'The Perfect Legal Storm,' starring ... you

Published on: 
02/27/2014
"Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."

Lawyers should take heed — and cover, maybe — of that famous observation often attributed to Mark Twain (incorrectly, according to some sources, which attribute the quote to Charles Dudley Warner). Just as the country has recently experienced wide variations in weather, the legal community has and will continue to experience its own perfect storm.

The first of three major storms is technology. The multi-billion-dollar legal profession has attracted the attention of a new generation of techno-geeks, who have developed remarkable tools to perform repetitive tasks at breathtaking speed and process more complex and creative tasks much more efficiently.

The net result is simply that fewer lawyers are required. Functions across the legal spectrum have been impacted, perhaps the most obvious being document review and e-discovery.

The second major storm is the Great Recession (or Depression, as I call it). The economic downturn has resulted in major firms being frozen in their boots.

Law tends to be reactionary rather than proactive. Thus, while the suffering of our clients was felt immediately, the impact on law firms took a little longer to notice. But when it hit, thousands of lawyers and staff were laid off, many permanently.

That was the first time in the history of the legal profession that lawyers had to face that kind of harsh economic reality. Major firms stopped going to law schools to hire recently minted attorneys, enrollment in law schools began to dip, and prospective students began to evaluate going to law school with the same ROI mentality as they evaluated undergraduate schools.

In fact, one recent study of statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor suggests that future compensation is a significant factor in evaluating whether to go to law school.

The third major storm to hit the legal community is the phenomenon of aging Baby Boomers. Most of those lawyers — one American Bar Association statistic suggests that they are 400,000 strong — are approaching the age of traditional retirement. Many are contemplating slowing down, traveling or even retiring. However, with the poor economy and severe impact on pension plans and other retirement vehicles, most of those attorneys are extending their careers.

Because so many of the lawyers in the group are in their 70s and 80s, state bars are beginning to wonder whether there should be a mandatory retirement age. So as not to be accused of ageism, bars are now contemplating modifications of the definition of "competence." Some have even suggested that older lawyers should be required to take another bar examination.

The legal community has obviously been impacted by each of these storms. Their lasting effect is undetermined, but I suspect the second and third will "hit the beach" and recede. The damage remains to be seen.

Younger lawyers will take the place of older lawyers, as has always been the case, and will arrive in numbers sufficient to meet the new legal demand. Our economy will reconfigure itself, and we all will adjust accordingly.

The technological storm, however, is here to stay and will make permanent changes in the way we deliver legal services — and, I suspect, whether we will deliver those services.

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