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Why You Don’t Have to Be Collateral Damage on the Road to the Future

by Carolyn Elefant on July 8, 2013 · 2 comments

in Announcements, Biglaw to Solo, Future Trends

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In June 2013, the New York Times  DealBook reported that mega-firm, Weil Gotshal slashed seven percent of its associate ranks – sixty junior lawyers in all — and reduced annual compensation for 30 of its 300 partners (who by contract, can’t be terminated without cause).  On one level, the Weil cuts seemed like deja vu all over again; reminiscent of the massive layoffs of more than 14,000 associates across dozens of firms in 2008 and 2009.

As layoffs are again becoming nearly daily news once again, they’ve been accompanied by yet another round of commentary by industry analysts on the future of big law.  Opinions on the new round of cuts diverge wildly; many applaud the cuts as smart business move to eliminate excess capacity, others see it as further confirmation of Richard Susskind’s 2008 predictions in his book, The End of Lawyers, still others offer advice on to save big law.

Yet with all the talk about the future of law, we’ve forgotten about the present – and the disruption (the real kind, not the fancypants buzzword) that this transformation has lives right now.  What about the young associates, who took on huge debt and did everything right, but were downsized before they even had a chance to draft a brief or a contract because the bean-counters thought it was a good idea?  What about the senior partners who hailed from a generation where the law firm was a family, taking care of low earners in good times and bad – and who spent their time mentoring new generations of associates rather than hoarding work themselves?   What about the lawyers (mostly women) in their 30s, frantically cramming 50 hours of work into a “reduced” four-day schedule to spend more time with family, who didn’t have an opportunity to market on top of it? They’re lost in the conversation, nothing more than collateral damage on the road to the future.

To the extent that there’s any advice for those displaced, frankly, it’s pathetic.  Some suggest   that lawyers embrace a vagrant’s life – take the severance pay and travel the world. Others encourage working for free at legal aid organizations – a good way to gain experience, but not to learn how to build business.  The advice of so-called thought leaders is perhaps worst of all, counseling young lawyers to take non-lawyer jobs as e-discovery consultant or project managers or risk consultant without ever considering that after three years in law school, they might actually want to practice law!  Or if you have at least ten years of experience, you could work for one of the celebrated new age firms like Axiom or Clearspire — a solution that admittedly may work for more experienced lawyers but not for junior attorneys.  Others endorse today’s equivalent of the mill practice: selling forms and unbundled legal service either independently or through companies like Legal Zoom. (While commodities work is concededly a good way to pay bills in the short term, in the long run it’s no more viable than the volume practices of yore).

I am so fed up with the topic of saving biglaw capturing marquee posting, while the casualties go unignored.  That’s why I pulled this ebook, From Biglaw to Yourlaw: Why Starting a Firm Can Help You Build a Future in the Future of Law for Kindle  together (OK – my curiosity also got the better of me – and I just had to test out this self-publishing thing!)  Law may be a business, but there’s still some semblance of professionalism left – or there should be. As a lawyer, you shouldn’t be treated an afterthought, a stone kicked aside on someone else’s march to what is billed as an inevitable future.  You shouldn’t be forced to act ashamed or embarrassed about what you do as the press for non-lawyer representation increases.

Though it doesn’t seem that way, there is still a huge demand for lawyers. Maybe not like the lawyers who screwed up biglaw and the future, or unethical, smarmy lawyers who rubber stamp forms and charge a bundle. But for smart, nimble lawyers who understand the awesome power and value of the law.  Technology is advancing at the speed of light —the web, the cloud, social media, use of mobile devices, app development — all empower us more than ever but at the same time raise legal questions and risks about privacy and confidentiality, IP rights and online defamation and ethics and compliance — that lawyers need to analyze, assess and if necessary, litigate. Policy changes too – new Obamacare regulations on the horizon, immigration reform, changing laws about the rights of same-sex couples, SEC rules on crowdsourcing  – consumers and small businesses need lawyers to explain the implications of these laws and develop strategies on how to maximize benefits and allocate compliance risks. More than ever, we still need lawyers – the right kind of lawyers.  My packed full of practical advice and original ideas and inspiration and encouragement is for you.

There’s another reason for my book too. Although Richard Susskind is probably the smartest and most spot on predictor of the future, he does not hold a monopoly on where the legal profession is heading!!  That’s what got the profession off course to begin with — too many followers (first, the Cravath model, then lock step salary increases, then lock step layoffs).  The profession needs diversity of leaders – other voices to speak about the future and what it holds.  Susskind painted the vision of the future in The End of Lawyers and offered career advice for lawyers starting out in the profession in the more recent Tomorrow’s Lawyers.  But while Susskind describes the destination, he doesn’t make it seem like a trip that lawyers would want to take – it’s a future dominated by accounting firms big data and IT-solutions to access to justice – and void of the heart and humanity that is the essence of law.  Bleh – it’s no wonder lawyers are so unhappy and can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.  I may be irrationally exuberant but I still believe that in the power and promise of the law. That’s a view that deserves attention too.

Finally – from Biglaw to Yourlaw isn’t just for displaced big firm lawyers. There are ideas in here that can help any lawyer contemplating solo practice or jumpstarting a legal career. Fair warning – the book is comprised of 50 blog posts and articles (culled from over a thousand writings from my blog or other publications) – though they’re well curated by topic, and some have been updated or revised.  And this was my first attempt at self-publishing by Kindle, so there may be some funky format issues.

Finally – this book isn’t Solo by Choice which is far more detailed and comprehensive and still very current.  Likewise, Biglaw to Yourlaw doesn’t have much in it about social media which was the subject of my book Social Media for Lawyers with Nicole Black. But it will give you lots of food for thought – and hopefully light the path forward to a future that you create for yourself .

  • Promises in one hand

    You talk an awful lot about how other models of lawyering “deserve” consideration. Until you have data to back it up, Susskind is talking in absolutes and you are talking in vague promises.

  • carolyn Elefant

    Other models – OK- how about Ted Frank’s non-profit that challenges class action settlements. It’s high end bespoke work that would never have been cost effective before technology? How about niche firms that focus on advise of privacy matters? How about a minority owned firm I wrote about several years ago that partners up with law firms to act as “lead” counsel and procure minority certified advantages. I will be publishing something on these alternative models very soon that summarizes all of the examples that I’ve seen in the past decade of watching this space.

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