Shifting Paradigm for Law Firms and Legal Education?

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the changes taking place in Law Firm Land (for purposes of this discussion, including Big Law as well as mid-size and smaller law firms) and in legal education. Our earlier posts have addressed some of these discussions in the context of proposed changes to law firm recruitment at law schools, proposed changes to legal education and the effects of clients needson demand for legal services from law firms.

And here comes another report documenting some of the changes that are taking place in the private practice arena. According to the ABA Journal, a new study released at ABA Techshow, “The Evolution of the Legal Profession: A Conversation with the Legal Community’s Thought Leaders on the Front Lines of an Industry,” there is a “sweeping evolution” taking place in law firm structure and management and client expectations. The ABA Journal reportsthat the study was conducted by Ari Kaplan, a lawyer and technology and marketing author, and “is the first in a series that combines insights from a cross-section of the legal industry.” This includes interviews with “practicing lawyers, academics, in-house counsel and CEOs about client expectations, shifting cultures and ways to prepare law students for the business of legal practice.”

Some key points from the study:

•There are significant changes to billing structures and client expectations. “Nearly 75% agreed that the profession is experiencing a sweeping evolution that will be marked by permanent changes to billing structures, firm organization and value and efficiency expectations from clients”.

•Nevertheless, the billable hour is sill alive and well in Law Firm Land.

•While law firms may be trying to come up with alternative billing arrangements that work for them and for clients, it is a challenge to do so given the business model of law firms (i.e., their capital structure).

•Clients are less willing to pay for 1st year associate work. (85% of those surveyed were aware of instances where corporate clients refused to pay for first-year-associate work done on their cases and one Kaye Scholer partner noted that “E-Discovery tools have eliminated the need to have junior associates review boxes of documents, which is why you are seeing thousands [of] junior associates laid off”).

•Despite these changes, a recent study by the American Bar Foundation and NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education reported more than 70 percent of lawyers were moderately or very satisfied with their career decision. As the ABA Journal reports, Harvard Law School professor David Wilkins says, “Satisfaction is a blunt instrument, but the portrait of widespread misery is wildly exaggerated.”

Listen to our podcast “The Current Economic Environment: What It Means for Law School Applicants & Students” to hear more on this topic.

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