By Camille Stell and Ginny Allen
North Carolina attorneys are getting a glimpse of what the future holds due to recent events happening right here in our state. Avvo is offering limited legal services to consumers online. Legal Zoom filed a 10.5-million-dollar antitrust lawsuit against the North Carolina State Bar which was settled last year. Part of the consent order that resulted from that lawsuit requires both parties to “mutually support and use best efforts” to pass House Bill 436. HB436 will further define the “practice of law.”
Companies like Legal Zoom and Avvo have increased their market share through the use of technology to meet the needs of consumers in a different way. Technology and the internet are empowering consumers with access to information and a new selection of options. Lawyers are losing out on clients who are opting to “do it themselves.” Technology has improved the delivery of products and services to consumers who are growing more and more accustomed to personalization and convenience.
Technology is the main driver in the changes and challenges facing lawyers and law firms today. To address these challenges, a recent Harvard Business Review article suggests incumbent firms continue to invest in sustaining innovations (those which use technology to make the good services better in the eyes of existing customers) while also creating new divisions focused on growth opportunities arising from disruptive technology.
In their book, The Future of the Professions, Richard and Daniel Susskind discuss technologies as falling under one of two categories – automation and innovation. Many lawyers and firms are beginning to focus on automation within their practices. They have identified inefficiencies in the back office and are implementing technology to streamline processes.
Innovation, on the other hand, “enables ways of making practical expertise available that simply were not possible without the [technological] systems in question.” The authors go on to state that automation is the “comfort zone of technological change” for most professionals. So is automation enough, or will innovation be required?
What Does this Mean for Lawyers and their Firms?
The rapid advancement of technological change is overwhelming. But now is not the time to employ the “head in the sand” approach. Along with the change and challenges, there are real opportunities for creative lawyers to embrace technology to create profitable practices and build a following of loyal clients.
But where should you start?
Focus Your Practice
You can’t be all things to all people on the internet. While it may seem counterintuitive, a successful practice will continue to require attorneys to focus their services on only one traditional practice area, and in some cases, a subsection of the practice area.
If you were experiencing back pain and needed to see a doctor, would you rather see a doctor who helped patients with back pain, delivered babies, and helped teens with acne, or would you go to the doctor who only saw patients with back trouble? “Specialization” will only become more and more important for attorneys to remain competitive.
Understand your target client.
As you focus your practice, you naturally focus on the specific clients you can help. This is difficult for most attorneys who feel like they must cast a wide net so they don’t lose out on potential clients.
Developing a keen understanding of your ideal client, and the issues they face is growing in importance. Effectively marketing your practice online requires clarity on who you want to reach, and the development of messaging around the specific problems you help them solve.
You have less than 3 seconds to make a first impression online. As more prospective clients are researching potential attorneys online, you may be losing out on business you never even knew you were in contention for.
Evolve into Emerging Practice Areas
One particular way for attorneys to evolve their practices is to focus on emerging areas. The internet is creating the need for attorneys who are focused on issues around privacy, cyberbullying, net neutrality, and the accessibility of websites to those with disabilities, just to name a few.
One of the simplest ways to identify opportunities is to consider how technology is changing your current clients’ industries. What are the new challenges they face? If you don’t know, ask them.
For example, in 2015, Seyfarth Shaw launched their Social Media Practice. A Social Media Practice is an extension of several different traditional practice areas including employment law and intellectual property.
Create a “Product”
As a lawyer, you are in sales. You are selling your knowledge and expertise as a service that helps your clients with a specific problem. But what if you could package a part of the services you provide as a “product” that you could scale and sell over and over again? You can and you should.
Even if you aren’t ready to launch an online consulting business, packaging a specific scope of services into a “product” is a good idea. It provides new clients an opportunity to work with you on a clearly defined project, for a clearly defined price. It meets potential clients’ growing demands for transparency in legal services.
As an attorney, it allows you to begin relationships with new clients on a specific project that may very well expand into a larger relationship at a later date. You can create a system for the delivery of the product you develop so that you can leverage other timekeepers and maximize your margin.
Update Your Hiring Criteria
Instead of looking at the law school a potential hire attended, or the GPA he or she achieved, perhaps take a peek at non-traditional experience or skills as you make hiring decisions. For instance, has the attorney started his or her own business in the past? An attorney with an entrepreneurial drive might serve your firm well in exploring different ways to deliver your services. Does the attorney have a wealth of volunteer experience or a career between undergrad and law school? She may have strong “people skills” that will help with development of a new client relations program within your firm.
Be a Part of the Conversation
The most important first step for North Carolina lawyers is to start having more conversations around the challenges and opportunities the future holds for the profession. It is critical that these conversations extend beyond firm management to include a diverse cross-section of associates, paralegals, legal assistants, and administrative staff. If you have not yet had a discussion with your key clients on how their industries and businesses are changing, and how you can improve the delivery of your services to help them, now is the time.
Camille Stell is the Vice President of Client Services for Lawyers Mutual. Ginny Allen is a lawyer and the owner of Adept, a digital marketing firm focusing on lawyers. Continue this conversation by contacting Camille at firstname.lastname@example.org or Ginny at email@example.com for an in-house presentations on the Future of Law.