'Stuck on the status quo'

The future is here, but small  firm lawyers too busy to change

By Peter Vieth
BridgeTower Media Newswires
RICHMOND, VA — Lawyers know the dangers of taking an ostrich approach to new technology and new practice models, but small firm lawyers may be too busy keeping their businesses afloat to try new techniques to help them survive and compete.

A recent survey shows lawyers appreciate the need for protecting data, streamlining the office and attracting new clients, but they hesitate to stop work to learn the details and make the changes.

The report on the state of small firms from professional services provider Thomson Reuters refers to a “persistent lack of action.”

For the third year in a row, the majority of firms surveyed recognized they face many significant challenges. But the study showed “precious few small law firms taking concrete steps to address the challenges they admit they face.”

The central challenges are identified as acquiring new clients, time spent on administrative tasks and the increasing complexity of technology.

Too busy to change

The small firm lawyer doesn’t just practice law. Surveys show that, the smaller the firm, the more time is taken up with administrative tasks that don’t involve legal work and – most importantly – don’t generate fees.

The report says small firm lawyers working a 10-hour day will have, at best, only six hours for which they might eventually get paid.

“And most lawyers will tell you that it is highly unlikely that they will actually collect money from clients for each of those potentially billable hours,” the report said. “By the time we account for leakage due to poor timekeeping practices, discounts and write-downs offered by the lawyer to address perceived client concerns, and client pushback on the final invoice, the proportion of each working day for which a lawyer will ultimately be paid dwindles quickly,” the report said.

Pause to plan

Many lawyers and small firms are “stuck on the status quo,” said William Josten, Strategic Content Manager for TR’s Legal Executive Institute.

Lawyers regularly confront the question: “Do we take the time to solve the problem, or take the next client and keep the lights on,” Josten said. As a lawyer, Josten said, “The idea of sacrificing an entire workday to work out these problems when we were so busy was untenable.”

It’s a familiar refrain for Leonard C. Heath Jr. of Newport News. As Virginia State Bar president, he talks to lawyers across the state at bar associations and at solo-and-small-firm forums such as the one in Suffolk March 26.

He said he knows small-office practice is daunting. He worked as a solo for a year in 2010.

“I worked harder that year than any other year in the history of my practice,” he said. “For the first month or so, I was on a high wire with no safety net.”

Having served on the VSB’s Special Committee on the Future of Law Practice, Heath has been immersed in the demands and resources of modern practice. His message: Lawyers need to pause just long enough to find out what they need to do to practice ethically and efficiently.

“You can’t bury your head in the sand,” he said.

Getting outside help

Since 2016, Virginia ethics rules have required reasonable efforts to prevent a breach of client information. But there is no perfect fix.

“We maintain a level of sophistication that is constantly being eclipsed by the people who are trying to steal from us,” said Danny M. Howell of Falls Church, who faced the challenge of opening his own office even as he continued his representation of lawyers accused of practice lapses. He said solos confront issues they may not have seen before.

Law practice blogger Bob Ambrogi said such lawyers should consider getting professional help for their practices.

“I think firms that have consultancies advising them really do seek to find new budget-friendly technology that will allow them to work more efficiently and increase their productivity and profitability,” Ambrogi wrote in a March 25 essay about the TR survey. Some consultants offer free assessments to help small firms understand how technology can boost productivity and profits, added former VSB president and tech guru Sharon D. Nelson.

But Heath says lawyers outside Virginia’s metropolitan areas may find it hard to locate those generous and competent consultants.

“I think it’s hard to find people out there who are knowledgeable about this and keep up with the issues,” Heath said.

Even basic technological upgrades call for awareness of legal duties. Calling your tech-savvy cousin may not cut it when your law office is making plans to secure the server and encrypt emails, Heath said.

“I think you need somebody a little more specialized than that,” he said. “Lawyers have additional requirements when it comes to confidentiality,” he added.

What lawyers are doing

Not everyone is stuck, the survey showed.

Nearly half of small firms have adopted new technology. Twenty-seven percent have changed marketing strategy. But fewer than 20 percent have changed staffing ratios, practice workflows or billing practices, the survey showed.

The most common technology upgrade was in case management, followed by time and billing and document handling.

Nelson noted a disconnect: Most small firm lawyers said client satisfaction was a key measure of success, but “barely 40 percent actually track that metric.”

“This does not surprise me,” Nelson wrote in a March 26 post. Lawyers rarely track anything other than billing, she said.  “They are not even good about tracking where their clients are coming from.”

Heath recommended the VSB’s annual Tech Show. If lawyers lack rudimentary technological knowledge, they don’t even know what questions to ask of experts, he said.

“We have to have a working understanding of the technology so we know how to interact with the professionals,” Heath said. “Lawyers need to be comfortable with the fact that lawyers need to be lifelong learners,” he added.