Since women entered the legal profession there has been a steady erosion of women moving from private practice to in-house, government and other legal positions that offer a more supportive work environment. This trend may reverse itself with the advent of New Law.
New Law refers to the new model firms that have exploded into the marketplace. Some of these firms operate as legal outsourcers contracting their lawyers to small businesses that want a lawyer on-site but cannot afford a full-time in-house lawyer or to large corporations that have in-house legal departments but need extra assistance from time to time.
Other New Law firms operate like a traditional law firm but have a completely different business model.
Typically New Law offers flexible fee arrangements (flat fees are common) or charge a much lower hourly rates due to lower overheads.
New Law uses technology along with business processes such as project management to create greater efficiencies Offices are much more basic or non-existent if they use a virtual model where most of the lawyers work from home.
There are no two-tiered partnerships and usually no partnership structure at all.
Typically New Law hires well-trained lawyers from large law firms (Big Law – sometimes more cheekily referred to as Old Law) and have a very different culture than the traditional firms.
One of the most significant differences however between New Law and Old Law is the higher percentage of women that often work in this new environment.
Why are women drawn to the New Law model?
The most common reason is greater flexible work arrangements. New Law leverages technology to allow lawyers to work from wherever they choose. These firms promote flexible arrangements including part time or contract work as a key attraction and retention tool. New Law can offer more autonomy as lawyers choose when and where they want to work.
Pascale Pageau, a lawyer who founded Delegatus in Montreal in 2005 and is the mother of four children said: “Although my hours vary a lot, I generally work 30-35 hours per week now, instead of the 40-50 hours per week that I worked when I was at a big firm.”
Many New Law firms hire only highly trained lawyers from Big Law who can do complex work for sophisticated clients at much lower rates. Lawyers, including women from Big Law can continue to do high quality work but under much less pressure.
Business development is particularly challenging for women who must compete in what is still a largely male corporate world. Women who work for New Law firms can use these more competitive rates or their availability to work on site for corporate clients to their advantage.
Partnership (especially equity partnership) opportunities are harder and harder to obtain for both men and women. Women face additional challenges in building a book of business and making the business contacts and hours needed to reach higher than ever entrance requirements. The highly competitive environment in Old Law where associates fight for the shrinking number of partnership opportunities is eliminated when the New Law model eliminates partnerships.
Associates in New Law do not need to compete to work for the partner most likely to sponsor them for partnership. In Old Law, male partners often prefer to sponsor male associates, as statistically, men are more likely to stay with the firm. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle of more men being promoted.
The culture of New Law is often much different when the billable minute is eliminated. No longer is it a weekly race to see who has put in the most hours and has the highest billings. The billable hour culture is also less adaptable to more flexible or part-time arrangements.
Compensation structures in New Law are different as well. Lawyers typically keep a percentage of their billings. If overheads are much lower, lawyers can often make more money for less work.
Since the legal profession began, men have left large law firms to start up their own smaller firms. While some women join their male colleagues in these new ventures or become sole practitioners, it is still not common for groups of women to form their own firms.
New Law with its opportunities to work more flexibly, leverage technology, dispense with the hierarchical race for partnership and the competitive environment of the billable hour may be the answer many women lawyers are seeking.