Enter the Microfirm

Around the early 70s, popular futurism held that eventually there would be only a handful of supercomputers in the world. And yet now one high end hand held device has similar memory and computing power to the whole NASA installation at that earlier time.

In a not dissimilar way, one reflects on the prevailing wisdom in the legal profession of the 80’s and early 90’s (go national or perish!) The death of the sole practice was widely forecast. There was simply too much law and too much complexity.

History shows nothing could have been further from the truth.

The sole practice not only is alive and well, but bobbing up in incarnations not previously thought credible.

The ultimate micro practice is now a lawyer, a virtual office (pitch the address to the price / image that suits your target clients), a web site and social media connections, a hand held device with a cloud based practice system, a micro printer in your satchel / handbag, a home office, and coffee shops which act as offices by proxy – for the price of a couple of cups.

The market space exists for these firms because of what is known as the matching principle. While large corporates are reassured by the structure of traditional firms, private citizens and small business people with declining trust in traditional structures and big business seem to be increasingly (but obviously not always) choosing microfirms and other sole practices as their trusted advisors. These clients like the typically personable, relatively informal, non-threatening style of doing business. For these people (who often wouldn’t appreciate the difference between basic advice and outstanding advice) the personal relationship is the thing in which they primarily trust.

Moreover, microfirms have turned some of the traditional industry efficiency benchmarks on their heads (think support labour, occupancy and general overhead costs). These lawyers can price more competitively than their previous employers yet still come out ahead at the bottom line…. AND, as is the holy grail of sole practice, be totally in control.

Clearly though, there are risks. Having no practice support staff and running a very mobile lifestyle (i.e., burning a lot of time travelling and networking) almost certainly will mean that high income will only come with very long hours. And unless reliable practice system reminders are in place, this emphasis on mobility can potentially blindside the practitioner to allocating sufficient quality time to get the promised legal work out the door. So where a secretary previously provided discipline and support, a micro-practitioner must rely entirely on self-discipline…. Often easier said than done.

Further, in adopting a relaxed and informal style, micro-practitioners need to guard against inadvertently crossing the line where they potentially lose their professional disinterest.

These are interesting times for practice diversity… great opportunities, and new emerging styles of competition.

But within this competitive firmament, lawyers need to remain vigilant about delivering on their core obligations.

 

Published: Queensland Law Society – Proctor, April 2015

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