Mike Whelan, author of Lawyer Forward: Finding Your Place In The Future of Law, talks with Litify about the harmful effects of the typical law firm business model and how it should change.
Watch the entire conversation, or read the highlights below.
Rethinking what lawyers do
Law firms have stopped valuing lawyers as knowledge creators, Whelan says. In fact, he goes on to argue that “lawyers are the most undervalued commodity in the legal industry.”
There’s an obsession with efficiency, billable hours, and constant availability to immediately respond to every client’s email and call.
With the introduction of artificial and predictive intelligence, these changes will only accelerate. A.I. tools are really good at identifying patterns in litigation—better than us. So where does that leave lawyers?
Whelan says the one thing that A.I. tools can’t do is draw insights from the knowledge they’re able to provide. That will be lawyers’ jobs.
Traditionally lawyers were valued for the knowledge that they had. But that will need to shift as online legal resources continue to make it easy for individuals and small businesses to avoid hiring lawyers altogether. Instead, he sees that lawyers will take on more of a consultant-like role: helping clients to make the best decisions possible with the knowledge that they have.
End of billable hours?
The current model for the legal industry is a very cash-flow driven model, Whelan notes. It treats lawyers as hourly laborers, rather than true knowledge workers.
Other consultative industries have moved to a fixed-price model, valuing the ultimate outcome that the business offers over the time that went into producing it. This can be better for the clients as well; the more billable hours there are, the more clients have to pay, and the greater likelihood there is that they’ll ask questions about what exactly they are paying for.
While agile, hourly pricing allows lawyers to respond to clients’ ongoing needs, at the end of the day law firms have fixed costs. And Whelan says that this disconnect ultimately devalues lawyers as the knowledge workers that they are.
The more that we can allow lawyers the time to think creatively and create new knowledge, the happier that they will be.
Long-term effects of COVID-19
Whelan claims that the legal industry is about two generations behind other service generations. It's more focused on compliance than efficiency, and innovation isn't even on its radar. He predicts that COVID-19 may accelerate changes that were already bubbling prior to the onset of the crisis:
- Rise of virtual court hearings: Things like monthly status hearings are going online. We’ll likely see continued reliance of video conferencing after the crisis ends.
- Rise of solo lawyers: Due to the economic downturn, Whelan points out that we’ll likely see the consolidation of mid-size firms and more solo attorneys. These independent lawyers can’t be everything to everyone—an entrepreneur and a legal expert—so attorneys will need to network and create partnerships to meet the needs of their clients.
- Clients’ expectations will only get higher: Just like you, most of your clients are used to doing everything online (particularly now that we’re at home) and they expect the same kind of service and delivery from their lawyers. This will only increase after the crisis. Think about how you can deliver more mobile and client-friendly service.
- An evolving workweek: As professionals juggle life with work at home, there is greater sympathy that we all could use some flexibility. If you find that you get more work done devoting one day of the week to answering client communications, see if that can continue once you’re back in the office. Now is the time to think about how you structure your workday (and what that work looks like) to optimize your productivity.
To learn more about Mike Whelan, watch more from his perspectice on legal innovation.