There has been much anxiety of late over the future of the legal services industry — a term that covers both the private practice of law and legal education, but also extends beyond that to cover lawyers who work in government or in private business. In the Wall Street Journal today, I reviewed a particularly gloomy take on the future of the industry: Steven J. Harper’s new book, The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis.
The review that I wrote was meant to call attention to the overwrought nature of his conclusion. While Harper’s book focuses on the collapse of a few poorly managed megafirms, I note that he:
… [I]gnores the more salient fact that the vast majority of big firms have avoided this grisly fate. Mr. Harper never looks into how these savvy firms survive in a tough environment. They do so, in part, by avoiding overstaffing, by cutting bad clients and by paying premium wages to young associates—many of whom, debts paid, happily bail out for less stressful work as in-house counsel for companies or in the government and nonprofit sectors. Over all, the model proves stable: With Congress passing monstrosities like Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act, top-flight legal talent is needed more than ever to guide well-heeled clients through the growing regulatory maze.
Ironically, Mr. Harper misses the most significant recent dislocation in the practice of law, which is at the consumer end of the market: the rise of low-cost online law firms like LegalZoom and RocketLawyer that aid clients in drafting standard partnerships, wills, leases and the like. These firms pose a mortal threat to sole practitioners, not to Big Law.
In some e-mail correspondence after the publication, I received many comments by individuals whose observations do not quite jibe with my own. One point in particular that is worth some mention is the observation that the stability that I see in the practice of law conceals the huge amount of churning and adaptation that goes on inside the field, so that it is a mistake to think of the profession as though it were stable.
I agree with that general observation, and only meant to say that the adaptations thus far taken by many firms have staved off a far worse fate. But in any dynamic market, even in prosperous times, no one should ever sit on his or her laurels. It is always necessary to innovate and to respond.
It is also clear that no one person has a full knowledge of how the profession works. I have been active in a number of different contexts — from writing amicus briefs to giving client advice to working as an expert witness. All of these experiences revolve around a common core, but it would be foolhardy to make any claim to having all the answers.
For those Ricochet members in the legal community, what trends and shifts in the legal profession have you witnessed during your careers?