Our Apprenticeship Profession Reaches a Crossroads

As Big Law closes one year and opens another, it is tempting to focus solely on the short-term: 2017 performance and market expectations for 2018. Certainly, the industry has a well-deserved reputation for short-term planning. Yet, the changed nature of the industry requires most firms to take a longer view – and have a strategy for how their short-term planning fits into a long-term strategy for competing in a changed market.

The changes in the legal industry have been happening over the past few years and the impact is increasingly apparent. By this point, we all know the trends. Alternative legal providers continue to grow. According to a Thomson Reuters survey, they are now up to $8.4 billion in revenue and continuing to expand. The Big Four accounting firms continue to expand and move into areas previously reserved for traditional law firms. This was particularly true in 2017. For example, PWC purchased the GE tax function and opened a small law office in DC this past year. Of course, technology continues its inevitable creep into the provision of legal services – even if the full extent of that creep is yet unclear. Last year we heard a continual drumbeat about robots coming for our jobs. In other ways, the boundaries of who can provide “legal advice” continue to expand. Washington State, for example, has a program of limited license legal technicians in family law practice as a small part of the answer to the access to justice problem.

Over the years, Big Law has associated the notion of being a lawyer with tasks – document review, legal research and on and on. In fact, this increasingly broad notion that certain tasks should be performed by lawyers has been among the variables fueling growth in the industry. The changes in the nature of the providers and the peeling off of tasks by technology challenges this broad notion and it begs the larger question: what does it mean to be a lawyer and what skills sets are truly necessary to solve client problems?

Because of changes in the industry, we can no longer answer this question with a recitation of tasks that make up the job of being a ‘lawyer’. Instead, we must focus on the quintessentially human characteristics—insight, relationships, empathy, the ability to see connections and on and on—at the core of the profession. It is not about finding the case – increasingly technology can perform that task. It is about understanding and applying the case. It is not about reviewing the documents – other services can handle that responsibility faster and more effectively. It is about synthesizing the meaning of the document with the business terms of the deal.

The irony is that on the one hand, the scope of our notion of being a lawyer is narrowing – and the number of people able and needed to truly perform that function is being reduced as well. We see this in a couple of ways. On a macro level, AmLaw firms continue to stratify – with the more bespoke firms breaking from the pack and leaving a muddy middle of firms in tight competition. Similarly, declining productivity levels speak to the different buying strategies of corporate counsel on a micro level.

On the other hand, these quintessentially human traits are more important than ever. As clients find different ways to have legal services delivered, the need for people to operate at the edges of complexity becomes critical. And this is true not just in the monied world of corporate complexity and big law. This ability is critical in a world where notions of the rule of law are challenged and access to justice continues to be a persistent problem.

The reality, however, is that this more traditional notion of lawyer as “trusted advisor” is essential but no longer sufficient for most Big Law attorneys and has not been for some time. Client demands continue to change and require a different way of thinking about the delivery of legal services. To succeed in meeting changing client demands, a lawyer must be able to manage and relate to the variety of alternative services available and be able to successfully use those capabilities to solve the problems facing clients. For example, we need to understand technology and how it can be used to augment the ability of people to deliver legal services. We need to understand the roles filled by alternative service providers or other allied professionals and how they fit into the solution set. In short, as we peel off tasks from lawyers, we need to look at the business problem from the clients perspective – not the firm’s perspective – and understand how to design solutions that solve those problems.

This change has been occurring over the past few years, it is not new. But it means something to big law firms; and not in the distant future – in the short term. To name just a few:

What is the strategy for profitable growth? No firm will admit it but, historically, many firms’ strategy for growth was premised simply on the desire for size. Just add more lawyers and success will follow. In a different market and a different time, this worked. It will no longer work. Service delivery models have changed and the workforce is becoming more diversified.

The cost of space is typically one of the top line items for firms. The changing nature of the business means law firms need to continue to reconsider how they utilize space. Perhaps we need fewer lawyers and more allied professionals to succeed. What does this mean for space?

We have historically trained lawyers as, essentially, apprentices. Watch a senior lawyer take the deposition. Review thousands of documents. None of this has been viable for a number of years. Yet training still tends to revolve around the tasks associated with being a lawyer. We need to rethink training to focus on the characteristics and knowledge needed to be successful not simply the tasks historically performed.

How does the firm’s market strategy fit into the world of emerging technologies or different service providers? In this regard, the past few years have seen firms employ a number of different strategies: building their own alternative capabilities, partnering with other ventures, creating investment vehicles to do so, among others. The smart firms will find ways where they can utilize the changes in the market to their success – even if success looks different.

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