In the four previous entries in this series, I’ve sketched out what I see as the decline and subsequent rise of the legal profession over the next 10-15 years as a direct effect of rapid evolution in the legal market.
My fundamental premise throughout these posts has been that the emergence of new competitors and new technology, along with regulatory reform, will deprive lawyers of many of the low- to medium-value tasks they perform today, but that this change will also expand and reconfigure the overall market for legal services in ways that eventually drive a resurgence in lawyer employment and the more valuable applications of our skills. This will be a roller-coaster ride, not just for lawyers but for all the industries, organizations and suppliers that grew up around our profession during its 20th-century heyday.
Today’s final entry is kind of a postscript to Stage 4, and maybe something of a thought experiment too. I’d like the legal profession to start thinking more creatively and laterally about exactly what lawyers could be in the future.
Stage Five: The Multi-Dimensional Market
Lawyers, contrary to popular belief, are highly creative and innovative — but only on behalf of our clients. When we turn the focus on ourselves and our own profession, we seem to lose our creativity and ambition — we narrow our vision, think small, and cling to “what we’ve always done.” Almost all the discussion of lawyers’ economic prospects (and there’s plenty in the news every day) proceeds on the assumption that lawyers only perform a limited number of strictly defined functions, a slim portfolio of roles that has hardly changed at all for decades.
We cast our careers in linear terms, and we only see change of the negative kind — work that we lose to others. We don’t think about work that we could take from others, or work that we could create altogether new. We don’t give ourselves enough credit for what we could be and what we could do.
Recall what happened to accountants when the first wave of technological advancements in the 1970s and 1980s rendered many of their traditional balance-sheet offerings obsolete. They were faced with a stark choice: evolve upwards and outwards, or fade away into history. They chose to evolve, reinventing themselves as business advisors, market analysts and process consultants — tasks for which they were certainly not educated and for which they could claim no special pedigree. They reached for this work because (a) they needed it, (b) nobody else was doing it, and (c) their core skills and competencies qualified them to at least try it. And they succeeded, in no small part because they thought they could.
A simular choice is at hand for lawyers: move up the value ladder, or climb off it altogether. Many lawyers today make a living off the legal equivalent of accountants’ “balance-sheet” work; that work, as I hope this week’s series has persuasively argued, is going away. What will replace it? Where will we find new engagements of similar or greater value?
Answering those questions is a two-stage process. The first stage is the hardest: it involves screwing up our courage, building up our confidence, and letting our imaginations roam over the possibilities of 21st-century lawyering. It requires lateral thinking and creative brainstorming, anchored by a clear-eyed assessment of both our own strengths as professionals and the evolving needs of a globalized society. Once we’ve done that, once we’ve cleared that enormous (for us) hurdle, then the second stage is not only easy — it’s almost fun. What could we do? What might we be? There’s a vast, uncharted and unclaimed territory out there — what could we build on that new landscape?
Stage 5 of the evolution of the legal market is the only one in which lawyers are the ones bringing the change. In all four previous stages, we’ve either been helpless bystanders or market responders; in this era, we get to make the first moves. This era might very well overlap with Stage 4, and it’s possible we could see some early examples even in Stage 3 — but it’s all up to us.
Stage 5, if and when it happens, is when lawyers reinvent themselves. We evolve beyond our long-standing self-identification as document approvers, transaction facilitators, and dispute resolution shepherds. We saw our traditional inventory taken away by competitors, so we seek out new functions, new social and business purposes.
This process begins when we return to our roots. Lawyers will ask, of themselves and each other: Why do people turn to us? What do we bring to the table? With which traits and skills are we associated, and for which of these are we most valued? What do we offer that matters in an interconnected, unstable, and hopelessly complicated world? Here are some of the answers we’ll come up with:
- Drawing Distinctions
- Logical Reasoning
- Pattern Recognition
When we finish assembling this list and test-driving it with our clients, we then ask: to what new roles and positions could these characteristics and values lend themselves? We know what we used to do in the past; what might we do in the future? Here are some possible answers.
- “Amazon.Law” Provider: Sharp, focused, legally trained mind sifting through and analyzing clients’ vast storehouses of data to anticipate legal needs they don’t even realize they have.
- Civics Trainer: Roving instructor retained to inculcate the rule of law, rights and responsibilities, and other fundamental legal principles to students, employees and citizens.
- Competitive Analyst: Provider of sophisticated business intelligence operations, infused with deep knowledge of laws and regulations and employing rigorous organizational analytics.
- Freelance Fact-Checker: Trusted independent authority retained by governments, media and organizations to reliably separate fact from fiction in a truth-challenged society.
- Judicial Subcontractor: Dispute resolution expert deputized by judges to go out and “bring courts to the community,” increasing access to justice and clearing court backlogs.
- Mobile Arbiter: Conflict resolution facilitator called in to troubleshoot everyday disputes at homes or in the workplace before they become full-blown fights: “preventive ADR” on a moment’s notice.
- Social Connector: Using deep networks that range across business, government and private individuals, connecting people, organizations, ideas and initiatives that will complement each other, solve problems, and create opportunities.
These seven possible legal careers of the future complement seven that I suggested in a post earlier this year. You can come up with more, if you open your mind to the possibilities on offer.
Where do you start? Go ask your best clients what they think — but don’t ask them about “lawyer of the future” jobs, because they won’t be able to tell you. Henry Ford famously said that if he’d asked his customers what they wanted, they’d have told him “faster horses.” Instead, ask your clients: what do you value about me, and about lawyers generally? What do we have that inspires your confidence and fulfills your hopes? What needs do you have, even subconsciously, that no one has offered to meet? If you had all the time and money and information you needed, what would you set out to create? Help them envision their own future, and then find ways to get them there.
The near-term and mid-term future of the legal profession will be largely dictated by external forces. But throughout that process, and especially as we draw towards the end of that period of upheaval, we will gain growing amounts of control — not just over our own destiny, but also over the future course of the entire legal market and of the whole definition of what we mean by “legal” and “lawyer.” Stage 5 will mark the end of the legal market’s evolution — but for the legal profession’s own evolution, it will be just the beginning.
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.