Saving The Dying American Legal Industry From Outsourcing
Have any of you out there ever experienced one of those moments where you wondered whether life really is a sentient being with a morbid sense of humor? A little strange and obtuse of a question, I know. The reason I ask is because, like the slowly dying and once great mammoth that is the printed press industry, the future of the American legal industry may soon be facing the same doomed fate for ironically the same reason – cheaper and more efficient legal counsel alternatives. Which of course is just dandy for a budding attorney like me, seeing as how I left my past life in journalism to avoid this very outcome.
Irony (and my livelihood) aside, that’s the word according to a new report put out by the New York State Bar Association on the future of the legal profession. The report is a doozy of a read for non-lawyers, clocking in at over a hundred pages of boring legal industry analysis that’s only interesting to those in the profession (barely). Thankfully, I’ll spare you the torture and CliffsNote it for you (or SparkNote for all you youngins born after the McDLT came and went).
Basically the report states that growing global competition in the legal industry from India and other countries coupled with the poor state of our economy has caused a surge in “legal outsourcing.” That’s right, the same phenomenon that’s swept the customer support industry has now begun affecting US lawyers as companies and individuals in need of legal counsel are seeking out cheaper alternatives abroad to the pricey US attorneys here at home.
The report cites other reasons for the growing peril, as well – such as changes in consumer expectations who now expect 24/7 access to counsel and work-life balance issues for attorneys who are jumping ship from the legal grind in steadily rising numbers. Though despite these other reasons, the report indicates that the main cause for America’s declining legal industry is simply because of its cost, both financially to consumers and the attorneys themselves who are finding it more and more difficult to practice law while maintaining some semblance of a personal life.
Reading the report, one can’t help but sense it as some sort of doomsday warning for lawyers. And in many ways it is. The message it conveys seems to be one of “change or face destruction.” It’s a terrifying message (especially since I agree with the prediction). But fortunately, all hope is not loss since the key to survival here is for the industry to evolve.
Now before I go any further, it’s unlikely that the legal industry in America or anywhere in the world will ever die since there will always be conflict. And until we regress into a post-apocalyptic society, lawsuits will be the way we go about resolving conflict.
The only problem then it would seem is how the American legal industry continues to keep itself profitable in the face of growing alternatives. The report itself suggests a number of ways for the industry to evolve with the times. Looking through them, they are good ideas. Things like changing traditional fee agreement structures to allow for lower consumer costs and encouraging law firms to decrease the amount of work hours they levy on associates are two great ways to keep consumers in tow while also decreasing lawyer turnover.
The report goes into great detail on how to implement these changes. I’m especially supportive proposals for law schools. In case you aren’t aware already, law schools ironically aren’t the best places to learn how to actually practice law. Thanks to Christopher Langdell’s casebook method (which is the way all major law schools teach law) law schools have become more akin to academic institutions rather than the practical trade schools that once were.
As a result, the vast majority of law students who graduate these days only have a tenuous idea on how to file a lawsuit and litigate it from beginning to end. The report suggest law schools change their curriculums to put more focus on legal clinics and add other courses that actually teach law students how to be a lawyer. This would save a lot of time, money, and frustration to both the firms that must train the new associates, and the consumers who get stuck with them.
However, my own gripe with the report is that it doesn’t put enough focus on what I believe is the best way to save the suffering industry. And that is specialization.
Solo practitioners and law firms these days have devolved into jacks-of-all trades. Though there are still those who specialize in a few areas, most lawyers try to become experts in everything because it’s more profitable as it will allow attorneys to take on more cases. And though this may sound good in theory, like the study of medicine, American law is a pursuit where complete mastery is nigh impossible for anyone dumber than Batman (trust me on this, just Google “Batman smartest DC character”).
As a result of this dispersed knowledge, the current American legal industry landscape is littered full of lawyers who need constant outside consulting and research time in order to properly represent their clients, which in turn means higher fees. Though the extra money is good for attorneys, the trade off is that this practice has proven that it’s ultimately not sustainable, especially in a bad economy because it force litigants to seek cheaper legal counsel elsewhere.
Therefore, if attorneys were to return to truly specializing in a particular area of law, they will not only be able to work more efficiently for their clients, they’ll also charge less which will help keep clients from going aboard for legal counsel.