The difference between large and small law firms cannot be measured merely in head count, office size or the depth of the client book. For smaller firms, attitude and instinct are also important factors — understanding your strengths and limitations, when you need help, when you can leverage your flexibility and push the firm’s boundaries.
Kellye Moore understands that perhaps better than many lawyers. A still-active litigator despite her administrative and managerial duties, Moore is approaching her 25th year at Walker, Hulbert, Gray & Moore, an eight-attorney firm in Perry, Georgia. “I’ve practiced my whole life in small law – although I understand now that I’m classified as a midsize law firm, which still is a little crazy to me,” Moore says.
Smaller law firms face many of the same challenges as their large law counterparts — such as keeping up with technological advances and effectively controlling the time needed to manage the business of the firm. How they handle those issues, however, can make the difference between sustainability and irrelevance, often in the blink of an eye.
“I do think that smaller firms have some challenges with adapting to certain things,” Moore says. “But at the same time, we also have a lot more flexibility in how we adapt.” If, for example, her firm wants to make a shift in its practice areas or implement flexible work schedules or shorter partnership tracks, it can move toward that goal more nimbly than a larger firm. “It really just becomes a question of what fits us best, where in a larger firm that decision process would be much more structured,” she explains. “Larger firms may have to march in line to what everybody else has done in the past, and we don’t have to do that — so, we’re much more flexible in that way.”
Legal Tech and the Timing Crunch
The intertwined challenges of adapting to the latest technological development and managing the time required for administrative tasks are probably the biggest challenges smaller firms face, Moore explains. “Just keeping up with the complexity of technology in the legal practice is daunting,” she says, adding that in a smaller law firm, it’s the attorneys who make decisions about technology and whether the latest gadget or innovative process would be a good fit for the firm. “Is it going to make everybody more productive? Is it going to be a good investment that will be utilized? These are the questions that have to be asked,” she says.
Part of the answer is striking a balance between what the firm needs and what its lawyers will accept – and that requires a clear understanding of where you are as a firm, Moore notes. “I think it just comes from really talking about it and understanding it,” she says. “Once it’s understood and it’s not this nebulous thing, then we can move toward an analysis of whether it’s right for us. That’s the way we’ve achieved change in our firm.”
Firm culture can slow the path from idea to utilization when for example, younger attorneys want to implement a new innovation or technology right away, while some of the older partners haven’t quite gotten there yet. “So, it’s a process, and sometimes change is hard for everybody at every level because more often than not, people — and not just lawyers — do not like change.”
“I help people find solutions to their problems. I think that need is always going to be there.”
Still, even with partner recalcitrance and concerns over wise spending of resources, change and innovation do happen whether a firm is large or small. Moore details her firm’s move to automatically generated documents for its transactional practice, which often require real estate closing papers and commercial contracts.
It was suggested – not incidentally at a twice-monthly partner lunch centered around challenges facing the firm – that an automated solution for generating those repetitive contracts would be enormously efficient and cost-effective, despite the initial investment and launch time required. “We had the software and the capability, but it’s a matter of getting the templates we want into the software, and that comes back to one of those time issues.”
Moore says it took a conscious decision to break the habit of doing it the old way, and a coordinated effort to free up the personnel resources and the work time needed to make an innovation like this happen at a smaller firm. “So, we work towards it,” she explains. “We see where we can do better and where we need to do better, because ultimately this decision will make us more efficient and it’ll generate more revenue for us.”
Client Expectation Have Changed — Have Smaller Law Firms?
Regardless of firm size, there is pressure to meet client expectations around new technology. “I mean, personally, I don’t like getting client interaction via text message, because they think that they can text you any time of the day, night or weekend,” Moore says. “It’s almost as if that formality to the relationship is not there anymore, and that makes it harder on the lawyers. On the other hand, we’ve got to adapt to a changing client base and what our clients want from us, because if we don’t, then we’re going to be dying out like a dinosaur.”
This is the reason why the most important process innovations or technological advancements at her firm enable them to better manage time and workflow, including those tasks that are mundane and time-consuming but essential to the running of the firm.
“That’s why I still get thrilled with electronic filing,” Moore explains. “I think it’s very efficient, but I also have lawyers that I’ve heard say they hate it.” Still, Moore appreciates the ability to go online and look at her case docket or file a document quickly and easily. “I just feel like it makes my workflow much more efficient than it otherwise would be.”
Such efficiency benefits the client, of course, who will see the firm’s lawyers working faster, smarter and more cost-effectively – and that’s important regardless of firm size. “You don’t hold on to that kind of client relationship if you’re not able to meet their needs on a broad spectrum of matters,” Moore explains. “We like to tell clients that our firm has the resources to get it done, whereas another firm may not be similarly situated. That is how we try to set ourselves apart, and it’s working so far.”
Still, she acknowledges the challenges are always there, and her firm, like many other smaller firms across the nation, is feeling the pressure. “You hear that the Main Street lawyer or the small-town lawyer is going to disappear,” Moore says, making it clear she disagrees with that sentiment. “I think people are always going to need lawyers, and there are always going to be clients that want to come in and have that interactive, face-to-face conversation – and we’re here for that.”
Moore views herself, first and foremost, as a problem solver. “I help people find solutions to their problems,” she says. “I think that need is always going to be there.”