It is a pleasure to be writing for the Spring 2009 newsletter. We have had such a long and hard winter while enduring some of the worst economic times in our state's history.
Many of our members find themselves struggling for survival. I have talked to a number of attorneys that I have met through various State Bar activities and many have asked what advice the Law Practice Management Section can offer regarding the economic struggles facing law firms.
In the last couple of years we have seen unprecedented economic downturns which have had a profound effect on our profession. With contracts being cancelled, leases being broken, bankruptcies on the rise, etc., attorneys are in great demand to resolve the conflicts that arise as a result of these situations. However, in many of these instances while the litigants have a strong desire to sue, many have few resources to pay the resulting legal fees and costs. A key to survival is careful client selection, along with up-front retainers, and a signed engagement letter.
In addition to careful client selection and obtaining a retainer and fee agreement prior to beginning legal work, attorneys must carefully manage the fees that are collected. This is very challenging in the age of technology when annual investments into computer hardware and software upgrades are being advertised as a must do. Further, the cell phone, Blackberry, and pocket devices are constantly being upgraded and lawyers want to keep up with the latest and greatest. The problem is that some lawyers are spending thousands of dollars each year unnecessarily on new equipment - yet they do not know how to use the equipment that they already have to capacity. The investment in technology is a good one that can streamline a practice and make communication more efficient - but if the attorney hasn't learned all the bells and whistles of the various upgrades - obtaining new equipment and improvements, may be more of a waste of money than an investment in a better law practice.
Some lawyers also maintain multiple bar association memberships which are great if the benefits of membership are being utilized. Lawyers are required to maintain their membership in the State Bar of Michigan which offers tremendous support (through the Law Practice Management Resource Center) and educational benefits to its members. Local bar associations are an excellent networking tool and many offer excellent educational and referral opportunities. The ABA is also a tremendous resource of information with numerous benefits of membership. While it is a good idea to maintain various bar memberships for the reasons indicated, this is fiscally appropriate only if there is a benefit to the lawyer or law firm from the membership, and this requires attorneys to make the time to utilize the benefits of membership. I strongly encourage finding the time to utilize the benefits of membership of these organizations.
Many attorneys also maintain event or season tickets to entertain clients, contacts, etc. Entertaining can be a good marketing strategy and is also good for maintaining and building relationships. But again, the practitioner must analyze this expenditure to make sure that it is having the desired effect. One lawyer I spoke to recently said that he was so busy he gave most of the tickets away and never really got the chance to market, interact with clients or contacts, or build relationships.
Another critical area in managing the finances of a firm is to evaluate staff carefully to make sure that people are working efficiently and effectively. If staff is standing around chatting, surfing the net, or talking on personal calls, they may not have enough work to stay busy. There might be other duties that need attention that can be assigned to keep employees busy. If there are not additional duties to be done, some firms are cutting hours and pay as a means of survival and job preservation. Also, paralegal utilization may be a good strategy for lawyers who are trying to get work done while conserving resources. See article in Newsletter on this topic.
With all these ideas in mind, lawyers have to practice fiscal responsibility and operate conservatively to survive these challenging economic times. The legal work will always be there for the talented practitioner - but it is the managing of the resources needed to run a business that is one key to survival.
The Section Council's next meeting will be held on May 2, 2009, from 9:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Novi, and August 1, 2009 (location to be announced). If you are interested in attending or getting more involved with this section, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The hot site this month appears to be a site called "Twitter". If you haven't heard of Twitter ask your children about it. I am sure that they know what it is. In my case it was my grandchildren. I rely upon them a lot for this kind of thing. For those of you that don't want to be an embarrassment to your tween, Twitter is a combination of microblogging and a social network.
Once on the website (twitter.com) sign-up is free and you can create a microblog (you are limited in the number of characters for each blog that you can send). Your microblog message is also limited to supposedly answering the question "What are you doing now?" but nobody limits themselves to that question. It emphasizes that Twitter is a blog of instant communication. It is like instantly text messaging to a host of recipients (Don't tell me you don't text. Again ask your children.) who then can reply, creating a conversation about virtually any subject.
Upon joining you have an opportunity to join other microblogers on Twitter. There are literally thousands that can be joined at any time and once joined can be followed as the conversation is carried on. There are programs to help you search Twitter to find a blog that you interests you.
I found a microblog of Newt Gingrich and another of Lance Armstrong. Following these microblogs was interesting but not of much help in the practice of law. There are of course blogs by lawyers and about legal subjects.
Lawyers are using social network websites such as Twitter and Facebook (facebook.com) as a means of attracting and communicating with clients and potential clients. Don't get left behind. Membership in Kiwanis or the Rotary Club is not enough anymore.
I recently gave a talk at the Detroit Metropolitan Paralegal Association luncheon meeting and it brought me back to my days as a paralegal and the many roles that a paralegal can fulfill at a law firm. During these tough economic times, practitioners who properly utilize paralegals can find that they are able keep up with client and office demands in a more economic way. According to the Professional Rules of Conduct, a legal assistant cannot: 1) sign legal documents; 2) negotiate legal fees; 3) give clients advice; and 4) appear in Court (unless there is a statute that allows non-lawyers to appear). Other than those four areas, the paralegal may do anything from getting the coffee into the meeting or deposition to writing the deposition questions, researching factual and legal subjects, and a wide range of other duties.
Attorneys need to be mindful that paralegal utilization can not only save clients money but it can also help the attorneys bottom line during these tough economic times.
Lawyers should also be aware that the while the "paralegal" once wanted the title "legal assistant" that trend has changed and the profession now wants to be referred to as "paralegals."
The ABA Techshow just concluded in Chicago. It ran from April 2 - 4 and this is its 23rd year. It is the largest and most complete show showcasing products and providing speakers relating to the latest technology for law practice management.
This is my 4th year and it seems to get bigger and better every year. If you haven't attended one of these and you want to be on the cutting edge of law practice technology, you should give some consideration to attending next year's show. It will be at the Chicago Hilton on March 25-27. Log on to www.abanet.org/techshow for information about this year's program and very soon information about next year's program. The PowerPoint presentations for this year's sessions will be available at the ABATech website and when available can be downloaded at no cost.
One of the highlights of the show occurred as the final program in the form of "60 Sites in 60 Minutes". The purpose of this session is to provide a brief description of 60 interesting and often, but not always, useful websites in 60 minutes. The presenters usually accomplish this goal admirably. This year there were a number of websites that I intend to describe in my Site Watch column. If you want to jump the gun you can find the list including URL addresses posted on the ABA Tech website.
The overriding theme of the ABA Techshow this year seemed to be how to conduct your business as a virtual law office. The idea is to be able to work entirely and/or substantially entirely away from the office. This used to be called the mobile practice of law but now it is carried even farther. The John Keane Award which is given each year to the individual or law firm that has developed innovative legal services delivered over the Internet was given this year to Stephanie L. Kimbro of Kimbro Legal Services, LLC who practices law entirely from her home through a website (kimbrolaw.com).
There are of course ethical concerns and jurisdictional problems associated with such practices but the trend and the future seems to be in such practices either on a limited scale or for some practitioners on a scale in which the only brick and mortar office that they have is either their home or space in a shared office.
The keynote speaker at the conference was Professor Richard Susskind, OBE IT Adviser to the Lord Chief Justice of England and a well known futurist with regards to the legal profession. Many of his predictions with regard to the future of law practice made in a book he published in 1996 have indeed come to pass. He predicted for instance in 1996 that in the law office of the future the major form of communication between lawyers and their clients and between lawyers and other lawyers would be in the form of e-mail. We certainly know that is true today.
He has now predicted the demise of the practice of law as we know it. He predicts that websites like legalzoom.com and others will lead to commoditization of much of the practice of law. Commoditization means that law services will be packaged and sold as a commodity. The role of the lawyer will be limited when this occurs and the competition will lead to low prices for legal services. The lawyer's role will be largely limited to creating the packages or commodities which non-layers will sell.
I hope he is wrong but I am not sure that he is. I am also not sure how we are to prepare for this substantial change. Nor is Professor Susskind.
Tackling Michigan's New E-Discovery Rules and Cross-Examining the Experts
Cooley Law School's Grand Rapids campus is hosting an e-discovery seminar for attorneys and students. There will be two panel discussions. The first panel will discuss Michigan's new e-discovery rules, how they may differ from the federal e-discovery rules and whether they will change civil litigation in Michigan. The second panel will consist entirely of e-discovery and computer forensics experts. This panel will discuss when and how to use an e-discovery or computer forensics expert, e-discovery costs, civil computer forensics investigations, and questions from the audience. The event is sponsored by Lumen Legal and the Grand Rapids Bar Association. For more information, please visit cooley.edu. RSVP to Lindsey Burns at email@example.com.
Thursday, May 14, 2009, 2-5 p.m.
Reception to follow courtesy of Elijah Technologies.