ABA Journal

The New Normal

The agile lawyer will rise as permanent, full-time, salaried employment vanishes

By Jordan Furlong

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Lawyer jobs are disappearing. Every day, law firms across the country reduce their ranks of associates and partners, removing more and more table settings as their revenue pie keeps shrinking. Over the past few years, only about 55 percent of law school graduates have been finding full-time, law-related work nine months after graduation. Would-be lawyers have taken the hint, and first-year enrollment in U.S. law schools has dropped to its lowest level since the 1970s.

Is this the end of lawyers? Hardly. (And that’s not really what Richard Susskind was saying, anyway.) But I do think we’re seeing the probably irreversible decline of the traditional “lawyer job,” which performs a range of tasks with defined responsibilities in a single location during specified hours at an agreed salary. In its place, we should expect to see the rise of agile “lawyer employment”—the multidimensional, customized application of a lawyer’s skills and talents to provide client value when and where it’s required.

For better or worse, the permanent full-time salaried employee is a vanishing specimen across all industries and workplaces. You could even argue that it was a Boomer phenomenon and is receding with the generation that spawned it. Law is one of the later markets to experience the rise of temporary, contract, outsourced, and flex-time workforces. The problem is that this shift in the talent market found law firms, lawyers, and even clients largely unprepared. Firm layoffs, partner de-equitizations, and hiring shutdowns are among the symptoms of an industry caught off guard.

Many legal employers, presented with a golden opportunity to redefine “lawyer work” for the better, haven’t exactly covered themselves with glory so far. Stories abound of experienced lawyers reduced to carrying out document review for less than $30 per hour. I spoke this week with a young lawyer in Los Angeles who told me that full-time new lawyer jobs there pay around $30,000 annually. This is the ugly side of a labor market in transition from something that benefited everyone (except maybe clients) to something that mostly benefits only those at the very top of the pyramid.

We need to do better than this. We need to make our way through this transitional chaos towards a modern, functional, fair system for the application of lawyers’ skills to provide value for clients as appropriate opportunities arise. We need to create platforms that gather and organize good legal talent, align and match it with client opportunities, and facilitate the delivery of legal services in ways that serve the needs, schedules and budgets of both the client and the lawyer.

Concurrently, we need to help lawyers develop the skills, experience, and confidence to thrive in a marketplace that will increasingly turn to them for niche opportunities, project work, mobile and flex-time engagements. This actually ought to be an area of strength for millennial lawyers, who are on record as seeking customizable, flex-time employment that allows them to accommodate work within a larger set of priorities. Law schools need to start helping provide these sorts of skills yesterday.

Working in collaboration with Lawyers On Demand, an innovative legal services provider established by leading U.K. law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner, I authored a report called “The New World of Legal Work” that explores “agile lawyering” and other concepts in more detail. But you can find many examples of agile law platforms here in the U.S., from Axiom Law to Potomac Law to The Posse List and more. As traditional law firms continue to stumble and break apart, we’ll see more of these smaller, nimbler, entrepreneurial models for legal talent organization emerge.

The coming legal market will still require competent, ethical, hard-working lawyers to solve problems and create value for clients. But lawyer employment is going to acquire some new characteristics. It will be:

• Agile, requiring flexible availability and multiple short-term engagements.
• Technology-enabled, using tools that automate or streamline repetitive processes.
• Multidisciplinary, delivered in conjunction with other professionals and trades.
• Creative, invoking rarely used skills and talents that, as it turns out, we actually have in abundance.

Lawyers who can meet these criteria, and the firms and clients that seek them out, will be the first winners in this rapidly evolving legal labor market. It won’t be easy, and it won’t always be pretty, but the sooner we adjust our settings to this new environment, the better.

A new world of legal work is coming, whether we welcome it or not. The question is whether that world will be known for exploiting vulnerable legal talent at the lowest possible price, or whether it will apply the principles of agility, value, and fairness to construct a diverse market of specialized talent matched to the right clients and the right opportunities in the right combinations.

We’ve got one good shot at creating a better legal talent market. Let’s get it right the first time.

Jordan Furlong is a lawyer, consultant, and legal industry analyst who forecasts the impact of the changing legal market on lawyers, clients, and legal organizations. A principal with global consulting firm Edge International, a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises, and a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management, Jordan is the author of Evolutionary Road: A Strategic Guide to Your Law Firm’s Future and co-author of Content Marketing and Publishing Strategies for Law Firms. He also serves as Legal Innovation Strategist in Residence at Suffolk University Law School in Boston and is co-chair of the Board of Suffolk’s Institute for Law Practice Technology & Innovation. Jordan lives in Ottawa, Ontario, and writes at Law21, named six straight years by the ABA Journal as one of North America’s top 100 law blogs.

To download Furlong’s full white paper, visit this link.

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