How to solve the legal employment crisis

The cover story in last week’s Economist got me thinking about the looming crisis in lawyer employment. “When jobs disappear” paints a bleak picture of a rising wave of unemployment worldwide that will hurt more and last longer than past employment crises. The credit crunch has forced companies to cut costs rapidly, while the massive deleveraging underway in most consumer economies means that the eventual recovery will proceed slower and will crest lower than we’ve become used to. But the key point is this:

[W]hen demand does revive, the composition of jobs will change. In a post-bubble world, indebted consumers will save more, and surplus economies, from China to Germany, will have to rely more on domestic spending. The booming industries of recent years, from construction to finance, will not bounce back. Millions of people, from Wall Street bankers to Chinese migrants, will need to find wholly different lines of work.

In its editorial leader, the magazine drives the point home further:

[M]any of yesterday’s jobs, from Spanish bricklayer to Wall Street trader, are not coming back. People will have to shift out of old occupations and into new ones.

We’ve been bingeing on reports of law firm layoffs for a few months now, and there’s every reason to think those reports will continue through 2009. But we haven’t spent as much time looking at the big picture: there is a growing population of lawyers whose jobs are gone for good, and a larger group of lawyers whose underlying business models are fast becoming obsolete.

Many of the junior associate and staff positions cut in the past several months won’t be filled again. We’ve always known that low-level associates billed out at a handsome profit by midsize and large firms would survive only as long as clients continued to tolerate the law firm business model and its rank inefficiencies. During the recession, clients just won’t be able to afford that; when the recession finally eases, they won’t be willing to afford it, hardened by the lessons meted out in the financial wilderness. Similarly, legal support staff still carry out many automatable and outsourceable tasks. By the time the recession ends, those tasks simply won’t justify a person sitting in an office or cubicle adjacent to a lawyer.

You could actually argue that there hasn’t been a “market” for many of these positions, in the sense of a financial justification or imperative, for some years now. Firms could be as inefficient in their workflow as they liked, because they could always pass the cost of that inefficiency on to the client, who would put up with it for reasons unknown. But the recession is bringing all that to an abrupt halt, and firms suddenly are having to either rectify those inefficiencies or absorb their cost. The results are plain to see on the unemployment line, which figures to get longer before it’s all over.

That’s all bad enough. But the same fate awaits other legal jobs still to disappear, including some held by senior associates, partners, and even solo and small-firm lawyers. There will still be a market demand for these positions after the recession. But the level of demand will be lower because the economy figures to putter along below its recent peak for as much as a decade, so fewer such lawyers will be needed. Moreover, the nature of what the market demands of these positions will be so different from what it is now that many lawyers will be unable to meet it.

During the recession, we’re all going to learn to do more with less. Cost-saving efficiency and “good-enough” quality will be the twin standards by which purchases of all kinds will be made, including legal services. Lawyers have never needed to be efficient and they’ve always preferred an exhaustive answer to an adequate one; they’re not going to adjust easily, and some won’t adjust at all. Clients also will need their lawyers to focus more on high-value services that demand advisory skills and judgment, and less on than repetitive tasks that require boxes to be ticked off and i’s to be dotted. That’s going to be more than a business model challenge; that’s a new way for many legal professionals to view themselves and their functions, and again, some simply won’t  have the wherewithal to meet the new expectations.

So there are two separate problems that need imminent addressing:

1. A legal employment crisis. Before it’s all over, tens of thousands of lawyers and legal support professionals will have lost their jobs and will have little prospect of finding replacement positions (the Economist reports that the chances of an unemployed American worker finding another job soon are the lowest since records started being kept 50 years ago). Younger lawyers are deep in debt and short on experience; older lawyers have families to support in the teeth of an economic meltdown and are too highly specialized to be easily retrainable and transferable to other professions or industries. What will they do?

And more importantly for the profession, who will help them do it? Governments are preparing aid and retraining packages for workers in manufacturing and other hobbled industries; who’s doing the same thing for lawyers whose careers have been cut down by the financial crisis and the recession it spawned? Whose job is it to do that? Law societies and state bars exist to govern the profession, not to care for its members. Bar associations look out for lawyers, but they are strapped for resources, and not every lawyer is a member. Law schools lose interest in their students shortly after graduation. Who will help meet the unemployed lawyer crisis?

2. A legal training crisis. As heart-wrenching as the fate of jobless lawyers is, an arguably bigger problem is arising profession-wide: the adjustment to a new type of legal career. Technology, globalization, and extra-professional competition have already damaged or even eviscerated many types of legal careers. It doesn’t take long to count all the residential real estate lawyers in jurisdictions where title insurance has taken hold, or the thriving general practices anywhere (but especially in small towns). Estates and family lawyers were already feeling competitors’ breath on the back of their neck. But when the recession really takes hold, few legal positions will be safe: who, for instance, will be able to afford to go to trial? Pro se representation is now a growth industry.

The types of work for which lawyers will be in demand and from which they can make a living are changing, and no one really knows into what. But our law school, bar admission, and continuing education systems continue to grind along churning out lawyers suited for 20th-century practice. Practitioners have complained for years that law schools don’t prepare their students for practice; but the irony is that even if every law school changed overnight to become full-scale career preparation institutes, it still wouldn’t help that much. That’s because no one can say what market demands and consequent skills will be required of lawyers in the year 2015, 2025 or 2035. It’s a serious problem for education generally (the linked video is incredibly insightful), but no less an issue for the legal profession for that.

So we have an immediate problem — a growing crowd of lawyers whose jobs aren’t coming back and whose interests have no obvious advocate — and a mounting crisis — a fundamental change in the nature of legal services for which our profession seems largely unprepared. Are there any roads leading out of this morass? I think there’s at least one: opening up the deep and largely untapped potential of the latent legal market.

Several commentators have pointed out the unrealized market of millions of people who, as Richard Susskind memorably expresses it, need a fence at the top of a cliff, not an ambulance at the bottom. Preventive legal services — customized legal checkups and health regimens that anticipate and reduce the occurrence and impact of legal problems — is the way of the future for many lawyers. Whether online or in person, for corporations or individuals, bespoke or varying slightly from a standard construction, these kinds of services promise the dual benefit of using lawyers’ most valuable skills as well as helping achieve the larger social good of a more legally informed and prepared population. A legal problem may be solved in months or weeks; good legal health requires a lifetime of wise legal advice.

If you’re a person, organization or corporation looking to catch the next wave, here it is: open up an institute dedicated to retraining current lawyers and training prospective ones to provide preventive legal services to latent legal markets (here’s a great model). It’s not enough simply to teach lawyers to carry out their current practices more efficiently and effectively; we need to start training them in the ways of an entirely different type of legal business from that which now holds sway in the profession. We need lawyers who can not only see and analyze legal problems that have occurred, but who can anticipate and reduce the risk of problems that could or will occur if left untreated. We need fewer antibiotics and surgeries in the law; we need more flu shots, vaccines and diet-and-exercise regimens.

A legal profession centered around the prevention of problems first and the resolution of problems second would be a better, happier, healthier and more socially beneficial profession than the one we have now.  We’re facing both a drop in the demand for traditional legal services and the rise of a jobless lawyer population ready and willing to try something different. There may be no better time to give this approach a legitimate shot.


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