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When we peer into the world of law practice we see a troubled world: one caught between the customs of traditional practice and the modes of 21st century tech start-ups. A tension made infinitely worse by a flat economy. Painful for many lawyers; but incredibly exciting for others.

Geoff Wild (@GeoffWild1), the disruptive innovator and legal explorer, speaking at ReInvent Law Dubai 2012 caught the tension best. He said:

“There’s never been a better time to be a lawyer… just not a traditional lawyer.”

Yes, today is an incredibly exciting time to be a lawyer that is ready to embrace new practices, tools, thoughts and ideas. The reality is this: no longer can lawyers be single-subject, faceless, legal technocrats. The modern lawyer needs to express a myriad of skills and abilities. In three words, lawyers need to be: free-thinking creative entrepreneurs.

At the core of this transformation is technology: the great disruptor and equaliser that has opened up law practice and revolutionised the way services can be delivered.

To understand this new world of the legal entrepreneurship we need to read Cari Sommer writing in Forbes Magazine, ‘How Entrepreneurship Is Reshaping The Legal Industry.’ The former practising lawyer with Bryan Cave LLP, now communications consultant painted a picture of how the future of law practice will look. She did this across four points:

Firstly, legal start-ups will continue to drive down the cost of standard legal services. This has to do with the emergence and increasing ubiquity of new and imaginative legal business models. This is the ‘new normal’: the movement that is simplifying and unbundling legal services at a price-point that fits the pocket of Main Street.

The end result is that people and small businesses are increasingly able to pick and choose legal products off-shelf and even do many elementary legal services online themselves.

Secondly, the legal industry in America will increasingly rationalise and consolidate into a premium few, instead of a premium many. In the near and medium term future only 20 or so law firms will be able to run by something that looks vaguely like the old model. The rest of the Am Law 100 will be forced to either fail or break up into smaller more nimble firms.

It’s all about the forces of technology and a flat economy forcing the industry to rationalise its affairs.

Thirdly, as technology continues to develop and the economy changes, the disruption to the traditional law firm model will continue: from how people find lawyers, to how firms recruit, to how lawyers collaborate and provide legal services. There are innumerable areas where the legal industry can be improved; and so this gives the lucrative opportunity to those who can identify meaningful solutions.

Cari then cited the CEO and Founder of Axiom Law, Mark Harris. He said: “It’s taken an earthquake of a recession to expose the inefficiencies that have long plagued large firms… Though many of the law firm leaders are aware of the need to change, they are uncertain about the way forward.”

This is the problem that we’ve heard over and over again, including on Bloomberg Law hosted by Lee Pacchia: that law firms want to change but don’t know how to.

The answer: change comes down to adopting new outward and internal practices and customs. This can include alternative billing arrangements and other transparency measures that instil both trust and confidence (read our post on the public’s mistrust of lawyers here); other value-added services; developing your commercial awareness and becoming centred and empathetic on the concerns and needs of the client; contributions from management and also the implementation of a more collegiate, less hierarchical culture.

(You can also refer to the following reports on the state of the legal sector and how law firms can change: Deloitte (UK), PWC (UK),the Law Society of England and Wales (UK), Citi-Hildebrandt (US), Wells Fargo (US), Georgetown-Reuters (US) and the FT.)

Firms like Axiom are also cutting into law firm market share and handling complex, sophisticated work. The President of LexBlog Kevin McKeown (@kevinmckeown) has penned a seminal blog post on Axiom law and its role in vanguard of legal change, here.

Cari finished her third point by quoting Mike Harris of Axiom again: “None of these alternatives existed at any meaningful scale ten years ago. And, we’re just at the beginning of the revolution.”

Fourthly, Cari Sommer said that lawyers will continue to become entrepreneurs. She said: “And these days, running a start-up law firm is not too far from running a tech start-up, but with the added responsibility of regulation and ethical scrutiny.”

We can look to firms like Temple Bright founded by Tim Summers who we chatted with here and here. We can also look to the exciting Boston law firm New Leaf Legal which Helen spoke with here. Canadian lawyer, author and innovative legal writer Mitch Kowalski, who we spoke with here, was a big fan of the dynamic law London law firm Gunnercooke, which he wrote about here. Mitch is also a big fan of Canadian firm Conduit Law and Cognition, both of which we’re equally impressed by.

Mitch is an interesting one and has done a huge amount, through his book ‘Avoiding Extinction’ and social media to drive debate on the future of law practice. And if we can learn anything from him, it’s from his philosophy: that firms be ‘small and nimble’.

Cari Sommers finished by quoted Jennifer Hill who said: “Lawyers are increasingly using social media, hosting blogs, speaking on panels and leveraging technology to build a practice on a shoe string and deliver high quality legal services to clients at a reasonable price.”

And this is exactly what is possible for lawyers and law firms out there who have that bit of hunger and ambition to do that bit more. Already we are seeing ‘small and nimble’ firms sprout and take root and other business models emerge that are providing solutions, just as Cari said in her third point. Just look at UpCounsel. A business model that has turned law on its head by embracing the internet and connecting small businesses, start-ups and private individuals with affordable attorneys; also allowing attorneys to set up a virtual practice in a matter of minutes.

My closing observation for lawyers and other professionals is this. Jon Minnis said: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it! Boldness has genius, power and magic”. Whether you’re going to start a new firm, a virtual practice, launch a new product, a blog or get on social media – begin it!

This article was written by EC associate Brian John Spencer.

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