Annual Meeting

Lawyers offer tips on how to adapt to the ongoing disruption in the legal market

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It’s no secret that the legal industry has undergone a radical shift over the last few years as clients are demanding better, faster and cheaper legal service.

It’s a shift that continues to develop and could yet take some unexpected twists and turns. While that can be scary for many lawyers, the good news is that if they’re proactive, then they can not only survive this disruption, but also thrive.

That was the main takeaway from Thursday panel discussion at the ABA Annual Meeting in Boston, featuring lawyers from large and small firms as well as an in-house counsel. The panelists, who consisted of Paul Hastings associate Kevin Broughel, Valorem Law partner Paul McDonald, Boies Schiller & Flexner partner William Ohlemeyer, Haliczer Pettis & Schwamm partner Eugene Pettis and TripAdvisor senior counsel Bradford Young examined some of the changes that have occurred in the legal industry in a session entitled “Disruptive Innovation and the Legal Services Market: Are Upsets on the Horizon?” The program was sponsored by the Section of Litigation.

The panelists focused on the attorney-client relationship and emphasized that lawyers had to make sure they put their clients’ interests first. Young pointed out that outside counsel need to recognize what clients are concerned about and offer solutions to their problems. “Alternative fee arrangements are huge with us because we get hit with patent troll suits all the time,” he said. “As such, any lawyer that proposes capped fees immediately gets my attention because it gives me certainty.”

The panelists said that lawyers also need to engage in some introspection. “Lawyers need to ask themselves: ‘What is it that I do, and what’s it worth to my client?’” Ohlemeyer said. “Lawyers also need to recognize that maybe there are some things that we don’t do better than others.”

The panelists noted that technology has allowed customers to disaggregate their legal work and rely on cheaper options for e-discovery, contract management, document filing and other basic legal work. Pettis singled out legal services providers like LegalZoom and Axiom as the biggest nontech disruptors of the legal market.

“Don’t sleep on the LegalZooms of the world,” Pettis said. “They’re more of a threat to the legal industry than anything else.” Pettis noted that Washington state had recently made it easier for nonlawyers to handle work that would have traditionally gone to licensed lawyers and warned that more states could follow suit. “In five years or so, we’ll be sorry we didn’t pay more attention to [LegalZoom],” he said.

McDonald, however, looked at this development as a positive, pointing out that there’s no reason why a firm couldn’t work with a legal services provider and thereby free lawyers up to do more high-end work. “Lawyers have expertise and experience, and that will continue to be valuable,” McDonald said.

One thing that lawyers should not do, according to the panel, is stand pat. Pettis, who represents Starbucks, quoted the company’s CEO, saying: “If you’re in business today and you’re trying to maintain the status quo, you’ll be toast.”

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