The Law Firm of the Future – A Personal View
Throughout my career as a tax lawyer, I’ve attended (and occasionally spoken at) seminars on a variety of technical subjects related to tax and other legal subjects, and of course listened to talks about more pragmatic topics such as substance abuse and bias in the legal profession. I’ve also spent a small fortune building a range of hard-copy and electronic resources to assist me in my law practice. And, every day, I am presented (confronted?) with a variety of resources and advice about how to use the “cloud” for organizing, marketing, and managing a virtual law practice.
Yet for all of these efforts, when asked to share my thoughts on what will be important to the boutique law firm of the future, none of these elements seem particularly relevant to what strikes me as being one of the most important characteristics of that model. Notwithstanding our ability to generate emotive language for websites and write taglines for marketing content, I believe that the key element will be the ability for the lawyers to interact with our clients and deliver our guidance with the appropriate bedside (or desk-side) manner. For present purposes, I would define this as actively listening and responding (with limits of course) as we would if a casual friend were sharing personal problems with us.1
To analogize, in the 1991 movie “The Doctor,” William Hurt portrays a successful but aloof surgeon who is ultimately diagnosed with throat cancer. In one early scene, Hurt’s character lectures his interns that personal feelings have nothing to do with the science of medicine.2 The movie chronicles how Hurt’s philosophy begins to evolve after he sees one doctor, who is recognized as the “go to” specialist, for treatment. She is abrupt, detached and impersonal (traits we saw earlier in how Hurt interacted with his own patients). Ultimately, Hurt’s character is so put off he decides to consult with another doctor, someone Hurt has often derided behind his back. That (second) doctor is a much more active-listener and more openly compassionate. Of course, Hurt’s character (now in the unforeseen role of a patient) chooses the second doctor to operate on his throat and attempt to save his vocal chords.
So, with that perhaps imperfect analogy as a springboard, and since this is not intended as a review of an almost 30-year-old movie, how is this relevant here? The intended takeaway is that lawyers in successful “future state” law firms will be less scripted and more openly emotive with their clients. There are both technical and practical reasons for doing this.
The technical reason is that being more openly compassionate and recognizing the plain human element involved builds a rapport between the client and the lawyer. In my experience, such a rapport makes the client more at ease to tell us uncomfortable but critical truths which can be very relevant to the legal task at hand. Stated differently, we don’t know what we don’t know. In a relatively short interview, we can’t ask every question that may theoretically elicit a response significant to our legal analysis. And obviously, it’s not realistic to expect our prospective clients to volunteer all factual nuances of facts that may make a difference in our technical analysis and approach to the legal matter at hand.3
More practically, compassion can create a bond that improves the odds of being retained. A while ago, I got a call from a prospective client who just met with one (or more) other tax lawyers located more convenient to her. I usually start off my consultations with the artfully crafted question- “What’s going on?” She told me about the tax problems that ensued in parallel with the debilitating illness of her husband. Instead of jumping into a technical reaction to her tax problems and how I could represent her, I responded with something like “Wow. That’s a lot. How are you doing?” My simple (and heartfelt) response, while by no means profound, resonated with her. Later, she told me she was so surprised by the unexpected sentiment of my question that notwithstanding the inconvenience, she wanted me to represent her and her husband with the IRS issues. Again, I reiterate it is presumptuous to believe that I am unique in this approach. Nonetheless, I strongly believe that actively conveying empathy will be a key element of “future state” law firms, particularly in the age of more automated (self-serve) delivery of legal services.
Further, even if counterintuitive, I believe this actually presents another reason why lawyers should feel confident enough to charge something for their consultations. By so doing, we’re more likely to be more comfortable letting the conversation take an occasional tangent into the murkier terrain of “life context” and away from the dry recitation of what appears to be the legal issue.
Finally, it is important to recognize that there is no “one size fits all” strategy that works across the spectrum of legal practice areas, client types and lawyer personality types. I assert that “active compassion” should be a key element of successful law firms in the future. As a prognosticator, I may or may not be correct. At an absolute minimum though, I strongly believe lawyers should discuss this more actively within our appropriate professional forums. In particular, in addition to discussing the benefits of a compassionate approach in dealing with our clients and how lawyers of varying personality types can incorporate this into our practices, we should also discuss within professional forums the limits of compassion, and in particular, how to balance the urge to be sensitive with the reality of delivering unfavorable guidance to our clients.
 It would be presumptuous to call this innovative or to deny the fact that many of us already naturally conduct our meetings with some aspects of this approach. The main points I seek to convey here are that (1) compassion is important and (2) lawyers should talk about this more in appropriate professional forums.
 The more cynical corollary to this is “everyone lies“ –one of the tenets of Dr. Gregory House in the eponymously named television show “House.“