Deborah Williamson (pictured), a shareholder in San Antonio’s Cox Smith Matthews, who will step into the role of managing director in early 2014, emailed answers to questions about the future of legal profession, which Texas Lawyer had posed to other legal leaders in this article.
Texas Lawyer: Do you think the law practice will be dramatically different in 10 years and if yes, how so?
Deborah Williamson: I believe clients and referral sources will sharpen their focus on hiring lawyers with defined expertise, experience and results. However, there will be areas of expertise not yet invented. For attorneys who are focused on the business client, the years of developing and then relying upon a broad area of expertise like bankruptcy or commercial litigation are probably coming to an end. We will need to be able to define our experience in increasingly narrow ways, but with expanded channels to educate clients and potential clients, the market for that expertise will be less limited by geography.
TL: Do you think there is anything lawyers practicing now can do to prepare themselves for the changes ahead so they and their colleagues will remain compensated for their work at the same level or better?
DW: I think it is going to be a challenge unless you are perceived to be an expert in a defined area with relevant experience and identifiable results. And the area will be constantly evolving. For example, one of our attorneys, Erin Fonte, has evolved at a rapid rate over the last ten years. She started as a traditional banking and regulatory attorney working directly with financial institutions on account documents, regulatory and operations-related technology contracts that – believe it or not – still included mainframe applications. She then had to become an expert on privacy and data security as clients become aware of the consequences of the first U.S. privacy law for financial institutions (the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act). In just four years, her practice grew to include a much heavier technology focus as financial institutions started relying on outside technology vendors. This meant more technology contracts for banks, but also new work representing technology vendors advising on how to meet applicable regulations. With the rise of the first merchant-issued closed-loop gift cards (like a Macy’s gift card) and prepaid cards, Erin’s financial services practice expanded outside traditional financial institutions to alternative payment providers across the country. At the same time, e-commerce was in full swing, and Erin was advising more and more non-banks, like retailers, on online payment acceptance, electronic payments (credit and debit cards, automated clearing house, etc.). This was all by 2006. Since 2008, with the advent of smart phones, clients are demanding expertise in mobile banking products, like depositing your check by phone. Mobile banking for financial institutions along with expertise in alternative payment channels has led to an even broader mobile payments practice component, such as creating virtual gift cards. And now the major retailers are developing “mobile wallet” products focused on reinventing commerce (again) and the day-to-day shopping experience. We are going to have to be nimble enough to respond to the changing industries marketplace, while at the same time taking a hard look down the road to say “here are the current changes – but here is what I think will be critical 3 – 5 years down the road.
TL: Would you tell a high school graduating senior to prepare themselves to enter law school today? Explain your answer.
DW: Yes and I would still say, "Congratulations." The aspects of the practice of law which I enjoy will remain: interesting issues to analyze; problems to solve; diverse people to meet; and other counsel and judges to persuade. While in high school, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer but had no idea what the process entailed. I had only met one lawyer – and he handled my parents’ divorce. What I didn’t know was that getting into law school isn’t a given and even passing the bar exam doesn’t mean you can practice law. Every high school student who thinks that maybe they want to be a lawyer should read the “Significant Character & Fitness Information” posted by the Texas Board of Law Examiners; “Good Moral and Character Requirements and Rules IV”. It is frightening, but every 17 year old should know that every offense, arrest, ticket or citation must be disclosed when you start law school. If a determination is made that you are not of “good moral character,” you will not be able to complete law school. Even deferred adjudication can prevent you from finishing law school much less getting a license. Second, retain your creditability. Once you make it through law school and pass the bar exam, you will probably be looking for a job. The odds are pretty good that employers and clients will find those inappropriate pictures posted on the internet by a friend (my daughter found a picture of her English teacher at a party). Rather embarrassing and a potential employment issue. Third, learn to lead. Don’t just join clubs – identify projects and lead them to completion. Fourth, become a fast and thorough reader. Vast amounts of reading will always be a part of law school.
-- Miriam Rozen