A new decade of law is upon us! Like many others out there, we’ve decided to turn to the experts to help us reflect on what has happened over the past 10 years and forecast what will happen next.
In this blog post, you’ll get to hear three award-winning professors weigh in on the current state of the legal industry. Andrew J. McClurg, Christine Coughlin and Nancy Levit have recently combined to author a new book called “Law Jobs: The Complete Guide”. This book, which is available for purchase now, provides a comprehensive and reader-friendly guide to every type of legal career. Law Jobs offers in-depth exploration of each career option, including general background, pros and cons, day in the life descriptions, job availability, compensation, prospects for advancement, diversity and how students can best position themselves for opportunities in the field.
While giving an inside look at legal careers is the main focus of the guide, McClurg, Couglin and Levit also use the book to go in-depth on subjects such as the changing face of the legal profession and finding happiness in a legal career. The trio was nice enough to talk with us about those subjects in the interview below.
Answering Legal: What are some of the biggest trends you’ve seen in the legal profession over the past decade?
Andrew McClurg: As we cover in our book, they’re mostly disturbing ones in terms of legal employment. The cost-cutting era that began with the Great Recession of 2008–2009 has only gained momentum. Clients have, quite understandably, put pressure on firms to end billing by the hour and adopt fixed fee or other alternative fee arrangements. Corporations have beefed up their own legal teams, insourcing work that used to be farmed out to law firms, while law firms are hiring more contract lawyers in place of permanent associates.
Meanwhile, alternative legal service providers, relying on technology, are proliferating. The legal profession has long been protected from competition by ABA Rule of Professional Conduct 5.4, which prohibits ownership interests in law firms by non-lawyers, and rules prohibiting the Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL). The biggest threat on the horizon to business as usual may be proposed rule changes in states like California, Utah, and Arizona that could open up the legal profession to non-lawyer firm ownership and loosen UPL restrictions on technology-driven legal services. If adopted, these changes could end up being good for consumers of legal services and access to justice, but it’s hard to see how they will be good for lawyers.
Other, more positive trends for lawyers include greater diversity and more attention being paid to wellness issues and the need for work-life balance.
AL: What’s something that has gotten significantly better for lawyers in recent years?
Christine Coughlin: As Andrew mentioned, one area of improvement for lawyers is an increased emphasis on lawyer wellness. It is no secret that law is among the occupations associated with high rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. In 2016, the American Bar Association funded a large-scale study that showed 28% of lawyers reported symptoms of either moderate or more serious depression, while 21% struggled with problem drinking. As a result of increased awareness, meaningful efforts are being made across the profession to provide education and assistance, and to remedy some of the root causes of the problems, such as work-life balance.
For example, law schools are working to reform legal education, which will make law school a less stressful and more supportive environment than the traditional, stress-inducing environment portrayed by Professor Kingsfield’s character in the “Paper Chase”. Many law firms have instituted lawyer wellness programs, and some firms have even set maximum billable hours and lowered minimum billable hours. Bar associations are providing confidential programs that provide access to counseling and substance abuse services. They are likewise working to decease any stigma associated with seeking counseling, addiction services, or other types of mental health help. This emphasis on lawyer well-being directly affects lawyers’ quality of life and work-life balance. It is also consistent with more recent lawyer satisfaction surveys reflecting that happiness and job satisfaction within the profession is trending upward—in fact, the majority of studies show that 80% of lawyers are satisfied with their jobs.
AL: What’s something that has gotten worse for lawyers over the last decade?
McClurg: There has been a rapid increase in “alternative staffing” arrangements, a benign-sounding term for cutting permanent associate positions in favor of contract lawyers, half-priced staff attorneys, and paraprofessionals. An Altman Weil survey asked 386 large firms to rate twenty new-era performance strategies in terms of their effectiveness for improving profitability. Four of the top five choices involved alternative staffing models. Half of the firms said that the increased use of contract lawyers was their top alternative staffing strategy and also the most effective one.
But there are two sides to every coin. Contract lawyering is a growth area in the legal profession, so much so that we devoted an entire chapter to the area. Some of the jobs are less than desirable (e.g., document review), but an increasing number of lawyers are enjoying the flexibility and variety of working as contract lawyers, often running their own freelance businesses.
AL: How would you describe the state of the current legal job market?
Coughlin: The current legal job market can be described as being in a dynamic state of flux but one with new opportunities constantly emerging. While the legal profession has bounced back somewhat following the Great Recession of 2008–2009, the post-recession legal profession is rife with changes in the consumption and delivery of legal services. As Andrew discussed, these changes range from companies insourcing legal work that used to be farmed out to law firms, to technology tools that have replaced the need for some traditional lawyer and paralegal services, to non-law firms providing legal and quasi-legal services.
While this may sound a bit gloomy, the future of law and the legal job market looks bright. Law school admissions are up. Diversity in the profession—while it still has a way to go—is improving. We have seen recently more lawyers stepping up to the plate to confront injustices and ensure that the Constitution is upheld. And, in fact, for the ten-year period between 2016 through 2026, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks lawyers first in terms of “most job openings.” Consistent with rest of developed society and the rising gig economy, many of these new opportunities will likely revolve around technology; thus, lawyers will need to be agile, adaptive, tech-savvy, and willing to change along with the world around them.
AL: Lawyers already have a ton of job competition these days. Will they soon be competing with robots as well?
McClurg: They already are! While it will be a long time before we see robots appearing in court, a 2017 study by a law professor and labor economist estimated that technology has already displaced 85% of lawyer hours previously spent on document review. While this development may have current associates previously tasked with this grunt work jumping for joy, it’s a big hit to what used to be a bread-and-butter haul of billable hours for law firms. Machine-learning products are also infiltrating the world of contract management. Kira Systems, for example, asserts that its products can cut in half the time required to conduct due diligence in, for example, merger and acquisitions.
Solo and small-firm practitioners are increasingly threatened by DIY businesses such as LegalZoom. A survey of small firms and solo lawyers by Thomson Reuters found that 17% of them viewed DIY legal websites as competitors, up from only 11% the previous year. Among solo practitioners, 28% identified DIY legal companies as a threat. These numbers are only going to increase as the technology gets better, particularly if, as mentioned above, states relax their UPL rules on technology-based legal services.
Many argue that technology will create new and better jobs for lawyers, and that certainly will be true for some, but it’s hard to believe it isn’t going to reduce the total number of lawyer jobs.
AL: What are some of the things law firms should be doing from a technology standpoint in order to be successful in the 2020s?
Coughlin: To be successful in the 2020s, law firms will need to educate themselves in order to understand and embrace the relevant technologies that can enhance the firm’s practice. Indeed, more than thirty states have already adopted the comment to Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1, which states that “[t]o maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with the technology relevant to the lawyer’s practice ….”
As we discuss in detail in our book, technology is changing the practice of law. To survive, law firms must remain economically viable and provide quality client services. Technology can now perform some traditional legal tasks—such as document review—much more efficiently and cost-effectively. Yes, the days of paying young associates to sit in a room and review boxes of documents by hand are gone for good.
Today, law firms need to focus their human resources on those tasks that are integral to the lawyer’s core mission: fact investigation, analyzing and strategizing, advising and communicating with clients, and negotiating settlements or preparing for and appearing in court. These are tasks that are still more effectively done by humans than machines.
Law firms need to remember, however, that there is not a one-size fits all blueprint when it comes to embracing technology for today’s firm practice. For example, a Silicon Valley law firm will have different technological needs than a small firm that focuses on family law in Eastern North Carolina. But the bottom line is that law firms can’t ignore the impact of technology on today’s legal practice. As we warn in the book, ignoring the impact of technology will risk having firms displaced. Instead, firms should recognize and implement those technologies that can add value to the firm’s specific practice.
AL: What are some of the most common causes of lawyer unhappiness these days?
Nancy Levit: Some of the causes of lawyer unhappiness are the same as they were fifty years ago: incivility in the profession, the bureaucratic organization of law firms, and high billable hour expectations (which have increased in the past half century, and which now include lawyers being electronically tethered to their work).
One cause of unhappiness that attorneys may not think about, especially if they are in what is considered to be a “good” (prestigious and/or well-paying) job, is whether that job really is a match for their skills and interests. There can be a mismatch between the law jobs people think they ought to have and the jobs they truly want.
At times, newer lawyers step onto the institutional glide path and reach for the prescribed brass rings, such as a high paying associate position with a large law firm. Yet, among the unhappiest lawyers are associates at larger firms. While a Biglaw job might be just right for some lawyers, it is not right for all of the people who could work there. Others might be much happier at a small or medium-sized firm or in public interest or government work.
Newer research is bringing to light the aspects of practice that matter to lawyer happiness. Law professor Larry Krieger and psychology professor Ken Sheldon surveyed more than six thousand lawyers from varying practice and geographic areas about what factors contributed most to lawyer well-being. Turns out, what most attorneys and law students think will lead to happiness in their careers, such as potential income, status, and class rank, are not what lawyers say matters most to their satisfaction.
As we discuss in our chapter on happiness in the profession, the most influential factors in lawyer happiness are autonomy, relating well to peers and co-workers, feeling competent at the job, having supportive supervisors, and doing work that matches their internal values. In short, the internal factors of doing meaningful work in a supportive work environment, with a significant amount of control (over hours and choices of work) far outpaced the external factors of rankings, prestige, and money as predictors of attorney well-being.
AL: How are lawyer mental health issues being addressed differently now than they were 10 to 15 years ago?
Levit: As in many other fields, attorneys are paying more attention to issues of mental health and well-being. Chris mentioned above that some of the stigma of substance abuse and mental health problems is decreasing. More law schools are trying to inoculate students early on with positive coping strategies and connections to resources from day one of law school. The American Bar Association and state and local bar associations have Lawyer Assistance Programs that offer resources to support attorneys dealing with alcoholism, substance abuse, and mental health issues. Those organizations offer programs on mental and physical health issues, mentors to help attorneys through difficult periods, as well as more positive and proactive programs on wellness, mindfulness, resilience, and work-life balance.
AL: What can new attorneys do to find jobs that offer good work-life balance?
Levit: Ah, “work-life balance”—that buzzword that everybody talks about and few people seem to have. If this quality is going to be one that will matter to you over the arc of your career, one of the most important things to do up front, as a newly minted lawyer, is to go into a line of work that doesn’t have a lot of fire drills.
You might, for example, steer away from a high-intensity litigation practice and toward a federal or state government agency. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted a rise in employment opportunities with those government jobs. To help make these decisions, each chapter in “Law Jobs: The Complete Guide” covers the pros and cons and a typical day for a lawyer in each major job sector so readers can get a sense of whether the job provides opportunities for true work-life balance. We also have a chapter dedicated to our top-50 law specialties that cover everything admiralty and animal law to cybersecurity and computational law. These summaries give a taste of a wide variety of practices to help students find one that fits their personal and professional interests. As we discuss, work-life balance isn’t all about leisurely strolls in the park, but filling your life with activities about which you are passionate.
AL: What made you want to write the book Law Jobs, and what can readers expect to learn from it?
McClurg: We got the idea for Law Jobs from a combination of observing how little law students know about legal jobs and the job market and reading too many studies of lawyer unhappiness. It occurred to us that many lawyers are unhappy simply because they never found the best fit for them in the legal world. Finding that fit requires knowing yourself—your skillset, personality type, and aspirations—and understanding what types of jobs are most likely to correlate with those attributes and preferences.
Our book helps with that second part. It’s quite in-depth, so we think readers can expect to learn a lot. For each career type, we offer general background, pros and cons, day in the life descriptions, and information about job availability, compensation, prospects for advancement, diversity issues, and how students can best position themselves for opportunities in the field. We also have chapters addressing matters such as lawyer happiness and the rapidly changing face of the legal profession due to technology and other forces. To bolster our own knowledge and research, we reached out to and interviewed/surveyed more than 150 lawyers who do the jobs.