Well, another year is in the hopper and it’s time to take a breath and look ahead. Here’s what my crystal ball shows for 2018.
Following a clearly established trend in American business, big law firms are going to get bigger as midsized shops, practice groups from old-line firms and rainmakers tired of spending the fruits of their labor on legacy obligations migrate to ever-larger enterprises. Unfortunately, some will find the conflicts issues daunting and we’ll see more high-level boutiques springing up as frustrated newcomers reveal that loyalty has a short life span.
We’ll see the collapse of some venerable enterprises as the founding partners retire or drift onto the injured reserve roster and there aren’t enough heavy hitters left to cover the overhead. The best law school talent will want to work for the biggest firms because they’ll all remain in lockstep in paying generous salaries and bonuses, and the old firms won’t be able to build a new bench deep enough to keep the place going.
Work-a-day lawyers from the middle of their class or midranked schools (a cohort into which I clearly fit) will continue to scrape along, working very hard and fighting for every bit of market share, all the while frustrated both by consumers unwilling to pay for services delivered in the traditional ways and new market players offering bread-and-butter work for insanely modest rates over the internet.
Nonlawyers will continue to figure out how to partner with lawyers and firms to finance new operational models which bars and government regulators won’t have the time or resources to challenge. A few lawyers and bars will try to stanch the bleeding in court or political arenas, but they’ll be met with antitrust and other claims that will drive up the costs and risks of proceeding. They’ll eventually settle for small beer instead of driving the philistines from the temple.
The size, complexity and opacity of the big and new legal enterprises will cause bar regulators to continue to focus on the solos and small firm operators who will remain low-hanging fruit as they struggle to cope with competition and technology.
Enterprising solos and small firms will find new ways to partner up, sharing information and clients and using technology, which will obviate the need for “bricks and sticks” offices. Bar associations will find ways to serve this group or risk irrelevance. Some will be successful. Many will get by.
Efforts at diversifying the bar will continue, but with slow progress as dwindling partnership opportunities continue to be offered to those who look and talk like the old guard. Those not fortunate enough to find homes in big firms will join the ranks of the solo and small-firm folks. They’ll soon learn how hard it is to run a profitable law business. Some will fail, reinforcing unfortunate stereotypes and confirming the biases that perpetuate the segregation of the profession.
Some enterprising lawyers will find new ways to serve large markets of underserved consumers. They’ll have to battle against a 19th century set of ethics rules in which a balkanized profession which will continue to be regulated by competing state jurisdictions, each jealous of their turf and traditions.
Courts will struggle to deal with crime and a self-represented populace. They won’t have the resources to attract high-end ADR work. Alternative forums will be the place where big business and wealthy individuals take their problems to be solved.
Many aging lawyers will learn how difficult it is to untangle the web of old files, records and retention and reporting requirements so that they can wind down their practices and retire. Some will find that they’ve waited too long to save for retirement and will have to keep going just to pay their bills.
There’ll be some new hot areas of practice. A lot of work will appear when the feds crack down on the medical and recreational marijuana businesses. New tax laws will also create many opportunities.
Law schools will continue to get leaner and more relevant. They’ll continue to fill empty seats with students seeking certificates in areas such a government compliance and contract administration. This will lead to a new group of highly specialized paraprofessionals who will want full membership in bar associations. They’ll be welcomed as the traditional bar member profile fades away along with the baby boomers.
And pundits and commentators will continue to marvel at the ability of the profession to bend, shift and morph in response to new challenges and opportunities, all the while continuing a profession which, at its best, serves noble ends.