Annual Meeting 2011

As Nonlawyer Vendors, Would-Be Clients Take on More Legal Tasks, How Can Practitioners Get Ahead?

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Increased competition from nonlawyer entities and blurred distinctions between legal and nonlegal work are just two of the major impactors redefining modern law firms, regardless of their size.

As a result, lawyers need to embrace an entrepreneurial spirit more than ever. Indeed, they should distinguish themselves by providing value, beyond their knowledge of the law and being able to craft documents, panelists said at the ABA Annual Meeting on Friday.

“It’s getting to be so hard to define what the practice of law is,” said Thomas C. Grella, chair of the management committee at the Asheville, N.C., firm McGuire, Wood & Bissette. “So it’s going to be even harder for state bars to regulate in the future.”

The panelists emphasized that there are shrinking legal monopolies across nearly all practice areas: There’s been a permanent shift to self-representation in the majority of divorce proceedings in states such as California, and accounting firms and investment banks are encroaching on complex tax and regulatory matters once solely handled by law firms.

“Lawyers need to ask: Why are [clients] hiring me?” said Mark Robertson of Robertson & Williams in Oklahoma City. “Can they hire someone else and not have a law firm do it? What is involved in putting together the paperwork of an M&A transaction that requires a lawyer, other than an opinion?”

The impact of new, untrained law graduates who open solo practices fresh out of school was also a hot-button issue for the panel. The uptick in inexperienced solos poorly handling real estate closings in North Carolina—which is still the primary domain of lawyers in that state—is a growing concern, Grella said. “Unless addressed, the issue will continue to be a problem for the profession.”

The panel said that for firms to succeed and flourish in the future, there needs to be strong leadership among law firm management, a willingness to innovate with regard to technology and billing methods, and concise plans of succession that address the compensation squabbles that plague many firms when it comes time for senior partners near retirement to transition high-revenue generating clients to junior lawyers.

The session, titled “The Once and Future Firm: Fact v. Fiction,” was sponsored by the ABA Law Practice Management Section.

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