Voice of Change

  • February 16, 2016
  • Colin Lachance and Mark A. Cohen

With no more brass rings to strive for, what will motivate innovative young lawyers to spend their prime years in a traditional firm environment?

Dorota Turlejski launched Uplawed, an estate law boutique, in September 2015 following four years with a mid-size, full-service Ottawa firm. She was doing well with the firm that first took her on as an articling student, and was on her way to becoming a successful, traditional lawyer. Therein lay the problem. The more she became the sort of lawyer that does well in a traditional environment, the less she resembled the person she knew in her heart she was and wanted to be - a scientist with legal training.

Addison Cameron-Huff was called to the Ontario bar in 2013 following a coveted Bay Street articling position with a prominent national firm, yet he felt that forging his own path was a better way for him to pursue the opportunities that lay ahead in a era of increasing market upheaval. Big law holds some advantages, but training to manage and grow a business are not among them so why wait years to figure it out? He now runs his own technology law practice, is carving out a niche in burgeoning area of crypto-currency and has co-founded a legal tech startup centered around consolidated global searching of country-level regulations.

Thirty-nine percent of U of T’s 2015 1L class arrived with undergraduate education in Science/Engineering/Math (22%) and Business/Economic (17%). This manner of education trains people to be pragmatic, metrics driven, and efficient – all the things that law firms tend not to be. If these students successfully retain these inclinations after 3 years of law school, where will they want to work and what opportunities can they expect to find in 2018?

The "firms", they are a-changing

Historically, non-legal training and student passions and perspectives has had little relevance to the employment market for law students and young lawyers. Quite the opposite. The traditional law firm structure has been explicitly built on the idea of senior lawyers molding (or, as often, re-casting) the raw clay they hired into associates that could be leveraged to ensure a profit structure built on total hours billed and maximizing profit per partner (PPP). There was no obvious value to shifting the approach in order to nurture the unique characteristics, aptitudes and desires of those newest to the profession, so long as all participants continued to buy into the idea that the reward was eventual progress to partnership in the firm when they, in turn, would reap the benefits of the model.

And now?

Firm collapses, mergers, free agent frenzies over lateral hires at a time of partner de-equitization and longer associate service timelines before profit participation, and other changes to the career bargain brought on as firms seek to maintain PPP, foment a justifiable suspicion on the implicit promises of big money and security. With no brass ring, what will motivate lawyers to spend their prime development years in a traditional environment?

Major shifts in the legal marketplace present challenges to the traditional law firm status quo, while opening up opportunities for lawyers wanting to do law differently. Recent reports from Altman Weil’s ("Law Firms in Transition"), Georgetown Law’s Centre for the Study of the Legal Profession ("Report on the State of the Legal Market") highlight the new normal. Companies are prioritizing in-house expansion over increasing external legal spend and there is a significant proliferation of "NewLaw" legal service boutiques and technology-driven models designed to increase efficiency and decrease costs.

 

"We look for demonstrable attributes in their background that they are comfortable with and have engaged in risk, and are the sort of person who could help develop the business and improve our systems over the long run."

 

There are many non-traditional legal service providers, other professional organizations, and technology companies focused on succeeding within a defined scope of activity with lawyers engaged and ready to help them build a "better mouse trap." Similarly, this may be the year even the most ardent skeptic will be compelled to acknowledge the presence and growth of the big consulting firms (a.k.a. the Big Four accounting firms) as major legal service providers in our own back yard. These employers, as well as others are very interested in the total package of skills a lawyer can bring to business growth. Because their structure and DNA differ from the traditional partnership model, they deliver services on a different economic model and recognize that legal service delivery is a three-legged stool that includes legal expertise, business process, and technology. It is also client centric, not partner centric.

Consider the approach taken by Axess Law, a firm with locations in 10 Ontario Wal-Marts and that is currently in active expansion mode. Mark Morris (it’s co-founder, along with Lena Koke) explains that Axess actively recruits lawyer candidates possessing substantial non-legal skill sets.

"We look for demonstrable attributes in their background that they are comfortable with and have engaged in risk, and are the sort of person who could help develop the business and improve our systems over the long run."

Finally, technologists and business types understandably look at legal services and see massive opportunities to capture both underserved populations and to extract significant chunks of the existing market share through more efficient delivery mechanisms. As that activity grows, it won’t just be the 39% of UToronto STEM/biz law students looking in their direction and seeing a better way to launch and grow their legal careers.

Firms, particularly among the AM200 in the U.S. and no doubt some of their Canadian peers, are structured in ways that do not utilize – or even care – about the total lawyer, just how she fits into the firm’s model. This could well be BigLaw’s undoing and almost certainly poses an existential threat to any 50-70 lawyer so-called "full-service" firm that tries to be everything to everyone as young lawyers look elsewhere for opportunity and professional fulfillment. Compounding the challenge is the generational divide. The partners calling the shots at traditional firms are more likely to be older and may understandably prefer sustaining the status quo as long as possible to making the changes needed to survive over the long haul.

Will firms unable or unwilling to see and benefit from the complete skill set of young lawyers successfully attract the very people they will need to help them adapt to shifting market realities?

The lawyers, they are a-changing too!

Lawyers, new and "old", need new skills to practice today – whether in a service provider or traditional firm. But skills like project management and insights like keener understanding of how technology impacts legal delivery, cyber security aren’t easily acquired on-the-job. Although some changes are underway, law schools still focused on doctrinal learning prepare students for entry into law firms even as it becomes increasingly obvious that this not going to be their career path. Schools with faculty conversant with changes in the marketplace and that recognize and prioritize the need for a pedagogical shift are more likely to turn out the sort of resilient graduate who can thrive in the new environment.

In the meantime, many lawyers are now prepared to chart their own path.

Addison has an educational background in biomedical science, a decade of programming experience, and a summer in the technology licensing department of Blackberry. He entered BigLaw with an open mind and a desire to learn. It was a positive experience, but the desire to exercise his skills and blaze his own trail won out over his perception of alternatives.

Dorota was educated, trained and certified as a marriage and family psychotherapist. She entered law school in 2007 under no illusions that her prior training and experience would be valued or helpful in her new environment. In fact, she had been explicitly warned of and actively endured the challenges of having to "unlearn" one method of thinking and analysis (i.e., the scientific method) in favour of another, shall we say, less exacting approach. Finally, she’d had enough:

 

"Creating my own company allowed me to integrate the scientific approach and the legal reasoning/critical thinking/experience into one integrated philosophy without having to separate the two. Brining the scientific into my legal practice has been a defining feature of my service delivery model."

 

Of course, the idea of going solo is not unique to the newest generation of lawyers and lawyers have always been more likely to work in small or "boutique" shops than in BigLaw. What’s changed are client expectations and the competitive landscape, and these changes expose the chasm between traditional approaches to legal education and training and demands imposed by new market realities.

Much digital ink is spilled describing the drivers behind the changing legal marketplace. Insufficient attention has been paid, in our view, to the sustainability of the traditional "law school – to law firm" pipeline from the perspective of early career lawyers who look at the sacrifices and uncertainty that attach to trying to fit in with a potentially dying model.

As more and more clients and young lawyers reject the traditional large law firm model, how much longer will it define our understanding of how legal services are delivered?

The new normal remains undefined, but the contours are taking shape. The changes are happening before our eyes and people – clients and lawyers alike – are voting with their feet. What remains unchanged is the way we prepare ourselves to manage the challenge.

Colin LachanceMark A. CohenAbout the Authors

Colin Lachance is a legal biz advisor (PGYA.ca), a legal tech entrepreneur (rangefindr.ca) and lawyer (Momentum.legal). He also lives on Twitter @ColinLachance

Mark A. Cohen is the CEO of Legal Mosaic (www.legalmosaic.com) a legal business consultancy that provides strategic advice to legal service providers, corporate legal departments, law firms, and entrepreneurs. Mark occasionally renders legal counsel on complex commercial litigation and strategic matters.

Mark also teaches at Georgetown Law, writes a weekly column for Bloomberg Big Law Business, and is a frequent speaker, TV and webinar guest on legal issues.

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