• February 10, 2014

LIghtningUpdate (2/10/2014): I coined the term “flash firms” in an Minnesota Litigator post in late December, 2013 (see below). Guess who snatched up and disseminated the idiom?  Legal services vendors, like Lexis-Nexis and Clio Legal Practice Management, who, among others, publicized my post on Twitter. These people are all for “flash firms.”

But whether flash firms catch on as a disruptive trend in the U.S. legal services market remains to be seen. For now, some will say they are only the feverish babblings of a snow-bound Minnesota lawyer echoed by opportunistic and ravenous sirens, circling overhead, the small/solo law firm vendors, hoping to grow and then feast on the latest meme du jour.

Having said that, there is recent evidence that the idea of a virtual law firm customized for a particular engagement – that is, a flash firm – is catching on in Minnesota.

Meet the Minnesota Freelance Attorney Network (MFAN)- “the lawyers’ lawyers,” I am tempted to call them.  MFAN might be one of many truly exciting developments in the market.

Few clients relish footing the bill for large law firm’s full-time teams when all they need is a lawyer or two, a lawyer and a paralegal, or maybe just one lawyer.

A large number of clients would undoubtedly prefer a customized, focused, and targeted engagement of “flash firms,” the lawyers and legal support you need, only when you need them.

The issue, though, is whether there is a place for flash firms, which obviously cannot ever compete with reputations built over 100 years of providing Minnesota with legal services (like, for example, Dorsey & Whitney L.L.P., the subject of news on Saturday).  A flash firm, by definition, will never have the brand recognition that long-established law firms have enjoyed and will continue to enjoy far into the future.

So the question might be whether the internet, with its ever-increasing connectedness, and the age of “data Darwinism” will enable individual lawyers and other legal service providers to establish reputations of professionalism, integrity, reliability, so that clients will be comfortable hiring “Flash Firm Team #1,” for one matter, “Flash Firm Team #2,” for another.  Or will the buyers of legal services remain with established known brands, with their stately offices, their decades of institutional history, but also the overhead bloat that comes with it?

(Note that Dorsey & Whitney itself uses uses “a ‘legal mine’ of contract lawyers it has vetted who bill at $75 per hour for certain case-support work rather than associate employees who bill at closer to $250 an hour.” This, arguably, is simply a branded flash firm. (Here is Dorsey’s description of Legal Mine,™ its “e-discovery service.” )

Original post (12/27/2013): (under subject line: Thoughts on the Death of Solo Legal Practice: Good Riddance But Get Ready For “Flash Firms”):  Internationally known Scotsman and scholar, Richard Susskind, spoke in the Twin Cities recently and he spoke of the evolving legal profession with some insights into how lawyers’ professional lives are changing and will continue to change.

In response to a question from the audience at the end of his talk, he issued death sentences on small law firms and solo law firms.  You might expect that Minnesota Litigator and, in particular, its executive editor, Seth Leventhal, of LEVENTHAL pllc (a one lawyer shop), would take exception to imposition of the death sentence.

You would be wrong.

Sort of.

The days are ending (and none too soon) where any prudent people would hold themselves out as capable of functioning as legal counsel for one client’s adoption, another one’s will, another one’s divorce, boundary dispute, drafting a shareholder agreement, pursuing an antitrust claim, contesting a trademark, and undertaking a commercial lease negotiation.

The days of the classic generalist solo lawyer – associated with small town practice – are numbered and that is a good thing.  No one can master the wide expanse of law; in fact, you can’t even “know enough to be dangerous,” as some lawyers characterize their semi-qualifications for areas outside their core practice some time.  We do not go to a radiologist for symptoms of depression nor a psychiatrist for eye problems.  Why on earth would we believe that one lawyer could handle the immense array of legal areas?

Take, for example, a recent ruling in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota related to the July 2013 sinking of the tugboat, the Megan McB (pictured above), and the death of Tyler Trussoni.

Plaintiff Brennan Marine is represented by the St. Louis Missouri small maritime law firm of Goldstein & Price.  A quick scan of filings in the case reflect the fact that this is a specialized area of civil litigation (see here and here, for example).

Here’s my point: in my view, there is and will be a place for small law firms (and even solo lawyers) with niche practices like Goldstein & Price now and for a long time to come.  The lawyers facing an increasingly difficult outlook, however, will be those who purport to offer “legal services” — all legal services.

Finally, one business model that Susskind does not appear to have recognized as a possible evolved species in the legal market is the “ad hoc team,” the “flash firm,” “the multi solo team,” or groups of lawyers who are not working in the same firm but who work together on specific matters where their skills complement one another. Clients benefit because they are not buying “more lawyer than they need.”  Lawyers are able to sell these services because technology makes collaboration between separate business much less costly.

Seth Leventhal and LEVENTHAL pllc have teamed up with lawyers with appropriate specializations, as well as computer forensics experts, technology consultants, and e-discovery experts.  For that reason, I try not to characterize my practice as a “solo” practice.  More often than not, it is a team practice, a “flash firm.”

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