Diversification: Law Firms Lean into Specialized Services

 The legal profession in Nebraska is more diverse in practice specialties than at any other time in history. Much of the change is being driven by technology, transforming both the legal workplace and the issues faced by clients throughout the industry. 

“Tech law, particularly in the areas of privacy, data breach response, security and fintech are growing specialties,” said Chris Hedican, managing partner with Baird Holm. “These issues are relevant to businesses everywhere. With the accelerating growth in AI such as ChatGPT, these technologies can synthesize and create material based on proprietary content.  

“We have a robust practice in these areas across the country, and there will be a growing need for lawyers to protect such original works and to prosecute misuse in litigation. Companies need to be certain that their IP (intellectual property) is protected and that their employees do not create content which amounts to a violation of other IP rights.”

Adam Charlsen, office managing partner with Husch Blackwell, said another emerging specialty focuses on efforts many companies are making to monitor and improve their work environments from a variety of viewpoints.

“One of the major emerging areas of concern for companies is the environmental, social and governance (ESG) movement,” he said. “ESG touches on a range of business activities, from diversity and inclusion to energy usage and sustainability, and is one of the focal points of new reporting requirements from both government agencies and private entities alike. 

“The reason businesspeople are paying attention is the amazing growth of ESG-themed passive investment vehicles. In the past decade, massive amounts of capital have flowed to companies deemed ESG-friendly. Before last year’s meltdown in the equity markets, ESG-themed passive investments accounted for almost $300 billion, a better than 36-fold increase in just seven years.”

Charlsen said despite this, interest in ESG is not uniformly high across all business types. 

- Advertisement -

“For example, publicly traded companies show more concern with ESG than do closely held, middle-market companies,” he said. “However, given the trends in capital allocation, any private business owner eying an exit transaction should be interested in ESG.”

Change is Constant

The range of challenges and changes facing Midlands law firms extends to back-office functions and mirrors what industry watchers have been predicting for some time. Lawyer Monthly reported the leading emerging trends include workflow automation, cybersecurity and client-led change including remote work environments and alternative legal services.

Artificial intelligence is a major trend on the magazine’s list, one Charlsen said is already at work in legal offices throughout the Midlands.

“One emerging area inside of law firms is generative artificial intelligence and large language models, such as the kind talked about recently in connection with ChatGPT,” Charlsen said. “There are operational use cases for the technology that could greatly impact the practice of law, and Husch Blackwell has in-house data scientists who are exploring how we can use AI to solve client problems through the development of proprietary technology. 

“But there are also substantive legal issues, many of which are novel, associated with AI, like who owns the content that AI generates and what kind of data privacy rights exist with the technology. Some people claim that generative AI will be as revolutionary as the introduction of electricity, and early indications are that the technology will exert a huge impact on how work is performed.”

These complicated practice areas have spawned a whole new species of attorney, well-versed in the vagaries of a given practice area.

“We describe our firm as a collection of specialty practices,” Hedican said. “It is not possible to truly be effective as just a generalist. Law firms must have strong expertise in specific areas. As more companies build out their internal legal staff, the primary value of law firms is to provide the specific expertise the client does not have. 

“Baird Holm is unique in that we have attorneys who are specialists in nearly every area of the law, and a compensation structure that supports and promotes collaboration. This differentiates us because it encourages our attorneys to work together as a team to provide comprehensive, expert legal counsel to better serve our clients’ varied legal needs.”

Remote Work Flourishing

One of the biggest changes in the way legal work gets done can be traced to the pandemic and remote work across various segments of society and business. Clio’s legal trends report noted while only 23% of consumers liked the idea of working with a lawyer remotely, nearly 80% of consumers see a firm’s ability to conduct business remotely as a key factor in choosing to work with them. In other words, while currently only two out of 10 use it, about eight out of 10 still wanted the option. 

“All of our attorneys and staff members had the opportunity to continue to come into the office [during the pandemic],” said Stacey Shadden, partner, shareholder and chair of the business corporate practice group at McGrath North. “But it also created the ability for our attorneys and staff members, when it was appropriate, to work at home. Since coming out of the pandemic and the office fully opening back up, we still saw that continued flexibility.

“At McGrath, we’ve seen a huge surge in expanding our technological capabilities and that allows our attorneys the ability to be flexible, to have excellent communication with clients and to be available when maybe 10, 20 years ago that communication was 8 to 5 when you were in the office,” she said.

At the same time, offering remote work capability has also challenged firms to pay closer attention to work-life balance issues for employees.

“We’ve instilled the confidence in our attorneys and our staff members that they know that they can set appropriate boundaries,” Shadden said. “There are ways to respond to a client respectfully or if a call comes in at midnight, it’s OK not to respond when it’s submitted, it’s OK to respond during normal working business hours. What we’ve found is just being open and honest with clients [about accessibility] is effective within the client relationship.” 

Specialization is Key 

As remote work options indicate, traditional legal firm structures are bending to fit the times. Legal firms still strive to maintain as much specialized expertise under one roof as possible but, not unlike the publishing or advertising industries where projects are increasingly completed by teams of contract workers, firms partnering with practitioners outside of the company are becoming more common. 

“Legal specialties adjust as regulations change and technology advances,” said Josh Norton, shareholder and executive committee member with Koley Jessen. “Law firms continue to evolve their practices to fit the needs of the current environment to serve their clients. Over the last 20 years, attorneys have moved to focus on specialized areas instead of trying to be a jack-of-all-trades for clients. This trend means that attorneys regularly collaborate across areas of expertise as issues arise. 

“Part of providing great client service is being upfront with the client when an issue is outside of our firm’s area of expertise, and partnering with another attorney with the needed expertise to ensure our clients are well-served.”

Shadden noted the emergence of more boutique firms, notably focusing on IT. 

“Certainly, there’s types of law that various firms don’t practice; for example, McGrath North doesn’t practice family law or criminal defense law,” Shadden said. “We certainly have relationships with local firms, so if we have clients that come in who are looking for those specific needs, we have relationships with those firms. That’s always been our model and I don’t see that changing going forward.”

Relationships Rule 

Industry sources show Nebraska continues to be on par when it comes to the number of attorneys practicing in the state. The American Bar Association’s annual Profile of the Legal Profession noted Nebraska ranks 24th in attorneys per 1,000 residents at 2.9, tied with Ohio, Montana, Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii. This gives the consumer options in selecting a legal partner and experts suggest shopping around to achieve the right fit. 

“As a business owner, it’s essential to understand what experience an attorney has with the specific type of help you need and if they understand your industry,” Norton said. “You will want an attorney who can communicate with you in business terms and has an appreciation of your strategic objectives.” 

He added that clients should ask their attorney questions to understand responsive and communication expectations upfront. 

“There is a common desire among clients for their law firms to be problem-solvers and not just dispensers of letter-of-the-law advice,” Charlson said. “About 10 years ago, my law firm abandoned traditional legal practice areas and reorganized itself into industry-focused business units precisely for this purpose. I think our clients recognize the benefits of having lawyers, no matter the legal subject-matter area, who approach challenges with the business objectives of the client at the heart of things.”

In addition to legal expertise and industry-specific knowledge, chemistry is also an important piece of a successful attorney-client relationship, Shadden said.

“One thing I think is really important is to understand a firm’s culture,” she said. “McGrath North publishes our commitments to our clients, to ourselves, to the community; we publish that on our website. Those are the values that we live by and we share those with our clients because we want them to find lawyers in whom they can find that chemistry, that common ground and similar values.

“Looking at a firm’s culture, looking at a firm’s efforts in the community and efforts internally with their staff just makes the relationship going forward easier when there’s common values, common ground, common paths forward.”