Last week, Dean Don Lewis of the Hamline University School of Law invited me to speak on a panel (with Greg Luce and Tom Nelson) his Business of Law class on the future of the legal profession. I thought Dean Lewis’s questions led to a good discussion about the state of the legal profession, and prompted some good speculations about the future, so I’m going to use them as a writing prompt.

The rest of this post is rife with retrospection, conjecture, and speculation. Read on if you can stand it.

How has the sluggish economy during the last three years impacted your law practice?

My consumer law practice suffered during the last three years, but not much. Debt collection problems were on the rise, which meant my intake got steadily more busy. At the same time, the poor economy hurt the collection industry, which meant collectors were more stubborn about settlement, despite a general worsening of the abuses I was seeing. A sharp rise in jury verdicts across the country helped things get going, though.

I also started a business practice representing tech startup companies. Since I started it last year, I don’t have much to compare it to, but 2009 was a record year for new business filings, and we experienced healthy growth.

Of course, my experience may not be the norm, but overall, it seems like solo and small-firm lawyers did okay—at least those that were already in practice before the slowdown. New solos are a different story, which I will touch on later.

Do you think that the economic conditions have caused long-term, structural changes in the practice of law? How?

Yes. For one thing, there are fewer full-time jobs for U.S. lawyers, and I don’t think this will change. Many firms have figured out how to use contract lawyers and outsourcing. This is helped along by the glut of cheap lawyer labor on the market—which is, in its turn, helped along by irresponsible law school admissions. Contract lawyering and outsourcing will probably become permament features of the legal industry, even in small firms.

I also think lawyers without business acumen will find it much harder to compete. The days of hanging a shingle and making decent money are past, and it will be a long time before the current swell of struggling legal talent subsides enough for those days to return.

Putting the economy aside, what is the other most significant change you have witnessed within the last five to ten years in how you practice law?

Well, I’ve only been practicing for around eight years, but the biggest difference I see between some new lawyers and most older lawyers is a sense of the craft of lawyering. Because it is so much harder to make money as a lawyer, many lawyers have become focused on that, and are not as focused on doing great legal work. That, plus a lack of mentoring, means there is a lot of bad-to-mediocre lawyering going on.

Is solo practice a viable option? More or less so than five years ago?

Dean Lewis comes from big- and medium-size firms, so if this question seems a little off, I’ll chalk it up to his experience. About half the lawyers in the country are solo. I’m guessing another quarter or more are at small firms of ten lawyers or less. It seems obvious to me that solo and small-firm practice is a viable option, because that’s what most lawyers do. I don’t think it will necessarily be a more or less viable option than five years ago, but many lawyers will continue to do just fine in solo and small-firm practice.

That said, I think a lot of new lawyers are going solo out of desperation. They don’t really want to go solo, they don’t really have a plan, and they are probably going to fail. Plus, many are a malpractice lawsuit waiting to happen because they are just flying by the seat of their pants, without a mentor or other support network.

Share with us the vision for legal practice in 2025.

I’m not sure I’m a good person to be making predictions, but I will take a stab at it. As I said earlier, I think the most conspicuous features of law practice in the future will be widespread use of contract lawyers and outsourcing to replace employees. I also think the legal profession will have to accept some commoditization—and needs to stop treating it like a dirty word. There are plenty of legal services that people don’t really need a lawyer for. We should focus on making those legal “products” as high quality as possible, then focus on providing top-notch legal work in the areas of practice that remain.

I also think virtual lawyering (and other methods of delivering unbundled services) will grow to fill the space between low-cost legal document services like LegalZoom and premium, full-representation firms. It will provide a much-needed “middle option” for the middle class of legal need.

What advice would you offer to young law graduates entering the practice, either in law firms (whatever size) or beginning a solo practice?

First and foremost, focus on being a good lawyer. Learn as much as you can, and when you make mistakes, make sure you learn from them, too.

Second, build a strong network that produces a steady stream of business. No matter what you do in the future, that network will help you do it. And if you can generate enough business to support your salary, you can pretty much do whatever you want.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/francomathson/5677122668/)