The law firm, as we have known and loved it for these decades, even centuries, is on the brink of a makeover. Maybe makeover is not a strong enough word: how about sex-change operation? This change cannot be ignored. Over this past year, I have been reading stirrings of this change across the blogosphere and in the media. Today, citing an article in the American Lawyer, the ABA Journal adds its voice to the chorus, which started as a barbershop quartet and is quickly reaching Mormon Tabernacle Choir proportions.
News of law firm firings has been fairly constant this fall and the number of laid-off lawyers and dismantled firms is quite staggering. The traditional law firm model is undergoing an assault from outside and from within – the pressure to remain competitive in a marketplace that is itself evolving at an exponential rate and the pressure to retain and reward top talent and ensure quality work.
The American Lawyer article lists four factors that the author sees as pushing the change:
a changing law firm model spurring less loyalty among associates
nonlawyer investment, such as soon will be allowed in England, and inroads in non-lawyer funding elsewhere threatening established methods of law practice and law firm regulations
corporate clients that are increasingly dissatisfied with high hourly billing rates and big associate salaries, as evidenced by the Association of Corporate Counsel’s launch of its “Value Challenge,” an initiative to spur alternative billing by companies’ outside law firms
the impact of technology that will allow routine matters to be handled more quickly and at a lower cost.
These factors are quite real and are definitely molding the practice. Firms like Axiom Legal have taken a serious look at the industry and have adapted accordingly. And individual lawyers are taking note too, by increasingly looking to practitioners like Susan Cartier Liebel and Carolyn Elefant to assist in establishing a lean, mean solo practice or to consultants like Stephanie Kimbro to help create their own virtual law office. And if the growing number of lawyers on Twitter is any indication, the current generation of attorneys is certainly waking up to the changes, if not understanding what the changes will ultimately mean for their practice.
Is our response as an industry going to be fast enough? That question will have to be answered on a firm-by-firm, attorney-by-attorney basis. Clearly, those who ignore the changes will find it more and more difficult to maintain the same level of business and income. When the pain of change no longer exceeds the pain of staying the same, change will certainly follow.