Is the Future of Big Law Smaller?

Is the Future of Big Law Smaller? by David Whelan Michael Rogers, a futurist with the New York Times Research and Development group, gave a keynote at the 2011 Legaltech New York technology show. He had a lot of interesting things to say about trends that might impact the legal profession in the next ten years. One of the ones that stuck out for me was telepresence, the use of technologies that not only enable video communication but provide the appearance or stimuli to make the interaction seem to be happening in person.

Mr. Rogers mentioned both high end and low end telepresence technologies that are already available.  Not surprisingly, the high end included products from Citrix, already a major technology provider.  Also not surprisingly, there are consumer-oriented products appearing at the low end of the marketplace.  He sees telepresence becoming an increasingly important part of how professional service companies interact.

It is almost certainly a mistake to cherry pick technologies or ideas from a presentation about the future but the idea of telepresence and its possible effects struck me more than some of the other ideas.  The first thing it made me wonder was whether improved telepresence could eliminate the need for large law firms to maintain large central offices.  There are obviously economies of scale at having 500 lawyers and staff in a single, large metropolitan office.  Law firms are already looking for ways to shrink their library footprint and outsource work, like document review, to make it more financially advantageous.  Telepresence would seem to me a way to enable the large office to be split into smaller offices.

Take the offshoring that Allen and Overy are doing in the U.K., creating a support services office in Belfast.  They are shifting some back office and support roles to a lower cost location, a trend started by other firms.  Considering that most large law firms are based in large, urban – and relatively expensive real estate – locations, there are opportunities to shift lawyers out to less expensive suburban areas.  Already, cities like Toronto are seeing downtown office tenants considering the suburbs.  If businesses move out to the suburbs, it would seem to make sense to shift the lawyers out to the suburbs as well, for closer proximity to clients.

But wait, telepresence would make proximity irrelevant, right?  It would seem that, if you are going to consider telepresence, you might as well be using it from lower rent space than higher rent space.  Especially if you can use the lower rent space to be closer to your clients in case a physical meeting is more desirable than a virtual one.  This would appear to be what solos and smaller law firms have already been doing.

An argument making this sort of redistribution of large law firm offices to smaller office is hard to make if large law firms are committing to long term high rise, downtown office leases.  Or perhaps it is timing; firms who are coming to the end of their leases in 2015 when this technology may have matured and become cost-effective both for firms and clients will have a competitive edge over law firms who are committed into 2020 or longer.

Our law library serves a primarily downtown, large law firm audience.  It is interesting to think how both telepresence – and relocating of administrative, back office functions by large law firms – would impact delivery of reference services.  The continued reliance on print legal texts due to their lack of availability in electronic format means that a physical presence is a necessity.  But if the law firms are able to rethink where they place their staff, and perhaps lawyers, then the library could rethink along the same lines.  Shift the library out of the urban center to less expensive space, smaller space to account for reduced walk-in traffic, and higher reliance on telepresence to interact with larger firms.

Again, the future isn’t a single technology or scenario but telepresence would seem to open up lots of possibilities to shift people around.  That could require public law libraries to move more quickly to adapt to where there clients are.

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David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.