The career paths and prospects for young lawyers are markedly different than recent generations. A law degree was once a passport to a stable, predictable, and financially secure career. Most lawyers began their careers with little or no student debt and entered a marketplace where on-the-job training and mentorship were provided. The situation is different today from the day a student enrolls in law school. The cost of legal education has risen approximately 400% during the past quarter century, leaving many grads with six-figure student loans to pay off. Worse still, law schools do not expose them to marketplace conditions that demand they be ‘practice ready’ and equipped with skills beyond a knowledge of doctrinal law. The Grateful Dead comes to mind-- ‘Well the first days are the hardest days, don’t you worry any more….’
If you think this is another lament of the death of lawyers, read on. There are certainly challenges-- right out of the gate and beyond-- for today’s lawyers, but there are also unprecedented opportunities. The staid legal guild and its pedigree obsessed, hierarchical, white middle-aged male dominated culture is being replaced by a tech and process-enabled, diverse, client-centric corporatized delivery paradigm. The ‘2000+ billable hours or out’ world of law firms is, likewise in its sunset (apart from a small number of elite firms). Agile providers offering greater flexibility as to how much, when, and where lawyers work provide a work-life balance that incumbent firms eschew. Millennials are already playing a key role in this transformation, melding their technological fluency and legal backgrounds to launch start-ups as well as fill senior management roles at later-stage service providers. ‘Being a lawyer’ is not limited to a narrow career path that stifles creativity, fails to utilize other skillsets, and discourages pluck. This is the golden age of the legal entrepreneur, a time when, to quote T.S. Eliot, clients are ‘no longer at ease in the old dispensation’ (read: enough already with the traditional law firm partnership model). The new legal career offers many different paths that include technology, crisis management, finance, journalism, social service as well fields yet to be identified.
How and why has the legal industry changed and what impact does that have on the new legal career?
Legal Practice Is Now Delivery of Legal Services
Legal practice was once synonymous with legal delivery; law firms sold legal expertise—nothing else. Technology, globalization, the complexities and scale of business, high legal cost, and the fallout from the global financial crisis of 2008 have transformed legal delivery into a three-legged stool supported by legal, technological, and process expertise. The practice of law has morphed into the delivery of legal services. This mirrors the transformation of other knowledge-based professional services. Medicine for example, was formerly delivered by physicians in small practice groups. Healthcare, comprised of physicians, technology, process, technicians, and a host of paraprofessionals, has replaced it. This is not mere wordplay; it describes a structural and process change that involves the interaction of professional expertise, technology and process to leverage and scale the delivery of professional services. Physicians experienced this shift decades ago; lawyers are now immersed in it. Note to lawyers: legal delivery is not just about lawyers anymore.
Law firms have generally failed to adapt to the transition from legal practice to legal delivery, and it is costing them significant market share. In-house legal departments, long the primary consumers of (corporate) legal services, have ‘in-sourced’ a great deal of work once sourced to law firms. This trend is not just labor arbitrage; it is also structural. Legal services are optimally delivered when legal, technological, and process expertise are melded to tackle business challenges, not ‘legal’ ones. That means legal delivery is the process of tackling enterprise problems that raise legal issues, not the one-off case approach of most law firms.
The best corporate legal departments operate as integrated counselors/business partners of the companies they serve. Many have created legal operations teams that combine legal, technological, process and project management expertise to reduce cost, mitigate risk, compresses delivery cycles, standardize processes, and achieve measurable, significant business impact. Top corporate legal departments no longer function as silos; they are integrated within the larger enterprise. This is where legal delivery is headed and context for the new legal career.
Legal service providers have a different DNA than traditional law firm partnerships. Axiom, UnitedLex, and Elevate-- to cite three prominent examples—are managed service providers that combine elements of the practice of law with the business of legal delivery. They are tech and process enabled, innovative, collaborative, transparent, responsive, accessible, global, mobile, integrated, agile, and cost-effective. These companies do not presently ‘engage in the practice of law’ (as state Bars define it), yet they provide systemic solutions to business challenges that have legal elements. They operate from corporate structures and bear many similarities to the clients/customers they serve. They are well capitalized and, unlike law firms, reinvest capital and offer residual equity-- in contrast to the profit sharing that law firms call ‘equity.’ The equity issue is critically important, because its absence in traditional law firms produces a short-term, ‘the future is now’ mentality that is inimical to firm succession planning and sustainability. Elite managed service providers—and others like the Big Four accounting firms and other globally branded giants with deep ties to and understanding of the C-suite—will be among the largest employers of lawyers in the years ahead. Their holistic approach to client challenges—one where legal issues are part of a broader solution that involves technology, business, analytics, and process-- will be the paradigm for the new legal career.
The ‘retail’ segment of the legal market, likewise, is undergoing change that presents opportunities for lawyers, especially young ones. Companies like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer make legal services more accessible and affordable to those that cannot pay current high legal rates. They utilize technology and process to offer ‘self-help’ documents that are professionally vetted, easily accessible--skipping the time consuming, expensive, and daunting process of finding a lawyer and going through the engagement process-- cost-effective, and sufficient in most instances. A simple Will, uncontested divorce form, non-disclosure agreement, or employment agreement are a few clicks and a few bucks away. And while this process is not suited for all client challenges, it has certainly been a big help to millions of customers. LegalZoom’s customer approval rate—around 90%--far eclipses satisfaction rates of traditional law firms. This kind of tech-enabled delivery of legal services has an endless array of variants that can bring tens of millions of new legal customers/clients into the marketplace. It has the potential to significantly reduce the access to justice crisis while creating thousands of new legal industry jobs. Most importantly, it will fortify the rule of law by making legal services accessible and affordable to millions in need of it.
Technology Brings Lawyers Back to Basics
Technology liberates lawyers to perform essential tasks—engage with clients, exercise professional judgment, provide counsel (not just legal matters but more holistically), engage in client representation before tribunals, and negotiate key commercial transactions. This is no different than physicians who once spent an entire physical exam with the patient and now appear to review the patient’s history and return at the visit’s conclusion to synthesize test results and recommend a course of action. Law, like medicine and other professional services, is undergoing a ‘back to the future’ process. And that process places a premium on emotional intelligence (a/k/a ‘EQ’ or ‘people skills). There are three types of intelligence at work in the legal marketplace: intellectual, emotional, and artificial (AI). Top lawyers combine intellectual and emotional intelligence. AI poses no threat for them; it is simply another tool that will enable them to focus on core tasks and to better leverage their expertise and time for the benefit of clients. The new legal delivery model will deploy AI and other technological advances to leverage human IQ and EQ. Humans will not be replaced by machines but they will work side-by-side.
Legal Delivery Presents Great Opportunities
The new legal career presents a wealth of opportunity for those that combine practice excellence, ‘contemporarily relevant’ skills (process and project management, marketing, business basics, etc.), and people skills. Law schools presently provide none of these elements; that must change. In the interim, executive education—a form of ‘CLE on steroids’—is a solution that holds great promise and financial reward for those that can deliver it accessibly, efficiently and cost-effectively. This is an example of the entrepreneurial opportunities--and new jobs they will create--that exist in legal delivery.
The new legal career will, for most, involve several ‘gigs.’ This can be a positive, especially if new skillsets are acquired at each stop. Lawyers and others in legal delivery are entering the golden age of the legal entrepreneur. A proliferation of delivery models, products, markets, and opportunities will result in the creation of new jobs, new collaborative opportunities, and a global marketplace. Legal practice was formerly characterized by insularity, rigidity, and adherence to precedent. Innovation has hit the legal industry, and it is visible around the globe. The new legal career will be conducted in a global marketplace, notwithstanding a temporary turn to ‘savage nationalism’ in the U.S. and parts of Europe.
Change and opportunity are flip sides of a coin. The best way to adapt to change is to be positioned for the opportunities it produces. This means understanding the marketplace and acquiring new skills it prizes. The new legal career will not be cut from a single bolt of cloth. It will be a mosaic whose pieces have different backgrounds, skills, and training. The role lawyers play will be determined by what they can contribute to the process of delivering legal services more efficiently and cost effectively to a wider customer base. The economics of the new legal career will be different, too. Those that deliver high value will continue to be rewarded handsomely, while routinized work will not be compensated as it was at large law firms. The new legal career is about satisfying client needs, not the financial expectations of partners. Providers that achieve client satisfaction will reward those that play a material role.
More from Mark A. Cohen: LegalBusinessWorld | Forbes | LegalMosaic