTRIC

The philosophy you must embrace to have a successful solo or small-firm practice is that your firm exists to serve your clients. It must be client-centric.

Every choice you make—from who your clients are, how they learn about your services, how you communicate with them, how you serve them from the time they walk in the (virtual) door to the completion of their matters and beyond—must be from the viewpoint of the client.

This client-centric approach will encompass numerous areas, as I showcased with my own story. Consider everything: marketing and social media, self-publishing and video, how the phone is answered, the form of payments you will accept to virtual offices, unbundled legal services, law practice management solutions, e-discovery, technology in the courtroom and more.

Do not let this intimidate you. Remember, the principles of representing your clients will never change. The methods of engaging with your clients will be constantly evolving. The way you produce your work product will be constantly evolving. And your clients are evolving, too.

If you take the time to educate yourself on the tools necessary to help you be the most efficient and effective advocate for your clients, you will become the consummate 21st-century lawyer. Good luck.

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “What’s new? Your practice and you: Use tech, yes, but your law firm must be client-centric.”


Susan Cartier Liebel has been teaching, writing and speaking about how to start a solo legal practice for 16 years. A 2009 ABA Journal Legal Rebel, she is the founder and CEO of Solo Practice University. With more than 1,600 users and 1,500-plus individual classes, SPU includes representatives of over 200 U.S.-based law schools as well as law schools abroad.

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