The legal profession is about to start shrinking. That’s the conclusion to be drawn from the United States, anyway, where law firms continue to downsize associates and even partners, and where both law school application and first-year enrollment levels are lower than they’ve been since the 1970s. Canada hasn’t yet experienced such drastic outcomes, but the rising number of graduating law students who can’t find articling positions should be considered a warning alarm of similar trouble.
There’s reason to believe that the total size of the legal profession is shortly going to plateau, and perhaps even reverse. Why? Because work that previously was taken on by lawyers in law firms is now starting to be channeled to other providers: temporary or contract lawyers, in-house law departments, overseas lawyers, independent paralegals, smart systems, and computer software. The extraordinary development of specialized processes and algorithms promises (or threatens, depending on your perspective) to accelerate this trend.
If, in fact, growth in the number of lawyer jobs continues to decelerate and even to stop altogether, what will become of the lawyers currently in the market and those poised to enter it from law schools? It is very likely that without jobs to occupy them, many lawyers will be forced out of the market altogether. But simultaneously, as “lawyer jobs” begin to dwindle, “lawyer employment” options will begin to expand.
A “job,” as we understand the term today, is a slightly archaic concept. It’s an industrial-era unit of production that became a foundational element of the post-War white-collar economy. When an organization pays you a pre-set amount to perform a range of tasks with defined responsibility in a centralized location during specified hours, that’s a “job.” “Employment” is different: it suggests the application of knowledge, skills and experience on your own initiative to provide value in a wide range of independent, entrepreneurial circumstances.
Here are five characteristics likely to describe instances of “lawyer employment” of the future:
- Multiple clients, not just one: These aren’t single-channel “jobs” in the traditional sense; they’re more like engagements or opportunities that are customized multiple times to an ever-changing roster of clients.
- The application of high-end skills or talents: Lawyers need to deploy judgment, counsel, business analysis or strategic insight to fill these roles — not process or content, which will be systematized and automated by non-lawyers.
- A high degree of customization. Mass-produced legal products and services will be the province of high-volume, low-cost providers. High-value services will be uniquely tailored, like designer drugs based on a patient’s DNA.
- Meeting a need unfilled by a traditional provider. Law firms, law schools, legal publishers, CLE providers, governing bodies, and other industry mainstays could provide supply or drum up demand for these roles, but haven’t.
- Delivering specific, identifiable, and actionable value to the buyer. Much of what lawyers now provide is procedural and transactional: hoops that must be jumped through. New roles will be rich in direct, verifiable value to clients.
Future lawyer employment will be multi-disciplinary (delivered in conjunction with other professionals and trades), technology-enabled (using tools that automate or streamline repetitive processes), agile (requiring flexible availability and multiple short-term engagements) and creative (invoking skills and talents that we’ve rarely thought to use before, but that it turns out we’re pretty good at). The extent to which lawyers adapt to these conditions and master these characteristics promises to be the extent to which lawyers will be gainfully, satisfyingly, and usefully employed in future.
That’s what we think, anyway. What’s your opinion? Here are three questions to help provoke your thoughts and generate discussion:
Q1. Is the dominance of the “lawyer job” drawing to a close? What evidence do you see to support or oppose that idea? #cbafutureschat
Q2. What examples of “future lawyer employment” can we already see? Point us towards a lawyer doing 21st-century work. #cbafutureschat
Q3. How might lawyer employment evolve? What kinds of work could we be doing in 15-20 years? For whom? How? #cbafutureschat
Join me on Wednesday, January 29 at 1:00 pm ET, as we explore these issues in the next #cbafutureschat. If you’ve never participated in a Twitter Chat before, it’s a mix of a networking event and “chat room.” I pose questions, anyone on Twitter is free to respond and engage with each other. It’s a great way to get new perspective on issues, connect with new and interesting people, and provide valuable feedback to the CBA Legal Futures Initiative. See more at: cbafutures.org