The legal industry is a constantly-evolving industry and is one that is often affected profoundly by advancements in technology and shifts in corporate behavior. We have identified four trends that began a sea change in our industry this past year, and we have identified how they may affect sole practitioners in 2018. These trends, including automation, the resurrection of the in-house legal department, the emergence of legal operations professionals, and the adoption of general counsel as CEO’s and board members all will likely continue to grow in the year to come.
The practice of law is far from being completely automated and taken over by artificial intelligence. Experience, improvisation, and human analysis are all still essential elements that cannot be automated. Certain aspects can be automated to make handling cases much more efficient, and new systems have emerged to do just that.
Case tracking, E-Discovery, compliance, contract review, and other practices that have shifted from manual labor to automated tasks have allowed practices to streamline their workflow and have opened up more time for attorneys to focus on the evaluation and high-level analysis needed on their cases. As automation increases and becomes even better, attorneys can shift from working “in the weeds” to managing their practices in a CEO-like manner.
How does a small practice or sole practitioner set themselves apart in a crowded field? Many lawyers have found great success building niche practices, and we expect this trend to continue in 2018. The benefits of creating a niche practice that focuses on a specific area of law, a specific demographic, or a combination of both are immediately obvious. You can easily define your value proposition to the client if you have an extremely specific focus. In addition, many attorneys who have established niche practices enjoy the fact that they can concentrate on a practice area that they particularly enjoy. Want to do wealth management for athletes? Notice a hyper-specific practice area that no one else handles yet? You can tailor your practice to meet these needs and distinguish your firm and focus from all the rest.
Legal operations professionals are more important than ever before
The operations part of managing a firm, including budgeting, marketing, analyzing data, and implementing new technology is now more critical than ever before, and a new type of attorney is emerging: the legal operations professional. More firms than ever now employ attorneys who can wear multiple hats and can manage numerous aspects of the business of law. These attorneys are experts at utilizing new technology, analyzing data, implementing new marketing initiatives, and using social media to build the firm’s brand online.
The Continued Rise of the Relationship Management Tool
A few years ago, client communication and updates had to be delivered by phone or email. With the rise of relationship management tools for legal practices, not only can attorneys keep their in-house team organized, but they can also automate and electronically deliver case updates to their clients through easy-to-navigate dashboards. Relationship management tools like Basecamp, Podio, and Zoho Projects have earned rave reviews from law firms large and small, and some, like Basecamp, include client-facing portals in which updates can be shared virtually for the client to review at their leisure. While security and privacy concerns may ultimately require more secure, legal-optimized solutions, many firms have turned to these new tools as a way to keep their clients in the loop while saving themselves valuable time.
Many sole practitioners are already used to being a legal operations professional, taking care of all aspects of their practice on their own, but it is important to pay attention to how the modern operations professional juggles all of the tasks, from implementing technology and utilizing social media to build a robust online profile for the firm. In 2018, we expect to see even more automation, an increase in hyper-niche practice areas that might not have existed before, and the continued use of project management tools to promote in-house and client-side communication.