Be Not Afraid: Thinking Positively About the Future

Future Lawyer The emergence and proliferation of legal startups and the growing incorporation of new technology within the legal industry will shape the future of the legal profession. How these forces will change the profession, and what the future of law will look like are the questions that only time will answer. Today, technology is practically synonymous with innovation – something every profession strives for. Yet, as law professor René Reich-Graefe writes, the legal world, though not averse to innovation, is less than enthusiastic when it comes to changes in the profession. In this context, though, the resistance may be warranted. According to Joshua Kubicki, business designer for legal markets, expansion of the legal sector to include legal startups has a direct effect on lawyers in the artisan model: “as the legal sector continues to expand, the traditional lawyer’s share of the pie is shrinking.”

The Big Crisis

Reich-Graefe’s article challenges the conclusion of many authors that we are currently experiencing a “crisis in legal education.” The crisis, as reported, is that new lawyers and lawyers-to-be face a grim future because of a bleak job market and the current approach to legal education is not sustainable in a changing profession. Reich-Graefe gives two explanations for the creation and pervasiveness of this dismal outlook. First, “lawyers [are] among the most pessimistic people within society.” Second, several authors have fueled the pessimism surrounding the future of the legal profession by misconstruing reports of crucial data and statistical interpretation of the current legal job market and the projections through 2020. These two factors have combined to create a climate in which it’s “easier for lawyers and legal educators—to the point of complete hysteria and delusion—to embrace the purported ‘all-goes-to-hell’ status quo of legal education and the legal profession.”  Reich-Graefe posits, inappositely, that not only are we not facing a crisis in legal education, but that “recent law school graduates and current and future law students are standing at the threshold of the most robust legal market that ever existed in this country.”

This positive vision of the future is refreshing, but Reich-Graefe’s prediction is based largely on a numbers, i.e. trend lines, retirement rates, population growth and statistical analysis provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (His approach is shared by the dean of University of Denver Sturm College of Law whose hearty invocation that the time to attend law school is now—at least in Denver–received a stir over a year ago.)  Neither of these writers consider the nature of legal work itself has changed over time and with technological advances.

In an article written as a counterpoint to Reich-Graefe’s prediction, Professor Bill Henderson contends that Reich-Graefe’s approach “stacks up all impending positive trend lines without taking into account the substantial evidence that the artisan model of lawyering – one-to-one consultative legal services that are tailored to the needs of individual clients – is breaking down as a viable service delivery model.” In Henderson’s view, the breakdown of the artisan model, and not the ratio of future lawyers to spots in the job market, is the crux of the crisis.

The rapid growth of legal startups and the shrinking demand for law firm services are factors that seem to support Henderson’s view. But, if young professionals adopt a positive outlook and embrace, rather than eschew, technological advances in the legal field, they may actually end up on top. If we accept Reich-Graefe’s analysis as true, then there is no reason to fear a shrinking legal job market; “future law school graduates can expect soon to secure better legal jobs, have more opportunity to move laterally and earn higher incomes over the next two decades and beyond than has been the case for the last thirty years[.]” And for those skeptical of Reich-Graefe’s approach, Henderson’s Counterpoint may be equally as reassuring. Young and future lawyers can put themselves on the sweet spot of the continuum by embracing change, incorporating technology, and “keeping pace with the legal needs of the citizenry and broader society.” According to Henderson, “Lawyers, law firms, and legal educators who adapt to these changing conditions will be in high demand and will likely prosper economically.”

The Problem With This “Crisis” Mindset

A major concern directly linked to the existing “crisis” mindset is that law schools are not adequately preparing students for the changing legal landscape. Yet, we need not be too critical of the state of legal education before considering the major strides legal educators have been taking to keep up with the changes and prepare students for the future. In the past, we’ve explored how good leadership comes from admitting that leaders aren’t always in a position to have all the answers, and that asking questions leads to new innovation. Some important players in legal education are showing strong leadership in their efforts to meet change with reform by “trying to preserve the best of law school while enabling appropriate change.” To do so, they’re looking to design-centric thinking and embracing technology and change.

There is more than one thing to be taken away from the scholars’ analyses, and certainly lots of room for discussion. However, it’s important to remember that whichever side you lean toward, positive thinking and encouragement can go a long way. Consider Henderson’s own take away from his research into the changing landscape of legal education:  “After several years traveling the country discussing legal education reform, I have gradually concluded that if I want to maximize my influence on change, I need to build and encourage, not criticize and debate.” We think those are some thoughtful words to learn  from, and an important quality of good leadership.

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