I’m no Chicken Little, but I do have a sinking feeling about our profession. In my more than four decades as a lawyer, I have seen huge changes, not the least of which include:

  • Too many lawyers, too few jobs relatively speaking
  • accountants practicing tax law;
  • financial advisors drafting estate plans, wills and trusts;
  • unhappy and rebellious clients;
  • offshore research and drafting;
  • software created legal documents (e.g., LegalZoom);
  • realization rates woefully low;
  • a significant drop in the percentage of grads getting legal jobs within nine months;
  • …and so on.

I don’t know many lawyers who would realistically disagree that the profession is in a bunch of hurt. I have told friends who have a child or grandchild considering law school, to forget it. I don’t know whether that makes me a traitor to our guild or not. I realize the old-timers and those charging $900 an hour (I was advised that someone was bragging recently that he charges $1500 an hour) see no problem.  How long do you think clients are going to put up with that nonsense?  But, this message is not for those lawyers anyway.

Rather it’s for the much younger members of the bar, who dream (and expect) to reach that zenith. They might, but the vast majority won’t even come close. In fact, if Richard and Daniel Susskind, who co-authored The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Humans are right, there will be “technology unemployment” in the professions (not just law, but architecture, medical, financial professions as well) and there will eventually be less need for lawyers.

Hogwash, you say?  Listen to their podcast about the book hosted by Jim Calloway and Sharon Nelson on LegalTalkNetwork.  Unfortunately, 90% of lawyers won’t because it is slightly over 40 minutes in length. There is that billable hour demand after all.  I’m glad I spent the time, however.

Another recent article that cites the Susskind’s book is “The End of Lawyers, Period” by D. Casey Flaherty on   ABA Journal’s Legal Rebels under the New Normal. It contains links to some contrarian views, but also citing the “2015 Altman Weil Law Firms in Transitions Survey” points out that “Only 20 percent (of those responding stated)… that computers will never replace human practitioners.”

If you think technology can NEVER replace people, think about all the artificial intelligence already out there; such as, while doing a query on the Internet, the rest of your search term pops up before you’ve typed half of it.  Also, remember Deep Blue, the chess challenge that beat Garry Kasparov in 1997.  What is to prevent some Silicon Valley genius developing an algorithm using a database of gazillions of reported cases that will answer most, if not the majority, of legal issues down the road.  Will lawyers become extinct? Surely not, but for certain the need will be for less as technology advances.

My message is really directed at younger lawyers and future grads still in law school.  And it is: Learn quickly how to market your services and develop business in order to survive in today’s new normal and build a nest egg to temporary outwit that (technology) Foxy Loxy that Chicken Little and friends failed to. Maybe the sky won’t fall on your head, but a whole lot of acorns are going to give you a massive headache before your career is over, IMHO.

This year at the Legal Tech conference the keynote address was by Jim Calloway, a law practice management guru, who serves as director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Management Assistance Program.  The highlights of his much heralded address on the future of law practice is now a podcast that is worth listening to. It runs less than 15-minutes.

Here’s a brief synopsis of what it contains:

  • Supply and demand is catching up with lawyers.  There are too many lawyers*, new law schools being created (with ABA scrutiny being “less than rigorous”) since they are money-makers for universities, and, most importantly, there aren’t enough jobs.  According to the upcoming book Failing Law Schools by Brian Tamanaha law schools are producing 45,000 new graduates annually, while it is projected that there will only be 25,000 legal jobs available per year through 2018; and
  • Technology is changing everything from online non-lawyer documents to virtual law firms.

So, what are smart lawyers to do?  According to Calloway:

  1. Pay attention to what is going on in the industry.  There is a new normal, and lawyers need to be tuned-in to trends (and reality I might add);
  2. Focus on legal project management and legal process management to be more efficient, and generate legal products/documents from “A to Z” to be at the ready— so lawyer time is spent on what is unique to a matter, rather than the repeatable routine; and
  3. Recognize and utilize the digital world in your workflow.  Although the paperless office never did (or will) happen, adopt more computer files on your network and Internet to be accessible to everyone who needs them, and so they are available remotely.

Bottom line: the legal world is changing in many ways, including downward pressure on fees.  Unless lawyers are more efficient (via project and process management), develop better systems to work smarter and in less time, and accept alternative fee structures (e.g., fixed fees) that work for clients and for lawyers, the new normal ain’t going to work so good.

And that’s where marketing comes in.  If lawyers accept the new normal and adapt to it, including with systems, document assembly and greater efficiencies, and let clients/referral sources/prospects know about it, they will be more successful in landing all the work they can handle.

 

*Sharon Nelson, president-elect, Virginia State Bar interjects that 22% of law students think it’s “a bad idea to be in law school” in light of the climate for jobs.