Law firms adapting to keep pace with the times

From technology to new fee structures, local legal professionals weigh in on industry changes

Scales of Justice
VBJ file

As law firms position themselves to stay modern in a fast-paced, information-driven world, a number of trends have emerged that are slowly reshaping the industry.

To get a better idea of how the legal landscape in Southwest Washington has changed, we reached out to members of the local law community with the following question: How has your firm changed and adapted to stay relevant?

Here’s what they had to say:

Steve Horenstein, Horenstein Law Group

“Lawyers practicing for 30 years commencing in 1955 saw no significant changes in the tools used to practice law. Today, changes are happening every few years. In my time practicing law we have gone from using electric typewriters for document preparation to using AI software that can evaluate aspects of lengthy business and real estate documents in a few minutes, saving our clients time and money.

Our practice is entirely cloud-based, including our practice management software (billing, timekeeping, client contact information, task management), our document management system (we are a ‘paperless’ office) and our client intake software. We use a client portal to share and store client documents for their easy access. Clients receive and submit client intake forms and can pay their billing statements electronically.

We are more available to our clients as we can access all of our software on our tablets and laptops from anywhere.”

James Sikora, Landerholm

“In general, I think each law firm is responding (or not responding) to these changes in different ways, but I have observed a number of common changes across the industry in recent years. The first one is the increasing use of alternative fee structures, with the most common being flat fees. In short, a flat-fee structure involves the lawyer or firm charging a flat fee for a project regardless of the number of hours it takes to complete the project. Many clients, especially smaller businesses and start-ups, prefer a flat fee structure because they have an understanding of their legal costs prior to the start of a project. This allows them to plan and budget accordingly. There are a number of other alternative fee structures that are increasingly being used, including in litigation.

A second common change is an increased use of technology that helps provides more flexibility for working outside of the office and helps manage the increasing amount of electronic communications and documents. This includes a movement toward electronic document managements systems and cloud-based software/systems that allow lawyers to access files and work remotely from any location with internet access. This provides lawyers with flexibility in when and where they work and communicate with clients. Clients increasingly expect more rapid response to emails and other communications as technology has made it easier to communicate. Having the ability to access files and communicate from anywhere is therefore a valuable tool.”

Thomas Hackett, NW Legacy Law Center

“We are adapting to the changing world and legal field in two primary ways: (1) fee structure, and (2) specialization.

Fee structure: We provide services based on defined engagements with fixed prices. This requires us as the service provider to have a value conversation with a client before we dive into the project.

Fixed price engagements require increased specialization by the service provider. We have to know what the project will entail – or how it might change – to provide a reliable scope of work and project cost. You can’t provide a fixed price unless you know what you are doing.

Specialization: We limit our practice to be both better at what we do and make our work more enjoyable. Our team enjoys being good at what we do, and working in narrow practice areas allows us to get better and better in those areas. The cliche is on point: When you are a jack or all trades, you are a master of none. Doing a little of everything is tiring. I’m constantly amazed at the new intricacies we find in the limited areas of our practice.

On a side note, we used to have more of a Facebook presence, but I recently had another team member change my password so I stopped accessing it. I found Facebook and a smartphone didn’t enhance my life. They constantly pulled me in without providing me with joy. I’ve now spent the past two months without Facebook or a smartphone and don’t miss either one. I’ll probably still run some Facebook ads and I do invest into our online presence, but I don’t want to put too many advertising dollars into mediums that I think take away from the human experience.”

Clarence Belnavis, Fisher Phillips

“Law firms are very traditional entities that have generally been slow to accept change. However, we have seen significant change in the last few years. Regarding how clients pay for legal services, most of them expect options to the traditional hourly billing format. Billing options are as varied as the clients who request them, but options typically include fixed or phased fee billing. Under fixed fee billing, a client is charged a set amount on the front end for a specific task irrespective of how long it takes to complete that task. Under phased fee billing, a matter (such as a lawsuit) is broken up into phases and a fixed fee is charged for each phase of the case.

Technology has made a huge impact in how legal services are delivered. Everyone is instantly in contact with each other. Thus, clients and opposing counsel now expect an immediate response to any inquiry/communication. In the past, you had several hours or a day to return a call; now, that time is reduced to minutes or an hour or two.

Technology has also increased the workday. In the past, courts would often require that filings were made by the end of their business day. Now, several courts allow for documents to be filed electronically by the end of the actual day. The result is that attorneys work longer days to fit more items in while waiting to finish filing a document. Likewise, clients expect to receive and comment on documents well into the evening.

Today, there is also less of a need to work from a central office where the cost of that office space is high and employees need to commute to and from that location. Attorneys and their staffs can generally work remotely from anywhere since most offices are going paperless and technology allows you to access information as long as you have a computer and web access. This also makes it easier for attorneys who are licensed in multiple jurisdictions to actively work in both locations.”

If you are a member of the local legal environment and want to weigh in on this issue, we would love to hear from you. Email your thoughts to editorial@vbjusa.com.

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