Many lawyers do not like the title of my latest book, “The End of Lawyers?” And yet I am at pains to point out that my message is a mixed and not a negative one. I claim that the future for lawyers could be prosperous or disastrous. Admittedly, I do predict that lawyers who are unwilling to change will struggle to survive, but I also say that lawyers who embrace emerging technologies and novel ways of sourcing legal work will trade successfully for many years.
Many of my conclusions follow research among corporate counsel. Invariably, they tell me that they are currently under three pressures: to reduce the size of their in-house legal teams; to spend less on external law firms; and to find ways of coping with more and riskier legal and compliance work than they have had in the past. Both internally and externally, clients are requiring more for less. From 2004-2007, I found this to be a running background theme in my research and discussions with in-house lawyers. In 2008-2009, in the slipstream of the economic downturn, it has become not so much a theme as an overriding imperative.
For law firms, these pressures on clients and the imperative that follows have disconcerting implications. Increasingly, for example, firms are being called upon to reduce their fees, to undertake work on a fixed-fee rather than an hourly-billing basis, to be far more transparent in their dealings with clients, and they are coming to be selected, more than occasionally, on the advice of hard-nosed, in-house procurement specialists in client organizations rather than by old friends and colleagues. The legal market, in other words, has become a buyers’ market and is set to be so, I argue, for the foreseeable future.
At the same time, new competitors are emerging, such as outsourcers and entrepreneurial publishers, while liberalization of the legal market (in England and elsewhere) will bring external capital and a new wave of professional managers and investors who have no nostalgic commitment to traditional business models for law firms, including hourly billing and gearing obtained through the deployment of armies of hard-working young lawyers. And liberalization in a few jurisdictions will create a ripple across all jurisdictions, as new ways of delivering legal services are developed and capture the market’s attention.