Thursday, December 12, 2013

"The legal market is not rotating through a cycle; it is tumbling out of protectionism"

So says Professor Deborah J. Merritt at the Law School Cafe blog in a post called "Why has law practice changed?"  Her premise is that the changes overtaking the legal profession today began more than 40 years ago with the slow erosion of the economic protectionism lawyers used to enjoy.   The current trend towards using technology, outsourcing and the like to replace lawyers is merely accelerating the free market competitive forces from which the legal profession used to be immune.  And once market forces drive down the cost and availability of legal representation, there's no going back to the way things used to be.  An excerpt:

Competitive market forces are the most important characteristic of today’s legal market. Technology, globalization, and commoditization are key trends, but their impact depends on the economic context. If the legal profession still enjoyed the protections it held during the 1970s, today’s technology and globalization might have produced more jobs and higher salaries for lawyers. In today’s competitive market, on the other hand, these trends are pushing inexorably on the bottom line. Clients are tracking prices and seeking competitive bids; law firms are employing efficient technologies and low-cost workers to meet client demands; and non-lawyers are continuing to take over legal work.


These competitive forces are highly favorable for clients. . . .

. . . .


[L]aw graduates will continue to face a daunting job market–and may not earn as much during their lifetimes as recent generations of lawyers did. The legal market is not rotating through a cycle; it is tumbling out of protectionism. Even when the economy booms again, corporate clients will not pay first-year associates to do work that overseas lawyers can handle. Nor will mom-and-pop clients pay for customized wills and leases, when standardized documents serve their purposes. The efficiencies and cost economies that we have achieved in law practice are here to stay.


The new market, of course, will create opportunities for some lawyers. Technology-savvy JDs will profit by developing attractive software programs marketed to others. Lawyers with strong management skills will earn extra pay by coordinating interdisciplinary teams spread across the globe. Some law firms will prosper by identifying new practice areas and assembling the right combination of lawyers, other professionals, support staff, and technology to efficiently address those needs. As always, the market will reward lawyers with unusual legal knowledge, skills, or client connections.


For most lawyers, however, competition will reduce the financial rewards that recent generations captured. That’s what deregulation does. As we project the economic future of the legal profession, we have to remember our loss of market protections over the last forty years. Those changes have accumulated over time, and many of them acquired greater force with the emergence of new technologies and globalization.

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Continue reading here.


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