The evolution of the legal services market: Stage 2

In yesterday’s entry, we painted a portrait of a closed legal marketplace long dominated by lawyers, and we considered the positive and negative results of that state of affairs. Today, in the second of five stages of legal market evolution, we’ll look at current events and forecast the likeliest path those events will take in the immediate future.

Stage 2: The Breached Market

  • Macro-economic upheaval shatters previous steady state of legal market.
  • Legal work, formerly indivisible, starts breaking into mission-critical, ordinary and commodity tranches.
  • Multiple new providers enter legal industry, aiming at second and third tranches of legal services; legal work starts to leave law firms and go to these new providers.
  • Growing access to legal knowledge enables more “do-it-yourself” law among consumer law clients.
  • New options and financial pressures spur both insourcing and outsourcing of legal tasks by corporate law clients.
  • Lawyers find they have limited regulatory options against emerging competitors, which become legitimized and start to mature.
  • Prices for lawyers’ services fall; in absence of workflow innovation or infrastructure improvements, lawyers’ costs continue to rise; ergo, lawyer profits stall out or decline.
  • Law firms cut positions to preserve profits; employment rates for new lawyers plummet; pool of unattached legal talent grows.
  • Legal technology becomes more disruptive, displacing lawyers from traditional roles.
  • Law schools start to experience pressure from lower enrollment, tuition resistance, extreme bad publicity.
  • In some jurisdictions, lawyers lose power to regulate the legal market and/or themselves (most notably England & Wales).
  • Lawyer jobs, for the most part, do not disappear; they relocate (to small centers, non-lawyer companies, India). Movement, not elimination, of labour.

Era: 2008-2016

This is more or less where we find ourselves today. The end of the Boom And Bubble Era (roughly 1985-2008) creates a lengthy period of de-leveraging and tepid economic growth that (a) forces clients to cut back on legal spending generally and (b) gives them the opportunity and ammunition to renegotiate terms with their legal service providers. In some respects, clients become lawyers’ main competitors: by keeping work in-house or doing it themselves, they deprive lawyers of a previously steady supply of activity and revenue.

Simultaneously, rapid technological advances (especially online) lower barriers and create numerous entry points into the market for providers previously unable to access legal customers. Lawyers find it difficult to battle these new competitors, in two ways.

First, as market regulators and UPL enforcers, we find ourselves stymied by the unconventional nature of new providers. Some are based outside our physical jurisdiction (LPOs), some are arguably not “practising law” (e-discovery providers), and some meet latent market needs to an extent that we might find politically risky to shut down entirely (LegalZoom). Mostly, though, there are just too many new entities to deal with all at once. It was one thing for a regulator with limited funds to prosecute a single paralegal or self-help publisher at a time; it proves another to take on entire, multi-jurisdictional, investor-powered industries.

Secondly, as practitioners, we suddenly recognize a wide range of vulnerabilities in our businesses. Our internal inefficiencies bloat our costs and therefore (thanks to our cost-plus business model) our pricing; our new rivals use streamlined operations and low overheads to undercut our prices and still turn a profit. Our rigid business models keep us from embracing online service delivery or 24/7 availability; our high-tech competitors make these two features the foundation of their market strategies. After watching us and looking for weaknesses to exploit, the new providers move into our traditional market space; we lack the ability to respond aggressively.

Together, these two forces — a decline in overall legal spend and innovative new options for legal services — combine to reduce demand for the services of lawyers. This is not a monolithic process: some areas of law are hardly affected at all during this time, while others are slowly eviscerated. The change also takes effect at different times in different jurisdictions, making it difficult to discern big-picture trends from isolated events. Many lawyers continue to believe that “this won’t affect me,” “this is just the recession” and “things will soon be back to normal.” But even those lawyers who understand the new market dynamics find it hard to change long-established habits.

Declining demand for lawyers rapidly leads to over-capacity in law firms, which in turn leads to falling lawyer employment rates, especially among unskilled new graduates. Simultaneously, at the other end of the generational spectrum, the economic difficulties of the past several years encourage many older lawyers to delay retirement and keep working for as long as they can. This one-two punch produces a large and growing pool of unemployed and underemployed lawyers, downward pressure on lawyer incomes (especially among inexperienced practitioners), and succession crises at law firms in which senior partners who control client relationships grip the reins of power ever tighter.

This era marks the beginning of the end of the traditional “BigLaw” business model, whose fundamental premises prove incompatible with emerging market realities. Many large firms find themselves trapped by two opposing forces: cash crises brought on by lower effective rates and declining business, and confidence crises brought on by flat or falling PPP numbers and the pressure of actual or anticipated rainmaker defections. Several very large firms fail to make it through this crucible.

The legal education crisis also traces its origins to this period: decades of strategic somnolence by law schools, combined with a popular belief that these institutions have been gouging their students and given them worthless degrees in return, creates serious blowback for schools and helps push down law school application rates. By the close of Stage 2, several law schools find themselves in more dire circumstances than they could have imagined a few short years ago, and as with their BigLaw buyers, some do not survive the crisis.

The most important development of this period, however, is the arrival in 2012 of Alternative Business Structures: non-lawyer ownership and capital in legal enterprises in England & Wales (building upon Australia’s trailblazing efforts a decade earlier). Starting with the consumer market, but eventually spreading to corporate and institutional work as well, new participants find willing buyers for their products and services. This development, while spawning the usual troubles of any startup industry, does not produce the widespread disastrous impact on professionalism and the public interest that some had predicted. The longstanding presumption that only lawyers could be trusted to offer legal services is called into question, and officials in other jurisdictions start considering more closely the possibilities of regulatory reform to open the market.

It’s important to note that final entry in the foregoing bullet-point list of features. The work that many lawyers once performed (especially new lawyers in large firms) is relocating to lower-cost or higher-efficiency providers elsewhere, but it is not yet being eliminated altogether. New people in new places are doing essentially the same work that lawyers here once did. This new state of affairs, however, is also a temporary one.

Again, the start and end dates are approximate; I chose 2016 as the back end of this period largely because it feels, in 2012, like we’re about halfway there. This mix of past and future history seems to me the likeliest model to explain and predict current and future events. For many lawyers, this is not a fun time. Unfortunately for them, as tomorrow’s entry suggests, things are about to get considerably worse in Stage 3.

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.



  1. susan mcgrath

    I missed stage one, but found stage 2 very interesting as I co-chair the Alternate Business Structures Working Group at the Law Society. We just had a 2nd presentation by Steve Marks and Thalia Gordon on the situation in Australia and will shortly have one from England as well. The take-up of ILPs in NSW has very interesting demographics in that it is the soles and smalls that have gravitated to that model. Much food for thought there on navigating the was forward!

  2. James Jensen

    Jordan, you are a visionary… However, your timeline is a bit off. Things IMHO will happen much more rapidly than what you suggest. Still, you are striking the nail on the head with each section of your article. I wish I could share more about how technology took over the securities community and the timeline for that. Lawyers I suggest you take this to heart…this is a true vision of the future being offered to you now…don’t dismiss what is being said here. I say again… “Survival is not mandatory.” But! If you take this to heart and use this information to better your practice, you might just survive.

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