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As a looming recession approaches, a look at history, plus some judgment, can tell us a lot about how organizations will manage their lawyer numbers once it arrives. It’s a clear, disturbing and instructive tale.

Let’s start with some history. In studying the trends in U.S. lawyer head count over the last 20 years, both in-house and at major law firms, one thing jumps out: the stark difference before and after the 2008 recession. Before 2008, all segments were growing; after 2008, in-house lawyer growth accelerated while growth in law firms ground to a halt.

Why the change? A different purchasing environment has held sway at client organizations since the recession. There’s been a rejection of ever-increasing hourly rates for the commodity offerings from much of Big Law. We’ve witnessed the rise of the ambidextrous general counsel, taking work away from overpriced firms with one hand while using the other to execute it in-house or move it to lower-cost firms and nontraditional providers.

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