Recently I read an article in the Virginia Lawyers Media that interested me. The title alone was enough to catch my eye: Thought for the New Year: ‘Not your father’s legal marketplace’. I, of course, would have added that it also is not your mother’s legal marketplace. But, this is, after all, Virginia, the Commonwealth, a place I love but that is not always on the cutting edge when it comes to issues of diversity and political correctness.
The gist of the article was that the changes in law practice in the last ten years have transformed the profession in ways that make it imperative for lawyers to constantly revisit, sharpen and improve their legal skills. The article identifies four areas that require constant vigilance. Changes in the areas of pricing, project management, technology and globalization demonstrate and define the new reality of law practice, according to the authors.
Pricing has changed radically. The billable hour is no longer the predominate way to charge for time. With the downturn in the economy, alternative fee arrangements became the mantra of corporate clients looking for savings on outside counsel fees. New models like fixed fees, capped fees, contingency fees and hybrid models became part of the conversation and represented possibilities that had to be addressed. Learning to analyze legal matters in terms of the best billing model and negotiating the rate have become new skills that lawyers must learn.
Project management is another area that has experienced significant change. Although project management has always been important in terms of containing costs and tracking work, the new alternate fee arrangements make it even more critical to manage projects well. Gone are the possibilities of cost overruns that clients will simply understand and absorb. Today, the risk of cost overruns is often built into the new fee arrangements, and the firm is likely to share in the loss.
The advent of technology has created a paradigm shift like no other. E-discovery alone is mind boggling and requires a whole new set of skills. It takes IT gurus to communicate the possibilities of the new systems and to implement them into the existing systems. Although it is painful for lawyers who are not used to technology and lack comfort with the new systems, it is something that needs to be embraced. Not only is everyone else doing it, but, as the article points out, the proper use of technology can end up saving on expenses and maximizing profits—-what lawyers live for.
Reading this reminded me of how the fax machine changed things in the 1980’s. I still remember the trauma that resulted from being told by a client on the West Coast that a document would be faxed to our office on the East Coast at 10 AM and that the client would call at noon that same day for the analysis and advice. Two hours to read, digest, strategize and advise! Up until then, it was unheard of and unimagined.
Globalization also has changed everything. Expansion into new international markets requires that lawyers have a deep understanding of the client’s global objectives, that the lawyers possess the skills to either perform in those markets or find trustworthy counsel there, and that lawyers understand the problems in the new markets and how to manage and minimize risk.
These changes are not gender specific, but it occurs to me that women may be the most affected by the changes. On the positive side, advances in technology will make it easier to carry on practice from remote sites. Women no longer have to be in the office to be doing their jobs. For the women who need flexible schedules, this will be a real boon. Women also may benefit from the alternative fee arrangements that are not based on hourly billing. Women lawyers with family responsibilities tend to be very efficient, and a fixed fee arrangement may render that efficiency of real value. On the negative side, however, globalization may lead to increased business travel in multiple time zones, and that is always hard for women with significant home and family responsibilities.
So, even though it is not your father’s legal marketplace, there may be opportunities to make it look more like a mother’s legal marketplace. Time will tell.