In today’s Wall Street Journal, Joe Palazzolo has a piece entitled, “Task Force to Study Lawyers’ Job Market.” Apparently, a blue-ribbon panel has been assembled by the New York City Bar Association to, in Mr. Palazzolo’s words, “try to solve the riddle of the worst legal job market in 20 years.” (WSJ, July 16, 2012, B4).
With all due respect to Mr. Palazzolo and the distinguished members of the panel, what riddle? Perhaps if they invited a few economists to the task force they might get a reality check: the legal profession has staved off the natural economic forces that have up-ended nearly every other business sector in the world but those changes are now here.
What other professionals charge by the hour with no cap? Where else can one deliver a surprise invoice without any tangible deliverables–and fully expect to be paid! Try finding another business sector where customers return again and again to purchase goods or services without comparison shopping. From house cleaning to dental surgery, from real estate agents to tax accountants, other professionals have long ago shifted to billing methods with more accountability and transparency that provide more certainty and predictability for both buyer and seller, principal and agent.
The supply of available lawyers, coupled with the standardization and quasi-automation of tasks that used to be highly analytical and unique, translates into commoditization. In other words, cheaper, task-based labor.
Analyze it, fight it, and demonize it all you want, the changes are not going away. If you are in law school in order to get rich, re-think your fundamental assumptions! But if you want to use the law (and your brain) to find innovative ways to help people solve legal problems, tell your law school dean to adapt the curriculum to the real world so you have a fighting chance when you graduate. (And pick up a course or two in business management and marketing as soon as you can.)
The practice of law is no longer about “thinking like a lawyer,” a la “The Paper Chase.” Law practice is now primarily about finding better ways to deliver legal services to demanding consumers in an effective and efficient way that makes a profit, meets the client’s (a/k/a “customer’s”) expectations and, in the end, helps ensure your legal business will continue. The prices customers are willing to pay for legal services are going down daily, so fewer legal businesses can afford to pay high salaries to new employees or hire new employees at all some years. The permanent sea change is that the legal services sector is now more similar than ever to the technology sector: well-suited for nimble start-ups and entrepreneurs and poorly suited for over-weight, slow-changing conglomerates.
Disruption is occurring. It doesn’t take a year of meetings to solve THAT mystery.