Welcome to the ‘new’ reality of law practice. Well … okay, not so new. The fact is that lawyers makes less in real dollars today than they did 20 years ago. A lot less. And that decline has been accelerating. In fact, we may have experienced the most precipitous wage declines of any professional group. See this post for the grim details. Perhaps these are the kinds of facts that prompted Prof. Richard Susskind to write a 6-part series concluding that the profession is on the brink of extinction or radical change.
‘But why‘ you ask ‘is the world’s (second) oldest profession faced with such a crisis? Nepotism? Alien conspiracy? The Protocols of the Elders of Zion?‘ Sorry, no. Actually it appears that lawyers are beginning to experience the inevitable result of having had their secrets revealed and the door to their once exclusive domain propped open (ever so slightly). In Susskind’s words, the drivers here are information technology and relentless commoditization; the jig was up when people figured out how to (in his words) carve up a lawyer’s job into identifiable and discreet pieces that could be outsourced and done more cheaply by others. Wow. That’s bad news? It made Henry Ford a fortune and resulted in a nationwide explosion in transportation and productivity. Even among lawyers outsourcing has given rise to a completely new class of vendors (legal outsourcing professionals). But there’s that dichotomy again – what’s good for productivity is bad for most lawyers (and obviously good for a few – the few that can afford to outsource and still charge astronomical rates). We’ve talked before about the clubby nature of the profession and have long acknowledged that members of a cartel such as the law benefit exclusively at the expense of non-members, so of course productivity and accountability mean nothing. Why do a job better or faster if you are not rewarded that way? It’s a lesson that our profession has understood for generations.
In any event Professor, welcome to the discussion. One question though; where were you when working lawyers saw operating margins shrink to zero, even as malpractice premia spiraled, disgruntled clients killed their lawyers, reactionary judges embarked on McCarthy-style witch hunts to appease the mob, and non-attorneys relentlessly eroded our professional province? Safely ensconced the ivory tower, of course. Maybe that’s why you recommend that the profession develop not by ring-fencing certain categories of work as the exclusive preserve of lawyers [or] encouraging cartel-like activity but rather by thinking more creatively, imaginatively, and entrepreneurially about the way in which lawyers can and should contribute to society. Sure professor: we’ll get right on that … as soon as courts award judgments on account of ‘creativity” and clients agree to pay for “imaginative,” “entrepreneurial” representation.