Law Practice Management: Legal Work vs. Work Lawyers Do

Last Friday Rachel Zahorsky at the ABA Journal filed a story from the ABA Annual Meeting headlined “As Nonlawyer Vendors, Would-Be Clients Take on More Legal Tasks, How Can Practitioners Get Ahead?”

Wait a minute…since the unauthorized practice of law is illegal, how can these brazen scofflaws get away with it? Because the work that is shifting is not intrinsically legal work, but rather non-legal work historically performed by lawyers. Granted, lawyers might be better at those tasks than non-lawyers, but economic, sociopolitical and technological factors are successfully breaking up those unofficial franchises nonetheless.

“It’s getting to be so hard to define what the practice of law is,” said Thomas C. Grella, chair of the management committee at the Asheville, N.C., firm McGuire, Wood & Bissette. “So it’s going to be even harder for state bars to regulate in the future.”

Grella was a participant on a panel entitled “The Once and Future Firm: Fact v. Fiction,” sponsored by the ABA Law Practice Management Section. According to Zahorsky’s post, the panel concluded that:

“For firms to succeed and flourish in the future, there needs to be strong leadership among law firm management, a willingness to innovate with regard to technology and billing methods, and concise plans of succession that address the compensation squabbles that plague many firms when it comes time for senior partners near retirement to transition high-revenue generating clients to junior lawyers.”

Mind-blowing, provocative stuff, right?

It might not have made it into the panel wrap-up, but at least one panelist clearly gets it:

“Lawyers need to ask: ‘Why are [clients] hiring me?’ said Mark Robertson of Robertson & Williams in Oklahoma City. ‘Can they hire someone else and not have a law firm do it? What is involved in putting together the paperwork of an M&A transaction that requires a lawyer, other than an opinion?'”

Ask not what the guild can do for you, but what you can do for your client.


  1. I took a shot at aspects of this in my piece on legal fee deflation – Hard to say what is ‘intrinsically legal work,’ but candidates usually involve at least one of the three A’s (activities – advice, analysis, advocacy) and one of the three D’s (deliverables – decisions, deals, documents) in the context of expertise and trust.

    • Jay Pinkert says:

      Thanks Marc,

      Great insights (and handy mnemonics). Your piece is really excellent. Absolutely the right way of thinking, and actionable advice. In addition to the operational and financial advantages, that businesslike approach to people, processes and technology resonates with entrepreneurial companies and the emerging generation of GCs in large corporations. In other words, it’s a marketing strength.

      It could also lead to an interesting engagement model. A friend of mine who’s the GC for a large management consulting firm indicated that, as an alternative to large, vertically integrated firms, he envisions a near-term future where smaller, more agile firms operate as a general contractor. The prime would concentrate on the A’s and D’s of your model, but also identify, sub-contract to and manage vendors for lower-value/lower-cost legal and non-legal work.

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