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Law School, Law Firms, and the Titanic

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It is easy to find books and articles that highlight the problems within the legal industry. What is rare is to find something that instead of just pointing out the problems, actually offers solutions. Mark Cohen’s recent article, The Death of Lawyers is Greatly Exaggerated, does just that.

A business as usual approach is a ticket to extinction, and many firms resemble Titanic passengers more concerned with tomorrow’s menu than the iceberg sinking the ship.Those who have followed New Law for a few years will recall that Mark Cohen was one of the founding partners of the much talked about Clearspire Law PLLC and Clearspire Service Company.  Clearspire Law closed its doors last year and Cohen has since founded a consulting firm, LegalMosaic. I am sure his experience with Clearspire was a rich one and that his time spent in and around New Law puts him in an informed position to speculate about the future.

In his article, Cohen makes clear that he does not believe the status quo is sustainable nor that conditions will return to the Golden Age of law firms (i.e. pre-2008). However, he also does not think the sky is falling. Rather, he thinks the climate is changing.

I have been speaking and writing about the four factors that I see currently disrupting the legal industry: consumers, technology, competition, and regulatory liberalization. Cohen outlines ten drivers of legal change, some of which will look familiar:

(1) Technology

(2) Globalization

(3) Global regulatory changes

(4) The ascent of (unregulated) legal service providers

(5) The cost: value divide

(6) Disaggregation of “legal” tasks (“unbundling”)

(7) The demand for greater collaboration, efficiency, transparency, and price predictability

(8) Clients’ unwillingness to pay for lawyers’ post-licensure “on the job training”

(9) Law school debt (especially in the U.S.)

(10) The increased presence of non-lawyers in legal delivery.

Cohen states that law is “big business” and so will be sticking around. He estimates the global legal market to bring in about $650 billion a year. Therefore, the “end of lawyers” is not upon us. He sees the legal industry as an ecosystem, where all stakeholders, including lawyers, academia, and consumers, should be working together to find solutions.

The challenge for lawyers is to provide clients with what they want and the way they want it—and to provide solutions. If lawyers fail to meet that challenge, others surely will.He suggests specific changes to both law school and law firms given the post-2008 realities of law practice. Law schools are dealing with declining admissions, poor job placement numbers, and “curriculum (ir)relevancy” concurrently. Cohen lays out ten changes the Academy should implement. While I do not necessarily agree that all are a step in the right direction, I agree change is imperative. His suggestions are as follows:

(1) Pre-enrollment counseling

(2) Curriculum reevaluation including mandatory courses in the current legal landscape as well “practical” courses in new foundational practice skill areas such as project management, data management, legal technology, basic business skills, etc.

(3) Hiring faculty with contemporary work experience and contacts

(4) Same for Placement Officers

(5) Compressing the curriculum to two-years, even if the sessions are year-round rather than 7 months

(6) Reducing tuition by paring down bloated administrative staffs, demanding “more for less” from faculty, and making better use of technology

(7) Enhanced practicum curriculum component

(8) Aligning with other professional and undergraduate programs within the University to enable students to achieve deeper and broader understanding of other key disciplines necessary for today’s lawyers

(9) Forging partnerships with the private sector (both legal service providers as well as consumers)

(10) Seizing the opportunity to create meaningful legal jobs for graduates while helping to solve the access to justice crisis

Personally, I am also intrigued by the idea of undergraduate legal studies degrees, so that those interested in alternative legal careers, and not necessarily practicing law, can get the basics and then combine them with a graduate degree or double major in business, computer science, engineering, etc. This degree could serve as a prerequisite for law school, covering such skills as legal research, legal writing, the US and comparative legal systems, and perhaps even the entire first year law school curriculum.  If the graduate decided against law school, he or she would nevertheless leave college with a solid introductory education on the basics of the law, which combined with a business, computer science, or another degree would provide an excellent undergraduate education.

Just as lawyers are learning that it’s about clients, not lawyers, so too must law schools realize that it’s about students, not the Academy.Since we know that many law school graduates never intend on practicing, maybe there should be a more efficient way for them to learn to “think like a lawyer.” Cohen wraps up his thoughts on law school by saying, “[j]ust as lawyers are learning that it’s about clients, not lawyers, so too must law schools realize that it’s about students, not the Academy.”  I would add that it is also about producing graduates that employers want to hire.

Cohen does not offer a similar set of suggestions for law firms, but he does compare them to the Titanic. “[A] business as usual approach is a ticket to extinction, and many firms resemble Titanic passengers more concerned with tomorrow’s menu than the iceberg sinking the ship.” He expects law firms to survive, but in a very different form than we see today. Cohen uses one of my favorite quotes, attributed to Peter Drucker, “[t]he best way to predict the future is to create it,” to suggest there is still a role to play for lawyers and law firms in shaping this new climate. We can be proactive, and not just victims of circumstance, being tossed around on the sea during the storm of market disruptions and regulatory experimentation. He suggests that in the future lawyers and law firms must:

(1) Better utilize technology

(2) Increase collaboration

(3) Improve efficiency

(4) Reduce financial expectations

(5) Be willing to work with professionals from other disciplines

I would also add a sixth suggestion – lawyers must pay attention to the storm that is just now brewing but not yet at full gale-force.  Gale-force will begin as law practice regulation is liberalized to enable greater competition from non-lawyers. Lawyers should not wait until the storm has passed, only to pull their heads from the sand and ask, “what the heck just happened around here?” Lawyers should pay attention to the activities of lawyer and non-lawyer competition, and pay equal attention to the activities of lawyer/law practice regulators (i.e. their state bar associations and supreme courts).

Cohen sees huge opportunity in the millions of potential clients who need legal representation and can afford to pay for it, just not at current hourly rates. “The challenge for lawyers is to provide clients with what they want and the way they want it—and to provide solutions. If lawyers fail to meet that challenge, others surely will.”  This will surely be the case as unauthorized practice of law (UPL) regulation continues to fade and regulatory liberalization continues to move forward.

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One Comment

Mark A. Cohen

Sands,

Thank you for the gracious comments and careful reading of my blog post. To your point about not offering suggestions about law firms, please read the following post “The Metamorphosis: Law Firm Version” which addresses that issue.
Also, be on the lookout for another post coming out on April 17th which will also speak to it.

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