What’s left to say about the 2000s? What the legal profession (and the marketplace in which it operates) have just gone through was, as Brad Hildebrandt points out, unprecedented in almost every way. I won’t recap the changes — as Law21′s second full year draws to a close, you can read about them in many of the 274 previous posts here. But at a glance, we’ve seen astounding technological advances (primarily online) that change how legal services are accomplished and delivered, the rapid development of service providers outside the confines of national borders and the legal profession, and two recessions, the latter serious enough to trigger a long-overdue shift in the balance of power between lawyers and their clients. By the decade’s end, we saw the first signs that fundamental change in the marketplace, talked about for so long, was finally, really happening.
I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t be happier about what’s taking place in the law right now. That’s because virtually all the changes we’ve seen in the legal services marketplace over the past few years — and most of those to come in the next decade — operate to the benefit of clients and of the public generally. Legal services are gradually becoming more comprehensible, more accessible, and less expensive. Clients (both consumer and corporate) possess more knowledge of and more influence over legal services delivery than they’ve ever had, and both will grow. In sheer numbers, more people figure to have real access to justice in the 2010s than at any time in history. That’s an amazing development, well beyond what anyone could have anticipated as recently as 2005, and justifiable cause for celebration.
The question is, are lawyers attending this party? And if so, are they chatting away at the punch bowl or grumbling in the corner? These advances are coming largely at the expense of the traditional lawyer business model, one that was quite profitable for many years and seldom more so (especially at large firms) than in the early part of this decade. That model is now in its dying days, and whatever eventually replaces it will be more market-sensitive and client-intensive than the command-and-control model lawyers have enjoyed for so long. Not only that, but more sources for legal services, more automation of those services, and more sophisticated buyers all will cut into the profit margins that traditional legal practice generated. In the result, for the next several years at least (and maybe longer), law figures to become both a more challenging and a less remunerative career than it used to be.
So now the next move is up to us. Years from now, we’ll look back on 2009 as the year the legal market began to change; but we’ll look back on 2010 as the year lawyers began to respond. And it’s really important that we respond well. Whether and to what extent there’s a place for lawyers in the legal market of the future (let alone a place at the top) will depend on whether lawyers in 2010 start to recognize and accept how much has changed and to adjust our attitudes and practices accordingly. That will test, among other things, our dedication to this profession.
Lawyers have long felt like a special breed, in part because the loyalty and concern we show our clients sets us apart as a profession first, a business second. Noble sentiments, easy enough to espouse when we run the show. How well are we going to express those sentiments now that we’re losing our grip on power in this marketplace, sharing it not just with new competitors but also with clients? If we adopt the approaches of the music, media and automotive industries before us — ignoring the changes, fighting with our customers, raising barriers to competition, insisting that “we’re different”– we’ll end up in the same graveyard. Individual lawyers and firms that follow this route will merely disappear; but if this is our profession-wide response, we’ll be in serious trouble, because we’ll have demonstrated that we’re in this for ourselves, not for society or for the clients we serve. Any lawyer who really opposes improving access to justice at the expense of lawyers’ income doesn’t deserve membership in this profession.
But my hope, and frankly my expectation, is that professionalism will win out. Lawyers who are really devoted to service, to stewardship, and to the best interests of others will welcome the coming explosion in access to justice, whether it benefits us financially or not. If the resources are emerging outside our walls to provide people with better legal services at a lower price, then the real professionals in our midst will make those resources available to clients and make whatever adjustments are necessary to their own business models to ensure their continued viability. That needs to be the message delivered loud and clear by the profession’s leaders in 2010, and it needs to be received, accepted and acted upon by every lawyer in every size and type of firm.
Whether we’re ready for it or not, we’re entering the Decade of the Client, probably the first of many. So it really matters now what clients want: personalized help and guidance to arrange their legal affairs and to anticipate and minimize their legal troubles, from a trustworthy advisor who communicates frequently and is truly concerned with their best interests, delivered as quickly as possible at an affordable, predictable price. Any of your business practices that don’t fit into that sentence need to be abandoned immediately. Rethink, refocus, and recalibrate your practice to serve your clients’ best interests, using all the new tools at your disposal, even (maybe especially) if it means recommending a different service provider better aligned with the client’s needs and resources.
Each of us now faces a choice between sustaining a lucrative but obsolete lawyer-first approach to the marketplace, or embracing a leaner, more challenging, but ultimately more rewarding client-first approach to our businesses and our profession. My hope, and expectation, for 2010 is that we choose wisely.