NYSBA Adopts Report On Legal Profession's Future

Monday, May 2, 2011 - 01:00

New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) President Stephen P. Younger released a report addressing a "sea change" within the profession and offering innovative recommendations for restructuring law firm operations, implementing new billing practices, improving training of new lawyers, enhancing work-life balance for attorneys, and using technology to deal the evolving profession.

The Report on the Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession recently was approved by the association's House of Delegates.

"After weathering some of the worst years in recent memorybar leaders across New York and around the world recognize the need to change the way attorneys do business," said President Younger. "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."

President Younger added, "I am confident this report will be of broad interest throughout the legal profession as attorneys manage new challenges in a rapidly changing environment."

Linda Addison of Fulbright & Jaworski and T. Andrew Brown of Brown & Hutchinson cochaired 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 examine their structures and consider expanding use of alternative fee arrangements. According to the report, "Clients are seeking more efficient services, predictable fees, and increased responsiveness to their needs."

Developments in technology have enabled new kinds of law firms and legal enterprises. Brick-and-mortar law offices are competing with small "virtual" firms that work almost exclusively online. Multi-jurisdictional virtual law firms represent clients across many 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 (toward) alternative fee arrangements," the report notes. "The Task Force believes that AFAs will continue to expandas a model for compensating lawyers and providing value to clients."

Noting evolving client needs, the report recommends continuing legal education programs, publications, and web-based services to help members provide quality legal services and maximize value. 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," President Younger said. "To meet the demands of the modern client and law firm, new lawyers need to receive more skills-based training."

Thus, the Task Force recommends rethinking legal education 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 reassess legal skills requirements, noting that law schools have done much of the groundwork for developing this assessment tool.

The Task Force recommends that the NYSBA examine licensing reforms, such as the Uniform Bar Exam, that promote efficiency and reciprocity; sequential licensing, which permits limited practice for new attorneys pending further training and examination; adjusting bar exam scores 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 young children and aging parents, seek better integration of their work and personal lives. Mobile devices create expectations that lawyers are on call 24/7, and work-life balance issues affect 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 of vacation schedules, including names of other attorneys who can handle issues in their absence.

The report recommends employer policies that encourage flexible work arrangements and paid or unpaid sabbaticals.

Technology. 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 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.

The Task Force suggests that law firms employ systems-based analyses of potential new technologies and invest in technology training for their lawyers, and it recommends that the NYSBA study how it can assist smaller firms with technology-related issues and with finding solutions that are 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."