I have been covering the bloodbath that is the disintegration of the market for legal services in the United States for a while now and I revisit the subject again during this slow end-of-year holiday week as I fret over when I will be busy again.
Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that enrollment numbers of first-year law students have sunk to levels not seen since 1973. Kids these days are not stupid. Law firms are shrinking. Lawyers are leaving the profession. On their way out, all too often, they’re being shown the door gently, they leave quietly, without much fanfare, and, too often, midst whispers and under undeserved shadows. (Too many law firms would rather blame their ills on scapegoats (whether “entitled millennials” or “dead wood”) rather than acknowledging forces outside of employees control (and forces ill-recognized by too many businesses)). And those quietly leaving are often not passing on “books of business” to the next generation of legal wizards or they’re passing on “smaller books” than they have enjoyed throughout their decades of practice. Under these circumstances, the recent news showing a further and steep drop in lawyer supply is hardly surprising. It follows from the collapse in lawyer demand.
Technology and globalization, a.k.a. the internet and out-sourcing have caused the disintegration. Why pay a lawyer $X00/hour when I can find a non-compete for free (or nearly free) online? Why pay a big U.S. law firm to have its whiny millennials sleepwalk through a document review at $X00/hour when my company can hire people in India to do it for $10/hour or my business can use “computer-aided document review” to lower the costs tremendously? Also, an increasing number of potential lawyer customers (f.k.a. “clients”) go on-line and do their own legal research. So, for better or worse, many erstwhile clients are taking the reins themselves as never before. They are rejecting lawyers’ fees for research based on the belief that they can do most or all of it on their own. In many cases, pro se litigants, armed with internet research and internet forms are simply taking their own cases on for themselves. (Sometimes, they take on lawyers and win. (If you click that link to an earlier post, you’ll note a comment from the pro se litigant’s daughter cheering him on, which I think is cute.)).
But even with these irreversible changes, even with the resulting plummeting demand for lawyers, there is some really good news for U.S. lawyers, some cause for holiday cheer this year, next year, and for decades, if not centuries, to come…
The great news is that there will always be dishonest, greedy, deceitful, selfish, hateful, impulsive, and destructive people among us. And there will also always be good people who realize that they are not in the business of dishonesty, greed, deceit, selfishness, hate or impulsive and destructive behavior. The good ones are in the business of making things, of providing services, of raising families, of having fun, of celebrating life, of working hard for success fair and square, and of sharing their good fortune with the less fortunate among us.
And then there are some who fall into in one of these categories (naughty or nice) but who are wrongly portrayed or accused of being in the other category.
They all need lawyers’ help (and most realize that to be true)!
So, in sum, due to advances in technology and globalization, U.S. lawyers have less work. On the other hand, the legal work that is falling by the wayside, that have created a surplus of lawyers (and that formerly enriched undeserving freeloading lawyers or was the result of terribly inefficient systems) are the extraordinarily dull and unrewarding aspects of the practice of law: like generating form documents or reviewing millions of pages of documents about nothing-that-matters-to-anyone.
What remains still to be done is the nitty-gritty problem-avoiding, the problem-solving, and the advocacy that attracted most of us to law school in the first place.
Seth Leventhal is a Minnesota civil litigator with 18 years of experience as a Minnesota trial lawyer. I have appeared in over 150 civil cases in Minnesota state and federal court (and several in other states, as well). I have been part of a trial team that won a $10 million jury verdict in a breach of contract action (Klapmeier v. Cirrus Industries, Inc., Court File No. 27-CV-12-20846 (Hennepin Cty.) and part of a team that defeated a multi-hundred million dollar securities fraud class action on summary judgment (In re: Metris Sec. Litig., No. 02-CV-3677 (JMR/FLN) (D. Minn.)).
Committed. Ethical. Experienced. Successful. Not a computer. Not going to be replaced by one. Ever. Call 612-234-7349 to speak to a real live Minnesota litigator for a free brief consultation if you think you might have a legal claim or if someone has brought or threatens to bring a claim against you.