Here Comes the Revolution – How to Hold On to Your Team Stars

Seven people have passed the exam to be the nation’s first “legal technicians” in Washington state. A quote from the ABA Journal article by Debra Cassens Weiss:

“Washington is the first state with a program to allow limited license legal technicians (LLLT’s)  to help litigants prepare legal documents and provide advice on legal procedures without a lawyer’s supervision.”

And a second story, this time from the ABA itself: Legal technicians may partly own law firms in this state; is ban to nonlawyer ownership crumbling?

The short answer is a resounding YES. The dreaded “ABS” (alternative business structures) which allow non-attorney ownership of law firms, which is already in place in Australia, Great Britain and is coming soon in Canada, has now been breached in Washington State, sans blessing from the ABA.

And if your reaction is “it’ll never catch on,” you’re dead wrong. Oregon is close to following suit. California and New York are considering. Florida is taking a look.

A recent article in the New Jersey Law Journal titled The New World of Outside Investment in Law Firms” has an enlightening comment about the traditional resistance to change – the “law is a profession, not a business” argument:

“There is a hoary battle cry we always hear when having these discussions: “practicing law is a profession, not a business.” That started in the late 19th century when lawyers began to establish a professional identity and adopted the Victorian scheme of professionalism from England. At its core was the tension between the ascendant commercial classes and those who considered themselves better than merchants and above the fray. Many of them practiced law as a gentlemanly profession, but relied on their family money to pay the bills. Few of us today have trust funds. If we don’t bill, we don’t eat. That sounds pretty commercial to me.”

The article also discusses a seminal event – the first law firm in Britain to do an IPO. Well worth reading.

The licensed legal technician trend, like the “nurse practitioner” and “physician assistant” waves that are sweeping the medical profession, is coming to a state near you. And it will affect you in the following ways:

First – unless you’re willing to lose that outstanding paralegal, be prepared to re-think and re-structure how your practice works to keep them – and their revenues – inside the firm. Don’t worry about losing your under-performers. They’ll stay as long as you let them collect a paycheck.

Second – get ready to completely re-imagine and re-design your operations, marketing, client relationships and fees – before your competitors do – to take full advantage of this new category of legal service professionals. Because the toughest of those competitors will. You can implement a good part of this re-design right now on a practical level, before the revolution comes to your town. Frankly, much of the legal profession has been doing this for decades – we’ve just disguised it well.

Third – Get used to not supervising the person who used to be your paralegal. It will be a separate profession with its own standards and procedures. Although in Washington State it is still entwined with the Bar, the state Supreme Court actually created a separate LLLT Board to oversee it. Soon that board will operate in parallel with, and not beneath, the State Bar. Watch for the emergence of a parallel “bar.”

Fourth – expect to find yourself directly competing with one or more LLLT’s. They no longer have to work under the supervision of an attorney. They can – and will – open their own firms. But they will not be admitted to represent clients in court (yet).

Fifth – if you have one or more outstanding paralegals, be prepared to enter into new relationships with them. Many of the best will want to be partners with you – or if not with you, then with another attorney – likely your direct competitor.

Sixth – like it or not, your world is about to change. Read CNN’s commentary The Fall and Rise of Lawyers.

And finally, if you’re worried about your future direction and could use some help drawing a roadmap to your future, call or text me – 407-830-9810 – or shoot me an email – dustin@attorneysmasterclass.com.