Bar News - October 7, 2005
NHBA Fall Retreat: Envisioning the Future of NH Legal Profession
By: Dan Wise
More than 75+ Bar members – officers, board of governors’ members, section and committee leaders, as well as attorneys newly active in the Bar, gathered at Loon Mountain Resort for a one-and-a-half day conference on the future of the profession on Sept. 23-24.
Participants heard from attorney Charlie Robinson, of Clearwater, Fla, a nationally known speaker on the future of the legal profession, particularly from the small-firm point of view, and Dennis Delay, a NH-based economist, who addressed demographic and economic trends relating to the demand for legal services in the Granite State.
NHBA President Richard Uchida opened the event by declaring that its mission was not simply to identify and discuss forces affecting the future of the profession, but to create “a plan for the New Hampshire Bar Association to address those forces [impacting the future of the profession] so we can help our members command their futures.” (Text of Uchida’s remarks appears on page 4; Part 2 of this article, to be published in the Oct. 21 issue, will report on the conclusions reached at the Fall Retreat.)
Robinson’s Dynamic Message
Robinson, who spoke at the Bar’s Midyear Meeting in February 2000, delivered a sobering but dynamic message about the many converging forces changing society and the role that lawyers will play within it. His entertaining presentation is designed to shake busy lawyers from the complacency (he terms them “toxic assumptions”) of believing that the future is an extrapolation of the present, when, he believes, that it is a process of revolution and transformation.
Robinson identified several forces of “discontinuity” that will eventually transform the way most attorneys—and many other white-collar professionals—will do their work:
• increasing nonlawyer competition;
• diminishing perceived value of attorney services;
• technology displacement;
• supply of lawyers exceeding demand;
• “disintermediation” – the disappearance of the intermediary in transactions.
Robinson believes that the market forces are knocking down borders of all sorts, and driving the business sector and the professions to be more of a “plug-and-play” world where skills are easily transported and transferred where needed. He suggests, for example, that the state-by-state licensing system of lawyers will eventually give way to a “driver’s license” model where attorneys, licensed in one jurisdiction, will be free to practice practically anywhere.
“The implications are huge,” he says. “As a bar, who are we?”
The only ones that survive the borderless future where every professional service threatens to become a commodity are those in one of three categories, Robinson contended:
• The special: examples of people who are irreplaceably outstanding. Think Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan.
• The specialized: those who are in a niche or offer expertise that is not easily substituted.
• The anchored: those professionals whose work is done in a specific location—such as hometown lawyers who, as Robinson puts it, “are giving advice, not selling [legal forms] paper.” However, “anchored” will be dependent on local conditions for their compensation levels.
But Robinson is not all gloom-and-doom. He offered several guidelines for coping with a world of rapid change, some steps already being put into place by some lawyers and firms:
• Don’t build walls. Those who are the best at collaborating are the most likely to succeed.
• “The small shall act big.” Small firms using sophisticated technology exemplify this approach.
• “The big shall act small.” No matter how large the law firm, it risks obsolescence if it disobeys this stricture and fails to be nimble and responsive to its clients.
Robinson, an elder law attorney in solo practice, brought the issue of coping with the future down to human scale, saying many of the changes he has noted in practice have come from interactions with his clients. “There has been a reversal of the ’80-20’ rule,” he said, pointing out that clients used to seek him out for his legal knowledge. Today, they seek his judgment. “My clients today come in to my office knowing 80 percent of what they need to know. My job now is to add value to that 20 percent.”
Delay Offers His View
Dennis Delay, who has been watching the NH economic scene for many years, offered an overview of various factors that will affect demand for legal services, looking at statistics on population age, migration, divorce, crime, and other measures.
His verdict? Criminal law is akin to “shoes and textiles” (on the way down); while other bread-and-butter areas such as family, personal injury/malpractice, and even estate law will have increasing demand. However, he acknowledged that the even though demand for many traditional areas of legal services will continue to be strong, there is no guarantee that those services will be provided by lawyers.
Lawyers will have to change and rethink the detached professional approach many now adopt. “You have to become integral to the success of your clients,” Delay said.
Member Groups Envision the Future
The participants then took the speakers’ comments and added their own views on the influential forces affecting the profession. Working together under the guidance of a facilitator, participants grouped those factors into several major areas of concern. In the afternoon of the first day, the attendees were split into groups and asked to envision a future for legal services with various parameters established—i.e. low-cost legal services and high ethical standards; or high levels of access to legal services, but low ethical standards. Each group then produced an imaginative “scenario” of their vision of the future 10 years from now. On the second day, the attendees reflected on the concerns and priorities that had emerged from their thinking and drew up a list of steps to be taken to “command” a desirable future for lawyers and a legal system that provides affordable access to justice.
Read more about the Fall Retreat’s conclusions in the next issue of Bar News.
You can also access Charlie Robinson’s ideas and past presentations at http://www.charlierobinsonfuturist.com/.