The changing role of today’s law firms

Adam Gohn

It’s a common stereotype that lawyers aren’t fond of change, and according to Cape Girardeau lawyer Adam Gohn, there’s actually a bit of truth in that generalization.

“If you’re painting with a broad brush, then yeah, I would say resistance to change is baked into a lawyer’s profession,” Gohn said. “The whole idea of the common law is that it’s guided by the precedent — so what the court has done in the past strongly predicts what the courts are going to do in the future — and with the way our profession is set up, that change does not happen quickly, so there’s definitely some skepticism and resistance.”

According to a 2019 article by the American Bar Association (ABA), 2018 was the first time in 10 years that productivity for law firms went up. “Productivity” was defined by hours billed per lawyer.

“Even though 2018 was the strongest year for law firms since the Great Recession, many lawyers sense the profession is undergoing important fundamental changes and are increasingly worried about the future of their firms,” as stated in the article. “Some of those trends are in growth, leverage, pricing and evolving client demands.”

According to the article by the ABA, law firms tend to only make changes when a crisis happens.

Pair these fundamental changes with the coronavirus pandemic, where everything was uncharted territory, and you’ve got a lawyer's worst nightmare. Gohn said this last year has forced lawyers across the nation to become more flexible and willing to adapt.

Technology is the fastest growing cost category in law firms as of 2019, according to the ABA article, and security issues plaguing the profession are enormous.

Gohn, 37, said when he first started practicing law around 10 years ago, they were just switching over to the electronic filing system, and technology is “profoundly different now than it was back then.”

“Now, pretty much in any court in Missouri, you can file all the documents to the court electronically,” Gohn said. “So, just the rate in which the Internet and electronics has entered the profession is pretty recent.”

Gohn said since then, online resources such as LegalZoom and Casenet have become available. Deemed as “controversial” by many lawyers at first, Gohn said these products have proved to be beneficial for both lawyers and the general public.

“A lot of people that are in rural areas, like if you live really west of here in rural Missouri, it’s really hard to find access to a lawyer, so I think those things are great because they might bring access to legal services or information that people might not otherwise get,” Gohn said.

These techniques have also been beneficial while navigating the coronavirus pandemic, Gohn said, with having the ability to do video hearings and depositions.

Technology can be a “double-edged sword,” however, because of the security risks with information lawyers deal with in their profession. So lawyers have to be extremely careful.

In fact, Gohn said there are some lawyers who downright refuse to utilize the Internet.

“When [technology] kind of came to the legal industry, there were a lot of older lawyers who didn’t take to it, so there’s literally a generation of lawyers that don’t even type their own emails and things like that,” Gohn said. “So, how it’s utilized even within the profession really varies.”

One of the many challenges for lawyers brought on by COVID-19 was the constant closure and reopening of courts across the state. Navigating client intake and getting those cases to court, Gohn said, has been the biggest challenge.

“We just had to learn to be flexible, like you can’t get upset when the courts get shut down again, you just have to adapt,” Gohn said. “That’s not something, historically, lawyers are particularly good at, but we’re doing it.”