Changes hitting the legal industry — what they mean for the average lawyer

gearsA recent editorial in the New York Times suggests that the current economic crisis will force big changes in the structure of the legal profession and legal careers in general. Gone are the days of high billing rates, stratospheric big firm salaries and huge billable requirements.


There is no doubt that the economy is forcing large firms to downsize their attorney and support staffs. The daily hit parade of layoffs means that a lot of lawyers are “in transition”.  What does this mean for the average Jane or Joe lawyer?  Here are a few thoughts.

1) Skills matter.

Now more than ever, it’s important to take stock of what you can deliver to your employer and clients. Good lawyers will continue to be employed and make money because they do what they do well. If you want to keep your job, you need to prove your value. If you want out, or think you might be shown the door, think about what experiences and background you can take with you. Clients and employers are more bottom-line oriented than ever.

2) Time to think creatively.

A lot of people will be hustling for new employment or starting new endeavors. Ask yourself what you really want to do next. How important is it for you to use your legal training? If it is important, what places can use your skills beyond the usual suspects (like larger firms or government agencies)? If you’ve been wanting to do something outside of the law, what is it and what needs to happen for you to take the next step? What are you good at and what’s holding you back?

3) Talk to people.

The tendency in these times is to hunker down. There are a lot of people who are trying to figure things out. Exchanging ideas with friends, co-workers, intitmate partners, your dry cleaner, etc., may net you some helpful leads. At a minimum, you won’t feel alone.

The Chinese have a curse — “May you live in interesting times.” It’s up to you to decide if the current uncertainty is a curse or a blessing in disguise.

With the Downturn, It’s Time to Rethink the Legal Profession | New York Times

(photo: …-Wink-…)


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  • I agree wholeheartedly with Steve’s recommendations.

    I am a third year associate at a large Minneapolis law firm who is actively mentoring current law students and recent grads at the U of MN law school. Two years ago, I spent time helping students find their place on the “normal” firm/agency path. Today, my role as mentor has changed. This is a precarious time for lawyers, but it is also an exciting time.

    When I meet with students, the first thing we do is acknowledge how different the job market is now. They vent, I commiserate, and then we move on to strategic, creative problem-solving. I ask what they really want to do with for a living, why they went to law school, and what they want to have accomplished when they look back at their 20s/30s/40s . . .

    No doubt times are tough and seem to be getting tougher, but the upside is that we have a moment to take a deep breath, get off the treadmill of college to law school to firm/agency . . . and think about what really matters. Painful, no doubt, but if done right, this time for reflection, reassessment and creative thinking may be the best thing that ever happened to you. Honest.

    Oh, and as for Steve’s third suggestion, take it seriously. In the past year, I have met at least 40 law students at various events and I have offered to meet them for coffee to talk about practice, law firm life, or whatnot. Only 10 have taken me up on it. That makes no sense to me. Take Steve’s advice and talk to people – get out there and meet the folks doing what interests you. And if you are lucky enough to have a practicing lawyer with a mentoring bent offer to take you to coffee, by all means say “YES”!

  • Like Steve, I’m skeptical of the changes foretold by the NY Times commentary. “Biglaw” (as the solo practice evangelists like to refer to large firms) is not likely going anywhere. But I have often been struck by the precarious position of senior associates and junior partners at large law firms, who have spent years with their noses to the grindstone and shoulders at the wheel, and getting great performance reviews along the way, only to find themselves at risk of layoff when times get tough.

    Why? In many cases, they spent so much time billing hours that they never built their own practice: clients, expertise, and referral sources. Large law firms may never go away, but many of their attorneys could learn a lesson from successful solos and small firms, who know that marketing is an essential part of law practice: joining organizations, staying in touch with people, demonstrating expertise through writing and teaching (print and web), building referral networks.

    A client base and a referral network is a different type of job security. It takes time, but it is never too late to start.