If you’re worried about how to best attract and retain clients, or find yourself spending too much time on non-billable tasks, you’re not alone. These are the top concerns for the majority of attorneys in small firms or solo practices, according to the 2017 State of U.S. Small Law Firms report. The report, conducted by Thomson Reuters, surveyed more than 300 law firms ranging from solo practitioners to 29-attorney firms.
Some of the results are not shocking. We’ve known for years that attorneys struggle to reduce the time spent on administrative tasks, for example. Growing client business has always been a major concern, whether your practice has one attorney or 1,000. But while the report touches on some perennial issues, its findings also highlight the legal profession’s shifting attitude towards technology—and it offers some points of hope for attorneys willing to embrace innovation.
Five Problems That Keep Attorneys Up at Night—And One That Doesn’t
The State of U.S. Small Law Firms report hasn’t been officially released yet, but a preview of the survey comes to us via Bob Ambrogi. One of the key revelations from this sneak peek is the enumeration of challenges faced by lawyers at small and solo practices. Here are the top five, according to the survey’s respondents:
Indeed, attracting new business and dealing with administrative tasks seem to be the most pressing concerns. Twenty-eight percent and 25 percent, respectively, of attorneys identify these as significant challenges. Concerns such as client demands and competition also ranked high, but fewer lawyers (13 percent and 12 percent) found these challenges to be as significant, instead of just moderate.
Other notable issues facing attorneys included controlling cost and expense growth (rated as a moderate or significant challenge by 61 percent of respondents) and improving internal efficiency (60 percent).
On a positive note, however, the number of lawyers frustrated by the increasing complexity of technology has decreased significantly over the past year, dropping from 66 percent in 2016 to just 45 percent in 2017. This is particularly noteworthy given the constant concerns about the risks surrounding cybersecurity, the potential burdens of rapidly expanding data growth, and the dangers of legacy technology.
Does this mean that attorneys are becoming more tech-savvy or that tech is becoming more user friendly? Yes and yes.
Moving From Challenges to Opportunities
Legal technology has come a long way in the past few decades. Think back, for example, to the early days of the eDiscovery industry. The growth of technology threatened to drown the legal system under a tsunami of electronically stored information. Suddenly, the paper documents that had been the subject of traditional discovery were supplemented by emails, word processing documents, presentations, databases. And by supplemented, we mean completely submerged under a virtual ocean of ESI.
Technology, as clunky as it was, made some of that eDiscovery manageable. Armies of contract doc reviewers could work their way through discovery repositories that would put the Library of Alexandria to shame. Vendors could ingest, process, and produce massive amounts of data.
But the discovery industry that grew up around this process was slow, expensive, risky, and available only to the most well-heeled litigants, and even they struggled under the burdens of such a system. The rest were left conducting excruciatingly manual reviews—converting files to PDFs, organizing documents in separate folders, searching through them one by one, applying manual redactions and Bates stamping, tracking everything in an Excel file—or avoiding eDiscovery altogether.
Today, things are changing. Certainly not as quickly as they should be, but changing nonetheless.
Discovery technology now makes it much easier to cull through vast amounts of data and focus in on the most important documents. Cloud-based Discovery Automation allows legal professionals to scale their resources as needed. Thousands of once-manual steps can now be accomplished automatically, bringing an end to the penny-per-page and $250-per-gig pricing that characterizes so many eDiscovery vendors even today.
Finally, while legacy discovery technology seems like it was straight out of 1997, even in 2017, this new era of legal technology is characterized by its ease of use—allowing attorneys to stop vending out work to third parties and retain more billable hours in house. Firms once shut out of discovery can now compete—indeed, they can have a distinct advantage.
This technology is allowing sophisticated lawyers to transform data from a burden into an opportunity. Tasks that were once arduous, expensive, and time-intensive can be accomplished quickly and predictably, resulting in reduced time, expense, and uncertainty, and resulting in happier clients at the end of the day.
This transformation is not just about discovery, either. Cloud-based practice management technology is transforming how attorneys run their firms, improving efficiency and cutting down on time spent on non-billable tasks. Innovative startups are applying cutting edge technology to everything from paralegal services to legal research to client intake. Even our keyboards are becoming more efficient.
Such technology can help alleviate, if not eliminate, many of the primary challenges attorneys face today. Increased automation can reduce the time spent on non-billable tasks, while allowing attorneys to provide greater value to clients. Efficient, effective lawyering can become a major marketing advantage, helping bring in more clients and more billable hours—and helping you beat out your more flat-footed competitors.
As legal technology continues to improve, becoming better, easier, and more accessible, it will increasingly offer an advantage to those attorneys willing to embrace it. You should expect to see the amount of lawyers ranking technology as a major challenge drop even further in future years, as more attorneys recognize it as an opportunity instead.
And who knows, maybe someday tech will even solve the problem of clients not wanting to pay their bills.