The practice of law has changed dramatically over the last two centuries. Old tools of the trade—steno pools, fax machines, dusty libraries—have been replaced with countless electronic devices that allow lawyers to carry in their briefcases a virtual office, replete with comprehensive resources available at the touch of a button. From the cell phone to the Blackberry to the iPad, technology is propelling our profession into the future and has created a far different environment for lawyers of all generations.
Twenty-first century technology has opened the door to increased competition in a global marketplace, has led to a growth in outsourcing and is driving legal service providers to deliver quality at a more competitive price. And perhaps most significantly, it is also forcing us to re-think how we train lawyers and structure our business models.
Many of these changes have been accelerated by the recession, which dealt a serious blow to our profession and created a crisis from which we are still recovering.
As State Bar President, I view these difficulties as opportunities. It is our responsibility to serve as stewards of the profession, find ways to adapt to these changes, and thereby evolve. Most would agree: This is the right course for our profession at the right time.
In response to these challenges, last year I created the Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession to evaluate our changing legal environment; identify the risks and opportunities presented; and seek a course that comports with our professional responsibilities to our clients; and promotes our personal well-being.
The task force brought together experts from a wide range of backgrounds—managing partners, general counsels, academia and workplace consultants. It addressed four areas that are in flux. Most significantly, I wanted the report to be real. To be practical. To have a significant impact on the daily lives of lawyers.
The key areas of study were:
• changes in the model for educating and training new lawyers;
• the difficulty lawyers face trying to find balance in their professional and personal lives;
• developments in the economics, structure, and billing practices of law firms; and
• the implications of technology on the practice of law.
Educating and Training
Increasingly, today’s clients do not want to pay for the work of new lawyers, many of whom have never interviewed a client or drafted a contract. In centuries past, becoming a lawyer included apprenticing under an experienced lawyer until you acquired the skills needed to practice on your own. This remains the legal tradition in the U.K.
This is not to suggest that modern law schools should become trade schools. But the law schools of the future must blend the practical with the intellectual. If law school graduates cannot grasp the legal issues they are asked to analyze, they will never be good lawyers. On the other hand, if they do not know how to draft a complaint, they won’t be good practitioners either.
The question facing the task force was: “How do we better develop practice-ready law school graduates?”
At a time when the bench and bar have been decrying the lack of preparedness of law graduates, it is surprising that the state with the largest bar in the country still imposes significant legal restrictions on clinical and practical skills training for law graduates who seek admission to its bar. New York Bar Rule (N.Y. Ct. App.) 520.3(c)(1)(i) limits to 20-credit hours the number of credits in “courses related to legal training or clinical courses” that can be counted toward the 80 minimum credit hours for bar admission. This, the task force says, must be addressed.
The task force also recommends that the state bar examine potential licensing reforms, such as adoption of the Uniform Bar Exam, a format that would promote efficiency and reciprocity.
Finally, given the importance of appropriate training and development of all newly admitted lawyers, the task force recommends that the bar association conduct a thorough study of mandatory mentorship programs use in other states, and other clinical opportunities, as a way to help lawyers transition from school to practice.
It is clear that we need better ways to encourage proper training of our new lawyers.
The 24/7 virtual workplace creates expectations that lawyers need to be on call around the clock and on weekends, cutting into our personal lives.
Increasingly, attorneys—both men and women, and especially those who care for young children or aging parents—are seeking flexibility and predictability in the workplace. Providing this balance in the current economic environment is tough for any employer. But it is essential. Law firm policies that help employees “detach from office demands” can reduce stress-related illnesses, burn-out and workforce attrition. The benefits are likely to include enhanced performance and a more satisfying personal life. Plus, it makes good economic sense.
The task force report urges employers to commit to promoting healthier work-life balance for their employees. Doing so, the report adds, will achieve better client relationships and will reduce the cost associated with turnover. In the long run, failing to address these issues now will mean fewer people joining the profession, and more and more talented people leaving it.
Law Firm Structure
The economic downturn has also led to lower law firm earnings, reduced hiring and downsizing. As the economy recovers, it is becoming clear that the legal profession will not return to business as usual.
To stay competitive, the task force recommends that law firms examine their structures, particularly in light of the increased use of outsourcing, and expand their use of alternative fee arrangements.
In the area of billing for legal services, the hourly billing model has been strongly criticized by many, leading to a shift away from hourly billing to alternative billing structures. The report recommends that the state bar offer continuing legal education programs, publications, and web-based services to help members respond to the changing needs of their clients.
New technologies are perhaps the glue that holds together all of the issues covered in this study of the future of our profession. While technology is a driving force of the changes within the profession, it is also the means to find better solutions to legal problems. Technology allows us to compete more effectively in the legal marketplace and enables lawyers to work faster and more efficiently.
Developments such as cloud computing are changing the technological landscape. More and more lawyers are using new social media technologies to connect with clients. The task force suggests ways that law firms can harness technology to their advantage, including a study of the ethical and risk management concerns associated with social networking, third-party hosted solutions, virtual law firms and other new technologies.
In addition, the Task Force recommends that law firms employ systems-based analyses when considering potential new technologies and that they invest in increased technology training for their lawyers.
Finally, the report notes that the state bar should study how to use its resources to assist smaller firms with technology-related issues. For example, the bar association should develop services that benefit practitioners for whom individual investment in technological solutions is not economically feasible.
It has been said that change is inevitable, but it’s how you adapt to change that sets you apart. The legal profession, often characterized as incapable of adapting to change, must adapt if we are to survive in these tumultuous times.
The future of our profession is in our hands. This report lays out a clear and concise roadmap for the future. If we stay on the course it sets, we can ensure that the practice of law will thrive today, and that it will remain rewarding for generations of lawyers to come.
The full report can be found at www.nysba.org/FutureReport.
Stephen P. Younger is president of the New York State Bar Association and a partner at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler.