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Stormy Weather

By: Ed Poll//February 21, 2014

Stormy Weather

By: Ed Poll//February 21, 2014

“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

This saying is often attributed  to Mark Twain—albeit incorrectly, according to some sources, which attribute the quote to Charles Dudley Warner. 

Just as the country has recently experienced wide variations in weather, from extreme cold to extreme hot, the legal community has and will continue to experience its own perfect storm. The profession is bracing for change.

The first of three major storms is technology. The legal profession represents a multibillion-dollar industry. It has now attracted the attention of many techno-geeks who are developing remarkable tools to enable repetitive tasks to be achieved at breathtaking speed. Even complex, creative, and original tasks are being assisted by technology. The net result is that fewer lawyers are required. The most obvious focal points for technology are document review and e-discovery. Other functions, however, are likewise impacted.

The second major storm is the Great Recession, or Depression (as I call it). The economic downturn, by whatever name we choose to call it, has resulted in major law firms being frozen in their boots. Law tends to be reactionary rather than proactive. Thus, while our clients were suffering greatly, the impact on law firms took a little longer to be felt. But when felt, thousands of lawyers and staff were laid off, many permanently. This was the first time in the history of the legal profession that lawyers had to face economic reality as never before. Major law firms stopped going to law schools to hire recently minted lawyers, enrollment in law schools began to dip, and prospective students began to evaluate going to law school with the same ROI (return on investment) mentality as they evaluated undergraduate schools. In fact, one recent study of Department of Labor statistics suggests that future compensation is a very significant factor in evaluating whether to go to law school.

The third major storm to hit the legal community, making this the “perfect storm,” is the phenomenon of aging Baby Boomers. Many of these lawyers are approaching the age of traditional retirement. Many were contemplating slowing down, traveling, or even retiring. One ABA statistic suggested that there are 400,000 lawyers in this group.  However, with the poor economy and severe impact on many pension plans and other retirement vehicles, most of these very same lawyers are extending their careers. Because so many of the lawyers in this group are in their 70s and even 80s, state bars are beginning to wonder whether there should be a mandatory age of retirement. So as not to be accused of ageism, these bars are now contemplating modifications of the definition of “competence.” Some have even suggested that older lawyers should be required to take another bar examination.

The legal community has obviously been impacted by each of these major storms. The lasting effect of them is as of yet undetermined. Personally, I suspect the second and third storms will hit the beach and recede. The damage remains to be seen. Younger lawyers will take the place of older lawyers, as has always been the case. Younger lawyers will come in numbers sufficient to meet the new legal demand. Our economy will reconfigure itself, and we all will adjust accordingly. Though not without pain and clearly not overnight, we will deal with these changes. However, technology will make permanent changes in the way we deliver legal services and, I suspect, even whether we will deliver some services. We see these changes occurring every day and, unlike the changes from the other two storms, these changes will be permanent.

Ed Poll is the principal of LawBiz Management and the creator of the new Life After Law coaching program. 

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