Fundamental changes that affect your practice

By Edward Poll

The Daily Record Newswire

When lawyers enter legal practice, they understand that certain aspects of what they will be doing will change during their careers. There will be new laws and regulations, new court decisions from which to take emerging precedents, and technological advances that will make once-common office tools virtually extinct.

However, every law practice undergoes far more fundamental changes than these, ones that affect not just what a lawyer does but how a practice actually functions. Such broad changes are generally not anticipated at the start of a practice career, but they can ultimately have the greatest impact.

Here are three examples-- negative, positive and neutral-- of this broader, fundamental change.

Negative: economic conditions:

We continue now into the fourth or fifth year (depending on your measurement) of what can only be called a depression for the practice of law. Many small businesses, the lifeblood of solo and small-firm practices, have closed their doors. Many individuals who likewise typically bring a flow of business from real estate transactions, divorces and similar life events have had to postpone these events because they could not afford either them or a lawyer's services to help with them.

These same economic conditions have had a negative impact on many lawyers of Baby Boomer age, who not long ago pictured themselves nearing retirement but now must remain in practice because their retirement savings have shrunk so dramatically.

Positive: economic conditions:

Paradoxically, the tough economic times have created significant opportunities in certain practice areas, such as bankruptcy law. The housing market collapse has led many people to seek legal help to avoid foreclosure on their homes.

Granted, some states have banned lawyers from accepting retainers for doing this work, but the work still exists. Politicians at every level are busy passing laws to "fix" the tough economic conditions (run down the list: health care, labor law, tax law, etc.), creating more causes of action for which clients need advice.

And there is one more change that is positive for some firms: As frightened lawyers look to sell their practices at any price, those firms that are well-run and debt-free will be positioned to take advantage of the many opportunities offered by purchasing these practices.

Neutral: practice planning:

Both the uncertainty and opportunity created by the current economic conditions increasingly change the way lawyers look at the future of their practices. Despite the belief of some lawyers that they will never be able to retire but must instead "die with their boots on," others at least consider the need for practice planning: an estate plan to provide financial security, a succession plan to sell or otherwise transfer the practice, and a retirement plan for life after practicing law.

The net effect of this change is neutral, because while it can save lawyers from sudden rash decisions about their futures, it also forces them to confront their own mortality. No lawyer is immortal, and there is nothing permanent in the practice of law or in life.

Coming to grips with that is difficult, but in the end is a necessity that few, if any, lawyers think about when first hanging out their shingles.

Edward Poll is a speaker, author and board-approved coach to the legal profession. He can be contacted at edpoll@lawbiz.com. Also visit his interactive community for lawyers at www.LawBizForum.com.

Published: Mon, Oct 15, 2012

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