TechReport 2021: Solo & Small Firm

The Solo & Small report is sponsored by LawPay.
The ABA TechReport combines data from the annual ABA Legal Technology Survey Report with expert analysis, observations, and predictions from leaders in the legal technology field. Every Wednesday, we’ll be posting a new report from one of our experts, so stay tuned!

The ABA Legal Technology Survey Report research is contained in five volumes of organized responses and the resulting data; it is helpful to many firms of differing sizes. The published results represent one of the most comprehensive technology surveys of lawyers available. The insights contained in the reports are particularly helpful to the solo and small firm demographic—the largest segment of the legal marketplace.

The insights are not just about the use of different technologies but what impact those technologies have on law firms. Things like work schedules, work location, whether work is done by employees or contractors, and work/life balance. Those are even more important to firms as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with more work being done remotely than before. Among many insights, here are the ones that caught my attention for lawyers in solo practices and small firms.

The Tipping Point for Laptops

Although the trend was long coming, 2021 will be known as the year where the primary work computer for a majority of lawyers became a laptop computer. Prior surveys revealed this trend but laptop usage took a sizeable leap forward over the past two years of the pandemic. Now 53% of lawyers report using a laptop for most of their daily work. Whether this marks the continued demise of the desktop computer is hard to say, but with the growing power of today’s laptops and their convenient mobility, it is hard to see how the desktop will regain supremacy.

Windows 10 Dominates But MacOS Grows Among Solos

It wasn’t surprising to see that Windows 10 is the primary operating system of choice for 77% of all lawyers. Microsoft continues to provide an operating system that is clearly workable for the vast majority of firms and their IT staff or consultants. However, I was stuck by the growth among solos who are using macOS. Usage jumped from 16% in 2020 to 21% in 2021, compared to only 14% in 2018. That’s a 50% jump over three years of solo lawyers turning to Apple computers for their work. Although not directly revealed by the 2021 Survey, I believe these lawyers are turning to the MacBook Pro laptop which provides mobility and business-grade computing power with ease of use and low maintenance requirements.

Even More Mobility with Smartphones

The iPhone continues to be the favored smartphone of solo and small firm lawyers. Eighty-one percent of lawyers in firms 2-9 lawyers and 61% of solos use an iPhone for work-related tasks. Comparatively, 15% of lawyers in firms 2-9 and 24% of lawyers in firms 10-49 use an Android device. Android usage jumps to 33% of solo attorneys. It’s also worth noting that 95% of small firm lawyers use password protection to secure their phones, while 91% of solos do the same. While that number for solos should be higher, it has increased from 88% in 2018. Other security measures in use for phones include two-factor authentication, tracking software, remote data wiping, and encryption.

That’s generally good news because 55% of respondents said their smartphone was the primary way they accessed their email outside of the office. That number dipped a bit from prior years as more lawyers turned to laptops to work from home during the pandemic. Still, a lost or stolen smartphone can lead to unauthorized access to client information and firm data so it is important to protect smartphones with multiple security measures.

Technology Competence and Training

In an evolving world where technology continues to play a key role in the effective delivery of legal services, it is important to maintain competence as well as increase our skills using new technologies.

Overall, 68% of respondents report having to stay abreast of the benefits and risks of technology as part of their basic competency requirement. Firms of 100+ are most likely to report having to stay abreast of the benefits and risks of technology (74%), followed by firms of 10-49 attorneys (72%), solo firms (67%), then firms of 2-9 attorneys (60%).

Despite this knowledge, the availability of technology training varies widely based on firm size. 67% of all respondents report having some type of training available at their firm, compared with 59% in 2020 and 60% in 2019. 35% of solo respondents and 56% of firms of 2-9 attorneys report having training available at their firms, compared with 99% from firms of 100+ attorneys and 71% from firms of 10-49.

Further, respondents were asked to indicate how they feel about the following statement: “I have received adequate training on my firm’s technology.” Overall, 71% agree or strongly agree with the statement. In terms of firm size, 77% from firms of 100+ attorneys agree or strongly agree, followed by 71% from solo firms, 69% from firms of 10-49 attorneys, and 66% from firms of 2-9 attorneys,

There is a noticeable disconnect between what lawyers need to know about their technology and what training they receive from their firms. Whether it is the lack of training resources within a firm or a failure of lawyers to commit non-billable hours to available training is not revealed in the 2021 Survey. Yet there needs to be a reckoning within firms—especially smaller firms to improve the disconnect.

Major Change in Primary Workplace Setting

Respondents from firms of all sizes reported that prior to the pandemic, 80% primarily worked in a traditional office leased or owned by their firm. An additional 11% listed shared office space as their primary office setting and only 6% listed a home office as their primary office space. However, 22% of solos reported their home office was their primary office.

By 2021 we saw significant change. 43% of solos list their primary office as a home office, 19% of lawyers in firms 2-9 attorneys, and 32% of lawyers in firms 10-50 lawyers. In firms of 100+, the percentage jumped from 3% pre-COVID to 46% in 2021. Big firm lawyers leaped past solo lawyers as a group working primarily from home. The dramatic shift in those numbers begs several questions: Post-COVID, which will lawyers return to the office on a more full-time basis, and what will happen to all that unused office space?

Flexible Work Schedule

A flexible work schedule became necessary in many smaller firms during the pandemic for employees to meet the many demands of COVID-19 including having school-age children at home during the workday. Respondents were asked whether or not their firm offers flexible hours (e.g., schedules outside the typical 9-5 workday). 79% of respondents from solo firms report that their firm offers flexible hours and firms of 2-9 and 10-49 attorneys reported 75% offer this flexibility. This compares to 93% of firms with 100+ lawyers offering flexible schedules. Such flexibility may become a necessary benefit to attract and keep employees who have come to enjoy not having to commute to the office.

Telecommuting

As firms adopted additional technologies during the pandemic that enabled law firm workers to work remotely, more firms allowed workers to stay home to work. Overall, 64% of respondents report that they telecommute compared with 55% in 2019. However, the larger the firm, the higher percentage of teleworking employees. Of firms with 100+ lawyers, 80% reported some telecommuting, whereas 64% of firms with 10-49 lawyers and 50% of firms with 2-9 lawyers reported they telecommuted. About half of all solos (53%) telecommute regularly. Of note is that of the 64% who telecommute, 39% did so full-time in 2021 compared to only 6% in 2019. It will be interesting to see if that number stays steady or decreases in future years.

The Most Popular Firm Benefits

The 2021 Survey also lists results for which benefits firms offer to employees including medical insurance, retirement benefits, CLE reimbursement, short- and long-term disability, cell phone service, meals, PTO, parental leave, and more. The results for medical insurance offer some insights: While 100% of firms with 100+ lawyers offer medical insurance to employees, only 36% of solo firms offer that benefit. That compares to 75% of firms with 2-9 lawyers and 99% of firms with 10-49 lawyers. That wide disparity is troubling in an era of expanded health insurance marketplaces. There are other insights—with other disparities too in other benefits—offered by firms across the country that can be explored in the full report.

The 2021 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report contains myriad insights of value to firms of all sizes that are seeking to improve their ability to deliver quality legal services, retain employees, and evolve their firms out of the COVID-19 pandemic into a new future.

About the Author

Reid F. Trautz is Senior Director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Practice & Professionalism Center, and is a board member of the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. He was chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2012 and was named to the Fastcase 50 that same year. He also co-authors the Future Proofing column in ABA Law Practice magazine.

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