Do you practice People Law? There has long been a perceived difference between large law firm practice and small law firm practice. But, in my view, the major difference is not the size of the law firm, but the type of clients primarily served.

Those who study the data of law practice have noted that the practice of People Law, helping individuals with their personal legal matters, is now so different from business and corporate law that it is becoming a completely different legal business. This impacts everything from marketing to operations to the material you share with clients.

One of the leading experts studying law practice is Bill Henderson, Professor of Law at Indiana University Maurer School of Law where he holds the Stephen F. Burns Chair on the Legal Profession. I strongly recommend his Legal Evolution blog. The blog posts tagged “People law” are located here: I suggest you begin with The Decline of the PeopleLaw Sector for some statistical analysis of the spending on the consumer side versus the corporate side for legal services. There are some concerning trends.

A business and corporate law-based practice means satisfying client representatives who are lawyers working in general counsel’s offices or corporate officers. Hopefully, those clients result in a relationship of many years with new matters and projects. The clients are sophisticated and there is a trend toward more routine legal work being handled in-house, leaving the litigation and other challenging work for outside counsel. Attending the right industry events and showcasing the firm’s deep subject matter expertise is critical.

People law, on the other hand, often involves individual clients who had no idea they would have this legal problem. Being sued, fired, arrested or foreclosed on isn’t planned. The client may have no idea what to do and may receive bad information and poor advice from well-meaning friends and relatives. These clients need information, guidance and often a fair amount of emotional support. Much of the legal work is somewhat routine and subject to standardization. But it is critical that the client receive individualized advice meaningful to them. Handouts for the client to take home to review after a meeting with the lawyer has been a traditional part of doing this practice well. But in a society where fewer clients will read a 10-page handout all the way to the end, some People Lawyers will consider providing videos exclusively available for the firm’s clients to watch.

Automation, particularly automated document assembly, can be very beneficial in making a People Law practice run efficiently. These clients value face-to-face time with the lawyer, including video conferences, with the lawyer to discuss their situation and reduce their anxiety. Knowing that one drafting project took 2.1 hours while another took 1.6 hours is meaningless to them except for its impact on their bill. A clear path to success for People Lawyers is to automate as much document creation as possible and bill those projects on a flat fee basis. Automating administrative nonbillable matters is also important. Potential people law clients often are very concerned about the cost of legal services. So, to the extent a lawyer can provide them a fixed fee or a list of tasks that might be needed and the cost for each, there is an advantage over law firms “selling” the traditional hours times dollars method, where the final cost is not known.

But the primary distinction for People Law is the business model. Individuals come in with a legal problem, the lawyer solves the problem and the client moves on, hopefully with a good experience that means they will recommend others to the law firm. That means that the successful People Lawyer must have a constant stream of new clients coming in. Traditionally these lawyers have had a network of those who refer them legal work. Those are great networks to maintain and nurture. But increasingly, people are individually shopping for lawyers online, just like they shop for many other goods and services. Counting on referral sources remaining constant into the future likely reflects more hope than reality. Today almost every People Lawyer needs to market online. But paying a large amount to an online marketing firm is not realistic, or even advisable, for many. Some lawyers will need to learn the basics of doing this and may experiment with several approaches. One interesting aspect I have noted is many law firms target their entire online marketing outreach toward getting prospects to call their office telephone, apparently unaware of how many individuals are shopping online at odd hours or precisely because they do not want to talk with someone on the phone just to schedule an appointment.

The combination of more automation and more online client acquisition leads to the next predicted trend in People Law—the rise of one-to-many legal service delivery models as opposed to the traditional one-to-one consultation and legal services delivery. The more automation the law firm has adopted, the greater the ability to scale up a practice to serve more clients without adding staff or lawyers working more nights and weekends. There will be winners and losers resulting from this predicted trend.

As a part of the OBA Summer CLE series, I have done a one-hour on-demand CLE program, The Changing Dynamics of a “People Law” Practice. Oklahoma lawyers can register for the seminar here. The program is priced at $40. Those who are not members of the Oklahoma Bar Association or taken CLE from us previously can easily set up an account to do so by emailing our CLE Registrar Renee Montgomery at Setting up an account carries no financial obligation.