Springfield Business Journal Editorial Director Eric Olson sits down with Douglas, Haun & Heidemann PC partner Verna Haun; Lathrop Gage LLP managing partner Randell Wallace; and Taylor, Stafford, Clithero & Harris LLP partner Warren Harris to discuss law industry trends.
Eric Olson: How do you describe the current state of the law industry in one word?
Warren Harris: Hectic.
Verna Haun: Changing.
Randell Wallace: Rapid change.
Olson: What are some of the biggest change factors?
Haun: The impact of technology. What it is now is night and day.
Wallace: Technology has made the pace much more hectic.
Harris: The problem is that there has to be deliberate thought. It is a critical-thinking business. What has happened is that there has been no real time for that anymore. The pace at which things are moving is almost too quick because there’s no time to reflect. You see it far too often in emails that are admitted into evidence. The “e” in email stands for evidence or exhibit.
Wallace: Some main evidence we had in most recent cases were emails hastily written by clients that probably wish they could take it back. I have a personal rule that I read every email I draft at least a couple times before I send it.
Olson: That sounds time consuming.
Harris: It is, but that’s the point. I was in Austin, Texas for a conference. The presenter was talking about a company in California that advertised they can take a complaint or petition, put it into their program and that program can generate an answer to the petition or complaint and print out that document. Anyone who’d just hit send on that without looking would be committing malpractice. The human element is still very strong in the practice of law and needs to be very strong.
Olson: You would counter the idea of robot lawyers and machine learning then?
Harris: Both under the U.S. Constitution and the Missouri Constitution, you have the right to a jury trial, which is a trial of your peers – which is not robots. It is a human business and a people business because, at the end of the day, you’ve got to convince and persuade, based on your evidence, that this is how the case should be decided. I don’t see robots ever being able to do that.
Haun: It’s easy for clients to write an email. But if they want more than a quick reason or two or three sentences, call me. (Email) is so much lengthier because I’m concerned if I wrote it right and is my grammar correct.
Harris: You need to establish with someone something other than electronic communication. You have to put the person in the position to communicate to others what their situation is – so that human eye has to be there.
Olson: What about options like the DoNotPay app for parking tickets? Maybe there is room for certain types of online legal activities that you’d welcome?
Harris: I think back to LegalZoom.com. That was going to revolutionize the practice of law until every state’s regulation agency said, “You’re practicing law in the state without a license.” That quickly brought down LegalZoom.
Wallace: When you get a traffic ticket negotiated or fixed, it still comes down to someone knowing the system in that part of the country or jurisdiction. That’s where you get your best deals cut. A robot isn’t going to be able to do that.
Olson: LegalZoom is still out there, and Rocket Lawyer.
Harris: It’s there, but not the force everyone thought it was. What people want more than anything … is a sense of it’s going to be OK. That’s what we’re here for. We carry a lot of that responsibility and worry. A machine is not going to provide that.
Wallace: When I have a faucet that doesn’t work in my house, I don’t get online and try to figure out how to be a plumber. I call a plumber and turn it over to them. We can’t all be generalists in everything we do. When you come to one of us, we put things in perspective and you can have confidence in the position of where you are and feel better knowing someone who does this every day is handling a legal matter.
Olson: What is the temperature of client relationships?
Haun: They are increasingly more consumer; it’s like they’re not always seeing it as a service. They are asking how cheaply it can be done.
Wallace: It’s more of a commodity.
Harris: Yes. Rather than excellence.
Olson: Is this based on certain types of cases or across the board?
Haun: A little bit of both.
Harris: If you’re dealing with corporations or insurance companies, the relationship has become more distant. Normally, it’s emails or phone calls and they’re located through various parts of the country. That’s where you do use technology to your advantage and put yourself out there so they know who you are.
Wallace: When your client reaches out to you via email or phone or whatever, you better get back pretty quick or they’ll move on to someone else. Our society has gotten more impatient.
Harris: Or they email at 7:30 at night and are like, “Where are you?”
Olson: How do you deal with that? Do you train other staff to respond or is it coaching the clients?
Harris: You’ve got to set some parameters. We tell people we will strive to respond to your communications within 24 hours. The bar encourages us to have a written engagement letter. For less sophisticated clients, tell them, “Every time you reach out to me, it’s going to cost you money.” Some of them, when they get the first bill, they understand.
Olson: How would you rate the quality of incoming law professionals?
Wallace: We have been lucky to hire people who graduated higher in the classes in the last few years. We have several people who were one and two in their class. They’re very intelligent, very hard working.
Haun: We have had some very good success as of late, as well. However, I think the issue when we interview a batch of candidates … there was criticism of the critical-thinking skills. Can they critically think? Can you write? I think that is always a certain extent of the problem.
Harris: You see people who are very tech-gifted. They understand technology, they embrace technology, they use technology. Communication skills are down. That includes person-to-person communication or writing skills. You got to be able to communicate with opposition because 90 percent of litigation falls short of the courtroom. Getting people to understand the person-to-person aspect is the hardest part.
Olson: What about the hiring process? Where does it start and end?
Wallace: We’ve got a certain number of law schools we attend and interview each year. It’s the chance to go in and interview students on campus and invite them back to the office. We get the chance to work with them over a summer and see their skills in the office. That’s how we find most of our people. It’s competitive to get the top students. The firms are out there competing for the best students.
Harris: I always want to see what we call law school transcripts. That tells you a lot about … prerequisite knowledge that you need to succeed in what we do. We are a smaller firm than Randell’s office, so it’s a question of, “Are you going to fit into the environment?” It’s just meeting with them and talking with them and seeing what they want. There is so much out there on social media about people and you have to look into that and take time to consider, “What has this person said and done that could reflect negatively on the firm?” It’s hard to convince younger people to come live in Springfield. They seem to want to be in Kansas City or St. Louis because they don’t think Springfield is metro enough.
Haun: Some of our difficulty in hiring people is the location. We spend a lot of time talking about that.
Olson: So, the competition isn’t just among firms, but also among cities. Are there some tools you’ve found that can help in that?
Haun: Not other than interviewing and meeting people not just in a formal interview. How do they interact in an informal situation? Can they hold their own in a conversation? You can’t always look on transcripts because some people look great on paper but might be socially awkward in real life. That’s not a good trait for an attorney.
Olson: What are your thoughts on state House Bill 1578, on venue reform?
Harris: We addressed venue in 2005 and we’re addressing it again, or they’re trying to. It made venue far more complicated than it has been. It has a lot of impact on where claims against insurance companies can be brought. Before 2005 tort reform, many large personal injury cases were in Kansas City or Jackson County. It was changed in 2005 that states you have to file if there was a cause action. They’re trying to tighten that down some more.
Olson: Do you support it?
Harris: I would be reluctant to say I support it. I see some flaws in the analysis. I think there are more lawyers in the Senate now than in the House, and hopefully it’ll get some revisions. I think it’d be unlikely it’d make it through the Senate in its current form.
Olson: What about HB 2119 on tort reform for punitive damages?
Harris: The punitive damages bill is very interesting. The legislation provides that you cannot, in your initial pleading, file a claim for punitive damages. You can only file claim 124 days before trial and the judge has to find substantial likelihood you will prevail. I don’t think that bit in its current form would survive constitutional challenge.
Olson: What are the top threats in your law firms?
Haun: I see technology as a threat. It is always ever-changing. It’s just keeping on top of that. So, it’s a tool and a threat.
Harris: The biggest threat I see right now is the fact that it’s becoming harder and harder to have people understand that they have to pay for legal services. From our perspective at our firm, because there are fewer and fewer trials, there are fewer people willing to pay for trials, and it’s hard to get people the experience on how to conduct a trial. In 20 years, I think it will be really tough to find people who know how to try lawsuits. The legal system is kind of the last stop before we hit anarchy. If people don’t have the legal system and use the legal system to resolve disputes, you do have anarchy. I see that as a big society threat. You have more people who aren’t willing to respect the judge’s decision.
Haun: Or who don’t understand that a subpoena isn’t just a suggestion.
Harris: I was in court one day with (Greene County Circuit Court Judge Michael Cordonnier), and he was having to hear some expert order of protection. There were two young people dating and both of their parents were there for the respective sides, and the judge was the one who had to be the parent. It was the advice my parent would have given me as a teen. The unseen role that the court system plays in keeping our society in check is immense. If you really want to see what’s going on in the world, go down to the Green County Judicial Circuit Court on ex parte day and just sit in the courtroom and see the things that are going on. It will scare you.
Haun: The part where litigation is not dead is in family law. I may not try jury cases, but I try more cases than anyone else in my office.
Harris: The unreasonableness extends to the fact that they don’t care what it’s going to cost. The domestic world is certainly a different ballpark.
Olson: Overall, is society more litigious today than 10 years ago?
Harris: I don’t know about 10 years. Twenty-five years, I’d say definitely.
Olson: What types of cases?
Harris: You see more property disputes as far as neighbors who can’t get along. You see more and more of the areas where you used to be able to talk to people and work things out if you could communicate things. You see more of that where it’s just, if you could get there early and just communicate, it wouldn’t rise to the level where it’s gotten.
Excerpts by Features Editor Hanna Smith, email@example.com.
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