Before he was one of America’s best-known presidents, Abraham Lincoln was a small-firm attorney, litigating more than 5,000 cases over the course of his career with three different partners.
Lincoln’s approach to lawyering was the central theme of the Indiana State Bar Association Solo and Small Firm Conference earlier this month, when attorneys from around the state gathered to learn about the latest trends and developments in the practice of law pertinent to their firms. American Bar Association President Linda Klein, addressing conference attendees in a speech on June 2, pointed to Lincoln’s career as a lawyer as an example of the hard work and tenacity needed to successfully operate a boutique firm.
Lincoln himself wrote about the rigors of “law firm housekeeping,” Klein said, quoting him as saying, “Whatever piece of business you have at hand, before stopping, do all the labor pertaining to it which can be then done. Make all examinations of titles and note them, and even draft orders and decrees in advance.”
Klein said, “But those kinds of demands on small-firm lawyers are not confined to history — they continue.”
There’s a reason solo and small-firm attorneys can fall under such heavy pressure, Klein said, because they are the key to access to justice in the United States. But holding such a position in society without the financial resources or personnel of a larger firm is inevitably challenging, which is why Klein said the ABA offers a range of services designed to help small-firm attorneys turn their challenges into opportunities for success.
Klein’s experience as ABA president has shown her the greatest challenge facing solo and small-firm attorneys is administrative in nature. Aside from the actual practice of law, small-firm attorneys also must be businesspeople, handling tasks such as answering client phone calls, processing invoices and developing marketing plans. She said small-firm attorneys across the country, including those in Indiana, have consistently told her they need more resources to find efficient ways to balance those tasks.
In some ways, younger lawyers are leading the pack in this area, Klein said, as they are adapting more quickly to new marketing techniques and client service models that will “take the profession to new levels.”
Generational differences aside, Klein said the ABA also is stepping in to help ease lawyers’ administrative burden, offering resources such as ABA Blueprint, which she described as a “one-stop shop” for locating legal tech and other tools to make running a small firm more manageable. Blueprint, which has been live since last fall, is open to all attorneys — though ABA members receive special deals — and offers tools such as billing and document automation software, plus many more.
Additionally, the national organization is addressing other areas of small-firm needs, such as cybersecurity and technological competency, through its more than 3,500 entities that offer guidebooks, online tutorials and other similar learning opportunities. Klein highlighted these tools as one of the benefits of becoming an official ABA member.
“With all these resources, we’re working in the ABA to give solo and small-firm lawyers the preparation and the opportunity to excel,” Klein said. “We need you there, and so does our country. It’s an important part for standing up for the rule of law.”
Looking at the state of the national judiciary, Klein raised concerns about various political issues creeping into the practice of law, such as attacks on judges and proposed budget cuts to the Legal Services Corp. At the time it was established, the LSC received overwhelming bipartisan support, and the availability of funds to provide legal help to low-income citizens should still be an issue that crosses party lines, she said.
“Indiana Legal Services, which serves low-income people in every county here, received $7.3 million from the Legal Services Corporation in 2015,” the ABA president said. “By Washington’s standards, probably not a great amount of money. But here, in this state, can you live without those dollars for the legal support for the needy?”
Serving other vulnerable members of society, such as veterans, should also be a central focus for attorneys, Klein said. There are roughly 22 million veterans in the United States, including 442,000 in Indiana, facing a “maze of legal problems,” many of which can often lead veterans into homelessness.
To combat that issue, the ABA sponsors events each year that offer pro bono services for veterans’ legal needs. Klein praised members of the Indiana State Bar Association for their willingness to participate in such events, and Indiana’s law schools for running legal clinics that cater to veterans’ needs.
Klein ended her address by once again stressing the importance of ABA membership, telling the solo and small- firm attorneys that by working together through a strong national organization, attorneys can more effectively advocate for the values they hold close — the rule of law, an independent judiciary and equal access to justice.
“The ABA is doing everything in its power to ensure that our courts are fair and impartial, free from political pressure, properly staffed, properly funded, and led by the best judges available,” she said.•