Lawyers may have no formal training in them, but technology and selling are part of the job description. “I didn’t go to law school to be an IT guy!” my law school classmate exclaimed in exasperation. Another friend has characterized her career as “not as much practicing law as being a salesman.” We’ve all come to realize that understanding technology and selling legal services are both part of a successful law model.
Some lawyers lament that law has become less of a “profession” and more of a “business.” If being more of a business means we are meeting client needs in a more effective and efficient way, doesn’t that make us more professional as well?
At the Commission on Professionalism, we have been jump starting the discussion about what it means to be a legal professional in the 21st century. In order to promote professionalism going forward, lawyers need to look forward and embrace the changes affecting the practice of law.
The Traditional Law Model is Not Serving Clients Well
Many studies over the last few decades reveal that an increasing segment of the population, primarily low and moderate income Americans, are not accessing legal services. For only one example, Deborah Rhode documents in her research that “[a]ccording to most estimates, about four-fifths of the civil legal needs of the poor, and two- to three-fifths of the needs of middle-income individuals, remain unmet.” Gillian Hadfield has found that the provision of legal services in comparison to the unmet legal need is “startlingly low.”
Research shows that despite facing frequent and serious civil justice issues, such as housing, family matters and access to health care, most low and middle income people do not turn to lawyers or the legal system for help. Their most common responses are to either do nothing or to seek self-help. Cost is cited as a significant impediment to people reaching out to lawyers. Millions in need of representation cannot afford to hire a lawyer.
Many members of the public fail to identify many of the problems they encounter in everyday living as legal problems, or fail to understand that the law may provide them a legal solution.
Some people seem empowered that they can do it themselves—DIY is a thing. And shouldn’t the ready availability of information help educate and empower consumers to handle some of their simple legal matters themselves?
So consumers are not seeking lawyers. They either don’t see the relevance or are seeking answers via the internet. They are representing themselves in court. All the while despite research that shows parties represented by lawyers achieve consistently better results.
The Traditional Law Model is Not Serving Lawyers Well
The traditional law firm model consists of employee lawyers working their way up to a few coveted equity partnership spots. Until the internet came around, lawyers didn’t need much in the way of technology know-how or sales skills. Lawyers had a monopoly on legal information. And clients had to seek out lawyers to have their questions answered. Lawyers’ tools in trade were books, pens, and paper. They would listen to a client’s problem, draw on applicable research and their experience, and provide a solution.
Most lawyers developed a deep substantive knowledge of an area of the law. They also became familiar with the lawyers who practiced and judges who were the arbiters of disputes in that area.
Now a deep substantive knowledge of an area of law is not enough. It’s necessary but not sufficient. The legal and regulatory world is too complex and there’s just too much information out there for any individual to effectively and efficiently handle clients’ matters in a one-on-one consultancy format.
And new lawyers start their career under a lot of pressure. Over the past couple of decades, new lawyers graduate from law school with increased debt and fewer job choices. Articles abound in the legal and popular press that lawyers are struggling with under and unemployment.
The lawyers providing services to the low or moderate income segments are primarily solo and small firm practitioners. According to the most recent data from the American Bar Association, 49% of American practicing lawyers are sole practitioners. And this population of lawyers is under severe financial strain.
As Benjamin Barton details in his book, The Glass Half Full, the income of lawyers in sole practices or partnerships remained somewhat stable over the two decades between the late 1960s and late 1980s. The explosion occurs after 1988. Barton uses figures from the Internal Revenue Service showing that in 1988, the average income for a solo practitioner was $70,750, and in 2013 it had dropped to $49,090, adjusted for inflation. That is an over 33% decrease over twenty five years. Another estimate puts the median earnings for solo practitioners at less than $35,000 per year.
The traditional pyramid shaped law firm with a tournament deciding who makes equity partner has been particularly harsh to women and minorities. Although women make up nearly half of all law school graduates, they comprise only about a third of the legal profession and only 17% of the equity partners in large law firms. Minorities, in particular female minorities, fair even worse—more than 75% leave law firms within five years.
Technology May Help Provide a New Model for Both Lawyers and the Public
The fact is that many lawyers in this country are profoundly dissatisfied with their chosen profession. And many citizens are of the mind that the legal profession will not or cannot help them with their problems. These realities should spur corrective action.
Technology may be viewed as part of the problem. But technology is also undoubtedly part of the solution. Technology is demystifying legal process for everyday citizens. Focusing on technological changes impacting the practice, many bar associations have initiated “future law” commissions or committees to study the issue.
There is a strong connection between new methods of delivering legal services and the vitality and relevance of our legal system. That’s why we spend time and effort educating in this area.
Looking at our law model anew through the eyes of the consumers—and potential consumers—is essential. The status quo is not properly serving either the public or the lawyers.