New York State Bar Association President Stephen P. Younger today released a thought-provoking report addressing the "sea change" taking place within the profession.  The report offers innovative recommendations on restructuring law firm operations, implementing new billing practices,  improving training of new lawyers, enhancing work-life balance for attorneys dealing with the 24/7 work environment and using technology to deal with changes in the profession.

The "Report on the Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession" was approved by the Association's House of Delegates at its recent meeting in Albany.

"After weathering some of the worst years in recent memory due to the economic downturn, bar leaders across New York and around the world are cognizant of the need to change fundamentally the way we as attorneys do business," said Younger of New York (Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler).  "Last June, we began exploring the future of the practice of law by bringing together some of the foremost thought leaders in our profession.  The Task Force included managing partners, law school professors and deans, general counsel, technology experts and work-life balance consultants."

 Younger added, "I am confident this report will be of broad interest throughout the legal profession as attorneys grapple with new challenges in the practice of law that are brought on by a rapidly changing environment."

Linda Addison of New York (Fulbright & Jaworski) and T. Andrew Brown of Rochester (Brown & Hutchinson) co-chaired the Task Force.  It focused on four general topics: law firm structure (including alternative billing methods); training new lawyers; work-life balance; and technology.

Law Firm Structure

To stay competitive, law firms should engage in long-term examination of their structures and should consider expanding their use of alternative fee arrangements, according to the report.  "Clients are seeking more efficient services, predictable fees, and increased responsiveness to their needs," it says.

Developments in technology have created the opportunity to form new kinds of law firms and legal enterprises. Brick-and-mortar law offices are competing with small "virtual" firms that exist and work almost exclusively online. Multi-jurisdictional virtual law firms are representing clients across a broad range of practice areas, including transactional services, intellectual property, tax, commercial law, energy and employment.  Compliance with different states' laws will be an important issue for these entities.

"In the area of billing for legal services, the hourly billing model has been strongly criticized by clients and commentators, leading to a shift away from hourly billing to alternative fee arrangements (AFAs)," the report notes.  "The Task Force believes that AFAs will continue to expand over the course of the next decade, as a model for compensating lawyers and providing value to clients."

Noting that responding to clients' needs may require new and different ways to deliver services, the report recommends that the Association offer continuing legal education programs, publications, and web-based services to help members provide quality legal services in ways that maximize value to the consumers of legal services. It also recommends further exploration of how lawyers can best work with clients who are able to access an increasing amount of legal information in print or from online media.

Training New Lawyers

"Increasingly, clients do not want to pay for the work of new lawyers, many of whom have never interviewed a client or drafted a contract," Younger said.  "To meet the demands of the modern client and law firm, new lawyers need to receive more skills-based training."

With that in mind, the Task Force recommends rethinking the way that new lawyers are educated to develop more "practice-ready" law school graduates.

It also calls for skills-based licensure requirements and urges the New York State Board of Bar Examiners to re-assess the professional skills needed to practice law.  It notes that law schools already have done much of the groundwork for developing this assessment tool.

The Task Force recommends that the State Bar Association examine potential licensing reforms, such as adoption of the Uniform Bar Exam, a format that would promote efficiency and reciprocity; sequential licensing, which would permit limited practice for new attorneys pending further training and examination; adjusting an applicant's score on the bar exam to reflect the successful completion of skills courses; and permitting licensure after a period of closely supervised public service work.

Work-Life Balance

Many attorneys, especially those caring for both young children and aging parents, are seeking a better integration of their work and personal lives. Mobile devices, such as BlackBerries and cell phones, create expectations that lawyers are on call around the clock and on weekends, cutting into their personal lives. Work-life balance is a gender neutral issue that affects both men and women.

The report says helping employees "detach from office demands" can reduce stress-related illnesses, burn-out and workforce attrition.  "The benefits are likely to include enhanced performance and a more satisfying personal life. Law firms should institute a written policy recognizing the importance of vacations and make other attorneys within a firm available to handle client matters while an attorney is on vacation."

Small and solo firms should notify clients in advance of attorney vacation schedules and provide names of other attorneys who can handle issues in their absence. 

The report recommends that employers consider policies encouraging flexible work arrangements and, if possible, paid or unpaid sabbaticals. 

Technology

"Emerging technologies are perhaps the glue that holds together all of the issues covered in this comprehensive study of the profession," noted Younger. 

More and more lawyers are using new social media technologies to connect with clients.  Developments such as cloud computing are changing the technological landscape. The report therefore recommends that the Association study the ethical and risk management concerns associated with social networking, third party hosted solutions, virtual law firms and other new technologies.

In addition, the Task Force suggests that law firms employ systems-based analyses when considering potential new technologies and that they invest in increased technology training for their lawyers. 

Finally, it also recommends that the State Bar Association study how to use its resources to assist smaller firms with technology-related issues. For example, the Association might develop services that benefit practitioners for whom individual investment in technological solutions is not economically feasible.

The report concludes, "As the economy recovers, it is apparent to many observers that the legal profession will not return to business as usual.  Competition for legal work will be intense.  Law firms that do not understand and address these changes will have difficulty competing in the emerging marketplace."

The complete "Report of the Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession" can be viewed here.      

The 77,000-member New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation.  Its programs and activities have served the public and improved the justice system since 1876.

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Contact: Lise Bang-Jensen