Building Your Future Practice Through Leadership

The wise man must remember that while he is a descendant of the past, he is a parent of the future.
—Herbert Spencer

When was the last time you sat to ponder the future of law? I don’t think I’d find time marked off on very many of your calendars. It just isn’t a pressing priority, right? So, imagine asking an entire bar of 36,000 lawyers to not only ponder the future, but to act upon it.

As an incoming bar president in 2013, I saw the future of the profession as a critical issue. But it admittedly is a challenging issue, not just because of its complexity, but also because it’s not a priority for the rank-and file-attorneys. Most are more involved in their daily practice than preparing for the future of law.

Regardless, I couldn’t shake a vision that bar leadership meant actively planning, preparing and shaping the future of law, today, while it was still possible. Isn’t it important that we shape the future today, before non-lawyers, market forces, and technology shape it without our input, guidance, and direction?  To me, time was of the essence.

In my mind, the problem is built on the simple economics of supply and demand: too few lawyers; too many citizens with legal needs who cannot afford assistance. And then there is the recipe for success: retool more profitable, more efficient law firms that can provide services for less to the broad base of citizens who currently cannot afford a lawyer. However, the methods for change are not so simple. I clearly needed help.

Fortunately, the Washington state bar, like most bars nationwide, was already full of big-picture thinkers, young members with new views, tech-savvy lawyers, lawyer-entrepreneurs, and hackers (let’s not forget the unsung hackers). These forward thinkers were naturals for the job, but simply hadn’t had the bar president to organize the charge.

With the support of my progressive colleagues, I began working with bar leadership to bring new tools, access, technology, new business models, and new methods of practicing law to the attention of lawyers across our state.

Here are some of the tools we used to bring one bar closer to the future:

It All Starts with Strategic Planning

The potential for state bars to harness and grow the future is real, but it requires not just a plan, but a long-term strategy. Convening a strategic planning committee is a critical step to developing goals. After a year of meetings, key goals we created including the following:

  1. Prepare and equip members with problem-solving skills for the changing profession.

Under this strategic goal, we aimed to align educational resources to help members learn 21st century practice skills (including use of technology and the business side of practice); and

  1. Support member transitions across the life of their practice.

This goal recognized that careers are dynamic, and new members require tools and coordinated support to promote long-term sustainability in the practice of law, while mid-career members needed help creating new business strategies and finding/maintaining job satisfaction.

Future of the Profession Workgroup

With a strategic plan in place, we needed a method to build from that foundation. The creation of the Future of the Profession Workgroup was the next step toward identifying the relevant forces that are changing the legal market today and that will define the market tomorrow.

Importantly, the workgroup was composed of critical thinkers with distinct points of view. Members included small-firm practitioners, start-up owners, business consultants, tech experts, and legal service providers, as well as members from the access to justice community, pro bono committee, and low bono section, and members of the bar’s executive management team, CLE designers/educators, and others.

The workgroup discussed barriers to future of the profession, market forces as well as methods to move through them. The workgroup identified limitations in legal education, advances in information technology, shifts in legal service delivery systems, the increasing unmet demand for legal services, decreasing barriers to entry, and the rigidity of the existing legal business model.

Bringing the Tools of the Future to Members:  The Symposium

As part of its charge, in 2014, the Future of the Profession Workgroup and bar staff brought the issues facing the future of the profession into a symposium designed to provide concrete instruction, tools, and practical applications to help lawyers meet the challenges of the new economy today and tomorrow.

The symposium, titled “Mission Possible: Choose the Future of Your Practice,” was the first of its kind in our state. It utilized new technology to deliver interactive, community based, live, web education, and group discussion.

The symposium occurred October 1, 2014 via live webcast, with moderated Q&A via Twitter. We created local “meet up” groups to gather in local law offices, living rooms, and other locations statewide to discuss the issues raised in the symposium in a group setting, and created a Meet Up Host toolkit.

The symposium focused on three topic areas:

  1. The New Legal Market & the New Practitioner
  2. Smart Marketing
  3. Emerging Business Models

Each topic included a broad topic overview, followed by a TED-talk style presentation that offered practical applications with clear, actionable, take-aways. Speakers included Jordan Furlong (Law21), Sam Glover ( Joshua Lenon (Clio), Kevin O’Keefe (LexBlog), Peggy Gruenke (LegalBizSuccess), and others.

Unauthorized Practice of Law: Protection or Limitation?

No discussion of the future is complete without consideration of the unauthorized practice of law (UPL).  A debate is brewing nationally about UPL, and Washington is not immune. Our state Supreme Court authorized the creation of a Practice of Law Board a decade ago to stop rogue non-lawyers from practicing law. As a result, the Washington State Bar has diligently and thoroughly investigated hundreds of UPL complaints and spent close to $1.4 million, yet secured only four criminal prosecutions.

These stats made me wonder, however, if this approach was missing the bigger picture.  As president, I publicly opined that maybe we should be opening the doors to legal service providers, tech startup companies and investors. Maybe we should be writing new regulations, lowering barriers to entry to invite outside investment into the legal field. Maybe we should be looking for new business partners to create better access to the law and more affordable legal services.

If we spent most of the million dollars to diversify and to choose our partners and investors, then we could expand our profession, grow our market, and provide greater access to justice to the poor and middle class than we ever have before.

As the debate has grown, mindsets have changed, and today our Supreme Court has suspended the Practice of Law Board’s work and is reevaluating whether UPL may be better addressed with means other than focused enforcement and prosecution. The debate over the best methods to deal with UPL continues, but the public dialog has already led to change for the better.

The Future of the Future

The future is coming. There is no stopping it. But it can be shaped. This is why open discussion about where we are headed is so important. Writing and publishing articles to raise awareness, to give perspective and to share changes that are occurring, is critical when the legal landscape is changing so rapidly. CLEs, new lawyer education, and symposiums all play a role in educating and informing the rank-and-file bar members. Committees, workgroups, boards, and bar leaders are all necessary to plan and implement change for tomorrow.

Richard Susskind reminds us at the end of Tomorrow’s Lawyers that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” (quote by Alan Kay, a computer scientist).  For the legal profession, the future is here and already changing the way we practice. Each state, local and specialty bar has the choice to remain engaged, innovative and progressive to drive the change, or to passively watch as legal services are re-envisioned and delivered by more engaged and entrepreneurial businesses.

The economy, coupled with technological innovation has created either the perfect storm, or the perfect opportunity for our profession to rebound and lead. For now, it’s our choice. It’s a choice each of us makes, beginning with the next case you take, the next partners’ meeting you attend, the next investment in technology you choose, and the next business decision you make. What path will you follow, and will you choose and support bar leadership who will lead you to future success?

As you make your choices today, know that in a decade, we will know if you made the right ones. So, choose wisely.

About the Author

Patrick A. Palace is the founder and owner of Palace Law Offices in Tacoma, WA and president of the Washington State Bar Association. He can be reached on Twitter at @PalaceLaw.

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