The Oxford dictionary defines a lawyer as: “A person who practices or studies law; an attorney or a counselor.” That definition might be expanded to include: (1) licensure; (2) engages in the practice of law; (3) exercises professional judgment; and (4) acts on behalf of client(s). So, let’s go with: “A lawyer is a licensed legal professional who engages in the practice of law, exercising professional judgment on behalf of the client(s).”
This definition fit well when lawyers handled legal matters from start to finish. But in the past 20 years or so, an ever-expanding list of “legal” tasks have been “unbundled” and have been increasingly handled not by law firms but, rather, by legal service providers. These companies provide staffing, legal process outsourcing, consulting, risk management, technology, e-Discovery, legal research, and a host of other legal tasks. And just as legal tasks have been parsed out to these businesses—not law firms—so too have certain legal services morphed into products. For example, LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer have utilized technology to deliver legal documents as products to consumers. Regulatory updates once provided by law firms are now subscription services offered by companies not engaged in the practice of law. A wide array of legal consultancies are performing work once done exclusively by law firms—everything from tax to risk mitigation and compliance. The largest legal employer in the private sector is not a Swiss Verein law firm but one of the Big Four accounting behemoths.
Lawyers and law firms are experiencing what physicians did years before: an ever-expanding array of para-professionals and business types are performing what were once their “bespoke” tasks. And just as health care Goliaths are typically run by MBA’s, not MD’s, so too are legal service providers often guided by business executives, not attorneys. While “legal service providers” serve as agents for law firms as well as in-house legal departments, they are unfettered by the regulatory and Bar rules that law firms must adhere to. This confers an enormous potential advantage. For example, legal service providers can be capitalized by outside investors (some would argue that law firms are funded by banks); can go public; and can expand into new jurisdictions and countries more freely than law firms can. And while legal service providers are often comprised mostly of lawyers, their attorneys are not deemed to be “engaged in the practice of law” –at least not while they are working for the service provider. Paradoxically, were the same attorney to be “on loan” to a law firm, s/he would be engaged in the practice of law. This brings up another element of the definition of a lawyer: one functions as a lawyer when the risk is assumed either by the attorney or by the law firm for whom the attorney is working.
Which brings us back to “what’s a lawyer?” In a legal landscape where process managers, technologists, data analysts, cyber-security experts, and metrics consultants are playing increasingly seminal roles in the delivery and measurement of legal services, a lawyer’s role is changing, if not narrowing. We appear to be moving to a legal system where—like medicine—the lawyer provides a small piece of the process and others do the rest. Perhaps it is time for lawyers to learn new skills—such as project management, better collaborative skills, and a keener understanding of how technology drives the legal delivery system—so that they can expand their role in the process and remain the central players in the legal delivery system.