For many years, the legal ecosystem defied change. Law schools had more applicants than they knew what to do with; their graduates entered a welcoming job market; law firms paid ever-escalating salaries and perks to newly-minted lawyers, the most industrious of whom would go on to make partner and punch their ticket to moneyed tenure; there was little lateral movement among partners, and associates who lost the partnership sweepstakes were quickly welcomed by other firms; in-house counsel were, for the most part, traffic cops directing their outside counsel; and clients, like lawyers in the firms they sent their business to, rarely changed horses.
Then things changed….
For a while, many in the legal world—students, academicians, firms, and clients alike—debated whether the change was something temporary or “the new normal.” Few would argue now that the change is permanent. The debate now focuses on where things will end up.
Here are a few things that are clear (at least to this participant observer):
- Law students (as well as prospective applicants, of course), the Academy, law firms, and clients are all part of an ecosystem that has been disrupted.
- Law schools are too expensive, too doctrinal in their orientation; populated by lawyers/professors who never or hardly ever (as Gilbert and Sullivan would say) practiced; out-of-touch with the marketplace; and not turning out graduates who are practice ready.
- Law firms no longer have the economic flexibility to train graduates on the job and on the clients’ dime. And so, legal mentorship, long a mainstay of law firms, is for the most part an anachronism unless it comes from another source.
- The “divide” between in-house and outside counsel (firms) is more pronounced because of economics, causing people to forget that “inside” and “outside” counsel are both lawyers who serve the client(s).
- What it means to be a lawyer or a law firm is being redefined by legal service companies, consultants, legal product providers, and others who do not engage in the practice of law but who provide legal services and, increasingly, products.
- Consumers of legal services, clients, are increasingly utilizing different providers in the supply chain rather than outsourcing a matter to a law firm start-to-finish.
- Many in-house legal departments are bulking up because they find it is more efficient, less expensive, and more client-friendly to handle legal affairs internally (and to outsource more selectively—not just to law firms).
So questions being asked include: whether it’s worthwhile to go to law school anymore; what the role of law schools should be; what will become of all but the most bespoke of law firms (of which I submit there are only a handful); and who will take control of integrating the legal supply chain. It’s gloom and doom.
I don’t agree with the glum prognosis for the profession. I see it as a time of opportunity for those who understand the legal landscape and its incipient move to correct the current misalignment of stakeholders. It’s time to view the legal ecosystem through a more contemporary lens which yields a less harsh view. When things shake out—and that should be in the next few years—a new ecosystem will emerge and things will be aligned once again, albeit with a very different state of equipoise.