The Changing Legal Industry and the Birth of AltLegal

Moderated by Dan Lear

]The down legal market and the lack of opportunities for all legal professionals has gotten a lot of press. While the numbers don’t lie, these changes in the market are also leading to some very new and interesting opportunities. Some have referred to these hybrid roles as “AltLegal” jobs. This article explores this idea in greater depth.

AltLegal describes the emerging space between traditional practice and what were previously referred to as non-practicing or “JD Preferred” jobs. Examples include eDiscovery, conflict management and resolution, legal technology and entrepreneurship, legal IT, social entrepreneurship in the law, practice management, client relations, licensing, and many more. In these roles, AltLegal professionals may not be “practicing law” as “practice” has been traditionally defined, but they retain a commitment to the legal profession’s underlying ethical principles, as well as a more general desire to use the law to improve people’s lives.

Joshua Lenon, Lawyer in Residence at Clio, started a dialogue on Twitter using the hashtag #AltLegal late last year. He encouraged legal professionals to share how they define the term “AltLegal” and what it means to them. He then compiled many of the answers into a great blog post and Storify timeline.

To continue the discussion, I reached out to Joshua as well as a few of the other professionals who contributed on Twitter and asked them to provide greater detail about their Twitter responses.  Those contributing to the discussion included:

Karen Dyck (KD) is a freelance lawyer practicing in Manitoba.  She serves as the loss prevention coordinator for the Canadian Lawyers Insurance Association. She was appointed a part-time commissioner and presiding officer with The Appeal Commission (Worker’s Compensation) in 2011 and continues in that role.

Natalka Falcomer (NF) is an associate at Mohawk Medical Growth Partners. Starting in the fall of 2012, Natalka began helping Torontonians navigate the murky waters of the legal realm on her new show,Toronto Speaks: Legal Advice.

Jonathan Kleiman (JK) is a Toronto Business and Small Claims Court lawyer and the principal of Kleiman Law.

Joshua Lenon (JL) is Lawyer-in-Residence for Clio, providing legal scholarship and research skills to the leading cloud-based practice management platform.

Janelle Milodragovich (JM) is the founder of Elemental Legal Analytics, the co-founder of the Seattle Legal Innovation and Technology MeetUp, and a former litigator at Foster Pepper and Littler Mendelson.

Sam Redlich (SR) is an attorney and the founder of Sam Redlich Law LLC, a boutique law firm helping clients at the intersection of business and technology.

Adam Ziegler (AZ) is at the intersection of law and technology at Harvard Law School working on several projects in this field, including H2O, Perma.cc and others. He’s also led an early stage legal technology startup and served clients for 10 years as a commercial litigator and white collar defense lawyer.

  1. What was your initial response to Joshua on Twitter about the meaning of AltLegal?

KD: “professional: flexible/adaptable; service-oriented and client focused; principled; operates with integrity; competent”

NF: “Increasing access to justice by producing/hosting a legal call-in show!”

JK: “affordable while shockingly available, nimble, and effective”

SR: “a person who exhibits the opposite characteristics of those negative characteristics traditionally associated with attorneys”

AZ: “creative; constantly improving; analytical; client/customer-focused; team-first; efficient; curious; tech-oriented”

  1. What inspires you about the notion of AltLegal?

KD: I have considered myself to be an AltLegal professional for several years and still struggle to explain it.

  • The AltLegal professional must be flexible and adaptable, almost by definition. Operating in a changing environment, outside the traditional parameters of a law office, requires the AltLegal professional to adapt to survive.
  • A strong client service orientation may lead a lawyer into an AltLegal career. To generalize, a traditional legal path often is more focused on the needs of the service supplier than those of the consumer. Dissatisfaction with this model may drive lawyers into the AltLegal path.
  • The AltLegal professional must be principled and operate with integrity in all aspects of their work, to ensure compliance with professional regulatory schemes and to build and maintain a good reputation. While AltLegal professionals may question and push the boundaries of ethics rules, they typically seek to operate within those boundaries and have spurred needed change within the legal profession as a result.
  • Competence in areas outside of the law as well as in focused areas of legal practice is essential for the success of the AltLegal professional. Those on the fringes are often more prone to close scrutiny by regulators to ensure competence and regulatory compliance.

NF: It is a breath of fresh air. I received a lot of explicit and implicit flack and criticism for leaving legal practice. People either thought I couldn’t do it or would tell me that I wasted time and money going to law school, articling, writing the bar, etc. The AltLegal question was inspirational because it removed the negative stigma associated with using one’s education and legal training in a different way. It also reflected my view: the traditional way in which we’ve been taught to practice law is being disrupted by technology and changes in consumer demands.

JK:  The idea of providing more value, and better service, to clients, using modern tools. Part of my decision to go solo was so that I could have control over my practice. I wanted to continue to discover the tips and tools that allow me to be more productive and more effective and efficient for my clients without the constraints of differently minded partners getting in the way.

 JL: For me, it was the realization on how lucky I was to have a legal career that is challenging, impactful, and enjoyable at the same time.  Like many of my law school classmates, I have struggled with balancing my pre-law school expectations with the realities of the legal marketplace. It has taken years, but I have finally crafted a career that uses my training, skills, and knowledge in unique ways.  However, getting to here was not something that was ever discussed or celebrated in law school. I wanted to give people a forum to celebrate similar achievements.

 JM: The AltLegal movement is the natural progression of “new law” and “the new normal.”  I’ve shared Jonathan Kleiman’s AltLegal definition with in-house counsel and corporate consumers of legal services.  Their response is best summarized as “Yes! That! Do more of that!”

SR: I have a strong business and entrepreneurial background that far outweighs time spent in the legal field. Aspects of what is “AltLegal” to some just seem like the proper way to go about delivering services. Built into my practice is the aspiration to deliver services as efficiently and affordably as possible and without a reduction in quality. Whether this goal is achieved through the leverage of technology or simply providing a better client experience, it is the overarching objective that drives my practice.

AZ: The opportunity to re-examine what it means to be a lawyer in a modern, rapidly changing world.  Our core values as lawyers, such as client loyalty, competence, confidentiality, respect for rule of law, are fixed, but the way we deliver on those values is in constant flux. To me, it’s wildly irresponsible to believe we can continue serving those values without adapting as real-world circumstances change. So what I aim for, and like to see in others, is devotion to bedrock principles coupled with an active embrace of change.

  1. Do you feel you have an AltLegal Career now? Why or why not?

KD: Yes, but not wholly. I work from a home office providing contract or freelance services. Some of my work is providing in-person legal expertise in a fairly traditional manner within my local region. But in other respects, I am perhaps on the fringe of AltLegal in that the legal component of my work is often secondary to the services I provide, which include writing, research and analysis, often at the points of intersection of law and other disciplines.

JK: Yes. I work mostly from home, and I often meet clients wherever they need me to. I offer flat rates almost exclusively, and I pride myself on client satisfaction.

JL: I definitely do. My job combines legal knowledge and skill, but also challenges my communication and business skills. I am frequently learning new tools and techniques for matters that go beyond pure “legal” work.

JM: Yes. I made a conscious decision to step away from my traditional BigLaw career to pursue an AltLegal career path and start my own legal tech company. As a result, I’ve grown more as a practitioner in the past six months than I had in several years.  Even if I returned to a “traditional” legal path, I’d still be an AltLegal practitioner – it’s a viewpoint, not a club. (Note: you don’t have to quit your job to have an AltLegal career!  See additional thoughts below.)

SR: Hard to say. My practice is virtually paperless and my clients are 90 percent software developers and/or Internet startups. I have clients from around the world and I can work anywhere. I maintain an office, but the costs are nominal and I pass that along to my clients. I am working aggressively on introducing technology such as LexSpring to meet my clients’ goals. So, I am not sure if that is AltLegal, but it certainly isn’t traditional.

  1. Additional thoughts/comments?

JK: Businesses and people can no longer afford to simply throw money at impressive-looking law firms. AltLegal is about filling that gap by showing value, satisfying clients, and all of the little things that will help certain lawyers succeed going forward, for themselves and for their clients.

JM: One final point: AltLegal doesn’t have to be something scary.  You can be an AltLegal practitioner without walking away from your traditional legal practice. I’m constantly amazed at how many attorneys are interested in the future of the profession and being a positive force for change.  While they may still be housed in traditional legal roles, they are AltLegal practitioners nonetheless.

Practicing attorneys can take on an AltLegal viewpoint by simply questioning small actions in their daily practice.  Will this action accomplish the client’s desired outcome?  Will it do so in a cost-effective way? Have I structured my practice to be readily available to clients?  Is there a way to improve the value of the legal service?  There are so many opportunities for improvement that even small acts deliver significant positive outcomes.

This is an organic process.  There’s no AltLegal club.  There’s no institutional body directing where this process is heading.  Rather, it’s an opportunity to learn, to explore, and to help the existing legal structure grow in exciting and meaningful ways.

SR: I think it’s important to bear in mind what we think of as alternative or innovative or anything of the like when it pertains to the discipline of law is not so much in other areas of endeavors. None of the concepts we are tossing about are very new or different. They are only new to law.

 

About the Author

Dan Lear is an attorney at Ragen Swan PLLC and is a co-founder of the Seattle Legal Technology and Innovation MeetUp Group.  He blogs at www.right-brain-law.blogspot.com, and can be followed at @rightbrainlaw.

 

Send this to friend