"Bright Line Test: Are lawyers still necessary?" by Tami Kamin Meyer

07 Apr 2014 11:18 AM | Chere Estrin (Administrator)
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the legal sector shrank by 1,100 jobs in November, 2013, marking the second straight month the number of people employed in the industry declined. On the brighter note, the same report indicated the legal industry, as a whole, netted approximately 3,000 jobs in the year 2013. Overall, the legal industry employs 1.128 million individuals nationwide; 2,500 more than in 2012.

However, one sector of the legal profession experiencing an uptick in growth is for paralegals and legal assistants, according to the Occupational Outlook handbook. The organization projects a 17 percent growth rate for those two legal support careers in the decade between 2012 and 2022.

“The legal profession is in upheaval because (they) didn’t pay attention to what’s going on around (them),” says Susan Cartier Liebel, founder and CEO of Solo Practice University. Her blog, Build a Solo Practice, LLC (now titled Solo Practice University’s blog), is consistently listed among the most popular focusing on Law Practice Management, according to the ABA Journal Online Blawg Directory.

Liebel generalizes that top-tier of attorneys “live in a bubble and don’t understand” why fewer clients are seeking their services while many who do balk at big-firm norms, such as grandiose hourly billing rates. “You must understand your buyer, the legal client,” she says.

According to Liebel, 80 percent of the American population with legal needs cannot afford to pay for them as they are marketed. “It’s not about the billable hour. Lawyers need to learn how to first, service their clients and then build their practice around that,” says Liebel.

So, if the average American can’t afford to hire a lawyer to counsel them through their legal entanglements, how can that void be filled?

Challenges for legal eagles

The public’s need for legal representation will never die, but that doesn’t mean lawyers have a monopoly on the market for assisting people. Sure, only licensed attorneys can counsel people through their legal quandaries while advocating on their behalf, but that leaves a wealth of work that can be performed by non-lawyers at more affordable prices.

Still, at least one longtime attorney does not equate the public’s demands for more reasonably priced legal representation with the death of Big Firm law. “Big firms will not end, but there will be fewer of them with fewer lawyers. Some clients will always stay with big firms and pay the astronomical rates to cover themselves inside their companies,” says Joseph Dreitler, a Columbus, Ohio attorney and namesake of the IP firm of Dreitler True. After lengthy stints with a prominent Columbus law firm, Dreitler and a law partner abandoned ranks to establish their own practice.

According to Dreitler, one of the main reasons he finally followed through on his longtime desire to hang his own shingle is that big firms tend to charge their clients too much for their services. “When you see people talk about fixed rates and all, the rest of it is smoke and mirrors. Big law firms, like big companies, have a lot of overhead. If a lawyer’s rate is $800 an hour, does anyone really think if she is occupied that she will work on your case for $450 an hour? Of course not,” says Dreitler, an attorney with an international clientele and more than three decades of legal experience on his resume.

Fernando M. Pinguelo, partner in the Manhattan-based law firm of Scarinci Hollenbeck and head of its Cyber Security and Data protection department, and member, Board of Governors, OLP, offers his own views on the stumbling blocks for today’s lawyer. Calling the legal profession a “centuries-old business model, Pinguelo says today’s lawyers are challenged by meshing the old-world characteristics of the trusted legal advisor with the complexities of our technologically savvy and often impersonal existence.

“Being able to adapt from a centuries-old business model to a rapidly changing environment where technology, difficult economic times, globalization, divergent client needs, increased competition and changing demographics collide to create greater demands on lawyers,” says Pinguelo.

A transforming legal landscape

So while it seems the number of attorney positions is dipping, supporting professions are enjoying an uptick in opportunities. “The fastest growth has been in professions that support the delivery of legal services to any size client ranging from corporate law to the average, everyday client,” says Richard Granat, Founder and CEO of DirectLaw, Inc., and Co-Director for the Center for Law Practice Technology and member of the Board of Governors, OLP. Granat is also a licensed attorney who maintains a virtual law practice based in Maryland.

While he can’t know exactly what the names of emerging careers supporting the delivery of legal services will be, Granat foresees positions such as knowledge engineer, legal project manager, e-discovery manager and legal document automation specialist. He also predicts a new area of study focusing on technology will compliment a J.D. degree so law school graduates will be educated on how to best serve their clients utilizing an array of technological advancements.

Does the decrease in lawyer retention immediately translate into more work for paralegals? Not necessarily, says Ron Friedmann, a consultant with Fireman & Co., is a firm that helps lawyers practice more efficiently. Friedmann is a member of the Board of Governors of OLP. While Friedmann wouldn’t say if paralegals are the answer to what ails the delivery of legal services, he did say “more work should be delegated to the appropriate person” by law firms. Moreover, it’s Friedmann’s professional experience that, in general, law firms “do not utilize paralegals as well as they should.”

Because, in general, the costs associated with litigation, including attorney fees and associated charges are more than the average person can afford, the pricing of legal services will become a hot topic, says Friedmann. Because of that, he foresees a career labeled something like ‘pricing analyst’ to become integral to the affordable delivery of legal services. Project managers will also become the norm in large law firms, although, Friedmann cautions, “partners have to want to be managed more effectively.”

Meanwhile, Stephen Chappelear, a Columbus partner with Frost Brown Todd and a former president of both the Columbus and Ohio Bar Associations, says he has observed that big firms are responding to clients’ needs for reduced fees by “giving work to associates and paralegals. That has increased their responsibilities and work load.”

According to Chappelear, the use of paralegals has increased for several reasons. They include:
  • The increase in confidence lawyers have for work performed by paralegals
  • Paralegal training has improved, translating into greater respect for the profession
Interestingly, he also predicts big law firms will hire of private investigators to help them research information and people. ”They’re trained to do something different than law clerks, paralegals, etc., and it’s really good to have someone to help glean information when they already have that experience. I foresee them being hired on a case-by-case basis or by firms full-time,” says Chappelear.

Does the availability of legal information negate the need for lawyers?

Pinguelo says while the Internet has proven attractive to would- be clients seeking lawyers, it will not spell the end of the legal profession. Pinguelo credits the Internet with creating more knowledgeable clients, which “can contribute immeasurably to the outcome of a case,” he says.

According to Liebel, “eighty percent of the information [clients] need is available online,” but that won’t spell the end of the legal profession. While there will always be people who rely on law-related information gleaned from the Internet as if it was absolutely accurate, the role of the lawyer does not change. “The lawyer puts [the information] into effect and advocates” for the client, she says. The attorney can explain how statutes and case decisions can impact a client’s case, and that’s information that can’t necessarily be gleaned from the Internet or other sources.

“We still need lawyers for oversight to do what’s right in each case,” says Liebel.

As the Internet gained prominence as a research tool for clients seeking both potential lawyers to hire and information about their legal issues, in general, attorneys struggled “trying to figure out if giving legal advice on the Internet was ethical and commercially sustainable,” says Dreitler. Over the past 20 years, lawyers have slowly recognized “the majority of people asking for legal advice online want it for free,” says Dreitler, who claims not to know any attorneys who offer free legal advice to strangers. He cautions lawyers to establish a professional relationship with a potential client prior to imparting legal advice.

Chappelear thinks the proliferation of law-related information on the Internet impacts small law firms and solo practitioners more than big law firms. “It’s not that different from 30 years ago when someone went to the library to get information. Lawyers have always had to either re-educate or confirm what clients are finding,” whether it was found online, in a book or from another source.

Tami Kamin Meyer is a freelance writer and an Ohio attorney also licensed to practice in both Ohio federal districts and the U.S. Supreme Court. Her byline has appeared in publications such as Better Homes and Gardens, The Rotarian, Ohio Super Lawyer, Ohio Lawyers Weekly, Ohio Magazine, Cleveland Magazine and Columbus CEO.
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