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Leadership Academy learns about the ‘fat middle’

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Leadership Academy class

FLORIDA BAR LEADERSHIP ACADEMY fellows listen to Board of Governors member John Stewart and Adriana Linares, an outside technology consultant for the Bar, talk about integrating technology into the practice of law to increase profitability and meet the unmet legal needs of moderate-income individuals and small businesses.

Leadership Academy learns about the ‘fat middle’

‘These are people who can afford lawyers, but don’t think they can afford them’

Mark D. Killian

Editor

There are billions of dollars’ worth of unmet legal needs in America, and the lawyers who successfully integrate technology into their practices will be well positioned to capture a share of that market.

That’s the message Board of Governors member John Stewart had for the Bar’s Leadership Academy fellows when they met in Tampa in October.

John Stewart Stewart characterized this underserved marketplace as “the fat middle,” the bulge between the top 5 percent of “really sophisticated legal work” many big firms chase and the bottom 5 to 10 percent that is largely legal aid and pro bono work.

It is the “fat middle” — moderate-income individuals and small businesses — that aren’t getting the services they need.

“These are people who can afford lawyers, but don’t think they can afford them,” said Stewart, who chairs the Board of Governors’ Technology Committee. “Maybe they can’t afford them at the price point we are delivering, but that is what technology is helping us do — deliver products at a price point they can afford.”

It’s this multi-billion dollars worth of unmet need that is drawing the likes of LegalZoom, RocketLawyer, and Avvo into the legal marketplace, he said.

“I would say every single legal technology company nonlawyer service provider that I have talked with says the best solution is technology plus the lawyer,” Stewart said. “None of them that I think are top level in what they provide think that their solution without a lawyer is better. Likewise, lawyers without technology are not the better solution either. So, it is the combination of the two that make this work.”

Stewart said emerging technologies provide lawyers with the tools “to help us deliver the services.”

Adriana Linares, an outside technology consultant for the Bar, asked the Leadership Academy fellows if they had ever thought about “attacking that market.”

“You all are the answer to this problem,” she told the leadership class. “You don’t need a third party. You don’t need a platform. You need to figure out how to bill efficiently for work that is repeatable and predictable and do volume work that makes you happy.”

Serving this unmet need is an opportunity, Linares said.

Adriana Linares “What if you became a well-known small business lawyer for boutiques in your neighborhood, your community?” Linares asked. “What if you decide to represent local entertainers? Those are the people who need legal services.”

Linares used her legal technology coaching business — LawTech Partners — as an example.

“I am the client you all want, because I can pay $150 to $175 per hour. I can’t pay $300 to $400,” said Linares, adding there are thousands of others just like her “when you look out your window.”

Linares said serving clients like her doesn’t require a third party: “It means figuring out what area you want to focus on, how to use technology to become efficient to turn that work around to serve your clients in volume work, and help the communities that need these services at the same time.”

Stewart of noted the 15th Circuit has a program where the clerk of court provides office space for young lawyers just getting started — or those who don’t have all the work they want — to help people fill out family law forms for a $1 a minute.

“You may say, ‘I can’t make a living at $60 an hour,’” but Stewart said everything is relative to your expenses.

“When you start to get into business, and many of you all are, everything is based on overhead,” he said. “I can charge $350 or $400 an hour, but if my overhead is way upside down it doesn’t matter.”

“Do some math,” Linares suggested.

“There are a lot of examples out there; there are a lot of opportunities and that is just one good example,” Stewart said.

Stewart said the practice of law is evolving “and most of you will end up in solo or small firm practices.” He said of the 105,000 licensed attorneys in Florida, 75 percent are in firms of 10 or less, and technology helps level the playing field.

“The difficulty is technology takes time to learn, so it is hard if you are in a small firm,” Stewart said. “Most of the time you are spending in your firm is working on your cases and trying to manage your firm. So, learning to use your technology could be an obstacle.”

The best practice, he said, is to pick areas where you think technology will enhance your practice and ‘learn it in bite-size chunks and don’t be afraid to get help.”

Stewart said most younger lawyers fear technology is going to replace the tasks new lawyers traditionally performed and, in some respects, document review may be one example where that might be true.

“But I think in the overall scheme of things. . . we really should not have been in that business anyway,” he said. “We’ve dumbed ourselves down a little bit.”

Breaking away from traditional models gives lawyers a chance to “elevate our practice back to what we were really meant to be, which is strategizing about sophisticated questions and not sitting there plowing through 1,200 pages of material to find a particular word in a document,” Stewart said.

He told the fellows to visit the Bar’s Member Benefits page and look at the legal technology companies that are working with the Bar, such as Ravel, “which offers unique legal research using some artificial intelligence,” or Clio, which offers cloud-based law practice management software, and electronic discovery platforms.

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