A couple days ago CBA Young Lawyers released the 11th report in the Legal Futures Initiative, Do Law Differently: Futures for Young Lawyers. The report features profiles on 26 pioneers of the #NewLaw movement (one is my colleague Audrey Jun @AudreyyJun), and identifies emerging “new legal careers” along with the skills new lawyers will need to forge a life for themselves beyond the crumbling “old system” of equity partnership track positions, mentorship, associate positions or, well, to put it bluntly… any kind of full-time “lawyer job”. Everything is in flux and much is about to become myth over the next 10-15 years.
The report’s author, legal futurist (pragmatist?) Jordan Furlong, writes that “the legal career continuum of the past several decades was a moment in time, and that moment is now fading away.” He says that:
“The future will be different from the past. We believe that it’s not only going to be different — it’s also going to be better.”
I must confess, having read the report, this last assurance did not carry conviction. I have little doubt that change is coming for many of the reasons named in the report. But does it sound to you like a better world for debt-saddled law students?
Here’s a brief quick look at the report, along with what I asked myself when I looked inside:
Frank Talk About Factors Transforming the Legal Market
The report fingers four culprits killing jobs for full-time lawyers:
- Regulatory liberalization (i.e. end to lawyers’ strict monopoly over the provision of legal services)
- Competitive pressures (i.e. what legal consumers will accept from legal service providers, lawyers or otherwise)
- Technological advances (virtualization, automation, AI, etc.)
- Access imperatives (or simply, the access to justice crisis that has raised costs for legal services out of reach of average consumers)
This is the bad news from the report. It says outsourcing, advanced software automation and short-sightedness among the big firms will have a depressive impact on articling positions and full-time associate positions. Already only 60% of US law graduates move on to jobs as lawyers, and here in Canada articling positions will continue to dwindle as big firms focus less on fostering young talent, and more on poaching mid-level talent when it’s ripe. Law firms will keep smaller and smaller cores of staff.
Emerging Career Opportunities
The good news? Well, lawyer “jobs” will decline, but lawyer “opportunities” will grow. Meet the seven career paths of the future:
- Running your own show — solos as niche specialists with virtual practices
- Serving clients institutionally —in-sourcing by corporate law departments may soon account for the majority of salaried lawyers
- Flexing your time — the “agile lawyer” is paid less, and has no partnership options or benefits, but they pick their own schedule
- Serving the 85 percent — if lawyers currently only serve about 15 percent of the whole population, will some startup tap the hitherto untapped 85%?
- Training the machine — as AI is poised to start doing more entry-level legal work, it still needs to be trained. Training the machines to do your job is, well, at least itself a job for now.
- Streamlining the systems — “Law firms and law departments will soon have great need of process engineers and project managers”
- Preventive law — “proactive rather than reactive legal services — has barely scratched the surface of its potential”
While I understand the spirit of buoyancy and optimism, the term “lawyer opportunity” used here is too vague to sound that much better than the term “lawyer job”, which is something we could (at one time) have used to raise a family and generally make a life for ourselves. I’m not disagreeing with the perspective that the old system is crumbling and that these are some alternative opportunities we see ahead, but how is this really a “better” future, and what do we mean by “better”?
Mortgage lenders won’t agree that “flexing your time” (#3) is a good thing to put on an application, and you would be in good company if you thought that “training the machine” (#5) to eat your lunch is a short-sighted plan if your aim is to have a lunch to eat yourself at a later time.
As for going solo (#1), while I see how technology supports running lean solo law practices, I don’t know how this answers the competitive pressures problem. To win out over competitors (from inside or outside the legal profession) who have the same technologies at their disposal, one needs either sophisticated processes or aggressive price cuts. The prospect of hundreds of barely trained new calls running their practices online at bargain basement prices is, in my view, cause for alarm, not relief.
And while there must certainly be opportunity in “serving the 85%” (#4) it is not clear to anyone what that this will look like and whether any young lawyer will put food on his or her table once this market is tapped. I would sooner bet my chips on the large tech companies that own Watson or the next killer AI app. It is automation that will likely bring the price of legal down to a level anyone can purchase.
New Skills and Expertise
Of course the skills required in new candidates for admission to the bar have changed over time. Generations of lawyers in centuries past apprenticed under drudgery, hand copying forms and precedents for supervising lawyers. In the 1980s, they collected dry cleaning for senior partners. But analytical ability, attention to detail, logical reasoning, persuasiveness, sound judgment, and written communication were always important. So what’s important now?
The report identifies nine proficiencies for future lawyers:
- Data management
- Emotional intelligence
- Entrepreneurial spirit
- Financial literacy
- Network building
- Process improvement
- Professional conduct
- Strategic thinking
- Technological proficiency
What’s interesting to me about this list of skills is that it sounds like an MBA curriculum… and maybe that’s the point?
We are not necessarily talking about “lawyer jobs” giving way to “lawyer opportunities”, but “lawyer jobs” giving way to “business opportunities in the legal sector”… whether or not a lawyer is involved. It’s more or less implied by this report that we’re living in an age where everyone is cutting corners. Firms are not training talent, clients are not paying for it, and we’re in a race against various players (accounting firms, off-shore out-sourcing, multi-disciplinary practices and alternate business structures, tech startups, etc.) to commoditize legal services and wring out value from the old, inefficient models of the past. For many of the career paths described, I see how business acumen is useful, but it’s not clear how or where the integrity, independence and candour of the legal profession is to be applied or even preserved.
It’s especially unclear to me how a young lawyer—maybe not how a young tech entrepreneur not beholden to a law society—is expected to navigate these churning waters. Streamlining processes and cutting corners is something that can get a lawyer in trouble, especially when trust accounts are involved, and the discipline digests are replete with examples made of lawyers who cut corners to improve processes.
— Connect with Nate @nrusse