Modern Law Practice is Crippling Gen-Y Lawyers
Law practice as we know it must evolve and Gen-Y lawyers must lead the charge. Do I have your attention? Let me be clear. I’m on a mission to live in a world where lawyers don’t feel compelled to measure their lives in six-minute increments. Lawyers must be empowered to do more with their vast skills and depth of knowledge. Lofty goals, for sure, but not impossible. What we know modern law practice to be—e.g. large corporate firms, incentives based upon billable hours, unscrupulous lawyers—was not always the case. It wasn’t until the 1960’s when the profession shifted away from individual law practices to corporate law firms.
Fast-forward 50 years. The profession has moved further away from the earlier generation’s tradition of providing one-off legal services for clients already in trouble. Given the current regulatory and litigious climate, clients can’t afford to delay bringing a lawyer into deals after key decisions have been made. Legal advice is a necessary element from the very beginning of a client’s decision-making process. The demand for the legal profession has never been greater. The ever-expanding reach of the law in the affairs of men and women requires decisions to be made with legal and regulatory issues always at the forefront.
So what’s the problem, you ask. Well, this shift in the profession highlights new issues among young practitioners. When I graduated from law school, my dream was to work in BigLaw, try massive cases, and rake in crazy money. But, like 84% of law school graduates, my dreams of BigLaw were out of reach. I had to get creative and refocus my efforts. In doing so, I realized that my J.D. provided more opportunities than any career development counselor ever mentioned. I explored different areas of practice and found new interests. That would not have happened had I gone the traditional route. To make a long story short, I scraped my way through different jobs, clients, and practice areas. In the end, I was able to chart a career path tailored to my passions and experiences.
Law Practice Still a “Noble Profession?”
Historically, three occupations were considered to embody the epitome of professionalism: clergymen, doctors, and lawyers. Ingrained in society was the belief that professionals possessed and used a special body of knowledge. A lawyer’s primary purpose is to render services to others rather than themselves. The pervasiveness of law in all areas of society has lead to a greater need for the adept handling of sophisticated issues outside the scope of typical law practice. The demand for lawyers by clients to be more involved in non-legal matters require lawyers to strike an intricate balance. As James Hurst explained, these societal demands call for lawyers to resort to their “nineteenth-century role as one of the community’s practicing men of learning.”
Whether law firms feel good, bad, or indifferent to this shift, Gen-Y lawyers are signaling their desire to switch course away from the corporate law model back to where it all started. The Great Recession, stagnant job market, oversaturated legal job seekers, the rise in start-ups, and increased client demands have made the prestige of traditional law practice less appealing. As another classmate pointed out, “[law practice has] become too commercialized and the focus of representing clients has taken a backseat to pushy commercial clients or making sure everyone involved in the development of a case gets their cut.”
Old is New Again
Gen-Y lawyers are discovering that now, more than ever, many of the best opportunities to serve clients lie outside of traditional law firms. They understand that 20th-century laws have not caught up with the litany 21st-century issues clients face. Modern law practice demand lawyers become more creative and agile in order to tackle the challenges of the information age. This means lawyers have to understand their clients and their needs in order to better serve them. Churning files with needless discovery disputes or sending partners to inconsequential hearings to justify high legal fees will not go unnoticed. Young lawyers are interested in learning how their client’s business works from both technical and commercial perspectives. They do this to serve as a more effective counselor when it’s time to scale the business.
Law Practice Renaissance?
How many times have you read stories on Forbes.com or Entrepreneur.com titled “Lawyer turned (fill in the blank) launches a new business venture? Another survey question asked, “if you could anything besides practicing law, what would you do?” The responses ranged from becoming a yoga instructor to working as a counter-terrorism policymaker to starting a business. The follow-up question provided even more insight. Although the majority of the respondents said they considered leaving the profession altogether, the number one reason they have not left is out of fear they will not earn enough money to sustain their current lifestyles and pay off debt.
I know you’re probably thinking that BigLaw has nothing to fear so long as they can provide the salaries that lawyers require for their lifestyles. Not so fast. In January 2016, the U.S. economy lost 1400 positions in the legal industry alone. In response to the years following The Great Recession, clients big and small tightened the purse strings for legal services. They became open to the idea of alternatives for traditional law firms and their fees. The prestige of BigLaw will continue to attract and keep large clients. The same cannot be said for startups, solopreneurs, and small businesses who can’t afford to eat the cost of BigLaw overhead. Understanding this is where the Gen-Y lawyer can truly make their name.
Your Personal Evolution
Hey, Gen-Y lawyer. . . it’s time to reexamine everything you thought you knew about law practice. Instead, focus on how you can leverage technology to make the legal profession more efficient and accessible. It is vital that you seek out opportunities to explore your passions and follow new developments related to it. I’ve never been fit for a traditional law practice, despite my best efforts to convince myself otherwise. The old days of dutifully following the bureaucratic dictates of partners killed my creativity and drive. I was interested in too many things to be shackled to one area of practice. So I took practical steps to get out.
One of the biggest complaints I hear from young lawyers is the lack of diversity in their practice. Guess what? Lawyers are competitive by nature and need to be consistently challenged. Have you ever asked yourself, what challenges me? For me, it’s pretty simple. All things related to start-ups, entrepreneurship, and business management keep me energized and passionate about my practice. Pro tip: Clients will recognize that passion in you and gravitate towards you. Focus on serving clients by working as a team of equals recognizing their expertise and complementing it with yours.
My Law Practice Epiphany
A question I was asked recently was how I got involved with web consulting and working with lawyers to transition their practice. My answer: I never stopped learning. I find things I don’t understand interesting. So, I become obsessed with those things and want to learn everything I can about them. Why is that? I never want to limit myself because I was too lazy to use the tools that were accessible to me. One reason I became a lawyer is that I like learning complicated things. I enjoy being able to break down difficult topics into their simplest form and explain them to others. My goal is to help people help themselves. There are a plethora of technologies that can help lawyers start and grow their law practices. These tools weren’t around twenty years ago. The worst position to be in is one in which you feel stuck in your job and unable to grow because you don’t have the means of getting out.
Modern law firms have neglected the client-centered approach in favor of a more commercialized revenue-centered focus that leaves Gen-Y lawyers wanting more from their practice. Young lawyers are eager for an evolution in the profession that meets the needs of the 21st-century client. Traditional law firms may be unwilling or unable to satisfy the need for innovation in the profession. Gen-Y lawyers, trained to be methodical and analytical, must refocus the practice of law for the posterity of the profession.