What Will Law Practice Look Like in Fifty Years?

What Will Law Practice Look Like in Fifty Years?

Jenna Nand is a business attorney at Fortuna Law PLLC in Seattle, Washington.

After years of unrelentingly bad employment stats, few would be surprised to learn that we lost another 1400 positions in the legal industry in January 2016 alone. Given years of dismal prospects for legal employment, many recent grads and law students may not see much of a future for the practice of law as we know it fifty years from now. And you can hardly fault them for their pessimism, because new lawyers are usually the collateral damage of any contraction in the legal market.

However, lawyers will still have a role in society five decades from now. The question remains: what will the practice of law look like after the latest shakeup settles down? To find out, I approached four practitioners who have followed different paths to success in the legal field:

  • Fred Rivera has more than twenty years of experience as a commercial litigator and is the managing partner of the Seattle office of Perkins Coie LLP.
  • Ronnie Stern is a patent attorney in Seattle and is part of an alternative law firm, Rimon Law.
  • Joe Terrenzio opened his solo practice, Terrenzio Solutions LLP, in 2015.
  • Aastha Madaan has her own practice, Madaan Law, P.C.

What Will Law Firms Look Like in Fifty years?

Fred predicted there would be a continued bifurcation between the types of legal service providers clients seek out for different legal needs. He foresees a future where legal services for individuals will be available at “shopping malls and other places where folks can shop, get new glasses, and talk to someone about a new will.”

For legal needs a little less routine, Fred is confident that law firms with traditional partnership structures will persist. When asked about how much of a threat virtual law firms and monthly subscription legal services will be to more traditional brick-and-mortar law firms, Fred feels “there is some overlap and potential competition between large law firms and the virtual law firm model. But large law firm clients frequently demand more than just legal services. They also demand trusted counselors and business advisors who know the business. Non-personalized legal services cannot offer what is in the long-term interests of a particular client.”

Fred referenced the ongoing debate about rule changes that could affect legal independence and profit-sharing, such as the private ownership of law firms by nonlawyers like accountants, even speculating that some law firms could be publicly owned and traded one day. However, he maintains that there will be room in the future legal ecosystem for law and accounting firm hybrids, virtual law firms, monthly legal subscription services, as well as traditional brick-and-mortar law firms.

While Ronnie agrees that the “traditional large law firm will continue to exist to service big clients on their big matters,” he doubts that these large law firms will be the norm in the future, noting that “clients big and small are becoming more cost conscious, especially after the great recession, and are intrigued by the alternatives to traditional law firm structures.”

The alternative law firm that employs Ronnie, Rimon Law, boasts that its “cost-saving infrastructure is rolled over to clients in the form of reduced legal costs.” So while alternative or virtual law firms may not ever completely replace brick-and-mortar firms, as they become more competitive, traditional law firms may begin to adopt some of their more streamlined business practices.

Joe also thinks that the difficulty for traditional, large law firms lies in “the overhead involved and the increased costs passed [onto] the clients . . . which compounds the already huge problem with access to legal services.” He is somewhat skeptical that significant change to the law firm structure can occur within the immediate future, though. Joe notes that “inertia is a powerful force and the prestige, power, and entrenched mindset of big firms will take more than one generation of attorneys to change. There will also be a huge turnover of the old guard retiring and attorneys born in the last thirty years stepping into roles at all levels.” After the turnover is complete, though, Joe is confident that “advances in technology, societal changes, and market forces that these attorneys have developed in will absolutely lead to changes.”

Aastha shares some of Joe’s skepticism regarding the future viability of traditional law firms, but emphasizes that “whatever structure becomes the norm in the future will have to keep up with social media. [Online relationship development] with clients and other lawyers will be key. Networking events are taking place on social media platforms now, and we will need to embrace new trends in social media and online business development.”

How Will Lawyers Get Paid in the Future?

One trend that many lawyers have been reluctant to embrace is the rise of alternative fee arrangements (AFAs). According to the spring 2015 survey by ALM Legal Intelligence, 70 percent of Fortune 1000 companies polled said that they had to initiate AFAs, and 25 percent of clients said that the firms “actively resist AFAs.” This corresponds to the surveyed law firms’ receptivity to alternatives to the traditional billable hour, where only 20 percent admitted to being “satisfied” with AFAs.

Fred said that the “popular answer is to say that AFAs will be norm in the future, but I’m not convinced of that yet.” Despite the increase in use of AFAs, Fred anticipates that “the billable hour will still exist as a viable billing method.” Aastha agrees that litigation is unlikely to give way to AFAs in the future, noting that “litigation can be unpredictable and lengthy, so Biglaw will likely continue with the practice of using billable hours to charge corporate clients.” But Aastha thinks that AFAs will become more common for small firm and solo attorneys, “especially those that practice transactional law, such as business contracts, and intellectual property will continue to want financial stability. Clients that are served by small firms and solo attorneys usually have limited budgets, so it is likely that transactional, small firm, and solo attorneys will continue moving toward more predictable and stable, fixed-fee structures.”

Ronnie offers an interesting alternative to the dichotomous notion of billable hours versus AFAs, saying that “[b]ecause clients like to anticipate future legal costs, I think many legal projects will encompass a pseudo-flat fee arrangement. I envision a scenario where an attorney will scope the project and provide a bid. This places the client on notice of the overall anticipated costs but does not lock in a lawyer to a set fee.” Where unforeseen circumstances arise that require additional attorney time, the attorney shall immediately inform the client and provide an estimate of the additional fees.

Ultimately, the main benefit of the pseudo-flat fee comes down to transparency. Clients don’t want to worry every time they speak with their attorney whether that phone conversation will bring the legal fees over budget.

Ronnie also addressed a third option outside of the purview of the billable hour: subscription models for legal services. “Emerging companies, such as startups, require consistent hand-holding from attorneys. Some startups attempt a DIY approach to their legal needs, which ultimately results in irreparable mistakes downstream . . . [whereas] a subscription approach grants emerging companies access to legal counsel at predictable legal costs.”

What Changes Would You Like to See?

Finally, I asked each of the lawyers to opine on what changes they want to see fifty years from now. Joe calls on the profession to rethink old systems and techniques, use technology to increase efficiency, and make the profession and its services more accessible.

Ronnie is in favor of flattening the hierarchical structure common at many law firms. “Shifting toward a non-hierarchical structure removes the possibility of having to follow the dictates of superiors who are unfamiliar with clients. It means attorneys do not have to feed the top of a pyramid or follow bureaucratic rules. Instead, attorneys can turn their attention to serving clients by working as a team of equals.”

Aastha encourages lawyers in all environments to keep adapting to new technology. “Never stop learning. The last few generations have had a steep learning curve. Young lawyers today will have an even steeper learning curve with new apps, technologies, websites, platforms, and other plethora of online tools that seem to be popping up on a daily basis. We have to remain vigilant and continue adapting to our changing world.”

Each of these practitioners foresees a future of the legal profession that boldly departs from the practice of law as we know it. Perhaps Fred correctly predicts that the public will one day go to big box stores like Costco to get their wills drafted, or maybe Joe is correct in guessing that a formal legal education will once again become optional for the purveyors of legal service. Regardless of what actually is to come, it is heartening to see attorneys eager for the legal field to evolve to meet the pressures of this new landscape rather than stagnate in the traditions of twentieth century practice. As the country itself changes, American lawyers, from government to the private sector, will be there to midwife each new adaptation that emerges.