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Lawyers Must Adapt to Changing Profession

Lawyers are finding themselves facing the same pressures recording artists and journalists have had to contend with: free content on the Internet. 

Technological changes and a DIY culture are also changing the legal profession in fundamental ways. And how to adapt has been a hot topic at law schools in Washington and at the Washington Bar Association.

The Millenials

Vincent Humphrey

Vincent Humphrey is young, just 27. He graduated from the University of Idaho Law School in 2010. In many ways, he embodies the new millennial generation lawyer. For him, it’s about mixing a bit of the personal with the professional whether it’s on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or other social media sites.

On the morning I interviewed him, he'd already had three different business meetings in coffee shops. He has an office, but no secretary to screen his calls.

“I find myself texting clients. They’d rather have my cell [phone number] than an office [line], because they want to speak with me directly,” Humphrey said.

But when it comes to dealing with older attorneys, Humphrey sometimes faces resistance.

Recently, in an arbitration case, a longtime lawyer insisted on communicating with Humphrey via snail mail.

"I said, 'I can email it to you and make sure it gets to you.' And he said, 'No, no.' He didn’t trust it. I was shocked,” Humphrey said.

Obviously, it’s an extreme example; most attorneys use email. But it does illustrate the growing gap between how things used to be in the tradition-bound legal profession, and how they are now.

The Boomers

Up on the 49th floor of a downtown Seattle skyscraper sits the law offices of Perkins Coie where there are also signs of a changing profession.

Credit University of Michigan Law School
University of Michigan Law School
Harry Schneider

For one thing, partner Harry Schneider tells me, even here in a top-flight law firm, things are much less formal than they used to be.

“You know, I’m wearing a suit and tie today, but I think if you walk the halls of our 14 floors , that would very much be the exception rather than the rule among the men,” he said.

Schneider, who has practiced law for more than 30 years, says technology has definitely made the firm more efficient. Document searches that used to take days can be done in a matter of seconds.  

On the other hand, because of smartphones and the like, he says clients now expect him to be available 24/7.

“You know, 20 or 30 years ago, you heard about doctors being on call. Today, we’re on call all the time,” Schneider said.

Working Smarter, Faster

Schneider says everyone is now expected to be able to work anywhere, anytime.

“People work on the road or work at home and have flexible hours, and all of that is just second nature to the younger attorneys. And for some of us who are older, it’s an acquired taste, and it’s something we didn’t immediately embrace, I think,” Schneider said.

And it isn’t just the pressure on lawyers to work more efficiently.

‘Home Depot Mentality’

Washington State Bar Association Executive Director Paula Littlewood says there’s also been a fundamental shift in the public’s mindset about the need for lawyers.

“Clients are changing. They’re taking on more of a Home Depot mentality,” she said.

From legal divorce forms to incorporation papers, lots of do-it-yourself kits are available online. There’s even something called Cybersettle that claims to have resolved more than $1.8 billion in legal disputes with no lawyers involved.

So you’d think Littlewood might be worried about the future of her profession, but she isn’t.

“When people say it’s a crisis, I say it’s an opportunity, because we’re in this really exciting threshold of change. It’s got to be a whole recalibration of the system,” Littlewood said.

Changing the Face of Legal Education

Kellye Testy is one of the people trying to recalibrate that system. She’s the dean of the University of Washington Law School and is critical of traditional legal education.

“The legal profession has had a one-size-fits-all approach, which isn’t true whether in clothes or the legal profession,” she said.

Testy says she favors changing the legal profession to model the medical profession, where you have physicians, but you also have other nurse practitioners and physician assistants. If there were a sort of tiered legal degree system, she said, it could give people more options. 

“You don’t need the very best lawyer to do a simple transaction, but you need an affordable lawyer to help you through that,” she said.

Washington is already experimenting with this.

It’s the first state in the nation to create what’s called a limited-license legal technician, someone who, without passing the bar, will be able to able to advise and assist clients in certain areas such as family law.

The law schools in Washington and the Washington State Bar Association are working on the details, but the first exams for these new technicians are expected to be given next fall.

What happens to the lawyers? Testy and others don’t see the need for lawyers going away, but say what they do will likely change. In the past, Testy says, lawyers could sell access to information. Now, she says, they must sell their knowledge and interpretation of that information.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.