The future of legal employment

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The American legal profession is on the verge of a full-blown jobs crisis. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that over the course of this decade, 440,000 new law graduates will be competing for 212,000 jobs, a 48% employment level. The BLS’s projection does assume law school graduation rates will remain steady during that time, and the latest news is that US law school applications are down nearly 25% in the last two years. But fewer applicants won’t necessarily translate to smaller classes; it may simply mean that law schools accept a greater percentage of applicants than in the past. Canada and the UK are likely facing similar long-term trends, although not nearly to so devastating a degree.

There’s no question this is serious business, and the sooner we take steps to deal with it, the better. Here’s something to think about, though: a “jobs” crisis is not necessarily the same thing as an employment crisis. Put differently, it may be that we should focus less on whether new lawyers can “get a job,” and more on whether and how lawyers can be gainfully employed for the use of their legal knowledge and skills.

A “job,” as we understand the term today, is in some ways a slightly archaic concept. It’s an industrial-era unit of production that became a foundational element of the post-War white-collar economy. When an organization pays you a pre-set amount to perform a range of tasks with defined responsibility in a centralized location during specified hours, that’s a “job.” Boomers, in particular, believe deeply in “jobs” — they were raised in, and flourished in, an environment where jobs were not only plentiful, but were also considered touchstones of personal success and fulfillment. Gen-Xers like me, and the Millennials streaming into the profession right now, were raised in far more uncertain employment environments, yet “jobs” remained the default format for earning a reliable and respectable living.

Today, “jobs” are becoming more difficult to define and measure. A growing number of economists accept that “unemployment rates” are an imperfect metric because they do a poor job of capturing, for example, part-time and itinerant workers or jobless people who’ve given up looking for work. At the same time, independent workers and entrepreneurs are gaining increasing traction in the economy — I recall one estimate that as many as one-fifth of all American workers now fit into those categories. The concept of “getting a job” — securing a reliable, medium-term engagement of steady activity in return for steady compensation — might yet prove to be a product its economic era.

What does this mean for lawyers? Technically speaking, private-practice lawyers are entrepreneurs — owners rather than employees, independent professionals who contract directly with purchasers without the involvement of an organizational middleman. And for solos and truly small-firm lawyers, I think this still holds true. But most lawyers in midsize and large firms, if we’re talking in practical terms, are really holding down “jobs.” The associates certainly are, for anywhere from five to ten years at the start of their careers. But even many partners, if they honestly assessed their position, might concede that they’re “employees” of the firm more than “owners,” their continued association with the firm still governed by productivity demands imposed by others higher in the partnership chain.

And when you move beyond the private practice of law, you realize that the vast majority of lawyers out there are employees, not owners. Government and public-sector lawyers? Corporate law department lawyers? Law school lawyers? Judicial system lawyers? Administrative agency lawyers? All employees: they get paid by an organization to perform a range of tasks with defined responsibility in a centralized location during specified hours. This is hardly surprising: our legal training, which does nothing to prepare us for entrepreneurship, all but destines most of us to organizational employment, and our natural risk-aversion doubles down on the tendency to favour security over independence. Being an entrepreneur is difficult and stressful, and for many people (not just lawyers), the rewards fail to outweigh the costs.

Nonetheless, I’m coming to believe that entrepreneurship is the best weapon we have to get through the legal jobs crisis. Simply put, the “lawyer job” is starting to disappear. Organizations that require legal services are creating fewer full-time lawyer jobs to deliver those services. They’re using substitutes like contract lawyers, overseas lawyers, paralegals, LPO companies, and increasingly sophisticated software. There just aren’t going to be as many “lawyer jobs,” as we’ve traditionally understood the term, in future. But there should be a growing number of “lawyer opportunities,” some of which the market will make for us and some of which we’ll have to make for ourselves.

What might these opportunities look like? Richard Susskind gave us seven to start with in The End of Lawyers?, including process analyst, project manager, ODR practitioner and risk manager. Others might include:

  • General Contractor, assembling the best team of legal professionals to achieve specific goals or solve one-off problems;
  • Knowledge Tailor, creating customized banks of legal know-how uniquely designed for specific clients;
  • Strategic Auditor, analyzing organizations for legal risk, strategy disconnects, function variances and productivity leakages;
  • Accreditation Monitor, reviewing other lawyers’ continued fitness to hold a law licence on behalf of regulators;
  • Proficiency Analyst, periodically assessing an organization’s legal advisors for competence and client awareness;
  • Legal Physician, providing individual clients with annual low-cost checkups of their family’s legal health;
  • Informal Arbiter, delivering fast, brief, non-binding “judgments” of disputes to facilitate settlements;

I expect there are a handful of lawyers out there doing these things already, but that’s not really my point. What I want you to focus on is what many of these potential future lawyer roles share in common:

1. They envision multiple clients, not just one: These aren’t single-channel “jobs” in the traditional sense; they’re more like engagements or opportunities that are customized multiple times to an ever-changing roster of clients.

2. They require the application of high-end skills or talents: Lawyers need to deploy judgment, counsel, business analysis or strategic insight to fill these roles — not process or content, which will be systematized and automated by non-lawyers.

3. They involve a high degree of customization. Mass-produced legal products and services will be the province of high-volume, low-cost providers. High-value services will be uniquely tailored, like designer drugs based on a patient’s DNA.

4. They meet a need unfilled by a traditional provider. Law firms, law schools, legal publishers, CLE providers, governing bodies, and other industry mainstays could provide supply or drum up demand for these roles, but haven’t.

5. They focus far more on preventing problems than on solving them. Richard Susskind, again, reminds us that clients want a fence at the top of a cliff, not an ambulance at the bottom. These are all fence-building positions.

6. They presume a high degree of connectedness. The future of law is collaborative, and successful future law careers will hinge in no small part on the size, quality and effectiveness of lawyers’ networks.

7. They deliver specific, identifiable, and actionable value to the buyer. Much of what lawyers now provide is procedural and transactional: hoops that must be jumped through. These roles are rich in direct, verifiable value to clients.

Those seven jobs I dreamed up aren’t as important as these seven characteristics. Nobody can actually predict the “jobs of the future” — raise your hand if you thought “app developer” was a viable career as recently as 2005. But we can predict the features people will seek out in their legal professionals, the talents and skills that will deliver value to a more literate, tech-savvy, mobile, frugal and assertive client base than lawyers have served in the past. New lawyers need to understand this; but equally, new lawyers are uniquely positioned to grab this opportunity, because they’re not as burdened with assumptions of what a legal career ought to look like. Fresh eyes for a new marketplace are now a distinct advantage.

My message to new lawyers, really, is this: don’t gear all your career efforts towards “getting a job,” or at least, not one that you’ll hold for more than a few years. The legal economy’s traditional employment infrastructure is starting to crumble, and if you count on spending your career inside it, you could be caught in the collapse. There are plenty of markets and industries that will continue to make lots of traditional full-time “jobs” available, but I doubt very much that the law will be one of them. If you wind up in a steady law job, that’s obviously great; but you should think of that outcome as the exception more than the rule.

So instead, plan for independence. More and more legal employment will be small and entrepreneurial in nature, rewarding the self-starter who builds a reputation for value, effectiveness and foresight. Look at the legal market around you and ask: What’s missing? What client needs aren’t being met? What needs have clients not even thought of yet? What innovative new industries will flourish in the next ten years, and in what ways will they require assistance that lawyer training and legal skills can deliver? What demographic trends will take full effect in the 2010s, and what are their law-related implications? What technological advances in the legal market, no matter how sophisticated, will still require complementary high-end lawyer services?

The BLS thinks that only 212,000 new law jobs will open up this decade. I say: Prove them wrong. Create new opportunities. Identify and encourage unrealized demand. Find ways to apply your best legal skills — strategic analysis, critical thinking, incisive logic, intellectual coherence, principled persuasion, and more — to create value for clients. That’s the best way — and it might be the only way — to ensure your ongoing success as a 21st-century lawyer.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations 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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5 Responses to “The future of legal employment”

  1. Vivian Rodriguez

    What a great post! I always thought the value of the JD degree lay in freedom or independence, as you put it. Unfortunately, the “job” unit of production translated into the equivalent for us in the form of the billing hour; and that is what we as associates sell to the firms (or our time if we work in the public sector). It isn’t just new lawyers that benefit from being free of the assumptions of what a law career ought to look like; those of us “old” lawyers who want to survive need to start rethink those as well.

  2. Annette Cade

    The “Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates” link in the article doesn’t work. I’d like to see the source data. Thanks.

  3. Jordan Furlong

    Annette, thanks for your inquiry! Here’s the link to the BLS employment projection page:

    - http://bls.gov/emp/

    and another to its statistical breakdown by occupation:

    - http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_table_102.htm

    and another to its FAQs:

    - http://bls.gov/emp/ep_faq_001.htm#account

    Finally, you’re right that the link to the Law School Tuition Bubble blog post, above, isn’t working — I’m not sure what happened. Anyway, here’s the direct link, in hopes it will work, and I’ve replaced the old link in the post with this one:

    - http://lawschooltuitionbubble.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/bls-updates-its-2020-employment-projections-for-law-students-its-very-bad/

    Hope this is helpful!

  4. Karen Dyck

    Thank you Jordan! This post makes me feel much much better about my multi-faceted “job description” which is exceedingly difficult to trim down to a 20second elevator speech but which leaves me feeling professionally contented and very free. You describe just what I am trying to achieve as a freelance/contract lawyer for hire – and it is gratifying to see that I am perhaps ahead of the curve on this one!

  5. sam

    totally agree with the article’s premise here. I just ask can diversification strategy play as the 8th rule to this list? by that I mean by having a strategy to concentrate on tomorrow’s legal needs such as environment (environmental law) mining (mining law) or oil and gas law..etc..?

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