Tuesday, July 17, 2012
With the passage of the Legal Services Act 2007, the UK began the process of liberalizing its market for legal services. The UK legal market and all of legal education is now regulated by the Legal Services Board, which is presided over by a nonlawyer civil servant named Chris Kenney.
The LSB's regulatory objectives are set out in Section 1 of the Act. They include: "(a) protecting and promoting the public interest"; "(c) improving access to justice"; "(d) protecting and promoting the interests of consumers"; "(e) promoting competition in the provision of services within subsection (2)"; and "(g) increasing public understanding of the citizen's legal rights and duties[.]"
One of the fruits of the new LSB regime is this just released empirical study on how British citizens evaluate and make decisions about their own legal needs. In a nutshell, they often go in alone without the benefit of a lawyer. Further, only about 20% of this unmet legal need fall in the domain of "reserved legal activities," which require a licensed legal professional.
Although the report does not come out and says this, the implication of the myriad statistics is that the British consumer market is ripe for commodification through technology and mass distribution channels. When confronted with a legal need, face-to-face counseling with a skilled professional may be the ideal, but that is far from the reality for most British citizens.
[posted by Bill Henderson]
Monday, July 16, 2012
That is the title of a just-posted essay by Catherine Rampell at the NY Times Economix Blog. She studies several years of the bi-modal distribution. It is refreshing to have a capable journalist review the data and marvel at the strange ways of our industry.
[posted by Bill Henderson]
Sunday, July 15, 2012
I created the graphic below to depict the shrinking right mode of the bi-modal distribution since its 2007 high water mark (measured in February 2008).
[Note: The difference between the mean and adjusted mean in the 2011 distribution is due to the fact that law grads who fail to report their salaries tend to have have less lucrative employment; so NALP makes a prudent statistical correction --basically a weighted average based on practice settings.]
From a labor market perspective, the class of 2007 entry level salary distribution was extraordinary and anomalous. Why? Because we can safely assume that legal ability, however it might be defined, is normally distributed, not bi-modal. So when such a distribution appears in a real labor market, something is significantly out of kilter.
Why did the entry level market become bi-modal? As the legal economy boomed from the mid-90s through the mid-00s, many large law firms (NLJ 250, AmLaw 200) were trying to make the jump from regional dominant brands to national law firms. For decades, going back to the early to mid-20th century, these firms followed a simple formula: hire the best and brightest from the nation's elite law schools. As they continued to enjoy growth, they reflexively followed that same formula. Yet, by 2000s, the demand for elite law graduates finally outstripped supply.
This micro-level logic ("let's not tinker with our business model") produced a macro-level bidding war. This is how the right mode came to be. Yet, because it was a macro-level phenomenon, clients, led by industry groups such as the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), reacted by saying, "Don't put any junior level lawyers on my matters --they are overpriced." Outsourcing and e-discovery vendors have also eaten into the work that used to go to entry level lawyers. So the volume of BigLaw hiring has collapsed, hence the melting of the right mode. For a more detailed overview, see NALP, Salary Distribution Curve.
Long Term Structural Change in Big Law
That said, it is not just the entry level market that is under stress -- the fundamental economics of Big Law are also changing. Consider the chart below (from Henderson, Rise and Fall, Am Law June 2012), which shows that revenues per lawyer at AmLaw 100 firms has gone flat and moved sideways since 2007, breaking a pattern of steady growth that dates back to the pre-Am Law 100 days.
Stagnant revenue is a source of enormous worry for law firm managers. Without higher profits to distribute--and growing the top line is the usual profitability fomula--their biggest producers might leave, causing a run on the bank ala Dewey, Howrey, Wolf Block, etc. So the dominant strategy now has nothing to do with entry level hiring. Rather, the goal is to keep and acquire lateral partners with portable books of business. After all, clients aren't protesting the value of most senior level lawyers. And seniors lawyers are plentiful, thanks to the excellent health of baby boom lawyers and the poor health of their retirement accounts.
This strategy may work fine for this fiscal year, but over the middle to long term, BigLaw is going to get older and dumber. Further, this dynamic produces substantial ripple effects on legal education -- albeit ripple effects that feel like tremors.
The long term solution -- for both law firms and law schools -- is for the price of entry level talent to come down to the point where young lawyers are more cost-effective to train. And that price point is not $160,000. This inflated pay scale (which has supported ever higher tuitions at law schools) only persists because large firms are deathly afraid of adjusting their salary scales and being labeled second rate. So the solution is keep the entry pay high but hire very few law school graduates. This is not a farsighted or innovative business strategy.
It's been 100 years since law firms engaged in sophisticated business thinking. And that last great idea was the Cravath System, which was method of workplace organization that performed expert client work while simultaneously developing more and better human capital. See Henderson, Three Generations of Lawyers: Generalista, Specialists, Project Managers. According to the Cravath Swaine & Moore firm history, published in 1948, the whole point of the Cravath System was to make "a better lawyer faster."
I think the next great model for a legal service organization (law firm may not be the right term) likewise will be based on the idea that there is a large return to be had by investing in young lawyers. As my friend Paul Lippe likes to say, "When it appears, it will look obvious."
[posted by Bill Henderson]