With emails arriving all day long and inboxes being accessible from an array of personal devices, it can be easy to forget that nearly two decades ago the internet was still an infant and logging onto email required much patience.
However, back in 1996, Richard Susskind predicted email would become the preferred method of communication between lawyers and their clients. The reaction was hostile. He remembers people suggesting he was dangerous — possibly insane — and calling for him to be banned from speaking in public.
Emails have since become such a regular part of the legal profession that they intrude into evenings and weekends. Now attorneys are cloud computing, e-filing, e-discovering, video chatting, remote accessing and trying to figure out how to compete against online providers that are attracting clients by offering legal services faster and cheaper.
Susskind — attorney, professor, author and consultant — has continued to offer his views of the practice of law and his visions of how technology will fundamentally change what lawyers do. Among his writings, his two books — “The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services” and “Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future” — continue to draw attention and spark debate.
As Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor William Henderson reiterated in a 2014 Michigan Law Review article, Susskind has been right more often than wrong over the last 25 years.
Susskind will soon be sharing his ideas with Indiana attorneys. He will be the keynote speaker during the Sept. 28 Luncheon Plenary: The Future for Lawyers at the 2017 Indiana State Bar Association Annual Meeting, Sept. 27-29 in Indianapolis. Henderson will introduce him to the audience.
Technology has created upheaval in all sectors of the economy. The Rust Belt has lost more manufacturing jobs to automation than to outsourcing; online retailers have bludgeoned shopping malls, medical scans done in a U.S. hospital can be read cheaper by radiologists in India; and just about anyone with a car and a smartphone can compete with taxi drivers by joining Uber.
Greencastle solo practitioner Scott Bieniek said the nature of practicing law may make attorneys seemingly more anxious about the encroachment of technology. Lawyers are trained to think rationally and avoid risks. Advances in information technology bring new challenges and increase the potential for problems, which raises the level of resistance in the legal profession.
Still, lawyers cannot ignore what is happening.
“I just think as a bar association, we need to embrace technology and accept it as something that is going to transform the practice of law,” Bieniek said. “We need to make sure ethics and professional obligations are written in a way that allows us to meet those needs.”
Not just a big firm concern
Mitchell Heppenheimer, outgoing ISBA president, used his year leading the state bar to find ways to help Indiana attorneys adjust to the changes in the legal marketplace. Having Susskind come speak is another way, Heppenheimer said, the association can educate its members about the future of the legal profession.
Initially when he read Susskind’s writings, Heppenheimer didn’t reject the ideas, but didn’t think the changes were impacting his practice. He realized he was wrong after he noticed a significant decline in the number of clients who were coming to his office in search of help forming corporations. People were still incorporating their businesses but, rather than using local attorneys, they were going online and doing it themselves.
Heppenheimer, of Heppenheimer & Korpal P.C. in South Bend, does not believe he is alone. Other Hoosier attorneys are likely seeing revenue drop and potential clients turning to their computers for legal assistance.
And while Susskind concentrates primarily on large law firms, Heppenheimer does not see the market upheaval as strictly a big-city problem. Alternative legal service providers are reaching people everywhere, including Indiana, where many lawyers practice in solo offices or small firms.
“I think it impacts everybody, because most people do have an internet connection,” Heppenheimer said.
Bieniek purposefully opened his Bieniek Law office in Greencastle, population 10,508, because he saw an unmet need for legal services among small-town residents. He can work remotely and created his firm’s website to be a one-stop shop where information about specific areas of law is available.
Technology, he said, allows him to raise his family and practice in a small community. It also brings new competition into his market, which requires him to educate his neighbors about the value attorneys provide that cannot be matched by internet-based legal services.
“As a profession, we need to explain the role we play and why a lot of competing services are not for everybody,” Bieniek said.
Emails at night
Henderson, writing further in his article for the Michigan Law Review, noted he has observed lawyers and law professors resisting Susskind’s forecasts. Rather than greeting his vision of the future with wonderment, the audiences have been skeptical and fearful.
Attorneys might be naturally resistant to change but they do not have the option to continue practicing as they have, Heppenheimer said. Clients are demanding more from their lawyers and are willing to go online for legal services.
Even in Brook, Indiana, population 963, attorney Candace Armstrong’s phone buzzes in the middle of the night with emails. Her local business clients, who have deals and operations around the world, expect her to be available and have the technology to meet their legal needs.
Like Bieniek, she maintains her foothold in the market by providing value. “I think as attorneys, it’s our responsibility to add the value,” she said.
For those clients who want to handle more of the legal work themselves, Armstrong offers advice about what they can do on their own and when they should call her. Changing the payment due date on a lease or handling simple annual reports does not always require a lawyer be present.
The complicated legal matters will bring those same do-it-yourself clients into her office. They come back and hire her for the complex issues, she said, because she does not nickel-and-dime them for work they can do themselves.
Heppenheimer recalled a food truck entrepreneur coming to his office to form a corporation. The man explained he was following the advice in “Small Business for Dummies,” which recommended seeking out an attorney for help with legal matters. This underscored to Heppenheimer that people still need lawyers and the service attorneys provide is still valued.
Advances in technology are dramatically alternating the landscape, but they are also providing new opportunities, like the ability to get Susskind to speak to the ISBA members.
On a whim, Heppenheimer sent an invitation to the Scottish author via email.•