THE VERDICT IS IN:
Montgomery’s legal industry is facing challenges and changes but still taking care of clients and benefitting our community.
The legal profession is one of the world’s oldest and most enduring. Today, it is estimated that there are 1.33 million practicing attorneys in the United States. Montgomery County has an impressive number on its own; according to the Alabama State Bar Association, there are currently 1,600 lawyers here. At the most basic levels, the services lawyers provide and the role they play in our society have really not changed that much, even in the last century.
But there is a major shift underway. The legal industry is embracing diversity like never before, and one of Montgomery’s most well-known lawyers, Jere Beasley, believes it will prove the distinctive difference-maker in the industry’s near and long-term outlooks. “The legal industry has changed dramatically since I came here in 1979,” the founder of Beasley Allen law firm said. “We see now how diversity is so critical to success.
Our firm is a prime example: When we hired the first African-American lawyer, I actually received some criticism, and while that was decades ago, that still shocked me. But since then, diversity has grown in our firm and grown everywhere.” And it keeps growing, promising more positives for the future, as Beasley explained. “We are now seeing more female law students than ever before, and that’s great for the industry,” he said.
Other Montgomery firms have also seen the benefits diversity brings and are making achieving it a top priority. “Recent tragedies have highlighted the lack of diversity in our profession, and the industry has truly refocused on the meaningful actions we can take to fight inequities and increase diversity, equity and inclusion within our firms,” said Riley Roby, Managing Partner at Balch & Bingham, LLP. “At Balch, we created a new position, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer and are actively recruiting to fill that role.” The firm also recently launched Balch Business Boost, a program that supports entrepreneurs of color as well as women-owned businesses and start-ups by providing free or low-cost legal services.
Increased diversity is an industry-wide goal, according to Davis Smith, Partner at Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, LLP. “There is a more intentional focus on diversity,” he said. “The legal industry understands that to better serve clients, the demography of the legal community needs to be better representative of the local community.”
Our area also boasts diversity in the types of attorneys practicing here and the services they offer, which is equally important, giving Montgomery residents and local businesses the expertise and representation they need to conduct a wide array of daily activities and transactions. “Our city is unique as a capital, we have governmental lawyers, we have legal services like Southern Poverty Law Center, we have great tax lawyers and commercial lawyers, plus those in litigation like our firm,” Beasley said “All in all, we have some really great lawyers here.”
Another notable change is simply the rate of change itself. After years of doing things the same way, today’s lawyers are facing a world that’s being altered by the minute, requiring them to be flexible and able to adapt — and adapt quickly. “I believe the skills that lawyers need to be successful are evolving faster than ever. People joining the profession today need to be more tech-focused and business savvy than ever before,” said Roby.
The relentless advance of technology has been affecting the industry for a long time. In the past, access to information was the most noticeable impact. “There is such a massive amount of information out there now,” Beasley said. “We may have a case where we have millions of documents to process; that’s so different from just 20 years ago.” Technology has led to more available information but with so much of it in digital form, it’s also made it easier to store and disseminate information.
Now, COVID-19 has accelerated the pace, pushing the increased use of technology for basic communications. “The legal industry was already undergoing a transformation driven by regulatory, technology and competitive demands. COVID-19 fundamentally changed the way we work and collaborate with each other and our clients,” said Roby. Smith elaborated on Roby’s point. “Many law firms shifted to working remotely, requiring the lawyers to depend heavily upon virtual platforms to communicate with judges, other lawyers and clients,” he said.
Roby noted the heavier emphasis on data security in response to this shift, as more data and conversations, which are often confidential, are being stored in and surging through cyberspace. “New legal technologies are continuing to emerge, and the industry is making new investments in tools to help lawyers collaborate and deliver enhanced levels of client service,” Roby said.
COVID-19 also created hurdles in the courtroom, resulting in a slowdown for legal cases that need to be litigated, as Richard Ball, Partner at Ball, Ball, Matthews & Novak, P.A., explained. “With the suspension of in-person court proceedings, lawyers have had to adapt to using technology such as Zoom for depositions, in-court hearings, conferences, etc., COVID has delayed the disposition of litigated matters generally,” he said.
Despite the challenges inherent in this required and rapid evolution, Beasley believes there is a silver lining. “It has been difficult to be sure, but it has made lawyers and law firms become more efficient,” he said. “I hope that carries over and continues after this is all over.”
Many of the solutions enacted to fix COVID-related issues have been so beneficial, it’s unlikely they’ll roll back, even when we’re done with the pandemic and all its problems. “It looks like there is a light at the end of the tunnel with the development of vaccines for the virus, but the flexible methods adopted by firms for delivery of legal services as a result of COVID-19 will probably be here to stay,” said Smith.
Roby echoed Smith. “COVID-19 changed the way we work as lawyers. As a firm, I believe we adapted really well and stayed connected to each other and our clients, virtually,” he said. “I believe many of the technological changes are actually here to stay. This situation enhanced our ability to be flexible and efficient, it truly transformed the traditional work environment.”
There is a constant, an aspect that remains the key to success in the legal industry: relationships. And the bonds that tie our legal industry to the community are as strong as ever. “The legal profession is a large and important part of the River Region economy, providing jobs for paralegals, legal assistants as well as lawyers, not to mention the economy generally,” Ball said. Smith also pointed to job creation as a plus his industry provides, as well as the many attorneys’ inclination to “give back.” “The legal industry in the River Region continues to offer well-paying jobs that may be attractive to talent who did not grow up here,” he said. “There also remains a collegial atmosphere among the lawyers through participation in the Montgomery County Bar Association and other nonprofit organizations, which directly benefit the local community.”
Smith also praised the Chamber’s role in forging and maintaining relationships, for members of his profession and the business community at large. “The Chamber creates a platform for local businesses to learn more about legal issues that they need to be aware of and the local lawyers who are available to offer assistance,” he said. “The legal and business community are part of a symbiotic relationship where one cannot succeed without the other. The Chamber helps nurture the growth and success of this relationship.”
LEGAL INDUSTRY IN BRIEF
Local legal industry experts say their industry is currently strong and stable. “As the local economy goes, so goes the legal industry,” Davis Smith said. “Prior to COVID-19, the local economy was doing fairly well, and local firms were hiring to address the increased demand for legal services. COVID-19 created a shock to the system, but the legal industry seems to have weathered the storm.” - Davis Smith, Partner at Bradley Arant, Boult Cummings, LLP
Attorney Jere Beasley has been in the legal profession for more than 40 years, and in that time, he’s witnessed a lot, but recently, a new issue has surfaced. “There seems to be a growing disrespect for the rule of law nationally, and that is the most troubling thing I’m seeing in relation to our profession and to society overall,” he said. “Once the rule of law is diminished in everyday life, we are heading for big time problems, so I am hoping this changes.” - Jere Beasley, Founder, Beasley Allen Law Firm
Q: What one thing has changed the most in the legal industry since you began working in it?
“The biggest change in the legal industry field that I have observed is the use of computers and digital technology. In the past, all documents had to be physically filed at the courthouse. Now, documents may be electronically filed, which is so much faster. Files that once had to be stored physically can now be stored in a cloud. The primary marketing tool was the yellow page ads. Today, the marketing outlets have expanded exponentially to include television, billboards and social media platforms. Because of COVID-19, court appearances are now being done by Zoom videos and/or telephone dockets.” - Sandra Lewis, Law Office of Sandra Lewis, P.C.
“The legal field is ever changing, but one thing that has changed in the legal field is the necessity to have digital footsteps. Social media changed the way we obtain clients, interact with clients and now how we represent clients literally (virtually). Potential clients are not using the phone book to find lawyers; now they are going to their Facebook business page, Twitter page, LinkedIn and Instagram. To stay relevant and profitable, law firms have to adapt to this social media environment.” - LaKesha B. Shahid, Esq., Partner, Shahid & Hosea LLC
“The greatest change that has occurred in the 35-plus years of my law practice is without question technology. I recall attending a meeting of the Alabama State Bar about 30 years ago and listening to a presenting attorney make the prediction that in the near future every attorney would have their own computer on their desk or credenza. There were quite a few chuckles around the room because at the time, computers for the most part were thought of as being the size of most kitchen refrigerators. Look how far we have come. Now most attorneys use their handheld smart phones linked to their tablets laptops and PCs.” - Charles L. Anderson, Anderson, Williams & Farrow, L.L.C.
According to local lawyers Davis Smith and Richard Ball, finding good people to fill their firms has grown a bit trying in recent years. “Attracting qualified personnel is a challenge,” Ball said. Smith agreed. “Recruiting young talent is always an issue. The challenge is the competition with other markets such as Birmingham, Huntsville and Nashville,” he said. “But the developments of downtown entertainment districts and local attractions such as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice have put the spotlight on the region in a positive way that will hopefully attract visitors as well as potential new residents.”
COVID-19-CAUSED COUNSEL TRENDS
“Right now [late December 2020], we are seeing an increased demand for counsel in several key areas as a result of the pandemic. Many law firms are experiencing an increase in demand to help businesses solve disputes caused by COVID-19, which includes issues such as breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duties and disputes between creditors and debtors. For employers, new issues are arising after employees have been working remotely for such a long period of time. Businesses are relying on their law firms to help them navigate lawsuits arriving out of employment relationships. There is definitely an uptick in these practice areas.” - Riley Roby, Managing Partner at Balch & Bingham, LLP