Parting Thoughts on the Profession

I want to thank the permanent authors of Concurring Opinions for the opportunity to guest blog. I truly enjoyed the experience and the lively debate. Academia can be isolating in many respects—particularly compared to private practice—so it is nice to have this type of forum to exchange ideas and discuss timely and interesting topics.

For my last post, I want to highlight some trends in law firm practices and consider what they mean for the profession more generally. We are all aware of the difficult job market: law school graduates continue to receive deferred offers, summer associate classes continue to be smaller and many lawyers who lost their jobs are still unemployed. (Even lawyers who managed to keep their jobs may face challanges, see here.)  These realities have translated into increased anxiety for law students (exactly what they do not need; law school is stressful enough when the market is good) and new challenges for law schools. But what do they mean for law firms?  (For a thoughtful discussion of the challenges facing big law, see here.)

Many commentators have opined on the changing roles of law firms and lawyers, and they often paint a pretty bleak picture (see here, here and here). It is one where lawyers are marginalized and society protects its legal rights by purchasing commoditized legal products or interacting with a computer program or virtual lawyer. The profession also faces challenges from non-lawyers and non-U.S. lawyers. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that an increasing number of firms are—either voluntarily (to reduce overhead) or involuntarily (to meet client demands)—outsourcing certain legal services to lawyers in foreign countries (see here and here).

As I have previously mentioned, I enjoyed private practice and working with clients to solve their legal problems or accomplish their legal objectives. And I have a soft spot for the professional components and service-to-justice principles underlying the profession. So I have a more optimistic view of the profession and what lawyers can do to address the challenges we currently face. I know that the profession is fortunate to have a wealth of talent working on these issues, and I remain confident that we can retool what it means to be a lawyer or law student in the current environment and strengthen the profession in the process.

I like some of the innovation that emerged from law firms facing economic pressures—from implementing apprenticeship-like programs (see here and here) to subsidizing lawyers’ pro bono and self-development projects. These are good trends that should continue as law firms look to reposition themselves in the marketplace. Admittedly, continuing some of these changes would require an adjustment to the traditional firm compensation models, but I think that process is already well underway.

Lawyers also need to continue to explore ways to better use technology. I personally do not think that technology can or should act as a substitute for human analytical skills and counseling (see here). A core part of a good lawyer-client relationship is a lawyer who listens to the client’s story, takes time to understand the client’s objectives and invokes her skill set to consider nuances and factors that identify or create a legal solution for the client. This is true in the corporate or consumer client context. That same lawyer, however, certainly can use technology to work more efficiently for, and improve communications with, the client.

I have no doubt that more changes are in store for the legal profession as we move through the next few years. I remain an optimist, however, about the profession’s ability to respond in an innovative and positive manner. Hopefully, the lessons of the recession are not for naught.

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