My law alma mater hit it over the fence last Friday with a program on The Shrinking Pyramid: Implications for Law Practice and the Legal Profession. This is serious stuff, so get yourself a fresh cup of coffee—no decaf!—and listen to what some of the best and the brightest minds in our profession think about your future in law. You may see an irony—-as I did—-that some of the issues that women have faced in our profession for years are finally getting greater attention because of the lifestyle concerns of the new generation of male lawyers. Some things never change! However, progress is progress.
This day-long program, sponsored by the Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at GT Law, was attended by over 100 law practitioners, business professionals and academics. It was a thought-provoking day and included discussion of the state of legal practice, the changing roles for lawyers in a global economy, changing law firm models, the quality of legal education to prepare students for today’s practice, and the affordability of legal education.
The key words for the session were “collaboration” and “innovation,” and the key concepts centered around changes to the legal profession to accommodate the demands of savier clients and emerging technologies. The presentations included discussions of the “core tensions” between the need to specialize and the demand for cross-selling and collaboration in law firms (e.g., litigation lawyers promoting transactional lawyers to their clients). Teamwork was emphasized as an element of collaboration, and the prevailing opinion was that law schools will have to provide more training in teamwork and collaboration in the same way that business schools and MBA programs have been doing for years to meet the demands of law practice of the future. Studies were presented supporting the conclusions that collaboration and cross-selling within firms lead to increased revenues and cause clients to “stick” and provide follow-on work for the firm.
Presenters demonstrated how the need for collaboration in law practice is changing the shape of law firms from the traditional pyramid, with a relatively few partners at the pinnacle leveraging off the base of many associates and mid-level lawyers, to more diamond-shaped models where the lines of collaboration are more horizontal and web-like in configuration. This new reality changes the “up and out” model of law firms that was originated by Cravath so many years ago and replicated by most of the top Big Law firms since that time.
The changing attitudes of lawyers about law practice also was discussed. Recent surveys show that only one out of every three associate lawyers has a desire to ascend to partnership, a situation that creates more opportunity for “knowledge leveraging” between mid-level permanent associates, contract lawyers and non-equity partners and frees up equity partner time for innovation and client development. Specialization by the mid-level non-equity lawyers was considered key to the success of this model. These specialists, who have no expectation of partnership, would be available to train the younger and less experienced lawyers in their specialties and would be more willing to take on the mentoring roles because of the absence of competition between mentors and mentees for the few partnership spots available. Some of these specialists are not time-keepers in the new models, freeing up time for the innovation that will be required to sustain practice in the technology age. These practice models are much less dependent on lateral hires, who often promise expertise and “books of work” and deliver disappointing results and low return on investment.
Other topics of discussion were the increased role of technology in practice and the competition presented by a combination of on-line legal services, off shore legal services, and professional service firms. The conclusion was that marketing and branding matter more than ever in this competitive atmosphere and that firms must be willing to make investments in the new technologies, including social media for marketing. There also was an interesting panel discussion on emerging legal markets in countries like Brazil, India and China and the challenges for foreign firms to participate in those markets.
The advice for law firms was to change their practice and business models to be responsive to today’s realities and support those changes with technology and innovative approaches. Strong leadership is seen as key to this success, and some of the specific recommendations included:
- Breaking down the walls between and among law firms through collaboration to solve client problems;
- Increasing emphasis on teamwork, innovation and collaboration at all levels of practice;
- Eliminating barriers between law schools and addressing the need for affordable legal education and practice-ready curricula;
- Adding analytical systems staff to law firms; and
- Increasing diversity at law firms and putting more emphasis on retention of talent, including retention of women lawyers.
So, what does this mean for law students and young lawyers like you? Here is my take on that important question:
- The availability of varied career paths that are not dependent on “up and out” and which make lateral hiring less attractive and create opportunities for young lawyers who enjoy practicing law but are not interested in the increased responsibilities of partnership;
- Greater opportunities for creative and innovative professionals at all levels of practice;
- Greater opportunities for collaboration at all levels of practice and improved morale from those experiences;
- Increased opportunities for associates to be trained in specialized practices by contract lawyers and non-equity partners; and
- Broader definitions of success in the practice of law.
Very interesting. Some of these opportunities for change center around life-style and quality of life issues that are very similar to the ones that women lawyers have been struggling with for years. Now that it is a broader, gender-neutral discussion, the conversation has taken on greater urgency. We should not be surprised by that.
Give some thought to all of this as you contemplate your future in the law and develop your career plan. It appears that your options may be expanding, and that is good news. Now you have to figure out how you fit into the big picture and how the change, which appears to be inevitable, can benefit you and your career goals.