ABA Journal

The New Normal

Welcome to the future: A travel guide to tomorrow’s legal careers

By Jordan Furlong

  • Print.


The current state of the legal market probably feels unsettling, disorienting, and downright irritating to you. If so, then it might help to know that that’s exactly how the whole process is supposed to feel.

We’re now several years into a period of fundamental change in the legal services market, but we’re only now starting to really experience the impact. We’re still in the breakdown period of the old order, descending into the dreaded valley of disruption before we can climb up and out towards that distant shining plateau of the new marketplace.

If you’re a lawyer whose career has already taken you the first several steps into this valley, or a law firm whose path to the future runs unavoidably down through it, you can be forgiven some trepidation: this is a journey you’ve got no choice but to make, and it doesn’t exactly look attractive at this point. But if it’s any consolation, you won’t have to make the trip alone, or without any assistance.

This week, in conjunction with innovative British legal services provider Lawyers On Demand, I wrote a report called “Visit Legal: Your Travel Guide to the New Legal Landscape” (PDF). It’s kind of a Lonely Planet for the legal market of the future, a traveler’s guidebook to the legal providers and lawyer careers of the post-disruption legal world many of us will inhabit. It’s meant to help you figure out where you want to stay in this new landscape and what you want to do there.

Here, for example, under “Accommodations,” are a few legal providers of the future for your consideration.

1. Professional Legal Firms

Yes, in the future, we’ll still have law firms. It’s not a stretch to suggest that the dominant legal service construct of the last two centuries will still be with us a decade or two down the line. They’ll be much more disciplined and businesslike than their ancestors, with great improvements in workflow and operations. But their market share will have long since peaked. If you’re in staying a luxury destination that serves up five-star, bet-the-world legal work, you’ll definitely enjoy your trip. But there are only so many rooms available in those places, and the more modest Commodity Inns down the street will be more numerous.

Pros: For those who like to spend their vacations hanging out by the pool and dining in the hotel restaurant, this is the known quantity you’re looking for.

Cons: There’s an exciting cityscape just beyond the lobby; it seems a shame to travel all the way here just to spend your days watching TV and ordering room service.

Tip: Most of these places used to offer ownership stakes to their most favored guests. We wouldn’t count on seeing many of those opportunities in future.

2. Managed Legal Service Providers

Emerging from the fusion of law firms and legal process outsourcers, managed legal service providers will take on routine, repeatable, or straightforward legal tasks, as well as segments of more complex matters. They will employ lawyers in highly disciplined structures, supplementing them with advanced technology. Some travelers are drawn to predictable days and systematically planned excursions; they’ll find those qualities and more at these affordable destinations.

Pros: A welcoming hostel for brand-new arrivals, as well as for veteran wanderers who know what they like and want a place to keep on doing it.

Cons: Maybe not the best destination for the creative legal artist who chafes at the rigors of routine and repetition.

Tip: There’s a risk that management might one day rent out your room to a robot who can deliver a higher return on their investment of space.

3. Legal Education and Training Institutions

Was law school the best three years of your life? Then look into this burgeoning type of legal destination. A natural outgrowth of demands on law schools to provide more “practical training” and career assistance will be the development of legal service provision within the schools themselves. “Teaching law firms” will see academic instruction integrated with hands-on experience in serving everyday clients and running profitable businesses. Serving both the needy and the next generation of lawyers will prove a dream destination for select travelers.

Pros: Perfect for the Habitat for Humanity builder or the ecological tourist: a chance to do good while also doing reasonably (though not outstandingly) well.

Cons: These will not be luxury accommodations. You’ll be expected to do community outreach beyond the front desk. Some legal travelers will find this unattractive.

Tip: Most of these locations are still only in the blueprint stage. You might want to secure other accommodations when you first arrive, then check regularly at the building site.

4. Independent Legal Technology Companies

Future segment of the legal market will be served largely if not entirely by machine. Coding the steps and programming the numerous options available to individuals and businesses facing a legal situation will become easier and more cost-effective, as both the technology and the legal profession’s interest in these opportunities advance. These types of career destinations will flourish as legal visitors become better trained in technology and the market becomes more comfortable with their offerings. If you want to prevent the rise of Skynet (or be the one to bring it about, for that matter), check these places out.

Pros: If Apple stores thrill you and the Googleplex is your fantasy workspace, you might be just the kind of guest these emerging providers are seeking.

Cons: High risk, high reward. You might be with the next Amazon or with the next Pets.com. Nobody, including management and its investors, knows for certain.

Tip: Technology moves fast—really fast. You might come back at day’s end to find the lobby unrecognizable and your room key changed. Be prepared for an unpredictable stay.

How can lawyers and law firms prepare for their tour of an undiscovered country? It’s difficult to know what to pack when you don’t know what the climate and landscape will be, and when you’re not entirely sure how welcoming the locals will prove. Additional uncertainty surrounds the nature of other travelers: rumors persist that in this new landscape, a valid passport from the legal profession will not be required of all visitors, meaning the crowds could be even bigger than anticipated.

At this stage, what we can offer is four pieces of advice that should stand you in good stead when you first step onto this foreign ground:

Broaden your horizons.

Think beyond lawyers and law firms as the primary or sole providers of legal services. Professionals outside the law, skilled technicians from different industries, and your future clients themselves will be both your future competitors and your collaborators.

Skill up.

Entering this new region as a “smart, hard-working lawyer” won’t be enough. Equip yourself better by learning about process improvement, technological capacity, entrepreneurial insights, and the needs of those the legal profession does not serve today.

Be flexible.

Remain on top of market developments, stay actively tuned to your clients and other system users, and keep Plan B (and maybe Plans C and D) close at hand. Keep an eye out for those who would like to disrupt you—and for those whom you could disrupt yourself.

Be a lawyer.

Not everyone who will succeed in the future legal market will be a lawyer, and not every lawyer will act like one. It’s imperative you maintain your professional bearings and keep close the fundamental principles of good lawyering—integrity, professionalism, care, insight, counsel, and service.

For more future legal destinations and potential lawyer activities, download “Visit Legal: Your Travel Guide to the New Legal Landscape” from Lawyers On Demand today.

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 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 serves as Legal Strategist in Residence at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. He lives in Ottawa, Canada, and writes at Law21.

In This Podcast:

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.