The year of the free-agent lawyer

Thomson’s acquisition of Pangea3 last November capped off what I think we can fairly call the year of law firm outsourcing. Among 2010’s LPO highlights, in chronological order, were:

What’s clear by now is that law firms are sending increasing amounts of work outside the firm, in two streams: (1) back-office tasks (administration, financial support, etc.) and middle-office tasks (research, document review, etc.) to LPOs in lower-cost locations overseas; and (2) routine lawyer work to law firms in lower-cost nearshore locations (expect more of that, and soon). We don’t hear much about clients’ direct LPO activities, but like icebergs, those are 90% hidden from view. And Thomson’s Pangea3 acquisition promises intriguing new developments to come on this front.

So we’ve just come off the year of law firm outsourcing: traditional firms contracting with distant corporate entities in lower-cost jurisdictions to carry out basic or routine work. I think 2011 will see the further development of a related but more important trend: the shift of lawyer work away from full-time associates and towards independent, unaffiliated, networked and mobile practitioners. The corporate outsourcing stream is branching out into an individual outsourcing stream. 2011 should be the year of the free-agent lawyer.

Almost two years ago, John Flood and Peter Rouse pointed out that law firms’ historic tendency towards full employment — maintaining platoons of full-time lawyers on the immediate premises — might have run its course, in light of both the recession and new service models at “dispersed” law firms such as Axiom, Rimon and Lawyers Direct. “Although legal work has become more commoditised and an increasing proportion of it shipped offshore,” they wrote, “it is perhaps lawyers themselves, both associates and partners, who are the commodities, traded and marketed by recruiters and head-hunters.” The new law firm model will be based on “contract lawyers” — attorneys retained for a specific project or a limited time, then released back into the market.

Law firms themselves soon caught on to the fact that many of the associates they had cut during the financial crisis could be brought back into the fold at lower costs, with fewer benefits, at the firm’s sole discretion. Last summer, an Altman Weil survey reported that “a majority of responding firms expect that contract lawyers will become a permanent part of their firm’s structure.” Altman’s Tom Clay added: “As firms become more comfortable with contract lawyers, AFAs, fewer partners, and whatnot, they’ll see it as a way to deliver services more efficiently to their clients.”

This past December, contract lawyer hub The Posse List noted that temporary lawyers were becoming a permanent solution. “[D]uring the recession, in order to keep the troops busy, law firms gave their associates work that would have normally gone to contract attorneys,” TPL wrote. “But now, even as the economy continues to improve, the ranks of ‘other’ attorneys continue to swell due to their lower cost and often more targeted experience. We have seen that as many contract attorneys with specialized experience move out of the document review rooms and into more substantive work.”

CEOs in all industries, not just law, have concuded that their labour costs have been too “fixed” and insufficiently “variable” in the recent past — the shift towards contract employees addresses that perceived imbalance. This chart from a recent issue of The Economist starkly illustrates that although current unemployment rates remain very high, there’s one notable exception: temporary or contract workers:

It’s not just in North America — the Posse List reports a steep rise in European and foreign-language document review work for contract lawyers. It’s not just “temporary” or “contract” lawyers, either: the last few years have seen a steady growth in the percentage of part-time lawyers (including partners) in law firms. And even within the ranks of law firm associates, a two-tier reality is emerging, notes Jerome Kowalski: a small elite segment of associates paid top dollar and expected to slide smoothly into partnership, and a “vast underbelly” of staff lawyers who are paid much less and worked just as hard, but are not held to strict billing or business development expectations.

Law firms, for once, appear to be near the front of a business trend: the lawyer employment model is shifting away from full-time work in law firms towards temporary, contract, part-time, dispersed, and/or remote free-agent lawyers. And this should be no surprise, because legal work itself is making the same transition: from a model in which every task was performed (and billed) by full-time lawyers inside the law firm, to a model in which legal work is carried out by the most appropriate, efficient and cost-effective performer, regardless of status or location. Associate leverage ratios have declined from their historic mid-’00s highs and figure to stay lower for the foreseeable future; formerly bottom-heavy pyramid-shaped law firms have become and should remain noticeably slimmer.

It’s a rational development, and in the end, it will produce a legal labour model more aligned to marketplace reality than to lawyer traditions. But from now on, many lawyer jobs will be much less secure, and significantly lower-paying, than the last few decades have led us to expect. And it will give rise to a number of implications and repercussions:

  • Law schools have not seen this trend coming and they have not adjusted their business model, which still pretends that huge tuition fees can be paid off quickly with a high-paying law job. At least three years’ worth of students have graduated into an entirely different market than the one on which their schools’ economic assumptions were based, and every year that schools fail to adjust adds another year of graduates with misaligned expectations. The long-term impact: a winnowing of the number of law schools and a general (although not universal) slump in revenue among the schools that survive.
  • Professional responsibility rules and practices will prove equally unready for the new model. As a friend who operates professional development in a large firm asks: to which lawyers should PD be applied? The future stars, certainly. But what about the staff, temporary and contract lawyers who produce work for the firm’s clients but are not expected to stay long enough to be considered a good educational investment? If firms don’t provide associate PD, where will it come from?
  • And what about conflict of interest rules? The same friend points out that contract lawyers who work for multiple employers on numerous matters will accumulate many more conflicts at a much faster rate. If the current rules on conflicts of interest are maintained and enforced, these lawyers will rapidly find themselves ethically obliged to turn down work, eventually becoming effectively unemployable. If we consider that to be a perverse and impractical outcome — and I think we should — are we looking at a two-tier ethics system? Or the collapse of an already unwieldy conflicts regime in the face of market pressure?

Despite all of that, however, I do think that this trend will eventually prove to be advantageous for this new generation of lawyers. I prefer to think of them not as “contract” lawyers or “temps” — terms that, in both reputation and reality, often aren’t so great — but as “free-agent” lawyers: agile, versatile, flexible, low-cost and high-quality sources of legal expertise. I think this new model will end up a net positive for the current and coming generation of lawyers. The advantages of free-agent lawyering should include:

  • a wider range of work,
  • more flexible work schedules,
  • a greater ability to respond to changing market needs,
  • more time for family and personal priorities,
  • better and more efficient work habits,
  • less attention paid to timesheets,
  • more opportunities for niche careers,
  • greater freedom to chart your own developmental path, rather than one shaped by the firm’s immediate needs, and
  • the ability to carve out your own independent professional brand.

Interestingly enough, free-agent lawyers could ultimately make law firms less important in the legal services market. In sufficient numbers, they will effectively constitute a new set of competitors: armies of independent lawyers who operate without the overhead costs and institutional inertia of law firms.

Free-agent lawyers might work for Axiom-style dispersed firms for as long as it suits them. They might ply their trade as independents with the assistance of Posse List-like organizations. They might come together to form emerging legal business networks of their own and use them to build brands and careers. They won’t be “solos” in the traditional sense — they ultimately work for other businesses, not their own — but they will constitute a valuable option for clients who want legal work done quickly, cheaply and well. LPOs will have to keep an eye on free-agent lawyers, too: they could be each other’s primary competition. Equally, though, the two entities could form alliances and pose an even stronger challenge to law firms.

Make no mistake, free-agent lawyers have a steep hill ahead of them: it’s a legal career on the edge, providing little leverage or security and demanding an entrepreneurial spirit. They could use some organizational help. But it does seem like a career path custom-designed for millennial lawyers, who were raised to multi-task their way through numerous serial careers with maximum flexibility and personal fulfillment opportunities. They represent, if not the future of the legal profession, one of a growing number of available futures for a legal marketplace increasingly in flux.

Jordan Furlong speaks to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.



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