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What the future of the legal profession might mean to some lawyers

Some attorneys these days, breaking from tradition, are more inclined to adopt technology; but not all of them.

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Law students Erica Ramstad and Ryan Anderson review a law book at the University of South Dakota School of Law.
Image: Courtesy of University of South Dakota School of Law
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When Kent Cutler started practicing law in 1991 in Sioux Falls, coming from a long line of family attorneys, the tools he used to communicate with clients and other lawyers were the telephone, fax machine and formal letters.

“I think I got my email account in 1997,” he said.

A lot has changed in 30 years. Thick legal tomes that were the hallmark of a law office have, to a great extent, been replaced by the internet. He still uses phone and email, but the fax machine is all but obsolete. And now, meetings can be held via Zoom.

Some days he misses the simpler times, but he is not bothered by what he is noticing today, because he says in many ways the legal profession is better than it used to be. Or, if nothing else, technology has made some efforts easier.

Case in point: a virtual meeting is great for connecting with an individual for a deposition if the person lives out of state.

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“I think it's not a bad thing,” Cutler said. “It's not as good as being in person, but for certain depositions that works just fine. … If there's an expert witness out in California that you need to depose. It's a lot more time efficient and cost efficient for the client if you can do it through Zoom as opposed to traveling for the deposition.”

But not all lawyers are as hip as Cutler, especially the older ones who worry about passing on their legacy to a rising generation.

Will there even be law offices in the future? Or will most lawyers work remotely?

The answers remain unknown, but Cutler views a bright future for the legal profession and those who pursue it as a career.

He’s not the only one.

Today’s Emerging Lawyers

Neil Fulton, dean of the University of South Dakota School of Law, is in the thick of things when it comes to the rising generation of lawyers. He says he is surrounded by impressive young people every day who are readying themselves for successful careers in law, whether in private practice, corporate law, or any number of other specialties. The lawyer of today has, in fact, many opportunities.

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Neil Fulton, dean of the University of South Dakota School of Law, instructs a class about legal matters.
Image: University of South Dakota School of Law

Even three years ago this trend was emerging, when Forbes published an article that, in part, said “legal knowledge was long the sole requisite for a legal career; now it is a baseline. … Lawyers no longer function in a lawyer-centric environment — now, they routinely collaborate with other legal professionals, paraprofessionals, and machines.”

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These scenarios have only been enhanced by the pandemic, which added another layer of functionality: the virtual landscape.

Fulton said law students at the University of South Dakota are trained to use technology in their future careers.

He believes that for the foreseeable future there will still be physical law offices, but there probably won’t be as many as in the past. That’s not tough to imagine with today’s digital technology and lessons the coronavirus pandemic has taught businesses; for example, for many, work can efficiently be done remotely.

According to a Business Insider magazine report , “Higher meeting attendance rates, more attentive managers, simplified communication, and more breaks are just a few of the positive changes” that have happened due to remote work. “It's made many more productive.”

Fulton said the scenario plays out across law firms as well. The drive behind it is not because remote work is all of a sudden something new -- it’s been available for a while now -- but because the pandemic forced some firms into doing it where previously lawyers looked askance at such notions. Now, in many places, employees are demanding to work remotely.

“I think people are making cultural decisions about what we are going to do as an employer,” he said. “I've talked to employers in the same sector where a comparable sized company said, ‘Oh, yeah, people love going online, working from home. We're really embracing this. We're reducing our physical footprint.’ It's an efficiency thing. It's a happiness thing with our employees.”

Early in the pandemic, lawyers wanted back in the office. They wanted to be around their colleagues. They couldn’t wait to get back.

“Now we're back in person but nobody ever wants to be here,” he said, noting staff now find ways to get out of the office. “And so I think you're going to see some of them who want that. For some folks, it really works practically for their business or their practice. But it's got to work culturally. I mean, you have to have people who are OK with that setting to really embrace it.”

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The Tomorrow Lawyer

The emerging trend with the law profession has a sort of wow factor attached to it, because traditionally lawyers had been weary of too much change in their profession. But Cutler said those he works and associates with are keeping up with the times.

“The attorneys I've worked with, regardless of how long they've been practicing, certainly roll with the times and the changes,” he said. “There are obviously some instances where somebody is a sole practitioner, it could be in Sioux Falls or it could be in a smaller community outside Sioux Falls, where maybe they don't have the ability to have the technology to do things. But I would say overall, my experience has been that the members of the (South Dakota) Bar as a whole are open and receptive to advances with technology and have done a fairly good job keeping up with it.”

Tomorrow’s lawyer will look similar to today, because the same legal steps will be taken as they are now. But how the future lawyer arrives at those steps is what is changing.

Perhaps journalist-turned-novelist Michael Connelly isn’t too far off the mark when he created a fictional lawyer who uses his Lincoln Town Car as his office.

No matter how the profession may look on the outside, on the inside it will hold to its traditional values: And, similarly to Cutler, Fulton said he believes the profession is on track to doing better than it has done in the past, simply because of the broader array of opportunities nowadays. One can only imagine what further opportunities will be made available tomorrow.

“I think it is better. I think the profession is more diverse. Today you see more female partners, more female judges, more women in leadership. You see more diversity of race and experience,” Fulton said. “I think those are all positives.”

And one other thing he enjoys seeing: more attentive issues about the attorneys’ wellbeing.

According to an analysis by Bloomberg Law , attorneys generally work long hours and many of them have been experiencing burnout. In fact, the burnout ratio was higher in 2021 than it was in 2020.

The analysis reported that despite increased awareness, “impactful change has been minimal – if any,'' but Fulton said in his sphere he’s noticed some change with regard to lawyer wellbeing.

“I think you see a profession that is doing better about striking work-life balance and being attentive to mental health and addiction issues, which for decades it has been quiet about. ... I think there's a lot more attention to that and keeping lawyers healthy. I think that's a great thing. And I think you see lawyers in more positions of leadership in business, not just in the legal department. I think that's a good development in that it means there are more and more who are willing to entertain opportunities to put their degrees to work beyond being ‘just’ a lawyer.”

Andrew Weeks may be reached at aweeks@prairiebusinessmagazine.com.

Andrew Weeks is an award-winning journalist who has reported for a number of newspapers and magazines. He currently is the editor of Prairie Business, the premier business magazine of the northern plains. The magazine covers various industries and business topics in the Dakotas and western Minnesota.
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