A high-calibre crystal ball

When Dennis Kennedy contacted me a few weeks ago, to ask if I’d like to participate in an online roundtable on the impact of the economic crisis on lawyers to be published in the ABA’s Law Practice Today e-zine, I of course said yes on the spot. But when I logged into the site and realized who my co-panellists were, I was floored. Check out this lineup: Tom Collins, Patrick Lamb, Bruce MacEwen, Patrick McKenna, Edward Poll, Allison Shields and Merrilyn Astin Tarlton. This was an all-star roster, and I suddenly felt a little like the lone representative of the Kansas City Royals.

In the event, the panel delivered some extraordinary insights about the incredibly challenging times directly in front of the legal profession. If you’re going to read only one article this week, make it this one: go to the November 2008 issue of Law Practice Today and hear what the roundtable had to say. It’s a tremendous resource, and I was honoured to be a part of it.

Here’s the contibution I was happiest about. One of Dennis’s questions was: “[W]hat changes to the legal profession will we attribute to this crisis when we look back in the near future – two to seven years?” This was my response.

Probably we’ll see a few changes we’ve been expecting and a bunch that we weren’t. I wouldn’t count on the billable hour being a casualty – I’ve come to conclude lawyers will be billing by the hour until shortly before the sun goes supernova. The biggest change will be the competitive environment – financially squeezed companies will use outsourced and offshored lawyers for 60-70% of their outside work, and recession-battered individuals will be encouraged to self-represent or hire “non-lawyers.”

The result will be that within a decade, there’ll be a lot of “legal process companies,” fewer “law firms,” and hardly any such thing as the “unauthorized practice of law.” A new class of law firms will emerge that make no pretensions to excellence — blue-collar lawyers who pointedly sell legal work that’s “good enough” will become remarkably popular.

Clients will gain more power in the relationship, but not outright control – while process work will become commoditized, high-end work will go even higher, because good legal advice will become more valuable when “bet the company” situations arise once a month, and good legal advisors will be able to name their terms. Outside investment in firms will accelerate in the UK and premiere in North America in part because law firms will require monetary injections to satisfy lenders and cash out partners.

Basically, the state of suspended animation in which law firm business models have existed for decades will come to a jarring halt.